Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Reader's Playground

Sorry for being a bit late getting this up, but I'm a bit late getting started. For the first time in ages, I slept in. The explanation is simple: the last few days have been spent in a reader's playground, a very HOT reader's playground, and they've taken their toll. Not that I'm complaining because, hot as it has been, it has been very worthwhile.

You see, this is the annual book sale hosted by the Friends of our local library. This is our major fundraiser each year. This year, it's taken on an even more important role because, come February, we'll be moving into a new building -- one we desperately need. As a result of the upcoming move, our wonderful librarians have been culling through the stacks and gave us a huge number of books to sell. Between that and the donations we've received throughout the year, our best guess is that we have somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 books, videos and cds for sale -- much, too much to set up in the meeting rooms at the library as we've done in the past. Fortunately, a local church has let us set up in their gym. The only downside -- the gym doesn't have air conditioning.

As I helped set up, and as I helped some of those who came in looking for a bargain buy on their favorite books, I came across several books from years ago that sparked special memories or that helped spark my love of reading. There was Cat in the Hat and Are You My Mother?, two of my sons favorite books when he was little. There were a number of books by Taylor Caldwell, one of my father's favorite authors. In fact, I checked several books just to make sure they hadn't somehow managed to teleport from my library at home to the gym. There were a number of the old Ace science fiction paperbacks -- and I'm still kicking myself for not hiding them away for myself.

Last year, the science fiction books didn't sell. This year, that section has been one of the most popular. So the four or five "classics" I had my eye on, went quickly. To give you an idea of how many books we started with in this section and how many had sold by yesterday, the science fiction/fantasy section was located on two of the long cafeteria tables as well as a large round table. The books were three across and standing spine up. Under the table, it was the same setup, except they were also stacked three high. By the time I left last night, almost everything under the tables had been sold or moved to the top of the tables. My best guess is that we've sold somewhere close to 500 or more individual sf/f books so far. And the sale continues this afternoon. That is very promising for someone like me who writes in these genres.

What was surprising was that these older books, the ones that are supposedly no longer in fashion, were the ones that showed the most wear and they are the ones that have been read more often than the new "best sellers". Most surprising of all was who was buying these books -- teens and college students, not people my age who grew up reading the "Masters". When I asked one of them why he was grabbing up all the Simaks and Heinleins he could find, the answer surprised me and shouldn't have. He said the stories are more well-crafted and more entertaining and, in many ways, more believable than what's on the market today. His girlfriend, who had just grabbed up all the Horatio Hornblower books she could find and was moving on to the five David Weber books still available nodded in agreement before adding that she liked Weber because he writes a great stories with characters she could believe in. Then she grinned and added that there also wasn't a sparkly vampire to be found in his books.

So, what do you think? Are the sf/f stories of the past better than what we have today? Why? Also, what current writers in the genre would you say are reflective of what the "Masters" did as storytellers and craftsmen?

23 comments:

Francis Turner said...

I think some past SF/F stories are better than many available today but that the good stuff today can more than hold itself up against the best of yesteryear.

I'm yet another person that find that "Sparkly Vampires" leave me cold and who - on the whole, E&OE (and other disclaimers) - prefers to not mix pr0n with fiction. There's a lot of modern stuff which seems to go into almost clinical detail about the intimate relations of its protagonists and, generally speaking, I don't need that. Older stuff tended to totally skim over that part of the characters' lives and for the most part "that's a good thing".

OTOH there's plenty of clunky cardboard charactered old stuff with bizarre 'science' that is equally worth skipping. When the 'science' was known to be wrong when the story was written and there's no bonding with the protagonist then there really isn't much point to the story IMO.

But its a good thing that young people are keen to read SF no matter when it was written.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Often i think so. I think a lot of what gets put out today is dedicated to "having broad easily defined appeal" instead of just good characters and storytelling. There are exceptions, but the logical holes in some of todays stories could have a couple DeathStars parked in them with room for the odd MegaMaid or two...

Synova said...

I think that the past sf/f stories didn't have the edges rubbed off them. I think that there were probably as many stinkers as ever but that they didn't end up in a second print run or a library.

I also think that there is starting to be enough of a shift in attitudes that the old stories have an additional sort of "alien" feel to them.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova's right. There were as many stinkers, in movies, TV shows and books int he past decades, but what happens is the best rises to the top in our memories and we forget the rest.

So we can be nostalgic about Bewitched and James H Schmidt and forget interminable hours of Blankety Blanks and John Norman of Gor.

Apologies to any John Norman fans. He may have reached the cult status of Ed Wood, film maker.

Stephen Simmons said...

