There's been a lot of talk about the lack
of classic novels and short stories available on the market today. In the
US many of these books are now resurfacing due to the excellent work being done
by a lot of small press outfits. In Britain there are books under the Millennium
Fantasy / Science Fiction Masterworks and Voyager Classics labels.
These are fairly cheap editions of novels packaged to reintroduce classics of
the genre to a new audience.
However, these classics are by authors who have a following still in existence
today. That's part of how we define a classic. Let's make a couple of examples:
Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft are still read today; aside from F. Scott
Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—and possibly Camus and Kafka—are there
many "mainstream" or "literary" writers from the same period
still in print, with as loyal a fanbase?
The problem arises from the ignorance that many people have of writers who
were popular in the thirties and forties, but who are unknown today. As an example:
the work of John W. Campbell as an editor is well-known, but the existence of
a significant body of work as a writer remains largely unknown to the wider
community. Many other writers have disappeared from the public arena because
their work has not stood the test of time, but many more have been neglected
simply through bad luck.
I think that perhaps the market for modern classics is healthier than most
people realise. Good writing does not date, and lots of old stories are still
excellent reading today. With the popularity of space opera these days, why
can't we see some old classics back in print? Edmond Hamilton wrote a whole
stack of adventures that predate E. E. Smith in content by about ten years.
Given the level of interest in "intergalactic patrol"-type stories
(for example, Star Trek), why can't we read some of the influential works
again? Sure, some of the science has dated, but accuracy isn't exactly a problem
for some elements of the genre today.
Compare this to the state of the recording and film industries: in the past
few years we have remakes of classics like Get Carter, Shaft,
The Thomas Crown Affair, Sabrina and Psycho. Hollywood
loves a remake: there's a built-in audience for these films. The music industry
is the same: the popularity of the "boy band" in the last few years
is a retread of the late-fifties and early sixties. Compilation packages from
that era sell enough to warrant there being more of them inflicted upon us.
Has publishing chosen not to take this path of slavish ancestor worship? The
tie-in departments of big publishing houses produce lavish books to accompany
these releases: so where is the equivalent in SF?
It's a fact—Oprah and Harry Potter not withstanding—that books don't
sell as well as films and CDs. We have to face the fact that publishers are
bringing forth less new books every year. Why can't they follow the lead of
the music and film industries and wallow in the past?
The growing acceptance of SF in the mainstream has shown that the "old
stuff" may be worth looking at again. There may also be a way around the
problem of "too many books to choose from" that publishers frequently
offer up as an excuse.
Widely derided as being the Walkman of the new millennium, e-books are significantly
cheaper than bound books. The readers for them are still beyond the reach of
most people—I can't afford one yet—but they are growing more practical
and inexpensive with every passing model. I dislike reading off a computer screen
but a reader that I can carry about and read like a book sounds good to me.
Particularly if they get as cheap as the Walkman did after a few years. Some
people say that it isn't the same as a "real" book, but I would purchase
a reader if it meant cheaper books. And you could include all the features on
an e-book that you find on a DVD: I would love an author's commentary for some
of my favourite books or footnotes and annotations or maybe some original artwork
from the first publication.
With some creative marketing we could potentially have a marketplace that satisfies
the wants of all parties. Then we could leave the judging of what makes a classic
to posterity, where it belongs.