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.