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The Changing Face(s) of Fantasy – Guest Blog by Adam Dalton

J.R.R. TolkienIt’s obviously blasphemy to criticise Tolkien, even indirectly, but for me his work is more important in historico-cultural terms than modern literary terms. Before you send me a load of hate mail, yes, yes, I fully accept that current fantasy writers inherit greatly from him and couldn’t write what they did if it weren’t for him… but (brace yourself) fantasy’s come on as a genre quite a lot since he sat penning lines in the Inglenook pub in Oxford, and his work isn’t as immediately ‘relevant’ to today’s concerns as the work of those currently writing. Think about it, if his work was still more relevant than the work of current writers, we wouldn’t need those current writers, now would we?

Things move on. Things evolve. It’s healthy that the fantasy genre does so too – it keeps it fresh, vibrant, progressive and alive. It keeps is strongly ‘relevant’ to new readers. There are some genres that are far less progressive (in literary terms), and that are beginning to fail. A clear example is the genre of horror. Book sales have all but died off entirely (although in TV and film horror still does well). Many Waterstones stores have entirely done away with their horror sections (hiding them in their Scifi/Fantasy sections or relabeling them as Dark Fantasy sections). Unless you’re Stephen King or James Herbert (RIP), you simply aren’t going to sell many books if your book is labelled ‘horror’. Horror is literally dead. Ironically dead. Dead. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was first launched as a horror, and it hardly sold. It was relabelled scifi and relaunched. Again no sales. Then it was launched as a literary fiction and it became a best-seller.

SpaceAdventures_36-01bBecause scifi in terms of book sales is also in massive trouble. Brian Aldiss (the UK’s oldest and greatest living scifi author – ‘we’re not worthy’) puts is down to the fact that we now ‘live in a scifi world’ and that we therefore no longer need to read scifi so much. ‘Every week there’s some new device or invention that comes out and we don’t know how it works! Strange and confusing technology is all around us.’ Mr Aldiss has put his finger on it for me – current readers just don’t see scifi literature as being as ‘relevant’ to them as past readerships did.

Yet fantasy survives and thrives! Where it was the poor cousin to scifi in the 1970s, it now utterly dwarfs (interesting verb!) scifi. How does fantasy do it? What’s the secret? Well, it’s the magic of fantasy, isn’t it? Magic is at the heart of that genre. It tricks, distracts, bewitches and bespells, where other genres merely appal or confuse.  And it’s learnt to be relevant, to reflect the shifting dreams and fantasies of its readership, to reflect the current state of society. ‘The current state?’ you might frown. ‘But fantasy isn’t real. It’s precisely the opposite of that.’ Precisely. Look, you can’t get a job as a philosopher these days, so you have to become a reader or writer of fantasy. Fantasy is the fairground mirror to the real, the extension and twisted exploration of the real, the different way of seeing that enables real change.

MagicianAn example of how fantasy reflects its time and evolves. In the heady, materialistic 1980s, the big fashion in fantasy was the ‘epic fantasy’ (e.g. Raymond E. Feist’s seminal Magician). It told the tale of a young boy in difficult circumstances who learnt to use magic and change his life (and the world) for the better. He was ‘the chosen one’, the ‘working class hero’, the character who told us that if you worked hard enough and had self-belief, then you could succeed against all the odds. It was the Thatcherite ethos, which endorsed a political meritocracy. All well and good, but that sort of tale just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re in a credit crunch now. It doesn’t matter how hard you work and how much self-belief you have – there’s a good chance you’ll still fail. Look at George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Look at the rise of the subgenre known as Grimdark – there’s no happy ending, and it’s only the most mean or corrupt characters who get anywhere (usually at the expense of others). A good example is the success of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (a good but challenging read, by the way).

vampire-evilAnother example. In Bram Stoker’s day, the vampire was evil incarnate. Satan, without doubt. Horrific. A definite baddie. That was a more Christian time, of course. Today? We are spiritually more plural as a society… and the vampire is sparkly, simply misunderstood and a goodie! Dark Fantasy supplants horror.

