MIND MELD: What’s “Wrong” with Epic Fantasy?
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On episode 224 of the SF Signal Podcast, a discussion began about how epic fantasy can sometimes be too long, too detailed, too sprawling, often getting weighed down by its own epicness, and running the risk of losing the reader. With that podcast and the comments it generated in mind, I asked our panelists this question:
Q: Is something Wrong With Epic Fantasy? If yes, how might it be fixed?
Here’s what they said…
I do think there’s a perception that to be an epic fantasy, a book has to have multiple viewpoint characters. It’s a perfectly valid style, but like every other style, when it’s done wrong, it’s tedious. And I think the style of having multiple viewpoint characters is easy to do badly. If you have four or five or more viewpoint characters, and you’re switching viewpoints every chapter, and there’s no justification for this in your plot, I think you can run into problems where you have to justify keeping some of those characters around. You’re creating incidents just to have them in the book which have nothing to do with the main plotline and with telling the story. And then everything gets overbalanced and awkward and collapses under its own weight like a Frank Lloyd Wright house with a bad foundation. (That’s one.)
That’s not a problem with epic fantasy, it’s a writing problem. There are plenty of excellent epic fantasies that have one viewpoint character throughout the whole book or trilogy or series, or one main viewpoint character that gives way to others only when absolutely necessary to advance the plot. I think it comes down to finding the right viewpoint and plotline to tell the story you want to tell, without jamming in a lot of characters and storylines because you think you have to and making your book bloated and giving your reader indigestion. (That’s two.)
There’s also a perception that epic fantasy has to be set in a created world based in medieval Europe, and that has a lot of potential to be tedious, especially when the writer hasn’t done enough research to know what medieval Europe was actually like. And a perception that all epic fantasies must be mostly filled with white beardy guys with swords, and lots of other stereotypes. Those are also writing problems, and failures of research and failures of imagination. Stereotypes are particularly insidious, and must be rooted out of your writing like evil poisonous weeds. (That’s three.)
I think it gets back to what is a common problem, which is writers writing what they think they should be writing rather than what they really want to write. If you sit down to write an epic fantasy, and your head is filled with rules of what an epic fantasy must be, then the first thing you need to do is ignore those rules.
That is tricky question to answer, because the very nature of the work is what makes epic fantasy…well, epic. Maybe there really isn’t anything broken or wrong with epic fantasy as a subgenre, maybe the thing that gets broken, or perhaps a better word might be “tired,” of epic fantasy is the reader.
I used to love epic fantasy. From the time I was twelve until my early twenties, I read a steady diet of epic fantasy novels. Then one day, I picked up an epic fantasy and found it harder to read than the other novels I’d enjoyed. I realized that the story seemed kind of familiar. I found that the characters didn’t appeal to me; I didn’t like all of the traveling scenes, or the banter. I found myself bored by the very tropes that I used to love.
That wasn’t the author’s fault, nor did it indicate there was anything wrong with the genre. My perceptions had changed, perhaps so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. Then a friend showed me a science fiction novel. Ooooo! Shiny! And I went on a science fiction binge for about two years.
When I grew bored with science fiction, I read mysteries, nonfiction, literary fiction, horror, then I would swing back into reading fantasy. See a pattern here? It wasn’t the books. It was me.
I can only speak for myself, but reading only one genre or subgenre is sort of like eating nothing but broccoli all the time. Broccoli is good, it’s tasty, and it can be served up in a variety of ways; however, a steady diet of only one thing becomes boring to me after a while. I find this true with my reading tastes too.
So in answer to the questions here, I would say that there is nothing really wrong or broken with epic fantasy. Perhaps the reader needs to step away from it for a little while and try some other genres or subgenres that might entertain her or him. One of the beautiful things about speculative fiction is the sheer breadth of works in different forms. Try something different, then come back to epic fantasy and see if the problems still exist. I’ve found that having been away from that subgenre for a while, I can occasionally read an epic fantasy and enjoy it. You might too.
