Giving Science Fiction the ‘Criterion Collection’ Treatment

Jonathan McCalmont @ 10-12-2008

This month in Blasphemous Geometries: what lessons can be taken from the successful branding of classic cinema and applied to science fiction literature?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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 McCalmontJonathan 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. ]

Be Sociable, Share!

15 Responses to “Giving Science Fiction the ‘Criterion Collection’ Treatment”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    So, how do you explain the Criterion Collection edition of Robinson Crusoe on Mars?

    Other attempts at sf branding… Venture SF, the original Gollancz Classics (some titles from which, strangely, have not appeared in the SF Masterworks series), Ben Bova Discoveries, Ace Specials (KSR and Swanwick and… er, Claudia O’Keefe? Loren J McGregor?)…

  2. Dave says:

    The best example of this is probably the Library of America edition of Philip K. Dick’s work, now into 2 volumes, edited and with commentary by Jonathan Lethem. A trashy pulp writer is repackaged as classic. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of it.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    I think Jonathan’s talking specifically about genre-specific collections, Dave. Though the interesting thing is that apparently Library of America has never had a title that sold anywhere near as well as the PKD collection. Maybe they’ll start a subdivision… but then how many sf writers would have the cachet that Dick has?

  4. ShaunCG says:

    “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.]”

    Fucker. 😉

    An otherwise excellent piece with which I whole-heartedly agree. It would be grand to see some classic genre titles repackaged with such extras. I’d buy new editions for my favourites, for sure.

  5. Jonathan M says:

    Ian — Not sure I’ve actually seen Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Is it the one where he gets stranded and then finds water and meat plants? I seem to remember that being perfectly decent… aside from the fact that Mars had a breathable atmosphere and… er… canals.

    Dave — There are also Penguin classic versions of some of PKD’s books like The Man in the High Castle. But as Paul says, the number of authors who can be relied upon to appeal to a mainstream audience is not huge. Though I suspect Le Guin and Gibson might well appear at some point as both do have mainstream profiles and vast swathes of academic writing about them and that’s without mentioning borderline people like Atwood.

    Shaun — …and I’m sure you’re not alone in that either. The interesting thing is that Gollancz in particular are nearly there as they seem to be churning their older titles quite effectively. Not only was Ryman’s Was re-released as part of the Masterworks series but it’s also since been re-released with a cover similar to that of Was (perhaps in an attempt to cash in on Ryman’s Clarke award win). I don’t think it would take much for them to start rolling out these types of packages.

  6. Ian Sales says:

    It’s not that Robinson Crusoe is not a decent film, just that it doesn’t seem to fit in with the Bergmans, Tarkovskys, Hitchcocks, Powell & Pressburgers, Dreyers, Kurosawas, etc. Mind you, they also do a boxed set which includes The Atomic Submarine and First Man into Space… I suppose it would be little different to including EE ‘Doc’ Smith or Edmond Hamilton in a sf classics series of books.

    On the subject of extras, some author’s creations are expanded in “non-fictional” works – The Dune Encyclopedia, The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, The Confederation Handbook… Other authors detail their writing process – I’m thinking of Dan Simmons’ Summer Sketches in particular.

  7. Martin says:

    Millennium and Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. Originally conceived by Malcolm Edwards (and now sadly inactive),

    They’ve just published The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress as number 72 in the series.

  8. Martin says:

    There are also Penguin classic versions of some of PKD’s books like The Man in the High Castle. But as Paul says, the number of authors who can be relied upon to appeal to a mainstream audience is not huge.

    It would be interesting to collect a list of these.

    Brian Aldiss has obviously got a good deal going on. He provided introductions for Planet Of The Apes and War Of The Worlds and they’ve just issued Hothouse (with an introduction by Neil Gaimen).

    The one off ones like the Library of America Dick are also interesting. For example, the NYRB edition of Inverted World by Priest (introduction by Clute).

  9. Martin says:

    Naughty HTML.

  10. Jonathan M says:

    Ian — there are some weird choices in there I agree. But I think it’s part of the series’ charm that it’s not only ultra-worthy 50s cinema. I’m sure there are people in the US who go “Withnail and I?”

    I think that extra material provided by the authors tend to vary hugely depending upon the author. This is also true of DVD commentary tracks. Getting critics and historians to do it is a nice way of side-stepping the issue of people unable or unwilling to say anything interesting about their own work.

    Martin — yeah, I saw that when I went back to the site to check something yesterday. I’m glad to see that they’ve started the series up again after a hiatus even if I’m not a huge fan of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein in his Billy Graham phase of casting himself in things so that he can grind through weird one-sided Platonic dialogues.

    Priest + Clute sounds like a good purchase.

  11. Martin says:

    I’m not a huge fan of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

    No, it is balls. I think this edition is a small format hardback – an odd choice given it is OOP in paperback in the UK – so I’m not sure if it really signals the return of the series.

  12. Ian Sales says:

    They may not have had paperback rights – and as they managed to include Dune in the SF Masterworks series by making it an unjacketed hardback, they may be doing the same with the Heinlein.

    I’ve not read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I’ll buy it chiefly because I’ve got the other 71 SF Masterworks.

  13. Jonathan M says:

    I suspect Ian is right about paperback rights though as Martin suggests, it is slightly weird that the paperback rights would be unobtainable given that it’s OOP in the UK.

    The masterwork hardbacks are rather confusing from a brand perspective as they’re kind of a separate series. They originally had roman numerals though if TMIAHM is number 72 AND a hardback then it suggests that this distinction has been dissolved.

    In a way it’s slightly weird that they’re reactivating the masterwork series as Gollancz have clearly been operating a rolling programme of ad hoc branding with SF4U (still a terrible fucking name… who rips off a mobile phone shop’s name and gives it to books?) then the semi-non-sensical Future Classics then various other new series of covers and now they’ve gone back to a successful series but with weird numbering.

    There seems to be some weird mindset that you can’t just re-print old books nowadays. you have to push them out as a part of a series even if that series means absolutely nothing.

  14. Jonathan M says:

    Having just checked wikipedia, it turns out that the Moon is a Harsh Mistress was previously released by Gollancz as a part of the hardback masterworks series and adorned with the roman numeral VII.

    So if the book has been reissued as a hardback with the number 72 on it then their numbering systems really have been chucked out of the window.

  15. Ian Sales says:

    The way I understood it was that the roman numeral hardback Masterworks were addenda to the paperback series – and branded slightly differently – specifically for those books they couldn’t get paperback rights to. However, I suspect they sold badly – copies of them are pretty rare now. The paperback series has been selling solidly – much better than the Fantasy Masterworks (which stopped at 50), and the Crime Masterworks (which has also stopped). Gollancz then decided to format Dune as an unjacketed hardcover so they could add it to the “paperback” series. It’s the series branding, rather than the hard/soft covers, which determine the series – but the choice of unjacketed hardcover makes it more “paperbacky-like”. Now they’ve done the same to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Perhaps they’ll do likewise with the other roman numeral masterworks…