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The (Rich) Poor Relation Of Genre Fantasy

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My copy of the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, arrived this morning and the first thing I did was flick to the index. This was because I was a bit taken aback by the short shrift epic fantasy received in their Short History Of Fantasy and wondered if the picture was different in this multi-contributor volume. Well, not much. There is no entry at all for epic fantasy this time round and it is once again difficult to get any sense of the importance of the commercial heart of the genre. In A Short History, quest fantasy and medievalism were the authors preferred terms:

  • Quest fantasy: 30
  • Medievalism: 25
  • Sword-and-sorcery: 16
  • Epic: 10
  • Heroic fantasy: 5
  • Immersive fantasy: 2
  • High fantasy: 0

This time round it is clear that medievalism alone is the preferred term:

  • Medievalism: 18
  • Immersive fantasy: 7
  • Heroic fantasy: 5
  • High fantasy: 5
  • Quest fantasy: 3
  • Sword-and-sorcery: 3
  • Epic: 0

In A Short History, James and Mendlesohn wrote that “the three major medievalist writers of the 1990s are Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin.” In this book, they have been reduced to two:

A significant development of the 1990s was the appearance of the series novel on the best-seller lists. Robert Jordan, who had in the 1980s written seven new Conan books, published the first volume of his Wheel of Time series, the Eye Of The World, in 1990. Each successive volume was 1,000 pages or more in length, and by the time of his death in 2007 he had published eleven of them; the twelfth and last is being finished by an author chosen by his widow. Another such prolific, and very popular, author is Terry Goodkind, whose Sword of Truth series (beginning in 1994 with Wizard’s First Rule) has now reached its eleventh volume. Worldwide sales are estimated as twenty-five million.

This is James himself, writing the chapter on ‘Tolkien, Lewis, and the explosion of genre fantasy’ but inevitably spends most of his time on Tolkien and Lewis. It is the only reference in the book to Goodkind although two passing references are made to Jordan in Kari Maund’s chapter on ‘reading the fantasy series’. As for Martin, he only appears with respect to Fevre Dream in Roz Kaveney’s chapter on ‘dark fantasy and paranormal romance’. Now, I have read none of the three but surely they are fundamental in considering the explosion of genre fantasy and the generation of writers that emerged in the 21st Century.

James continues: “One of the most unexpected developments of the last decade has been the domination of the popular fantasy genre by Australian women.” He gives Sara Douglass, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Caisel Mor and Glenda Larke as examples. Other suggestions might include Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller, Jennifer Fallon, Rowena Cory Daniells and Fiona McIntosh so it is clearly an important trend. But this is the only modern trend he identifies and the idea is either the only trend or the dominant one gives a hopelessly lopsided view of the genre. Look up a bestselling epic fantasy author of the last fifteen years and chances are there will be no mention of them.

He concludes: “The current state of fantasy is to a large extent described in the last section of this book. Fantasy makes up a considerable proportion of the market for popular fiction, and although Tolkien-inspired quest fantasies dominant the bookshelves the field is not defined by this one form.” Dominant but not defining; true enough. But you would think this dominance would be of more interest to the editors, in historical terms if nothing else, and the passing of the buck to those writing the third section of the book (‘Clusters’) does not wash. WA Senior’s chapter on ‘quest fantasies’ is not intended to be a survey but instead uses four examples to illustrate the subgenre: Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, Guy Gaveriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and, more recently, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. This in no way describes the current state of the genre and, once again, the editors seem to have gone out of their way to ignore it.

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Written by Martin

7 March 2012 at 17:08

7 Responses

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  1. Cheryl Morgan has recently discussed epic fantasy with the editors but they don’t seem to have been drawn on a definition of it or how it relates to high fantasy.

    Martin

    19 March 2012 at 10:36

  2. It appears I wasn’t alone in this thought. Steve Erikson reviews the book in NYRSF #285 and notes:

    If I am to conclude that the work is representative of the present state of scholarship in the field of fantasy, then as a producer of fantasy fiction, I was naturally curious about my place in the genre, and not just mine, but that of a whole host of best-selling, award-winning fantasy authors who write epic fantasy (Joe Abercrombie, Scott Bakker, Glen Cook, David Gemmel, Robin Hobb, Tim Lebbon, Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, and so forth). Imagine my bemused state, then, to find that we pretty much don’t exist. Not a single wave of recognition from this Companion greeted us, and the occasional nod sent our way seemed more dismissal than greeting… My sense, upon reading the Cambridge Companion, was made wretched with the realization that a good many of the essays could, with one or two minor alterations, have been written in 1980 or even 1970. The exceptions to this were those essays that happened to focus on some extant (still living) author of one of fantasy fiction’s many subgenres. But not writers of epic fantasy, that most direct continuation of the literary tradition… I hate to say it. I really do. But epic fantasy has moved on, something critics have failed to notice. It is, in fact, the source of more innovation in the genre than such scholars comprehend, not because they lack the intellectual acumen — far from it — but because they can’t be bothered to keep up with what’s going on, or they were never much interested in the first place.

