Every time I go to a bookstore, I am confronted by the overwhelming number of books that seem to be trying to capitalize on the simultaneous success of Twilight and Urban Fantasy. You know the books I am talking about: the covers always feature a young woman, usually with fiery red hair, and she carries a sword (or a crossbow, or an impossibly large axe, or something). She typically is shown at such an angle that you can see her outfit leaves part of her back exposed, and she has some kind of tattoo on her back. And the book summary is some variation on the following: “Rhiannon has a problem. She just found out that she is the last in a long-line of demon hunters. To make things worse, the love of her life, grey-eyed Brandon, is a demon. Now she must choose where her loyalties lie: with the man she’s loved her whole life, or with her family!”
Of course, the tendency to churn out derivative, hack material is not unique to fantasy, nor is it new to fantasy. I remember fantasy in the ‘80s. If it didn’t involve a quest through misty moors to reclaim (or destroy) an object of power before the Black Mage/Dark Father/Evil Overlord could get his hands on it, then it wasn’t really fantasy. Elves who were enlightened forest dwellers and dwarves with big, honking axes were nearly a requirement. Much of ‘70s and ‘80s fantasy was simply riffing on Tolkien.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Publishing is an industry, and the point of industry is to mass-produce widgets. Those widgets are essentially all the same, with minor tweaks rather than actual system-wide variations. Sneakers are a great example: there really isn’t much of a difference between Adidas, Nikes, and Reebok shoes except for the “cool” factor (and that is always shifting). The publishing industry saw “epic fantasy” as a cash cow in the ‘80s. Urban Fantasy aimed at tweens and teens is the cash cow now.
But when I think about this, it does bother me on a deep level. The issue is the word “fantasy.” When I look up the word, I always get something that describes “fantasy” as “imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained; the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies.” Extravagant and unrestrained imagination? That is hardly what one sees on the shelves in a bookstore. Instead, we find derivative riffing on a few central ideas.
I can anticipate an argument to this complaint: fantasy is built on a few mythic archetypes, so of course there will be some similarities. This is an interesting and often-used argument. After all, Papa Tolkien is the writer that is most often taken as a model, and Tolkien was a scholar of mythic and epic literature. However, Tolkien did not actually recycle the structure of epic and mythic literature texts. He took elements of their feel. For example, there is nothing in The Lord of the Rings that is reminiscent of the plot structure of Beowulf or The Saga of the Volsungs. Instead, he took aesthetic elements and even specific plot points from these texts. (Bilbo woke Smaug the Dragon by stealing a cup from his treasure hoard; in Beowulf, an ancient dragon is awakened when a thief steals a cup from the dragon’s hoard.) At no point do the derivative epic fantasies take on the structure of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, or even the later attempts to recreate the epic form such as Layamon’s Brut. So please, stop trying to claim a mythic tradition for fantasy that isn’t there.
Fantasy should be the most open and creative of genres, but it seems that what we get is endless repetition of whatever sells well at the moment. This is the nature of capitalist production: when something succeeds, repeat the success. Repeat until it fails, and then move on to something new. But even within this paradigm, there should be opportunities for creativity.
This argument isn’t as forceful as it would have been twenty or thirty years ago, as Fantasy has opened itself up. Books like Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or even Sanderson’s Mistborn series have shown that fantasy has some range, and they certainly wouldn’t have found success in the Epic ‘80s. And there really never was a time when fantasy was a completely “closed shop.” Even in the darkest days of Tolkien-copying, Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Holdstock’s Mythago Wood were demonstrating that Fantasy could encourage real imaginative play. But publishing is a business, and it is out to make money. If Tolkien copies make money, that is what will get published. Businessmen are not in the business of encouraging creativity unless it will help the Bottom Line.
The publishing industry is entirely willing to keep publishing minor variations on the books that sell. But Fantasy is big enough as a genre that there actually is a lot of room out there for creativity to find an outlet. We fantasy readers need to be willing to demand creativity; if we demand it, we will get it. As fantasy readers, we need to fight against complacency. You don’t have to accept yet another story about an orphaned farm-boy who must discover his true destiny in order to defeat the Black Mage before he can find the Seven Mystic Keys of Fentoozler and enslave the world. You don’t have to accept yet another story about a young woman who must choose between her job as a vampire hunter/demon killer/dragon slayer and her boyfriend who is a vampire/demon/half-dragon. I’m all for the occasional guilty pleasure in my fantasy reading, and I will keep reading epics. But I used to read things I didn’t completely enjoy, simply because I thought that, in the Fantasy genre, I had no choice but to accept the limited output there seemed to be. Fantasy is more than a formula; unless you enjoy the formula, don’t accept it.
And whatever you do, don’t accept any more stories about sparkling vampires. Vampires don’t sparkle.