UK national newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, asked me to write an article on fantasy for those not familiar with the genre. The result is here.
Every country gets the fantasy it needs, it seems, whether that’s elves and wizards in the UK, US and Australia, or fantasy more rooted in the real world in Germany and Greece. I always thought fantasy was pretty much a universal genre, with many of its tropes based in ancient story-forms.
But a correspondent, Julian Wilson, pointed me in the direction of the Uncertainty Avoidance Index used in cross-cultural communications theory to map a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
The index indicates how much a society tolerates the new, the unknown and the different. Germany, which has a relatively high uncertainty avoidance index, is a society which relies on rules and regulations and tries to reduce its risks to the minimum. The US and particularly the UK have relatively low scores on the index.
In Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind, Geert Hofstede says, “Marieke de Mooij has pointed out that cultural values can be recognized in both the subjects and style of literary fiction produced in a country. As examples of world literature from high-UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance Index) countries, she mentions Franz Kafka’s The Castle from Czechia and Goethe’s Faust from Germany. In the former the main character is haunted by impersonal rules; in the latter the hero sells his soul for knowledge of Truth. Low-UAI Britain has produced literature in which the most unreal things happen: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”
Later in the book he suggests that countries which have low uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with fantasy worlds” and those with high uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with rules and truth”.
So if you live in Greece, Portugal or Guatemala (high UAI) or Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore (low UAI), let me know if this is just another example of Academics Gone Mad or if it has some bearing on the tastes of fantasy readers around the world?
The science fiction community is global, committed and very vocal. But is there a fantasy community? And if not, why not?
Nick Cirkovic has a few thoughts, specifically, “It may be indeed that writers are by profession a solitary bunch: they sit alone in a room and write, lots. They each have a small number of writer friends and confidantes, some of them may not even be writing in the area of genre they themselves do. Again, generally a healthy thing. It may also be that there is such a wide and varied set of sub-genres with the tag ‘fantasy’ that such healthy cross-breeding precludes a concentration of the one ultimately self-destroying inbred strand.”
It’s interesting that science fiction is a smaller genre than fantasy in terms of book sales, yet fantasy essentially remains subsumed by science fiction in terms of community, booksellers and marketing, as it has done since the days when there were only two fantasy books on the shelves compared to a hundred SF ones.
Fantasy and SF for the connoisseur or for mainstream tastes: which path should a publishing house follow? That’s an interesting debate which the ever-erudite Lou Anders has raised on his blog. When founding the excellent Pyr imprint, Lou and his team took the conscious decision to publish what Norman Spinrad called “science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in”.
I think that’s an excellent policy for Pyr. It’s certainly a truism that the more you indulge in a particular taste the more refined that taste becomes (which can also be a problem for critics, who, as Stephen King puts it, “lose their taste for pizza”). The core readership of fantasy and SF – the fans, although they probably don’t categorise themselves that way – deserve some gourmet dishes.
But there is a wider debate here. On The Genre Files, Ariel gives a smart overview of marketing genre books in the 21st century, a post that all authors and publishers should read. And in a separate article, editor George Mann writes about Solaris’ choice of traditional covers for their genre titles.
Both these articles get right to the heart of trying to sell books to a fragmented audience in the 21st century, and it’s something the music industry in particular, and TV and Film, are all struggling to deal with. Do you go for the hardcore fan or reach out to the wider audience? There are pros and cons for both. It seems that Lou, Ariel and George are all swinging towards an approach that caters to the dedicated reader, and I think that’s a business model that will work very well for Pyr and Solaris.
But if it was applied to the whole industry I would have real problems. In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern).
The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan – and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry.
The issue of covers and marketing is not just an industry issue. I’ve had several readers complain about my move away from traditional illustrative fantasy covers to the latest design-oriented ones. I’ve had just as many applaud the move. These covers are a personal choice. I like design; they work for me. And, I have to say, sales have been much, much better. But I don’t think you can extrapolate too much from that for the wider market. If all covers were designery, mine wouldn’t have had the same impact.
