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.