Generic fantastical fiction vs. Fantasy

As fantasy grows to be a mainstream genre, there is a general decline in its originality and relevance. From the pure high fantasy of Tolkien and Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll, the genre has descended to the Twilight series and countless spin-offs of Dragonlance. These books all have their merits. Perhaps someone watches the Twilight series and it sparks a general interest in fantasy. Or perhaps Dragonlance will spawn a taste for deeper, more unique fantasy.

But generally, the quote fillers do more damage than good to a genre. And as many of the old greats are dead or switching their focus to other disciplines, it’s as good a time as any to take a look at the direction of fantasy, and at our own writing.

Evil overlords. Beautiful princesses. Fair elves and grumpy dwarves. Evil Bestial Race. A farm-boy who is really a prince. The cliches drag on and on, and any reader could probably name a dozen of them, whether they prefer murder mysteries or sword-and-sorcery. Fantasy has a reputation, and it’s no good for it.

When Tolkien first published his works, they were considered an escapist’s excuse. Only mild popularity attended them at the time. But during the middle of the century, they came back with full force and more relevant messages than ever. Publishers began taking a second, closer look at the genre, and a new set of guidelines was established.

Today, our greats include Gaiman, Pratchett, Le Guin, Moorcock and others. Plenty of others. There are good and even great authors still. But the genre is still defined by the lower-grade shelf-filler. Pure fantasy makes too little sense to most minds. As a society, we crave safe thrills and cheap laughs, preferably ones we don’t have to stir from our armchairs to find. Social relevance is over-rated, messages and morals are too difficult to think about. So we stick to the safe, the expected, and look for characters that we can pretend to be.

Few of us are princes or great sorceresses or warriors. Plenty of us are common desk-jockeys and working stiffs. So for a character to start low and become a king married to a beautiful woman, or the queen of a great empire is comfortable and enjoyable to imagine.

Less comfortable is the thought of beginning high, and ending low. Society likes its collective fantasy that we could all be kings, if only the world would stop being so unfair. It’s no fun to admit that we could be that king, and without any trouble at all, become the beggar in the street or the washed up whore in the back alley. If it doesn’t have a happy ending, if it leaves a sour taste and a sick understanding of our frailty and basic moral weakness.

So there must be a happy ending. But life doesn’t work that way usually, and so we lose a giant portion of understanding of the world.

Part two coming later! 900 words on Write a New Name yesterday, 450 words on Shadow and Soul. No writing except this for the morning, more important things, and I need to be to work early.



3 Responses to “Fantasy”

  1. That’s a pretty good look at the Fantasy genre today.

    I, of course, want both. I want speculative fiction that makes me think and entertains me.

    I am so demanding, ha ha.

  2. I think there will always be a place for fantasy, just as there always is for fairy tales. It is precisely the escapism and “protagonist wins” that fantasy offers that makes it fun to read. When fantasy stories also contain truths about life and relationships, I am in heaven.

  3. Jaym Gates Says:

    Why does it have to be one or the other though? Sure, it’s one in a million that can actually do both, but hell, Tolkien was a trend-setter in his time, Gaiman’s a hell of an intriguing read, but he doesn’t toe the line. But it’s the same reason people don’t often create new things. It’s a challenge. Our society has an allergy to real challenge!

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