Post-Tolkien Fantasy

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way. Continue reading

You Vote: NPR’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy

So, you may have already heard, but NPR is taking nominations for an upcoming Top-100 list of the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy books.

They have a few rules: no YA fantasy or science fiction (which cuts out Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and my personal childhood favorite, the Prydain Chronicles), no horror and no Paranormal Romance (which means no Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer) – although that last rule seems, to me, to be a bit unclear, because the line between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy is pretty thin and fuzzy, and the latter is definitely SF&F…

Anyway, the excluded genres and subgenres they intend to cover in later Best-1oo lists, so they say that’s why.

If you haven’t already, you can go and nominate your five favorites in the comments here.

Beginning with a Map

I mentioned in my weekly report, yesterday, that I’d drawn a map for my current novel project, The Book of M.  I’ve written about mapmaking on my blog before, but seeing as it’s been over a year, I figure the statute of limitations are up on that one.  I said this, previously:

Maps have always been one of my favorite parts of fantasy novels.  When provided, I refer to them frequently throughout reading a novel.  Maps give the world a sense of place, a sense of being real in a way that words alone cannot.  The words and the map together make the world what it is, making the characters who interact in it all the more real.

I think what I said then is still an eloquent observation, so I share it again. 

When last I talked about maps in the context of writing a fantasy novel, I was relating the tale of how I had embarked on a new, computer-assisted mapping project for the world of my “Project SOA” books using The Gimp.  Ultimately, however, my little laptop proved insufficiently powerful to handle the map I was then creating.  (I’ll share an image of what I had done, so far, down below.)

The Map of the Book of M

My hand-drawn map of the world of the Book of M, with the few named locations conveniently removed to protect the as-yet innocent.

Now, I’m working on “Book of M”.  And last week, I realized I’d reached the point where I needed a map.  But, this time I don’t have time to waste wrangling with GIMP on a machine that was never meant to run the GIMP.  So, for now at least, it’s back to my old, tried-and-true mapmaking tools: pencil and paper.  And of course, why not make use of the gloriously blank pages of my Hot New Writer’s Journal?  So that’s just what I did.  Continue reading

Time is Not Kind

Well… I had a look at my printed copy of “PFTETD”.  It’s pretty eye-opening to give the story a bit of a read after some four months or more of separation.

I still believe this is probably the best story I’ve written yet.  Still, it is flawed.  Right from the get-go, I can see it now.  The opening drags just a little slowly.  The language is occasionally awkward even after several drafts.  There are still some characterization issues.

I’m not sure how I would fix these problems.  I haven’t actually read it all the way through, just the first few pages, so I’m sure there would be more problems revealed with a more complete read-through.

It’s a good story.  But it’s not a good story.  You know, like, really good.  I knew it wasn’t great, but I thought it was really good.  Instead, just as Westley wasn’t all dead, he was just mostly dead (sorry for the spoiler, folks, but there’s a bit of a statute of limitations on classics like these), the story isn’t all good, it’s just mostly good.

So, you know… I might actually learn a thing or two at JordanCon by workshopping this.

A Note on Novel Nomenclature

So, I’ve written in the past about “the novel that I’ve been working on since forever” (and also often used the term “blather” when referring to it) and I’ve mentioned the new novel that I intend to start writing (just as soon as I have time to write).

I’ve come to find these long descriptive phrases to be unwieldy.  And, from the perspective of you, the reader, they’re not entirely useful or meaningful.  Because those long, unwieldy descriptions don’t tell you anything about the book itself but instead tell you about my temporal relationship with the book.

This ends now.  Inasmuch as I may continue to refer to either or both of these books – or even inasmuch as I might refer to any of my writing projects – I intend to start referring to those works and projects either by their titles (in the fullness of time) or by code-titles (in the beginning).  Eventually, therefore, I may be able to add word count meters and write in blog posts about my various projects and what I’m doing in them, and it will be easier to you, the reader, to understand what I mean rather than having to parse some long-and-not-altogether-useful-phrase like “that novel that I’ve been working on since forever”.

