Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fantasy: 1977 to 2011. Wrapping It All Up

This project grew out of a response to Tom Simon's review of fantasy in 1977 and his lamentations regarding the trends that 1977's publications foreshadowed. I broke down Simon's issues with mainstream fantasy thusly:
To distill from the above, it seems an over-arching adherence to Tolkien as the defining figure of the genre seems to be crippling it. In addition, attempts to break away from his influence often falter with both editors and audiences. Dabbling in the mythologies and philosophies of non-Western cultures can be interesting, but it must also be coherent--when its not you get confused and pointless sagas that go nowhere like Hancock's Circle of Light.
Each series Simon reviewed displayed problems that he had with the growth of these trends:
  • Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara represents imitation of Tolkien's work, debasing it into a set formula, without any of the thematic impact, narrative content, or unique characterization. This application the formula tends to be inept and riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever represents how doing something different (and indeed, philosophical) with the genre will lack the mass-audience appeal of more imitative work and how a work is hindered by the demands of publishers for a follow-up trilogy.
  • Niel Hancock's The Circle of Light illustrates meandering plots without any meaningful pay-offs or resolutions. It also demonstrates how many later authors would clumsily employ different philosophies and religions as narrative gimmicks.
  • Finally, by analyzing The Silmarillion, Simon appeals to authors to blaze new trails and not get caught up in world-building to such a catastrophic level where the writer cannot escape it and becomes imaginatively bankrupt.
My own analysis of the 1980s and 1990s in fantasy seemed to uphold Simon's conclusions. I isolated a number of tropes Tolkien had established in fantasy, many of which were drawn from typical medieval and renaissance romances. To reiterate, they include:
  • The pastoral, bucolic countryman drawn into events beyond his initial ken.
  • The reluctant king in disguise or exile (or perhaps his kingdom is fallen).
  • The wise, sagelike wizard guide.
  • Dark lords, evil gods, or some other source of world-threatening power.
  • Ancient races (elves, dwarves, etc.) that predate humans and live a fey-like existence quite removed from the mundane realities of humankind.
  • Epic battles and wars.
  • A journey into darkness.
  • Evil lands or kingdoms.
  • The chivalric ideal.
  • Orcs, goblins, or some other sort of twisted creature that follows the dark lord/god.
  • Gigantic, formidable monsters.
  • Demonic, ghostly, or otherwise terrifying agents of the dark lord.
  • Copious worldbuilding, history, backstory, languages, and myth.
  • Infodump chapters where the peasant/country bumpkin hero is described the history and backstory.
The successful authors, primarily Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind and David Eddings, exhibit many of the flaws that Simon identified in his examination of 1977's releases. That many of these authors were released by Del Rey or Tor Books should not go unnoticed. The growing influence of the publisher on the author (especially the cynical del Reys themselves) had a profound effect on the proliferation of doorstops and simplistic narratives. Some overly-slavish imitations, such as Dennis McKiernan's The Iron Tower Trilogy never garnered the audience of the more successful authors. Nevertheless, many authors who started strong, such as Raymond E. Feist, Glen Cook, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr., with imaginative worlds and interesting thematic elements, failed to maintain their uniqueness and strength in the long run. Feist, in particular, reached a high-water mark with A Darkness at Sethanon, but subsequent novels became more derivative and self-referential, with more repetitive conflicts ("bigger and badder" do not always equal better) and less-and-less payoff. Other authors, such as Tad Williams, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and C.S. Friedman, wrote unique, focused, imaginative series of finite length that didn't approach the mass-market appeal of other works.

It wasn't until George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson debuted that mainstream fantasy received a much-needed shot-in-the-arm. Yet in the first decade of the 21st century, following Martin (in particular) came a bevvy of authors without the skill at crafting a coherent narrative that wrote in stark contrast to Tolkien. Indeed, they often seemed to blame Tolkien for the mire in which fantasy found itself. These writers were R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Stan Nicholls, and Richard Morgan. Many of them drew influence from pre-1977 writer Michael Moorcock and likewise fueled their writing with fumes of stark dislike for "Tolkien's politics."

This new generation of authors exhibited two distinctive and new traits.
  1. Similar to Martin (and Tad Williams before), they sought to depict medieval warfare as brutal, bloody, savage, and destructive. They also described the effect of war on the populace--famine, rapine, pillaging, disease, and other features of the medieval chevauchée.
  2. They also featured a lot of narrative elements subversive to Tolkien, such as morally ambiguous heroes, political intrigue, sympathetic villains, and a distinction between good and evil that is blurry at best (and often nonexistent). They were often driven by a polemic desire to protest Tolkien's politics and overthrow his influence over modern fantasy.
Unfortunately, these writers seem to focus mostly on these elements and not on cohesive plotting, believable characters, or effective dialogue. In effect, these elements are not included in order to advance the story or develop the characters. They are included for the express purpose of rebelling against Tolkien. This is the greatest irony of all: they are basically doing the same thing as Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, but in the opposite direction and displaying all of the narrative and characterizing problems that Tom Simon identifies in his analysis of Sword. The authors do not realize that they, in truth, are just as derivative of Tolkien as his imitators. As a result, they fail to achieve any real literary merit, relegating themselves to cheap, adolescent grindhouse versions of fantasy.

