Last night I was giving my nominations for the SFX "best genre authors ever" poll. In the end I aborted my entry, as I realised that I haven't read nearly enough of the 'classic' authors - or even the likes of Erikson - to be able to give a respectable answer. Oh sure, I could just vote for my favourite five authors, but that isn't what the poll is asking. Just because I like JV Jones a lot doesn't mean I should be putting her forward as a vote for best author ever. I've been meaning to read more of the older authors anyway, so will use this as a motivating factor. I'm sure there's plenty of exciting books out there that I have yet to discover.
Anyway, to the point. I briefly touched upon this in a previous post, but looking at the nominations put forward by SFX readers really got me thinking about Tolkien and his position as the undisputed master of fantasy.
While the views expressed on the SFX forums are only one way of registering your votes (you can send an email or leave a comment on the original article) it's fair to say that 90% of votes will be cast this way and that the results will be largely indicative of overall trends.
So, to put it bluntly, it doesn't look good for Tolkien. Dozens upon dozens of readers' nominations don't include Tolkien at all in their five choices, let alone as their number one choice. This of course got me thinking why this might be the case.
I thought at first that maybe some of the readers who didn't include Tolkien might be younger than those that did, and perhaps were not so much under his influence when growing up with fantasy (or not reading books that were as obviously influenced by him). This quickly proved to not be the case. A number of voters included the likes of Jules Verne, John Wyndham and H. G. Wells without including Tolkien, so this doesn't seem to be the issue.
No, I believe the issue is simpler: The Lord of the Rings - undisputed classic as it is - doesn't manage to stand quite so tall over some of the more recent works. The huge success of the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time and the Malazan Book of the Fallen have proved that you don't need to rely on The Lord of the Rings if you want imaginative, diverse fantasy on an epic scale. Martin hasn't been called the 'American Tolkien' for nothing.
Furthermore, while The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant story, Tolkien was not a brilliant writer. The plot for The Lord of the Rings plods along interminably at times and I don't feel that he got under the skin of his characters as well as more recent authors have done with theirs. I'm not disputing his world-building, which is magnificent, but I feel - although some will consider it heresy to suggest this - that some - no, many - of the more recent fantasists are superior writers.
Let's face it, Tolkien never constructed a plot as tight or enthralling as Martin's Storm of Swords. He lacked the characterisation of David Gemmell. His writing doesn't possess the close-up focus on characters that the likes of Abercrombie and Lynch provide.
In short, I think readers have started to realise that there are writers out there who are not just capable of telling stories no less enthralling than Tolkien's, but who are also superior writers. This is possibly why Tolkien does not appear with as much frequency in the SFX poll as you would probably have thought.
Has he lost his place at the head of the fantasy table? Only time will tell. I don't think his influence will ever fade - his work inspired far too many people for that - but I think it's fair to say that perhaps his star doesn't shine quite as strongly as it once did. Perhaps this is a good thing; it shows we have a number of highly-talented authors writing exciting works, and this can only be good for the genre.