Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Truth About Kids and Classics

This topic has been kicked around quite a bit the past while here, starting with Jason Sandford’s tacky remarks about “boring Golden Age” works and continuing on to full fledged posts from guys like John Scalzi and Brad Torgersen.

Then there’s stuff like this post from The Digital Reader laying out the supposed conventional wisdom on the question: “Readers want to able to put themselves in a book, and they want to relate to the characters (hence why we need diverse books). And if they can’t relate to the books, they’re just not going to read them.”

Laura Resnick’s remarks at File770 go further: “Even when it comes to Golden Age writers I really enjoy, like CL Moore, I’d never hand that work to someone in 2015 to encourage their interest in sf/f. It would be like trying to get someone interested in the romance genre by handing them a romane novel from the 1970s. The genre–and society–have moved on since then, and the reader’s reaction to Golden Age sf, much like any 2015 reader’s reaction to romances that had initial print runs of half a million copies in the 1970s, is very likely to be, ‘What is this shit you’ve handed me?’”

It’s difficult to see why these people would strain so hard to make these sorts of points. As Neal Durando put it on Google+ recently, “contemporary culture is sufficiently invasive and bestial that it needs no interpretation, advertisement, or advocacy.”

At the same time, this weird distancing of science fiction authors from the classics really is unusual. It’s kind of creepy, even. They are (directly or through omission) insinuating such outlandish things, it’s hard to believe they’re even serious:

  1. That there has somehow been a revolution in human nature such that hardly anyone can relate to work that is decades old anymore.
  2. That there is no such thing even as a timeless work of literature.
  3. That C. L. Moore’s stories not only fail to hold up, but they are not in fact better that the vast majority of stories published in recent years.

Utterly, complete insanity, of course. This is indicative not just a divorce of fandom with its own canon. This is very nearly a repudiation of civilization itself.

The truth is both surprising and more interesting than the posturing of these ubiquitous know-nothing type remarks. And no, I’m not just talking about how thought leaders once upon a time encouraged people to read the works of previous centuries. No, I mean that many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy are still quite competitive with modern audiences, even against authors that have positively tremendous publicity machines behind them. For instance, Black Gate has recently reported on Isaac Asimov’s crude pulp techniques. But note the old master’s current rankings over at Amazon:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov, ranked 4,345 in Books
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, ranked 6,243 in Books
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, ranked 6,689 in Books
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, ranked 8,560 in Books
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, ranked 8,847 in Books
Red Shirts by John Scalzi, ranked 12,073 in Books
Lock-In by John Scalzi, ranked 46,591 in Books

While I don’t know precisely how these rankings are calculated, I would be surprised to find out that it was because no one was purchasing them anymore. And as it’s been pointed out over at Mad Genius Club recently, it’s not old fogeys that make it worth Barnes & Noble’s while to keep these classic volumes available and on the shelf in just every last one of the monster stores. The old fans already have a battered copy on the shelf. It’s younger people that are picking them up! 

Judging from my own children, there’s really just a few things that kids need to get into the old stuff:

  1. Access, because if the works aren’t in a format that they will actually read, then it’s just not happening. At my house for instance, I’ve been strongly recommending Lord Dunsany for months now. But I know my family won’t read it until an actual paperback copy arrives even if the works are right there on Gutenberg. (My favorite trick is to just leave a book out for my son to randomly pick up, thinking that it is totally his idea…!)
  2. Time — over-scheduled kids are going to do whatever they want with what little free time they get– with good reason! But a great many kids will read on their own if they’re just given the time to pursue it.
  3. Variety, because you don’t know what people are going to connect with. (My son surprised me by reading a couple of hundred pages of Lovecraft stories. He devoured Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles. And I don’t have to twist his arm at all to get him to read Robert E. Howard.)
  4. Finally, it helps to be more or less within the target audience of the works in question. And I hate to break it to you, but a lot of the classic works are pretty well aimed at adolescent boys. That didn’t stop a great many women from getting into them. (Not to mention making awesome contributions to the field.) But other girls will fight them tooth and nail, not just because of the books’ unfashionable depictions of men and women… but because they really would rather read Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children, and Judy Blume. (Ask me how I know this….) It’s hard to accept, but some girls would rather play hopscotch, make mud pies, and watch Disney chick flicks than read about epic fantasy, amazing science, interstellar war, and astounding heroism. I wish life wasn’t really like that, but there it is.

