Friday 9 July 2021

Out with the old, in with the new!


You don't want to bother with any of the 100s of other posts on this blog, they're old, what possible interest could they have?

"Out with the old, in with the new." is a line revitalised in the 70s film Logan's Run, but which possibly originated with a Scots clan leader kicking his mother out of the house and moving his mistress in.

I'm motivated to write this post after seeing a struggling author post:

"I sorely wish I could figure out the secret behind this book business. I have five. Yes, they're older; no, they're not widely read, for the most part (IMO, the first two were more widely read than the last three). But, no one NOW wants to read them because they're old, even though they've not read them? "New stuff! New stuff!" is the mantra most gurus chant . . . but if the old stuff is new to multitudes, why not promote that?"

One of my newer acquisitions & one of my older ones. 

On the face of it his bewilderment at the obsession with the new is reasonable. There are more than enough fantasy books out there to keep a fantasy fan happy for the rest of their life if publication of new ones stopped today. A hundred times more.

Here's a thing that basically never happens: A book that only managed to reach a small readership is rediscovered years later and takes off. We do have sleeper hits where a book will build momentum, but they are rare. We don't have resurrections where a book that stalled then bursts into life years later.

The only counter example in fantasy I can think of is Senlin Ascends, and there were special circumstances around that. Basically, the only chance for a book to break big is when it's first published.

This obsession with the new is actually great news for new authors. Without it, becoming a (temporarily) successful author would instead of being really really really hard would be struck-by-lightning-seven-times hard. But why is the obsession there? Couldn't we all live happily off the fantasy already published?

The answer (my answer anyway) is several-fold.

1. Reading is a social activity. When you read new books you can be sure that there will be a rush of other readers who have just read that book and have it fresh in their mind. You can share your excitement of discovering new characters and story with others in the same position. When you broach the subject of the book with new people they will either have just read it - leading to good discussion - or you can introduce them to something they don't know about. You are the explorer on the cutting edge, finding the good stuff to shout about to those following on.

2. Publishers put their marketing effort behind new books - they generate buzz and excitement around the latest titles, sucking readers in. The new books replace the old on the bookshop shelves.

3. Fantasy does change. Some books are timeless or almost timeless. People will continue to read Lord of the Rings for many decades. Maybe people will be reading it a hundred years from now or in the year 2200. But fantasy as a whole changes as the society whose interests are reflected in it changes. Readers today may be looking for the social issues of the day to be echoed in the fiction they consume. There has been a substantial move towards diversity and representation in fantasy. An LGBTQ reader or reader of colour wanting to see themselves echoed in their favourite genre would have to work much harder to find a fantasy book from the 80s that met their requirements than from the more recently published examples.

So, as much as it pains me to know that the books I've written which are now out of nappies, and may even be eyeing secondary school, are, by the nature of the beast, of slowly waning interest to readers, I can't rail against the system or its logic. The world rolls on and almost nothing leaves a mark. Popular books become less popular and are forgotten. It takes a truly extraordinary book to hold the public's attention for generations. The fact that there's so much interest in the 10th anniversary edition of Prince of Thorns is of great comfort to me, but I have no illusions that my (hypothetical) grandchildren's generation will be reading about Jorg, or even have heard of him.

Tempus fugit.

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  1. Times and styles change. I recently went back to re-read the first fantasy series I remember reading as a child: Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman's Death Gate Cycle. That book features several things in it that have mostly disappeared in (properly edited) fantasy books released after 2010. Some of the changed elements in more modern fantasy, compared to 80s and 90s, include:

    * Showing as opposed to telling. A well-edited book today will favor the former. I feel this is simply the "right" way to do it, as it delivers more sensory information to the reader. Most things before the 90s that I've read are mostly telling.
    * Omniscient narrator as opposed to 3rd person limited or 1st person limited. This, I think, is a stylistic choice, and may end up changing in the future. Maybe we'll return to this style later. It's possible to argue 3rd person limited takes the reader closer to the protagonist and their thoughts, but I've seen omniscient books doing this equally well.
    * Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil, as opposed to having a villain with a reason to their villainy. Not saying this doesn't happen today, but lots of us are used to the gray morality kind of thing by now. This ultimately leads to the question of why the henchmen working for a Bond villain would work for a clearly evil character who might kill them at a moment's notice. Modern books like to answer that question.
    * Worldbuilding: It's pretty rare for an older fantasy book to be anything except medieval Europe. While that still remains a popular choice among authors, today it's more common to have strange, alien worlds that have no similarities to life on Earth. There are exceptions, such as Conan.
    * Most of all, I would say vulnerable protagonists. Old fantasy serieses tend to feature callous, tough men who are the baddest badass who ever badassed. I like seeing some humanity and sympathy through character flaws.

    1. I'm not sure Weiss and Hickman are all that representative of 80s or 90s fantasy writing - they were extremely mediocre authors back in the day as well.

  2. I can get behind people who want "new stuff". What I cannot fathom is people who re-read for a 10th time some old series they already know inside out instead of reaching for something they haven't read, either old or new.

    Another phenomenon I see is people either reading popular books with bad reviews to check whether they're "really that bad" or forcing themselves to read series they're bored of because "every self-respecting fan should know this big name". This often means popularity of the author, not quality of the novel decides whether more people pick it.

    If you're popular, you'll keep being popular. If you're unknown, good luck to you...