On barriers to entry and the “rules” of speculative fiction

There is a glut of writers of all kinds.  Of all genres, lengths, and abilities.  It’s hard to say whether this is a cause or a result of the proliferation of writing advice out there on the internet, but the fact is that anyone who has ever dreamt of being a writer has a greater amount of wisdom at their fingertips than ever before.  We have submission guidelines, editor interviews, and whole archives of publications ready for our immediate perusal.  Manuscripts can be edited, submitted, and published without once being printed out.  Traditional paths to getting published can be circumvented.  Professional writers as a matter of course share a wealth of tips on everything from inspiration to marketing, easily accessible to any interested party.

And as the barriers to entry shrink and more and more aspiring writers enter the fray, it seems that new, ever more specific barriers get constructed in an ongoing effort to sort the best from the rest.  Today’s editors, workshop leaders, and even casual, anonymous reviewers seem to have internalized all sorts of rules that color their impressions of a story—rules that some older works would never hold up to if they were first being released in today’s market.  I can hardly blame them.  I would imagine that a mental checklist can be very handy in sorting through the growing slush pile.  Of course, whether following all these rules equates to improved writing will vary from case to case.

What sorts of “rules” get bandied about, you ask?  I can only speak to the ones I’ve heard about in discussions of speculative fiction in particular:  Hard science fiction must be sound not only in its extrapolations of science but also in its character development.  Fantasy worlds must be founded upon logical underlying systems of economics and politics, whether those are integral to the plot or not.  Protagonists must be plagued with obstacles, preferably internal as well as external, but must never whine.  Villains must be sympathetic, at least to some degree.  And so forth.

Generally I agree with these types of advice, although I’m still figuring out how much I agree with the grayer areas, the rules of thumb that, yes, probably will elevate a story in most cases but that get preached as though they were infallible scripture.  As if the most creative magic system isn’t enough if, although internally consistent within the story, it doesn’t also have a whole backstory of how it came to exist in that world.  Or your alien protagonist, who has to be human enough for us to connect with, had better not slip into an oh-so-human moment of woe-is-me while facing great odds.

I suppose these rules help us refute the criticisms of those who turn their noses up at genre fiction.  I understand the desire to reward those writers who show their research, and I see the value in holding speculative fiction up to ever higher standards, but isn’t there still room as well for the mysterious, the nonsensical, and the unapologetically archetypal in the ever-swelling sea of writing?  Perhaps the question should be, is there readership for it, and if so, the implied response in this day and age is that it will make its own room.