Of course, a whole world of science fiction and fantasy was opened to me when a guy gave me his copies of The Lord of the Rings when I was in the fourth grade. The fact that those books were originally published in the fifties was not at all a barrier to me then. When I came across The Foundation Trilogy as a high school student, it blew me away and immediately became the standard for top tier science fiction for me. It was a friend of mind that turned me on to Starship Troopers. I didn’t quite get why he howled with laughter at that opening chapter, but I was soon drawn in to the story and completely hooked.

We were children of the eighties in every conceivable way. But it wasn’t books of the eighties that we raved about and loaned to each other. It was books of the forties and fifties! It was almost as if, despite the literary aspirations and tough talk of the new wave era, the pulp writers remained unsurpassed even to this day. The classics were the standard everything else was measured by– and if a contemporary author had enough spunk to really grab our attention (John Varley for instance), it was only because he compared well with the old guys.

And it’s funny, but the one Appendix N author that thrilled my son more than any other…? It was Fredric Brown, the guy that is probably the most dated and the least timeless of everyone on the list! My son has no idea what a Linotype machine is. I doubt he’s particularly clear on what exactly Socialism or Buddhism are just yet, either. And yet the story “Etaoin Shrdlu” was so compelling, so engrossing, so terrifying to him… he raved about it and insisted that his sister read it, too. And thus, where I had pretty well failed to get my daughter to really give vintage science fiction and fantasy a chance… and my son did it with one of the authors that got mercilessly panned over at Tor.com.

And I’ll say this about C. L. Moore. She not only wrote the first “time tours” type story ever made. She probably wrote the best one ever as well. (Is it really unthinkable for an author like her to be unsurpassed in her niche?) She wrote a “brain in a vat” type short story that was better than anything that got nominated for a Hugo in recent years. And she might even still hold the title for having written the weirdest story ever told. If you don’t think that you could use C. L. Moore to get people hooked on science fiction and fantasy today, then… you know… maybe it’s because if more people read her, they’d be far less likely to get into the sort of books you are trying to peddle.

The truth about kids is that, for the most part, they are not respecters of persons. They do not care how revered an author is. They do not care what the cool crowd is into. They have no concept of who the “real” fans are. If they have the science fiction and fantasy “gene” and you continually hand them awesome stuff, it doesn’t matter what decade it’s from, they will eat it up. Some things will be hit or miss. Some things will just take time. Other books might have to wait for a particularly dreary rainy day. But you will be surprised at what they embrace and what they turn their noses up to.

Nothing has happened in the past twenty years that suddenly makes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island obsolete. Kids that go watch the productions of A Christmas Carol at the American Shakespeare Theater are not put off by how “dated” the story is. (Dude, it’s timeless.) And every day, new people discover again just how thrilling writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert A. Heinlein really are.

People didn’t read and reread and recommend this stuff for decade after decade because it was simply “okay.” These works stood the test of time because the vast majority of it is better than anything that is going to be published this year. The creme always rises to the top– and the classics are the crème de la crème. You might get a few people on blogs and in comment threads to pretend that this isn’t so. But the one group of people you’re not going to fool are the kids that have a chance to read the great books for themselves.

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16 responses to “The Truth About Kids and Classics

  1. Cirsova November 16, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I wish I had the money and know-how, but a part of me wants to try to create a charity in which appendix n book fairs are held at schools, where maybe all the kids in some class or some grade can get at least one appendix n book of their choice for free.

    • jeffro November 16, 2015 at 9:41 am

      The thing about that… we are not wanted. Or rather, we are only wanted if we are going to help educators do what they are already doing.

