This month in Blasphemous Geometries: what lessons can be taken from the successful branding of classic cinema and applied to science fiction literature?
Jonathan McCalmont suggests that repackaging the masterworks of the genre with a side serving of serious critical examination might add a cachet to science fiction which it has previously struggled to attain.
Today, the ninth scion of the noble house of Blasphemous Geometries will turn its never-blinking eye to a question of the way in which SF is packaged, and will suggest a future development that might benefit authors and critics alike.
As well as an interest in science fiction (an ‘interest’ that, at times, feels as healthy and productive as using knitting needles to pry out my own teeth), I also nurse a love of cinema. Just like many people of my ilk, this love expresses itself financially as a DVD shelf that features titles from the Criterion Collection. Criterion is, first and foremost, a successful exercise in branding. Indeed, aside from the Masters of Cinema collection (a less consistent Zone 2 instantiation of the Criterion formula), there are relatively few DVD labels that command any kind of public profile, let alone the kind of public profile that inspires people to get rid of DVDs they already own in order to buy said label’s editions of the same films. Criterion’s success as a brand is partly due to its frequently superb packaging, but also to its meticulous care in selecting titles.
The nuts and bolts of the collection are art-house directors such as Ozu, Bergman and Truffaut – directors whose critical popularity and intellectual credentials are beyond reproach thanks to generations of sustained adulation from film lovers across the globe. Even the more recent films to be admitted into the collection are weathered by time and thought in order to ensure that their quality is enduring rather than a reflection of a passing, marketing-inspired and ultimately dubious public infatuation.
Of course, much of this is simply cunning marketing. One obvious reason as to why Criterion tends to go with ‘tried and tested’ films is because, much like cars, films tend to haemorrhage value from the second they are released. This means that the older the film, the cheaper it is to buy up the rights. This is doubly the case as many Criterion releases are based upon limited licenses granted by the films’ owners – open admissions that the Criterion Collection treatment adds value to a title in a way that few others can achieve.
This same brilliance of marketing is visible in the choice of extras: film critics and historians are drafted in to discuss the finer points of films in a way that enlightens as much as it comforts; audio commentary tracks are learned whispers reassuring you that ‘you made the right decision in buying this film… it is clever, and by buying it you have proved that you are too‘. Many of these critical commentaries are ‘warts and all’, the critics permitted to point out not only the shortcomings of the films but also those of the directors. Indeed, in one DVD extra from the Masters of Cinema range, the film critic Tony Rayns pointed out that the film he was commenting on was not the director’s best, but he also pointed to some others films which were both far more worthy of our time (and, handily enough, also available as a part of the Masters of Cinema collection).
The honesty of the critical appraisal only makes us value our purchase more highly – it is one thing to own a great work of cinema, but it is quite another to own a great work of cinema and to be able to point out that, actually, this DVD over here is a much better representation of the director’s talent. The use of critics rather than the directors themselves also serves to illustrate something that should be obvious to anyone who has heard Iain M. Banks being interviewed or listened to a commentary track by Larry David – critics are frequently much more skilled at discussing a work than the work’s creator.
However, even a cursory glance at Criterion’s selection of titles shows that good marketing can be used not only to flog unnecessary crap, but also to get people interested in important but occasionally inaccessible works of art. I believe that the same techniques can be used to wean future generations of readers away from simple-minded media tie-ins and vampire porn and onto decent works of genre.
Of course, I am not the first person to think this. Branding as an appeal to authority has a long history in SF, from the selected titles that used to appear in old catalogues to more recent publications that cash in on the fame and popularity of old or dead writers (e.g. Asimov’s magazine), or the horrific and cynical attempts to keep the Wheel of Time, Dune and Amber series going despite the ‘ex-parrot’ status of their originators.
The most notable success in this area in recent years has been Millennium and Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. Originally conceived by Malcolm Edwards (and now sadly inactive), this broadly excellent collection of titles brought together a large number of out-of-print and forgotten classics of science fiction under a recognisable brand that was present in most high-street book shops; each book also featured a gushing but rather content-free blurb from a notable SF author of the day. While there are plenty of notable omissions from the list, it is easy to construct a case regarding why any particular title should qualify as a ‘masterwork’. Apart from Dune, obviously – that particular book is not so much the ghost at the feast as the gigantic mound of messianic horse shit that came to dinner. [So, not a Dune fan, then? – Ed.]
More recent attempts to brand old titles in the Criterion style have been markedly less successful. Gollancz followed up the SF Masterworks series with the bizarrely-titled SF4U and Future Classics collections, which included some decent titles but also displayed a lack of over-arching aesthetic which served only to suggest that their prime motivation was to shove out old books with some fancy covers and inflated price tags. This is a trend that was replicated with some taxonomic success for Fantasy, and with no success at all for Horror (particularly when you consider that the potentially great Horror Masterworks series barely ran to ten volumes).
The most notable example of this kind of thing in British publishing is the venerable Penguin Classics collection. First appearing in 1946, this periodically redesigned collection includes great – if occasionally elderly – works of fiction at accessible prices, with eye-catching covers and – most notably – critical introductions to the piece that serve a very similar purpose to Criterion’s DVD extras: to inform, enlighten and reassure. I know of a number of genre fans who got rid of their old Lovecraft collections in order to replace them with the three volumes produced by Penguin which included introductory essays by S. T. Joshi, one of the world’s foremost experts on H. P. Lovecraft.
Some genre attempts have been made to go down the ‘DVD extras‘ route but the results have been largely uneven. For example, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys (2005) included some sketches and notes while background material for both Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular (2007) and Greg Egan’s Incandescence (2008) were made available online. However, the Criterion Collection formula of critical essays and careful selection of titles as a means of constructing a strong brand has not yet (or at least not recently) received the support of a major publisher capable of regularly putting books in high-street shops.
Of course, another element of the Criterion formula is the fact that Criterion are not a studio. They have a critical distance from the production of intellectual property which grants their choices greater authority. A definitive list of titles is constructed not only by including excellent works but also by refusing to exclude notable works, and in order to make this possible an SF Criterion would require an element of inter-corporate support through which great works from other publishers might be licensed and sold for the enjoyment of future generations of SF readers.
Aside from providing a model through which less ‘populist’ works of SF might be marketed, the Criterion Collection also highlights an often overlooked fact about the literary ecosystem; criticism is not just about making shopping recommendations. Good criticism sheds new light on familiar works and effectively lengthens the intellectual life-span of a work of fiction; if books are about making you think about things then criticism is about inviting you to think about them again in new ways. The Criterion Collection suggests a way in which SF criticism might be used to benefit SF as a whole, and not just those of us with an interest in criticism. How many people go out and buy books about cinema? How many people listen to DVD extras about films they own? There is an opportunity here that deserves to be explored.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]