Paolo Bacigalupi on SF collections: "Too electic"

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Paolo Bacigalupi on SF collections: "Too electic"

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Jan 26, 2010, 11:57 pm

Paolo said this on a recent TOR "Geek's Guide to the Galaxy" podcast, and I thought it was a very keen insight on the problem of SF magazines (and also anthologies):

"I think almost all of the big respectable science fiction and fantasy magazines have the same exact problem which is that they're eclectic. And, eclectic products have a much harder time finding an audience who will follow them. I'm astounded at the fantasy and science fiction readership, for example, who is willing to read both my story and a Peter Beagle story. I think that those satisfy very different experiential urges, and so having a magazine that caters to both my writing and Peter Beagle's writing means that you have to have a very special reader: someone who's willing to essentially genre jump and experience jump inside of a magazine. I don't think most people are actually like that. I think when we look at consumer magazines and stuff like that we see people narrowing themselves down significantly. I think that the magazines were conceived at the time when an astounding story simply was enough, but now I think that the readership has shifted a lot and so that now you have people who are specifically, "I'm really only a steampunk reader, I don't actually cross over much other stuff." "I really am a military SF reader, I don't really cross over into much other stuff." And so, I think that any generalist fiction magazine has a difficult road there. I mean, I don't know what other readers are like, maybe I'm just stereotyping off of myself, but I honestly don't like to be surprised by the next story I pick up. I kind of know what experience I'm looking for. There's a reason why I return to Elmore Lennard novels or something, because I really like the Elmore Lennard experience, and I want more Elmore Lennard-like experiences. I think it's interesting that a magazine like Analog which in many ways is spoken of being extremely old school and sort of the driest side of science fiction is also the one with the strongest readership, and I think that's because it's closer to providing a consistency of experience from story to story."

I've definitely felt that, as someone with a very keen sense of what he likes, I've always been disappointed slogging through the stories I don't like in anthologies and magazines. I like more transhumanist sense-of-wonder stuff, so the depressive grim stories and hipster-ish "slipstream" stuff that's often prevalent in collections are often deadweight to me. I'll bet a lot of other forum posters have felt the same way, just with different genres plugged in. Are smallpress publishers able to address the more fragmented tastes of the internet age? Are there new ways for magazines to address this, like themed issues, or more diverse but less-frequently-published lines? Or is this eclecticism a good thing that shouldn't be engineered away by market forces?

Jan 27, 2010, 4:37 am

Diverse contents attract more readers. Not every story will be a hit with every reader. but if you get enough hits they'll return. Whereas if a mag publishes only one type of story, they're limiting themselves to readers of that type of story.

As it is, most sf mags have discernible characters, and tend to publish stories which fit a common mould - as per the editor's taste. And when one writer manages to plug into that character, the magazine gets accused of being the "{insert sf author name} magazine of science fiction"....

Jan 27, 2010, 11:31 am

Yea this is part of the reason that Deathray magazine folded! Ity was great, aimed at the SF geek, who likes to read books more than he does to watch films or TV. It was great, analysed such SF ideas as time travel, lost worlds etc with historical examples.

SFX has the opposite approach, eschewing books asnd authors in favour of film and TV, the Now and Exctitng, and so it continues to sell!

Jan 27, 2010, 8:16 pm

Does Analog have the strongest readership? I would have said Asimov's.

I have to say it was a recent revelation to me that the editor didn't expect me to like all the stories in every issue. I always thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn't see the value in all the stories. Knowing they're aimed at different readers got me to relax and just skip the ones that don't grab me. For me, F&SF and Asimovs always have enough stories to keep me renewing my subscriptions.

Jan 27, 2010, 11:03 pm

last year's Year's Best SF by Dozois, covering the year 2008 gives annual figures for circulation of most magazines. The numbers Gardner Dozois lists for circulation are as follows:
Analog 25,999 (down from 27,399)
Asimov's 17,102 (down from 17,581)
Mag of Fantasy & Science Fiction 16,044 (down from 16,489)

In earlier years Dozois often didn't give the actual numbers but talked of relative declines in circulation. It is easy to see from his discussions then that the numbers of issues was way higher than now. For example, the 1996 summation states that Analog and Asimov's both dropped to their lowest circulation figures ever. Analog lost 10,000 in circulation and 1,900 newstand sales that year for a 14.8% loss in circulation. I'm afraid to do the math but that suggests Analog was around 80,000. Asimov's was stated to be losing over 12,300 total for a 22.2% drop that year. F&SF declined about 5,900 that year for a 11.6% loss.

Clearly the magazines today have pitiful circulation numbers. I can no longer find them at the bookshops like I used to.

Feb 2, 2010, 9:28 pm

In his recent review of the January 2010 issue of Asimov's science fiction magazine, Stormraven makes the following statement: "In many issues of Asimov there is one story that just doesn't seem to fit".

Although I haven't yet read the issue, I'd have to agree with him. I find it rather common in Asimov's. I also find it rather common that a non-genre story makes it into the issue. In this case for Stormraven it is one and the same. I'm trying to think if this is a Sheila Williams effect.

In any event, the story in question here is by Carol Emshwiller, who has a long list of cred as a genre writer. But I'm not sure that should give it a pass.

In any event, Paolo is right I think when he talks about anthologies and magazines being all over the place. It is true of Asimov's. My thought, however, is that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I almost rely on it to let me read stuff I likely never would have.

Feb 20, 2010, 8:03 pm

To chime in, the specific story that RBeffa is referring to in the issue that I singled out is titled Wilds. It is indeed by Carol Emswhiller and it is in the January 2010 issue of Asimov's.

The problem I have with the story isn't its quality. It is a decently written story that is engaging enough. The problem is that there isn't anything that says either "science fiction" or "fantasy" (or even "alternate history") in the story.

I'm going to post a modest spoiler here, so if you are interested in not being spoiled for Wilds, stop here.

Okay. Here goes: In Wilds a male character abandons modern society to live in the wild like an animal. He keeps a handful of possesions that are utilitarian and eats wild fruits, roots, and raw worms, bugs and fish and so on. A woman with some money that may have been stolen comes across him trekking through the wilds. She is lost and afraid and tries to bribe him to help her with the money, which he finds valueless. She dies. He keeps her backpack and ditches the money. The story ends.

The story isn't bad, but there's nothing in it that makes it fit a genre magazine. I intentionally subscribed to Asimov's because I want science fiction stories, or at least speculative fiction stories. I want genre damnit! And this story doesn't deliver it in any way.

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