State of Fantasy and “Serious” Fantasy

A few things regarding the fantasy genre have come to mind lately and I think this is a good place to organize my thoughts on them. The first involves two, fairly old, professional listserv conversations about the current state of the fantasy genre. Some individuals have presented the concern that the genre needs, in their opinion, to be “reinvented” to escape the influence of Tolkien.

To this, I have to ask, what part of the genre?

Does low fantasy need to be saved? Dark fantasy? Comic fantasy? Sword & sorcery? Urban fantasy? Personally, I think all of these are safe from Tolkien-esque influence and require no “reinvention” since they have never been notably influenced by Tolkien’s work. Seeing as low, dark, and urban fantasy appear to make up the majority of works currently being published in the genre, the “problem” doesn’t seem to exist.

Even when we look at the sub-genres that Tolkien has influenced—high and epic fantasy—I’m not entirely sure that “reinvention” is necessary anyway. If we define the sub-genres as those set in high magic settings with large, epic storylines, yes, we do see a number of pseudo-Tolkiens. But, there are also a large number of non-imitators—George R. R. Martin, Jack Chalker, even Michael Moorcock (usually placed in Sword and Sorcery)—who avoid falling into the good Elves and Dwarves vs. bad Orc and Goblins dichotomy. Even with the pseudo-Tolkiens, this isn’t, from what I can see, a problem because there aren’t all that many notable pieces of high epic fantasy being published these days. As previously noted, the majority of what appears on bookstore shelves in the last decade or two seems to be low, dark, or urban fantasy—low magic settings, mixes of horror and fantasy, or modern setting fantasy respectively.

Unfortunately, I think too many people get hung up on Tolkien due to general public perception (among non-genre readers) and therefore overemphasize his influence on the genre as a whole, even areas he has never really influenced.  I can’t count the times I heard someone say that J.K. Rowling is “like Tolkien for kids,” even though the only similiarities are a) they’re both fantasy, b) they both have magic, and c) they both have goblins, elves, and dragons (even though their goblins, elves, and dragons are nothing like each other’s).  Yes, one can argue that by causing authors to avoid imitating him, he has influenced certain genres. However, comic, low, dark, and sword & sorcery fantasy existed before Tolkien wrote (Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, and others) and became pretty set in their ways before LotR became popular enough to have any influence.

Which brings me to the other item that I’ve been tossing around for a bit: the phrase “serious fantasy.” This has been, annoyingly, defined both in certain discussions and by some of my colleagues, as fantasy (presumably of the low sub-genre) written for adults set in a realistic setting—usually historic Earth. This particular definition is far too restrictive. Not to mention the fact that it sounds more like alternate history or speculative history than fantasy.

Rather, it makes more sense to define “serious fantasy,” if one must use the term which is a highly pretentious one, based on writing quality and subject matter. After all, there is a wide variety of fantasy written for young audiences—Harry Potter, Tiffany Aching, Wolving Time, Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—which deal with incredibly serious issues and are extremely well written. Compare these to DaVinci Code with its sophomoric writing style or the innane Goosebumps books which no one can honestly take as serious fiction by any standard. Add to this the fact that much of the available adult fantasy worth reading covers serious issues—Moorcock, Leiber, Pratchett, Tolkien, C.J. Cherryh, Steven Brust, Brandon Sanderson—including racism, the nature of reality, the nature of history, the growth of technology, the classic good v. evil, the nature of humanity, etc. and draw upon folklore, reinvent legends, and/or tap into the collective unconscious to call up representations of myriad archetypes.

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2 comments on “State of Fantasy and “Serious” Fantasy

  1. calmgrove says:

    Helpful comments for a fantasy dilettante like me! I think you’re probably correct in suggesting that Tolkien’s influence is not as great as is sometimes said, though that may not be true of fan fiction, which might have received a boost from Peter Jackson’s films. I’m only guessing, however, as I rush to pass over any online fan fiction I stumble across..

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    • lordtaltos says:

      I haven’t been following fanfic as well as I could. The last time I looked into it much was about six, seven years ago. Back then, Star Trek still held the number one spot by volume, followed closely by Star Wars and Harry Potter. I suspect that Dr. Who, Twilight (*shudder*), and a few others have moved up the ladder in the last couple years, though.

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