In the Foreword to one of the "Callahan's" books, Jim Baen recounted his first meeting with Spider. He reminisced of this lanky, wild-eyed young man who wandered in off the street and handed him a story, which turned out to be good. ("The Guy With the Eyes", iirc.) Then he went on to tell how the lanky young guy wandered in the next week with *another* story, which was *also* good. Note that his benchmark was whether or not the story was "good". Not, "Will it appeal to this or that demographic?"

Brendan said...

A lot of the old masters were making their living from short stories for a large part of their careers and that, I think, brought a sharpness and a focus to their works that you seldom see today. I know Heinlein and Asimov succumbed to the lure of the giant sized novels(has anyone ever finished Number of the Beast?), but that was not the rule.

There is seldom a book I read today that I don't at least once want to ask the writer "was it really necessary to include...?" and the ones I don't ask that question are almost invariably J/YA titles.

Dave Freer said...

There has been some vile cr@p published over the years - even in the golden years. But I am of the opinion that when publishers start to lose a grip on cr@pometer -- the desire of the readers to buy X over Y as measure by how many of each sold in a fairly evenly matched play-off -- the system went bad. Controlling access to retail space and how much you put into that space, the publicity and push you gave it... became more important than how much did readers like X or Y as to how much a book sold. And after a time, or a couple of times anyway, editors became convinced they knew what the people wanted to read. Oddly enough, they were dead right - provided 'the people' was the subset who shared their social, political and societal outlooks. ie. they were getting it dead right if the world was populated by liberal arts graduates who worked in publishing and lived in NY city. Jim Baen's real strength was that he new 'good' was a good story, even if he didn't share the writer's world view - and his world view wasn't the above. This means yes, some real wonderful jewels still come up now (although I agree with Brendan's comment, most of them would be better if they honed their skills on shorts) but, with a few exceptions that slip under the radar, or go via Baen or some other route, there is a lot of sameyness and despite the increasing numbers. Books tend to be longer too, and for a lot of the audience that's not a good thing.

Chris McMahon said...

I am probably more likely to find an older story that resonates with me, even if the science and tech are outdated. I think those older writers were more likely to be a keen student of human nature - rather than someone who got it all second hand and tries to be clever. They were also unafraid just to tell a story. Too many short writers are really writing for the editor of said mag who is looking for the next clever take on something - the readers come second.

Still it has to be about audience. Some have had rave reviews, but I have not only disliked them but found them flawed as stories.

Brendan said...

This question also makes me think of this years Hugo Awards. I must admit that I haven't paid too much attention to the Hugo's in recent years(I get to vote this time), but to my mind this year the quality hasn't been great.

Anonymous said...

I think I must be in a minority here- I've tried reading Heinlein before (including Have Space Suit, Will Travel) and could not get more than half way through. The only Heinlein I was able to stand long enough to finish thus far is Citizen of the Galaxy. Gave up reading the Foundation series about the time the Mule showed up for about the same reasons- a lot of older SF comes off very flat to me.

I can admire the writing craft, but if I can't like the characters and suspend my disbelief long enough to get past the tech, I usually won't finish a book. Personally, my favorite of the older SF-F tends to be the stuff of the '80's- early enough that I don't think the corporations ruled quite as badly but late enough that among other things the female characters (and the male to a lesser extent) actually existed as people rather than cardboard cutouts.

Dawn

Amanda Green said...

Francis, I agree that today's "good stuff" can stand up against yesterday's. I guess what I was getting at in my befuddled, middle-of-the-book-sale mind was how amazed I was that these young adults and teens were going for the older stories and not all the sparkly vampires and near porn disguised as fantasy.

One of the young men I talked with yesterday (Sunday) who said he didn't mind the fact the science from the older stories was no longer valid. What he enjoyed was the story and the fact that he could feel a connection with the author, as if the author enjoyed writing to tell a good story and not just to fill some preconceived political or philosophical position.

Amanda Green said...

O'Mike, I have to agree with you. All you have to do is watch what happens when a Harry Potter or Twilight comes along. It becomes a race between the publishers to see who can get out the most -- and not necessarily the most well-written -- story or book that fits that particular branding. How many schools of wizardry did we have during the height of the Potter craze? How many vampires, all of them angsty and sparkly, have we had the last few years? But then, it shouldn't surprise any of us. Publishers are, in too many cases, leaving the gate-keeping roles to the agents and expecting them to cull out what won't sell and to then act as first line editors even before the publisher sees the manuscript.

Amanda Green said...

Synova, you're right, imo, about the older stories not having the "edges" smoothed out. Of course, a lot of those edges were reflections of the time when the stories were written. All you have to do is look at some of the debates about Heinlein and whether he was pro- or anti-woman to see what I mean.

