m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

On Fantasy

I’ve found some interesting articles on genre since I added some publishers and critics to the aggregator. First up is Jo Walton’s love-hate relationship with fantasy at Tor.com:

I hate it because it’s boring. It’s all the same. It’s warmed over Tolkien—not even variations on a theme from Tolkien, but repetition of the same theme from Tolkien, on one note. What I hate is what, on rec.arts.sf.written we used to call “extruded fantasy product”. I like reading things where I can put the book down half way through and not be able to predict what happens in the next half, down to where the beats will fall.

She concludes with a call for non-extruded recommendations that was amply answered. I withheld comment, since my current fantasy reading is a Dragonlance novel (The Secret of Pax Tharkas by Douglas Niles), and yet I’m as allergic to fantasy doorstop trilogies as the next ranting blogger. I don’t think it’s a matter of originality vs. recycling—an argument also made against tie-ins—because you can string together old material into something new. I think it has more to do with reader expectations.

For example, when I pick up high fantasy, I expect Tolkien, and I’m invariably disappointed. (This is an expectation I intentionally suspended for the Dragonlance book, but otherwise, it’s hard to face 500 or so pages without proportional expectations.) When I pick up science fiction, I expect Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I’m usually pleasantly surprised.

My expectations were formed in childhood. Writers and critics who complain about fantasy (or science fiction, or tie-ins) usually have expectations formed by critical reading, and originality is high on the list. The average reader, on the other hand, puts familiarity high on the list, which explains their odd habit of buying all those tie-ins no blogger can seem to tolerate.

There’s a Chesterton quote (from his Charles Dickens) that I trot out for these occasions:

The public does not like bad literature. The public likes a certain kind of literature and likes that kind of literature even when it is bad better than another kind of literature even when it is good. Nor is this unreasonable; for the line between different types of literature is as real as the line between tears and laughter; and to tell people who can only get bad comedy that you have some first-class tragedy is as irrational as to offer a man who is shivering over weak warm coffee a really superior sort of ice.