03
Dec
09

Fantasy 2035

A few days ago I was on a panel at the Center for Fiction here in NYC on “The Evolution of SF/F”. The panel didn’t go wholly as described — among other things, Musharraf Ali Farooq wasn’t able to make it, and was replaced by fellow Orbit author Jeff Somers. Also, we spent rather less time on SF/F’s evolution, which as I see it encompasses present and future, and rather more time on SF/F’s past, partly as a result of one panelist’s (paraphrased) assertion that the SF/F of today lacks vision in comparison with SF/F of the past. Not surprisingly, we spent awhile dissecting that statement — in a friendly way, of course. Made for a good panel.

That said, I was kind of left wanting for discussion about the future of the genre, so I decided to do a little of that here.

Except it’s a big topic to cover, the future of an entire literary genre. Where does one begin? I could talk about the big movements of today — e.g., steampunk, slipstream, interstitialism — and make guesses as to where they’re going. I could talk about the hot up-and-coming authors of today and try and predict their careers. I could talk about the market, and what’s moving it now, and whether those financial factors will continue to have relevance. But frankly, I could do an entire blog post about any one of those topics, and who’s got time for that? I’ve got a book to write. And more importantly, lots of other people are already talking about all these things.

So I decided to focus on something different: the readership. What do I think the readership of fantasy will be like in, say, 25 years? Rounding up a bit since we’re almost at the end of 2009, that would be the year 2035.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s all going to be speculation. I have no access to marketing or sales data, beyond the small amount that gets released to the general public (example). I have the same awareness of subgenre sales trends that most of you do, which is to say mostly anecdotal and probably overgeneralized. I also have no access to demographic data beyond what’s available to laypeople in this field — which ain’t much, let me tell you. A few of the major magazines for the industry do polls or surveys of their subscribership, but these are controversial and focused on the mags’ readership, which means they all have a significant selection bias problem.

Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear to me that no one really has any clue what SF/F’s current readership looks like, let alone its future. In the latter days of the now-infamous RaceFail discussion in the SF/F blogosphere a few months back, a non-scientific roll call of people of color in SFdom put the lie to the common perception that the field’s readership is almost exclusively white, with PoC being as rare and exceptional as unicorns. In the first three or so days of the roll call, nearly a thousand people spoke up to say that they were PoC SF/F fans — note that this is just from within the limited population of LiveJournal — and many of them also mentioned parents, siblings, significant others, and so on, who were too. That’s a lot of unicorns. And in the older “Slushbomb” conversation (about gender bias) that took place a few years back, it gradually became clear that the dismal submission numbers from women writers that many magazines received were basically proportional to how many women were published by same — in other words, magazines that published more women got more submissions from women. Suggesting, of course, that there are plenty of women writers out there (and defying the common assumption that women don’t write SF), but they’re selective about where they send their work; they don’t waste time sending to markets seen as female-unfriendly (or less-friendly).

What all this reveals, IMO, is that we have no frakking clue what the SF/F readership really looks like. Specific to fantasy, I’ve heard lots of assumptions made — frex that fantasy’s readership is mostly white women, mostly members of the “knowledge class” or at least college educated, mostly middle- or upper-class, mostly lapsed Christians or into alternative religions like Wicca, and so on. But in reality? Those assumptions are probably about as spot-on as a Magic Eight Ball.

So here’s my theory. I think that half a century of SF/F film, television, gaming, and other media has created an SF/F consumership (note: not readership) that’s probably a representative subset of the population as a whole. (For the sake of clarity, let’s say the North American population, though these days SF/F media is global and I think its consumership is, too.) Maybe less so in fantasy, because fantasy as a genre has been less well-served by non-book media; beyond the occasional blockbuster like Lord of the Rings or gaming hit like World of Warcraft, we haven’t had as many hits to lure mainstreamers into the book-reading niche of the genre. (And unlike science fiction or horror, the hits in fantasy media haven’t ranged as widely over the breadth of the genre. Most fantasy hits focus on one subset of fantasy, IMO: secondary-world medieval-European sword and sorcery.) Regardless, I think that consumership is large and strong and diverse — probably at parity or close to on gender, and close to representative on race, class, and so on.

Those people aren’t all reading, note. A significant proportion of them don’t read, period, and that number is declining throughout US society as people’s time and attention-spans are consumed by flashier media and interaction. Still, a goodly number of them are reading, and of the ones who are, I think the book-producing end of the fantasy genre is doing a better and better job of capturing them. So here’s what I think we’ll see in the future of the fantasy readership:

