Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two

Is Speculative Literature an Endangered Species?
- Mike Collins

The year was 1978. I was in the fifth grade -- God only knows how I'd made it that far. I hated school. I hated learning. I especially hated reading.

One day, Bill Marino, one of the few teachers who cared enough to reach out to me during that difficult time, handed me something that changed my life forever.

Childhood's End -- that's what he gave me. Written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1953, this book was the catalyst to my own childhood's end.

I examined the yellowing paperback and frowned. "You want me to do a book report, don't you?" He told me he only wanted my opinion of the book and that I would be free from all homework while reading it.

I discovered a new world that day -- not the evolutionary Earth Arthur C. Clarke so aptly described, but the amazing world inside my own head.

Since that discovery, no movie has been able to reproduce the images or sounds a good book could evoke. There is no comparison between the two-dimensional experience of a television or movie screen and the I-swear-to-God-I-can-actually-smell-the-rocket-fuel experience while reading.

I devoured Childhood's End that night, unable to set it aside for a moment. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my skin and breathed in the aromas of that brief utopian society. I sat, slack-jawed and terrified upon seeing -- with my very own mind -- the Overlords and the demonic features they embodied. And alongside the story's protagonist, I witnessed the coming end of the only world I ever knew.

When I returned the book the next day, Mr. Marino placed it in a box of other science fiction classics and told me they were mine to keep.

I now realize all my accomplishments in life -- careers, wealth, and awards -- are a direct result of my addiction to literature.

I thought of Bill Marino and the box of science fiction classics while reading Connie Willis' recent WorldCon Guest of Honor speech. Connie's words moved me to tears as she and I obviously share the same passion and praise for the written word.

This is the reason I wanted to write this article.

We see new reports every day from sources tracking America's decline in reading, and the results are staggering. From literature, books, newspapers, magazines, and even webzines, circulation and readership continue to drop with each new day.

Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey released in June 2004. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline -- 28 percent -- occurring in the youngest age groups.

Findings in this survey revealed:

  • The decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading.
  • The ten-year rate of decline has accelerated from -5 percent to -14 percent since 1992.
  • The decline is in every category surveyed: gender, race, religion, education, income, and age.
  • The decline in reading correlates with increased participation in various electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices.

Because of the decrease in reading, we are obviously seeing falling numbers in book sales as well.

USA Today ran an AP story in May 2005 that focused on the decline in book sales. Facts from this article came from a report issued by the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit research organization. The report stated that the publishing industry continues to put out more books than the public is prepared to buy.

In fact, the number of books sold dropped by nearly 44 million between 2003 and 2004. The Book Industry Study Group reported estimated sales of 2.295 billion books in 2004, compared to 2.339 billion the previous year. The industry found a way to survive, however, as higher prices enabled net revenues to increase 2.8%, to $28.6 billion.

"People are reading less, so what you're seeing is the same phenomenon that has hit magazines and newspapers, a massive shift toward home video, DVD, Internet and cable," said Albert N. Greco, an industry consultant and professor of business at the graduate school of Fordham University.

After considering all this information, I wondered how this decline in reading will ultimately affect niche markets like science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Sales and readership for these fields have followed the national trends with each year. There are some authors in science fiction, fantasy and horror who transcend genres, but more often than not only go as far as his or her respective niche markets.

Speculative fiction magazines are taking the hardest hits -- all are suffering drops in total circulation according to the March 2005 issue of Locus Magazine.

Analog Magazine lost 61% of its paid circulation between 1992 and 2005.

Asimov's Magazine lost 70% of its paid circulation between 1992 and 2005.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction lost 67% of its paid circulation between 1992 and 2005.

Realms of Fantasy Magazine lost 50% of its paid circulation between 1994 and 2005.

Some would say the decline is gradual, but it looks worse if you consider the industry's failure to keep up with population growth.

According to a 2005 census estimate, the U.S. population (296,410,404) has grown 18.4% since 1990 (241,870,890). This means we have fifty-five and a half million more citizens today with nearly 70% less circulation (if the population hadn't grown at all) in speculative fiction magazines.

Is this a sign of impending doom for the printed word in speculative markets?

When you look at today's most popular magazines (even in the so-called speculative fields), you find pages filled with photos and fluff focusing solely on a single franchise: Harry Potter movies, the Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, or the expanding video game, Doom. You find very little substance in these publications and no fiction whatsoever.

We constantly hear how today's younger generations are visually driven and prefer a more visual medium. I do not dispute this -- I will, however, dispute the notion that reading good fiction is a nonvisual experience.

