Has the Fantasy Genre written itself into a corner?

I wonder if the modern trends in fantasy have boxed themselves into a corner? Well, two corners; for all intents, once you peel away the story cosmetics, those two corners are the same corner. The way I see it, there are two main trends in modern fantasy writing. There’s the paranormal trend and the faux-classic epic fantasy trend.

The paranormal trend is an amalgamation of vampires, zombies, witches, fairies, etc., largely set within modern times. The faux-classic epic fantasy trend is a nostalgic attempt to recreate Tolkien with the crucial difference that it is mostly nihilistic in approach (which, ironically enough, completely and irrevocably divorces it from Tolkien). The presence or non-presence of magic in this trend (i.e, Jordan vs. Martin) is largely irrelevant in my opinion, as magic is typically used as a McGuffin or Deus Ex Machina device by most modern writers; it might as well be a high-tech weapon or an individual of extraordinary intelligence in terms of it’s function within a story. Magic used in a more fundamental, organic way, has a genuine philosophy to it–not just a philosophy but a reason of being that exists at the atomic level in equivalence of meaning.

Anyway, on to the corner discussion.

In terms of the paranormal fantasy trend (arguably begun by Stephanie Meyers and her Twilight books), the sheer volume of stories being written and published have resulted in a startling homogeneity. The plots and characters and voice styles are blending into each other to such a well-pureed degree that many authors are largely indistinguishable from each other. Seriously, let’s be painfully honest here. If you’re going to play around with words, even as a hobby, it’s time to man up; if words have definitions that can be nailed down, then truth can be nailed down as well. There’s not a lot of difference between a Marjorie Liu story and any infinite number of Hot-Chick-or-Guy-runs-around-and-dispatches-fill-in-the-evil-blank-monsters. Toss in some sex and tight abdominal muscles and you can get any number of authorial names clanging up on the Vegas slot machine of Amazon. Are the plots really that different? Pull the lever again and you’ve got zombies, fairies, witches, conflicted vampires. Add leather and spandex, an attitude, some endearingly quirky bit characters, rinse and repeat. You can buy the bottle on Aisle 6. Hurry in today for a discount.

The faux-classic epic fantasy trend is the same. Homogeneity due to countless writers focusing in on the same target. Hero, anti-hero (there’s not much difference anymore due to the overwhelming nihilism that seems to infect a majority of writing in this genre) must save the world or his/her land or people or dragon race or elves or whatever cupcake you feel like eating today. Again, the stories blend into each other. It’s the pulp novel equivalent of standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket and deciding what to eat. Sure, there’s Captain Crunch and Fruit Loops and Sugar-Coated Nuclear BombPops and a myriad of other exciting looking boxes. What amazing variety! But, if you start flipping the boxes around and reading the ingredients, it’s all the same stuff: mononuclear dirythibaxicate, radioactive dye, digitally reconstructed wheat particles, lard, rice hulls, shredded plastic.

The fantasy genre has written itself into a corner and the corner is getting kind of moldy and stagnant. Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit that the stuff still sells and people lap it up, just like those cereals still sell, but is that the primary goal? If it is, well and good for those who can make a living off of it. You’ve met your goal.

However, there are other goals.

That issue aside (that’s a big issue and deserves it’s continuous place in the scrutinizing sunlight, but not today), how on earth did we end up in such a place? Or, in other words, why have so many different individual writers end up writing their way into such a shared and common place? Why do we end up with similarity of thought? Why do creative types pull the handle and get the same row of of grinning little leprechauns?

My theory revolves around the culture we ingest. When I say culture, I’m referring to everything from TV and film and music to the prevailing thought of political discourse regarding issues from tolerance, marriage, sex, children, violence, family, religion, and education, to ideas about the nature and meaning of work, modesty and immodesty, hero worship, and all the other thought wrinkles that make up the decidedly wrinkled fabric of our society. Argument or even polite, measured discourse about a great many of these issues has become more and more rare in our times. We have arrived at a level of group-think that hasn’t been seen before in the West. I daresay it has been quite common in other times and places (see: USSR, China, etc.).

