Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Guardian Books Blog on the "battle for meaning" in fantasy

Whether you agreed with my argument that the Gemmell award is bad for the genre, or whether you thought it was a load of 'bollocks' (as Mr Abercrombie succinctly put it!), you can't deny that it kickstarted some good debate and gave the award some decent publicity (regardless of what was being said about it).

It pleased me then to see that the Guardian Books Blog has sat up and taken notice, in a post called Fantasy fiction: the battle for meaning continues...

The post touches on the Gemmell award and the debate surrounding it:
As the recent announcement of the David Gemmell Legend award, and the less-than-positive response it engendered shows, contemporary fantasy is seeking to do more than just entertain the masses. While the Gemmell award highlights fantasy novels at their most commercial and generic, and has been accused of doing little more than rewarding publishers for their marketing strategy, contemporary fantasy is becoming more experimental, diverse and exciting.
Interesting to see the author of the piece refer to the books 'highlighted' by the award as being 'commercial and generic.' I think that's too much of a generalisation, as you can hardly call Abercrombie's Best Served Cold generic, but it's an indication that the author agrees that the award focuses on books that are high in populararity but perhaps not necessarily quality.

The main thrust of the article though is to argue that - despite the increasing popularity of the genre and the commercial opportunities it offers - it's important to look beyond mass-market entertainment and keep the innovative, experimental elements of the genre firmly in sight:

JRR Tolkien referred to fantasy writing as mythopoeia, the creation of myth for the modern era. The best of it achieves exactly that, and deserves to be rewarded whether it be a multimillion-selling novel or a short story published in a fanzine. But as fantasy becomes more heavily commodified, it is more important still that we keep sight of what the genre can achieve beyond mass entertainment.
I couldn't agree more. And the fact that it's a mainstream book blog saying this only makes it all the sweeter.


Anonymous said...

I thought it was an interesting article too. Always good to see anything taking the genre seriously. For something that’s so incredibly popular – Avatar, Harry Potter, LotR, Twilight etc. – it’s odd how often fantasy is looked down on as something just for freaks and geeks (not that there’s anything wrong with freaks and geeks – I’m both!). But then, people working in IT still get a sore rep – as if there were something a little shameful about computers still …

The article talks about fantasy changing from ‘tribal narratives’ to the consumer product it is now – obviously we no longer need fantasy for its explanative power. When ‘myths’ were the only way of explaining how the sun came up etc., they weren’t really fantasy as such – I suppose they were regarded as fact. And then they also had a moral/social purpose. I.e. they told us why and how things happened, and they also told us how we should live. Now we have science for explanative power – and a whole range of things for moral, both secular and religious.

I suppose speculative fiction allows us to explore the hypothetical. In a way, maybe science fiction is the modern mythology. Science might explain how the world is, but stories allow us to pose questions about how one ought to live in that world – for example, what the implications of a new technology might be.

You could do that in any fiction, but to me the power of speculative fiction is that you can exaggerate or streamline. And if you’re thinking about future tech … then by definition that’s pretty much science fiction.

Then there’s the whole psychological appeal of fantasy, which an article on SEED magazine got me thinking about (http://bit.ly/11gh7R) (fitness-faking via wish fulfillment – the visceral thrills of epic fantasy etc).

Sorry, rather rambling and confused. I’d like to write a proper blog post about it … if I ever get the time!

Anonymous said...

Wow: A bit too serious for me.
I love my speculative fiction intelligent and challenging, but does that mean I consciously consider the mythopoeic value or it’s potential as a tribal narrative? You have got to be joking.
I will willingly discourse all day long at the pub over the relative merits of Steven Erikson and Stephen Donaldson, of China Mieville and Haruki Murakami (and if you don't think he's fantasy, you haven't read him with your eyes open) but give me a break - tribal narratives?
Can it not be simple as: we love it, and our modern lives lend themselves towards needing an escape from the grey reality that is waking up each morning and going to work for the man?
I suppose that could be a post-modernist rebellion against neo-colonial subversion of pre-fiscal cultural imperatives... but who cares?

Larry Nolen said...

I dunno, James. I'm beginning to think of Joe as being like the Sam Worthington of epic fantasy writers. Of course, he may be flattered by that, for all I know ;)

Anonymous said...

I like trash as much as the next person, but I don't think there's any harm in having an occasional serious think about something we love - so long as you're aware it'll probably make you sound like a pretentious arse. I'm quite used to sounding like that though ...

I just find this aspect of it interesting (arsey comment coming up) - one of my interests is the evolution of consciousness, and tracking the development of the expression of consciousness (from cave art, to mythology ... right through the enlightenment to the modern day) is an interesting way of doing this.

But then as far as my everyday tastes go, I'm quite happy to be moronically chortling something like: 'Look at his fucking sword! That is awesome! Kill those biatches! And then blow something up, something big!! Hell yeah!'

James said...

"For something that’s so incredibly popular – Avatar, Harry Potter, LotR, Twilight etc. – it’s odd how often fantasy is looked down on as something just for freaks and geeks."

I think it's largely down to two things: snobbery and denial. The speculative genre has a long history of being derided by the literati and often the mainstream, while you'll find that some people refuse to acknowledge a book as being fantasy when it clearly is (some will argue that Harry Potter isn't fantasy, but 'young people's fiction' and that Alice in Wonderland is literature, and so on). The situation isn't helped when you've got authors also doing that (for example, J. K. Rowling who denied writing fantasy until Terry Pratchett had a sarcastic dig at her).

I think the cool thing is that you can often look at fantasy, and certain books, on various levels. You can read The Lord of the Rings and look at it as a confrontation between the purity of a rural society against the evils of technology and industry, or alternatively you can just think of it as an adventure story about a little chap with a magic ring.

Ultimately, while the genre has changed radically from its earliest beginnings, I think some elements hold true: the genre is still a vehicle for moralistic themes, hence the proliferation of farmboy vs the dark lord stories over the years.

However you look at it, I think the point of that article is a good one: it's important to keep the innovative and exploratory (and the mythic?) elements of the genre intact.