Has the Fantasy Literature Genre Become Stagnant?

This article is by Nicholas Cockayne.

faeSadly the answer would seem to be, yes.

Firstly, it is worth stating that the fantasy genre gets a lot of bad press for having no literary value, a totally untrue assertion. Fantasy literature is almost unrivalled in its ability to transport the reader to different worlds of imagination, to inspire a little magic into the mundane humdrum of everyday life, to explore the best and the worst of the human character.

Secondly, it must be noted that this article refers only to the fantasy genre in literature, not as it appears in other mediums. Fantasy may well be growing in popularity in mediums such as television and film, but that is another discussion altogether.

Yet why is the current state of the fantasy genre such a cause for concern? For many years fantasy was an expanding and ever inventive genre, filled with novels whose imaginative breadth was staggering. One acquainted with the genre need only think of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Tad Williams, C. S. Lewis, David Gemmell, Robert Jordan, and Ursula le Guin and there are whole worlds, whole universes, populated by fantastical creatures and peoples which can open up to the reader.

And yet, sadly, the majority of these great writers and their best works are now part of the history of the fantasy genre. They form the solid backbone of the genre, a context against which new writers can frame themselves, but sadly cannot be counted part of the current genre scene.

Make no mistake there are still plenty of talented writers of fantasy, but at the moment the genre seems to be becoming bogged down in its own tropes and conventions. Heroes, magic, quests, Dark Lords. These are the staples of the fantasy writer, but also their downfall. There are currently many writers, such as James Clemens, who can effectively use such themes and conventions in their works, but as a whole these well worn elements of fantasy are becoming tired and unexciting to readers.

Even well loved writers who take the fantasy genre and add a unique twist to it, such as Terry Pratchett and his humorous Discworld novels, are beginning to flag, as the same old format is constantly reworked again and again. That these books continue to remain popular is due more to reader loyalty than the author offering anything new and exciting.

Discworld_Postal

There are also writers, such as Christopher Paolini, who despite having recently coming to the genre continue to regurgitate, rework, and reproduce existing fantasy clichés without offering those well versed in previous fantasy literature anything new.

One exception to the stagnation of the fantasy genre is the sub genre of children’s fantasy.

As J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have proven, fantasy still has the potential to have a vast appeal. With her books catering to both young and old Rowling brought fantasy to a whole new generation. Taking clichés and conventions but light heartedly reworking them, she offered those with little experience of fantasy a light and easy introduction to fantasy literature that didn’t intimidate or threaten younger readers with the weighty tomes that a more detailed and intricate fantasy world can create. Instead she opted to work the modern world into her stories rather than the alternative medieval setting of so many fantasy worlds; a decision which appealed to those new readers with little knowledge of such time periods. Yet Rowling has now finished her Harry Potter series, leaving a void in children’s fantasy that has yet to be filled.

Deathly-Hallows

There are, however, a few rays of light for the adult fantasy genre, a few authors who are contributing new and exciting literature. Two of the foremost of these have to be Neil Gaiman, whose writing is ever increasing in popularity and continues to be evolve into other media formats, and Gene Wolfe, who for many years has written remarkable fiction but whose work ‘The Wizard Knight’ could spell a turn around in the stagnation of fantasy literature.

What differentiates both these writers from those who continue to write from within the well worn rut of their predecessors is that they are willing to take risks.

Gaiman reworks the traditions of the genre, particularly in his filmic take on ‘Beowulf’, ignoring the supposed sanctity of tropes such as the quest and the hero in favour of adapting them to better fit the modern world we live in. One need only think of ‘Neverwhere’ to find a modern fairytale, or ‘Stardust’ to see how traditional tales can effectively be turned on their head.

Wolfe, in ‘The Wizard Knight’, tells a very traditional story, but what is unique is the manner in which he tells it. Unlike most fantasy writers he does not spell everything out to the reader in order to get them to accept the fantastical world he writes of. Instead Wolfe leaves much half explained, or mysterious, to be explained later, if at all, so that the reader actively has to work at creating and imagining what Wolfe portrays; resulting in one of the most remarkable fantasy books for at least a decade.