We’re all watching Mad Men. And Mad Men, despite the excellent camera work, spot-on editing, actors who can hit their marks quite well, tightly plotted scripts and the whole nine yards of plastic, desperate Hollywood, is profoundly shallow. As is everything on TV. It isn’t Dumas or Dickens or Thackeray, dammit. And that’s the shallow well we draw from. That, and Beyonce and the bubblehead on the nightly news that, in one breath, tells you the daily murders, then next breath is Justin Bieber crashing his car, the next breath is China hacking Defense Department websites, the next breath is a saturated fats study, the next breath is an incomprehensible babble of non-words that soaks into your consciousness like glaze on a Krispy Kreme doughnut. And that jambalaya of nutrition is what we power our brains with?

You have to ask yourself: where does creativity come from? If the answer is: personal experience, innermost thoughts, I-just-think-it-up, well, good luck with that.

We’ve ended up in corners, huddled in corners. Give me your tired and poor, your huddled masses of writers and let’s pack them into this corner here. It’s almost as if we’re all cribbing from each other, peering over shoulders.

Will it change? I really don’t know. At the moment, I’m not so hopeful.

16 thoughts on “Has the Fantasy Genre written itself into a corner?”

  1. We do have a fixation on the expected, the usual and the safe. It takes a different sort of person to do something unusual, even when the setting is otherwise mundane.

    I have to give “Twilght” credit for two things, the way it treated vampires, and the way it treated relations between mortals and vampires. I know people hate it because Bella wants to wait for nookie, but there are people like her in real life; they want the commitment before they’ll put out. Sometimes your experiences say nothing about how others should act.

    That said, fantasy—of any sub-genre—could do with a bit of getting more in-depth regarding the world. And it could cover more incidents, more events than the usual ones do. Comfort lit is all well and good, but a well done excursion into the different is also good.

    Scenario: The fay left Earth for a world of their own back in Neolithic times. Now it’s beoming apparent that their adopted home threatens to destroy them, for their own good of course. Some races are planning on making a return to Earth. How do they and humanity adapt to the new situation?

    Tell a friend and see how they handle it.

    1. Comfort lit. I like that. That’s a great way to encapsulate a lot of what’s going on in fantasy. Well, in a lot of genre fiction in general, I suppose. Romances, mysteries, cozies. A lot of cookie-cutter, flavor-of-the-year stuff. In-depth is difficult. Not just to write, because I think writing is always more than just the writing itself. It’s the background and worldview that the author is growing up from. That sort of thing can’t be forced. There’s an argument that another Tolkien can never occur, unless there were radical, seismic shifts in society itself, because what Tolkien wrote was not just himself, but the worldview matrix of his society (including WWI). Anyway, a troubling topic for another time…

  2. Agreed. The last few times I’ve browsed through a bookstore, picking up mainstream new releases, I sort of felt like I was getting the same things in different packages.

    I’m wondering if it’s a response to the sudden onslaught of information in the last few decades. Suddenly, society can see what’s happening everywhere else on a minute-by-minute basis, and can hear everyone else’s responses to everything, and consider many layers of analysis on a topic like fantasy tropes. It’s a lot to take in. It might be making people cling to surefire, familiar things. Whereas the writers of yore on their typewriters wouldn’t have had such a paralyzing abundance. They had a daily newspaper and a news broadcast maybe three times each day, and however many paper books they had on hand to leaf through, and their immediate local peer group — and all that was a trickle of ideas compared to the Internet’s firehose. Those past writers would have been freer to explore their own ideas and emotions, instead of feeling like they had to answer to some looming enormity. Ignorance being bliss and all.

    It’s either that, or our society’s reliance on huge companies that like money better than artistic merit. But I like the human nature one better. 😀

    1. That’s a really interesting perspective. Hmm. Actually, I think that definitely has a hand in it. Like you say, the amount of information is a paralyzing abundance. Yet, at the same time (and perhaps partially due to it’s abundance) it seems to me the information, or at least the way people process it, is quite shallow in nature. Shallow firehose-level output. Seems like a contradiction in terms, but I think that plays into how creativity is evolving.

      The old-school writer sitting in comparative silence, tapping away on his typewriter vs. the new-school writer plugged in and wired, iTunes blaring away, Youtube clamoring for attention… yup, I think you have something there.

