Friday, June 7, 2013

OF SQUARE PEGS AND ROUND HOLES



Ye, gods, where to start?  

By now most of the science fiction world and half of the romance community have weighed in on the controversy generated by comments made by SF writers Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg in a recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin. (See Pippa Jay’s excellent post earlier this week and the list of relevant links.)  This coming on top of Stuart Sharp’s blundering attempt to note the rise of SFR in a post on The Story Hub that sounded more like a scream of “run for the hills!”

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for a couple of weeks (or blissfully enjoying a vacation on Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet), the gist of the argument from both of these camps in the swamps of the Mesozoic is: girls are purdy but they don’t know crap about writing science fiction.  They’re messing up our real science fiction with their kissy-face fake science fiction stuff.   Oh, and some lady writers are particularly purdy.  And if you don’t like what I say, you are a liberal fascist (sic).

Some days I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Or grab a phaser and just start blasting. 

Pippa, in her post, asks, with some justification, is it not 2013?  Yes, but as a lifelong feminist and a lifetime member of the NAACP, let me tell you, 2013 is not the 23rd Century envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, where equality rules in the crew of the Enterprise.  And I long ago realized that the science fiction “community” is one of the last bastions of male tradition, along with the military, the police and the hard sciences.  Just because there were women who wrote it, women who read it, even individual women who were successful at it, did not mean that women as a group were accepted into the fold.  And the kind of science fiction that women more generally like to write—with character at the center of the story—lost a hold in science fiction when the market for SF shrank back in the late 1970’s.

So why be surprised that now when science fiction romance is beginning to find some success outside of the traditional SF community—through digital or small presses or even with romance-oriented houses—the old-school guys in SF are squawking?  It’s the same reaction I get when I tell my guy friends who read SF that I write SFR.  The kindest thing they say is, “You lost me at romance.”

Really?  Okay.  Because there are these millions of other readers out there who just might be interested in the romance.  SFR’s dogged pursuit of the miniscule SF market is just a little too reminiscent of a child begging for the attention of an emotionally-unavailable father.  I say we grow up now and seek out a lover who can give us the affection we need. 

In the forty years since SF’s last heyday in the Seventies, romance has gone from a narrow focus on stories involving millionaire bosses, pirates and cowboys, to embrace werewolves, vampires, angels, dukes, hometown boys, Navy SEALS, PI’s, and, yes, even some starship captains and sexy aliens.  It has become a huge industry with the largest readership of any single genre.  According to figures on the RWA website, romance fiction held the largest share of the U.S. consumer market in 2012, with 16.7 percent, generating $1.4 billion in sales. 

By comparison, in 2012, SF/F sales amounted to $590.2 million.  More importantly, its core readers, writers, editors and marketers seem largely to be stuck in a time warp.  And I don’t mean one in which they’re in the future.

That wouldn’t matter so much if writers of SFR weren’t stuck with the dilemma of finding the right market for their books—seeking out agents, selling to the right publishing house, determining covers and marketing strategies, coming up with taglines and pitches and all the rest.  Given the choices outlined above, you would think it would be easy to go where the readers are, but the story should drive the decision and that complicates things.  What if the romance in the book amounts to mere elements?  Then surely that leaves you in the SF camp?  (With the dinosaurs.  Sorry.)  What if the SF is really tech-y, but the romance arc is clear and, well, hot?  Might be a hard sell on the romance side, but no sell at all with the dinos.  **sigh**

My agent asked me a few weeks ago if we should try a few of the SF publishing houses in light of a spate of rejections from the traditional romance houses.  I thought about it, but in the end we agreed to leave the SF houses off the list.  I told her I didn’t think they’d know what to do with me.  Given the controversy that has erupted since then, my instincts were right.  My stories are science fiction romances and, given a chance, I know romance readers will embrace them.  That’s a much larger and more welcoming audience than I would ever have in science fiction.

That decision felt right to me.  Sort of like the day I decided to take the straight SF story I was struggling with and rework it as a science fiction romance.  Unchained Memory works much better as SFR.  And it always feels better to stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Cheers, Donna


11 comments:

  1. I'm not qualified to join SFWA or HWA or any of that. I work for back-end money, not advances. I sleep better that way.

    I write as the muses move me, and SFR is my best seller (Glad Hands, a roadtrip across the Disunited States). Then again, I'm small press and don't worry about agents, or publishing houses. I have four publishers who are thrilled to get SFR, who give it great covers and love the idea of sex in zero-g or with aliens or whatever.