Wizard-Knight

What both these writers share is a willingness to incorporate the best of the traditions of the fantasy genre into their writings, but reworked so that they are fresh and new, applicable to the modern world and appealing to veteran fantasy readers and new comers alike. They take the mythology that inspired the greats of the genre such as Jordan and Tolkien, and they reinvent it for their own purposes, recycling it from the literary rut fantasy had begun to inhabit and making it edgy and inspiring once more.

Ultimately although the majority of the fantasy genre is currently undergoing a period of stagnation there is hope. If exciting and talented authors are willing to break free from the staid chains of tradition and liberally reinvent the genre for a new audience while keeping die hard fans content, then there is still a chance that the fantasy genre can continue to inspire and excite readers for decades to come.

For Further Thought

Do you believe that the Fantasy genre has become stagnant?  If so, what is the cause of this stagnation?

Do you see signs of hope?  If so, what are they?

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James Enge
5 years ago

As a challenge to the inventiveness of modern fantasists, this piece is a little problematic. The Gaiman works mentioned are from the late 20th C. And the two pieces of Wolfe’s THE WIZARD KNIGHT appeared more than ten years ago, as did the (late!) Sir Terry Pratchett’s GOING POSTAL. If you’re going to make a credible complaint about modern fantasy, you need to show that you have actually read some.

More generally, I’m inclined to think that complaints of the form, “What’s wrong with X nowadays?” say more about the complainer than about the state of X (whatever it is). Don’t be that guy. You’ll do better work as a critic and as a creator if you write about what you’re into, rather than making vague complaints that It Was Not Thus In The Old Days.

People who love epic fantasy and are looking for something new might give the work of K. V. Johansen a try–marvellous, many-godded, deeply imagined fantasy. The stories of C.S.E. Cooney are wildly inventive and lyrically written. Howard Jones has a brilliant series of fantasy/mystery adventures set in the fabled reign of Haroun al-Rashid. Those are just a few that occur to me offhand.

Look around. You’ll find something worth reading. If not, then write something worth reading. That’ll show ’em.

Marilynn Byerly
5 years ago

What stagnation? I read widely in fantasy. Not including some of the incredible urban fantasy and paranormal/fantasy mysteries out there, here are some of the book’s I’ve read recently.

WOLVES OF THE NORTHERN RIFT, Jon Messenger. “A Magic and Machinery Novel.” Book 1. Steampunk fantasy. A rift between worlds has opened up, and magic is seeping into our world. Inquisitor Simon Whitlock’s job is to investigate possible magical events and creatures and stop them. His assistant Luthor Strong is considerably more than Simon suspects, and he has his own agenda. They are called to the frozen north where possible werewolves are destroying oil rigs, but they discover something even scarier. An interesting series and worldbuilding with clever plotting and character dynamics.

BEASTLY BONES, William Ritter. “Jackaby” series. Book 2. Paranormal/fantasy historical mystery. Late 1800’s US. Abigail Rook and her employer, supernatural private investigator Jackaby, are called to a small town where someone has stolen a piece of a newly found dinosaur skeleton and left a dead woman with a strange mark on her neck which indicates some form of supernatural death. Soon, Abigail and her seer boss are following strange animal tracks and dealing with the huge egos of two dinosaur experts, a hunter of supernatural creatures, and a nosy newswoman while they try to stop a creature that shouldn’t exist from destroying the small community. A really nice series with great characters, an interesting mystery plot, and improved worldbuilding from the first.

A MURDER OF MAGES, Marshall Ryan Maresca. “The Maradaine Constabulary.” Traditional fantasy. After her husband, a police inspector/detective, is injured in the line of duty, Satrine Rainey, through subterfuge, becomes a detective to keep her family off the streets. With her background as a street rat and former spy, she has the smarts to pull off the subterfuge and to do a good job. Her new partner is Minox Welling, a Sherlock-smart detective who hides his own secret. He has untrained magic. Together, they must stop someone who is murdering mages in an archaic ritual before all the magic circles erupt into a full scale war. Excellent worldbuilding and plotting, and the characterization is brilliant. A first-rate new series.

