Ask Alice: Why don’t fantasy and sci-fi get the respect they deserve?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
As an author of Young Adult fantasy novels who possesses the fallacies of any human, I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
I’m inclined to believe my writing is perceived by many as less ‘serious’ than other genres. I get a bit paranoid that when I out myself as a long-time reader of (YA and adult) fantasy and science fiction books, I undercut their perception of my chops as an authoritative knower-of-things about writing, books, and literature. Almost certainly, I’m jumping at shadows. But every now and again, I do find myself wondering whether Australian Young Adult fantasy and science fiction stories truly do struggle to get up and into the loving arms of a publication contract.
To help answer this question, I reached out to some legends of the AusYA lit scene: Lili Wilkinson (author of, among many others, the 2020 science fiction thriller The Erasure Initiative and 2023 fantasy release A Hunger of Thorns), Will Kostakis (author of, among others, the 2019 fantasy title Monuments and its 2020 sequel, Rebel Gods, and Annabel Barker (agent to, amongst others, Mette Jakobsen whose 2023 science fiction novel Fireflies in Flight June is the sequel to the 2022 release The Snow Laundry, and Lauren Draper).
A quick note: I’m going to do something which drives me batty when I see bookstores do it, and put fantasy and science fiction in the same space. What I will try to do, however, unlike those ‘fantasy/sci-fi’ signs which threaten a stroke of apoplectic rage whenever I see one, is to differentiate between the two genres while I also consider their relative similarities here.
A starting point, which arises across a number of similar discussions, is the relative size of the Australian market in comparison to America and the UK. Realistically, the Australian market still struggles to compete with our bigger international cousins.
Will noted, “I do think it’s incredibly difficult (and expensive) to launch new fantasy series […] especially when local authors are competing with the international hype machines boosting US writers.” Annabel affirmed this from an agent’s perspective: “Australian YA / MG fantasy and sci fi books, more than any genre I believe, need to stand up against the blockbuster, high visibility series that come out of other (predominantly US / UK) markets. Consequently, the fantasy and sci fi books that are selected to be published in Australia need to have a high level of ambition from the get-go. Releasing a new fantasy or sci fi book or series in Australia requires major marketing commitment and often publishers may only have space to do that with a small amount of projects per year.”
Although Lili noted of her upcoming Fantasy title A Hunger of Thorns, “at no point did I get the impression that genre had any impact on whether publishers wanted it or not,” she told me that in getting it published, “I went on a quite different route to usual. I wanted to sell this one to the US first.”
This is a truth which affects Australian authors across the board, though. By virtue of our smaller market (25 million Australians against nearly 334 million Americans) Australian titles have a significantly smaller number of buyers. However, Annabel went on to explain why fantasy and science fiction in particular might suffer disproportionately from our relative smallness: “because of the nature and size of the Australian market, it is quite rare for agents (and editors) to specialise in a particular area – they need to be across many different genres and age ranges. I think YA science fiction and fantasy can sometimes have a more difficult journey, because not every agent or editor will read widely in this area. From my own perspective, I read a lot of fantasy, but I have less sci-fi on my personal reading stack; therefore it is less likely I will recognise an excellent new sci fi manuscript.”
Annabel’s comments are consistent with my experience. Of the 21 agents on this list of ‘the best’ Australian literary agents accepting submission in 2023, only two were accept fantasy, while nine accept Young Adult; only one accepted both. There was no mention of science fiction. Moreover, if you’re an author of a Young Adult manuscript which is either fantasy or sci-fi, the use of ‘young adult’ here isn’t particularly helpful to you in knowing whether or not the agent in question will be receptive to your work. Of course, this is only one list, but it gives an interesting insight into the norms of the Australian literary landscape – and where fantasy and science fiction sit within it.
There has been little change from about six years ago when I did a round of queries for Queendom of the Seven Lakes). It was a contributing factor to my decision to independently publish; I figured having even a modest profile from work I’d put into the world might help open doors otherwise closed to me.
With that being said, fantasy (and certain science fiction) has increasingly popularity in the Australian marketplace.
I do however think that the profile of fantasy, and to an extent science fiction, has been elevated in the past few years thanks to the widespread success of several fantasy franchises. Lili’s comment, “science fiction and fantasy used to be for nerds, but now it is very much dominant culture on our screens,” is very prescient.
Previously, fantasy really was viewed as the domain of relatively niche and dedicated readers (who know the lore from the Lord of the Rings, having read everything from Children of Húrin to The Silmarillion). The publication and explosive popularity of Twilight, I would credit as being a gateway fantasy text for a lot of people, which in turn gave a lot of publishers a willingness to publish more fantasy texts in the Young Adult space.
