The sci-fi market is shifting, and it’s not just "Doctor Who"
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When Jodie Whittaker was announced as the next actor to play the title character in long-running British sci-fi series “Doctor Who,” it felt like a big shift for some people. Every Doctor before Whittaker has been a man. But for others, this made sense; science fiction, as a genre, is starting to appear more inclusive.
But “Doctor Who” is just one corner of the science fiction market. We’re also seeing more diversity in film, like Ava DuVernay’s upcoming treatment of “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is a re-imagining of the 1963 novel by Madeleine L’Engle.
But is all of this anecdotal, or is it a real shift in the science fiction genre? Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary spoke to writer Tananarive Due, who writes and teaches speculative fiction (the broader term for sci-fi, that includes sub-genres like horror and fantasy). The follow is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Lizzie O’Leary: Is this a real shift in the science fiction business?
Tananarive Due: I really do think it’s a shift in the business. It won’t be a straight line. There will still be movies that miscast and make mistakes and end up as hashtags that people boycott. But I think, for the most part, there is a real growing awareness of groups who have been traditionally sidelined in books and film, you know. And that’s changing.
O’Leary: Where is that coming from? Is it a bottom-up thing, you know, from fans, from people who go to conventions. Is it top-down from studios or publishing houses that realize they’ve ignored a section of the market?
Due: You know, my sense is definitely that it’s bottom-up. There’s some top-down, maybe in TV where Nielsen ratings show that black and Latino households are watching more TV. But what’s happening, I think, is mostly bottom-up, that we have the advent of social media, which cannot be overstated. It’s no longer just a private conversation with you and your friends. It can become a national movement. And there’s a lot of leadership emerging, as well, among artists like Ava DuVernay, you know who is very much a leader in everything from women getting roles, women directing. And that incredible inclusivity she has in what I saw in the teaser trailer for “A Wrinkle in Time.”
O’Leary: Take me back to when you were starting out as a writer because you have a tremendous body of work now, but what was it like trying to break through?
Due: Well I was very very lucky that I started sending out my work in the wake of Terry McMillan, where the publishing world woke up and said, oh, black people read. So I would have probably had a tougher time breaking in to say, speculative fiction, say science fiction, fantasy and horror of that era, but because black writers were so hot during that time, commercial houses were publishing my work, which you know a lot of those were horror novels. So it was great.
O’Leary: When I was growing up, it felt like that was sold to white boys. And and that was the audience. How do you think we’ve seen the market shift. Or has it?
Due: Well, it depends on whether you’re talking about books, for example, which has become very female-driven in terms of the readers, or movies where I still think there is that demographic, that target demographic. But also when you have a Jordan Peele come out with a movie like “Get Out,” that blows away the box office, that really helps other creators get a little ammunition in the meeting, you know? Because, before you were trying to pitch it based on, oh, remember a long time ago that one movie. Whereas, “Get Out” is a really fresh example, and it made money, and that’s what obviously executives care about. So yeah, publishers are going to more readily look at your work as something that will potentially make them money.
O’Leary: You also teach writers. What do you tell them about trying to get their ideas, you know, seen, read, heard?
Due: Well it’s great to get your name out there. Social media is very helpful in terms of finding audience and building rapport with audience. But you know, one of the things even in these great times, I would say bounty and plenty, I tell all my writing students not to necessarily count on writing for a living. It’s that uneasy relationship between art and commerce. And if you have a job that pays your bills, and your free time can be all about your art on no one else’s schedule, where you don’t have to bend it this way or that because, you know, you think maybe it’ll be more marketable that way. Write your truth, and I really think in a lot of ways, that’s what brings writers the greatest success.
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