HOW TO BE DEAD, Dave Turner. Novella. Contemporary comic fantasy in the tone of Douglas Adams. Slacker Dave dies and meets his new pal Death, then he comes back to try to do better and to find out what he really must do with his life. The tone reproduces Adams’ dry British wit most of the time. The story is mainly a set up for a series and moves slowly. Dave is a great character.

INK AND BONE, Rachel Caine. Young adult fantasy. Book 1 of “The Great Library.” The Great Alexandria Library didn’t burn. Instead, it spread through the world, its librarians took all the books away from people and only allow people to read certain books. It controls all technology, and it’s averse to change, particularly the printing press which would allow knowledge to spread. Those who break these laws end up dead. In the year 2050, the world is steampunk with steam-engine cars and automatons in the service of the Library, and the Library uses alchemy to share what wisdom it will. Jess Brightwell, sixteen, helps his father sell contraband books, but he’s given the chance to go to The Great Library in Alexandria to become a Librarian. His father thinks this will allow more access for books to sell, but Jess wants to protect books. He and his class are pitted against each other, and only six will be able to become Librarians so the competition is fierce until the group is sent into a battle zone of a war between the English and Welch to save some very rare books, and they must become a team to save themselves and the books. A well-written and thought out novel with interesting characters including the conflicted Jess.

KISS AND SPELL, Shanna Swendson. “An Enchanted, Inc.” series. Comic contemporary fantasy. Katie who works for an organization that polices magic, her sweetie— wizard Owen, and a bunch of their colleagues and friends are kidnapped by elves. Katie finds herself with another identity and living the plot of a romantic comedy in a film version of New York. Can she find a way to escape, stop an evil elvish plot, find Mr Right, and dance in the rain with the one she loves? A cute and clever book with a great heroine who doesn’t need saving and a hero who defies all the cliches of the alpha male in a good way.

UPROOTED, Naomi Novak. Standalone traditional fantasy based partly on Russian folk stories. Agnieszka is chosen from among the local girls to live with a powerful wizard called Dragon for ten years because she has magical abilities. Unfortunately, her abilities are very different from the formulaic magic of Dragon so her learning is not going so well until the Wood, the evil intelligence that controls a magical neighboring wood, takes her best friend. Soon, she’s dealing with a prince who wants to rescue his mother, too, and the scary attentions of the Wood who very much wants her for its own. Very well written and thoughtful with strong worldbuilding and interesting characters.

DREAMER’S POOL, Juliet Marillier. “A Blackthorne & Grim novel.” Traditional fantasy with a mystery plot. Pagan/early Christian Ireland. Wise woman Blackthorne has been held prisoner in an horrific jail for a year because she has tried to protect women from rape by the local chieftan, but she’s broken out by a fae who tells her she must become the wise woman/healer in a village in another territory for seven years, and she must never refuse anyone who asks for help, or she will be returned to the jail. Grim, a fellow prisoner, escapes with her, and they settle down to help the locals. Both have severe cases of PTSD, and Blackthorne is filled with rage and a need for revenge against the evil chieftan so she struggles with her need to leave. Meanwhile, the prince who controls the area of the small town eagerly awaits his fiancee, but she proves to be very different from the letters she sent him. To Blackthorne’s disgust, he asks for her help. A very slow-moving novel that concentrates on character development and the presentation of setting. Both are well-done, but I figured out the big mystery and its solution within the first hundred pages of the long novel.