Moreover, a lot of recent fantasy publications are easy to read (think Shadowhunters, Throne of Glass, GrishaVerse). In conjunction with television adaptations of fantasy series such as The Witcher, The Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones, I’d argue, the genre has become far more accessible to people who want to easily enter and understand the worlds in which such narratives take place and might then feel comfortable reading other fantasy titles. While not necessarily a phenomenon limited to Australia, Australian readers are hardly immune to such trends.
Part of this is also fuelled by Will’s observation that “We encourage kids and teens to dream of other worlds, then in adulthood, we kind of dismiss it as a fringe interest. So there are more teens to scoop up these stories.”
There’s definite scope here for a separate discussion about the difference between Young Adult and Adult Fantasy, but this column’s topic is on the state of Australian YA Fantasy and Science Fiction titles, so I’ll veer back into my lane. Regardless, you can see how there is a trend that sees a greater mainstream acceptance of any fantasy title, but especially one that is accessible in a way that’s a hallmark of YA texts.
When it comes to science fiction, there’s less clarity surrounding a market appetite. However, Lili made a rather striking point, which is that the majority of current YA sci-fi is dystopian. She noted, “thinkpieces keep telling me that nobody wants dystopian fiction any more, but going into schools and talking to teens, this couldn’t be further from the truth,” going on to posit the reason for this trend being because “science fiction is never really about the future, it’s about now. And teens feel very powerless in a fairly bleak world right now (understandably). Dystopia is all about the powerless rising up against hegemony.”
There are definite efforts to raise the profile of science fiction, in particular through initiates such as the Imagining the Future, Future You project which includes Lili alongside Rebecca Lim (who Annabel also represents), Gary Lonesborough, Melissa Keil, and Alison Evans (I strongly recommend educators take a look at this, as it’s gone a wealth of fabulous, and freely available, material).
So we can acknowledge that there are changing attitudes toward the mainstream appreciation for fantasy and science fiction books.
However, fantasy and science fiction do struggle somewhat against certain aspects of the literary ecosystem.
Will, for whom Monuments and Rebel Gods were a genre departure from his contemporary books including his forthcoming title We Could Be Something, noted that in writing a fantasy title, “There was a fear my audience wouldn’t follow me across, or be as willing to invest in my fantasy curiosity for longer than one book.” It’s certainly true that authors construct a particular brand, which often includes the genre in which they write – something explored in the final Ask Alice of 2022.
However, despite the growing mainstream appreciation of fantasy (and science fiction) texts, especially within YA, Will notes, “it’s as if we’re conditioned to see something as less worthy just because it is unabashedly fun. The implications of this? We talk less about fantasy books’ craft, we omit some of our finest YA writers from awards conversations, they’re not studied in schools … That last bit is very important in the Australian landscape, where sales are (unfortunately) quite small.”
This final point was echoed by an industry insider with whom I had a passing conversation on this subject (they declined to be named). They told me, “the success of YA texts are dependent on whether or not schools pick up class sets, and they are much less inclined to do that with fantasy.”
Taking a more optimistic stance, Lili noted her perception that fantasy and science fiction texts are “starting to trickle into our awards lists and school curricula (slowly).” Certainly, the 2022 shortlist for the CBCA awards in the ‘Older Readers’ category included Terciel and Elinor by Garth Nix (fantasy), and across the 2022 Premiers Literary Awards shortlists, NSW had Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker (science fiction), and The Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature had When We Are Invisible by Claire Zorn (dystopian/science fiction).
There’s undeniably progress being made raising in the profile of science fiction and fantasy, although I wonder whether, were I to go trawling through the last ten years, the incidence of science fiction on such lists would be higher than fantasy. As someone who’s worked in and around in excess of twenty Melbourne schools for more than a decade, I can comfortably say that while I’ve seen some science fiction texts on some syllabi, I have never seen a fantasy text – YA or otherwise. I’m positive that is not a universal truth, but it drives home the fact that it’s niche to see fantasy given the literary merit I’d argue it richly deserves. Moreover, as has been established, in Australia a significant metric of success for Young Adult texts is whether they are bought by schools – especially in class sets. So to have that unavailable is something I would suggest does indeed continue to constrain a great deal of Australian Young Adult fantasy texts.
So at the end of all that, what can we conclude about the incidence of fantasy and science fiction texts in the Australian Young Adult literary landscape? Definitely, they’re less niche than they used to be, and there are such texts being written by Australian authors and read by Australian readers. Are they maligned? Certainly not in the way that one might say they used to be. However, I don’t think I can fill in that chip on my shoulder just yet.