My buddy Gabe and I, when we first met almost two decades ago, we knew — man, we knew our stuff was better (or was going to be better) than just about anything out there. It was the haughty arrogance of youth and ego, plus the fact that we just hadn’t read nearly as much of what was out there as we have now.
Consider, too, the impressions we’d formed in our teen years of what was most prevalent in the various popular-media streams: the (much smaller) fantasy book aisle was dominated by Terry Brooks and many lesser Tolkien imitators churning out derivative high-fantasy formula. Comics were still stuck in stunted-development adolescence, just on the cusp of the revolution when writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman would kick that medium in its juvenile ass. Films were mostly sci-fi knockoffs of Star Wars or B-grade fantasy with special-effects budgets so meager they wouldn’t fund a single episode of a typical SyFy TV show. And television animated fantasy didn’t aspire much beyond Hanna-Barbera cartoons and He-Man.
In short, based on that narrow and selective assessment, any cocksure young tale-weaver could survey that crop and think, “I can do better than that.” But we weren’t the only Gen Xers who nursed such thoughts. Many others could also do better, and they have.
With our generation, speculative fiction has entered into what seems a golden age, borne out in all those mediums — books, comics, film, television (and add another medium that was just emerging from its nascent stages when we entered the fray: video games). Individuals with tastes and perceptions kindred to our own are drawing on the best of the past like never before, fusing with modern sensibilities what they mine from those rich veins to create some of the finest work the genre has ever seen.
And they’ve infiltrated all levels of the creative business. When I watch old He-Man and She-Ra reruns with my kids, I get the impression that those writers were just lazily phoning it in for a paycheck and couldn’t give a damn about the words they were putting to paper or the stories they were slapping together. Contrast that with the short-lived He-Man relaunch (2002-2004). It wasn’t a stand-out show by any means, but it was heads above virtually anything that cynically aired in the early ‘80s to sell us toys from Mattel and Kenner and Hasbro. Yeah, that particular corner of the market still exists to sell toys — to our kids and grandkids now — but the people who are creating the product were kids like Gabe and me, who thought, “Man, if I could have a job writing that show, I would make it so cool.” And they do have those jobs, and they are.
So where does that leave us, web-weavers in a surfeit of webs?
And I do mean a surfeit. I am persuaded that the following is a true statement, at least for myself and for most of you reading this (and thank you for reading it by the way — you do have a lot of options out there): Even if one limits this observation just to the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, there will still be more novels, comics, films, and television episodes produced this year alone that are good — cool, innovative, entertaining, and sometimes downright bad-ass — than you would be able to consume if you spent the next decade at it.
Let me illustrate: a quick check of the Wikipedia entry “Books published per country per year” reveals that in 2011, the U.S. alone produced 292,014 new titles and editions. What percentage of those fall into the speculative fiction categories? I have no idea, but for the sake of argument let’s say 10 percent. And let’s say that 1 percent of those would be books you could have read without feeling like you’d wasted your time. That’s, let’s see… 292 books. One year alone, and two more years have now passed, so from 2011 on that number’s already tripled. Better get crackin’.
Or don’t. Just read the books that seem to come your way, whether their covers beckon to you from the shelf at Barnes & Noble and the webpages of Black Gate or they arrive highly recommended from a trusted friend. Catch what you can; don’t sweat all the great stuff you’ll never get to. (Please, trust me, or it’ll drive you insane.)
But to flip it back to the production side of this puzzle: why would I want to toss another strand out onto that crisscrossing pandemonium of webs — one more filament nearly invisible against hundreds of thousands, some thick as rope or steel chain beside my meager line of lies?
Any trueborn storyteller knows the simple answer to that: because you must. It’s in your DNA, like the spider’s drive to spin webs. Not just to catch food: a spider can be provided with food so that it never again has to trap prey, but it still has to spin or else, I don’t know, all that webbing would clog up its butt or something. (And can you see why I’m a writer, folks? — look at that magnificent analogy. Or don’t. It’s kind of revolting.)
But the logical ancillary question still lingers: who are we writing for? Really, is it for all those people who are never going to get through even a fraction of the great stuff out there? I’m sure they appreciate it, truly (although I can’t help but picture them as the guest at the potluck who is stuffed, and someone else is begging them to try just a bite of the dish she brought). You’re waving your latest book or short story around and they’re throwing up their hands saying, “Really, it’s not necessary. It looks lovely, but I already have a stack on my nightstand that’s threatening to topple over.”
For Gabe and me, it’s a question that’s come up in our conversations more often lately, as we enter middle age and naturally re-assess why we’re still playing at this. Gabe once noted that the imaginary audience he had in mind when he sat down to write was simply Fred (Durbin) and me, friends who comprise our informal writers’ group the Inkjetlings. “I wonder what Fred and Nick will think of this?” When his girlfriend came along, she expanded the audience to a triad. Recently, he told me that he wants to write for his progeny. “Maybe my grandkids will one day wonder what Grandpa Dybing thought, how he saw the world, what stories he dreamed up.”
That’s not a bad call. Dreams of fame and fortune can be fun (like occasionally daydreaming about what you’d spend the money on if you won the lottery), but humor them too much and you’re probably setting yourself up for some major disappointment.
Look, you can come up with a brilliant new series with a cool setting, great characters, and some innovative concept or original twist — you can have all of that, and you’ve got what many others out there have got too. Maybe for every hundred such worthwhile projects, one will catch on — get picked up, enter the Zeitgeist, “go viral,” or however you want to describe it. If yours is one of the other 99, I think the best one can hope for is that you glean real pleasure from the act of imagining and creating it, and that you find a few like-minded people who will also enjoy it. The best-case scenario is likely that you develop a small “cult” following that will appreciate what you have wrought and loyally follow its arc. If that would make you happy, then by all means proceed. It keeps me going.
Because being the next hot thing? Even if you have all the right elements combined into a winning formula that could be the next hot thing, all this does not guarantee it will be. There is then the additional catalyst of luck, which can look a lot like totally random, capricious happenstance. Your project may be brilliant — it’s still one among hundreds of other projects that are equally brilliant. Predicting which will be invited to the big-time is about as reasonable as predicting where lightning will strike, or which combination of numbers will win this week’s Powerball. It does happen, but it is almost entirely beyond your control.
So that leaves you with what is in your control, with what you can pull off just on your own perseverance and pluck. If you have some competence as a writer, some skill as a world-builder, some talent as a storyteller; if you put your heart and mind into creating something exciting and worthwhile; and if you stick to it, then it is entirely probable that you will find and build up a small audience that will welcome and appreciate what you have done. Especially if you reach them young — if your story happens to be one of their early gateways into the realms of the fantastic — your work can take on special importance to a few people.
If you knew in advance that this is all it would ever amount to, would you still put all the time and effort into it? I think I would. That would be enough. I’d love the prestigious awards and packed rooms at conventions, but I’ll still take it if it’s just one or two people coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I really enjoyed that tale you spun.”
The photo of the overflowing book aisle at the top of the post is Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore in Minneapolis. I was up there this past winter, but neglected to get any good pics. This one was taken by Amy C. Rea; her full review of the bookstore can be found here.