THE SHOTGUN ARCANA, RS Belcher. Historical dark fantasy. The Old West. The small mining town of Golgotha is a hot spot of supernatural energy because of artifacts of good and evil magic hidden within by Bick an angel disguised as a human. One of the evil artifacts hidden by another angel begins to attract cannibalistic serial killers who head toward the town. The locals including Sheriff Jon Highfather, Mutt the half-blood son of Coyote, and young Jim who owns a magical Chinese artifact must stop the killings before the town is destroyed and this evil spreads through the world. Excellent worldbuilding, intelligent characters, and decent writing, but the sick serial killer stuff really turned me off even though I skimmed those chapters.

BLOOD FAERIE, India Drummond. Contemporary fantasy. First of a series. Police Detective Quinton Munro has a special sense that brings him and his partner to a body whose heart has been ripped out, and he feels something very wrong hovering over the murder scene. Eilidh has been exiled from the other fae because of her hated abilities with astral magic so she spends her time watching the humans in the town of Perth. The dark magic of the murder brings her and Quinton together as they try to stop a magical killer with horrific plans for both humans and the fae. Very well-written characters and plot.

Jason Drexler
Jason Drexler
5 years ago

I love fantasy, but I guess I’m a Tolkien snob—most of today’s work is (in my view) merely derivative of his.

I read the first book in the Earthsea series; it was okay, but I didn’t feel compelled to continue with it.

Ditto for the Wheel of Time series.

I dragged myself through the entire Belgariad, and the main thing that has stuck with me from that series is how many times that one character “raised a sardonic eyebrow.”

Every time I search the shelves at the local B&N or on Amazon, I see book after book after book about elves and dwarves and orcs and wizards—but without any of the epic, sweeping quality of LOTR, and usually with way too many unnecessary worldbuilding descriptions and ridiculous attempts at clever character names and made-up languages—all of which smack of cheap attempts to copy Tolkien.

And I usually walk away empty-handed, and eventually go back to the old tried-and-trues—because reading Lord of the Rings for the sixth time is far better than reading one of its many impoverished grandchildren.

I do love the Harry Potter series, as well as the fantasy work of C.S. Lewis, and some of Stephen King’s stuff, like The Eyes of the Dragon.

Mythopoet
Mythopoet
5 years ago

Honestly, I think any perceived “stagnation” is due to 2 natural forces:

1. There are more works of fantasy being written and shared today than at any time in the past. This is a good thing, but it means that it can be much harder to find the wheat among the chaff than it was decades ago. When I talk to people that think most fantasy is generic or the genre is stagnating these people usually only have a working knowledge of the bestsellers of the genre and a perhaps whatever is being published in their favorite subgenre. It’s very difficult today to truly get a glimpse of the Big Picture of fantasy because the field is just huge now. The original, unique, boundary exploring books are out there, you just have to search for them.

2. Most average readers in a genre are going to gravitate to the familiar and comfortable rather than the new and unique. This is because most genre readers are looking for entertainment and relaxation in their reading material. They get home from a long day at work and they want to loose themselves in a fantasy world for a while. Or they are struggling with the pressures of being a teenager and they just want to read about a character overcoming adversity to life their spirits. They don’t want things that are experimental or bizarre or uncomfortable to them most of the time. (Writers approach books from a very different point of view than the average reader.) So most of the time the most successful books are going to be the ones that don’t break a lot of boundaries.

However, this is only a problem in a world where publishers only publish the most profitable books and keep anything they don’t know how to sell off bookshelves. In a world where anyone can publish what they want and readers just have to sift for it, there’s no problem.

Robert Hilliard
Robert Hilliard
5 years ago

And I forgot to say, “Thanks” for the article. It is a very worthwhile conversation!

Robert Hilliard
Robert Hilliard
5 years ago

I find it interesting that, in a time when Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire are gigantic literary forces, we would bemoan a “stagnation” in fantasy. Tropes are not cliches and, if used with artistic nuance and skill, can appear fresh each time we encounter them. Is there a dearth of authors who are creating worlds that literally captivate entire generations? Perhaps. But with such a large number of new authors, new venues, and new paths to publication, is it not possible that we simply have not read that next amazing author?

