The Renaisance Faire Theory of Fantasy Literature

Is fantasy still just for nerds? Why is the fantasy genre so popular?

Fantasy fiction has evolved considerably over the past twenty years.  Most of the time when I read sentences like that I am extraordinarily skeptical, but this is an area where I have a certain amount of confidence.  I’ve always kept an eye on fantasy literature, always found it interesting, but I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoyed until the last decade or so.  Since the huge success of the Harry Potter books and films, and Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and the bloody Hobbit), the genre has changed a lot.  Some of the stuff that’s available now is even too serious for many readers.

The genre started to change even before that, however.  Serious works, like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun were there, but they were hard to find.  George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would have been written even if the LOTR films hadn’t been so successful, but I doubt it would have been made into a successful TV show that people talk about on the bus.  There’s a lot of speculation on why, particularly in the rise of Grimdark fantasy, but last week I came up with a funny little speculative theory, that I call the Renaissance Faire Theory of Fantasy Literature Evolution.  Plant your tongue in your cheek if you plan to keep reading.

When I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, fantasy was there and it was not there.  Of course there was Lord of the Rings, The Mists of Avalon, and lots of authors like Mercedes Lackey, Katherine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and Terry Brooks.  There were movies like Krull, Willow, Legend, Dune, and TV shows like Xena and Hercules.  There were, of course, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.  At least for people under 18, fantasy has always been there.

However, if you went to a bookstore in those days, it was hard to find much fantasy that wasn’t by those authors.  In other words, I doubt I would have found the Book of the New Sun at the bookstores where I used to hang out as a teenager.  Fantasy was a niche market.  The way I heard adults talking about Lord of the Rings or The Mists of Avalon, they were considered rather specialized and only for a certain crowd.  I knew people who read Mercedes Lackey and Dragonlance, but they were exactly the people I would have expected to read those books.  They wore cloaks.  They owned swords.

In other words, those people read fantasy literature because they wanted a certain experience that they knew they would get from those books.  Nowadays, concurrent with the expansion of the popularity of fantasy, there’s a lot more places you can get yourself a medieval time.  There’s a lot more places to watch jousting.  In the eighties and nineties, in my experience, it was a lot harder to come by even when I hung out with the people who were doing it (yes, I’m talking about you, Derick).  If you could find a book that would have a world like that, you could live there for a while, and hope it would satisfy you until the next renaissance faire.

This has some interesting effects on the literature, and the experience of perusing some books by Mercedes Lackey prompted this idea.  Most aspects of the worlds are predictable.  Every reader knows what an elf is, and almost every book has elves or trolls or dwarves.  The authors will spend a lot of time talking about how the world is structured, or about details that don’t really have a lot to do with the plot because it’s cool to think about how people got their food or raised their families (now, these things are interesting, but it’s fairly obvious when an author is talking about spinning because she likes spinning versus talking about spinning because it’s part of the story).  The predictable world is probably the most predictable in the Dragonlance books because if you already play the game, you know what the world is like.  If the authors deviated too much from the game, the reader wouldn’t get the experience he wants; he wants an extension of the game as a novel, and that’s the author’s job.

Now I’m not, at this time, commenting on the value of such an approach.  Obviously repetitive “world-building” doesn’t sound inventive (I never heard people say “world-building” until a few years ago; it would be interesting to know when the phrase came into wide usage).  I am pretty sure this is the source of the “I’m really tired of medieval Europe” comments that I see on agents’ blogs.  I don’t think it’s medieval Europe that they’re tired of, it’s a version of medieval Europe that is highly predictable, one strictly based on Norse Myth and Tolkien.  I, however, am sometimes disappointed with books from this era because the experience of the setting seems to override the plot and (more importantly) the characters.  The books I perused last week all had the same races (men, elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons) and always supposed that the reader knew their characteristics.  They also spent a long time describing things in a way that highlighted “this is the world of dragons and wizards and elves and trolls.”  Sometimes really interesting situations were buried under really dense, unnecessary exposition of this type.

I’m suggesting this is actually what people wanted at the time because there were very few places to get those sorts of experiences.  I’m talking about an era when books were actually hard to find.  You had to read what you could find at the bookstore or the library.  Or *gasp* you had to borrow them from friends.  There was no Amazon.  There was no YouTube.  If you wanted a medieval experience, you would take it where you could get it, even connecting things that are only roughly related, like jousting and Irish music.  It’s convenient to have that sort of atmosphere all wrapped up in a book.  If you are really into the medieval experience, it’s nice to carry it around with you and read it throughout the day.  It matters a lot less whether it has a decent plot, psychologically deep characterization, or a spiritual dilemma at the core.  You might not even care if it was completely unoriginal.  If fantasy was predictable, it served its purpose.