      Even as a home school family I come in contact with this attitude of “Dads don’t do enough, dads don’t pitch in enough, dads don’t get involved, etc. etc.” But the concept of education is so pervasive, that everything that I’m inclined to want to do is viewed as being outside the scope of what could reasonably be in the curriculum. And no, I’m not thinking of having “classes” on game design and pulp fiction. I get some of this even for how I’d go about doing math and history. It doesn’t count. It is a distraction from what’s “really” important. Etc, etc. And note that it’s like this is even among the rebels…!

      Something has been surrendered somewhere along the line. It’s not going to be taken back without a fight. The culture is so stacked against common sense at this point, guerrilla tactics are about the only option. The fact that a charity focused on giving video games to troops can’t even hold the line is a sign of the times. But it goes much deeper than that.

      • Cirsova November 16, 2015 at 9:48 am

        Which brings me back to my original idea of hanging outside schoolyards in a trenchcoat handing out copies of Swords Against Death. “Hey, kid, I got something real good for you that your folks might not like.”

  2. Nathan November 16, 2015 at 11:29 am

    It doesn’t surprise me that the classics are under attack. Your Amazon data matches other publishing data that I’ve seen that shows that the classics have been outselling the current releases for years. The same names attacking the classics are the same names shilling hard for sales in the SF online fish wraps. I also expect media tie-in novels to be attacked as well. Because the biggest names in print science fiction aren’t Scalzi, Leckie, and (is there a third prominent SJW SF writer?); Drake, Ringo, and Weber; or even Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, but Kirk, Skywalker, and Master Chief.

    • jeffro November 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      There is only one prominent SJW SF writer and that is the guy that used to get frequent linkage from Glenn Reynolds for his work rewriting the sort of science fiction classics that he now glibly dismisses.

  3. Warren Abox November 16, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Scalzi briefly let his mask slip on that blog post you linked to: “All love to Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, et al., but they’re dead now. They don’t need the money from readers; living authors do. ”

    Forget all the posturing and pseudo-intellectualism, at its root this is all about the money. They believe efforts to encourage people to read the classics, rather than their own books, are a direct threat to their livelihoods. Tough to say whether they are right, but it does provide additional evidence that their posturing and swagger is underlain by a deep insecurity – perhaps even a visceral understanding that their works just aren’t all that good. An author comfortable with his talents and sales would not feel threatened when hearing Asimov and Heinlein praised.

  4. jlv61560 November 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Two points to make here. When I was growing up and first consuming adventure literature in the late sixties and seventies, I couldn’t have cared less WHEN a book was published. What I wanted were great stories that captivated and inspired me. I wanted stories that were fun and exciting to read, and that created a sense of wonder in me. I couldn’t care less about whether or not they were “politically correct” or “depicted a strong female character.” I wanted adventure, excitement and lots of plot twists. Romance was okay, but remember, in the early part of that period, I was still in the “girls are icky” part of growing up. Even later, when I wasn’t, I wanted a girlfriend who was real and had thoughts of her own, not one who spouted whatever the platitudes of the day were or was “politically inclined.”

    The second point is, for Mr. Scalzi and his ilk: Maybe if you wrote better stories, your sales would go up. There’s a REASON why Asimov outsells you; he was a much better writer. Get over your “you owe me” attitude and get to work on your craft and maybe someday people will mention you WITH Asimov instead of as in contrast to him.

  5. Trimegistus November 16, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    As George Orwell once put it “He who controls the past controls the future.”

    • jeffro November 16, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      You know, I think it’s more that they’ve abdicated the past. When they walk away from it to the extent that they have, they leave the door wide open for others to come an reclaim them. What they do control are the awards and publishing houses that are rapidly losing cachet.

  6. Craig N. November 17, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    For the three C.L. Moore stories, I get #1 = “Vintage Season” and probably #2 = “No Woman Born”; both of them are absolutely first-rate. But which story are you singling out as possibly the weirdest story ever told?

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