    This whole thing happened at a really bad time, and it's all part and parcel together. Misogynists, like racists, are emboldened these days and no longer even trying to hide their hatred. http://valarltd.livejournal.com/1831598.html

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  2. "girls are purdy but they don’t know crap about writing science fiction. They’re messing up our real science fiction with their kissy-face fake science fiction stuff. Oh, and some lady writers are particularly purdy. And if you don’t like what I say, you are a liberal fascist (sic)."

    This cracked me up. Great post, Donna.

    You have a point about going after the SF market, but I think it's less about wanting something we can't have, than going with what's familiar. I think many of us writing SFR grew up reading SF/F rather than romance. Though I've always loved books with romance, until a few years ago I'd never read a book from the romance aisle. Like a lot of readers I had outdated perceptions about the genre.

    With that said, I agree that our largest potential market is romance readers.

    But I think genre is becoming less and less relevant. In the age of the e-reader, it seems like people buy books based on buzz, and recommendations of friends and trusted review sites. I think SFR has a much better chance in that model than in continuing to be forced to choose an aisle.

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  3. "SFR’s dogged pursuit of the miniscule SF market is just a little too reminiscent of a child begging for the attention of an emotionally-unavailable father."

    Oh, Donna. You really hit the mark with that.

    We write a genre (note I didn't say SUB genre) that is a unique hybrid and sometimes not accepted by either of its "parents." (If SF is the emotionally unavailable dad, Romance is like the dysfunctional mom.)

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  4. @Angela, I think you're right that in this day and age, there's some kind of resurgence of Neanderthal thinking on all fronts. We can only hope it's a last gasp of a dying breed.

    @Sharon, I agree that the whole idea of forcing ourselves into any kind of tiny box is growing increasingly irrelevant. Just wish the powers that be would get that message.

    @Laurie, Ha! But I have a feeling dysfunctional Mom is getting therapy, while Dad doesn't have a clue and probably never will.

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  5. Angelia, thanks for your comments. Your freedom to write and publish as your muse sees fit sounds so refreshing and empowering.

    As an agented writer, I'm going for some of the larger publishing houses, but it has been a bit of a struggle. I don't think NY is quite sure what to do with a SFR yet, though Sharon's Ghost Planet was one high profile exception and there have certainly been others.

    We hope this whole misogyny-in-SF debate will spur new interest in SFR.

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  6. As an avid reader of all things Romance and Science Fiction I just wish everyone would pull up their big girl pants and get on with providing readers like me with the stuff we want. Namely good books with good stories and no arguing as to genre or worthiness. If a story is well written and enjoyable then who cares if it is a SF, SFR or 'pink with purple spots' genre?

    Maybe someone needs to start up a publishing firm especially for those books that have both too much Romance for Science Fiction publishers and too much Science Fiction for Romance publishers!

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  7. Ilona, someone has started up a SFR publishing firm - I have.

    It's still very early days, but Sunburst Press does have its first submission.

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  8. Misa, I am going to be looking for books by Sunburst Press in the future. Thank You!

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  9. Most of the NYC publishers are European ownership conglomerate imprints, which look at financial bottom lines. If the book doesn't quickly hit the sales requirements, the byline of the author of the book doesn't get another contract from the publisher--the author might get another contract, but not under than same byline until/unless a new byline consistently sells (that's why there are reissues of Mike Moscoe books now with him identified as having the pseudonym Mike Shepherd, and reissue of John Hemry books which him being identified as having the pseudonym Jack Campbell--both of them got contracts for doing SF from the publisher pseudonymously as if they were new writers)

    But anyway, the NYC print publish imprints have some apparently rather nasty constraints in what they're open to contracting for, or maybe, rather, it's that editors have the constraint of being cautious in what they choose to buy. The old long ago days of the deep backlist are long gone, these days the deep backlist for longtime print authors goes online with rights-reverted books self-published on Amazon etc.

    I wonder... if a female author used a male pseudonym and submitted an SFR novel, would it get looked at differently?

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  10. @Paula--An interesting question, but given the general lack of response to character-driven plots in the hard SF community, I'd have to say it wouldn't matter who wrote it. And given the general lack of respect shown "romance tropes" by non-romance writers, the overwhelming majority of whom are male, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a test of your theory, either. ;)

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  11. Paula, we have a guy in the Brigade - Ed Hoornaert - who is currently trying to sell an SFR title, having written SF and Romance titles previously. Maybe you should chat to him about how that's going.
    Me, I'm just going to focus on writing more SFR titles now and getting them out there. At least the small presses, especially those like Carina and Sunburst, are actively seeking books in the SFR genre. So there must be enough interest that makes it financially viable for them.

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