Elizabeth Bear had an interesting post recently (heck, she ALWAYS has interesting posts, but this one was relevant to what I talk about here) wherein she posits that each generation of SF short fiction writers only reads within its own generational short fiction boundary. Or in more succinct, Bear fashion: “We don’t read them. And they don’t read us.”
I’m sure there are exceptions. I’m sure there are writers of short fiction who belong to one generation that read fiction written by people of another generation, but I think in essence bear has hit upon something here. Again, in her succinct fashion, “I wonder when the last time was that Bob Silverberg read a story by Benjamin Rosenbaum, David Moles, or Yoon Ha Lee?”
I agree with her sentiment because I’ve had the experience of when I see/hear Gen X writers talk about other writers, they tend to refer to people from within their generation, and vice versa for the older generations. Now, I think a lot of this comes from the fact that writers talk about their peers. And not that Elizabeth Bear and Robert Silverberg aren’t peers in the sense that they are both talented science fiction and fantasy authors. But it’s more that they aren’t peers in the sense of when their careers started and where they are in their career. Silverberg’s published something like 5,000 books* and Bear has published slightly fewer**.
I think when you’re on the outside, i.e., not a writing professional, you read what you read. You read everything. You read read read. But once you cross that line into becoming a professional, you start to make friends and relationships and connections with other professional. It’s no different than how you make friends and connections anywhere. You gravitate towards people similar to you. A new writer isn’t necessarily going to approach Silverberg and become best friends. But a new writer will approach another new writer. And as careers burgeon, and you read what your friend is writing, you want to talk about it to other people so that the public supports your friend, your friend can keep writing, and you can continue to see them at conventions, etc.
Obviously new writers garner their interest in writing by reading already established authors. Somewhere along the line this slows down and in some cases stops. We all get busier as we get older, and as you’re filling up your days with writing (or your spare time outside your day job writing) and you have less time for reading. You become choosier with what you read, and the choice you make will often be generational peers for the reason laid out above. This is no less true for older generations.
Now why does it matter if writers aren’t reading each other across generations?
Younger generations are missing out on seeing how established writers continue to hone their craft. If we take Silverberg as an example, what makes his writing fresh to keep selling new material? What keeps him writing? If you’re very lucky as a writer, you will have a career as long as Robert Silverberg’s. In my opinion, part of learning how he’s accomplished this feat (other than talent) is to read what he writes and to learn from what he’s done and is still doing. In some respects, a younger writer reading older writers is akin to an apprenticeship.
As for the older generations, there’s something to be said for seeing where the future of a career is going. Are there things getting published today that could inspire an established writer to try something new? Look at the impact that Moorcock’s tenure with New Worlds or Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies had.
It’s a dangerous thing to limit who you read when you’re a writing professional. Unless you know what’s being done, there’s no way you can do something that ISN’T being done. This is called environmental scanning, which is vital to being successful in your field. You see what everyone else in your profession is already doing. You can learn whether what you’re doing is similar to others in the field that are already successful. You can also learn what people like from what’s being done. But, more importantly, if you do your scan correctly, you can see what’s lacking from your environment. And if you can define what’s lacking, you can fill it.
But you can only do that by being thorough. So this is my assignment to all the writers out there: find a writer from a different generation than your own and read a short story from them. Report back in one week, tell me what you’ve learned. I’ll make it easier for eveyone, in my Weekend Getaway later today, I’ll give you a link to a story from each generation.
* Silverberg has published almost 300 novels and almost 600 pieces of short fiction. While not 5,000, it’s still impressive.
** Bear has published about 15 novels (with more in the works) and almost 50 pieces of short fiction and poetry. Please note, my counts were done very quickly, so the actual numbers may be a little off. Not 5,000 books either, but heck, not bad for a handful of years, eh?
[photo from Flickr user Joi, CC licensed for commercial use]