Theater of the mind produces sights, sounds and smells that are unique to individual readers. Ten people can read the same book, yet have ten different interpretations of each character. After reading the first four books of George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, I found a book of illustrations for that series -- not one of the artists' renditions came close to the incredible visualizations my mind had created.

With so many entertainment options competing for attention, I'm afraid we are depriving our young people of the greatest entertainment medium they could ever enjoy. We are allowing them to experience The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a two-dimensional form, when we could give them a book, inviting them to visit Narnia for themselves.

The late writer and writing teacher John Gardner called fiction a waking dream. When you sleep and dream, you experience the dream as real. And when you enter the waking dream of a well-written short story or novel, it is just as real.

So how do we introduce younger generations to an entertainment medium they (unwittingly) perceive as a boring waste of time?

Critically acclaimed author Pamela Sargent said this subject came up at a convention she and George Zebrowski recently attended. "A guy in the audience suggested that anyone trying to encourage young people to read offer them prizes for reading certain numbers of books," she said, "and I winced, as I always do whenever anybody makes this kind of boneheaded suggestion, because it only teaches people that reading isn't fun and rewarding in itself, in fact addictive.

"The big problem is that we live in an extremely distracting culture, where nobody seems to have much of an attention span and we're all constantly subjected to interruptions of all kinds, while reading requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. If we could find a way to give more kids that kind of time at an early age and then provide them with lots of books, that might help."

"As with all reading, the addiction must come early; later, there are too many distractions," Zebrowski added. "I think there will always be some people who learn early and stay a lifetime -- but it's a kind of natural selection that is at work, and the numbers can only be increased with heroic efforts that are too often unavailable."

The next Grand Master of science fiction -- James Gunn -- concurred. "People (and cultures) fall out of the habit of reading and story telling," he said. "Good habits need to be nourished, and the way to nourish the habit of reading is to expose children at an early age to its pleasures. And science fiction, because it is the literature of our times, has a particular pleasure that needs exposure so that people can consider the future before they have to experience it."

I think Lou Anders, editorial director of Pyr Books, put it best when he said, "Everyone who is a reader today is one because when they were at that crucial age of around 10 to 12, someone thrust a book in their hands and said, 'Hey, read this, you might like it.'

"Books are like cigarettes -- if you can get hooked early, you are hooked for life. Wait, and you may read, but you won't have the habit. The most important thing anyone can do for the future of SF&F is give a book to a preteen. If everyone in our community bought and donated one book to one kid outside their own family, we'd see the effect."

But is the absence of younger speculative fiction readers (specifically science fiction) the only problem? Or do we have deeper roots rotting just beneath the soil?

Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Award winner Robert J. Sawyer brought up some very interesting thoughts on this. "What we're talking about is the decline of the commercial publishing category known as science fiction, and the fault for that, by and large, lies with the publishers and the authors," he said. "SF has become increasingly self-referential, smug, and inaccessible to newcomers. Without bringing new readers in, and keeping them, the field is being whittled away by natural attrition of its established readership base -- the trend is a straight line, down into the toilet, and it's going to be very, very hard to turn it around at this point."

Just as the Mensa Society welcomes only those individuals with the highest I.Q.'s into their ranks, the science fiction industry has been known to thumb its nose at readers regarded as intellectually inferior. This is not, however, the case with science fiction movies, video games, or television programs -- the electronic-media side of the genre welcomes anyone open to adventure, intrigue, and the fantastic.

"There will probably always be SF/F/H magazines and genre-identified books, but they might well become an elitist thing, the way letterpress books and the Folio Society are elitist," said author, editor, and Theodore Sturgeon Award winner Kij Johnson. "A lot of the energy that fueled the smaller houses and magazines may well rechannel into the Internet, where print-and-bind costs are zero. But SF/F/H are nevertheless going to continue to thrive."

Speculative fiction may indeed survive, but at what cost? Will the evolution of these genres place literature on the endangered species list? Will movies, video games, and television programs become the main arteries for the speculative fiction industry?

Will e-books take the place of traditional books? Publishers reported eBook revenues went up 23 percent between 2004 and 2005, but the total number of units actually sold (1,692,964) did not increase. Not to mention there were only 5,242 eBooks published during this time, according to the 2005 Industry Reports from the International Digital Publishing Forum.

I don't have the answers to these questions, nor do I have an end-all solution to the problem. I do, however, know a neighborhood boy, just down the street, who will soon receive a new science fiction book.

It won't be Childhood's End, but I'm hoping it will be just as visual for him -- and just as life-changing.

- END -

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