Reading the Field

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend who is a developing writer who plans to write science fiction. We started talking about who they had read, and it emerged that they haven’t read the field recently. They’re a fan of the golden age and pulp-age works and some New Wave.

“It helps if you read the field,” I said.

“Really? Why?” they said.

I’ll admit, that stopped me in my tracks.

Why read the field? Why read what’s being published now in a genre you enjoy and want to share in? My knee-jerk response would have been, “Well, why wouldn’t you?” That really isn’t responsive, though. There are reasons to read the genre in which you plan to write, and reasons to read current of at least more recent works.

Award-winning books in the field tell you what fans, or fellow-writers, think is noteworthy, well done, original and/or entertaining. Like any award in the entertainment fields, the Hugos, the Nebulas and the Dragon Awards are all subjective. If you wanted to argue that they are susceptible to cronyism, political manipulation and groupthink, I wouldn’t disagree. At the most crass and materialistic level, though, it helps to keep an eye on what’s popular, and what the popular writers are doing for marketing purposes.

Staying with the crass and materialistic for a moment, “comps” are one thing agents use to decide if they want to represent a work or a writer. If you haven’t read The Fifth Season, The Calculating Stars, or Record of a Spaceborn Few, you’re going to have trouble comparing your work to those. And if you say, “My work springboards off of Robert E. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers,” you may have a hard sell on your hands unless you’re talking to Baen.

Reading the current field can save you from those embarrassing blunders, where you think you’ve come up with a story that is, like, totally, breath-takingly original– Hah, she’s an AI! Betcha didn’t see that coming! –only to have every submission whirl back to you like a boomerang because this is a story that editors have seen forty-seven million times.

As much as speculative fiction plays with the future (or alternate histories) it, like all fiction, exists in dialogue with current social issues. I’d argue social, scientific and technical issues. A modern-day writer in the USA isn’t going to make the mistake, for instance, of writing a story set in the future in which an inventor creates an elaborate device that allows you to contact anyone in the world, download information instantly, get directions and even watch movies and TV on a handheld device. That’s a cellphone; almost everyone you know has one now.

What you might do, however, is come up with a clever idea where people engage in more and more outrageous and dangerous behavior to drive up their approval ratings on some sort of social media platform. Maybe people with high approval/recognition scores even get perks from corporations, stores and name brands because of their recognition. You might this this is fresh and new. If you had read the field, you’d know that it isn’t.

If you’re not reading the current field, you may think your story about migration caused by a warming planet and rising oceans is innovative. It isn’t. It would really help you out if you’ve read recent works that dealt with global warming, so that your story takes an approach that is  new, speaks to you personally, and hasn’t been done and overdone.

Another reason to read the field? Inspiration. The arts exist in dialogue and community with other art forms, and with forms within their field. Reading a tough, thought-provoking series like N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth may spark a thought, a completely random one, that’s going to lead to a breakthrough for you. The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal’s inspiring alternate history book might make you wonder what life on earth would be like, if an asteroid did the kind of damage she imagines. Her books deal with going into space; there’s plenty of room to play with the changes people make to survive and thrive. If science article or tech articles can inspire, why not the literature of the field?

If you have thoughts about why you should read your field, I’d love to see them in the comments. If you believe being current is unnecessary, I’d like to see your thoughts about that too.

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2 Responses to Reading the Field

  1. Terry Connelly says:

    I agree. It’s important to read your genre so that you know what contemporary readers expect in a story. For example, in YA, you need to write what a teenager wants to read, not what you read as a teen.

  2. Marion says:

    I think the YA thing is an excellent point. The stories we might have loved in the 1960s or 70s are dated now, and while young people are dealing with many of the same issues (identity, responsibility and autonomy) the world around them looks very different from how it did when I was a teen.

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