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The Australian Speculative Fiction Talk

In the last week, the local speculative fiction scene has been debating its worth at Deb Biancotti's blog (deborahb). It was inspired by Russell Farr's (punkrocker1991) editorial in the latest Ticonderoga Online, where he notes that when he measures the scene now against what it was ten to fifteen years ago, it's not stronger in quality despite strength in size. Farr's been around for a while, so he's undoubtably entitled to his informed opinion, but many people disagreed with their informed opinions, and the race was on to see who could say what and when and how. It was a good bit of fun and I didn't feel any urge to make a post about it, but I enjoyed seeing the conversation play out. Indeed, I would have continued not saying anything if not for Justine Larbalestier saying that she reckons "us Australians are just a wee bit too insecure about our doings."

It's hard not to disagree, but I think there's more. I think it comes from the small presses desire to be recognised on a global front, but most especially on an American front, and its subsequent shrinking and alienation from the fan base and readers here.

There is a bit of desperation in the small press here and it's not wrong to have that. Its books and magazines don't have large print runs (they're mostly in the hundreds) and what they sell, they sell primarily to authors both aspiring and established. The readership is tiny, and publishers and authors don't appear to be concerned (or are unable) to build a readership from the fan base that exists in the country. In July, Erika Lacey wrote, after being invited to be the Fan Guest of Honour at the Brisbane Convention next year and after finding out that her name had been left off the fliers, that "My opinion that the Brisbane convention will be more a writer's workshop seems to be reinforced by this -- the Brisbane writers group may be excellent at putting together workshops, but for a national science fiction convention they're a far cry from catering to fannish interest. I wonder why they even bothered asking anyone to be fan guest, as their opinion of that establishment is being shown clearly enough this way."

Personally, I reckoned then, and reckon now, that Erika should give the finger to the convention.

Even more, I think most fans should. Local fans/readers would be right to not be interested in the small press scene. Why should they? Neil Gaiman's recent visit proved that there is a huge audience out there, and they all love him, partly, one imagines, because he nurtures them. His blog, his long tours, the destruction of his hands through signing... as his audience has grown, he has shown every intent of being as dedicated to them as they are to him. What do the Australian writers here do? Sit in bars, hang out in private room parties, and converse to each other in a jingoesque language involving ping pong tables, which results in the existing fan base feeling as if we don't care. Are they wrong? Well, if you want to get your books out there and sell them, yeah, they are. If you want to nurture the readership, yeah. To me, it feels like, as a scene, we're much more concerned with what American editors--who get the books for free--think about us, and how it is that we, through them, can establish a world presence and audience.

Australia is often cast as the dead end of Western publishing. Print runs from major publishers can exceed the small press only by hundreds, but most of the books that come into the country are close to being imports from the colony. As I mentioned previously, we have our own little shelves dedicated to 'Australian Writing' while the rest of the world fills up the regular shelves and anything Australian comes with a cringe factor for the young. Without launching in a long and protracted debate about that, my opinion is that the result has been to leave the small press and new writers and readers with the impression that everything worth while and economically viable must go to and come from the States, or at the very least, overseas. So we've got our heads turned that way and authors such as Trudi Canavan, K.J. Bishop, Garth Nix, Sara Douglas, Sean Williams, Shane Dix, and the adopted Australians like Scott Westerfeld, are out there making nice sales and careers and getting reprinted in foreign sales like no tomorrow, and the small press scene sits there and looks at it, and wants a bit, too.

It won't happen.

It's time to wake up to that. The small press isn't going overseas. People overseas are not going to recognise the publications. The boat never got built. It never will. The small press is small, smaller than the British one, smaller than the American one, and we need to turn our focus back inwards to rebuild the aging fan base and readership that we have. Questions over quality can wait (and are a pointless, circular debate at any rate, which is why I ignored it here) and we need to stop putting worth in what Ellen Datlow and others think of our work. Yes, Datlow is a world recognised editor, yes, it's excellent if she wants your work, but it's no way to measure the worth of what is being published in the country. Does it really matter how many Australians are reprinted in Year's Best volumes? How many get nominated for awards overseas? Does that really matter to what the small press is doing?

I'm sure someone will say yes. A few people will, no doubt. I'm probably wrong. It probably does matter. But I do think that worrying about the global presence of a small press industry that can't manage local distribution is ridiculous and, essentially, that's what the debates about local quality get boiled down too. Are we worthy for the world, are we pretty enough, do we say the right things?

Tell me these lies sweetly.

Comments

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(Anonymous)
Aug. 26th, 2005 03:08 am (UTC)
Hello

As a reader, my feeling is that the Australian spec fic scene (ie writers) are much too cosy with one another. It seems very much a 'you pat my back and I'll pat your back' mentality. That is also one of the reasons why I have little respect for reviews because more often than not, it's from someone they know.

Anothing thing is that the writing scene appears to be quite judgemental about what they perceive as good writing or good stories. While everyone have their own preferences, I don't believe a specific writing style should be imposed and treated as THE way of writing. That's being much too exclusive.

