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A lot of (British) writers simply do it by instinct… instinctively reducing huge themes into a clear and deceptively simple plot… without ever rationally unpacking the genius of what they’ve done. The unpacking bit is important for agents, publishers and readers, however – as they often lack the instinctive genius of the writer. Yet that means a writer needs to wear two heads (like Worzel Gummidge) if they’re ever going to be commercially successful. I always cite JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett as examples here – they’re okay/good writers, but they would never have succeeded if they hadn’t had acute business minds as well.
When I heard they’d made the horror tv show of the cult comic book Swamp Thing, I set out to watch it as soon as I could. After all, the legendary Alan Moore cut his teeth with Swamp Thing, along with V for Vendetta, and then Watchmen and so on. Then I had that terrible fear: what if DC had ballsed it up? It would be a crime beyond forgiveness. Let’s face it, DC has a very dodgy track record when it comes to comic book conversions e.g. the fun but very silly Green Arrow, the simply awful Batwoman, the earnest but super-hammy Black Lightning, the laughable movies, etc. Let’s not quibble – if they can get Swamp Thing right, then hope is restored.
So I sat down for the opening episode, waiting for it all to go wrong. The visuals are great – so good you can’t see they’re using stage-sets. The town of Marais set on the edge of the creepy gothic swamp is perfectly rendered and brilliantly atmospheric. And the horror-action sequences are suitably redolent of John Carpenter’s genre-defining The Thing (1982). You can absolutely understand why the opening episode cost $20m on its own! The script, characterisation and acting? Well, the script is on point, working through the detective beats that often come with horror… without actually becoming cliched. We are kept guessing but fed tantalising clues – keeping us hooked. The characterisation is organised in a similar manner to the plot – references to individual but interconnected back-stories without any clumsy exposition. And the casting/acting… is sufficiently good.
What is the scenario? Well, Doctor Abby Arcane Holland of the CDC (The Centers of Disease Control) is called back to her hometown to investigate an epidemic that’s broken out. It seems that something in the swamp is making everyone sick. Anything else would be a spoiler, so just go and watch it if you want to know more.
Yippee, I thought to myself. This is excellent. Well done, DC. Finally! Then I thought to check on the number of episodes and series available… only to learn that the DC Universe streaming service had CANCELLED the show ONE WEEK after the episode aired (31 May 2019). WTF?!
I checked the online reviews… the show had been well received by the fanbase and the critics alike. Even more WTF? What are you playing at DC? You’d finally got it right. Don’t do this to me… to us. It made no sense whatsoever.
Thus, I started to read around the industry speculation as to what had gone wrong. There was no clear consensus. One of the early signs of ‘trouble’ emerged before they’d even finished making the first series – the show got cut from its original 13 episodes to just 10. Aha. The production costs had to have been a touch too high… and that first episode cost $20m, remember. Was DC Universe streaming service ever going to get enough commercial subscribers to make the outlay on Swamp Thing back again? Probably not, especially when insiders began to fear that Swamp Thing might turn out to be a dud (just like all those other DC tv shows and movies). So there was a lack of confidence in the show among its own producers. And, between series, producers have to pay millions to store/warehouse expensive stage-sets… so decisions on a second series have to be made very quickly… even before the first series has finished production. The swampy plot thickens. And then the final issue: the DC Universe streaming service was owned by Time Warner… and Time Warner was taken over by AT&T in 2018. When takeovers occur, ‘economies of scale’, product rationalisation and redundancies ALWAYS follow, to recover a lot of the investment required to secure the takeover, and to maximise profits going forward. Apparently, then, Swamp Thing (but more specifically the DC Universe streaming service) was a victim of this new operating context.
Damn it. In summary, Swamp Thing was artistically successful and a proper hit with audiences. The writers and actors had done a good job. But it wasn’t the writers, actors or fans making decisions about the show. It was the money-men. And the decisions made weren’t made based on quality issues: they were made based on quantity (i.e. the numbers and the profitability). And here’s the rub in today’s rabidly impatient capitalist world – high-quality art will never thrive when it’s judged by numbers alone. Look at how they axed the superb and unsurpassed Firefly series by the mighty Joss Whedon. Look at my own inability to get that next book deal from Gollancz (I’ve only sold 20,000 books, which just isn’t enough, I’m told).
What comes next? Cheaper DC shows, of lower quality. Argh! It feels like we’re going backwards. Yup. Maybe it’s two steps forward, one step back? Nope. They didn’t learn from Firefly, did they. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
The fundamental problem of course is that they still haven’t perfected the business model for streaming services. It’s an ugly fight at the mo, with Apple’s new service, BritBox, BBCistream (in development) and the list goes on. It’s not sustainable, and there will be terrible collateral damage along the way. Why did it have to be the anti-establishment work of Alan Moore, though! The irony is sickening. I feel the rage of the Swamp Thing.
Post script. And I’m not alone in my rage. I have now seen the very sizable fan backlash against DC. DC are alienating the fans so much that the fans will now be hugely wary of starting a show till they know FOR SURE that the second series is a go. If fans become wary of even starting shows, then audiences numbers will be even lower… and it’s a vicious circle/spiral downwards. DC are close to BREAKING themselves entirely. Mark these words.
