Culture and Relatability Are Why People Don’t Read Classic SF, Not Age
SF author John Scalzi published a post on Sunday where discusses why young readers of SF, including his daughter, just aren’t getting into the decades-old SF that he loved when he was a boy:
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this. As a practical matter, classic science fiction isn’t selling where today’s kids are buying (or where they are being bought for), namely, in the YA section of the book store. See for yourself: Walk into your local bookstore, head to the YA racks and try to find a science fiction or fantasy-themed book that more than fifteen years old. …
Mind you, generally speaking, book stores stock newer books anyway; book stores, like other entertainment venues, rely on novelty (which in our line of work is called “front list”) to get people through the doors. If you’re doing well as an author, some of your backlist is on the shelf, too. But the shelf in a physical bookstore is only so long. These days, being someone who has been in a lot of bookstores recently, I note the shelf in science fiction and fantasy is mostly skewed to living, working authors, most notably their last couple of books. Some classic (i.e., now dead) authors are there but usually represented by two or three books rather than an extensive backlist.
While all the points he made are correct, I don’t think he gets at the root cause of the shift in reading tastes.
I have trouble accepting the point that commercial availability driving demand because when I was growing up (in the 1990s) I frequented used book stores just to get those older books. I also combed through the library stacks for those three-, four-, and five-decade-old books because I liked the authors and wanted to read them. (In fact, there were a few early Heinleins that I didn’t find for the first time until the early aughts, and I still read them when I found them.)
To name one example, Scalzi links to an older post where he talks about his daughter trying and losing interest in Heinlein’s Starman Jones. I’m familiar with the book, and I still like it even though it’s dated, but I bet I can also tell you why his daughter did not like it.
She couldn’t relate to the characters, or the culture, in the book.
The lead character in Starman Jones is a white male teen from a rural farm, and both of the female characters (that I can recall ) were shallow caricatures.
The female characters weren’t real people, not like what we would expect today. (This brings to mind the complaints concerning Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers movie.) And so Scalzi’s daughter just couldn’t bring herself to finish a book recommended by her father.
And she’s not the only one to feel this way.
When I first read Scalzi’s post this morning I was reminded of a post I read about 5 months back where one reader described her teen years and why she burned out on classic SF:
It’s like this…
You’re fourteen and you’re reading Larry Niven’s “The Protector” because it’s your father’s favorite book and you like your father and you think he has good taste and the creature on the cover of the book looks interesting and you want to know what it’s about. And in it the female character does something better than the male character – because she’s been doing it her whole life and he’s only just learned – and he gets mad that she’s better at it than him. And you don’t understand why he would be mad about that, because, logically, she’d be better at it than him. She’s done it more. And he’s got a picture of a woman painted on the inside of his spacesuit, like a pinup girl, and it bothers you.
But you’re fourteen and you don’t know how to put this into words.
And then you’re eighteen and you’ve given up on classic sci-fi, but that doesn’t stop your brother or your father from trying to get you to read more.
Even when you bring them the books and bring them the passages and show them how the authors didn’t treat women like people.
Your brother says, “Well, that was because of the time it was written in.”
You get all worked up because these men couldn’t imagine a world in which women were equal, in which women were empowered and intelligent and literate and capable.
While the above quote is a very specific example of what drives people away from older books, I still feel it falls closer to the truth than Scalzi’s explanation.
Readers want to able to put themselves in a book, and they want to relate to the characters (hence why we need diverse books).
And if they can’t relate to the books, they’re just not going to read them.
image via Portland Mercury