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Posts Tagged ‘farah mendlesohn

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.

Written by Martin

7 March 2012 at 17:08

Extruded Fantasy Product

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Mark Newton has been thinking about “gritty” fantasy. As you would expect from a shorthand that has grown organically from the grassroots, no one is that clear on what it actually means or which works it could be applied to. I’m not particularly interested in pinning down gritty – I’ve made my comments in that thread – but it did get me thinking about epic fantasy more broadly and I quickly ran into another taxonomical issue.

A half-baked theory had floated into my mind that grittiness was a symptom of epic fantasy entering its third wave. Trying to expand this I soon ran into the problem that I didn’t know that much about the history of the subgenre. So I turned to A Short History Of Fantasy by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Now, you may remember that this books classifies Joe Abercrombie as a New Weird writer so there were always going to be issues but I was still surprised at just how unhelpful it was for my purposes.

To start with, they don’t actually use the term epic fantasy. It doesn’t appear in the glossary and if you turn to the index you will only find an entry for “epic”. In contrast to this, the glossary contains entries for – amongst many others – heroic fantasy, high fantasy, immersive fantasy and medievalist fantasy as well as sword and sorcery. (On the other hand, the glossary also fails to include edifice fantasy and full fantasy, two Clutisms which appear in the index.) It seems a conspicuous absence so to check I wasn’t mistaken about the popularity of the term “epic fantasy” I did a quick straw poll. The results are an overwhelming consensus for epic fantasy. Not very scientific but a bit of research nonetheless. Perhaps James and Mendlesohn had a good reason for excluding the term though, epic fantasy is, after all, fairly loosely defined and A Shorter History is a critical text; perhaps they needed more precision. Unfortunately, if you look at their other definitions, this doesn’t appear to be the case:

Heroic fantasy: fantasy set in a world which often resembles the ancient or medieval past, drawing on their epic traditions of heroes; barely distinguishable from high fantasy or sword-and-sorcery.

High fantasy: fantasy that deals with the activities of heroes, drawing on the literary tradition of epic; immersive fantasy, and not set in our world (as low fantasy is).

Immersive fantasy: a story set entirely within an imagined world, without any overt reference to the the world of the reader. [This term is imported from Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics Of Fantasy.]

Medieval fantasy: a story set in a world based in some loose way on the world of the European Middle Ages, often drawing its inspiration from medieval romance and the Matter of Britain, and frequently in the form of a quest fantasy.

Quest fantasy: a story (frequently in multiple volumes) involving one or more people travelling through a landscape, learning about the world, and fulfilling some quest or destiny.

Sword-and-sorcery: fantasy set in a pre-industrial world, involving warriors in conflict with magical or supernatural forces; largely indistinguishable from heroic fantasy or high fantasy, although perhaps better seen as a subset of them.

Not very helpful. It is even less helpful that, despite the minimal and ill-defined differences given above, almost all these different types of fantasy each have their own entry in the index. Therefore to follow the history of what most people would see as a single subgenre you have to constantly cross reference multiple terms, although it does allow the reader to guess the authors’ preferred terms by counting the number of references:

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

This preference means that we read, for example, that “the three major medievalist writers of the 1990s are Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin.” This is perhaps understandable given the backgrounds of James and Mendlesohn but it is still pretty perverse given its lack of popular currency (particularly since elsewhere Mendlesohn has said that epic fantasy is, in fact, her preferred term). You might argue that an academic work should use technical language rather than casual, fannish language, however, as we’ve seen above, the language isn’t really technical enough. The other obvious rebuttal is that the book should be read forwards, rather than backwards; true enough and I am yet to read the whole of A Short History but a reference work is infinitely more useful if it can be dipped into in this way. There is greater explication within the text though. For example, they begin the chapter on the Eighties by saying:

If we are contend that quest fantasies became the dominant tradition in the 1980s, we need to explain the difference between quest fantasies and the older sword-and-sorcery… Quest fantasies come to an end, usually with some sort of healing of the land, and either a restoration or dissolution of magic, whereas sword-and-sorcery fantasies always have room for another adventure. (p. 119)

I am not especially persuaded by this but, even so, it would have been nice if this distinction had been picked up in the glossary. This seems to be indifference born out of contempt as James and Mendlesohn give the strong impression they don’t really care for epic fantasy. That is fair enough as a matter of personal preference but it becomes a bit of an impediment when you a writing a history of the genre of which it has been the most commercially successful and visible subgenre for at least two decades. Take, for example, the case of Steven Erickson, one of the most acclaimed epic fantasy writers of the last two decades. There are two references to him in A Short History which read in their entirety:

George R.R. Martin’s more realistic and hardcore mode has influenced a number of new writers including the Canadians Steven Erikson and Scott Bakker. (p. 146)

We have already mentioned a number of Canadian writers whose careers began in the 1990s or earlier, such as Steven Erikson… We do not intend to discuss them in detail here. (p. 199)

That is it. The caveat “short” in the title is well taken but perhaps a better word would have been “partial”.

