The Ongoing Search for a Bold, Fresh Approach to a Well-worn Genre


Hello all,

Big thanks are in order for all of my devoted faithful; my long-suffering, precious friends who have remained supportive of me throughout my oft-shifting ideas on what my novels will be. You are truly the best and I am more determined than ever to ensure that the novels I write will not disappoint you.

As most of you know, I am a lover of the fantasy novel and have been since I first read The Hobbit many years ago – a love that deepened to proportions beyond description when I followed that read with The Lord of the Rings.

Many authors have attempted to recapture Tolkien’s magic – and failed; but most have given up that iconic quest and settled for simply writing good fantasy novels. I believe that it is possible to match Tolkien on his own field and I would even argue that it has been done recently by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. My attempt at writing is a humble one by comparison, but I believe that the biggest obstacle to writing good fantasy lies in what the author believes fantasy to be.

J.R.R. Tolkien never set out to write a fantasy novel. He couldn’t have, because ‘fantasy’ as a literary genre didn’t yet exist when he wrote and published The Hobbit. The publisher categorized it as a children’s story, and it largely was. Then, when The Lord of the Rings was published… you know, I have no idea what category the publisher placed it in, but it must have been something like ‘general fiction’, because without a ‘fantasy’ genre, where else could it have been placed?

But my main point here is that when Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he wasn’t thinking ‘fantasy’. He was thinking something else. Just fiction, maybe. Perhaps mythology. Who knows… But we know it wasn’t fantasy and that made a difference in how he approached his writing, and I believe that any serious attempt at writing an excellent fantasy novel ought to start at that same place, by not thinking ‘fantasy’, but thinking… something else.

The Lord of the Rings, despite its setting, is ultimately an adventure novel. Epic in scope and rich in fictional mythology, it is a story of a mythic adventure. By contrast, A Song of Ice and Fire is not very mythic, although it is quite epic. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire is many adventure stories woven together into a complex tapestry of dizzying intrigue and compelling suspense. I have also read fantasy novels with dark themes, bordering upon horror. Many fantasy novels contain an element of mystery. Others are outright comedy.

What is it that all of these stories with their disparate elements (adventure, mythology, mystery, intrigue, suspense, horror, comedy) have in common? Well, it is the type of setting in which they are placed. To my observation (and I’ve remarked upon this before), ‘fantasy’ is less a genre unto itself than a type of setting, a backdrop where stories of any genre can be told: adventure, mystery, horror, even romance.

Science fiction also does this. By moving the setting to a fictional world, writers can explore themes independent from the preconceptions and expectations of our familiar world, thus highlighting the theme and thus any point the writer wishes to speak to. Fantasy is simply another type of setting that accomplishes the same thing. Tolkien focused upon his mythic world to show conflict between good and evil on a scale that our real world couldn’t realistically show. Similarly, Martin is using his fictional world to illustrate the nobility and ignobility of human nature in ways that our real world simply cannot.

Now, I understand that the publishing industry is not simply going to adapt itself to my ‘epiphany’ (if that’s what it is), just because I’ve blogged about it. But, as I said above, I believe that if I think of fantasy as ‘setting’, and not as ‘genre’, I’ll be able to focus on the actual genre of the story I’ll be writing, be it adventure, mystery, horror, romance, or suspense, and that will make for a better story.

Stay tuned, more to come.

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