The Barrow

7/14/10

Robert Silverberg on “Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?”

Star Of GypsiesScience Fiction Grandmaster Robert Silverberg (whose Star of Gypsies and Son of Man we reprinted), at the Black Gate blog:

"Now we are back to the same situation that obtained in the golden era of the Fifties — s-f is mainly a field for hobbyist writers, with just a few able to earn a living writing just the real stuff and nothing but. (It is different, of course, for those who write pseudo-Tolkien trilogies, vampire novels, zombie books, and other sorts of highly commercial fantasy.) For a while, in the late 70s and early 80s, the money flowed freely and all sorts of people set up in business as s-f writers full time. I remember Greg Bear, president of SFWA somewhere back in the mid-80s, warning the writers at the SFWA business session not to quit their day jobs, because the good times were just about over; and was he ever right!"

11 comments:

Clay Griffith said...

I think he's being a bit alarmist, not because he's wrong that there are few full-time novelists, but because his premise is mistaken. I think full-time writers have always been the minority of writers working in any genre or field. Most of us have had "day" jobs of some kind (or a spouse with a job) to pay the bills. Always have. Always will.

mishellbaker said...

What does he mean by "the real stuff"? What exactly is less real about the other stuff?

And now "only highly commercial" stuff sells, as opposed to some time in the past when non-commercial stuff sold? Doesn't commercial mean "stuff that sells"?

I would posit that all that's changed is that some of the stuff that used to be "highly commercial" is now less commercial than once it was. People's tastes change from decade to decade in fiction as they do in everything else. If Apple were still making the same products that were highly commercial in the 80s, they'd be hurting pretty badly right now too.

Am I missing something, or is this refrain just another way of saying "what sold a lot in my day was cool; what sells a lot today is junk?"

Christian Berntsen said...

Robert J. Sawyer recently posited something similar--which John Scalzi answered rather nicely, mirroring Clay's comment above. What is it with the Roberts and their doomsday for writers predictions?

Gone are the days where I and friends of mine expect to be full time writers. Not that it isn't something to strive for, but it's also not something to be delusional about. And it's also not something to worry too much on, either. You won't be any more or less capable if you have a Day Job, you just need better time management skills and an understanding spouse/partner in life.

Mark Chadbourn said...

As I mentioned on your own blog, Lou, I find this bizarre, especially the distinction between SF and "highly commercial fantasy", which seems to suggest that nobody's interested in SF.

No genre is inherently uncommercial. It all comes down to an ability to communicate with a wide audience.

Lou Anders said...

Clay - taken in context with the rest of his article, I think he IS saying that full-time novelists were always the minority in SF, except for a very brief period, and that if it is that way again, it is nothing new.

Mishel- I concur. In my book, "commercial" translates into "what people want to read."

Clay Griffith said...

Hmm. Ok. I didn't have time to read the whole thing because I'm at work.

Nick Burnette said...

How can scifi be considered less commercial when it dominates onscreen and in games?

My opinion is scifi lost its identity in books, and readers are choosing what they are familiar with, like someone in a restaurant who never orders that menu item they never heard about and chooses the swiss burger again and again.

That may have little to do with an author's viability at being a full time author, except perhaps if the scifi genre returned to a position of power on the bookshelves, then those scifi authors wouldn't always have to order the swiss burger to get their money's worth.

Mark Chadbourn said...

Having said that, Charlie Stross is a full-time author. So is Al Reynolds who just signed a £1m ($1.6m) 10-year deal. I'm sure there are several more.

David Alastair Hayden said...

I agree with Nick and Mishel. They've already said pretty much all I have to say.

Sean Sakamoto said...

I have a few friends in publishing in New York. Magazine writers, fiction writers, non-fiction writers...they all say that these are hard times as a writer. We are in the midst of a huge shakeup and a lot of good writers are losing a way to make a living, that much is undeniable.

But, when hugely successful writers who've been at it for a while tell me the good times are over, it reminds me of that year I took backpacking around the world. Could you believe it? Every single beach from Zipolite in Mexico to Dahab in Egypt was "better last year. You should have been here then."

I live in New York's East village in the 90s, but we all know the action was there in the 70s and 80s, ad infinitum.

I have no doubt that things were better for some writers for some kinds of things...

I enjoy googling phrase "forgotten writers" now and then because I always learn about authors who were hugely popular and are now completely obscure. It seems like success is a coincidence between what someone, somewhere can do, and what a bunch of people suddenly want. I'm just stating the obvious, I know...but the internet is so full of "doomer porn" from Peak Oil to Peak SF.

My advice, find a way to make a living, keep reading what you love, keep writing what you love. Anyone who gets into SF for the chicks and the money has bigger problems than whether or not the glory days are behind us.

Clay Griffith said...

Nicely said, Sean. Reminds me of the great line from Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City, "You shoulda seen the Atlantic Ocean in the old days."