Seán Harnett argues that fantasy fiction has become a bloated, pretensious caricature of its own possibilities
It’s like looking at Marlon Brando as he is today and remembering what he used to be: he used to be slim, man. He used to be dangerous. He used to mean something.
Heroic fantasy used to be slim, once. Goddamn but it used to be lean and muscular, like the heroes and swordsmen it celebrated. It used to be dangerous. It used to tell us stories about ourselves that never appeared in the pages of respectable literary journals (with their stories of divorcees and martinis and quiet, stately dysfunction) but were nevertheless more truly a reflection of the times in which we lived, and the yearnings that impelled us.
No longer: heroic fantasy has grown fat. Bloated. We’re not talking a few extra pound around the waist, here: we’re talking serious glandular problems, shopping at special stores for the larger individual. We’re talking about Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin and David Eddings, with their three or five or ten book series, each volume in the series containing seven or eight or nine hundred pages of plodding prose, dull exposition, unresolved plot threads and attempts to conjure up a sense of wonder so badly executed as to signal the final, lingering demise of the genre. If we can’t get your daily requirement of wonder from fantasy then we might as well go back to reading those tales of quiet despair (or is it quiet tales of despair? despairing tales of quietness?) for our fictional sustenance.
It’s customary, of course, to blame J.R.R. Tolkien for this state of affairs. The Lord of the Rings. What more does one need to say? The page count, they say; the cosily familiar setting, the bad prose, the dreary exposition: the family resemblance between Tolkien’s work and the substandard fiction that pads out the fantasy/science-fiction section in your local bookstore is clear.
So, yes, an obvious accusation, but a wrong-headed one. Tolkien is no more to blame for modern fantasy writing than Jane Austen is to blame for Mills and Boons novels.
Consider the facts: Tolkien wrote just two books in his lifetime that could be classified as “fantasy” a la the modern definition, and one of those, The Silmarillion, was released posthumously (The Hobbit should be classified, properly, as a children’s book). More importantly, Tolkien was not trying to write a novel in the pulp tradition of fantasy: he was trying to write literature. However you might feel about the degree of his success, it’s hard to deny that there’s something rather appealing about his stubborn attempt to re-create something old when all around him were attempting to be “modern”.
He did not really belong in the twentieth century, did dear old Ronald Reuel. He was a man more comfortable with the past, and the forms of the past; he wrote his fiction at least partly as an exercise in creating a saga of an imaginary past that might live in the present century. And that’s the crucial difference: Tolkien’s models were the Kalevala and the Icelandic sagas. Although modern fantasy may tip the hat to ancient myths or medieval sagas, borrowing images here and situations there, its real antecedents lie in the pulp fictions of Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Clarke Aston Smith and Robert Howard: the masters. Whatever you may say about their prose (and it was often dull and frequently hilariously bad), these writers nevertheless told stories with leanness and bravado and imagination, qualities sadly lacking in most of today’s writers of fantasy.
How did we get from there to here? How did we get from writers who could pack a punch in the space of ten pages, to writers who can’t seem to tell a story in ten books, let alone one? That’s a whole other story but, in the Reader’s Digest version, one writer stands out as having acted as the bridge between those pulp masters and the current spate of fantasy writers. That writer is Michael Moorcock.
There’s no denying that Moorcock has written some excellent heroic fantasy. The first few books in the Elric series, The First Chronicles of Corum and Gloriana (especially Gloriana) are all magnificent novels. Yet side-by-side with those fine works one must set the substandard epics he has been churning out in parallel since the 1960s, in which character names and settings change but essentially the same story is told, over and over again.
Given that he did invent Elric and Hawkmoon, it is regrettable that Moorcock’s career in heroic fantasy is strewn with such rubbish as The Second Chronicles of Corum. Like so much of his later work, these three books each begin with an identical account of the call-to-arms and kitting out of the hero, continue with a quest narrative that is remarkably similar in each book, and end with an identical climax and denouement. The series is the same story told three times. Moorcock tries to justify his cynical treatment of the reader on the grounds that the novels record the ceaseless struggle of the Eternal Champion, when really they are the efforts of a hack writer trying to pay the mortgage. In retrospect, such contemptuous treatment of the reader of fantasy has done as much to set the standard of contemporary mass-market fantasy as anything Tolkien ever did. Moorcock has convinced a generation of writers that the key to success is to marry his rate of output with Tolkien’s bulk.
Take, for instance, the case of Robert Jordan. He started his career writing pastiches of Conan and moved on, after writing a few military historical novels, to The Wheel of Time series. At last count the series had reached book nine and had, according to a very reliable source (my brother) finally managed to inject some momentum into his story after four gratingly dull instalments. I wouldn’t know. I gave up reading the damn thing after chapter two of volume two. Jordan’s world simply held no interest for me. He may follow the Moorcock/Tolkien formula, but he possesses neither Moorcock’s cool anger and strapping disavowal of received wisdom, nor the lofty poetic impulses that drove Tolkien. Jordan’s ambitions in the field of sub-creation far surpasses his ability to give them adequate expression, and the world and characters of The Wheel of Time remain hopelessly one-dimensional.
Now I understand that a man has to pay his bills and it’s nice to think that someone, somewhere, is making a living from doing what they love, but there has to be a better way. Tolkien published maybe 2,000 pages of fiction in his lifetime. Jordan churns that out every two years. The inverse ratio of quality and quantity has never been more starkly illustrated.
For god’s sake, man, you’re not writing the Bible or the Mahabharata. You’re writing pulp fiction. And the golden rule of pulp fiction, in whatever genre or whatever medium, is not to overstay your welcome. Tell your story, move the reader, and then get the hell out of there. Short, sharp shocks, that’s the stuff: in pulp the act of secondary creation doesn’t have to be profound or deep to conjure up in one’s mind images of strange, otherworldly realms. The trouble starts, however, when you stretch a story out. The creases and lacunae are easier to spot the longer you go on. In other words, to continue beyond a certain point you have to be really good at what you’re doing.
