Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image


Over the past few days, a link to the blog Big Hollywood has been being tossed around by various people I follow on Twitter, generally with some fire in their 140-character bellies. Always curious about the state of the fantasy genre, I followed the link and read “The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists” with considerable interest.

At first, I dismissed it with a snarky tweet of my own, but then I started to think about it more, found myself thinking about it too much, getting uncomfortable with the fact that I agreed with some of the author’s assertions but disagreed with most, until I finally felt moved to sit down and write this . . . I guess you could call it “rejoinder,” or reductio ad absurdum.

Anyway, I invite you all over to Big Hollywood to first read Leo Grin’s essay, then come back here.

Okay, got it?

Mr. Grin had me as a friend right away. I too played, and even spent fifteen years making a living at, Dungeons & Dragons. I’m cooler on Tolkien than he, but have always respected ol’ J.R.R.’s monumental contribution to the fantasy genre, and I share Grin’s abiding love of the work of Robert E. Howard. I see from his bio that Grin even edited a literary journal devoted to the works of REH. Preach it, Brother. Howard rules.

Then Grin sets off the first of a series of literary IEDs by saying he doesn’t “particularly care for fantasy per se,” which is fine, not everyone has to be a fantasy fan, but then he reverses that in the very next sentence. Go ahead, read it again.

Lest this just degenerate into some kind of flame against Leo Grin, who’s entirely entitled to his opinion, I’d like to add that I read this essay just as I finished reading two books I’d like to drag into this argument on the state of the genre today.

First was A Short History of Myth by scholar/author Karen Armstrong, which concludes with this paragraph:

“If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

She’s speaking of fiction in general here, but what genre does this more overtly than fantasy? This is precisely what Grin is trying to say. Where are the great fantasy myths of the genre’s “classical period,” which as I’ve said I agree can be attributed to Tolkien and Howard (with a few additions, especially Burroughs and Lovecraft)? But as Armstrong covers in her book, the nature of the human mythological tradition has changed enormously in structure, content, intent, and pervasiveness over time and as real world conditions change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Grin’s assertion that “Virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today,” doesn’t fall into the category of contemporary myth is simply wrong.

First, it seems to indicate that he’s read everything written in the fantasy genre, which I know is not true since he makes a point to tell us about a few books he hasn’t read. Apparently what he has read recently doesn’t fit as securely as he’d like into the mold he’s come to expect from Tolkien and Howard, which then makes all contemporary fantasy novels less a myth for their place and time than the fantasy novels of a couple generations past.

On the other hand, I tend to agree that there is a danger to the genre from “writers (and I would add editors and critics) clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre,” who may be seeking to work out some grudge against the archetypes of the genre at the expense of readers who actually enjoy and desire those archetypes (note the word archetypes, not clichés, and there is a difference).

During my time at Wizards of the Coast I often reminded the editors who worked for me—and an occasionally cynical marketing staff—that the people who buy and read books set in the various Dungeons & Dragons worlds had a reasonable package of expectations that could be described as “heroic fantasy,” and though we tested the confines of that envelope from time to time, we discussed and actually fought against a boredom, or burn-out that might have resulted in our long-running novel lines going painfully off track.

This is where the second book I recently finished comes in. This one, Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass is a featured book this week on my own blog, Fantasy Authors Handbook. In it, Maass may have the explanation Leo Grin is looking for:

“. . . authors who have hit a midcareer crisis are prone to create characters that are dark, depressed, unpleasant—sometimes even repellent. Usually, when I point out the drawbacks of such characters, the authors at first are indignant. ‘That is what I was going for,’ they say. ‘These are the best characters I have ever written! Believe me, there really are people like this out there!’

“I am sure. But does anyone really want to read about them? Authors in crisis believe so. They write characters who they feel will win back for them the respect they lost.”

He goes on to say:

“Fiction is not life. It needs to reflect life if it is to be believable, but virtually all readers unconsciously seek out novels for an experience of human life that is admirable, amusing, hopeful, perseverant, positive, inspiring and that ultimately makes us feel whole.”

I was a little reluctant to bring that up, though, lest it seem that I agree with Leo Grin’s criticism of the new novel by Joe Abercrombie, which Grin holds up for derision based on its cover blurbs and his dislike of the author’s previous work. I don’t know Joe Abercrombie and don’t want to imply that I think he’s “hit a midcareer crisis,” and having not read the book in question either, I won’t defend or assault it in substance.

It’s okay to dislike an author’s approach. If there are authors you like and authors you don’t that just means the genre has grown to include a plurality of voices, not that everything published in the last 20-30 years is all crap. Many of the books I had a hand in publishing at Wizards of the Coast are worthy successors to Tolkien’s mythic vision (the massive world of Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms and the enduring fantasy classics of Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance), with healthy doses of Maass’s admirable, amusing, hopeful, perseverant, positive, and inspiring in the works of R.A. Salvatore. I imagine these would be dismissed as “Lord of the Rings 90210.”

But I submit that that body of work alone refutes Grin’s core assertion, which seems to be that the fantasy genre is overwhelmed by strident anti-Tolkien and anti-REH forces bent on dragging us through the cess of degenerate immaturity. If fantasy has evolved to take on a darker tone, matured to address adult themes, isn’t that more likely a response to the world around us now—that the myths of the early 21st century will be different in some way from the myths of the mid-20th century—than that there’s some kind of conspiracy to pervert a genre that apparently not only peaked but effectively stopped with Tolkien and Howard?

It’s probably beneath us all to point out the essay’s more bizarre lapses of logic, like the baseless accusation that the title of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter “lured in many young girls,” or the quote from Robert Bloch’s shot at Conan held up for ridicule a paragraph before Grin does the same by calling contemporary fantasy authors “cheap purveyors of civilizational graffiti.”

Leo Grin, who apparently is or was something of a Robert E. Howard scholar, also seems to have forgotten that the bulk of Howard’s oeuvre were stories neither hopeful nor uplifting, and in fact reveled in savagery and violence. Which is why I loved them so much as a kid.

So, Leo Grin, I don’t think you’re “humorless” or “old fashioned.” I think you happened upon a couple of fantasy novels you didn’t like then took a short-cut through thinking to a dismissive, ill-informed opinion you really ought to have kept to yourself, at least until you had a chance to do a little more thinking, and a lot more reading.

—Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the recently-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.