A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was starting to feel a little oversaturated with Fantasy. As someone who runs a blog centred around the genre, and also an aspiring writer working in the genre, this could be a rather distressful type of comment. One of my readers, Sean, thought so, too:
“Burnt out on fantasyâ€¦..uh ohâ€¦.arenâ€™t you halfway through writing your own fantasy book?”
Thatâ€™s a good question, a very good question. I suppose I should have qualified that statement by saying that Iâ€™m feeling burnt out on â€˜Epicâ€™ or â€˜Secondary-worldâ€™ fantasy, rather than the genre as a whole. What Iâ€™m really craving and enjoying at the moment seem to be novels with a more modern spin to them and, most importantly, a modern cadence and flow to the dialogue.
Science Fiction (especially set in the near future, like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, which Iâ€™m reading now) and Urban Fantasy (Iâ€™m itching to read some more Gaiman at the moment) are some of the obvious sub-genres of speculative fiction that fill this itch.
How is it impacting Through Bended Grass? Well, not really, as far as I can tell. Itâ€™s set in a contemporary setting, as you know and that allows me to play around with a modern language (it also helps that itâ€™s written in first person) and Rowan views the Fey world through the eyes of someone everyone of our generation can relate to. I think, in many ways, writing Through Bended Grass is responsible for how my tastes are shifting at the moment, rather than the other way around.
And then James at The Accidental Bard picked up on the idea:
Aidan Moher recently commented that he was getting a bit “over-saturated” on fantasy, a feeling I can definitely understand. Even putting aside personal fatigue, the genre as a whole is in transition right now. Publishing houses are emphasizing urban fantasy to the extent that epic and high fantasy have been sidelined and newly classified as “traditional” and “old-fashioned.” Authors producing epic fantasy of the type that dominated the marketplace even a few years ago are scrambling just to get published in the current climate.
I thought this would be an interesting subject to turn back to and might help me better understand why I’ve been turning away from the typical Epic/Secondary World Fantasy for the last several weeks.
Part of the reason, I suppose, is just that I’ve read so bloody much of it. For the last 15 years, or so, since I first picked up Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I’ve almost exclusively read within the sub-genre: Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Raymond E. Feist etc…. Of course there have been diversions throughout the years – a little bit of Science Fiction here, a little bit of Biography there, and even a little bit of mainstream literature thrown in for good measure – but for the most part I chose to lose myself in the same story over and over again.
I think the reason I kept coming back to the genre was simply for safety; I knew what to expect, I knew the rules, I knew how to read it. What was exciting to me, rather, was watching how the various authors handled the tropes, how they put their own spin on the ideas and cliches that have been around for decades. But, over the last several weeks, I’ve found this infatuation with the sub-genre waning, my interests shifting toward different forms of Speculative Fiction.
The interesting thing is that I don’t seem to be the only one. From James’ article:
The market for epic fantasy is cornered by a few giants of the genre, the George Martins, Robert Jordans, and Terry Brookses of the world, most of whose work consists of unfinished series. So many readers looking for good epics are stuck in a holding pattern, digging behind stacks of Laurell K. Hamilton’s pornographic rubbish in search of undiscovered high adventure while they await Book 7 (or 5 or 12 or 10) of their favorite doorstop series.
Authors like Joe Abercrombie still manage to write new epic fantasy, albeit it with a snarky, often metafictional twist, but in a noticeably pulpier format. Abercrombie’s trilogy lacks the material trappings of traditional high fantasy; published by Pyr, an imprint of Gollancz, The First Law comes in trade paperback, not hardcover, and the cover art, while eye-catching, is graphic design, not the custom artwork traditionally associated with modern fantasy. Maps, glossaries, and appendices of any kind are conspicuously absent. The effort comes off as refreshingly minimalist, but the underlying motive is undeniably minimizing costs.
These days, having a marketing angle, knowing how to sell your book, seems to be at least as important as the quality of the work itself — often overtly more so. But most writers did not study marketing, and as artists their first concern (ideally) should not be mainstream appeal. The genre fiction marketplace is forcing writers of epic fantasy in particular, unless they have an original idea of Phillip Pullman proportions, to prioritize marketability and to produce work that conforms to current standards of saleability. I can’t help but wonder: is this squeeze on traditional fantasy effectively filtering out what was unworthy anyway, or is it killing the subgenre? And where is this trend heading? Will it peak and begin its decline soon, or are we seeing a more long-term shift taking place?
