Discussion here last week turned to the blog that shall not be named, at which a bunch of us used to hang out, before the owner began looking for creationists under his bed and white supremacists in his closet and was so terrified that he whipped so far left that, when last seen, he was a point of light disappearing up Stalin’s butt.
At the same time er… events precipitated a discussion of teh crazy in our own field both in this blog and over at Mad Genius Club, where my friend, Dave Freer, called it teh stupid and wondered how it affected the remaining readership in Science Fiction and fantasy when the crazy is so … inane and so in evidence.
I have a friend who has belonged to a Tea Party group in his area since its inception. This Tea Party group is teh crazy. He often emails me to vent, but he hasn’t quit. Keep this in mind, it’s important. I suspect a group of angels could go teh crazy given certain circumstances. This is important too.
My friend’s group is in the middle of a very leftist part of the country. This has two effects – it both makes it isolated and it makes the people who are willing to join it true outliers and ones who are either brave or crazy. (And the two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive.
That is the start of the pre-conditions for the setting up of the slide to the crazy: the group is not only isolated, but is perceived as so “out there” by those around that you need to be crazy brave to join.
You guys can see how science fiction – but PARTICULARLY fantasy – went down teh crazy path based on that right? My MIL who tries to be so “normal” in everything that if your mental road had a yellow line she would be it (Hey, that’s the response of some outliers to their outlierness) not only wasn’t aware of the concept of Fantasy when I was first published (“Dear, do you realize you have sex in a book with elves? What audience are you aiming this at?”) but she still isn’t. The last of her parties we attended, she told everyone I should write children’s books because they’re the only ones who have minds as beautifully open as mine. (I invite you to stand back and experience awe at the concept of a) my mind being what she calls open, which I’m sure involves my believing everything I hear. b) the idea of my writing what I’m sure she thinks of as picture books, given the themes and points of view I’m prone to.)
Now my MIL is a reliable barometer of middle of the road for her generation, not because she is anywhere near average, but because she TRIES to be and is smart enough to have a feel for how “middle of the road” reacts. The operative part in that is of course “her generation” since she was sixty when I first got published.
It’s changed, of course. Or at least some part of it has changed. Even Nora Roberts (very middle of the road. MIL likes her) now has elves and fairies in her books. (Weirdly, MIL doesn’t think she should write for children.) Between movies and romance books, at this point the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are becoming mainstream. This hasn’t translated into higher print runs. Neither has the Great Recession. Keep that in mind, too.
The other thing that causes a group to go crazy is how unique it is. By this principle, science fiction and particularly fantasy writers went WAY crazier than readers, way faster, because, well… think on it, there are fewer of us. BUT – and this is also important – there is a group even smaller and more insular than us. Science fiction and fantasy writers, after all, live anywhere in the country and by their very nature, mingle with people who aren’t science fiction and fantasy writers. Well, I hear some people even have them in their own families. It doesn’t apply in the Hoyt household, of course. But editors don’t. Yes, they work in publishing houses that have other departments, but they are/were looked down upon by the other departments (I’ve heard stories) and so socialize mostly with their peers at other houses. (The exception being Baen which moved out of NYC and mingles with real people TM – keep that in mind too.)
You see, the other factor for teh crazy moving in and the group losing all contact with reality is to have, at its core a sub group that is completely far removed from reality and that operates internally without any checks and balances. (I suppose numbers and figures SHOULD rationally have operated as checks and balances on publishers but a) the slow instauration of a completely push model made sure that the books they favored sold more than others, no matter how inane. B) any book that failed was ALWAYS the writer’s fault c) the steady creep down of ALL sales in the field was shrugged off as “people don’t read anymore” – the same way that when classical music went un-listenable (totally a word) the drop in sales meant that “listeners are getting dumber.”)
So the next most important factor in whether or how fast a group goes down the crazy road is… well, crazies and how much sway they’re given.
In science fiction and fantasy publishing the crazies were driving the bus (actually I think it was a supersonic plane) until indie came in. Heck, they’re still driving it, insofar as the bus is the official part of the field, even though sane authors have jumped out of the window long ago (or been thrown, for not being crazy enough.) [Baen has sort of a motor scooter and has taken a side road, headed away from the precipice. For this act, they have earned the crazies hooting and hollering at them, and pointing and calling them extreme, even as the crazies head off to lala land.]
Until recently there simply wasn’t a way to tell the crazies in publishing, “hey, guys, you’ve gone too far, and you do realize normal people will be repulsed by this story/book/what the heck is this even?” If you did it, you got defenestrated with force, and if you didn’t chance to grab the handlebar of the Baen scooter, you weren’t going to be heard from ever again.
