The (Rich) Poor Relation Of Genre Fantasy
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.