Interviewed by Falmouth University, init: https://falwriting.com/new-blog/2019/1/30/interview-a-j-dalton
Here’s a rum do: I wrote an academic essay on gender identity and sexuality in science fiction and fantasy, and the collection it was published in won the 2018 British Fantasy Award for non-fiction. Woohoo. No prize money, not even a tin trophy for my mantlepiece… but karma points praps.
The collection from Luna Publishing (@LunaPressGlobal) is ‘Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction’.
New figures show that fewer UK writers earn enough to live on, as ACE blames falling sales of literary fiction on the recession and the rise of smartphones.
The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterwork in a freezing garret remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a new report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE), which revealed that collapsing sales, book prices and advances mean few can support themselves through writing alone.
The report found that print sales of literary fiction are significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties and that the price of the average literary fiction book has fallen in real terms in the last 15 years.
The growth in ebook sales in genres such as crime and romance has not made up for the shortfall in literary fiction, prompting ACE to outline ways it intends to support affected authors.
“It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect,” said ACE’s literature director Sarah Crown. “It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”
Carried out by digital publisher Canelo, the report analysed sales data from Nielsen BookScan and found that between 2007 and 2011, hardback fiction sales slumped by £10m. Paperback fiction had a more extreme dip, seeing declines almost every year after 2008. In 2011, paperback fiction sales were £162.6m; by 2012, they were £119.8m.
Do you know your ‘high fantasy’ from your ‘epic fantasy’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘sword and sorcery’, ‘steampunk’, ‘dystopian YA’, ‘dark fantasy’, ‘metaphysical fantasy’ and ‘grimdark fantasy’? Not sure of the definitions, leading authors and socio-history of each? Then you might like to read The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature, which I’ve just published with Luna Press Publishing. (It’s based on the PhD thesis I wrote for Huddersfield University, init.)
Soooooo, my new publication (‘The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature’) is now available for pre-order. Form an orderly queue – no pushing or fighting. I knew I should have got some ogres and trolls in for crowd control. Then again they tend to eat too many of the customers.
The book is actually the PhD I wrote for Huddersfield University last year. In their wisdom, Luna Press Publishing decided they wanted to publish it.
Pleased to say I’ve just signed a contract with Luna Press for the publication of the ol’ PhD. It’s entitled ‘The history and sub-genres of British fantasy’ and will be out around April 2017 (sort of EasterCon time, so we might launch it there, with suitable fanfare and amounts of wine). If you want to read the official announcement, where there’s more about the PhD’s content: http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/single-post/2016/11/13/A-J-Dalton-Joins-the-Luna-Family
- The return of epic fantasy?
I’ve received a couple of fan emails asking why there isn’t more ‘epic fantasy’ around at the mo. Added to that, several conventions this year have had panel discussions on the epic fantasy sub-genre. What’s going on? The ‘epic’ sub-genre of fantasy literature was the dominant sub-genre in the 80s and 90s. It was overtaken by the urban, dark and grimdark sub-genres a good while ago. Are people yearning again, then, for that time when kings and queens were noble, when a hard-working apprentice could save the world, and when evil could be defeated by good old fashioned morality? Are people ‘sick’ of the depressing, brutal and fatalistic fantasy literature created by current social and historical forces (Brexit, Trump, political scandals, etc)? You bet they are. And who can blame them?
- The lost age of heroes?
Curiously, although dystopian YA movies did well at the cinema for a number of years (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc), the trend seems to be returning to high/superhero (‘Chosen One’) fantasy. Marvel hero stories are swamping both tv and film. At the cinema, we’ve got Avengers, Thor (third film in production), Antman, Dead Pool, Guardians of the Galaxy (second film here soon), Doctor Strange, etc. On tv we’ve got Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, etc. And let’s not forget the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise – classic high fantasy. What’s happening here? Why are stories from the 70s gaining such traction? Are people really harking back to a nobler time, when humans were ‘better’, when they may have walked with gods? You bet they are. This yearning isn’t new either. It’s a key theme of the Iliad as well. We see how far we have fallen since the ‘golden age’, and we feel grimy and ashamed. We try to envision how things once were, so that we can mimic and recreate that better past.
- Changing fashions and new generations?
Every 7-10 years of so, we have a new erotic series shocking popular culture. We had Emanuel in the 70s, Jilly Cooper in the 80s, Jackie Collins in the 90s, E L James (Fifty Shades) in the 2000s, etc. After each iteration, people get bored with the media saturation and there’s a ‘lull’ in the market. There is a welcome reprieve. Then the younger generation grows up and it all starts again. The same happens with vampire fiction – you don’t need me to list the examples. And the same has happened with zombies. Are we telling the same stories over and over again? To an extent (there is certainly a lot of tired repetition), but there is also updating and some originality going on. What we can say, then, is that there seem to be a limited number of basic stories, but they are always relevant. We are going to see the same old stories repackaged over and over forever more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Takeaway message?
The takeaway message is that audiences still crave hope. They eventually return to enduring stories of hope and triumph. Yes, it’s fresh and interesting to have moments and sub-genres where the dark side wins, or where everything is morally ambiguous, but in the longer term, our positive spirit is shown to win out. Amen.