Today I went to one of my area Barnes & Noble stores because I still have a fondness for the last of the Big Box Bookstores, and because I wanted to look closely at the Science-Fiction/Fantasy aisle, particularly in regards to Fantasy, since that is what I predominantly write.
I've heard horror stories of the SF/F aisles in other areas, where they're nothing more than a tiny shelf in a remote corner of the store, hidden by the shadows of an ever-increasing Manga section. That's not the case in my area, fortunately, and the two stores nearest me have a healthy selection, at least as far of square footage of dead trees is concerned.
The variety on offer, though, is lacking. As far as Fantasy is concerned, you have: the essential Tolkien section, Tolkien followers like the Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks, then the new epic fantasy stars like Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, as well as noted female authors like Mercedes Lackey and Ursula K. Le Guin. Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett both have respectable shelf space as well. Jim Butcher has a very large presence as well, with most of the Dresden Files on offer, along with his other series. George R.R. Martin is strongly represented too, of course.
After that, it gets murkier. The list of instantly recognizable names diminishes. Ray Bradbury's modest section occupies an uncomfortable spot next to an even smaller (fortunately) Marion Zimmer Bradley section. Thanks to the game series, the Witcher books are off to the side by the RPG and video game art books. Two omnibus editions of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber stand defiant near the end of the alphabet before the Warhammer 40k and Star Wars books begin. The rest is a sea of quite respectable-looking books filling two genres: urban fantasy and high fantasy in varying states of cynical deconstruction. And that is it.
It is this mob of lower-tier books that stands out to me. I have no idea of their relative merits, nor their flaws. The urban fantasy novels tend to feature a single person, usually a woman, dressed in a way some artist might call “badass” looking intently into the distance while surrounded by glowy bits. The high fantasy books tend to focus on a sword, or someone holding a sword in a generic ready stance. Others look even more generic. A crown. An axe. The face of some warrior in a helmet. A close-up of a dragon's eye. Or they might just be a landscape. Some are just a design and some text. There's very little action.
Taken individually, these are not ugly design choices for covers. Taken individually, they might draw the eye on a table with a “New in Paperback!” sign accompanied by whatever public talking heads have a ghostwritten memoir out this month.
Lumped together, though, they turn into a sea of sameyness. They get lost trying to muscle their way through the crowd but all belie a similar school of graphic design that makes them look boring.
The poor cover selection is not the authors' fault. That lies with the publishers/marketers/designers. If every book cover looked like it came from the psychedelic paperpacks of the 60s they would start to blend together in a riot of color reflective of the time they were printed in.
The keyword that stuck about that humble SF/F aisle was “stagnant” and the covers hit that home.
Science Fiction and Fantasy have long occupied an awkward place where they sit at the kids' table in the other room away from “Serious Literature.” Serious Literature is for serious readers who are serious about being taken seriously by serious academics. That attitude was what turned me off of most of my 20th Century Literature courses (my focus was on Medieval and Renaissance anyway). SF/F was wild, frivolous, frequently comedic, imaginative and frowned upon by Serious Literature. Its supposed to tickle the imagination with its possibilities. Its supposed to titillate you with stories that Serious Literature doesn't want you to read because, God forbid, they might be FUN.
I didn't see any of that in the SF/F aisle. I saw the literary equivalent of Dad Rock: something that was once incredibly energetic but now trying to be responsible and respectable and trying to make sure you go to bed by 11 so you have enough energy for tomorrow.
I don't think that's the authors' fault. Nor Barnes & Noble's. Nor anyone in particular's. I think that at some point in time there was a desire for SF/F to be taken seriously by an audience that was never going to give it the time of day anyway. Only a few authors are ever lifted out of SF/F into Serious Literature, notably H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are lucky to get occasional reprint collections. God help you if you're trying to find Moorcock or Leiber or Moore or Brackett.
In chasing respectability, it forfeited adventure, danger and even its own history. The great advantage of SF/F is that literally and literarily, anything goes. Instead, the Fantasy selection at your local big box store is Urban Fantasy and some flavor of Gritty Medieval Fantasy.
“Fun” got inherited by a growing Young Adult market because “eh, they're just kids books.” Nevermind that the Harry Potter books have a gigantic adult reader base and that Deathly Hallows is a doorstopper that would make Tolstoy's nose bleed with envy.
Again, I don't think its anyone's specific fault that the current state of mainstream Sci-Fi and Fantasy except the growing need for traditional publishers and retailers to make safe bets to turn a profit. So the covers are safe. The titles are safe. The author selection is safe.
Its all quite boring unless you are looking for a specific author or their work.
There was exactly one book on the shelves that stood out completely with unique and eye-catching art: A new edition of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.
Just look at that cover. Its magnificent. Its evocative. Its even a little outrageous. It was unlike anything else taking up shelf space next to it, but it stood alone next to its much more serious looking previous editions.
I think this is a root of the problem facing mainstream SF/F at the moment. Stagnation in presentation.
Thank god that there's a growing indie scene grumbling at the fringes, because if anyone can safe SF/F from the Sisyphean hell of trying to be Serious Literature, its going to be the ragtag group of misfits slapped together at the last minute.