John-Michael Gariepy

Who’s to blame for the state of the Fantasy Genre?

The title of this post is also the title of a thread from the customer forum at Amazon.com.  In it, some bloke named “Chris” says:

 …So what’s with this repetitive King Arthur and the elements, you know, fire, earth, wind etc thing, and who’s to blame for it? Is it lack of imagination on the part of the authors, publishers only accepting what they know usually does well, or is it ultimately the buyers’ fault for giving them the idea that we only want to read the same old story over and over?

There’s more above and below that, but that’s the gist of the post over there.  It got a fair number of responses that can be broken down into 5 categories.

  1. It isn’t.  You aren’t reading the right fiction.  There’s plenty of variety, especially from book series X or author Y.
  2. That’s normal.  All fiction tends to run toward the mundane, with imaginative stories being the exception, not the rule.
  3. It’s Twilight, or Harry Potter’s fault.  There’s nothing new about vampires or wizards, but that’s what’s big right now.  And, authors are people who need money to survive and follow where the money is.
  4. It’s the publishing companies.  Publishing companies need money to survive, and the easiest way to make bank in the fantasy industry is to resell the same story packaged a different way.
  5. It’s the readers.  We’ve gotten lazy, and accept the way that the Fantasy Genre has developed.  If it wasn’t for readers who want to be told the same story over and over again, then the publishing industry wouldn’t give us what we want.

None of these reasons ring true with me.  All the reasons, when lumped together, sound like a logical argument.  But when many of them are spread out, there are filled with flaws.  These are some reasons why I have a problem with 1-5.

  1. The first reason isn’t really answering the question, it’s dodging it.  True, there are lots of creative fantasy novels coming out every year, but since most people did not answer the question with answer #1, then there’s an obvious need for more creative fantasy stories.  It may not be a problem for those who answered #1, but it’s a problem for everyone else, so the question still stands.
  2. It is not normal for the majority of fiction in a genre to be uncreative.  Most artistic movements have peaks where almost every book, vinyl, painting or movie that comes out has something strange and exciting to add to the movement.  If a genre feels stale, it may be past its prime, or it may be ready to resurge, but there has yet to be any genre that ingrains itself into a culture and just hangs there.
  3. You can have a knock-off of a popular piece of fiction that is still original.  Just because John Q. Reader might really dig stories about wizard schools, doesn’t mean that the story about child wizards needs to be boring, and follow the same rote formula as all the other books about wizard schools.  In fact, that’s probably a bad idea.  One of the best ways to sell a story in Hollywood is to compare it to two previous movies (It’s like ‘Back to the Future’ meets ‘Avatar’).  Do your work well, and you end up with something different and interesting.  Repeat this method enough times and you are far away from the original plot.  While a school for young vampires may draw some heat for being like Harry Potter and Twilight, the idea itself could hold merit, and the story could be wildly different than its parts.
  4. This answer passes the buck.  The problem can’t rest on the shoulders of the publishing industry.  If people choose not to read a certain book, then it would not sell, and the book wouldn’t ‘exist’ in the public’s mind.  This is true for both formula books and boundary breaking books.  Both the good books and the bad books exist already, but the books that sell enough copies to appear in a bookstore are the only ones that exist to us.  As long as there is a potential for a product to sell, someone will try to sell it.
  5. Maybe.  I have a hard time arguing against this, because it’s hard to prove what the public wants.  People claim that they want more imaginative stories, but when they go to the movie theater, choose to watch Garfield 2 and Twilight Saga 2: Electric Boogaloo.  At least with movies, we can blame flashy and misleading trailers.  Books ask their audience to research the author and his style before purchasing them.  If an author kept dropping the same material over and over again, readers should know that.  And if readers don’t like an author, they shouldn’t read a sequel to their book.  Oh, man.  I hope they don’t.But what if the readers don’t have a choice?  That is what the original question assumes, after all.  The fantasy genre isn’t creative enough; Readers who explore among the genre find that the stores in the next town over are also a Target and a Wal*Mart.  Many readers would go out of their way to read something imaginative, but when they do, they find they have to drive too far to get something a little different, so they don’t bother.  It’s not worth the hour drive.
So what’s left over?  Well, I started my post off by blaming the authors.  Here, I’ll edit some stuff out to cut down on the repetition.
If writers wanted to write about weird and strange fantasy worlds, and people didn’t want to read about them, it would spawn its own genre with a strong but independent readership. I might be mistaken, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems that most writers of fantasy have a tendency to write traditional fantasy… we can’t go around blaming the consumer for choices the authors take.

And this makes sense. Speaking as a first-time author within the realm of fantasy, I understand the allure of sticking to what’s worked in the past. My own (not published yet… sorry) book works with the themes set forth in The 1,001 Nights.  I’m often forced to stop my writing and do research, which is a buzzkill for production. Fantasy writers have the largest minimum word count (which *is* something we can blame on the readership). Bantam won’t even look at your book until you’ve hit 80,000 words. What’s the fastest, most consistent way to keep up that pace of writing? Don’t do research… just keep working with what’s on top of your head. How do you keep writing off the top of your head? Stick to what you know.

So, yes, okay, I suppose us readers are to blame for a couple of things. We keep supporting well-respected authors who have very large page counts. If you wanted to help the genre grow, you could do worse than to demand publishers put out fantasy novellas and short story collections.  You know… by buying them.  These books and magazines have a secondary benefit as well… you could find more authors who aren’t entrenched in their ways.  The shorter format infers that the author is more experimental, since he can’t sustain his or her story for epic lengths.

Oh, and one more thing, before I ‘peace out’. Stop playing World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons. By reinforcing stereotypes in roleplaying games, we’re reinforcing writers what we enjoy in our fantasy. Not only that, but when young gamers become young fantasy writers, they draw upon their gaming experience. If that gaming experience is Dungeons and Dragons, they will write traditional fantasy. If their gaming experience is Gamma World, however, the types of tales they write in the future can indeed be very experimental. (See, I even chose a game by the same company so this didn’t turn into a rant against Capitalism. Neat.)

Peace Out!

Okay, I admit, that bit about Dungeons and Dragons is a bit weird to put in my blog, when I’m working on making a Random Encounter Generator for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  So, I’m a hypocrite, but only so much so.  As a role-playing community, we can demand certain products from these publishers as well.  When we ignore the usual “Orc Skull Pass” adventure, but pay money for an adventure inside Baba Yaga’s Hut, we’re making a statement.

I’m still holding out that WotC will some day publish Spelljammers again.

Peace Out!

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