Fantasy … Less Worthy of Publication?

Through my library work, I have access to Penguin’s “First Flights” program, which features interviews with first-time authors. A little over a week ago, I was listening to the interview with Derek Sherman, author of Race Across the Sky.

During these chats, the interviewer almost always asks the author about his experience of getting his first book published. (Most of these authors explain the process as “unexpectedly easy,” which is rather depressing to a passionate, unpublished author! Does this have anything to do with the fact that these are the books the publisher has chosen to promote? Was publication “easy” because what they wrote “happened” to be just the sort of thing that publisher was looking for and wanting to publish? At any rate, I hope this isn’t a truly “representative sample.”)

Beware the dragons’ wrath!

When the interviewer asked Derek Sherman this question, he mentioned how Googling “I’ve just written a novel, what next?” brings up a lot of blogs from disgruntled authors complaining about how it’s impossible to get anything published unless you’re already famous. Then he added, “Then you find out they’re all writing novels about dwarves, and dragons …”

As a writer of fantasy, I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this comment. As he contrasted the “ease” with which he was published against these “disgruntled” authors, was he saying that the reason such authors weren’t getting published is because they’re writing fantasy? Is this a genre that is somehow less worthy of publication, or new talent? My husband suggested the most positive take on this comment, which was that perhaps he was saying that particular field was already so “flooded” that it was hard for new folks to break in. But I don’t think so — despite breakout successes like Harry Potter and classics like Lord of the Rings, I still think that fantasy and sci-fi remains a very niche genre. At least, through my work in libraries over the past several years, I’ve noticed that few library workers read sci-fi/fantasy (among a sub-population who are very big readers), and the sci-fi and fantasy aisles are decidedly smaller than the “mysteries” or “general fiction.”

I’m curious about other potential interpretations of this comment. Is writing about “dwarves and dragons” a justifiable roadblock in and of itself to publication? I don’t think so, and it rankles me that any author would summarily dismiss unpublished authors in another genre, while he basks on his pedestal of publication.

As for me, I’ll keep writing about dwarfs and dragons, and reading about them, too. And I’m going to pass on Race Across the Sky.

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14 Responses to Fantasy … Less Worthy of Publication?

  1. I think the rub comes from not the instution of fantasy writing itself, so much as the lack of originality that comes from many of its practitioners. The fantasy books that succeeded (as with other forms of fiction), gave us something different. LOTR had broad appeal because it introduced readers to an entire world that was both fantastic (Battle of Helm’s Deep, Mines of Moria, the One Ring, etc…) and recognizable (starting and ending the story in bucolic Hobbiton). Like The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter intertwined the lives of “normal” people from the “real” world with the realm of fantasy.

    Speaking as somebody who poo-pooed fantasy until I discovered Tolkien as an adult, I will tell you that what made me avoid the genre was the apparent sameness. It seemed that the shelves at book stores were full of different versions of the same dragon-slaying, knight-in-shining armor princess-saving, (enter your fantasy stereotype here)-ing story. It’s like eating sugar cookies made with different cutters. They might look different, but you are eating the same cookie.

    Then there’s the whole jumping on the bandwagon problem. Is a fantasy manuscript trying to cash in on the Harry Potter phenomenon, or is it a unique story in its own right? And the main question on publishers’ minds: Will this book sell?

    • I think the apparent “sameness” of the fantasy genre is true of any genre fiction, though. People read mysteries, romances, sci-fi/fantasy, and even literary fiction because they expect a certain *something* from that market, and a book that doesn’t deliver on the promises of its genre can leave a reader feeling baffled and even betrayed. With that said, I think there is a LOT of room for creativity and originality in every genre, and the books that stand out are the ones that aren’t afraid to push those limits. There are breakout fantasy novels that didn’t really do anything new — for example, Peter S. Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn” isn’t a classic because of the ideas introduced, so much as because it’s beautifully written and offers a seemingly simple story with deeper implications about innocence, what it means to be human, etc. To me, the power of fantasy isn’t in its originality, but in its ability to use fantastical elements to shine light on the deeper truths of human existence, to make concrete the things that are invisible. Whether this is done using dragons or dystopia is secondary to that.

      I also think that the “sameness” of certain genre writing comes from writers who don’t read widely outside the genre they write within. I’d rather read a fantasy written by someone who reads fantasy, memoir, history, and literary fiction than by someone who only reads fantasy, because their imaginative reach is wider.

  2. Mathew says:

    It is peculiar that highly imaginative books in the fantasy and science fiction genres do appear less valued by society than books of a ‘mainstream’ genre. I think there’s the idea that such genres are kind of geeky, and that most people would prefer to read books they can connect with more. Though my upbringing has been the opposite: my mother’s a big fan of science fiction and has always treated more mainstream books as being very dull! I personally like both.