A passerby
chrisbarnes
Aug. 26th, 2005 04:48 am (UTC)
It's true that many Aussie spec fic writers know each other fairly well, and write reviews of each other's stories, but I don't think it can be helped in such a small pond. I don't agree that there's a general "pat my back and I'll pat yours" mentality, though. The editors I know just try to pick the best work they can. Being a friend of the editor helps get your submission read, but is no guarantee they'll publish it. Spec fic editors in this country are constantly rejecting stuff submitted by their friends, believe me. And most editors love finding shiny new talent.

And I think our local reviewers generally try to be as even handed as possible. Granted, some reviewers prefer not to give negative reviews of their friend's work and therefore don't review it at all, so they only end up writing reviews of work they like. But the spec writing scene here is too small to expect that reviewers and writers won't move in the same social circles. It's just a fact we have to accept and work with, I reckon.

I certainly agree that there's no One True Style of writing. But people are entitled to be judgemental; I'm very choosy about what I think is good and what is not, but the only impact of that is whether or not I finish reading a story. Editor's judgement obviously has more impact on the writing scene, but again, that's their job, and they sink or soar depending on how well they choose their material. If you think a new editorial voice is called for… then go for it. That's how most of the small press here starts up: from one person deciding they can bring something new to the scene.
benpeek
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:35 am (UTC)
>Being a friend of the editor helps get your submission read, but is no guarantee they'll publish it. Spec fic editors in this country are constantly rejecting stuff submitted by their friends, believe me.

yeah, but you got to also admit, there is a difference in those rejections, too. i'm not saying you're wrong, mind, i'm just saying there is a difference. of course, in that way writing is no different to every other occupation in the world, but just like with every job, to someone outside, those differences can seem bigger than they are.
chrisbarnes
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:51 am (UTC)
Yes, sometimes knowing the editor does get you a better class of rejection. :-) And yes, when you're on the outside, the "scene" does look very chummy and kind of exclusive... like you say, that's true for any job... you've just got to get involved, do the work and eventually you realise you've become one of the insiders.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:56 am (UTC)
>Yes, sometimes knowing the editor does get you a better class of rejection. :-)<

getting those classy rejections is the only reason to get involved in the scene ;)
benpeek
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:58 am (UTC)
damn login.
(Deleted comment)
benpeek
Aug. 27th, 2005 05:29 am (UTC)
you agree with all of it? (i certainly think there's reason to agree with it all)
ex_benpayne119
Aug. 26th, 2005 03:41 am (UTC)
I don't know that the incident you've quoted with Erika is enough to suggest that the Brisbane Con is aiming at writers... I'm not involved with organising it so I don't have a clue whether it is or not, but simply leaving someone's name off the flyers isn't much to base the suggested finger on, imho...

As for the rest... I kind of agree, in some ways... I do think it's cool to be noticed OS, by people like Ellen, and their opinion does carry weight (and local small press *does* get noticed)... but I agree with the gist of your argument that often too much weight gets attached to it...

yeah, actual readers and buyers is a good idea:)

benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 05:16 am (UTC)
i don't know if the brisbane con is or isn't aimed at writers, i'm just quoting erika, without her knowledge it should be said, as an example of fan/readership alienation. it's certainly not aimed as a comment on the con or anything like this, and i've no idea if erika's sorted it out, or anything. so please don't read it like that. it's just an example of what i consider a division that's rising, but maybe that division was always there.

and while the small press stuff does get noticed, it doesn't get noticed and bought. it's like the small press is a tiny production put on so editors overseas can notice and maybe use some of the people for fortune and greatness. but i'll take the gist agreement and leave it on there. like yous aid, man, readers and buyers would be nice. they should be the primary concern.
deborahb
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:03 am (UTC)
>What do the Australian writers here do? Sit in bars, hang out in private room parties, and converse to each other in a jingoesque language involving ping pong tables, which results in the existing fan base feeling as if we don't care. <

I don't think the division of writer & fan is as great as you paint it. Fans and writers sit in the same bars, hang out at the same parties, go to the same events.

I also doubt any of this is particularly Australian.
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:11 am (UTC)
nah, it's probably not. but we're the ones trying to get new readers and an audience in. that's why i reckon it's a bit more relevant. or maybe not.
deborahb
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:18 am (UTC)
So what's your solution?
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:26 am (UTC)
it's got to be like church. the singing, the dancing, the people feeling as if they're cared for, as if their souls will be saved, so to say. the audience--readersship--have to get something. in all my time in the local scene, i don't think i've ever heard someone talk about what they're giving to an audience. mostly, they talk about providing outlets for what they like, and for authors who struggle for print... but the other side i've never heard.
deborahb
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC)
... I'm still not sure waht your solution is.
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 06:42 am (UTC)
i guess what i'm thinking (and maybe i'm wrong) is that getting new readers in has got to be done proactively. maybe it's not enough to just write and put out books/magazines/whatever anymore. maybe we got to be like vacuum salespeople with cults, though how you'd do that, i'm not sure. business and recruiting hasn't been my strong point. but in my hazy mind i think it lays there.

or maybe not.
chrisbarnes
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:04 am (UTC)
Yes, we do need to be proactive in getting new readers in. They certainly aren't coming in droves of their own accord.