So, let’s get started. Continue reading

Myth: Fantasy Genre Isn’t Real Writing…

So, I’ve been getting search engine hits based on the phrase “Fantasy genre isn’t real writing”.  Which means, someone typed this phrase into a search engine, hit “search”, and then clicked on one of the hits which happened to lead to my blog.  Go ahead and try that yourself.  In Google, my blog comes up as the third hit for that phrase.  The reason is a comment I made on my blog post “Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia“.  I intend to revisit the topic of mythopoeia on my blog at some future point, but I was somewhat disturbed by the idea that someone would type the phrase “Fantasy genre isn’t real writing” into a search engine not just once but multiple times!  And so, I thought I would play a little “Mythbusters” game and set the record straight, with regards to the relative merits of writing in the Fantasy genre.  Ergo:

MYTH: Stories and novels written in the Fantasy Genre are not real writing

Let’s explore this myth, shall we?  My first stop is to understand where this idea is coming from.  In my comment on the above-linked post, I make reference to a story a friend of mine posted on my Facebook in response to my posting of the Mythopoeia post.  The friend tells of a time when a college adviser of hers (I understand her to have been an English major) encouraged her to abandon writing in the fantasy genre.  In her words, her advisor “warned me that fantasy was (not his exact words) not real writing.”

My friend went on to say that she asked about Tolkien and Lewis, and Frankenstein and Dracula.  The unspoken assertion was that certainly the adviser would not consider these works and these writers to “not be real writing” or “not real writers”.  To suggest that would be thought ludicrous and absurd.  But this point of view is entrenched, and people who are entrenched often have rejoinders prepared for just such a challenge, and such was the case this time.  My friend’s adviser dismissed her claim by assuring her that these examples were classics.  Again, the unspoken assertion is that classics are not subject to the arbitrary genre classifications we impose on writing today, nor are they subject to the arbitrary, subjective qualitative critiques either of academia nor of the literary community.  Finally, in that same post on my facebook, my friend concluded with this thought:

I mean I’m sure that someone will eventually call Twilight and the Harry Potter books classics. Do works have to be initially hated for them to eventually mean something?

In my comment on that blogpost, I explore this idea, but I want to do so here in greater detail.  But first, to return to my first question: where is this idea that “fantasy” writing is not “real” writing coming from?  Certainly, it appears to be coming, at least on some instances, from within the vaunted halls of ivory tower academia.  But I am not here to be dismissive of academia.  I believe firmly in the value of advanced education (I’m pursuing a post-graduate degree as we speak).  But individuals within academia may at times have misguided ideals.

It also appears to me, based on a general reading of the zeitgeist, that this in idea that pervades the writers and critics of “literary” fiction.  At least, there seems to be a pervasive sense within the fantasy and science fiction fan community of an “us versus them” mentality whereby fans of speculative fiction fancy themselves an oppressed minority beset by elitist “literary” types who deny them legitimacy.  I’ve no evidence that this is a real phenomenon, not even anecdotally, except to say that I’ve detected that note in things I’ve read on the internet (and you know well the value of what you read on the internet, which I say while noting that what you are reading this minute is, in fact, on the internet).

But let’s say, for a moment, that there is an individual or individuals, either in academia or in literary criticism, who is propagating the idea that “fantasy writing is not real writing” and who is denigrating the writers thereof?  Why would they say such a thing?

One presupposes that, at least in part, that they believe what they are saying, or else why would they say it?  Let’s further presuppose that those who would say such things are not ignorant of the considerable body of fantastic and speculative fiction that exists in the classical body of literature.  When they criticize fantasy literature, therefore, do they criticize this entire body of classical fantasy literature?  In asking this question, I am emboldened to broaden my horizons from a strict analysis of “fantasy” literature to include “speculative fiction” of all stripes: science fiction, horror, and other less easily classified works.  Would the critics of fantasy literature extend their criticisms to all of these speculative works?

