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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.