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Matthew Cheney interview

Matthew Cheney is a writer, teacher, critic and prolific SFF blogger (The Mumpsimus)

Q: In your opinion, what are the most significant events in the world of
speculative fiction publishing over the last decade, and what would
they imply for the future?

A: Most of the things that affect the SF publishing world are parts of the
publishing world in general — the conglomeration of major publishers
into only two or three giant corporations, the rise of online
booksellers for new and used books, the proliferation of new media for
accessing writing (ebooks, blogs, etc.).

In some ways, the rise of what gets called “New Weird” writing —
writing that mixes various genres, that has at least some sense of
literary style, etc. — has been important in helping to broaden what SF
is generally available to readers — the success of China Mieville’s
work has opened up avenues for other writers whose work would, before
that, probably have been relegated to the small presses. That Jeff
VanderMeer’s books are all being reprinted by major publishers across
the world is an example of that.

Q: One fallout of the spec-fic world becoming so vast, vibrant and
self-sustaining is this; the rest of the world is more left out than
ever.Writers working in SF and fantasy from India, say, find it even
harder to get their work read, because the SFF publishing market is
hugely different from the mainstream literary one, with a wholly
separate set of publishers and agents – which means that if there’s
any glamour left to the whole ‘Indian writing’ phenomenon, with India
being the theme for major lit fairs like the Frankfurt Book Fair and
the London Book Fair, it doesn’t apply in these markets. Besides, most
SFF writers currently breaking through abroad go through the short
stories in magazines/meeting people at conferences routine before they
managed to get signed up. Exactly how important are conferences in the
world of spec-fic? Given that Indians don’t have access to conferences
abroad, do you think that these inequalities are just things that
Indian SFF writers looking to get published internationally will just
have to take in their stride, or is there anything that they can do to
help their work get seen?

A: All of this depends on how you define SF publishing. It’s not
monolithic, and while yes there are specialty publishers and imprints,
there’s plenty of overlap. What there may be less of is an overlap in
readers — the demographic that reads Indian mainstream lit in the U.S.
is quite different from the demographic reading core science fiction.
I’m not particularly optimistic about the future of core science fiction
reading and publishing; it seems to me that most such science fiction is
nostalgic, conservative, and becoming a hardened genre rather than a
fluid idiom, which is what it was up until about the time of the
cyberpunks, who may have been such science fiction’s last gasp. Such
science fiction functions much like western novels — it continues to
have an audience, but is seldom more than a reshuffling of familiar
materials. When the materials are new, they make the work into
something other, and this other has more and more luck getting published
as mainstream fiction now than it does as genre fiction, where the
audiences are often less adventurous: they know what they want, and they
expect to get it, and it better be exactly like it was last time, or
they don’t like it. (Of course, I’m generalizing wildly, but I think
it’s important to counter some of the narrative you’re creating.)

As for conventions, they’re not nearly as important as they used to be.
They’re fun sometimes, they’re more than a bit ridiculous, and they’re
pretty much just a chance for people with somewhat similar interests to
hang out and drink a lot. Oh, and give each other awards. We like to
give a lot of awards, because it makes us feel good, and gives us
something else to argue about. Conventions are useful for networking if
you already know some people, but they’re not very useful if you don’t
have some sort of “in”. I didn’t go to my first convention until I
already knew a bunch of writers.

The internet is probably the most useful tool for the aspiring writer,
if used well. It’s hardly a meritocracy, but it’s better than previous
avenues. More and more magazines accept electronic submissions,
particularly from writers from countries other than the one the magazine
is based in. Much information about editors and agents, what they do
and how to approach them, is available via the internet. More and more
readers find people with similar interests via message boards and
weblogs. Etc. SF is still very much U.S.-centered, but that center is
beginning to disperse more than it has in the past.

Q: In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the New Weird, about
speculative fiction writers blurring genre borders. Given that India
doesn’t have a history of SFF publishing, or a growth curve through
magazines and anthologies as seen in more developed spec-fic markets,
do you think that the way ahead for South Asian SFF lies in blending
speculative fiction with literary traditions that are more associated
with South Asian writing? Is there any particular tradition of South
Asian writing/aspect of South Asian culture/myth/history that you’d
like to see married to speculative fiction?

A: In terms of what will grow well in a country, it depends on what the
writers want to write and readers want to read. I think we’re already
seeing some exhaustion in the SF field with the typical props and models
of writing, and so U.S. and British writers are looking elsewhere for
ideas. Also, we live in a world where it’s much easier to encounter
people from outside our own countries, and to gain information about
places other than our own, and many readers hunger for it. Some of it
may just be the attraction of exoticism, but I think the success of
books like Tobias Buckell’s “Crystal Rain”, which mixes a variety of
influences in a traditional SF adventure story, or Ian MacDonald’s
“River of Gods”, which is more specifically Indian, bodes well for the
future, because such books show writers trying to bring an honest
sensibility about non-Western or post-colonial cultures into their work,
and to do so in as honest a way as possible.

Q: While acknowledging that spec-fic isn’t monolithic and there are a
hundred different directions it’s growing in at any time, what do you
feel are the most exciting fields of work in contemporary science
fiction and fantasy? What area would you like to see more work in? And
what do you think new writers should avoid?

A: I’d like to see more new work that is surprising. I don’t have any
interest in reading books that are just like all the other books I’ve
read. New writers often want to be just like the writers who first
captured their imaginations, and so they write imitations, which is a
good way to learn some skills, but it’s not what we should be paying
much attention to as readers and editors and critics. We’ve got Charles
Stross already, we don’t not a bunch of mini-Strosses. We’ve got China
Mieville already, we don’t need more. These are interesting writers
because they’re not just like everybody else, but the danger of their
success is that suddenly 100 people start trying to write just like
them, and that’s a dead end. Even Stross and Mieville shouldn’t try to
write like themselves. (Self-imitation is a danger of success — just
look at what happened to the quality of Isaac Asimov’s work when in the
1980s he tried to imitate his old successes.) New writers should strive
for an original vision, for material that they can make theirs, and they
should do so with passion and vigor, writing the truth of the world as
they see it, striving all the while to be not merely entertaining (we’ve
got plenty of things to entertain us) but also something more — and
there are a thousand somethings more to strive toward.

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries’ myths/folklore in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace?

A: Not necessarily. Sure, in the publishing world there’s an expectation
for marketing reasons that someone who fits into some sort of national,
ethnic, racial, sexual, etc. category will write work that fits into
some general stereotype of what such a person should write, but I don’t
think writers should concern themselves about that. Writers who try to
write for a market will probably write hollow, lifeless, imitative
stories. Writers need to write about what most concerns them, what
excites and infuriates them, what they can’t not write. If they do
that, eventually they’ll find an audience of some sort. If a writer
just wants to make a lot of money and reach a wide audience, they
shouldn’t write books and short stories, they should get into movies and TV.

Q: Do you think there’s any evidence of interest in Western markets for
speculative fiction from countries as alien to readers as other
planets?

A: Evidence? Sure — look at the success of everything from Bruce
Sterling’s “Islands in the Net” to Geoff Ryman’s “Air”. That most such
books have been written by Americans and Brits so far is unfortunate,
but I expect it will change soon. Maybe I’m just an optimist.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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