You should see the looks I get when people learn I'm an author, especially people who have known me for a while. They get this bright-eyed, amazed look. Of course, the next question is, "What have you written and what is it about?" You should see their faces when I tell them I am a fantasy author. For most, any level of amazement recedes and I get the look that says, "Oh, you're one of those kinds of authors."
Why can't fantasy get any love? When I was studying Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, the goal of almost every student in my class was to be an author, to write that next ,great, American novel that would move mountains, shatter norms, and change the minds of generations to come. And then there was me. I just wanted to write good fantasy. But to most, putting that adjective with that genre is oxymoronic. There is no such thing as good fantasy. I even had a classmate tell me one time that she didn't understand why I was bothering with a degree in Creative Writing if all I wanted to do was write fantasy novels. This was a degree for serious writers. Great, Thanks!
Even with classics like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and new blockbusters like Harry Potter and The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for those of you who have only watched the HBO series), one would think that fantasy writing, fantasy writers, and the fantasy genre in general would be getting a little more credibility, but I really don't think it is. I mean, come on, Zombie and Vampire novels are getting more love than Fantasy novels. Really?
I get that some people simply don't like fiction. I have several good friends who only like biographies and motivational books and histories. But those aren't really the people I'm talking about. Fantasy requires some stretching of the imagination, definitely. And some people just have a hard time with make believe worlds and creatures like dwarves and elves and dragons. Okay. But if you're going to read a fiction novel, why would you want to read something that resembles real life? Then it's not really fiction, is it? And that is what most literary fiction is. I know I am committing a cardinal sin here and generalizing, stereotyping even (uh oh, the dreaded word that contradicts all that is PC), but much of modern day's literary fiction is some novel about a situation, event, or life that actually happened, only the names were changed. I read fiction to get away. I read fiction to take a journey. I read fiction to engage my imagination, travel beyond reality, and experience something I will probably never experience in real life. Now, I don't want to read a story in which no one ever dies, there are never any struggles, and everything ends up perfect. I want conflict. I want stress and worry. I - yes I know this is going to sound like I am contradicting myself - want some reality. But I don't want real life.
Anyways, I digress. Fantasy. Fantasy and Science Fiction seems to be the red headed step child (no disrespect to any red headed step children out there) of the literary world. In fact, some might even scoff at the notion of mentioning literary in the same sentence as fantasy and science fiction. So why? Well, I think the biggest reason is, what I have heard commonly called, popcorn fantasy. The cheeseball effect of fantasy. Fantasy, even more so than science fiction, can be so over the top, so overwhelming, such a stretch of the imagination, that it is just too much and it becomes almost like a soap opera with dragons and orcs. Much like romance, and I don't mean to rag on romance because there are some very good romance novelists out there, it is formulaic. You have a young human warrior just trying to figure things out, a dwarf fighter who's a jerk, an elvish wizard who is uppity and whose sexuality is questionable, a halfling thief with quirky, witty puns, and a sexy female warrior who, for whatever reason, thinks its a great idea to wear a chain mail bra. By the way, if anyone knows where to get a chain mail bra, can you let my wife know. Right, I mean, that pretty much sums up the group of fantasy protagonists. They set out on some epic journey to fight an evil wizard, a powerful warlord, or some other archetypal fantasy villain (there's a few more to pick from). This party is faced with overwhelming odds and in the end, using a literary technique which I have to admit, I have used in my early writing and which is not recommended, by Deus ex machina the conflict is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after.
I think a lot of people figure once you've read one fantasy novel, you've read them all. And, not at all am I trying to hate on Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, but in the cases of those popcorn type fantasies, that's probably true. I've seen some deviations. Michael Moorcock and his Elric series cast an evil, somewhat sadistic, and very conflicted character (Elric) as the protagonist. Nice. R.A. Salvatore does something similar with Drizzt, a drow elf gone good. But what have the really successful fantasy writers done that makes them so successful, what has Tolkien, Rowlings, Martin, Lewis, Le Guinn, Sanderson, and even Jordan done that make them so great, and make their novels so outstanding? I think what has made their work more available to the typical, non-fantasy loving reader, is firstly their outstanding writing (I get so tired of the fantasy community accepting terrible writing, acting, directing, etc. just because they like the idea of a story or book) and then their ability to cross genre boundaries.
In order for fantasy to started becoming more mainstream, not the genre of nerdy virgins hanging out in the back of the classroom playing Magic the Gathering, fantasy writers need to do a few things. We need to get away from the formulaic. There really isn't a story out there that hasn't been told, but we need to tell a story in a new, fresh way. We need to get away from the D & D adventure template. Fantasy authors need to write something that doesn't sound like they pumped it out in a month. Fantasy authors need to hold the fantasy a little. What? I know, it sounds crazy, but what sounds crazy to me is that every knight has a magic sword and every wizard can blast through an army of goblins with a fireball spell. Where's the mystery, where's the struggle, where's the conflict? One of the things I love about George Martin is the fact that magic is somewhat limited in his world. It's a precious commodity. I think people are drawn to books where magic is mysterious, dragons don't do fly overs every day, and not every town has its own wizard. Fantasy authors need to invest in good editing and books from other genres. We need to find out what appeals to the mystery reader, the romance reader, the literary reader, the reader of historical fiction. If fantasy can incorporate those ideas into a well written story that happens to have many fantasy elements, we will have many more fans.
So, just some food for thought. I would like to know what you all think of fantasy, why you think it has the stigma of being so cheesy, and, if you're not a normal purveyor of fantasy, what would get you to read more of it. If you are looking for a good fantasy read, check out the top 22 Fantasy and Science Fiction reads of 2014. You can also check out my Fantasy novel, A Chance Beginning: Book One of the Shadow's Fire Trilogy.