I have a love/hate relationship with the Fantasy genre. I think that most writers within the genre do to some lesser or greater degree. It’s that quiet dissatisfaction with the stuff that you love that makes you think you need to pick up a pen and write those stories you feel are missing.
Now let me start from the outset that I love fantasy’s breadth. It’s a genre so wide that it’s possible to love one end and hate the other, and because we are creatures of individual tastes, when I say hate, I mean “not to my taste” not “bad”. There’s little more interesting than talking about the genre with people, sharing a love of some books and then raising an eyebrow at one of their choices and saying “really?” I love that there is a diversity of opinion and think that’s really, really healthy for the genre. And at the end of the day, it’s just that… an opinion. My personal tastes are no benchmark by which to judge against.
So when I say I have dissatisfaction within the genre it’s just personal taste and in no way meant to be some form of universal declaration.
For me, everything went wrong with George R R Martin. I think Game of Thrones was a very, very clever book. A book that tried to step out of Tolkien’s shadow, stripped away the myth and magic and gave us a hard-boiled ‘gritty’ fantasy. But if I have one issue with gritty fantasy as a sub-genre, is that it’s as much in Martin’s shadow as those 80s fantasy novels were in Tolkien’s. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of it is well done; a lot of it, I love. And I mean love. If I could marry Scott Lynch’s descriptive prose with Abercrombie’s characterisation, I’d die a happy, happy man.
But within gritty fantasy I read a subtext that says “we reject the old” rather than “we build on the old”. It may just be me, I’m more than willing to accept that.
It also really, really irks me that we’ve put some magical races in the fantasy ghetto. That instead of taking the universal image of dwarves and elves and trying to do something new and different with them, there’s a lot of looking down noses when they are mentioned. People argue that they are trying to move away from Tolkien, and this just gets me mad because “Tolkien… did… not… invent… elves!” If there is room in the market for dragon and vampire novels, whilst not to everyone’s tastes (including mine in some cases), surely there is still some mileage for dwarves. After all, they’ve survived in folklore for hundreds of years. And I’m not arguing they should be in every project, I’m just saying they should not be off the table as I currently feel they are.
Worse still, are books (books I love, by the way) that feature ‘elves in disguise’. Pointy ears? Check. Love of archery? Check. Slightly derogatory opinion on other races? Waitaminute….
Don’t even get me started on the prevalence for strong women not being strong before they’ve been assaulted in some way! (That’s for another more serious blog post, rather than this light-hearted rant).
And while we’re talking about fantasy tropes let’s look at the medieval world setting. I love it, want more of it, but at the same time want something different. Fantasy doesn’t HAVE to be set with castles and feudal systems.
And then there’s China Mieville, a man who could spit words as bullets, a man who uses sentences like a ninja uses edged weapons. I love how he pushes the boundaries, how he takes fantasy into other genres. I loved the concept of the City and the City but hated the end. I loved how the middle section of Iron Council just enveloped me. But why is it that a large number of the writers I meet, both published and unpublished want to be him? I’m not stupid enough to dislike the man and his work because he is popular (indeed, whenever I have seen him talk at panels and signings, he’s been interesting polite, fun and wise). But I can’t understand why any writer would want to be another, no matter how successful and revered.
Perhaps, other than Clive Barker, the New Weird has never been an area of fantasy I’ve particularly felt at home with.
For me, the best novels are ones that take very complex ideas and boil them down to such a simple metaphor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a place for challenging novels, but equally there’s a place for gateway novels. I just want great stories with great characters… and maybe, just occasionally, the odd dwarf.
Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it’s unintelligent. Stories can be accessible and intelligent and move the genre forward.
And this is why I write. As much because of what fantasy is, as what it is not. And dependent on the day of the week, I’m allowed to swap my views, love things I’ve previously hated and vice versa. It’s all part of having a passion for the genre.