I think that the “problem” with Epic fantasy is that book one tends to be different than book two in a series and readers can often find this difficult to handle. Essentially, book one is the hook; it is the book designed to draw you in to the World and make you want to return. A good example would be Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man. Book one is full of pace, action and tends to stick pretty close to conventions (whilst cleverly explaining to you how the World works). Book two, The Desert Spear then builds upon book one in a backwards and lateral way. Some readers, especially those who wanted more of book one, freak out and think they’ve been cheated. As Patrick pointed out in your podcast though, for every one of those there are five readers who want to know more about the world, more about how the “enemy” came to be, what the different countries of the world are like, how the economy works and so on.
Epic fantasy by definition is always going to be Epic. It might start off on a small-scale, but that tends just to be the way that the author introduces you to the World and your guide. If you start a ten book series and don’t expect book two to branch out laterally from book one you are going to find yourself with the kinds of “problem” (a clash with your reading preference/tastes) that Sarah discussed.
I don’t think anything’s exactly wrong with Epic Fantasy per se. But there is something that can become a problem, and that’s overpopulation. I’m guilty of this myself–boy howdy, am I ever! Epic Fantasy can sometimes be truly epic just in the list of characters at the front (or the back) of the book. This is why wars and plagues and suchlike are so useful: they thin the herd quite nicely, and one can feel as if one is in control of the story again. One would be wrong, of course, but one continues to delude oneself in the hope that someday it might actually be true.
Now at any given time I will buy that any given person could read an epic fantasy book that does nothing for them. And if that person follows it up with another epic fantasy book that not only continues the bad streak, but continues it in the same way? Well, now we have a trend. And if after reading three straight, possible highly-hyped epic fantasy books that have the exact same issues that are keeping said reader from enjoying them? What then? The only possible explanation would be that the trend has become the norm, and epic fantasy is broken. Right?
Flashback in time with me a bit to a day when a coworker saw me bring a fantasy book into work. He laughs, recognizing an old favorite. “I used to read fantasy all the time” he tells me. “But I had to stop; it was just more of the same every time.” How can this be, I wonder? Granted I have read only a small sampling the genre has to offer but there is so much out there I have a hard time seeing myself ever getting bored. “Well,” he continues. “Martin seems to have stalled out, Jordan seems more interested in word count than plot (oh my, does this date the conversation?), and Brooks is writing the same book over and over.” What about so and so, I ask? Or whosit or what’s her name? “Never heard of them” was the reply and that was that.
Isn’t this both the crux of the question and the answer to it? What is wrong with epic fantasy and how can that be fixed? Nothing at all, we just need to read different epic fantasy titles. If author X is boring you don’t take more recommendations from the person who said author X was the best. Eight hundred page door stoppers dragging you down with excess details? I can find you a dozen fantasy reads half that length and quick to the point. Tired of being recommended books that fail the Bechdel test? Tired of kings and other assorted royalty? Look to a different corner of the internet, there is an author writing what you want.
But maybe there are a whole lot of people like my old coworker out there. They follow the dozen biggest names in the genre, maybe read a few of the most hyped debuts, and eventually burn off of the genre after reading derivative works, bloated tomes, and repetitive tropes. And because they don’t know better, and don’t know just how much more there is that the genre can offer, they decide epic fantasy has run its course and has its best days behind it.
Because while those in the know have figured out how to find fantasy that breaks from the norm and where to look for something a bit different, the majority of the internet gets stuck in a rut. Go to five different fantasy forums and ask for a list of recommendations. Make a list of a dozen or so from each site. Ten authors will show up on all five lists. And if those authors are not what you’re looking for? Well, then we are back to the thought of epic fantasy being broken. And this is a shame, because the way the publicity machine is working for the genre seems to be leaving some out of the loop.
So no, nothing is wrong with epic fantasy, it is thriving with diverse and wonderful reads. But if someone wants to ask if there is something wrong with the way it is publicized? Well, look at that, out of time.