Let’s explore this in greater depth.  My friend rhetorically asked about “Tolkien and Lewis and Frankenstein and Dracula”.  But I assert that this is but a thin sample of the full body of classical literature that touches on fantastic or speculative themes.  In fact, we can trace the use of fantastic and speculative themes to the very foundations of literature.  Homer’s famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are primal examples of fantastic literature.  But they are at the beginning, not the end, of this ancient tradition.  Homer’s epics drew heavily from an existing body of myth, and although the Greeks of his time may have believed in the literal truth of the various Greek Gods and their foundational myths, just the same the purpose of these epics was without question to entertain, and not to educate.  (A critical analysis of the works themselves would confirm this, as well as the history we are given of the works.  We are told that originally they were recited, much as we might expect the songs and stories of bards to have been recited in medieval courts.)

Telling stories, for the purpose of entertainment, that reach in mythology and the realms of the unseen and unknown has continued unabated to this day.  The ancient epics of Homer’s day eventually gave way to the Medieval epics, including Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied (popularized in Wagner’s opera, the Ring of Nibelung).  These in turn were followed by the Romances, including the Arthurian Romances (from whence the Questing theme of modern Fantasy literature).  These were later followed up with fantastical and allegorical works, such as Edmund Spencer’s epic poem, The Faierie Queene and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  All of these are the precursors of today’s Fantasy Literature, being the source for the themes, motifs, and forms that are most common in fantasy. 

This is a not-insignificant body of literature from the entire history of civilization (and spanning not just our Western culture, but reaching to the East as well).  A significant body to so casually dismiss.

It is then that we come to the macabre tales that we read in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – both books that are fantastical by nature.  As a distinct literary genre (separate from horror or science fiction), fantasy has its roots in the works of George MacDonald (who published Phantastes in 1858), Lord Dunsany (whose invented mythology, The Gods of Pegana was published in 1905 and who wrote numerous other collections of short, fantastical stories during his career, and is cited as an influence for later luminaries such as Tolkien and Lovecraft), Rudyard Kipling (whose fantastic stories often draw from the mythology of India and Africa) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose Tarzan was a prototypical fantastic tale, and whose Barsoom books were adventure tales set on a Mars that never was).

And each of these has inspired successive generations of fantasy writers, and new fans of fantasy literature.  Dunsany gave way to Lovecraft and Tolkien.  Lovecraft and Tolkien have given way to today’s writers, and so the cycle continues.

Where Fantasy earns its black marks against it is with the relatively modern invention, and modern conceit, first that Fantasy as a genre is inherently meant for children and, second, that literature for children is inherently inferior to literature meant for adults.  Both claims are erroneous in their entirety.  Most of the body of literature cited above are quite heavy reading for children of any age.  And even if we buy the supposition that all of fantasy is inherently of primarily juvenile interest, by what standard could we ever say that juvenile fiction is inherently inferior?  By the depth of meaning of work?  All of these have themes and depth beyond what you will find in most mainstream fiction.  By the amount of work required to produce it?  Each of these required extensive and laborious research to complete their composition, and an excruciating eye for detail.  Indeed, on every measure, these works are deeper and more meaningful than the majority of modern, mainstream literature.  When we discuss fantasy, we are really discussing a body and tradition of literature that is as deep as it is wide, and as rooted in the history and mythology of mankind as any.  Indeed, one might argue that fantasy literature has the deepest and longest tradition of any genre of modern literature.