    This is definitely one problem with letting publishers have power over the novel market, however. This is clear by the amount of magic books which flourished after Harry Potter, vampires after Twilight and even, despairingly, 50 Shades clones. Some publishers must see a winning formula and then publish books they think can tap into the ‘demand’ for this formula, which is a very stifling atmosphere for creativity.

    • Your mom sounds a lot like my sister — my sister says she reads to get things that she *can’t* get in real life, and so books about things that “could really happen” usually bore her, too. I’m more like you — I read across the spectrum, with my favorite genres being sci-fi/fantasy and memoir. Could you get more disparate than that?

      It’s really a pity that publishers get so locked into what’s currently “big” because it leads to a lot of sub-par books being published, while well-written, original books that don’t perfectly conform to a formula remain languishing. Still, the publishing landscape has changed so much that authors “need” publishers less, which I think is a good thing. Getting noticed is still the challenge, and that’s where the real advantage of publishing with a big house lies, I think.

      • Mathew says:

        Do you mean the rise of e-books and online publishing? I guess that is a way of ‘democratising’ publication and taking the power out of the hands of a minority publishing, though as you said I think it’s still hard for a writer to be successful doing that.

      • Yes, that is what I meant — and yes, I agree that it could be equally difficult to make your mark as a writer that way. But at least it exists as an additional option.

  3. Chris B. says:

    Good on you. Stephen King once wrote something roughly along the lines that it would be dishonest to change the genre of what you’re writing just because it’s more popular or supposedly higher in demand.

  4. tsudolcan says:

    Great post. I feel the same way. I would much rather write about something that I love writing about, rather than what is popular. No matter how the market views this genre it still is about writing what you are passionate about. You may never be a bestselling author, but we need less of those and more of people who write to share stories. Keep it up!

    • I agree with you! Sharing stories is my primary reason for writing, too. I think you’re bound to be disappointed if you’re in it for the money … but if you see it as its own reward, it’s much easier to keep going.

  5. JF Owen says:

    A good post!

    My take is that getting speculative fiction published depends greatly on two questions. Are you an established author with a fan base and track record? Are you writing a book in whatever sub-genre is “hot” at a given moment. I suspect that paranormal or urban fantasy novels have an edge right now and that it’s easier for a new author to be published if they’re writing about vampires, werewolves, demons, witches or especially zombies.

    Hang in there, dragons and dwarfs will return someday. There are too many Anne McCaffrey fans in the world for that not to happen!

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that there will always be a fan base for “high fantasy,” even though it may go in and out of fashion with the mainstream crowd. The good thing is that these trends tend to cycle, and I’m in it for the long haul, so we’ll see what happens. (I’ve actually never written about dwarfs, although that will change when I eventually write my Snow White retelling. Dragons have snuck into a couple of my books, though. :))

  6. G says:

    If I understand right, Dave Sherman’s complaint is that the genre is full of overused and outdated tropes and archetypes. Imagine you go to visit a lost tribe to learn about their culture. They have a creation story, replete with a hero, an earth mother and a trickster; they’ve been telling it for 4,000 years. Most people would think you’d missed the point if you went “Jeezo, BOOORING! Get a new story, losers!” Watching the audience during storytelling, you’d probably see some of them would be bored and some would be relatively engaged; maybe very engaged. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t only be youngsters among the more engaged listeners: some of them would be oldsters who’d built up a sense of the mythology and its significance over time. The mythos would have deepened for them and become a part of them.

    The world of the Wild West cowboy is almost entirely mythological–it’s “historical” setting simply makes it more believable and relatable than Middle Earth for the contemporary reader. (I would bet cash money that a far greater number of dedicated gunslingers have been inspired into being by the fiction than ever existed in the actual historical milieu.) Despite its stale/classic tropes and archetypes, people still like the genre, and it goes in and out of fashion. Does its going in and out of fashion mean that its objective artistic “worth” varies accordingly? Of course not: only the level of appreciation varies.

    It’s stupid to dismiss high fantasy generally; observations as to its shifting popularity are fair enough.

    • G says:

      I have to add also, cos I looked up his book, “hero going on an arduous journey for the one he loves” is just a fantasy story without a shapeshifting princess, a tower of thorns or a glass sword.

  7. […] couple weeks ago, I commented on a newly published author’s implication that the reason many writers are not getting published is because they’re writing stories with fantastical ele… (and received a very insightful comment from one of my readers that the nature of this particular […]

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