I mean, we’re still pretty conservative, staunchly mired in tradition and reverence thereof and it influences pretty much everything we do or say about the genre.
Take any review for an up-and-coming author, for example. What tends to be discussed with equal measure for his prose, his plot, his skill are his influences and who he reminds the reviewer of. In a way, new authors are forced to share credit for their work with authors their books might be somewhat reminiscent of, which frequently turns the review into a discussion of how great that reminiscent author was.
I mean, how many times have you read a review where the reviewer bemoans the fact that this book wasn’t written by Brent Weeks because Weeks’ new book isn’t out yet?
If you say “never,” you’re probably lying. It isn’t always Weeks, but the same seven or eight names tend to crop up on the same discussions regardless of the topic. If a reader comes forward and asks for something grim, gritty and savage, he’s likely to be met with recommendations for Abercrombie, Brett and Sanderson. If a different reader comes up next week and asks for something tender and thoughtful, he’ll probably get recommendations for Abercrombie, Brett and Sanderson.
Now, I’m not decrying readers for having favorite authors, nor even for having authors they prefer. But readers of epic fantasy are not just readers, but also geeks, and that has implications of fandom. And fandom makes a preferred author into a totem, a panacea to every ill the reader feels.
Usually, this is because that author appeals to a tradition we enjoy: a robust bout of worldbuilding, a new magic system, a weird feasting scene. And most of these are traditions because they came from older authors like Tolkien, who is the largest totem of them all.
I mean, if you look at the reviews of someone dark like Abercrombie, a fair number of them seem positively incensed that Abercrombie deviates or offends sensibilities erected by Tolkien, taking offense on behalf of the poor fellow. Yet even the darkness that seems prevalent in a lot of today’s fantasy seems directly informed by the sanitized fantasies of the 1990’s and so forth.
But even as far as they deviate, epic fantasy tends to still echo the traditions of old. Most stories are in trilogies because they’ve always been in trilogies. Most stories feature lots of worldbuilding because they’ve always featured lots of worldbuilding. Most stories are an investment of time because they’ve always been that way.
Now, lest I sound terribly bitter, this isn’t necessarily bad.
Even while it sometimes happens, an investment of time does not necessarily preclude the investment of emotion. An author is never, ever limited by style or tradition if he or she doesn’t want to be. But above all else?
They’re popular for a reason.
What solution can there be to a book that’s successful and well liked? Do we demand they stop writing, step down and give other authors a chance? Do we demand they write in a way we consider more progressive even if they and their readers both enjoy their current style? Do we demand they clean or dirty up their writing as befits the greater conversation?
That would be kind of insane.
Further, these are traditions that are kind of bought in by everyone: author, publisher and reader alike. Do we have a right to push everything out of that comfort zone?
It’s true, epic fantasy has some problems that are pretty frustrating for a reader who has a diverse palette. It’s getting better, though. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t even have grimdark to choose from, let alone complain about it being everywhere. Ten years ago, we didn’t have half the diversity of stories we have today. Ten years from now, we’ll have even more.
The solution, if there is a problem, is the same as it is when it comes to anything about writing.
Write a good story. The rest will follow.
Yes, but not in the way most people might think. The trouble with epic fantasy is shared by most any ongoing series, regardless of genre. The exception might be thrillers, because they tend to stay tight and fast, but for the most part the longer an author writes inside a world, the longer the books tend to become. Look at the Game of Thrones books on your shelf, or the Harry Potter books. Each consecutive book seems to add another 75-100 pages until you’re left with a stack of paper the size of a small engine block.
I tend to think that the main reason this happens is because, (and I’m sure to upset some important industry people here which is probably a bad career move) the people involved in editing and polishing the stories have less incentive to spend the time trimming the fat. The point of publishing books is to sell them. Early on in an author’s career, there tends to be more emphasis on the drafting and editing part of the process. Debut novels usually weigh in at the 80k-120k word-count range to make them fast reads for reviewers, keep printing costs down, etc. This requires a lot of man-hours on the part of not only the author, but the agent, copy-editor, senior editor, etc.
