Is it the Age of Fantasy?

Oct 7, 05:28 by IROSF
Express thoughts on this subject here.

Article is here.
Oct 7, 10:21 by Robert Urell
Sorry, but this seems just more of the same "they don't like us because they're snobs," only dressed up with footnotes. Genre fantasy doesn't get much respect or attention because there's not much of substance in most of it. Stephanie Meyers' books don't "bring the primary world into sharper focus," they explode the boundary between the real and the not-real by pandering to a particular audience's bias. The results of this are evident. You can only escape reality for as long as you refuse to acknowledge its hold upon you. Same with HARRY POTTER, same with anything written by Terry Brooks, et al. The shop worn perjorative "Tolkien knockoff" aside, the genre fantasy that sells best performs no higher a function than "Weird Al" Yankovic parodies and Twinkies: they amuse.
Jack Cady, in THE AMERICAN WRITER, demarcated two general story types by a hybrid reader response method: entertainment and amusement. Entertainment, says Cady, both imparts and receives, the reading experience demands inclusion of the reader in the story, which is almost certainly an allusion to the multi-valence that critical theory relies upon when analyzing literature; amusement, on the other hand, requires nothing from the audience. "For instance: one may feel obligated to laugh at a joke, but one is not obligated to become part of the joke" (8).
Tragically, most of the bestselling genre fantasy is a joke, which isn't funny at all.

Cady, Jack. The American Writer: Shaping a Nation's Mind. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
Oct 7, 15:19 by Donna Royston
Most of what you're arguing against seems to be your own conceptions rather than what the article said. I doubt that you've read "most of the bestselling genre fantasy" to know what's in it (I know I haven't), or to judge whether the reading experience demands your own "inclusion." If you think an entire genre is not worth your while, fine, don't read in it; just don't convince yourself that you know much of anything about it. Popular fiction in all genres -- actually, all fiction, call it genre or not -- is a highly varied lot: many novels are transitory things that disappear quickly, but a few keep getting handed to new readers with the injunction "Read this!"

It is more enlightening to discuss even one specific book and tell others what you found in it than to try to argue that an entire genre deserves no respect, without bothering to discuss some good representatives of the works in that genre.
Oct 7, 15:48 by Bluejack
Both points bearing in mind Sturgeon's law, naturally. Actually, both variations of Sturgeon's Law -- the one he called his revelation (now generally considered "the" law), and also his original "law."

1. 90% of everything is crap.
2. Nothing is absolutely so.
Oct 7, 16:08 by Robert Urell
I doubt that you've read "most of the best-selling genre fantasy" to know what's in it