It used to be that if you read fantasy (or any other genre) there was such a limited number of available authors that you could read them all. Today that is not the case. There are so many new authors today, some appeal to us and some don’t, that it is simply not possible to read them all. For those of us who are avid readers, this is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing that there seems to be no end to the choices available. It is a curse because we have to wade through so many not so great authors to find those who really speak to us. The fact that there are so many authors out there in fantasy who do not truly capture our imaginations, may be the root cause for the sense of stagnation.

As a writer, whenever I am working on a fantasy story, I don’t ask myself whether or not I am bringing something new to the genre. Instead, I try to focus on whether or not I am crafting a compelling story.

Ciara Ballintyne
5 years ago

I have to agree with Robert and Aderyn.

Have you read Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson? I generally wouldn’t class these in ‘hero’s journey’ type books (which for me is how I would classify classics such as David Eddings and Terry Brooks) and they are both constantly developing new forms of magic (‘hard’ magic systems) rather than regurgitating the same old forms of soft magic. To me, this makes them new and interesting and distinctly different from others. The stories are invariably personal, and don’t typically involve some of the tropes you’ve mentioned.

Also Abercrombie is writing what’s called ‘gritty fantasy’. I don’t like it, BECAUSE it breaks the tropes, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s out there. Even GRRM is breaking the trope of the good guy always wins. you can’t even work out who the good guy is. Even without exploring some of names that Robert has mentioned, it seems you have overlooked some of the biggest names in fantasy who are doing knew things.

At the same time, Aderyn is right–fantasy fans come back to the genre because they like the same themes and ideas, as long as the story and the characters are new, the repetition of tropes isn’t a problem.

One also wonders which genre of fantasy you are talking about? The website for Best Fantasy Books lists 64 subgenres of fantasy, some of which by their very nature are breaking the tropes of classic fantasy.

Given the writers you have referenced, it seems to me that what you are really talking about is the subgenre epic fantasy (which is all that fantasy was once upon a time), and in that case then those tropes won’t go away, because the epic battle of good against evil is the very DEFINITION of that subgenre. You need to look in other subgenres for variation from that central theme–there are 63 others to try!

Also, it’s in bad taste to say that Terry Pratchett isn’t putting out anything different to his old works when the good man has recently passed away and was suffering from early onset Alzheimers for some years prior to that. You’d be better off referencing him in the same category with Robert Jordan. That era has, sadly, ended.

Gabriella L. Garlock
Gabriella L. Garlock
Reply to  Ciara Ballintyne
5 years ago

64? I never classified a story I’m writing as fantasy–although the setting is familiar but with a technological twist, an alternate-Earth up-dated medieval-like Kingdom with no mass transport or communications–there are no fantastic beasts and there is no magic. There is nothing supernatural. But many folks have been telling me it is in fact a “kind” of fantasy. . .perhaps they read the list.
For the record, I still won’t call it fantasy. A strange kind of sci-fi, perhaps.

Angela
5 years ago

I do have to say maybe the most popular fantasies have become stagnant, it does take quite a lot of digging to find something that stands out and is truly different from anything else. I have a small group of fantasy authors I love who still have the magic – but must administrator I’ve been very disappointed with the more popular books. Which is why I write my own now and it’s not popular yet but it will be.

Lyle Almond
Lyle Almond
5 years ago

I heartily agree with Aderyn’s observation that the core of fantasy – its magic – seems to have gotten lost in translating contemporary fantasy as ‘genre’ literature. I see quite a bit of this on the forums and try to suggest that authors resubmit their medieval tales as historical fiction or historical romance as fantasy it most definitely is not.