Jordan is not very good at what he’s doing. But then, none of the best-selling writers of fantasy fiction are. The people writing decent fantasy, people like John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Robert Holdstock and Jonathan Carroll, are doing so on the margins of the genre. The trouble is that they are marginal figures, and will remain so, unless someone can write a fantasy – in a mode other than the heroic – that has genuine mainstream appeal.
If there was anyone who I thought could pull this off and be the saviour of fantasy writing, it would have been Neil Gaiman. If you recognise the name it’s because he wrote The Sandman, the most talked about comic books series of the last fifteen years. They are a deceptively intoxicating distillation of Jungian archetypes, EC horror comics, Paradise Lost and C.S. Lewis. Tasting as if they had been brewed in some age-rimed cauldron the quaint, knowing, disturbing, moving stories that were bottled and passed around a fervent readership each month seemed to say all that could be said about a certain style of fantasy writing. Gaiman even managed to make Milton – that old puritan codger – seem sexy and that’s praise enough, right there.
They were pulp fiction at its best.
Recently, though, Gaiman has published American Gods, and I’m not so sure about him anymore. A breezeblock-sized novel that suffers from its excessive length, American Gods is basically just a re-write of The Sandman. We have another strangely passive male protagonist – called Shadow here, he might easily have been called Dream. There’s the same extended cast of squabbling gods, demons, sprites, faeries and spirits; the same coy might-be-real/might-not-be real jig around the maypole of mythology. There’s even a cute, quirky lesbian college student – all dressed in black, no doubt – whose only narrative purpose is to deliver a cute, quirky monologue that could just as easily have tripped off the tongue of Death.
In other words, if you’ve read The Sandman you’ve read this novel. There’s nothing new in American Gods, and that’s the greatest disappointment from a writer previously so good at showing us old things with new eyes. I’m worried that Gaiman has no new stories in him, and that the remainder of his career will be haunted by the ghost of Sandman, just as surely as Arthur Conan Doyle’s was haunted by Sherlock Holmes.
But at least there’s a sense of conflict in American Gods, and that’s something to be grateful for. All writing is, of course, about conflict, and not just conflict within the story, but informing the story as well. What defines a genre is the nature of the conflict that lies at its heart. For me, all fantasy writing is specifically about one conflict, the conflict between the way we think the world is and the way we feel it ought to be. The best writers in the genre may not be consciously aware of this conflict, but they do embody it. In his public and private life, for instance, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, but when he wrote he was a pagan. His imagination inhabited the world of the Beowulf poet and mourned the passing of the old barbarian ethos, with its old gods and monsters, even as he professed the creed which had been responsible for that world’s passing away.
Today’s fantasy writers seem to be mostly pagans, too – at least on this side of the Pond. And when I say pagan I mean that literally: in the sense that many modern authors of fantasy seem to be Wiccans, re-constructed druids, or neo-shamans, penning tales full of right-on pagan characters fighting the deadening influence of all those earth-destroying religions, and speaking in earnest thees and thous of the healing power of the Goddess. These writers believe whole-heartedly in what they are writing – and fair play to them – but it does mean that there is no animating tension to make their stories interesting. In the end, it becomes little more than new-age propaganda and an extended advertisement for the local Renaissance Faire.
Neil Gaiman has tension, however. From what I know of him I’d peg him as a pagan (if only in sentiment; he seems to really dig those old-time gods), yet he writes essentially Christian stories of sacrifice and redemption. He is also brave enough to show just what dark, bloody, vicious, vengeful energy hides in the old pagan stories.
Yet, for all his tensions, Gaiman seems less like the purveyor of a new style of fantasy writing, and more like the culmination of an old style, a style I would term the “Jungian.” Twentieth century English and American fantasy flourished in a world very much alive to the notion that wisdom could be found in those old pagan stories, and that was okay because everyone knew, after Jung, that those stories were conduits to the collective archetypes. Even C.S Lewis and Tolkien, so notoriously dismissive of “Continental” influences, read and admired Jung (though they always resolutely sniped at Freud). He seemed to provide a foundation for fantasy, his theories a sort of undeclared manifesto for – and justification of – the genre. They had much in common, Jung and the fantasy genre; in this one thing, if nothing else: they believed in the power of stories; they believed that stories could teach us something. The great fantasy writers of the twentieth century believed that stories were either healing balms of the psyche or agents of unsettlement, chinks in the armour of our everyday assumptions.
I use the past tense because the work of Gaiman, and contemporaries such Holdstock, Carroll and Crowley, seems to have exhausted the possibilities of writing a “Jungian” fantasy. Appealing to the collective unconscious is becoming less tenable as a deus ex machina in a world where memetics and evolutionary psychology have replaced depth psychology as the essential means of understanding the self. It is difficult to see how the kind of fantasy written in the last century can be anything but a cliché in our brave new millennium.
The question is this: can fantasy re-invigorate itself in the face of these new conceptions of the self? There is some slight hope that a new kind of fantasy writing could appear, instigated by writers such as Steve Aylett and China Mieville, who give the impression that they are ready to write “weird stories” for a culture that no longer necessarily believes in the unity of the psyche, the mythic power of stories or the efficacy of any kind of healing balm that doesn’t come in the form of a pill. However, so long as such writers are squeezed out of bookstore shelves by the bloated works of Jordan, Eddings, Williams, et all, I’m afraid that we must conclude that fantasy will collapse under its own weight and metamorphose into a genre as rule-bound and derivative as the Mills and Boons romance.
And that would be a triumph even Sauron could be content with.