Every month in “Between the Lines with the Print Run Podcast,” Laura Zats and Erik Hane will address issues and trends surrounding the book and writing industries that are too often glossed over by conventional wisdom, institution optimism, and false seriousness. This month Laura and Erik discuss the innovation of genre fiction.

As agents, we spend a lot of time talking and thinking about freshness, an amorphous term for that energizing experience of reading something that feels truly new. We are constantly trying to find this nebulous quality in our slush piles, and we pitch our existing clients as having it; it’s all an exercise in trying to identify and promote that ever-shifting cutting edge, even when we’re not quite sure if we’ve found it.

Apex Magazine, a zine focused on the specific genres of science fiction and fantasy, is filled with freshness. This isn’t an accident, and it’s worth understanding why. So, with our first installment of our new monthly column for the magazine, let’s examine what freshness really is, where it comes from, and why it makes perfect sense that we see so much of it in a publication like Apex.

If a novel or a short story reads as genuinely new, it means that somewhere along the way, the writer did something innovative. Maybe they experimented with a new trick in the narrative perspective, or boldly defied a character archetype the reader was expecting; maybe the story features an underrepresented life experience, or maybe it’s just set somewhere fascinating that we’ve never seen before. We would all agree that these things excite us, in theory.

In practice though, the publishing industry can often be frustratingly slow to welcome in innovation. Editors and the agents trying to sell them projects can become risk averse, afraid to step away from literary paths they’ve already seen work in the marketplace. What gets lost when the industry plays it safe like this? Innovation. Which means that the freshness we’re all dying to experience in reading doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

On Print Run and in our roles as agents, we often ask each other: which genres are most willing to take the risks and innovate by pushing its craft to new spaces, even when a warm mainstream reception isn’t guaranteed? We argue about a lot of things, but we’re in pretty strong agreement here. It’s science fiction and fantasy.

You know this already of course. You’re here, after all. But let’s break down exactly why this genre provides such a great space for writers to innovate, and why it’s good for the publishing landscape as a whole.

Speculative genre fiction, on its basest level, comes with a necessary level of invention. After all, the genre is defined by making up a world that operates unlike our own, often in subtle ways and often dramatically. It encapsulates everything from a guess at our technological future a couple decades from now, to, say, a world made entirely of shrimp. (Though Joss Whedon may have beaten you to that one). Innovation is baked into speculative fiction’s very foundations, which means that readers come to the genre prepared to encounter new things. They expect the unexpected; they’re making the choice, before even reading page one, to be open-minded.

But wait, the gentle reader might say. What about all the tired stuff, like elves and dragons and mythical swords? Those things aren’t innovative!

The Land of Bad Names by Terry Brooks

But that’s where we disagree. On Print Run, we often praise the benefits of trope-driven genres, whether it’s SFF or romance or anything else. Tropes allow that current piece of writing to converse with all the other books in the larger canon that came before. This broad literary conversation reveals patterns and “rules” that the deft writer can choose to follow or break, knowing that readers will notice their choices. When a writer’s work harkens back to Tolkien, Lovecraft, or Verne, it creates a playground of established reader expectations for the genre. Choosing to fulfill or defy these expectations in intentional ways is perhaps the richest source of innovation in all of literature. I know what you’re waiting for, but here’s something new.

Tropes also ground a genre that might otherwise drift too far into the clouds. They keep all these new features from being overwhelming. Where a 100% fresh world could be so disorienting that it might pull the reader from the moment, genre patterns allow for consistency that narrows the innovative scope to something specific, and therefore, more meaningful. In SFF, this balance allows writers to zero in on meaningful speculative questions—just look at how many times personhood and human nature has been explored through AI. In a highly imaginative genre, tropes allow writers a familiar ground from which to depart in the exact, precise direction they intend.

Beyond just clever worlds and new stories, many of these specific innovations that SFF allows for can be deeply meaningful. This fertile space is where we can see desperately needed diversification in both published authors and their characters, whether in terms of race, sexual identity, or gender; it’s where those characters can break harmful stereotypes in their relationships and their narratives.

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

And so beyond just being fresh, science fiction and fantasy can be important to the wider publishing industry. The deep trust it holds with its readers means that it can be bolder, that it can exist on the front lines of many cultural and literary conversations. And by publishing on this innovative cutting edge, it begins to establish the “track record” that the larger, more risk-averse operations often look toward when deciding whether to purchase and publish a project the likes of which it’s never seen before.

Freshness doesn’t just happen. Rather, it’s the result of innovation from writers who need the space to try things, and the community interested in reading and publishing those experiments. Science fiction and fantasy can be that space as a genre, where in imagining new worlds writers can deeply affect the cultural conversation happening in this one.

Print Run Podcast is a show for book lovers. Hosts and literary agents Erik Hane and Laura Zats hold conversations on topics as wide-ranging as “The James Patterson Book of the Week” to “Amazon Vs. Everyone.” Available on your favorite podcast platform.

Laura Zats is a literary agent in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she specializes in children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and romance. She is also the editorial manager for a Minneapolis-based partner publisher and frequent workshop teacher.

Erik Hane is a literary agent, freelance editor, and writer based in Minneapolis. Before moving to the Midwest, he served as an acquisitions editor at The Overlook Press and an assistant editor at Oxford University Press.

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