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How seriously should we take fantasy literature?

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  • How seriously should we take fantasy literature?

    Hello everyone,
    I'm new to this website but so far it looks like a good place to air ideas on. No-one I know personally would be interested in this sort of thing, so I wondered if I could bend your ears...?

    In the UK at least, fantasy fiction seems to be acquiring a new respectablity. It's not just that sales of Tolkien are soaring, it's something else. Philip Pullman and Tolkien are being discussed by panels of literati on Radio 4, grown men and women read Harry Potter on public transport without embarrasment. They're officially o.k. now, when a few years ago this sort of thing was generally regarded as being... well, a bit nerdy, and certainly as purely escapist literature unworthy of serious attention.
    Which, to me, is a bit funny, because I can't stand Tolkien, I tried reading Northern Lights but was turned off by Pullman's pompous prose style, and the Harry Potter books are - to me - disposable, forgettable stuff; certainly not the classic that some people have claimed it to be.

    Also, I find it funny that back in the day, fantasy and sf literature was largely written as shorts. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan, Elric... Even the early Elric novels are so short they're only printed in omnibus editions now, and were originally published in instalments. Now, however, it seems to me that if you've got ambitions to become a published fantasy author you need not just a sequel ready but a whole seven Chronicles of Zarg in the pipeline if you want to see your work in print. I work in a pretty large bookshop, and I don't think that there's one fantasy author in stock who has just one book out. Compare that to the mainstream fiction, most of which is taken up with authors with only one or two books. And not only do current fantasy authors expect you to devote hours of your time reading their ten-part magnum opuses, they all share a pompous, cod-Tolkien style of po-faced seriousness.

    Now that really does confuse me, because fantasy literature is inherently daft. It does, after all, involve people with unpronouncable names, unlikely cultures, and scientifically-impossible goings-on. The writers of the old school realised this; our own dear Mr Moorcock realises this. Fritz Lieber knew it, and it's his tone of playfulness that makes his stories such a pleasure. Even Robert E Howard had his tongue in his cheek (although it's easy to miss) and certainly never regarded his work as having pretensions to respectablity. At the end of the day, the writing of the old school is pulp, and it knows it - and that's not a drawback, it's a virtue. Moorcock and Lieber indulge themselves in the freeflow of creativity, they play around with ideas. Tolkien and his imitators, on the other hand, bog themselves down with a misguided attempt to keep their fictional worlds consistent and realistic when they should (to my taste) be riffing, making it up as they go along and striving not for realism but the very opposite. After all, didn't Moorcock once call his gods of Chaos the Lords of Unlikelihood?

    Oh dear, I have gone on for a bit. Such impertinence for a newbie. But can I pose a question to you all? Is there a place left for short sword-and-sorcery fiction that eschews po-faced seriousness in favour of imagination and fun?

    I've you've bothered to read my rantings this far, thank you very much.

  • #2
    I think the lot will be tilled under. The genre will fracture. We will see a new S&S emerge. I mean, what's left for Tolkein? Religion? Amusement parks? When it stops selling it goes away.
    The cat spread its wings and flew high into the air, hovering to keep pace with them as they moved cautiously toward the city. Then, as they climbed over the rubble of what had once been a gateway and began to make their way through piles of weed-grown masonry, the cat flew to the squat building with the yellow dome upon its roof. It flew twice around the dome and then came back to settle on Jhary's shoulder. - The King of the Swords

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    • #3
      Re: How seriously should we take fantasy literature?

      Originally posted by titmouser
      The writers of the old school realised this; our own dear Mr Moorcock realises this. Fritz Lieber knew it, and it's his tone of playfulness that makes his stories such a pleasure. Even Robert E Howard had his tongue in his cheek (although it's easy to miss) and certainly never regarded his work as having pretensions to respectablity. At the end of the day, the writing of the old school is pulp, and it knows it - and that's not a drawback, it's a virtue.
      I agree titmouser. I think this concept can be broadened to include, not only writers, but all people as well. I think any who take themselves too seriously is a fool. I think the wisest people are those that understand that they don't know everything and freely admit it.

      This reminds of a bit of Plato (yes VonWeiner, doesn't everything! collective yawn of the crowd begins...). You'll find titmouser, that I love Greek philosophy. Anyway, Socrates is addressing his acusers in the dialogue - Apology and he talks about the nature of his wisdom. He recounts an experience he had when trying to figure out why the Delphic Oracle said he was the wisest man. This "answer" had troubled him, for he felt that he was not that wise at all. So, he tried to question men that were said to be possessed of great wisdom in an attempt to prove the Oracle wrong by finding one wiser than he. Here is a bit of that dialogue.

      Socrates speaks of the first time he questioned one of these "wise-men":
      Originally posted by Plato
      ...and when I conversed with him, I thought this man seemed to be wise both to many others and especially to himself, but that he was not; and then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but was not. Because of that he disliked me and so did many others who were there, but I went away thinking to myself that I was wiser than this man; the fact is that niether of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he doesn't, and I don't know and don't think I do: so I am wiser than he is by only this trifle, that what I do not know I don't think I do.
      And on writers, same dialogue, same passage, but a bit further on:
      Originally posted by Plato
      So I took up their poems, those which I thought they had taken most pains to perfect, and questioned them as to what they meant, and I hoped to learn something from them at the same time. Well, gentlemen, I am ashamed to tell you the truth; but I must. Almost all the bystanders, with hardly an exception, one might say, had something better to say than the composers had about their own compositions. I discovered, then, very soon about the poets that no wisdom enabled them to compose as they did, but natural genius and inspiration; like the diviners and those who chant oracles, who say many fine things, but do not understand anything of what they say. The poets appeared to me to be in much the same case; and at the same time I perceived that because of their poetry they believed they were the wisest of mankind in other things as well, which they were not.
      I guess my incredibly long (and probably pompous-sounding :lol: ) point is that it is a rare person who does not take his life/work too seriously. I think the authors mentioned above are like that. Just being here and seeing how Michael responds to others (and that he is willing to do so) says a lot about his character. His interest in reaching out to his audience tells me he is a good man (or maybe its all a marketing trick eh! ).

