“Introduction: The Backlist, Academics, and Electronic Publishing”
Some books are classics. So far as I can tell, the most reliable test for a classic (since some of them aren’t actually readable) is whether it can always be ordered for a class. Maybe there’s a previously unnoticed etymology there. A classic doesn’t go out of print or stock, and if one edition is poorly proofread or ridiculously expensive, there is always another. Other books are around because they are of the moment: they’ve just come out, they’re on the best-seller lists, they’re part of an ongoing series, or their author is a name brand. Falling between these two categories is the backlist.
Technically the backlist consists of books that are still in print, but as writers and teachers both know, “in print” doesn’t necessarily mean available. At one time, it was simple and profitable to keep an extensive backlist around. Everybody benefitted: readers, who could take time to find the books they wanted; publishers, who could invest in riskier properties knowing that there was plenty of time to recoup costs; and especially authors, who could gradually build up a valuable body of work. Then came the 1979 Thor Power Tool Decision of the Supreme Court, which changed the way companies can account for their inventory. According to Kevin O’Donnell, the end result is that instead of waiting in warehouses for their potential purchasers, books are turned ever earlier into “insulation and other recycled paper products.”
For sheer cultural shortsightedness, this tax decision ranks right up there with Sonny Bono’s Disney-backed bill on copyright, but that’s an argument for another venue. As a literary scholar with writer friends and as a teacher of fantasy and science fiction, I’m interested in whether corporate greed and governmental obtuseness can be bypassed in the new electronic publishing world. Many of the works I love and most of the materials I rely on to teach are on somebody’s backlist. That means that every semester is a gamble: Will the perfect book be there or not? Should I put it on the list or go for the less appropriate but reliable (i.e., new or classic) title? How can I give my students a sense of genre history when most of that history is continually vanishing into publishing limbo? A few writers have remained in the collective consciousness just because some heroic editor or publisher has made the effort to keep their books in print (a big thank-you, for instance, to the New England Science Fiction Association’s NESFA Press). Other writers haven’t been so lucky. But maybe things are going to change again, for the better. I had not thought about these prospects until I had them pointed out by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, with whom I was teaching this summer.
The nature of publishing is changing rapidly: print is giving way to e-books. I have not been a big fan of any of the electronic reading formats so far. They are not appealing to the eye or the other senses, and I don’t like having to turn on a machine to get to a story (and can’t do so when taking off or landing). Yet, having spent a few months away from my office and my book collection, I have begun to value the portability of e-texts. I’ve discovered I can indeed read a whole book on my computer—the least attractive of interfaces—if the alternative is not having the book at all.
More importantly, electronic books can be kept around indefinitely at virtually no cost to the publisher. They can be ordered and delivered as easily as one buys a song on iTunes (we won’t go into the hassles Apple has created for music lovers). If a publisher is unwilling to make older texts available, authors can step in and sell their own books, thereby increasing their own profits. There may be other advantages as well. For instance, too many publishing decisions these days are made by marketing departments, rather than editors. That might change as the nature of the market changes. Sometimes publishers simply sit on books, neither releasing them to other publishers nor giving the rights back to the author. That makes it impossible to sell a sequel, even if both author and readers see the need for the story to continue. With electronic publishing, a modest success with volume one might be enough to justify volume two, and the sequel can then restimulate interest in the previous work. With an electronic backlist, books will simply have more time to find their audiences, rather than going out of print before reviews and wordof- mouth have had a chance to take effect.
This e-topia might not be so easy to achieve. Contracts will have to be renegotiated; someone will have to go to bat for authors who are technologically challenged or meek or dead; we will all have to make sure Google doesn’t take control of the entire process. But if all goes well, professors like me will be able to teach science fiction by period or authors by oeuvre, knowing that their students will have access to the necessary texts. We will be able to share old favorites with new readers. For some time I’ve been making a mental list of books dropped from syllabi because of unavailability: glaring examples include Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master, Jane Yolen’s Dove Isabeau, Sean Stewart’s Nobody’s Son, Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove, Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons, and even Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. We never know from semester to semester which essential works will suddenly be pulled; no one notifies us when they are back.
Electronic publishing is not simply an alternative form of packaging. An e-text is literally what all works are figuratively: nodes in a network. Printed books can look like solitary, stable, self-contained objects. E-books can’t: they are manifestly part of a cultural matrix; they grow from, and help to form, the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari talk about. The key to electronic success is not conventional marketing but linkages. The more connections to any one text, the more it will be read, and making connections is what we scholars and teachers do.