By the way, if you are still pondering what dark fantasy might be, they have a definition of that too: “A fantasy story which borrows elements from horror, and which typically does not end in eucatastrophe.” So that’s that cleared up.

Written by Martin

19 February 2010 at 09:08

I’m Searching For The New Soul Rebels But I Can’t Find Them Anywhere, Where Have You Hidden Them?

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New Weird: a marketing category (or perhaps a movement) around the turn of the millennium, which explored new and often disturbing ways of looking at fantasy motifs and at the borderlands between science fiction and fantasy.

This is how Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James define New Weird in the glossary to their A Short History Of Fantasy. I think it is safe to say that New Weird never really got off the ground as either a marketing category or a movement, it was more of an idea or a discussion. As I wrote in 2006 in a survey of SF movements for Vector:

This is a movement so nebulous that no one could agree on a name for it, let alone a definition and its practioners often deny they write it. The two writers probably most associated with the idea—the pulpy but serious China Miéville and the literary but playful Jeff VanderMeer—use shared genre antecedents to produce very different results. Editorials on the New Weird penned by Miéville, Justina Robson and Graham Joyce did appear in The Third Alternative but these, and the thrashing out of ideas on various internet message boards, only reinforced the lack of commonality. This is mutual respect, mutual ancestry and mutual interests but not anything you could call a manifesto.

It is true, however, that it was fairly short lived; like many conversations it had its genesis in a specific time and place. So it is odd that Mendlesohn and James make it so central to Chapter Eleven of their book, covering fantasy published between 2000 and 2008 (although actually entitled ‘2000-2010’, presumably signalling an early intent to publish a revised edition). Despite admitting that it is “extremely difficult to define” New Weird, they draw a large and disparate group of writers together under this banner. The chapter opens with a brief introduction to the concept, drawing heavily on the TTA Press discussion linked above, following a discussion of China Miéville and Mary Gentle before moving on to other, less plausible candidates:

Two other writers strongly associated with the New Weird in its first years where Ian R. MacLeod and Steph Swainston… New Weird is a genre of both content and style. The Scottish writer Hal Duncan has been acclaimed as one of the greatest stylists in the field… Perhaps some of the most interesting twists of fantasy content come from K.J. Parker and Steve Cockayne… New British writers of the New Weird include Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself, 2006) and Stephen Hunt (The Court Of The Air, 2007). (pp. 187-189)

That last sentence is pretty stunning but is presented entirely without any supporting evidence. Presumably Mendlesohn and James have some evidence, even if they didn’t have room or time to actually include it (the book appears to have been written with indecent haste), but I can’t imagine what it is. Duncan and Swainston do seem at home with the weird – I wrote at the time “The Year of Our War is the first book that makes you believe New Weird actually is a movement, rather than a bunch of books China Miéville likes.” – but even MacLeod, although he may have been associated with it, was never unambiguously a New Weird writer. As Cheryl Morgan commented at the time:

I’m currently about 75% of the way through “The Light Ages”, and for all the publishers attempts to market it as another “Perdido Street Station” I’m struck by how different the two books are. China produced a living, seething impression of a city, whereas Macleod has given us a beautifully written but curiously passionless description of a city. China’s work is utterly weird, whereas MacLeod’s approach makes even the magical seem mundane.

Things remain strange when looking more directly at American fiction. Despite earlier acknowledging divisions between the predominantly British New Weird and existing American traditions, it is then all lumped together again. They take Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists as a key example of American New Weird when surely it is a better fit with the interstitial crowd (although slipstream has an entry in the glossary it is conspicuously absent from the index). Even Miéville’s story in the anthology is markedly different from the work that lodged him at the heart of New Weird.

As with the British writers, there is another jaw-dropper of a sentence: “The best-known short-story writers of the American Weird movement are Ted Chiang and Kelly Link.” (p. 193) I can see precious little to connect the two writers apart from their obvious brilliance at the short form nor do I think either are (consciously or otherwise) working in anything that might be described as New Weird. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what New Weird might be, that is part of the point, problem and fun. It is not necessarily that Mendlesohn and James are wrong, it is just that it seems perverse to make such a contentious concept the backbone of a history of the period with such little attempt at justification.

Written by Martin

3 January 2010 at 20:32