Those authors who do employ these political and graphic elements successfully make these elements vehicles for plot and character development as any writer (fantasy or not) should. Therefore, I must insist that the weaknesses and errors that Simon identified (and to which I have added) are not unique to fantasy. Those who are successful at incorporating those two new traits (politics and graphic violence/sex) have done so in a manner that makes these elements meaningful to both the plot and the characters, therefore making them meaningful to the audience beyond providing "edginess," "topical relevance," and "realism." Those successful are Martin, Bakker, and Williams in particular--they were not revolting against Tolkien or attempting to push some sort of agenda but instead presenting worlds, characters, and situations designed to provoke questions for the reader to answer. If one were to remove the sex and violence from Martin or Bakker, the narrative would become weaker. If one were to remove it from Abercrombie, Morgan, or Nicholls, would it instead become apparent that the narrative was already weak?

So, is fantasy in as dire straits and as deep a mire in 2011 as it was in 1977?

Yes and no.

Yes because the issues which crept into fantasy haven't really disappeared. They've just changed their styles. The core problems are still present.
  • Reduction of Tolkien's narrative into a formula without any of the thematic impact, narrative content, or unique characterization, the application of which tends to be inept and riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies.
  • Lack the mass-audience appeal of less imitative work.
  • Demands of publishers for larger publications and follow-up material have contributed to doorstop fantasy series.
  • Meandering plots without any meaningful pay-offs or resolutions.
  • Clumsy and often dishonest application of different philosophies and religions as narrative gimmicks.
  • A tendency to get caught up in world-building to such a catastrophic level where the writer cannot escape it and becomes imaginatively bankrupt.
Add to this my own observations from the 2000s:
  • Hyperbolic and overly didactic political polemicism, especially anti-Tolkien polemicism, that is inherently and ironically trapped in Tolkien's legacy as much as Brooks' The Sword of Shannara. Spoon-fed lessons are a major factor, here.
  • A reliance upon gratuitous sex and graphic violence (often combined) in order to further divorce one's writing from Tolkien and earlier writings without these elements contributing to character or plot development.
What does this boil down to? Basically, bad writing. Fantasy publication since 1977 (and likely, publication in general) provides ample evidence that Sturgeon's Law is in full effect. The problem is that readers aren't reading the good stuff and are becoming convinced the bad stuff is actually good. This is why such writers as Robert Jordan are dangerous to young readers and aspiring authors alike.

I may be tempted to make the argument that all of modern literature is exhibiting these issues. There are more people writing and getting published than ever before and their material is becoming more uniform and less varied and prolific. However, I won't make such a broad and sweeping claim because I don't have much access to the dregs of the past and am keenly aware of the proliferation of penny-dreadfuls in the Victorian era.

What is unique to fantasy is that the genre seems to be tragically hidebound to certain styles and both audience and publishers are woefully ignorant of the finer points of style, taste, and literary substance. The fact is that most fantasy readers are ignorant of literature outside of the genre. Such knowledge might have a profound impact on their taste. Indeed, most readers would likely prefer to read through all 15,000 pages of The Wheel of Time than The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Misérables, Moby-Dick, and The Grapes of Wrath (totaling around 3,000 pages--less than one fifth the length). This, I find, both sad and disappointing.

In the end, the blame must be laid at two sets of feet--the publishers and the readers. The publishers are at fault because instead of being motivated to publish literature they are instead motivated by profit in only the most cynical manner (as exemplified by the del Reys). The readers are at fault by being so hidebound and ignorant of literature that they are bereft of any and all taste, motivated by a desire to either see Middle-earth last forever or be violently overthrown.

There is hope for fantasy provided good writers enter the genre. That is why I continually referred to Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker as symbols of hope for mainstream epic fantasy. Williams unfortunately flew beneath the mainstream radar. Bakker's narrative is carried by extremely abstract philosophical, ethical, and psychological content (which makes sense, the man was a Ph.D. student in philosophy before he turned to writing and it shows in his work). This renders The Second Apocalypse a bit out-of-reach intellectually for most readers that cannot get past the surface elements of his novels.

Yet these writers are still going. And they're likely to inspire further writers to take on the genre and use it as a playground for their imaginations. Lets just hope that these future writers are far more literary and capable of good writing.


Dennis Laffey said...

Awesome series of posts, Dave! I really enjoyed reading it. I haven't read most of the later (2000's) authors you wrote about, and I skipped some of the 80's and 90
s writers, too, but you do a great job of pointing out the flaws of modern fantasy.

