The OF Blog: The Battle of (Fantasy) Evermore?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Battle of (Fantasy) Evermore?

While I am not yet going to compose an essay along the lines of "What is Fantasy?" (I'm saving that for another time and probably another locale), it is interesting (well, at first, before tedium sets in) to read others' thoughts on the marketing category of Fantasy and how it relates (or doesn't) to the narrative modes of fantasy.

For those who have not read the UK newspaper The Guardian's online article, written by author Damien Walter, entitled "Fantasy Fiction:  the battle for meaning continues," I would suggest that you do so now, particularly since Walter discusses a perceived divide between category Fantasy fiction and the type of contemporary fantasy that is not limited to a single category or shelves in a bookstore. 

I read two interesting takes on Walter's article.  The first is by James Long of Speculative Horizons.  As befitting someone whose post last week questioning the usefulness of the Gemmell Awards generated a discussion that Walters references in his article, James spends quite a bit of time focusing on those elements of Walter's article that relate to his previous arguments about the potential harm of having an award that might only reflect the quality of the marketing and lowest common denominator reader tastes and not highlight the better-written and "original" fiction of a fantasy mode.  While there is nothing much that I would argue against his stance, I would just merely note that in his rush to point out how someone else agreed with his points, James forgot to mention at all a substantial part of Walter's argument, namely just which authors are writing fantasy narratives that ought to be considered alongside those market category bestsellers.

Paul Charles Smith, of the excellent new blog Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream (which I just added to my blogroll, on the basis of several excellent essays and reviews I read there just now) interprets Walter's article differently.  Instead of focusing over much on the commercial aspect of the divide (which James did), Paul instead explores how the "non-commercial" fantasies that he has read recently reflect his own tastes as a reader and how the ideas and narrative approaches contained within stories by Michael Cisco, for example (who is an outstanding writer, I might add), appeal to him as a reader.  Although he hardly dwells at all on the perceived divide within the genre(s), I found his essay to be the more powerful of the two responses because of how deftly he ties Walter's comments into his own view of the stories out there and the things he has taken from the fictions he has read.

As for myself, Walter's article is a nice restatement of arguments that I've heard several times over the past few years.  I am quite familiar with the authors he cites and I, with scarce an exception, enjoyed those works much more than I tend to enjoy the more "commercial" fantasies.  However, I would add that it is not quite as stark of a divide as Walter presents it.  There are some authors within the "commercial" field (epic fantasists R. Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson being two that come to mind immediately) who do try to work in some elements into their narratives (more devotion to prose, thematic representations of alienation and the occasional "weirdness" that causes the reader to pause and think about the imagined settings, etc.) that might be associated more with the "non-commercial" than with the "commercial" (and considering their relative sales ranks, perhaps they are not as "commercial" as some might believe).  Even within the most technically unambitious series, such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series (which I'm currently re-reading), there occasionally can be found the odd nugget of interest that raises such works above standard derivative product.

But it is the degree and kind of differences that separates these various fantasy narratives.  And in that, sometimes it's more a matter of finding readers who are more inquisitive and matching them with authors who reflect that curiosity and whose narratives don't travel far down beaten paths. 


Unknown said...

Thanks for the mention Larry, I'm big fan of the site (and loved your Book of the New Sun analysis) so it is high praise indeed.

Larry Nolen said...

No problem. I like to point out those blogs who interest me with their points of view, especially the ones that are cogent and thought-provoking. Looking forward to seeing what comes of your planned Moorcock Month later this year :D

Anonymous said...

I really like Damien's articles--i think he's very insightful usually. But I thought this piece was curious. I don't feel very "cult". Finch is out from Atlantic in the UK in August. I am published widely in foreign languages. Finch got tons of mainstream coverage in big newspapers and the like here in the US. So...I get the point re commercial/not commercial but it seems a little unfair to writers like Cisco who truly have been marginalized to focus in on a group that's really not lacking for attention, influence, or careers. jeffv

Larry Nolen said...

Good point, Jeff. Not much more to say than I agree and that I didn't think of that when reading the piece. Maybe it's more of a UK perspective being given? Although even that would still run counter to what you note about your own career and those of several others there.

I wonder who else would have been a better example? Valente before her last three releases? Short fiction writers like Rachel Swirsky? Maybe that's an exercise for another time. Another nap awaits before I try to do that.

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