In the same way, the blog that shall not be named started wielding the ban hammer against anyone who so much as made a dissenting peep. (This is easy, but it’s also why I tend to be slow on the ban hammer and let things get heated. It is also why I think commenters need to exert a little restraint before killing with extreme prejudice. Yes, it gets us rid of some of the hothouse plants, but any group can go down the crazy road.)
And that brings us the next factor – the crazy road. Once you’re on the crazy road – ie. You’re different from most people around you and from most voiced opinions around you (for instance the blog that shall not be named was fiscally conservative, hawks, pro-gay and for a while at least tolerant of religion. They didn’t fit any of the boxes. We don’t either here, btw) letting a small minority (in the blog’s case, of one) hold sway and say who stays and who goes WITH NO FEEDBACK ALLOWED will lead to that minority’s going ever stranger on whatever road they were already set on.
What I mean by this is, while that particular blog was private, and going strange only had the effect of sending us off to start other hangouts. HOWEVER for science fiction and fantasy going strange, i.e. further and further away from the people who would potentially buy their product just meant that they were producing more and more thing that the public was unlikely to buy, and things that were further and further out from what might appeal to the mainstream of culture.
The thing is, because group mechanics dictate that the people responsible are deaf to feedback, and that group rewards are set for those who VOCALLY AND LOUDLY endorse the small and crazy group in control, once a group has gone some way down the crazy road, the ONLY thing you can do is leave and form another group.
The mechanics that drive a group ever-more extreme are self reinforcing both due to material rewards – if they exist – or due to the human instinct to fit in.
This is how it is perfectly acceptable – normal even – and definitely career-enhancing in science fiction to declare yourself to be a communist, to wear Che shirts, or to rant about how terrible America is, in front of American audiences. This is why it’s so radical – nay, shocking –t o write a female villain and a male hero. (And why such work is not likely to be published.)
It is also why it is wise of Baen to publish people all across the spectrum of politics. And why I try not to be crazily political here. (Except for a devoted hatred of Communism. I fail to see what’s extreme about hating a regime responsible for the death of a hundred million humans, and possibly more.)
Of course, in science fiction, the publisher community drove the writer community which in turn drove the fan community – at least that visible part of the fan community which organizes conventions and is active in reviews and prizes.
Which is what Dave Freer was despairing about in his post. “Is there anyone left who is not of this crazy/out of the mainstream tilt?” I.e. is there anyone who would read us.
I think there is. I think they simply jumped out of the window three decades ago when “All heroes must be female.” And “Capitalism bad” became the default mode. (It’s gone much worse since.)
How many times do you run across people who go “Oh, I used to read fantasy/science fiction but then I just stopped. I’m not sure why.”
I know why. I write the stuff, and I spent years – years! – when, except for Baen, I’d be lucky to find three books a year I wanted to even sample. Discovering a favorite author became a rare and cherished thing and – because of the push model – nine times out of ten they had already vanished by the time I heard of them/found their books.
The thing is, it takes EFFORT to drive your audience away and keep it driven away. People with the bend of mind to read science fiction or mystery or whatever will actively look for material to read. (Yes, literacy has gone down somewhat, but the number of people who read for pleasure has stayed remarkably constant. And the internet is forcing kids to at least read easily. Writing is something different. The whole myth of “people don’t read anymore” is just that, a myth.)
Since indie and particularly Amazon have allowed people to put things up there, and sample what they might want to read, people have started reading fields they’d given up on. My husband, for instance, assiduously reads free samples, then buys all the books of that author that he likes, often in genres he hasn’t touched for years. (I’ve been a little slower, because the last couple of years I haven’t had much time for reading. Reminds me of Barbara Hambly saying “Writing made me illiterate.”)
And only that explains the way indie mil sci fi sells on Amazon. (Like crazy it sells. Better than Romance.) Because for years now, the people driving the crazy bus have marginalized the genre. But the readers remain there, and Baen alone isn’t producing enough to feed them. So they go looking, and they talk to each other.
This gives me hope that the other fandoms are still there too: driven out of conventions; driven out of the mainstream of fandom; for years unable to find anything they want to read on the shelves; starving for good books.
I believe this is true, or at least is worth trying. The reason my friend stays in his local tea party group btw is that if all the “not insane” people leave, then the crazy just becomes crazier, faster. He’s trying to act as a counterbalance.
That wasn’t an option for writers or readers of science fiction and fantasy while the crazies controlled what got into print. They don’t now. So, don’t give up. If you do, then you will be driving the field where the crazies wanted and making them feel they were always justified.
Instead, I say we administer shock therapy.
UPDATE: I put up a different post at Mad Genius Club, entitled Doctor Strange Writing, or How I learned to Stop Worrying And Love Pantsing.