This and the attendant "love it or leave it" phrase are egregious. Besides the obvious demurrer, you don't know me well enough to make that assertion, there's the fundamental silliness of such an argument. All best-selling book products are homogenous. That's what makes them "bestsellers." "Readers" who buy only best-selling genre fantasy do so to recreate the experience they had with their last book, not to challenge themselves or to grow as persons, but to retard just such personal progress by escaping such obligation. Ask any book professional, homogenizing product leads to greater returns. It's a pretty standard corporate model, and publishing is not immune to the profit motive.
That said, I've been reading genre fiction for over thirty years. Yeah, I know from whence I speak. Most of my friends have written books that you've either read or heard of. I have myself read thousands of titles, and those with the highest profiles are usually the least challenging, the shallowest end of the literary pool, and hardly worth the time they took to read. So, while my post is only an opinion, it's an educated, thought out one, and worthy of more than the equivalent of "you're a big doo-doo head!".
So there.
Oct 7, 23:28 by Jim Frenkel
I was going to respond to Robert Urell's first post, until I saw Bluejack's mention of Sturgeon's Law, with which I quite agree. However, I'm moved to respond to Urell's second post. Touchy, are we?
I'm mightily impressed that Mr. Urell has been reading genre fiction for longer than thirty years without having his head explode from all the empty calories it contains. One might wonder exactly why he keeps reading such "product."
Since he mentions book professionals, of which I am one, I will answer his question: no. Homogenizing "product"--an odious word to most book publishing people--does not lead to greater returns. Continuing a successful series does, but producing original, fresh work is the best way to increase profits, as long as the new work finds an audience.
It is axiomatic that there are big, huge bestsellers that appeal to a large audience. And yes, it is true that readers who buy only bestselling fantasy don't necessarily look to challgne themselves. But I argue that they do not do so to retard personal progress. If they really want to do that, they wouldn't be reading anything more than cereal boxes.
It is sad to me that he seems to have become bitter and cynical about genre-fantasy work. Perhaps he is unaware of the many bright, talented writers creating fantasy that is well within what we professionals call "genre" and yet is also different, fresh, unique. As Donna Royston points out, there is a tremendous variety out there. And yes, some of it is crap, like fiction of all sorts. But when one finds a new voice that is like nothing you've ever read before, it's all worthwile. I hope Mr. Urell will find some of that, and not feel that anyone who differs with him feels he is a b it of cranial escrement.
To address the article in question directly, my own thought is that fantasy in general suffers a lack of critical attention largely because it is a relatively young form in terms of its popularity. Mysteries have been around as a very popular form for far longer than fantasy --yes, fantasy, one can argue, has been around for centuries if not millennia, but we're talking about the fantasy novel as delineated in the article--and yet mysteries have only within the past twenty years or so gotten greater cricical attention than previously, and even so, still get for the most part a critical brush-off. This is the fate of puopular culture. It's always been this way, and I suspect always will be this way. Works that stand the test of time will, as they have in the past, become part of our cultural heritage. And some people will, pardon the expression, be snobbish about it, saying things like, "Well, it's too good to be fantasy. It's literature." C'est la vie.
Oct 8, 00:20 by Nick Mamatas
I like how everyone assumes that Rob doesn't know what he's talking about and doesn't read widely in the genre. It would be odd for someone like that to register for the IROSF, hmm? At any rate, Rob does keep close tabs on the genre and has published short fiction in Polyphony.

I'm a book professional too, and I hear "product" being used all the time in the office. Where do you work, Utopiaman?
Oct 8, 04:31 by Robert Urell
Utopiaman:
Touchy? No, not particularly. I simply don't appreciate dismissive posts that fail to address the substance of an argument, but only skirt the issue with ad hominem rhetoric designed to place me outside the fantasy community.
As to your assertion that the term "product" is odious to any book professional...gonna have to call you on that. From agents to editors to publishers and even many writers, I hear that term used regularly and generally. Conversations at conventions revolve around the fundamentally commercial nature of our (shared?) vocation. And that's not at all a bad thing. Keeping in mind that writing to sell means embracing the profit motive makes for better storytelling; you tend to write what people will read when you know a publisher won't buy it if she can't sell it.
As to my reading experience, I said most, not all, fantasy lacked substance. I read fantasy because I love it. I write it because I have no choice. I write about it because I believe it deserves to be addressed with serious critical objectivity.
Oct 8, 15:28 by Donna Royston
Hmm, well, to rephrase what I said, it wasn't "love it or leave it," it was more like "if you scorn it, don't read it."

Robert, you sum up the original essay with "they don't like us, so they're snobs" and my reply as "the equivalent of 'you're a big doo-doo head'." I think you're bringing in your own material here.

Let me clarify. First, I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion; the article was about fantasy, genre fantasy. And second, I was not surmising that you don't read in the genre, but making this observation, perhaps too briefly: with 2 or 3 dozen new titles (SF and fantasy combined) each month, who but the most avid reader (perhaps also unemployed) could read most of it? Anyone who makes a sweeping dismissal of an entire genre should perhaps not be surprised to be met with skepticism.

As for addressing the substance of Robert's argument, what exactly is it? He says there's "not much substance in it," a pretty vague claim, and says Stephanie Meyers' books pander to an audience's bias and "the results of this are evident." And same with Harry Potter, and same with Terry Brooks. Since I don't find these works exhaust the fantasy genre, or even begin to -- and I personally wouldn't choose these works as exemplars of good fantasy -- I don't see much to argue with.