Does it make sense, instead, to dismiss modern works of fantasy because they are not these classics, as my friend’s professor did?  One could then be prompted to explore the idea of being a classic work of literature.  Are classics what they are because their authors are deceased?  But any number of writers have passed on – are all the writings of deceased writers therefore classics and worthy of praise?  Or are they classics because their themes continue to resonate years later?  Indeed, most of my friend’s examples were both critical and financial successes, and are especially noteworthy not only because they were popular in their own day, but because they have continued to be popular over the ages since.  And one can sense that many works of modern fantasy will continue to have this same enduring popularity in years to come, with new generations of readers.  It is that durability of theme that is the true hallmark of the classic.  Is it, therefore, some kind of sin to allow the elements, themes, and motifs of such powerful classical works of literature to inform and enrich our modern efforts?  Then every effort hence must stand not on the shoulders of giants but mired in the murky swamps of the uneducated and uninformed, and must therefore be execrable waste or else some pure and unattainable shining paragon of pure literary perfection.  That is not a worthy or useful measure of the worth or meaning of a work of literature.  By what standard must modern literary efforts be held, if it cannot continue in the same thematic direction that the great works of the past have forged?

And so, I return now to those who might suggest that fantasy writing is not real writing.  In my short survey of the history and tradition of fantasy literature, I’ve uncovered a lifetime’s worth of reading and study.  Which leaves one to speculate as to why those in academia or literary criticism would tend to be so dismissive of this voluminous body of literary history.  Is it because of the perception that the genre is meant for juvenile consumption?  A specious stance, at best, given the literary history.  Is it because the genres of speculative fiction, including fantasy, have effectively won the culture wars, and have been embraced by the plebeian mass?  Then this statement is one made of pretension, and is therefore vacuous and meaningless.  Or is it because the halls of academia and literary criticism are a self-selected congregation of largely similar and narrowly-defined tastes and preferences?  Then this diktat is an equally meaningless generalization of the critic’s personal preferences as a substitute for intellectual rigor.

My final question in my analysis of this statement regards the object of the statement: what is “real writing”?  If fantasy writing cannot be “real writing”, what is meant by “real writing”?  What is awarded with this lofty designation?  Is it only the works of a particular genre?  Only works by writers with specific degrees?  Only works that win specific awards and accolades from specific critics?  In any of these cases, the pronouncement that “fantasy writing is not real writing” is a self-fulfilling dictum.  As long as the critic making this statement is also the critic who gets to define what “real writing” is, then of course, if that critic’s tastes do not include a preference for fantasy said critic will leave fantasy out in the stark cold darkness of “not real writing”.

Ultimately, what all of this gets to is this: as an appraisal of the value or quality of works of Fantasy Literature, this statement is irrelevant.  It is no more than a subjective statement of a given critic’s or academic’s personal preferences or tastes in literature.  And it is no black mark to be counted thus.  For no honest writer writes for the benefit of academics nor critics – and never has.  The honest writer has always written, first, for him or herself and, secondly, for his audience, whoever that might be.  And if a writer writes solely for the accolades of critics and academics with a distaste for fantasy, then that writers deserves the critical accolades he or she will earn, and likewise deserves the popular ignominy, irrelevance and obscurity he earns.


Note: A minor clarifying comment is in the comment section below (vis-a-vis non-Fantasy genres).

The Games We Play

I’m surprised to realize I haven’t really talked about this before, in any depth, considering how important of a topic this is in my life.You see, Dear Wife and I, we love games.

I don’t mean that in the way that most people like to sit down and play a little Monopoly or Yahtzee or something.  Nothing wrong with those games, per se, but they definitely aren’t on the top of the stack of games we pull out when we want to play a game together.  I mean serious games – strategy games and board games, and other games you’ve never heard of.

I’d say Dear Wife and I sit down to play a game on average about 1.5 times per week – either just us together, with another couple or group of friends, or at a local, organized game night.  Some weeks we go without any games (especially weeks that are busy at school).  Others we might play several games.

A Game of Risk in progress

A Game of Risk in progress

 Myself, I’ve always loved games, I think.  Growing up I’d occasionally play Risk with my dad.  That ended during a particularly contentious match that Dad was losing pretty badly.  I grew weary of his complaining about the bad die rolls, so I threw the game.  (And by “threw” the game, I mean I intentionally lost; I stopped attacking my dad’s territories, which is the only real strategy in Risk.  I didn’t pick up the board and physically throw it, as animated as that might seem.)

