Full-time advertising professionals assure us that an advertising campaign along the lines of, “This is a new Walter Jon Williams work, wholly original and unlike any previous Walter Jon Williams work” is doomed to failure. According to these highly-qualified professionals, people only respond to things that look like other things that they already like. That’s why, whenever I write a book like Days of Atonement, which was the world’s first (and, so far as I know, only) Gothic Western science fiction police procedural, a book which I fondly assumed might appeal to readers outside the normal SF audience, the publisher made sure to put Death Rays on the cover, to assure genre readers that this was a thing that looked like other things that they already liked, and to make sure that all potential new readers were discouraged from so much as glancing at the book.
Oh man, do I feel for you. I used to be a big SF reader. Then I made the mistake of reading outside the genre. Nothing like better writing to turn you away from a childhood love. (This is not to be construed as a slap at Williams’ work, which I have never read.) Now whenever I look at the SF racks — in stores or at the NYPL — I can’t even bring myself to touch a book because of the very thing Williams highlights: Those idiotic covers. There might be some very fine writing underneath those hideous dressings but I’m immediately dissuaded from even sampling the lead paragraph. Even the back cover blurb. (I don’t know why, but several years ago I got past the truly awful cover of K.A. Bedford‘s first novel — Orbital Burn — and was delighted it was so damned good. I guess his book had some special juju sprinkled on it.)
Barry Malzberg used to complain about being stuck in the genre. His was never what was considered mainstream genre writing. But he used to make these complaints during his heyday in the 1960s and especially 1970s. It’s sad to see that the marketing of that genre has not grown up along with the audience it fostered.
How many SF writers are out there writing the kind of serious fiction Malzberg did? Due to those atrocious covers, I’ll probably never know. And if you’re an adult who’s fled your childhood love of SF, you’ll probably never know, either.
Overlay (Barry N. Malzberg tribute site)
Barry (Strange Words)
Barry Malzberg: Dismantling SF (Locus Online)
Breakfast in the Ruins (Simon & Schuster)
Breakfast in the Ruins (Baen Books) (look at the contrast to the S&S link!)
Breakfast in the Ruins sample chapters (Baen Books) (God Bless Baen Books)