Since Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and the rise of methods for getting whatever the hell book you want, however, the market for fantasy has expanded hugely, along with lots of other avenues for people to get their medieval experiences.  If you can get something of good quality over Amazon (or it’s a lot easier for your librarian to get it), you aren’t going to tolerate predictable setting and characterization. If you can watch jousting on YouTube, then you don’t have to wait for the next Highland Games.  If you can find out on the web where the next Highland Games is, it’s much more likely you’ll be going every weekend.

Although I do get nostalgic for the times when books were hard to find (no, really), I think the changes in fantasy literature are a good thing for everybody.  People have realized that fantasy doesn’t have to be just about setting, and the increased market has created demand for a higher level of suspense and more originality.  Just look at the discussions on Reddit Fantasy where people ask for incredibly nuanced book recommendations; they wouldn’t do that in a pre-Amazon world.  At the same time as it’s created a bigger market for authors, it’s creating better fantasy literature.  I highly doubt Brian Staveley’s books would have been successful in 1996.  The niche was too small.  The mainstream success of the most tense and deeply characterized fantasy series, like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (all successful before their adaptations, that is) speaks to the need for more than a cool setting.  That need was always there, but people tolerated a lot to get their favorite setting where they could.  Not anymore.  Fantasy is not a niche market anymore: not when I see people reading George R.R. Martin at the airport.

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6 thoughts on “The Renaisance Faire Theory of Fantasy Literature”

  1. I’m finally getting round to posting. Sorry for the delay.

    I think what you have here is the idea of market evolution from the pre-internet era to the internet era. Booksellers and libraries were previously the main access points for fantasy literature, making a relatively small set of authors available for consumption. Now the barriers to production have diminished allowing more authors to publish in more ways than publishing companies alone. There are more ways for publishers and authors to reach their fans, and there are more avenues for fans to follow their interest using movies, websites and blogs, videos, and more related products available on the internet. There is even a diversity of what is fantasy, blending magic and fantastical creatures across time and geography. Competition has definitely risen, and I’m sure that has had an effect on the quality of product. In order to rise above the noise, an author must offer something more unique and masterful.

    This is not really different from other literary markets, and other fields of art or commercial products. Continued globalization and democratization of production due to the internet has had a powerful effect.

    You’ve touched on something about repetition, but it sounds like it doesn’t resonate with you. Indeed some of the fantasy literature is repetetive. Partly that’s what makes a genre, and it’s true of any body of art with similarities. There are details by which works can be grouped, making it easier for people searching to reconnect with an experience to do so. Some people like the world building, the sense of the Medieval or Norse world, the dreams of magic and dragons. Some people want to be immersed in the sense of that world, and are willing to sacrifice some storytelling artistry to achieve that experience.

    It can be repetitious. Enough that readers tire and are driven away. But the things that people truly love about any genre of literature are good storytelling and characters which whom they can connect. And authors that achieve those things are timeless regardless of setting.

    I think time and a reader’s growth have their place in the evolution of the market too. When we were young, like addicts, we devoured any book that would get us back to a certain place, a certain feeling. As we’ve grown, our tastes have matured and those clumsy narratives with unnecessary description and flat characters don’t satisfy the way they used to. So we look for more evolved literature.

    I imagine this happened to the authors as well. Those who grew up reading the authors of the 90s, 80s, and eras before have likely grown tired of that same experience and wanted to create more exciting worlds, worlds more to their taste. Some of which resonate with current readers.

    An interesting read. Thanks for the post.

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    1. I think one thing that I didn’t mention is that there’s a definite appetite for fantasy now that wasn’t there when we were kids. People have always wanted stories about ritual societies, but they’ve also wanted transcendent heroic stories and now they want them more because our world seems so devoid of them (I might feel differently if I knew anyone in the military). There is so much moral relativism and our spiritual and political leaders seem so corrupt that people want stories where there’s a clear sense of what’s good in the world, a clear sense of the spiritual (even if for the characters right and wrong are not clear). I think a lot of the newer darker fantasy reflects this confusion, but it also gives people a window into higher ideals. The authors I follow are very subtle about morality in their work, but are very clear that it should be there and have a clear sense of values. I think as religion (or people taking it seriously) declines, people are going to find their spirituality in superheroes and fantasy stories. Gee…it’s like the Dark Ages.

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    2. Hold on a second. I think it is different from other genres. What is it about romance novels that people tolerated beyond proportion the way people tolerated excessive exposition in fantasy novels? Has that changed in the internet era? I don’t think so. Romance novels look the same to me as they did before because there is no analogue to the renaisance faire in other genres (except maybe scifi). Romance is something that everyone can relate to, not something that is only interesting to a certain group of people. Not everyone reads about it, but it’s not a hobby.

      Also, romance is one of the most widely-read genres, and still is. It’s not a niche at all. Mainstream fiction and literary fiction also don’t respond to these market pressures the same way: people are still reading Clive Cussler and James Patterson in hardback waiting for their planes.

      Really, since fantasy is no longer a niche, it’s no longer about the thing that made it a niche in the first place. New standards come in that were always there (or not there in the case of romance) for other genres that were more widely available.

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