A Game of D&D in progress

A Game of D&D in progress

 Around that same time in my life, I discovered “Dungeons & Dragons” and, shortly after, the card game “Magic: the Gathering“.  Those are a couple of games that have earned a really bad rap, undeservedly so.  Dungeons & Dragons (abbreviated as D&D by players and fans), often cited as the first and original fantasy role-playing game, is really a game about the imagination.  It’s a game that takes its cues from fantasy literature – the original edition of D&D listed a hefty group of fantasy novels and mythological source material that served as part of the inspiration for the D&D game, and it included everything from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Vance’s Dying Earth to works by Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock.  The promise of D&D has always been the opportunity for players to play out the adventures of their favorite fantasy stories, and to give them control over the narrative.  What I’ve always loved about D&D is the cooperative nature of the game.  There aren’t “winners” and “losers” in a game of D&D.  Instead, the players work together to overcome some obstacle or reach some goal (which usually would include defeating some powerful monster in combat).  Some people, it is true, play the game in an adversarial way, but that method of play has never appealed to me.  I think it’s this cooperative nature of the game, and the story-telling potential, that drew me to it.

 Magic: the Gathering (M:tG) is similar, but plays out in cards.  Unlike D&D, it is a competitive game, but it’s also very strategic, as players attempt to outwit their opponent by playing combinations of cards that describe fanciful and powerful magical effects that slowly eat away at the opponent’s pool of game points.  The conceit of M:tG is that the game plays out as a duel between two powerful wizards who are casting spells and summoning fantasy-inspired armies to do battle against each other until either one or the other has exhausted himself and falls in battle.  Again, it’s a game of imagination.

The bad rap these two games have gotten is due largely to the obsessive way in which its adherents play the game.  In my first year of High School out in California, where Magic was big, I remember large groups of people filling one of the quads at school with their M:tG decks pulled out and engaged in one-on-one or multi-party duels for supremacy in the imaginary landscape of the game.  And there are many people who remember the scares in the 1970s that inspired the movie “Mazes and Monsters” the events of which, it turns out, had nothing actually to do with the D&D game.  But it’s true that players of D&D and even Magic will often willingly give up whole afternoons and nights at a time to play the game.  But it’s for more than just the game… for many of its players, opportunities to play these games are also important social events and opportunities to excercise their creative faculties in safe and meaningful ways.

I haven’t played Dungeons & Dragons nor Magic in a good four years: not since I moved to the city.  It’s not for lack of desire to play, but for lack of time and for lack of having a group of friends in the area that I know play these games.  It’s a curious thing: there’s such a stigma on playing games like these that even in the company of other fantasy and science fiction nerds it’s still taboo to mention D&D.  And yet, it’s precisely in this population where I’m most likely to find fellow players.  Still, D&D done properly is a significant investment of time (the stories told in each game typically unfold over multiple gaming sessions), and that’s not time I have to give to it, these days.  Someday, perhaps I will again. 

A Game of Settlers of Catan set up and ready to play

A Game of Settlers of Catan set up and ready to play

For me, I’ve managed to fill the void with some games that scratch a few similar itches.  When I moved to the city, I learned about the first of these that I would eventually play: “The Settlers of Catan“.   Settlers, as players typically call it, is called by some the “gateway board game”.  It’s often one of the first unusual strategy games (you know, a game published not by Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, or Hasbro, who collectively own the mainstream board game market in the U.S.).  If someone tries Settlers and enjoys the experience, there are decent odds that he or she will eventually move on to try other even more unusual board games.  I had several friends in the city who were avid players of Settlers, and though I wanted to give it a try (thinking it might be a suitable replacement for D&D), I never quite got around to it. 

Not, that is, until Dear Wife came along (in the days before she was Dear Wife).  But that’s a story for another day. 

By which I mean: tomorrow. 

Happy Gaming!