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Bewildering Stories

Is Sci-Fi the New Pariah?

by Graham Storrs

I’ve spent many hours now trawling through listings of literary agents, trying to find ones that are sci-fi friendly, and there are very, very few of them. In fact, agents who say they handle sci-fi are outnumbered at least ten-to-one (maybe twenty-to-one) by the ones who go out of their way to say ‘No science fiction.’

Now, I know that sci-fi isn’t the most popular genre on the block — fantasy out-sells it by ten-to-one, and crime and ‘general’ fiction are 30 and 40 times more popular, respectively, than sci-fi, and, let’s face it, fiction as a whole is less than a third of the total book market — but must sci-fi writers really be treated like pariahs? Must we be singled out and shunned by agents as if we were poets for heaven’s sake?

I can only think of a single reason. My guess would be that, although sci-fi books in print represent less than a third of one percent of the books published each year, sci-fi writers represent a large proportion of all writers submitting manuscripts to agents. If only a third of one percent of the MSS they received were sci-fi, agents wouldn’t need to mention it. So agents are trying to maximise their chance of finding a publishable book per thousand metres of slush by excluding all the ‘noise’ sci-fi (and poetry) introduces.

The worst offenders in the ‘No peddlers, hawkers and sci-fi writers’ stakes are the agencies who say they handle ‘literary fiction’ or ‘quality fiction’. I suppose they’re willing to miss out on the chance of a Bradbury, a Vonnegut, or a Ballard in order not to have to wade through all the space operas and steampunk epics.

Well, there’s no harm in asking, I suppose; so, would all the other sci-fi writers out there just stop writing for a few years, please? Then the agents won’t need to hold back the floodwaters with such paranoiac fervour and I might actually get one of them to take on my books.

Copyright © Friday 6 February 2009 by Graham Storrs

[Editor’s note] Concerning literary agents, Gabriel Timar has some pertinent and occasionally acerbic words to say about them in his letter on Publishers and Literary Agents, in issue 275.

Meanwhile, if you have writings in science fiction or science fact languishing on your hard drive, please send them to us; we’ll be glad to consider them.


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