What’s really happened here – as someone who was away for thirty years – is that truly great fantasy, the kind that earned Mythopoeic Awards and took decades to reimagine on the big screen was ‘ghetto-ized’ by the publishing industry along with horror and science fiction into a ‘genre lit’ slush pile. The sheer volume of derivative literature, which for me, began in the late 70s with Terry Brooks’ unabashed rip-offs of Middle Earth, was the publishing industry’s easy way of sorting out the avalanche. This ghetto-ization of fantasy was first criticized by Orson Scott Card, ironic for being one of the first of the ‘ghetto’ fantasy writers. Magic itself, now bought and sold as a material good in countless D&D franchises was not only no longer the great subject and character of fantasy, it was now no longer even the central theme of fantasy, and finally ceased to exist at all.

I’m offended by the whole literary vs. genre fiction charade, and have no interest in cheap labels. Great fantasy is every bit as literary as any other form of fiction literature (or even more so). We have to stop liking labels so much; great fantasy dies in little boxes.

Robert
Robert
5 years ago

I have to say, when I read these sorts of articles, my initial thought is that the author just doesn’t have a broad knowledge of the genre. Too often, we see people self-selecting for the same sorts of fantasies over and over again, and then lamenting the fact that there’s nothing different in the genre. Fantasy stagnant? You’ve got to be kidding.

Read any Caitlin R. Kiernan? Helene Wecker? Charles Saunders? KJ Parker? Charles de Lint? Susanna Clarke? Martha Wells? Aliette de Boddard? Django Wexler? Kameron Hurley? Elizabeth Hand?

I can provide a longer list if you like.

Mark C
Mark C
Reply to  Robert
5 years ago

Yes, thanks. I would. I’ve only read one of the writers you mention. I’d be interested to check some more out.

Aderyn Wood
Reply to  Robert
5 years ago

Thanks for that list, Robert. I’m going to add a few of those to my tbr!

Lorinda J. Taylor
5 years ago

I just wrote a blog piece where I speak about how I don’t enjoy heroic fantasy as much as I used to. See it at http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2016/02/realism-and-fantasy-how-my-writing-has.html I think my series The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head presents an exciting take on heroic fantasy. In it I retell Greek myth and certain medieval epics in the context of a culture of extraterrestrial intelligent giant termites. There are all kinds of different ways one can go with epic adventure.

Aderyn Wood
5 years ago

I agree that authors should be reworking fantasy and keeping it fresh, but I’m finding this ‘movement’ against fantasy tropes and traditions to be just as tiresome as the tropes themselves. Shouldn’t we recognise and value the fact many of the traditions of fantasy – the hero’s journey, the ‘chosen one’, the secret magical society – that all of these and more are exactly what fantasy fans love about the genre?

I recently read a fantasy novel that was interesting, well-written, and quite different to anything I’ve read before. It did take me away to a different setting, something I love most about fantasy, but, there was no magic, not even a hint of it. I was disappointed. Wizards, sorcerers, mages, whatever you want to call them, they’re one of the most important traditions for me in Fantasy.

I like what George RR Martin has done with A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a grim and gritty piece of Fantasy fiction that challenges quite a few of the traditions of heroism and justice, and I know a few who find it a bit ‘depressing’ because of the lack of happy resolutions. But when they do happen, they’re fantastic.

Yes, I enjoy reading fresh reworkings of Fantasy, but I can tolerate the inclusion of one trope or another, and I’m guilty of enjoying them too. I guess we have to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we talk about being ‘fresh’ in Fantasy, and deriding it’s traditions.

An interesting post. Apologies if I appear a little heated in my comments 😉

James
James
5 years ago

Nice article. As an aspiring writer of fantasy, this very issue plagues me.

Gabriella L Garlock
Gabriella L Garlock
5 years ago

First — Yea, for acknowledging the caviar of the craft!

Second — (And my answer isn’t well-thought out, forgive me) my gut-reaction what-I-find-dry-in-fantasy these days is the observation I keep making: gee, if this author only knew actual human history or current events better, what a nice little parallel this would be…

I suppose you need to understand your own world’s machinations before you can create an interesting alternate one. And nothing wrong with jumping on a bandwagon–it’s what we do! We like what we like. But you cannot merely imitate your favorite author and simultaneously absorb their understanding of the human condition, it seems.

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