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Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?


So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

A Brief Post on Dystopia


I’m really sorry for the brevity of this post, but I’m traveling in Europe on business this week and my insane and constantly-changing travel schedule has forced me to do a much shorter post today than I normally do. I’ll try and make it up to everyone with another more in-depth post later this week. In the meantime, here’s some brief thoughts on dystopias:

The folks at Tor.com are celebrating a week of dystopia (I detect some irony in this, considering it’s the week when taxes are due in the US). As a result, they’ve got a lot of great bloggers and authors writing about dystopia as sub-genre of SF, or about particular examples of dystopian media. It’s early days yet, but already there have been two really interesting posts that I’d like to call attention to:

The first is an essay by Jo Walton where she asks Where does dystopia fit as a genre? She contends that the “classic” dystopian novels like Brave New World, We, 1984, etc. are not really science fiction. She readily admits that they have science fictional elements, but in both the essay and comment thread she makes the case that Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were not writing science fiction because they weren’t readers of science fiction, the majority of their other (non-dystopian) writing was outside the realm of science fiction, they weren’t writing in their contemporary science fiction tradition, and they were relying on techniques more commonly found in mainstream literary writing than in genre.

She has a valid point that these progenitors of dystopian tradition are clearly different from their contemporary SF peers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, science fiction (or “scientifiction” as some contemporaries preferred) was primarily confined to the pulp magazines, which were filled with stories by authors like E.E. “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, John Wyndham, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. Primarily under the influence of legendary editors Hugo Gernsback and later John W. Campbell the pulps had a significant focus on technology and predictive extrapolation, and with a predominantly young, male audience they tended towards more commercial adventure than satire.

The dystopias, however, are all first and foremost books of thought. Whatever “adventure” they contain takes a back seat to their themes. In that sense, it is perfectly fair to say that the early dystopians diverged from contemporary SF tradition. But does the fact that they diverge mean that they’re not SF? Or that they should be lumped with their “mainstream” contemporaries like Sinclair Lewis? I don’t think so. I think the early dystopias enriched science fiction by showing that technological extrapolation and world-building can be applied to philosophical and sociological themes. Fun as the pulps might be, most 1920’s and 1930’s SF wasn’t particularly meaningful.

I don’t believe one needs to read science fiction in order to write it. Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin all wrote amazing works of science fiction, set on certain technological precepts and then extrapolated them to their logical conclusions. That act is what makes their work science fiction. So what if there isn’t a single raygun or spaceship in any of the books? That fact shouldn’t matter. So what if they never wrote another piece of science fiction? That in no way diminishes the science fictional work that they did.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant out of me for now. I promised this would be a short post, and so I’m not going to go on at length on this. I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts though: are those dystopias science fiction? What about contemporary dystopias like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl? Walton seems to suggest that dystopia is more of a mainstream tradition than a genre one, but is that the case?

The second essay that I’d like to draw your attention to is one that’s a lot more fun: are you aware that the Jetsons is a dystopian cartoon? I certainly wasn’t, until I read this fun essay from Clay and Susan Griffith. What I found really interesting is how they argue that the 1980’s saw a significant shift in the United States’ perception of the future: from the up-beat mechanistic futurism of the 1960’s, to the down-trodden perils of technology in the ’80s.

This struck a particular chord with me because the day I read this essay, I had just finished reading Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, a Nebula-nominated dystopian novel first published in 1980. The book is amazing, simply amazing: I might put up a more complete review of it later this week if I can find some free time. But it perfectly captures that transitional moment from Jetsonian push-buttan robotics to the bleak, soulless dehumanization that came to dominate in the ’80s (especially in movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, 2001, etc.).

Since I’ve got to dash to another meeting, let me leave you with a question: what do you think about the 1980’s changing perception of the future? Was the perception changing? Has it changed since?

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