The narrowing of fantasy

Thursday , 3, July 2014 4 Comments

At Black Gate, Matthew David Surridge examines the Locus readers’ polls from 1987 through 2012 and reaches a few interesting conclusions:

Fully half the picks from 1987 didn’t make the 1998 list — McCaffrey’s White Dragon, The Shining, A Spell For Chameleon, and Lord Valentine’s Castle (in 2012, those books would rank respectively 126, 47, 55, and 44). Then from 1998 to 2012, The Belgariad, the Alvin Maker books, The Fionavar Tapestry, and Replay drop — a third of the 1998 list. They fall, respectively, down to 63 (for Pawn of Prophecy, book one of The Belgariad), 86 (for Seventh Son, the first Alvin Maker book), 135, and 64. They’re replaced by The Neverending Story and The Silmarillion.

It’s an interesting variation. Some of the changes between 1987 and 1998 look like a stronger sense of genre purity has emerged, with two science-fictional books and a horror novel dropped, but I wonder if there isn’t a general devaluation of 80s fantasy at work as well. Certainly it strikes me that a lot of the 1956-76 books that dropped in 2012 can be seen as precursors to the 80s fantasy genre.

At any rate, the really surprising thing to me about the 2012 list is that 13 of the top 40 books were published in the last 11 years of the century. That seems to be to be well out of proportion…. The earliest book on the top 40 of the 2012 list is The Hobbit, from 1937. Titus Groan, in 40th place, is the only other book published before 1950, though three books were published in 1950 (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gormenghast, and Conan the Barbarian).

If we go beyond the top 40, does the situation get better? Well, the next ten books have two titles from the 1940s (1945’s Animal Farm at 43 and 1943’s The Little Prince at 49) as well as 1936’s At the Mountains of Madness at 45. But after that … Lud-in-the-Mist (1936) is 54, The Worm Ouroboros (1922) is 61, The Wind in the Willows (1908) is 66, A Princess of Mars (1917) is tied for 71, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) is 93, and that’s it for the top 100.

So 10 books before 1950 out of 100, a total of 13 (with the 1950-published books) from the first half of the 20th century. The last 11 years, by contrast, produced 13 of the top 40 books, and 24 of the top hundred (counting The Wheel of Time series, which began in 1990 and ties for 89).

Even given that more fantasy books have been published in recent years than in the first half of the 20th century, that proportion strikes me as strange. At best it suggests an unfamiliarity with the genre. At worst it implies that for some readers, at least, the definition of ‘fantasy’ is narrowing. That classics which do things differently from the modern field are either going unread, or being excluded from contemporary definitions of ‘fantasy.’ So vital writers like Mirrlees, Eddison and Dunsany drop.

This “narrowing” of the fantasy and science fiction genres is one of the things Castalia was founded to oppose. Our books are conscious throwbacks to the classics; the reader who reads John C. Wright is far more likely to go on to explore William Hope Hodgson than the reader who does not. I suspect that this narrowing is related to what one minor genre writer observed recently: “At Barnes & Noble. The SFF section is filled with friends. Yet the book blurbs suggest we’re all writing the same 5 books over and over again.” It is the gatekeepers of traditional publishing who have narrowed the genre to its currently strict bounds of conceptual correctness. At Castalia House, we are committed to shattering those strictures, and, we hope, to introduce readers to books that will become well-loved new classics.

In any event, Surridge is Black Gate’s best blogger, and his entire post is worth reading, whether one concurs with his conclusions or not.

4 Comments
  • Daniel says:

    Furthermore, there is an active to push popular classics onto the “best if forgotten” list. Lovecraft was a racist, don’t you know. Eliot an anti-semite…etc. etc. It is code for “read it for now if you insist, but feel damn guilty while you do.”

    On the other hand, I greatly prefer those whose fiction was influenced by Dunsany than Dunsany himself. I find his theology to be more interesting than his stories as they now read. There is a difference between vital writers and best writers, although it is clear that this metric isn’t picking up either reliably.

  • Rindis says:

    I have to say that this sounds much more like “cult of the new” than anything else.

  • Tom Rhodes says:

    I believe that the narrowing and selection is more biased because traditional readers of SF&F have abandoned the genre because it abandoned them. Most of today’s Fantasy belongs in the romance section on on the shelf with ERB, REH, RAH, or JRRT. I went from a 4 or 5 book a month habit of new books (in the 80’s) to now re-reading old stuff, I quit going to B&N, Borders, etc. and getting most of my SF&F from Gutenberg Project, and new Internet sources, and I definitely no longer partake in any of the reading polls, including the Locus reader poll, which I used to participate. The only people left enjoy Pink SF&F so the polls are biased.

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