I love fantasy, science fiction and horror. I believe these three genres are appealing to mainstream tastes, if some way can be found to communicate their values to the casual browser. I’m afraid that an across-the-board retreat to the ‘core fan model’ will ghettoize them even further and lead to a long-term decline. The best way for the industry, I think is – to use music industry analogy – hardcore labels for the purist, and general labels to attract new users.
But that is a fiendish and crippling trap for the writer. Once you establish yourself in one pool or the other it will be very hard to crossover and gain, on the one hand, the new readers and wider sales that sustain your career, and, on the other, credibility that is just as valuable a commodity in the internet-empowered world.
A lot of people have been talking about my post suggesting that the more rationalist a society gets, the less it needs rationalist fiction like SF (with poor old Richard Dawkins thrown in as the whipping boy, for a spot of humour). Some have been predictably getting hot under the collar. Others were more receptive.
I grew up reading SF. The first adult ones I remember were Heinleins when I was nine or ten, moving on to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. During my teens I expanded into fantasy and horror, with Moorcock, Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and I still read right across the core speculative genres. In those days, SF was the powerhouse of imaginative fiction, influencing mainstream thought, whether high-brow or low. Fantasy as a genre – even with Tolkien behind it – was clutching on to the coat-tails, and horror was barely seen.
But now things have changed. The tribalist SF readers like to proclaim that although influence and sales have declined, they still have the high ground – the better writing, the more rigorous ideas. And the better literary pretension, of course. Yet fantasy is now much more effective at communicating with a wider readership, and reaching out to people from different walks of life.
There are numerous, complex reasons for changes on this scale. One is indeed that people read books to get what they don’t have – new ideas, information, experience, and, increasingly, irrationality. Another is certainly that in some areas SF has grown more insular and inward-looking, like a group of gourmands sneering at everyone else eating pizza. But one important reason is that a significant part of SF has forgotten what is the engine of communication in story-telling – emotion.
I’m also a screenwriter in the TV industry, and at every script meeting, the cry goes up, ’emotion, emotion, emotion’. The emotional heart of every story is the point of connect for viewers or readers, and allows them to take on board the big ideas, the themes, that lie within. Big ideas alone are not enough. Everybody in TV today understands this. It’s the reason why the current series of Dr Who has been such a success. Russell T Davies, the show runner, received his TV training on soaps, and took the decision to infuse emotion into the core of the new series concept. It’s the reason why Battlestar Galactica is such a success, and the reason why most TV and film SF connects with a wider audience.
Fantasy – which comes more from the heart than the head – instinctively understands this too. So does horror. But SF has always loved its big ideas and these days in the literary world, I feel, is loving them much, much more than the humanity it wants to care about those ideas. This isn’t really a different argument to the ‘rational society needing irrational dreams’ one. It’s about the balance between head and heart. People don’t want an academic lecture. They want to feel why they should care.
I used to get that in my early SF reading – maybe not so much in Asimov, but certainly in the broad thrust of the genre. Or am I misremembering? Or perhaps modern SF really is concentrating on humanity and using emotion to piggyback those big ideas into the minds of the wider population, and I’m just not reading those books. Put me right…I’m sure you will…
Or how you can lose by winningâ€¦
Science fiction is in a slow sales decline (or not so slow, depending on which bookseller you talk to), and now accounts for a fraction of its former market. Meanwhile, fantasy remains a sales juggernaut, with what Publishers Weekly described at its last roundtable close-up (admittedly nearly three years ago now) as a â€˜hugeâ€™ audience for immersive epics.
Which is strange when you consider that the quality of SF is arguably at an all-time high, a new golden age of speculative fiction. I can name several authors whose books will undoubtedly be read in decades to come, and Iâ€™m sure you can name many more. Fantasy â€“ and Iâ€™m stating this as charitably as I can â€“ has not produced so many quality works. One or two maybe. There have been a lot of good books, entertaining books, comforting books, ones that please their readers, but classics? Not so much. (Iâ€™m a fantasy author â€“ I can say this.)
Thereâ€™s been some debate about why SF is failing to resonate with the wider public in the same way that it used to do. Part of the reason is that we live in a science fiction age. The wonders that were on the page are now all around us. But to follow that argument to its conclusion would suggest that SF sales should be increasing rapidly as it becomes the fiction of the mainstream, true 21st century literature that shines a light on the way we live our lives today. Instead itâ€™s following the trajectory of the western.
