Let’s start with all the positives, and there are several, to this advice.
First of all, it’s just… fun? It’s why we’re fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in the first place? Sure, there’s a lot of new stuff coming out all the time, a constant firehose of #content, and yes, the hype is sometimes exhausting. I guess you can turn your back on that and go re-read your vintage Ace Doubles for the Nth time, but isn’t the thrill of the new part of why we got into this thing?
I also understand that a lot of the people giving this advice are editors and agents who get approximately 9,537 manuscripts a year which are poorly-written, warmed over versions of Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or peak-bloviating-libertarian Heinlein. If I got The Boy Wizard Who Taught the Elf Lords About the Virtues of Anarcho-Capitalism thrust at me a dozen times a day, I’d probably scream “KEEP UP WITH THE DAMN FIELD!” until my throat was bloody, too.
It does help to know what isn’t selling at all. No, teen supernatural romance is not cutting edge. No, your katana-wielding chrome-and-neon cyborg is not au courant. Oh, your adolescent protagonists discover they’re heir to mystic powers and embroiled in a supernatural war hidden from humanity for generations? How novel!
It also helps to see where the edges of the genre are being pushed outward. If you were writing epic fantasy a couple of years after A Song of Ice and Fire had come out, or as Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy was being published, well, you had a pretty clear signpost for where things were going.
“Keep up with the field” also carries overtones of someone going around and locking up doors and putting sharp objects out of your reach.
No, don’t read those books, they’re old!
No, don’t write in that subgenre, it’s out of fashion!
Here. Here’s where the genre is now. Colour inside the lines. Yes, like that. Good little writer!
Gibson’s outburst, quoted above, isn’t wrong. He was describing the field when he was starting out in the late ‘70s/early '80s, but there’s an awful lot of popular mediocrity in SFF today too, and, rightly or wrongly, I’ve come to associate it with this particular bit of advice. (Possibly because I once saw “Keep up with the field!” paired with “Come up with a new twist on a popular trope!” and that made me desperately sad, like the point of writing SFF is to just create small iterations on an existing body of quantifiable tropes. Jesus.)
I read a book recently, a new space opera (first in a series, because of course it was). And I’m not going to name the book, but it was fine. It was good, even. It was well written. The characters were well put together. The narrative didn’t bog down or get boring.
But I could taste the comps on that thing.
I read it cold, without seeing the dust jacket copy, and halfway through, I looked it up out of curiously. Sure enough, even the book jacket and the author’s website trumpeted it as “[Popular epic fantasy novel] meets [popular sci-fi media franchise]!” It was just A and B, mashed together and spackled over with some basic hero’s journey guff.
It was a book that spanned galaxies and dealt in centuries, and it was crushingly mundane. It felt small. If that’s the future of the genre, I want nothing to do with the genre.
And it has hundreds of positive reviews and ratings on Goodreads and the damn thing is selling well, so what the fuck do I know, right?
I know that none of the SFF authors I really admire from the last 30-odd years wrote books that look like they were “keeping up with the genre.”
I look at the careers of folks like Susanna Clarke, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, N.K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, China Mieville, Kai Ashante Wilson, Martha Wells – you can tell they don’t give a good goddamn what anyone else was writing. In some cases, they were only paying attention to the state of the field so they could go in exactly the opposite direction.