But I think it goes a bit further than the alien feeling. I think it comes down to story telling and connecting with the reader. The books today in too many cases are nothing more than knock-offs of whatever the popular book du jour happens to be. There are the same social and political messages. Too often, you can see the author's politics and religion because it just hangs out there and isn't woven discretely into the story.

I'm not saying the older stories didn't do the same thing. They did. But I never felt like I was being hammered over the head with it and, from what these younger readers told me over the weekend, they don't either. They are looking a a good story that has them thinking after they are done.

Whatever the reason, the fact they are reading and thinking is all I really care about because, to me, that's what our job as writers should be. To entertain the reader enough he wants to finish the book and then to give him something to think about later.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, yes and no. We do tend to remember the best -- but we also remember those books we threw against the wall. And, at least in my jaundiced view, the industry right now isn't necessarily rewarding the best books and stories. It seems to be more important to ride the crest of whatever is in vogue at the moment than to find the most well-written and entertaining story. As a result, we get a lot of poor imitations on the shelves.

And that was what I kept hearing over the course of the book sale. These teens and twenty-somethings wanted books that told a good story and didn't have sparkly vamps. They wanted books written where they could feel the joy the author had in the words he or she put down on paper. And believe me, a lot of the books going out weren't by the "Masters".

What made me feel good was that they were willing to take a chance on the authors I grew up with, authors who are often denigrated by their instructors or their peers for not being politically correct, etc., simply because they were products of their generation.

Brendan said...

Dawn,

We don't always have to like the same thing and I can even understand your dislike of Asimov and Heinlein. Asimov especially was capable of being very good(try 'The Ugly Little Boy') and awful.

You note an eternal quandary that authors must wrestle with too, that of Story v Character and the compromises made to get the right mix.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, there was a time when most, or at least many, publishers followed that same rule. They knew a good story would sell. Now, with bean counters running the business and not being readers -- sorry, but I really suspect this -- and only looking at what's selling right now, they look at trends and not much more. Oh but for more Jim Baens and his like.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, you may be onto something about the short story honing their ability to pare out the unnecessary. Unfortunately, that market is fast disappearing. It's my hope that with the influx of more and more electronic markets, we'll see a resurgence of the short story.

You're also right about there not being the general trend toward goat-gaggers (books that are better suited as doorstops than reading material because of all the filler put into them). They wrote the story. They didn't add in hundreds of pages of political, philosophical or technical data that really doesn't do anything to further the story.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, you said it much more succinctly and eloquently that I could have. Thanks!

Amanda Green said...

Chris, excellent points and I think you hit the nail on the head with your human nature observation. Unfortunately, it's not the short market where you have to write for the leanings of the editor. That's happening in the novel market as well. There are houses out there that if you don't take a certain stance -- and put it up front and center -- in your books, don't bother submitting. They will only accept those books that fit their political or social beliefs, no matter how well-written the book might be.

Me, I still think a good story will win over the audience. The issue becomes how do we, as authors, let the audience know we have something out there worth their time and money? That's a question we each have to ask, whether we are self-publishing, publishing through a small press or going with one of the big boys.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, I'll admit I haven't followed the awards in years -- not since I realized I wasn't reading what they were recognizing. I tried for a couple of years to read the nominees after they were named and found I was making too many dents on the wall from things being thrown before the end of the second page. So I gave up ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Dawn, I don't know how old you are, but I had that problem when I was in my 20s with some of the "Masters", including Heinlein. That's when I read the authors from the 70's and 80's and loved them. Now I find that some of my favorites from that era I can't read while the "classics" I can. Maybe it has something to do with age and changing tastes.

The whole point of the piece -- and I admit it was jumbled and mumbled due to exhaustion and fried brain syndrome -- was to note how pleased and surprised I was to see younger readers breaking away from the trend of sparkly vampires, etc., to read books that are not taught or are used as negative examples in classes today.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, you've hit the equation exactly right. Unfortunately, there is no one answer. The story v. character problem changes from scene to scene, story to story and it is a struggle we live with on a daily basis as writers. Thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

Amanda- Thanks for responding- I just turned 26 and perhaps I will find the same thing thing you did in a few more years as far as which authors I enjoy reading. I have already noticed that somethings I enjoyed reading in high school seem pretty stupid now, so I guess it's just wait and see.

Of the current crop of (mostly Baen authors), I think that some of the fantasy that will endure longest is Bujold's, especially her Sharing Knife series- I have rarely seen anything so eloquently written and with such engaging characters all at once. I'm less sure about whose SF will be looked back on in 25 to 50 years with great admiration.

Dawn