As mentioned earlier (and something I talk about HERE), Urban/Contemporary Fantasy is taking the market by storm, forcing aside the stalwart Epic Fantasy not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of publisher interest.
I have two good friends in the online space, (whom I’m sure many of you are well aware of!), Patrick St. Denis and Shawn Speakman and their stories share many similarities. Both are well connected aspiring writers, known to many in the publishing field and St. Denis is even represented by one of the biggest Fantasy agents in the game (Matt Bailer, who represents Tad Williams, Eldon Thompson and Patrick Rothfuss, among others). Both have written the beginnings of promising Epic Fantasies (I’ve read Speakman’s and the premise of St. Denis’ looks solid). I can’t speak for St. Denis, but both also seem to be having trouble finding publisher interest in the stories.
Speakman talks about the subject HERE, and is refreshingly candid about the various rejection letters he recieved for Song of the Fell Hammer:
Other writing friends of mine have been getting the same few sentences thrown at them too. They too have written epic fantasies and they too are being rejected for it. It is not just my experience with all of this that counts; it is the overall industry’s choice, and that choice doesn’t want to read or buy or publish an epic fantasy.
Well, what are they looking for then?
If you pay attention to the industryâ€”via the internet or through Publishers Weeklyâ€”there is a very distinct pattern that is going on. Most of the book contracts being offered are for urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Editor Liz, who is one of Del Rey’s newest editors, has several deals below her belt already for urban fantasy and paranormal romance. A few of the other newer editors have been hunting it as well. Coincidence? No way.
Part of me wonders how accurate this is. Between Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, Brian Ruckley, Karen Miller, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Robert V.S. Redick, Brent Weeks, it’s clear that publishers are still actively publishing new Epic Fantasies, especially the mid-level publishers like Orbit and Solaris. The thing is, though, that these days it’s taking a lot more praise to get me interested in reading a lot of the new Epic Fantasy coming out; I’ll only flock to the ones that I know are going to be great. Perhaps that’s what’s happening with the general readership: the good Epic Fantasy still finds a home, and the sub-par stuff gets pushed aside in favour of, well, a lot of the sub-par Urban Fantasy that’s flooding the shelves.
I think another big factor in my shift in tastes is this blog, A Dribble of Ink. Up to a year or so ago (and even beyond, into the life of the blog), I read mostly for comfort, for an easy escape from the realities of life. This made it easy to fall back on the same types of novels, ones I knew I could trust to weave a good yarn. It was also the type of story that I thought I wanted to write. But as A Dribble of Ink grew, I started to gain a broader understanding of (and appreciation for) the Speculative Fiction genre. I realized that I wasn’t stretching myself enough as a reader, not testing the waters, missing out on too much good literature.
All of a sudden Epic Fantasy begain to feel a little tepid to me. Even while reading Greg Keyes’ The Born Queen â€“ a great finale to a fantastic series â€“ a part of me felt a little staid. I didn’t want to admit it at the time – was just a tickle at the back of my mind – but I had begun to realize that Epic Fantasy just wasn’t grasping me in the same way it used to. What I was looking for was something new, something I hadn’t experienced before, something I didn’t know how to experience.
I’m a firm believer that there are only so many stories to be told, and that they’ve all been told for centuries. The trick, however, is in the telling of the story. For that matter, despite the shift in focus to Urban Fantasy, despite the sales trends regarding fantasy novels, I can’t help but feel that Epic Fantasy will see its rise again â€“ both in my heart and on the shelves of stores. All it’ll take is that one special telling of the tale (Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is probably the first example to come to mind) and suddenly readers and publishers will find themselves reinvigorated on the idea of quest fantasy.
Like everything, I think reading habits are cyclical. Back in my youth I read a lot of Science Fiction – Tom Swift and Michael Crichton, in particular – but all it took was one book (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) to show me that Fantasy wasn’t just Fairies, Unicorns, Princesses and all that other pansy shit. My eyes were opened and the next dozen years or so were (mostly) devoted to exploring The Lord of the Rings and its derivatives. It was a journey for my young self, always discovering new lands, new people, new sights.
But now it all feels like visiting an old friend â€“ fun, nostalgic and familiar, but rarely something that stretches my perceptions of myself or the world. Just like a family trip to Aunt Martha’s house in Buttfuck nowhere, sometimes it just isn’t what you’re looking for. What I want right now isn’t the familiar, it’s the new, exciting and bold. I want to be reminded of exactly how I felt when I first picked up The Hobbit, and right now Epic Fantasy is rarely doing that for me.