To answer my own question above -- who could read most of it? -- I can't, and I have to choose. I've found some excellent books and some poor ones. I expect to find more good novels, over time, perhaps fantasy's Philip K. Dick, who appeared to be a hack, until readers found out that he wasn't.
Oct 8, 18:55 by Nick Mamatas
First, I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion

Probably because the article referred, repeatedly, to bestselling fantasy titles. It didn't mention genre fantasy that is studied or lauded by academics, such as Little, Big by John Crowley, or stuff by LeGuin, etc.

Further, clearly Bob's comments were restricted, at most, to the "bestselling" fantasy -- publishers don't release dozens of bestselling fantasies per year. It's easy enough for him to read most of the bestselling stuff.
Oct 8, 19:10 by Robert Urell
Sorry, Donna, most of this debate is so old that it's conducted in shorthand. It's raised often, beat into the ground, and subsides with the usual whimper that recalls literary movements of days gone by and writers whose importance fades with their bankability.
When you say, "I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion; the article was about fantasy" as a means of declaring the true intent of the article, which implies that I missed the point, I have to ask: Did you read the article? The term, "bestseller," is raised twice in the thesis statement, along with the specters of Terry Brooks and Stephanie Meyers. Throughout the piece, terms such as "publishing success" are placed opposite concepts such as critical acclaim, the implication being that critics must not know good literature, since good literature makes money. Economic imperative is constantly brought forth to reinforce the message that fantasy deserves more attention. Nearly every section of the piece is tainted with it. So, I ask you, if the most common thread within the article is this sense of entitlement to critical acclaim, vis--vis the current commercial success of the genre, why would that not be fair game for criticism from a commentator? I truly don't understand your objections.
Oct 8, 19:10 by Robert Urell
Or, what Nick said.
Oct 8, 22:17 by Donna Royston
This argument doesn't bear any resemblance to your original response... Bestsellers were mentioned to illustrate the popularity of genre fantasy, not to equate bestsellerdom with quality.

And I am familiar with the background of this issue, and recognize the futility of discussion in the abstract of "genre fantasy." Let the essay speak for itself.
Oct 9, 16:51 by Lois Tilton
The inverse relationship between bestsellerdom and literary quality is not limited to fantasy.
Oct 9, 18:15 by Robert Urell
Sure you're right. That inverse relationship isn't even limited to literary products. Starbucks doesn't make a particularly good cup of coffee, but they're consistent; order a caramel machiatto in Paris or in Portland, you get the same thing every time. Product homogeneity yields maximal returns in books, in coffee, hell, in military hardware. Quality writing, however, is a cottage industry, and only rarely does a really good book make lots of money. It's usually the mediocre, non-threatening, non-challenging literature that sells out 100k print runs and gets made into blockbuster movies.
But the article consistently tied commercial success to literary quality, which is a direct, not inverse, relationship.
Oct 13, 16:37 by Janine Stinson
If I might follow a tangent here...

It seems to me that this article is referring mostly to those literary critics who focus on "mainstream" fiction in their reviews and essays. But to determine whether there is such a group in fact, one would have to conduct an examination of all the review outlets for mainstream fiction over at least a few years' time. This, of course, would require the setting of parameters for such an examination. I wonder if anyone reading IROSF has the time, skills or inclination to conduct said examination? I'm sorry, but I don't, though I'd be interested in reading the results.

SF and fantasy have their own critical circle, writers who devote the majority of their critical writing to these genres. Names like Clute, Nicholls, Langford, and Stableford shouldn't be unknown to IROSF readers (and if they are, you just got some more reading to do). (grin) By searching on Amazon, I found six books of literary criticism focused on fantasy that I haven't read, sounded worth reading, and were all but one published in the 2000s. The exception is Brian Attebery's <i>The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature</i> (1980).

Perhaps those of us who read and/or write fantasy should be less concerned with what academic/"literari" critics think about fantasy. I think these two groups are still operating under the big-fish-little-pond model of assumed importance. If we no longer consider literary critics' opinions important, do they not lose their power, eventually?
   

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