Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

 
Wizard Oil
  by Carol Pinchefsky
October 2006

Introducing Readers to the Genre:
Converting readers in one short story, or not.

According to a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts study (1), 93 million Americans read novels and short stories. On any given day, people choose to read, or not to read, science fiction.

And many of them don't. Even in the 21st century, in an age of paid flights to space, science fiction is not the genre of choice for most readers.

What is it about science fiction and fantasy that does not appeal to the average reader? Is it a preconception about adolescent choices and an over-reliance on spaceships and dragons?

Perhaps the reader doesn't know quite what to choose: Many science fiction readers were indoctrinated by a friend, family member, or knowing librarian. But most others live their lives without ever having such an introduction.

It's time to adjust this oversight. Towards this end, I've conducted an informal study in introducing non-genre readers to science fiction and fantasy.

The best way to make this introduction is to learn his/her preferences and present them with the nearest genre equivalent. For example, a reader of historical fiction may prefer historical-based fantasy, whereas a reader of hard-boiled mysteries may find a cross- genre mystical detective novel more to his/her taste.

I asked four readers of non-genre fiction about their tastes in reading material. Then I found short stories that I thought would appeal to them.

Does this experiment work? Have I opened up a whole new world of reading material for those who did not know this world existed? Or have I soured four innocent readers from ever picking up a genre book? The results are below.

Note: It's easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a rich man than it was for me to find willing volunteers. Thank you to all of the readers who subjected themselves to my machinations.

THE EXPERIMENT:

1) Pat

Retired/housewife.

I gave Pat "The Black Bird" by David Barr Kirtley: Pat is an older woman who probably knows the story's references to The Maltese Falcon. I was right.

What do you typically read?

Very little fiction, a good deal of theology, biography, memoirs.

Have you ever read science fiction/fantasy before?

I tried reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. It was visually very intense, but I could never get a hold of the whole thing. I felt I was lost in a Jackson Pollack painting.

What did you like about the story?

It seemed a bit more interesting and intelligent than I anticipated. It was brief, to the point, philosophical, theological, reflective, and it was succinct. I enjoyed it very much.

What didn't you like?

It would require some knowledge of [The Maltese Falcon] and of Edgar Allen Poe. That's not a problem for me, but I think it would be for my grandchildren.

Why don't you read SF/F?

I don't find the subject matter engaging.

What was your perception of SF/F before reading this story?

…It is too opaque for me.  If a person has something to say...say it!  It's difficult for me to fathom what the message actually is in the [SF/F] genre.  Ordinary fiction is a little more patent, usually.

Would you consider reading more SF/F now?

I probably will not. My limited time for reading is to indulge in those forms of writing which I truly enjoy…. [SF/F] reading (and writing) seems like a total waste of time.  Better to use any time and talent available for more significant, meaningful, purposeful pursuits.

Do you know the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

No, I don't know the distinction between the two.

2) Wendy K.

Writer.

I gave Wendy "The Girl with the Heart of Stone," by Leah Bobet, because of its strong writing and female protagonist.

What do you typically read?

For the past year, mostly books about toddlers and babies…. I really love the classics, American and British 19th century literature.

Have you ever read science fiction/fantasy before?

I read an Ursula Le Guin story in the New Yorker -- it had a slight supernatural element -- and Carol Emschwiller's Ledoyt.

What did you like about the story?

I was interested in the premise, a demon steals babies' hearts.

What didn't you like?

I didn't get into [the protagonist's] head and her feelings. It felt like an allegory or a parable, and I didn't feel like [the characters] were real people. Those kind of elements distance me. I want to feel what characters are feeling. That's what I love about someone like Tolstoy -- so much feeling there.

Why don't you read SF/F?

I understand the appeal of reading about another world, where the characters are upon a completely different plane. It's just not real life. You're escaping when you read those kind of stories. I understand the appeal, and it's interesting enough to me, but I wouldn't want to drown myself in the genre. I'm really interested in life on Earth.

What was your perception of SF/F before reading this story?

I'm not negatively disposed…. My husband writes it and I'm interested in what he does, and I'm interested in SF movies and TV. I'm vaguely interested, but I don't feel compelled to run out there and eat it up.

Would you consider reading more SF/F now?

No, I'm where I was.

Do you know the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

I do, but I couldn't explain it.

3) Reggie

Doorman.

I gave Reggie "Dogtown" by Amanda Downum, because he likes stories with protagonists who live on society's edges.

What do you typically read?

I love everything Frank McCourt has ever written. I like Hemingway.

Have you ever read science fiction/fantasy before?

I read some Stephen King.

What did you like about the story?

I liked the characters, I liked the dogs, the scene in the diner. When [the protagonist] walked into town, I thought, "What the hell is going on?" It was intense.

What didn't you like?

It was too short.

Why don't you read SF/F?

You see, I like stories that remind me of what I know, like I like Catcher in the Rye because it takes place in New York City.

Would you consider reading more SF/F now?

Yes. Absolutely.

Do you know the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

I know they're placed in the bookshelves together.

4) Nancy S.

High-school English teacher; graduate student in Creative Writing.

Nancy travels every summer, so I gave her "Fortune's Food" by Kit St. Germaine because of its European setting.

What do you typically read?

Literary short stories, poetry.

Have you ever read science fiction/fantasy before?

Lord of the Rings. C.S. Lewis is science fiction, right? I read Dune, but I don't remember it. It was long and tedious.

What did you like about the story?

I liked the foreign setting, the coffee bar. I liked the descriptions. I like the bleak outlook and crushed spirits of the main character. When those quirky things happen, people took them in stride because of their bleak outlook, not something a normal person would do. The characterization was well done, it allowed for the unusual plot occurrences to be believable. It had things we can relate to, but having the miraculous in such pedestrian circumstances was fresh. It was more than adorable -- it was dark.

What didn't you like?

[The story] didn't have any kind of propulsion. It didn't suggest any kind of change. And you would think there would be more of a sense of wonder. When [one character] starts seeing again, right away he criticizes everything. I would think he would emote a little more.

Why don't you read SF/F?

I have no patience.

What was your perception of SF/F before reading this story?

I always associate it with interplanetary things, aliens, space travel. Fruitless speculation doesn't interest me that much. "What if there were eight other planets just like ours?" So what? You can make guesses about anything.

Would you consider reading more SF/F now?

I would read more, but only if it was something I could relate to. I'm more interested in changes of consciousness.

Do you know the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

I know that there is a difference.

CONCLUSION:

Reggie is now interested in reading more genre. Both Wendy and Pat say that, although they liked reading the selected story, they are unlikely to make time for more. Nancy says she would consider reading a story or two, but it would have to be of a similar caliber and subgenre.

Getting people to read science fiction was not a shining triumph, but neither was it a doomed effort. In fact, I had over a 25% success rate. If you, the reader of this article and the reader of science fiction and fantasy, do the same, you can turn one of your friends or family into someone who borrows your books. And may or may not give them back.

Try this experiment at home.

---

1. http://www.nea.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf

Thanks to David Barr Kirtley for use of his story, "The Black Bird."

Also, thanks to Strange Horizons [http://www.strangehorizons.com] for their wonderful fiction archives, from where I culled most of the stories.


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