If we look to psychology we may find some answers. We are creatures that are held in stasis by opposing forces: our nature demands a balance. Right brain/left brain, masculine/feminine, intuitive/logical. Plato defined two ways of seeing the world â€“ â€˜logosâ€™, from which we get â€˜logicâ€™, looking out at the world, scientific in common usage, and â€˜mythosâ€™ from which we get â€˜mythicâ€™, which mapped our inner selves and was just as vital for defining the way the world works.
Long memories or a little research will show how irrational we were back in the sixties and into the seventies. Belief in the occult was much more mainstream than it is now, with serious people discussing it in a serious way. You wonâ€™t find that today. I know some of you American readers will beg to differ, as you face a rising tide of irrational religiosity infecting mainstream life, but those pressures are coming from the outside into the heart of society, and are generally resisted by the opinion-formers and the establishment which shapes the consensus-reality of our society.
This was very clear in Richard Dawkinsâ€™ recent TV series where he charged out to attack what he saw as a tidal wave of irrationality from creationists, new agers and charlatans threatening to swamp science. In reality, he came across as a complete bully, using his intellect to smash down people who couldnâ€™t vocalize their beliefs, or even really comprehend why they felt the way they did. Itâ€™s a flaw thatâ€™s just as clear in his best-selling book, â€˜The God Delusionâ€™.
The fact is, his side is winning. Generally, society is much more rational than it ever was.
Iâ€™m talking here about subtleties â€“ about the mood of society, the â€˜feelâ€™ of it. You can probably find a million examples of perceived irrationality, from the high sales of â€˜mind, body, spiritâ€™ books to millionaire astrologers. But those things are accepted, often wryly, often hopefully, but very rarely at the heart of a world-view. Commentators in the media who shape opinion are united in their acceptance of the scientific paradigm. You donâ€™t even find UK tabloid newspapers covering occultist or fringe subjects to the same degree they did in the sixties and seventies. As someone with lots of journalist friends, I know this is because even the tabloid people consider these things beyond what their readers would take seriously.
Dawkins knows this, Iâ€™m sure, but heâ€™s on a crusade to stamp out irrationality wherever he might find it. He has stated that any irrationality is a threat, even if itâ€™s a lightly held belief or a half-hearted curiosity about things he believes could never, ever be true.
And heâ€™s wrong. Utterly. We need our mythos. We need our irrationality. We are built to need it. Cultures before ours managed to integrate both into the same world-view quite easily; itâ€™s not an either/or situation. If youâ€™re interested in magic, it doesnâ€™t mean you think Einstein is a charlatan. (On the fringes, some may, but weâ€™re talking about â€˜realâ€™ people here). The more people are unable to find irrationality in the culture around them, the more they will be driven to seek it out through their imagination.
In other words, every time Richard Dawkins kicks a quivering new ager, a hard-pressed science fiction writer loses another sale.
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, society needs fantasy. It doesnâ€™t really need SF.
In a response to my post about RPGs killing fantasy, Jeff Vandermeer asks, ‘Isn’t it just about characters and plot?’
Well, yes and no. Novelists will always have the upper hand over games. The characters will be richer, the plots more complex and intriguing, and there will…or rather, should…be some level of meaning and subtext that makes the whole experience worthwhile.
The point is, if the area they’re writing in is so degraded by over-familiarity, characters and plot aren’t enough to provide that sense of ‘otherness’ that fantasy readers require. But Jeff is already working in a completely different area of fantasy.
On a slightly different tack, M John Harrison quite rightly expresses no interest in that obsessive level of world-building detail that gamers demand. Which is interesting, because in his excellent ‘Viriconium’ tales from a few years back, he created a fully-realised world with a few brush-strokes. What some people don’t realise is that books are a collaboration between writer and reader – both bring something to a story, and both help realise the world through the power of their imaginations.
“Critics and cultural commentators have finally realised what writers, readers and audiences have known for years – that fantasy writing can – and does – tackle adult themes in a unique and exciting way, and that imaginary worlds are not just for children.”