But once that first books turns into a series with a built-in fan base, the risks to the publisher diminish. Sales, while certainly not guaranteed, are much more predictable than with a debut. A proven author and series doesn’t need as much hand-holding, so those finite man-hours that used to be spent editing down a book into a slim, trim fighting machine are directed elsewhere, to the next debut novel on the schedule that presents a bigger risk to the publisher. Which, after all, only makes good business sense. Why spend all that time and money to edit down a book that you ‘know’ is going to sell anyway?
Meanwhile, the author is more versed and comfortable in the world they’ve created and starts to settle in. And just like moving into a new neighborhood, they start noticing all the little details. So they write about them. After a while, freed from the editor’s ax hanging over them threatening to kill their darlings, the authors tend to go further than they were ever able to before. These parallel trends, both of which make sense from an individual standpoint, feed off each other and lead to the ever-expanding ‘epic’, and it’s not just fantasy books this happens to. I, for example, am a huge fan of David Weber’s Honorverse series of military sci-fi books. They are wonderful, but grow with each volume, mostly with an awful lot of exposition on political and technological developments. Still, I’m just as much a part of the problem, if it can be called such, because every time Mr. Weber puts out a book, I’m first in line to hand his publisher $30. I would read a 900 page technical manual on the newest class of Havenite SD(P) if he wrote it.
The other problem I see, and again it’s a cross-genre and even cross-media issue, is the constant narrative impulse to raise the stakes. Many examples exist, but with each consecutive novel, episode, movie, etc, the dangers and risks faced by the characters have to ramp up, almost like they’re leveling up like D&D characters. It’s not long before ever single plot line is about saving the entire planet or all of humanity from some existential threat. While it makes sense from a storytelling perspective, the world doesn’t work that way. Very few authors manage to write consecutive stories without falling into this trap. Indeed the only one I can think of off the top of my head is probably Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and that is because he’s been very good about jumping around from one set of characters to another in a very non-linear, unconnected way. I think that’s one of the things that makes Discworld feel so real, it just goes on swimming through the universe, meandering from one story to the next, without any endpoint or grand climax in mind that everyone is racing towards. It just is. I find that oddly comforting.
But I think this is a case of, “Can the readers find the sort of books they are actually eager to read?” And yes, that can be a problem. I’m going to commit heresy here. I think that old time publishers are actually better at targeting the audience and showing readers the books they want than our current climate of ‘Everyone quick, promote a book you like’ is. Authors see their own books differently from how their publishers see them, and some of the author promotions I’ve seen led me to expect one sort of book and then delivered another. And this happens to me even more often when I watch a book trailer, and then read the book. I think that some (not all) of the people who are hired to create the book trailers don’t really know much about marketing books as books. They make terrific trailers, and I get so excited to read the book, I buy it, and then think, ‘Well, this is a pretty good book, but it’s not at all what I thought it was going to be.’ Then I think that the book trailer I watched is probably a trailer for the movie that the book trailer maker would make if he/she had the money to do that.
So, using all the political expertise that I’ve learned over the years, I’m going to say, YES, something is wrong with Epic Fantasy, and it’s all the readers’ fault! They are not finding the right books and then they complain. (This is a joke. Please don’t send me 500 hate mails today. The Office Kat becomes very agitated when her inbox is flooded with hate mails.)
To find a book that you really want to read, I recommend going to a bookstore (a big building sometimes made out of brick and mortar where they sell books made out of paper), and talk to the book seller (a person who knows all about what she or he is selling). Tell them ten books you loved, and ask what they recommend. Duane Wilkins at University Book Store in Seattle is exceptionally good at this, for example. Duane can pick out books for any person in my family and each person always gets a book they love. If you do not have a bookseller who can do this, then I am very sorry for you. Try your librarian.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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