      And I agree with Berry, once everyone gets tired of Ring Wraiths and Professor Dumbledore, they will go away and be replaced by something else. Something better let's hope. These stories/movies have opened the door though. As you said, now it is actully respectable to read sci-fi/fantasy. My mother is even reading it now!

      *the above excerpts were taken from Great Dialogues of Plato - Translation by W.H.D. Rouse, The New English Library Limited, London
      When they had advanced together to meet on common
      ground, then there was the clash of shields, of spears
      and the fury of men cased in bronze; bossed shields met
      each other and the din rose loud. Then there were
      mingled the groaning and the crowing of men killed and
      killing, and the ground ran with blood.

      Homer, The Illiad

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      • #4
        Hello. I can quite see Fantasy fracturing under its own pomposity. There has been no truly great series for years. Though, David Gemmell is a good author and I think Steven erikson might deserve a place in the pantheon. There are no freah ideas infiltrating the genre anymore. I myself am in the process of writing a novel (Fantasy) which, in the first volume, deliberately apperas like a Tolkien clone. I then hope to expand the ideas, create something new. However, with fantasy taking itself so seriously these days it will be some time before anybody really alters the way it is written.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Red-Arrow
          Hello. I can quite see Fantasy fracturing under its own pomposity. There has been no truly great series for years. Though, David Gemmell is a good author and I think Steven erikson might deserve a place in the pantheon. There are no freah ideas infiltrating the genre anymore. I myself am in the process of writing a novel (Fantasy) which, in the first volume, deliberately apperas like a Tolkien clone. I then hope to expand the ideas, create something new. However, with fantasy taking itself so seriously these days it will be some time before anybody really alters the way it is written.
          Have you read any Gene Wolfe? His Book of the New Sun series is excellent and his Soldier in the Mist books are great too. Of course these were written in the early 80's, so that may support your statements. I do agree with you. I found myself staring down at so much crap on the shevles of bookstores that I hardly ever buy anything new. There are some exceptions, but most things I see in the big bookstores/coffehouses/dvd-video-stores/yadda yadda... seems to me stamped out from some pattern that the publishers think will make $$$. Like the "cookie-cutter" writing that can be found in 99% of the movies coming out of Hollywood.

          Ah maybe it is for the best. It might inspire a whole new generation of writers to produce some original and fantastic work (such as yourself).
          When they had advanced together to meet on common
          ground, then there was the clash of shields, of spears
          and the fury of men cased in bronze; bossed shields met
          each other and the din rose loud. Then there were
          mingled the groaning and the crowing of men killed and
          killing, and the ground ran with blood.

          Homer, The Illiad

          Comment


          • #6
            Cheers people,

            I wasn't sure how you'd take me blundering into this site and firing off bumptious questions. Nice to encounter people who've got opinions on this sort of thing as well.

            Von Weiner - Plato? Bring it on! I did the Apologia for my Greek GCSE (how's that for pompous?) and even as a kid I couldn't fail to be impressed by the man. Your point is spot-on, I think - it's an integral part of his brilliance that he never took anyone too seriously, least of all himself. Even when the sentence of death was passed on him he carried on taking the piss!

            As for our esteemed MM and this website - frankly, I'm bowled over. Where does he find the time to do anything else?

            And finally... what sort of thing would you lot like to see coming onto the bookshelves? You all seem pretty unhappy with the genre as it is, so what do you think is the way forward?

            Comment


            • #7
              I've run over this thread twice, and now I (finally) have to put in my two cents.

              I think that we can take fantasy pretty seriously, as long as we don't take all of it seriously. Authors like Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville (as well as our own MM) certainly use fiction as a vehicle for ideas or systems of ideas about our world. I see this as fundamentally opposed to the authors who create their own world, and write endlessly about only it. For example, authors like Robert Jordan only want you to think about their world, not ours.

              In contrast, when I read the second ether sequence, I thought more about the "real" world--and its issues-- than I did about the fictional world of Jack and the Rose. Mike had something profound to say about our world, not his (maybe) fictional one.

              What saddens me is that pure escapism usually sells best, so it defines the genre. People who aren't regular readers of fantasy (and even some who are) don't know the difference between Jeffrey Ford and L.E. Modessitt. Consequently, people often- mistakenly-judge the literary value of the Jonathan Carrolls (and MMs) of the world as being the same as the David Drakes.

              Oddly, what I think happerns is that some of the smarter stuff alienates both non-fantasy readers (who may think it is of poor literary quality) and fantasy readers (who are often looking for Tolkien to reappear in every fantasy novel). This makes genre-expanding and genre-bending stuff harder to sell, both to publishers and to the public.

              I really want to be wrong. I hope literary fantasy doesn't remain a niche market. Neil Gaiman's huge crossover success gives me reason to believe.

              Comment

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