Conventions can, I think , play a useful role here. Look at all the fans who came to see Neil Gaiman at Continuum. Most of them probably have no interest whatsoever in local small press, but some might. How to reach them? I dunno, but there must be some sort of useful marketing that might come into play. Attract new readers first, then sell books to them.

This is one of the things I'm thinking about for Consyder... how to connect new fans to old fans, media fans to book fans, and all of these to small press. All ideas are welcome... free books to every con member? Lucky door prizes of subscriptions to magazines?

In short, how do we get people's attention and convince them how cool our product is?

chrisbarnes
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:07 am (UTC)
I should add: don't get the impression that Consyder is all about selling small press. It's just one of the things I'd like the con to achieve. Mainly the hope is just to get a convention happening in Sydney.
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:10 am (UTC)
i'm not so sure conventions play such a solid role. a lot of younger people i meet think they're dangerously uncool. i don't think most are against the literature (most i talk too) but there is a sense that it's going to be a geek fest, with guys in tails and vulcan heads. which it isn't, but still, it's one of the misconceptions to overcome.

have you considered getting music? there is a good set of local live music, maybe there's a way to marry them.
chrisbarnes
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:19 am (UTC)
See, there's a good idea right there. Other cons (Continuum and Conflux at least) have featured some live music, at least on the masquerade night. If you've got any thoughts on possible bands/performers, please email me (consyder at gmail.com).

Conventions may not play a solid role now, I agree, but I think that can change. The whole geekfest image is something to overcome, especially in Sydney where cons have been absent so long. Or, we can persuade folk to accept their inner geek and join us. :-)
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:29 am (UTC)
i've noticed recently that, in newtown or something, there's a day of local festival music or something. i've been under the impression that they had music, stalls, and so forth. maybe if you could find a venue that allowed you to have a couple of bands a day or something, you'd get a lot more thru traffic.

i'm sure something like this is already done. but if you're looking for music to bring the youth side in, check out the local acts of FBI or JJJ. zara might have a good feel for them.
deborahb
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:19 am (UTC)
It's probably equally hazy for a lot of writers, then.

But also I think that's a different topic to the division of writer/fan, & I'm not sure the two relate. Also, you're criticising writer behavious at conventions, but then I don't believe you're going to get the majority of readers to attend conventions in the first place.

There are three groups here: writers, fans (ie. con-going fans) & readers. Apart from the fact I think there's a lot of crossover, I don't necessarily believe that the fact writers like going to the same sorts of room parties is really the problem.

And just remind me again how many cons you've been to, anyhow, Mr Peek?

It's true I'd like to see a broader readership & less of a ghetto for SF, but I'm frustrated by our joint inability to come up with practical plans.
benpeek
Aug. 26th, 2005 07:25 am (UTC)
yeah, you got a point bout my con attendence and the division of reader/fan, which i was conscious of as i wrote the post. my point of writer behaviour (it wasn't really a criticism, though i can see it being seen that way) was to point out how they're not out there, er, working the audience, so to say. i hate the concept of that, but if you've a product to sell, it's how a lot of businesses do it, especially small businesses just starting out. you could say panels and so forth are part of this, but i don't think it's working in getting people to buy.

strangedave
Aug. 26th, 2005 08:02 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think Erika should accept their apology, which I believe she has done. Backing out of the con due to a bit of clueless behaviour would have been a bad idea -- and probably made the issue that concerns Erika worse in the long run. Besides, Erika thoroughly deserves to be a fan guest at a natcon, and I think will be a fine choice.
benpeek
Aug. 27th, 2005 03:34 am (UTC)
i do agree with the last part, yes. the other half i see two sides on.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 27th, 2005 02:11 pm (UTC)
Hello

I would like to follow up my first post.

While I’m not involved in the writer’s scene, the very little that I have seen gives the impression that people are promoting each other’s books/stories purely because they know each other. While this may be understandable, I do believe people exaggerate the work. I’ve read stories, which I’ve heard were ‘brilliant’ and I came away quite disappointed. That’s one of the main reasons why I rarely buy spec fiction anymore.

About creating a new editorial voice, I don’t need to do that. All I have to do is purchase a magazine from overseas or read a story from the internet. There are a lot of stories competing for the attention of readers. There’s the short story vs the novel, paper vs online, Australia vs overseas…the reader can pick and choose.

As such, I can never understand the argument why you shouldn’t write for the market. Doesn’t an editor accept and reject stories based on their perceived market? Don’t you submit your stories to a magazine of a specific market?

Perhaps the problem with the small press scene is that the market is yourself.

A passerby
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