    Martin

    29 May 2012 at 09:32

  3. Actually, I think the term we opted for in the CUP book was Series Fantasy, and we gave an entire chapter to it. It may or may not be a good chapter, but we didn’t ignore it. (Edward, by the way, reads tons of what you call epic fantasy. I don’t.)

    One distortion that I think is *very* real is that we used the awards lists as a guide for A Short History. What we forgot–and hands up on this one–was the paucity of acknowledgement at the time for this area of fantasy in those awards lists. Since we finished the book (and remember the two year time lag in academic publishing between delivery and publication) that changed drastically.

    Farah

    17 August 2012 at 08:57

  4. Actually, I think the term we opted for in the CUP book was Series Fantasy, and we gave an entire chapter to it. It may or may not be a good chapter, but we didn’t ignore it.

    The term Series Fantasy doesn’t appear in the index though. It is true Maund does have a chapter on reading the fantasy series but that is a very broad remit. For example, the most popular fantasy series is Harry Potter and that isn’t epic fantasy. Maund covers sword & sorcery and urban fantasy as much as she does epic fantasy and, as the title suggests, her context is reading them as series rather than as genres.

    (Edward, by the way, reads tons of what you call epic fantasy. I don’t.)

    Well, I think it is less about what I call it and more about what everyone calls it. The equivalent would be not finding ‘space opera’ in the index to the Cambridge Companion to SF.

    But whatever term you choose, the referent is pretty absent here. I’ll take your word for it that James reads tons of epic fantasy but it doesn’t come through in his chapter. It is simply perverse to state that the “last decade has [seen] the domination of the popular fantasy genre by Australian women” whilst making absolutely no mention of the one writer who truly has dominated the last decade.

    Martin

    22 August 2012 at 10:35

  5. Gah, my comments just disappeared. I’ve just come back to this. Sorry, I’d forgotten to tick “inform me of responses” and just to be clear, I’m not attacking you. I’m pretty comfortable with most of the criticisms. But I am assuming that when you say we missed an author you mean Martin. You aren’t wrong, but here we are a victim of publishing schedules and how slow both Martin and Academic publishing are.

    This is Martin’s schedule for the main series.

    1. A Game of Thrones (1996)
    2. A Clash of Kings (1998)
    3. A Storm of Swords (2000)
    4. A Feast for Crows (2005)
    5. A Dance with Dragons (2011)
    6. The Winds of Winter (2012)

    We were commissioned in 2005. At that time this was an unfinished series with five years between books 3 and 4. I don’t remember Martin being that big a deal except among those people who liked Martin. Then in the time we were working on the book there was nothing from Martin. The manuscript first went to CUP in 2009. A final version was accepted in 2010 and the final manuscript submitted in 2011, probably about the same time the 5th came out.

    So in the decade in which the book was *written* Martin wrote one book. We may have made the wrong call (and I am *really* embarrassed about Martin’s absence from A Short History, which is intended as a popular guide to the market, not an academic guide to criticism- see Rhetorics for my involvement with the New Weird discussions), but you can see how it happened.

    Re everyone calls it Epic Fantasy: The real problem is that there are too many damn names for this kind of fantasy. High fantasy used to be the most popular. I only started hearing it called Epic Fantasy a few years ago. Before that it was often called Quest Fantasy, but then the major plots started to shift away from the quest.

    Farah

    8 October 2012 at 07:49

  6. My turn to apologise for the delay this time.

    here we are a victim of publishing schedules and how slow both Martin and Academic publishing are.

    I knew there was a publishing lag but hadn’t appreciated just how far back commissioning for the book stretch. I also accept that it wasn’t until A Dance Of Dragons and the TV series in 2011 that Martin became enormous, particularly outside the genre. Still, as you say, A Storm Of Swords was published in 2005 and at that point Martin’s importance to contemporary fantasy fiction was obvious. His reach was also wider than just core fantasy fans at that point – it was shortlisted for the Hugo which is pretty unusual for a secondary world fantasy. So I’m not entirely convinced that his importance couldn’t be spotted at the time, nor the importance of the growing tradition he represented.

    Also, whilst the majority of the book was written prior to its publication, you have attempted to keep it up to date. For example, James’s chapter refers to Twilight (also 2005) and its subsequent mega-success and it strikes me that this is the place where a paragraph on Martin and third wave fantasy could helpful have been inserted. Without it, the texts cover in this chapter seem rather incongruous.

    The real problem is that there are too many damn names for this kind of fantasy. High fantasy used to be the most popular. I only started hearing it called Epic Fantasy a few years ago. Before that it was often called Quest Fantasy

    There are certainly different terms that have been used at different times but not only do you not use epic fantasy, you don’t consistently use any other term (or, as mentioned above, discuss the referent much). Given that your books represent the single most important act of sustained fantasy criticism to date, I can’t help but view this as an opportunity missed. But I guess this they are essentially a first draft because nothing much had been published in the field before that so hopefully some of this will be address in future editions.

    Martin

    17 October 2012 at 10:07

  7. [...] Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; I have my problems with the book but it is long [...]


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