No, the Kids Aren’t Reading the Classics and Why Would They
Writer Jason Sanford kicked a small hornet’s nest earlier today when he discussed “the fossilization of science fiction,” as he called it, and noted that today’s kids who are getting into science fiction are doing it without “Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Tolkien.” This is apparently causing a moderate bit of angina in some quarters.
I think Sanford is almost entirely correct (the small quibble being that I suspect Tolkien is still common currency, thanks to recent films and video games), nor does this personally come as any particular shock. I wrote last year about the fact my daughter was notably resistant to Heinlein’s charms, not to mention the charms of other writers who I enjoyed when I was her age… thirty years ago. She has her own set of writers she loves and follows, as she should. As do all the kids her age who read.
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this. As a practical matter, classic science fiction isn’t selling where today’s kids are buying (or where they are being bought for), namely, in the YA section of the book store. See for yourself: Walk into your local bookstore, head to the YA racks and try to find a science fiction or fantasy-themed book that more than fifteen years old. It’ll be a rough assignment. YA has a high audience turnover rate — kids keep aging out of the demo, don’t you know — and the new kids want their own books. The older books you’ll see tend to be a) ones assigned by schools, b) ones that had movies made from them.
Mind you, generally speaking, book stores stock newer books anyway; book stores, like other entertainment venues, rely on novelty (which in our line of work is called “front list”) to get people through the doors. If you’re doing well as an author, some of your backlist is on the shelf, too. But the shelf in a physical bookstore is only so long. These days, being someone who has been in a lot of bookstores recently, I note the shelf in science fiction and fantasy is mostly skewed to living, working authors, most notably their last couple of books. Some classic (i.e., now dead) authors are there but usually represented by two or three books rather than an extensive backlist.
Which is as it should be. All love to Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, et al., but they’re dead now. They don’t need the money from readers; living authors do. Moreover, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, et al have been dead on average two to three decades and their best known work is half a century old. No matter how brilliant they were or how foundational they were to the genre, they’re going to be dated. None of the futures of Heinlein , as just one example, resemble a future that begins from today; they branch off from the 50s or 60s. Readers (in general) don’t want to have to go backwards a half century in order to move forward again.
Certainly you can’t expect new readers to the genre, including young readers, to backshift several decades — or, well, you can, but it would have the same effect as suggesting to a teenager today that if they want to see a movie about people their age, they should watch The Blackboard Jungle. Sure, it’s fine movie, and an important one. It’s just not especially relevant to the teenager of today. It wasn’t made for them, in any event. It was made for their grandparents.
Again, I’m not sure why it comes as a surprise to anyone that people might want entertainment aimed at them, which includes entertainment written by living people with a sense of what’s going on in contemporary culture. Most people aren’t approaching the genre as a survey course. They’re approaching it to be amused. And if they are approaching is as a survey course, then the good news is that it’s not actually that hard to find many if not most of the classics. There is infinite shelf space online, and you don’t have to sell that many copies of an ebook to remain in print. It’s there if you want it.
But — again — it’s okay if you don’t. I don’t expect new readers of the genre today to read much Heinlein or Clarke or Asimov. 60 years from now, and presuming I’m dead, I don’t expect them to read much of me, or Al Reynolds or Ann Leckie, either (to name just two other contemporary SF writers). They’ll be reading their authors, mostly. I hope they’ll enjoy them.