  • Lots of young people. The phenomenal growth of the YA genre suggests that lots of young people are readers, and as those readers grow up they will no doubt look for their happy places in adult genres, and at that point fantasy will benefit mightily. Just think about how many kids and teens have now grown up on Harry Potter and the Twilight saga. They’re coming for the adult market soon, and their tastes are going to dominate the field for quite some time. We’d better be ready.
  • Gender parity. I suspect that while the fantasy readership used to be mostly male — especially in the days when quest doorstoppers and sword and sorcery formed the heart of the genre — it’s already reached parity, or swung over to being mostly female, if only by virtue of the fact that women spend the majority of dollars on books in the US. Also, the genre has made several efforts to court women readers, like the rise of the new Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance subgenres, and more female-centered fantasies. That said, I’m seeing whiffs of a corresponding effort to pull boys back into genre reading (and back into reading, period). Nothing citable at this point, just a sense that with the success of stuff like The Dangerous Book for Boys and steampunk and other genre fiction that targets boys and girls equally, we’ll see the pendulum swing back to the center.
  • The end of medieval European milieu dominance, thank God. I think this may already be happening; outside of a few blockbuster authors who are well-established, or who have passed the torch (and franchise dollars) to younger authors, I’m not seeing nearly as many fantasies in thinly-veiled Dark Ages settings as I did growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. And again, let’s look back at what kids are reading. Their fantasy tastes are decidedly non-traditional; among the bestsellers I’m seeing lots of modern settings and lots of cultures — like all those manga set in Japan. I suspect that the typical medieval European fantasy is headed the way of the sword and sorcery genre — not dead, but not dominant either — with only a few trope-breaking or subversive examples of same reaching prominence in the future. At least, that’s my hope. (Can you tell I’m a little sick of mediEuro fantasy?)
  • Correspondingly, I think we’ll see more interest in international fantasy, either from Western authors dipping into non-Western mythologies/cultures or actually written by people outside of the English-language sphere. We’re already seeing burgeoning SF/F literary movements in other countries — China most notably, but also in countries like India and Nigeria. And more of what’s already out there is getting translated for the English-speaking market. This is a good thing, because most of the fastest-growing economies in the world — whose citizenry will be buying and writing more books — are not English-speaking, so we’re going to miss out on a lot if more of it doesn’t get translated.
  • And now a note of doom and gloom, for which I fully expect to get an earful from you guys. =) I suspect Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance are not long for this world in their current incarnation. These kinds of trendy surges never last — mostly because once publishers start cranking out books to take advantage of the trend, the trend ends up expanding beyond its market and being glutted with substandard books, at which point readers get annoyed and go elsewhere. I don’t think the subject matter of UF and PR is going away; women are here to stay in the fantasy genre, and they want strong female characters, action-filled plots, and steamy romance. But the by-now-stock UF cover with its close-up on tattooed or bare female body parts, and the by-now-stock PR plot with a supernatural creature getting hot and heavy with a human woman, and so on — these are formulas, and formulas don’t last. Women like variety, too. That said, I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. Sales don’t seem to be flagging, and publishers are still buying them left and right. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
  • Correspondingly, I think we’re going to see more interest in formula-breaking fantasy. I don’t mean just genre-bending stuff like interstitial or slipstream; I think we’re going to start seeing subversions of all the popular formulas soon. That’s something else that seems to characterize the readership coming out of YA — they like familiarity with a twist. I’d be stupid to try and predict what’s going to come of this — in my wildest fancies, I never imagined sparkling vampires, frex — but it’s definitely coming. The readership of 2035, the Millennials of today, are easily bored and not just change-friendly, they’re change-demanding. Again, those of us in the production end of the field had better get ready.

So there’s my predictions. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to chime in with your own!

(Oh — and side-note: for those who’d like to read chapter 1 of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it’s up on my website.)

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2 Responses to “Fantasy 2035”


  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    December 4, 2009 at 12:07 am

    First–if you’re going to be speaking on any public panels/forums in NYC or the surrounding area, TELL ME! I’d like to be able to say I check up on stuff like this, but I am woefully inept when it comes to anything outside of Word, LJ or AOL. (I think my age might be showing.)

    I’m in CT, not far from the city. I swear, I wouldn’t even come up to you and say, “Hi, I’m that creepy bogwitch/Terri-Lynne person who comments on Magic District.” Really. 🙂

    I agree that todays YA fantasy readers are going to give a huge push to adult fantasy in a few years. Harry Potter readers are probably already part of the group, considering the first book came out in 97.

    It would be good to see non-Euro/medieval settings. They will always be a standby, though. Like all things, you can take an old notion and turn it on its head. We only have so many settings we can use in fantasy before bending into the science fiction end of things. The same thing, only different–like 7-Up! (Ok, now my age is REALLY showing.)

    Trendy stuff never lasts, no matter how well done some of it is. There is always quality available, but the trend, like you say, gets bigger than it can handle and crap starts spewing where once there was something new and different. The thing is, you’d think publishers–who KNOW this stuff!–wouldn’t let it get to that. Better to make a steady profit year after year after year than a glut of cash this year and next to nothing until the new trend hits.

  2. December 5, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    I can’t say I disagree with much of this post. As an Asimov’s reader, I’m familiar with a lot of these arguments/predictions. The reason I found this post was because I’m enjoying Margaret Ronald’s book at the moment – I like strong female protagonists. I have a 13 year-old daughter, and turned her on to Garth Nix’s books. I think his work is a great example that blends much classic fantasy with newer thinking. But as a Gen-Xer I want to plead with writers: Please don’t swoon for the Millenials too fast. They’re flightly and they don’t have any money yet. Give us John Cusack types good stuff and a reason to stick around. We’ll make sure our daughters and sons get the message. Thanks!


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