In this issue of JFA, the first article takes up a situation comparable to, but even more dire than, that of commercial publishing: network television. Scott Rogers argues that Joss Whedon’s series Dollhouse is a metafictional commentary on the process by which original ideas are watered down and made more conventional on the journey from pitch to broadcast series. Whedon had experienced this process several times with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Though this televised “backlist” is available on DVD, each series went through repeated network interference and threats of cancellation: the last was notoriously botched by the network and canceled just as the story arc was beginning to attract an audience. Dollhouse is like its brain-wiped characters: a smart critic of the system that has to disguise itself as something pretty and vapid. Even that didn’t work: Dollhouse was canceled after two seasons.
The next two articles examine literary texts that might be considered part of their respective genres’ backlists. Jari Käkelä looks at Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in terms of its love-hate relationship to the sublime. Käkelä combines a recent theoretical work, Istvan Cscicsery-Ronay’s Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, with a classic, Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime, but finds the real key to Asimov’s stance in two scholars who might be considered part of the academic backlist, neither trendy nor quite classic. Leo Marx applied the notion of the sublime to the American landscape, and David Nye drew on Marx to create the concept of the American technological sublime— a powerful insight that Csicsery-Ronay freely acknowledges. Their ideas, and the American studies tradition they represent, prove to be particularly suitable as links to Asimov’s techniques and historical moment.
Andrew Hock Soon Ng looks at James and Wells—not the famous controversy between Henry James and H. G. Wells about the nature and role of fiction but horror writer M. R. James and his use of wells as emblems of the haunted past. Like Käkelä, Ng explores a particular version of the sublime; also like Käkelä, he mediates between a classic philosophical source (Heidegger) and a fashionable contemporary theorist (Žižek) by means of a scholar from the backlist: Gaston Bachelard. (I’m making judgments on who is and who is not in academic fashion based on their presence in or absence from the theory anthology I have my graduate students read.)
Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s article concerns a writer who is definitely not in the backlist but in the “current” category: the hostile reception of fundamentalist readers, if nothing else, has kept Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy on people’s minds. Many of the hostile and friendly readings emphasize Pullman’s relationship to fantasy literature (especially C. S. Lewis) and theology. Fitzsimmons combines ideas from the classic Hegel and the contemporary Žižek to explore the series’ more science-fictional and ecologically utopian aspects, with the character of Mary Malone, the nun-turned-physicist, as a key figure and Pullman’s “dust” as a central metaphor.
Our final article takes up a complex and genre-defying text: Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker. Graham Wolfe highlights the fantastic elements of Churchill’s play, which has been described as “almost a dystopian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Croggon). Fantastic theater has not received as much critical attention as either film or printed literature: in a sense, the whole genre is part of a disciplinary backlist. The shapeshifting title character of The Skriker becomes a powerful symbol for the ecological and dystopian concerns that Churchill shares with Pullman. Drawing, like both Fitzsimmons and Ng, on Žižek’s reformulations of psychoanalytic and philosophical tenets, Wolfe argues for reading The Skriker as a work that metafictionally investigates the process that produces such symbols even while it employs them in a bold and fantastic manner.
Croggon, Alison. “The Skriker.” Theatre Notes: Independent Theatre Reviews and Commentary. 9 Sept. 2006. Web.
O’Donnell, Kevin, Jr. “How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.” The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America 27.1 (Spring 1993). Web.
“Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse”
“Enlightened Sense of Wonder? Sublimity and Rationality in Asimov’s Foundation Series”
“Heidegger, Psychoanalysis, and Haunted Wells in M. R. James’s Stories”
Andrew Hock Soon Ng
“Dialectical ‘Complexifications’: The Centrality of Mary Malone, Dust, and the Mulefa in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials”
“Shapeshifting in Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker”
“Anti-Leninists in Space”
David M. Higgins
Alison Waller’s Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism
Rev. by Andrew M. Butler
Kevin K. Durand and Mary K. Leigh’s The Universe of Oz: Essays on Baum’s Series and its Progeny
Rev. by Sydney Duncan
Lisa K. Perdigao and Mark Pizzato’s Death in American Texts and Performances: Corpses, Ghosts, and the Reanimated Dead
Rev. by Jen Gunnels
Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Rev. by Stefan Hall
Darko Suvin’s Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology
Rev. by Paul Kincaid
Ruth Levitas’s The Concept of Utopia
Rev. by Thomas J. Morrissey
Brian J. Frost’s The Essential Guide to Mummy Literature
Rev. by Roger C. Schlobin
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James’s A Short History of Fantasy
Rev. by Roger C. Schlobin
Lori M. Campbell’s Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy
Rev. by W. A. Senior
Dongshin Yi’s A Genealogy of Cyborgothic: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Age of Posthumanism
Rev. by Jonathan Smith