Leading with that quote, I feel like some pathetic, shy kid at the prom seeking reassurance, but anyone interested in fantasy knows the kind of comments we hear on a daily basis. For that reason alone, it’s heartening to find a leading organisation celebrating everything we hold dear, in this case the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. From their promo:
“The Writersâ€™ Guild presents Imaginary Worlds on Thursday 1st November from 7pm â€“ 8:30pm at the Writers Guild Centre, 17 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JN (Nearest tube: Kingâ€™s Cross). Celebrate the recent resurgence in British science fiction and fantasy, by talking to the writers behind the boom.
“Britain’s other great literary tradition has always been a hit with the public – from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, 20th. Century classics by John Wyndham, H.G. Wells and Nigel Kneale, to the recent boom in graphic novels and even more recent box office successes such as Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later.
“Confirmed panellists for the discussion include Guild members Ashley Pharaoh, one of the creators of Life on Mars and Adrian Hodges, a co-creator of Primeval. Further speakers will be confirmed closer to the date. To book for this event, please post a cheque to: Imaginary Worlds, Writersâ€™ Guild, 15-17, Britannia Street, London WC1 X 9JN. Please make the cheque payable to: â€œWritersâ€™ Guild of Great Britainâ€. Tickets cost Â£5 for Guild members and Â£7.50 for non members.”
The massive explosion of RPGs, table-top, video and net games over the last fifteen years has changed the landscape for fantasy authors. In ancient times, if you wanted to slip quietly into another world, you had only a handful of potential access points that were widely available in commercial locations: some Moorcocks, the odd reprint of the Weird Tales authors and the ubiquitous Tolkein. Mythologies were being re-interpreted for a new audience, strange horizons were invoked and it was all fresh and exhilarating.
Now we’ve all visited fantasy worlds hundreds or thousands of times by our teens, whether it’s the Dungeons and Dragons of the eighties, the paper-based games that grew out of it, or the World of Warcraft and other MMPORGs of the netscape. This huge industry has turned all the tropes of fantasy into crashing cliches. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are as familiar as your next-door neighbour. We all know how magic works, as clearly as the laws of physics – it’s defined in a thousand rule books. Games Workshop alone has mapped an entire universe of new worlds. And when I say mapped, I mean geographically, culturally, economically, racially, sexually, theologically, scientifically and mythologically. They are defined as clearly as the world you might search for in Wikipaedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is not fantasy. This is reality, living, breathing and evolving all around.
Nor is this is a criticism of games, far from it. Their remarkable success has turned our shared minority interest into a mainstream taste – or it will have when the next generation comes to maturity. How will our western society be shaped when people rooted in imagination and the fantastic become the majority? But that’s a different blog…
The question now is, what is the point of the fantasy author? Any writer coming into this field in this age faces immediate dangers. The core fantasy elements have been so colonised by the games industry that the writer automatically has to handle accusations of being a hack dabbling in cliches. Yes, a good writer should infuse their work with levels of meaning, subtext and characterisation usually unavailable in games and their fictional tie-ins. But is that enough? Any author utilising the long-standing tropes and landscape of fantasy fiction will now always be hamstrung by suffocating familiarity. The games worlds are so diverse, so cleverly and startlingly imagined (usually by teams of highly inventive people) that authors working in these traditional fields will be seen as ‘more of the same’ by anyone giving their work a cursory glance on the shelves. And what author worth their salt wants that?
Fantasy authors – and all the thousands of would-be fantasy authors out there – need to wake up. They’re being squeezed out of the territory they have occupied for the last hundred years or so. They can no longer count on the fact that they’re the only visionaries in town, or the only explorers charting the fringes of the imagination. They’re being supplanted by a much more dynamic and agressive breed.
I’m not convinced that simply ‘doing it better’ will work. Fantasy authors need to find a new unique selling point. If they want to maintain their reputation as the elite of this field, they need to work their imaginations harder, start defining new territories, go to places that the gamers wouldn’t (yet) dare to go.
Who is up for that challenge?
For all you fantasy fans who keep banging on about world-building, some words from M John Harrison:
Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the readerâ€™s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.
Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isnâ€™t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isnâ€™t possible, & if it was the results wouldnâ€™t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilderâ€™s victim, & makes us very afraid.