Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantasy Cathedrals and McMansions

My post about "serial epic fantasy" a few weeks ago has gotten more (non-robot) hits than most of my recent posts, so I thought I would revisit the topic, which is, after all, a perennial one on this blog. In fact, it goes back to my second post ever, when I threw down my gauntlet before the literary world.

At the time I wrote that, I had just despaired of ever finding an agent or publisher for my gargantuan first novel, which was 150K words after trimming it down by half and seriously boring. It was about autism, autogyros, quantum mechanics, and various characters that eventually found a home in my Enoch stories. At the back of my mind, I knew that it was too inwardly focused to be readable. I ultimately relegated my autistic recluse to the void in favor of a sanguine pugilist who leaps before he looks and basically does everything I would never do.

So that post was (and is) a kind of manifesto. Manifestos are fun, especially when they're full of hyperbole and self-importance. So let's do another! I'll begin with an unapologetic catalog of my twenty favorite fantasy novels, listed in chronological order:
  • Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858)
  • She by H. Rider Haggard (1887)
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
  • The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (1908)
  • The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson (1912)
  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
  • Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1916)
  • A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)
  • The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (1922)
  • The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924) 
  • The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H. P. Lovecraft (1927)
  • At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931)
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (1938)
  • Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)
  • Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1950)
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1955)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
  • Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
  • The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1983)
  • Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984)
Well, okay, that was twenty-one. To get on that list, you have to have made a permanent impression my imagination, and I have to have reread you as a guilty pleasure at least once. A list of my favorite short fiction would include pieces by George MacDonald, Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore. I tend to gravitate toward the weird and ornate, like "The Repairer of Reputations" or "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" or "The Tower of the Elephant" or "The Demon in the Flower."

So I think it's fair to say that I'm biased toward the what came before the Tolkien watershed. When I read what other people have to say about pre-Tolkien novels, I often get the feeling that they're viewed as ungainly precursors, as the dinosaur skeletons at the museum entrance. They're the work of primitives who didn't quite know what they were about, Giottos and Fra Angelicos to our modern Raphaels and Caravaggios. They're tolerated or even admired, but as a kind of academic curiosity that one delves into occasionally as an act of literary penance.

My preferences are quite the opposite. I do read modern fantasy. I discover hidden gems that way. They're out there, to be sure. But my first and only real love is the pre-Tolkien canon. How many times have I read A Voyage to Arcturus or Phantastes or The Worm Ouroboros? Too many to count. If I read modern fantasy, it's because I'm looking for something to satisfy the hunger whetted by these works.

But, more often than not, genre fiction cheats this desire. It's got no bite, no danger, no weirdness. It's tame. To put it in galline terms, it's caponized and clipped. It lacks the grotesque stylistic bosses, the glowing digressions, the awkward framing devices and dumb shows of the classics.

I could point to myriad ways in which the works of the pre-Tolkien canon influenced one another. But each draws far more from philosophy and science and mythology. They were part of a real literary movement rather than a genre. A literary movement is a living thing that grows according to its own inner logic and is necessarily bound in time; a genre is a dead thing, a pigeonhole in a commercial classification system depending on the presence or absence of various material elements. The difference between fantastic literature and a lot of genre fiction is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and a McMansion.

And in case I seem entirely dismissive of more recent efforts, let me emphasize that I'm not talking about everything that's out there right now. I've read things that I've liked very much. But just look at the sheer quantity of it all. The kinds of works I like can't be mass produced or made to order. They're like lightning strikes. And one thing I note about the majority of the authors I listed above is that their primary career was not fiction writing. If it had been, they would have starved.

Let me also emphasize that I'm not into nostalgia. I have no desire to try to "get back" to anything. If a true fantasy novel is to be written in our time, it must take root right here in the twenty-first century, drawing its nourishment from the world around us even if in reaction against it. There are no "good old days" to hearken back to. The world in which fantasy first flourished was a dirty and brutal place, and the master fantasists were people of their time. Even the one author most responsible for creating the modern fantasy novel, the aggressively backward-looking William Morris, was a social activist whose efforts in manufacture reform were echoed in the ultra-modern Bauhaus half a century later.

As Tolkien points out, the Escape for which fantasy is often blamed has "Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt" as its companions. True fantasy is not safe. It's revolutionary. But genre fiction can't be revolutionary. It mixes and matches the established tropes, making novel arrangements rather than creating new worlds. It might, if quite certain of its audience, cautiously advance a few progressive or conservative talking points, but it will never ever do anything that makes it unclear which tribe it's supposed to appeal to, because that is the one unforgivable sin.

It's easy enough to talk about all this on my blog, and I do often enough. The quality of my novels is debatable, but at any rate they're out there. Sometimes you just have to get up on a rooftop and shout about what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Plus, the robots were getting kind of rambunctious in my absence. Go away, robots. Dance somewhere else.

Related: A Festival of Wrap-Around Cover Art


  1. A magnificent manifesto. I agree with it entirely, even if I tend to swim in the waters of repetitive heroic fantasy more often than magnificently original books like on your list (which I've only read about half of).

    When the only limitation is imagination, why not go for broke and beyond? Why another pseudo-medieval fantasy when you can explore a world as wild as Gormenghast or the Dreamlands?

    1. Thanks! As you know, I enjoy me some good "repetitive" S&S, too; of course, I tend to prefer it as weird as possible, with the cosmic horror factor set to maximum.