From what I’ve been reading, people certainly feel as if there’s something amiss with what epic fantasy being published today. Either there isn’t enough of it, it’s dead (or not), it’s dying (or not), or it’s just lacking a je ne sais quoi. Certainly, I feel that perhaps it isn’t as pervasive as it once was, and has, in some cases, become either complete cliche or entirely inaccessible.
Paul Jessup linked to an article from IRoSF this morning on a somewhat unrelated subject, but indicated that sf/f makes up a little over 17% of the market, over $700 million. But if you think about that number, and what it includes, that’s quite a width and breadth.
In the 60s, when fantasy was “new”, fantasy as a genre had yet to be branded. There were no tie-ins yet, no movies, or light-up mugs. Most of the conversation then was fantasy writing and its connection to the myths and legends of bygone eras, more fodder for medievalists than the media.
And now, almost fifty years later, we’re in a very different world. Everyone understands, or so they think, what fantasy writing is. It’s swords, sorcery, sorcerors… usually included in the mix are some brawny dudes, scantily clad lasses, and sidekicks with clever quips. Right?
Well not exactly, of course. Those of us who write and read the genre know that it’s a great deal more complicated than that, and that real epic fantasy doesn’t just rewrite (because that’s important) but it challenges our ideas and preconceptions, too.
What I see in the market that is slightly disturbing to me is the adherence to brands in fantasy literature. This happens in SF too, and to a similar degree–but I don’t think it’s bled into the mainstream as much. There seems to be a great deal of new, exciting, unusual work being done in SF, but seemingly less in fantasy writing.
So, there are approximately 10 million subscribers to WoW (if every WoW subscriber bought one fantasy novel a year, even in paperback, that’d account for nearly the entire statistic above). You’d imagine they’re the perfect folks to get into epic fantasy–clearly they have a thing for armor, quests, etc, ad nauseam. But are they buying new epic fantasy, too? Or are they sticking with more familiar territory, like WoW novels, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, that sort of thing? Do the markets coincide much? I know they do, on some level, because I’ve met plenty of intelligent WoWers. But is it a wide enough trend to make a difference? Has fantasy in general become so mainstream that it’s too hard to do seriously any longer?
I just wonder if people are more likely to pick up something familiar, something branded, because it’s comfortable. It won’t challenge, it won’t discomfit, it will just be entertaining. And there isn’t anything wrong with that, if that’s the case, but it does shed some light into an increasingly complex genre.
So, as writers of fantasy, then, do we write what the readers want to read, or do we challenge them? Do we put success higher up in our priorities than telling the stories we feel are most important?
I’m not really sure, when it comes to it. I want to see more epic fantasy that pushes the envelope, that gets everyone talking… just not sure where it’ll come from, or when, or how. Maybe I already missed it? Maybe the Golden Age is passed, and we have to work harder to make the next age as impressive.