  3. You are write when have said about creativity comes from our experiences. It is Descartes thought, but still true. But thinks are worst than you can figure out. Imagine a country far from USA with totally different culture. Local legends, believes and history. Now, be surprised that even in this country, writers only deal with the same topics. Tolkien, Harry Potter’s or Twitlight style. The propaganda surrounding all productions are intense and create minds. That’s happen in my country.

    1. I wonder, though, if a completely different culture (as opposed to the typical Western-Hollywood-bubblegum culture here) might have the freshness and perspective to come up with a new Tolkien, despite, like you point out, the fact you’re getting Twilight etc exported to your shores? I find that kind of hopeful!

  4. Interesting article. It touches on some things that I’ve heard talked about elsewhere, the homogeneity of fantasy or other genres. The use of certain tropes as genre staples. On the one hand it’s all a product of current society and the things we come into contact with on a daily basis – the firehose that was mentioned earlier. I think that’s pretty spot on.

    But there’s another thing to take into consideration, and that’s the publishing industry. As the gatekeepers of literature they decide what gets out to the masses, and usually it’s a formula they’re comfortable with. One they think will make money – which I suppose is where Heidi’s comment about companies that like money more than artistic merit comes in.

    But that may be changing with the rise of self publishing. When anyone can publish anything they want, the formula may start to drift. For now we’re still used to the same homogeneous ideas and tropes, and we may keep replicating those for a bit. But if somebody does have a revolutionary new story to tell they can do so without worrying whether an agent will want to try and represent it, or a publisher will want to buy it. If it’s one that grabs interest and pulls people away from the usual we’ll start to see that sort of thing more often. Easier access to a broader arrays of literary styles and ideas might breed a broader array of stories. At least, that’s the way I hope it will work.

    1. I think I mostly agree with you in regard to the publishing industry. It seems they do stick to a lot of formula and safety. Fairly similar to the TV and film industries. But, I suppose some gems do sneak through every once in a while. Not often.

      The jury is still out for me on the self-publishing movement, though I’m probably more of a pessimist than an optimist here. Like you say, I think we’re still seeing the same homogenous ideas for the most part. Maybe that’ll shake out after a while. Still, regardless of my innate pessimism, I plan on keep on sampling to find those revolutionary stories. Actually, an honestly vibrant story would do it for me. Real, heart-felt characters who breathe and live. When it comes down to it, I wouldn’t mind the rehash of old ideas if they’re peopled with characters I can love and live with.

  5. In other words, we are living in Amalgamated Culture, Inc.

    That would explain why so much of the indy stuff I’ve read lately has seemed so fresh and exciting – they are nibbling round the corners of culture, breaking out of the corner and into the great wide world beyond.

    1. Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. Amalgamated Culture… nice! I might have to steal that.

      It’s always the people on the fringe, isn’t it? The edges are where it’s happening.

  6. I think things just tend to go in cycles. Tolkien helped push epic fantasy into mainstream. Then Rowlings. Now it seems that urban fantasy is taking over with werewolves and vampires. Next year??? Who knows? Maybe the little trolls with the long pink hair will make a come back!!!! OR SMURFS!!! 🙂

    Terrific post.

    1. Yeah, I’m always wondering what the next thing will be. Maybe something inspired by all the doom and gloom of the world economy, or something like that. At any rate, I sure hope it’s not those smurfs!

  7. Interesting article, Christopher. I don’t think fantasy is necessarily in a corner, despite the two major tropes that have come to dominate the bookshelves. I write Historical Fantasy. It feels fresh. Whether or not there will be reader interest remains to be seen. It is possible that readers are amalgamated or homogenized or whatever term we wish to apply. They may demand the two tropes and nothing else for the foreseeable future. This is out of the writers’ control, it is product of vast cultural influences, as you have pointed out. Myself I don’t watch television, one of the main “programmers” of the age. I do draw inspiration from the land, from the natural world, from history. In a sense I feel very old fashioned. I’m curious to see if my throwback writing attracts any readers looking for alternatives to the slick modern media world. Thanks again for the brain-stimulating post.

    1. Historical fantasy is definitely a good trend, in my opinion. It seems like there are some tremendous possibilities in that direction. Rich material, potentially. How’s your writing doing these days?

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