So where to now for fantasy? What will post-credit-crunch-era fantasy look like? Hmm. It’ll be exciting and magical to find out! I can tell you this. I’ve been told to write ‘shorter’ books by my publisher (Gollancz). Apparently, the ‘big fat fantasy book on the shelf just doesn’t sell like it used to, unless you’re George RR Martin and have a tv show to promote your work’). Where Empire of the Saviours was 172K words (2012), and Gateway of the Saviours was 185K words (2013), Tithe of the Saviours was a mere 143K words (2014), and my latest book Lifer is a literary scifi of just 86K words (2015), which is almost a short story for me! People are time-poor and are conscious of baggage allowance when going on holiday. Shorter fantasy is the order of the day!



  1. Avatar Lucy Hounsom says:

    Actually the Waterstones dictate has been to do away with dark fantasy rather than horror which still has its own section. DF has been merged with SFF because from a sales point of view it’s had its heyday. But it certainly seems that fantasy is growing in popularity. I think we have GoT to thank for thrusting the genre so colourfully into the mainstream.

  2. Avatar John says:

    Really enjoyed this article and I too have wondered about the the disappearance of the Horror genre. It’s unfortunate but people would rather watch their fear. Everything evolves and the fantasy genre is no exception. It has changed as society has changed as you mentioned. Bleak fantasy for a bleak real life, yet we read it to escape this bleak world. That’s why personally I need to add some classic/epic fantasy into my reading rotation to completely escape the real world. I don’t think it’s time is over I just think that Epic fantasy is changing, just look at Sandersons The Stormlight Archive, massive series that are huge sellers. You are right, most grimdark books are quite short which I guess is just the nature of the genre, but I like the massive tomes every so often.

  3. Avatar ediFanoB says:

    Interestig thoughts.

    I like epic fantasy and I like to read big fat fantasy books.
    The reason for the request of writing shorter books has a lot to do with the age of readers.
    I’m a 50+ and I like big books.
    Young people have a lot shorter attention span and therefore are more interested in shorter books.

  4. A good post, which I mostly agree with. I don’t actually agree that great works of the past should be dismissed as merely of “historico-cultural” interest. Whether it’s Tolkien, Shakespeare or Homer, a great work is always going to have a relevance to readers and can be read for its own sake, not just as a curio.

    That doesn’t mean, of course, that modern works should be written that way. We don’t write epic poems (I tried once, and it didn’t end well) or verse dramas, nor do we write fantasy novels like LOTR. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still still go back and be inspired by them, as long as we pick and choose the inspiration.

  5. Hi Adam,

    you are right – evolving keeps the genre fresh. Fantasy has always been the genre with the strongest back because it is – by it’s nature – the most diverse. Like in life’s evolution diversity has always been the key to secure the survival against environmental poison and diseases. Tolkien opened the gate to a whole new world to explore.

    But, on the other side, fantasy does not work without clear elements of horror. And there has always been waves of interest and decrease. Horror is the purest way to deal with the dark sides of being a human, and therefore will always get back to the surface of literature, like a monster from the depth of a strange mire.

    I’m a part-time fantasy- and horror-author from Germany and will work as long as it is necessary via an online-presence ‘til printed horrors has become en vogue again. Perphaps nowadays people has to cope to much with their everyday problems and lousy paid jobs to confront themselves with the threat of a demon in their neighborhood. Horror often leads to our own fears instead of distract from our sorrows.

    But like, let say the great success of horror-rpg Vampire: The Masquerade in the 90s (I’m still a big fan of it), the dark side of humankind is always worth a bunch of stories.

    By the way, Overlord – continue your great work. Nice Blog, nice posts, I always enjoy reading the Fantasy Faction! Hope you get this World Fantasy Award thing.

    Best wishes from Germany,

  6. Avatar Nicole says:

    Excellent post! As both a reader and writer of fantasy, I love that it’s constantly changing and evolving, while managing to stay true to the elements that made me love it in the first place.

  7. […] they scream out ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Wheel of Time’, which as described in a recent article are books that do feel slightly dated when you read them today (without knowledge and appreciation […]

  8. […] Just done a new article for the Fantasy Faction site, ain’t I? You can read it here: […]

  9. Avatar Dean Kastle says:

    I’ve noticed many of the same trends as Mr. Dalton. In particular, the shortening length of present day novels struck me. While polishing my second ms and working on my third, it’s become evident that my stories all wind up at about 85k words–a far cry from the 150k+ that was common just a few years ago. Great post!

    Ok, back to work on aforementioned projects…;)

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