Lagomorph Rex said...

It was a very good series of posts.

I don't know how I feel about your dislike of Robert Jordan. I agree he is no, Melville or Dumas. Yes if he were a better writer he likely could have turned his Wheel of Time series into a single 3000 page epic and it would have been better for it.. but I'm not sure he would have been as popular.

But I'm not sure he's dangerous.

That being said. I tend to consider the books that are the most subversive of the status quo, to be the most dangerous. Where as those that maintain the status quo are the least threatening.

Maybe thats the whole point though. If you aren't subversive at all, you wind up like Brooks and Jordan.. if you are too subversive you wind up like Abercrombie.. The trick is to be just enough subversive to do your own thing, while not pissing all over everything that came before.

Dave Cesarano said...

@Dennis: Glad you liked this series. I hope some of the POSITIVE comments I've had for some books, like C.S. Friedman's stuff, for example, were helpful in inspiring your reading. Dunno if you looked up any of Erikson's Malazan stuff, but you should.

@Lagomorph Rex: I'm glad you enjoyed this. Yes, I was a bit hyperbolic about Robert Jordan, but that is because he has so many fans. If he had a smaller fanbase, I wouldn't feel that he were dangerous. I do feel that way because he's so many fans and his influence on their reading/writing is going to be profound.

I agree that the ultra-subversives can be dangerous as well.

Glad you enjoyed the series. It was pretty challenging and time-consuming to write but I've been wanting to do something like this for a while.

Brian Murphy said...

I liked this series a lot as well, nice job Dave. This paragraph is very telling:

In the end, the blame must be laid at two sets of feet--the publishers and the readers. The publishers are at fault because instead of being motivated to publish literature they are instead motivated by profit in only the most cynical manner (as exemplified by the del Reys). The readers are at fault by being so hidebound and ignorant of literature that they are bereft of any and all taste, motivated by a desire to either see Middle-earth last forever or be violently overthrown.

While I think both camps are at fault, publishers are in the end only giving readers what they want. Though I do wonder how much pressure fantasy authors receive from publishers ("You want me to turn my 500 page novel into three books in order to triple the sales? Okay, I guess I could do that.")

Unknown said...

I'm a little late to the game here, but thank you for this excellent post. I'm not sure I'm with you on accepting Tad Williams, as I found Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn interminable, but I can get behind everything else you've written here. Murgen and Sleepy tried so hard to measure up to Croaker as narrators, and just couldn't manage it... though I think even the later books of that series are better than much of the rest of what's available.

WriterJosh said...

I'm gonna have to take issue with your lumping Abercrombie in with Nicholls and Morgan. From your comments equating all three writers as essentially the same in content and motivation, I'm going to assume you haven't actually read any of Abercrombie's stuff and are instead writing based solely on his reputation.

I have read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and I find that it is essentially a leaner, meaner take on George RR Martin's approach to fantasy writing. His focus is on visceral character development and he crafts some of the most in-depth characterizations I've ever read. In lesser hands, a man like Glokta would be thoroughly unlikeable, a stereotypical boo-hiss villain incapable of drawing an iota of sympathy from the reader. In Abercrombie's hands, he comes off as more sympathetic than anyone else in the book.

Also, reading comments from the author's blog, Abercrombie is definitely NOT trying to just be an "anti-Tolkien". He respects Tolkien, rightly reveres him as the father of the genre he writes in. But he correctly states that Tolkien has already mapped out one corner of the fantasy genre, so it would be wrong of Abercrombie to stick solely to those paths. As far as I'm concerned, Abercrombie is head and shoulders above the likes of Morgan and Nicholls and deserves to be thought of as Martin's successor.

I have said before that writers who employ a healthy dose of cynicism, grit and realism in their fantasy writing have helped broaden the genre and help people understand that it's not just all fanciful swill designed to entertain children. Writers like Martin, Erikson, KJ Parker, Bakker, Matthew Stover, China Meiville and yes, Abercrombie, are not just "rebelling against Tolkien" but are instead rising beyond the formulaic approach of Brooks, Eddings, Salvatore, et al. They are the modern Glen Cooks or Mervyn Peakes, showing what more the genre can be.

Hansen said...

I don't understand the dislike for Tolkien some modern fantasy writers have. Can't believe how easy they are to manipulate with articles like Epic Pooh. There is a lot to say about that article, but I'm not sure it would be worth to invest a lot of time and energy to write it a reply in the comment section on the net, where it would be ignored by most people.

Modern fantasy is sadly often too bloated. Novels that (in my opinion) are excellent get far less recognition than (again in my opinion) hyped ones. What I do agree with, is the clichés about the concept of evil. There is an evil force out to destroy the world because it is evil, plane and simple. Evilness that bites itself in the tail. The antagonist should have a more credible motivation than simply being evil.