Monday, July 19, 2010

The End of the Professional Fantasist

There has been an interesting discussion going on in the fantasy & sci-fi fiction blogs over last couple of weeks. Sparked by Robert J. Sawyers post Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?, SF heavyweights Robert Silverberg and Jerry Pournelle have made blog posts (!) over at Black Gate offering some interesting historical perspective on the topic.

Silverberg recalls a time in the 50s and 60s when there were probably fewer than ten people making a living off of writing fantastic fiction: "Poul Anderson, Gordy Dickson, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Robert Sheckley, maybe Jack Vance..." At the time Isaac Asimov was still working as a college professor. There were also a few writers like Philip K. Dick who wrote fiction full time but weren’t really making a living – they were basically living in poverty. (Jack Vance might actually fit in this latter category.) Silverberg goes on to describe a high point in the 70s and 80s where there was a lot of money to be made in the field. However, as of 2010, as Sawyers discusses in some depth, we are at a point reminiscent the 50s and 60s where only a handful of writers actually make a living writing sci-fi and fantastic fiction. This does not include the writers who make ends meet by writing commercially oriented vampire, zombie, or Tolkienesque hack serials.

The decline in fiction readership combined with new modes of information exchange (i.e. the internet) will only make things more difficult for professional writers of the fantastic. In essence, sci-fi and fantasy writing is returning to its roots as a hobby. As Sawyers points out, writers can't adopt the business model of modern musicians who make their real money as traveling performers and t-shirt salesmen (not by selling music, in case you didn’t know). Writers have to sell stories and books, and nobody is buying anymore

There are two brief ponderings I want to make here:

1. This peak of commercial interest in fantastic fiction in the 70s and 80s, followed by its decline and subsequent evolution into a hobbyist enterprise, is a lot like what we’ve seen with role playing games. I wonder what it was about the late 70s and early 80s that made so many millions of people interested in reading books and playing D&D (and painting van murals). And, more importantly, why did this spirit of the fantastic die in our culture…?

It’s very easy to demonize video games and cable TV, and maybe it’s appropriate. A lot (most?) of my friends who are interested in imagination don’t bother to read books anymore. They spend hours and hours and hours playing World of Warcraft and various console games and watching Buffy and Battlestar Galactica. I’ve checked this stuff out and it’s okay, but in my grumpy and curmudgeonly opinion it all rapidly becomes deeply boring (and depressing) and sucks compared to reading a great story or sitting around the table with friends, dice, and character sheets. Obviously I’m in the minority. Why?

2. I wonder what the fallout of the end of professional writers of the fantastic will be in terms of the quality of fiction. I have a lot to rant about concerning the quality and style of fiction appearing in the digests these days. Frankly, I don’t think much of it is as good as it used to be. I don’t know if this has more to do with the taste of the editors or the preferences or abilities of current writers. If the market can’t support professionals outside of vampire hack writing and television, I am worried the situation will get worse. We need new people who, like Arthur C. Clark or Robert Heinlein before them, have time to lavish on developing their skills to become master writers. It’s sad we have to constantly rely on visionaries like Philip K. Dick, Jack Vance, or H.P. Lovecraft to live in poverty while we let them expand the boundaries of our cultural imagination.


  1. Publishing, as a viable industry, is in very bad shape these days. Novels for adults are mostly "out" since whatever money they will make for their publishers pales in comparison to a 'memoir' or maudlin "commentary" ghost written by/for someone famous or infamous where the fact that this well known person now has a "book" out is, by itself, news. Starving visionary writes a book of heartbreaking genius in a lonely garret? Not news. Political hopeful and media darling has a book written for them by someone else? They will be on talk show circuit and the books will sell themselves.

    I also think the companies that own the book publishers (I think fewer of the publishers own themselves) look at the bottom line. They don't care about finding the next Poe of Victor Hugo; they want to earn a fat dividend at the end of the quarter.

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  3. Publishers who make money off of dead authors and in-house properties make far more money milking those forms of IP than by 'developing' new talent. That's been the case for a long, long time.

    What you're seeing is the transformation of the old system into a more deomcratized, balkanized and fragmented stew of new options. Making money off of one's work is a tough challenge, and until someone figures it out and builds a business model that leads to the next version of publishing houses...we're on our own, groping around in the dark.

    You can curse the dark, or get busy and try new things.

    As for the surge in the 60s+70s...consider how Tolkein went out of print before then and was Revived by that surge. Also consider how during the first Depression a lot of classic science fiction came out via pulps, many of which died like mayflies in their day, and most of them paid like crap as well. Howard struggled to get by, H. Beam Piper didn't get by well enough. Others struggled as well.

    The good times are behind us and ahead of us, we're in that space in-between where we need to figure out what'll work now...

  4. Great post and very interesting. I was in a commercial bookstore the other day and scattered pretty much throughout were an overabundance of cheesy vampire stories and classics written with zombies. What a bunch of schlock. An over-saturated market indeed! It was slightly depressing. I also find modern tv fantasy shows to be quite boring. I'm much more interested in reading a good book (which in my case is usually published before the 1970's - comics included). As with you, I thoroughly enjoy sitting around the table with friends and creating our own fantasy adventures and would much rather do that than watch any TV program or play any video game. Sure there is a lot of competition of our entertainment attention unfortunately a lot of it is pretty poor.

    I've found more enjoyment in self-published works or small press these days.

  5. While I aknowledge the points you raise as accurate, I have a somewhat rosier view of our currents situation. I have good, new authors to read all the time. I can't get to 'em all and watch the TV and cruise the internet the way I'd like.

    Maybe there's not as many as there was 2-3 decades ago--maybe--but I own a lot of books from that period and there really isn't anything less schlocky or lowest common denominator about any number of barbarian novels written in the 70s than there is about the slew of "hot-chick-with-tramp-stamp-hunts-[x}" novels--the only difference is the former is schlock I might find appealing.

  6. "I wonder what it was about the late 70s and early 80s that made so many ... And, more importantly, why did this spirit of the fantastic die in our culture…?"

    Commercialization. It brings the medium to a wider audience and in the desire to feed that wider audience it ultimately corrupts the medium.


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