Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy

#10 in a series, following ‘A song of gore and slaughter’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in June, 2006.

By its nature, fantasy is supposed to be the literature of the unbridled imagination; all too often, the imagination is not only bridled, but blinkered and hobbled and confined to its stall in the barn. It is fairly usual for critics to call this process ‘commercialization’; which is very odd, because the most commercially successful fantasies of all time have not been tamed or broken in this way. Rather, the breaking of fantasy is a consequence of its commercialization. Winged Pegasus will bear you with joy to the remotest reaches of Elfland, but he does not always come when you whistle for him. Poor old Dobbin, bridled, blinkered, hobbled, stabled, and without so much as a wish for wings of his own, can only take you for a weary plod round the paddock, but he is always at home and always pathetically grateful to be taken out for a ride. Pegasus is a rare beast, born of inspiration; Dobbins can be mass-produced.

Publishers will gladly commercialize a Tolkien, a Howard, or a Rowling if they can get one; if not, they will settle for anything that looks like fantasy, that exploits some of the same tropes and offers to scratch the same itch. The shop must remain open for business, come what may; and if the shelves are stocked with shoddy goods, that is better than no goods at all. Frederik Pohl has expressed the editorial dilemma perfectly: some stories you print with joy and thanksgiving; others, because the alternative is to put out a magazine (or a line of books) with a lot of blank pages. Unfortunately, the tendency of publishers, especially large conglomerates, is to see just how far they can adulterate their product line before it stops selling — how many times they can promise a flight on Pegasus and deliver a ride on Dobbin, before the audience gives up in disgust and stops buying tickets. And of course there is never any shortage of hack writers who will supply the Dobbin rides. Some of them know they fall short of their ideal, and some are blissfully ignorant; some would sell their own mothers to see their names in print, and some just want to make a living, and use hard work and elbow grease to eke out inadequate talent. They can surely be pardoned for their faults; but to pardon is not to approve.

The late Diana Wynne Jones, in her delightful Tough Guide to Fantasyland, wrote a brave and brilliant exposé of the various kinds of ersatz and shoddy with which the shelves in the fantasy section of the bookshop are kept artificially full. But her attack, for all its virtues, is aimed at superficial things; she never really addresses the question of why this tired stuff is written and sold. Of course the bookshops are cluttered with interchangeable products set in indistinguishable Fantasylands. But even when fantasy writers make an apparently honest effort to come up with original settings for their tales, the results often betray a disturbing imaginative penury. Ursula K. Le Guin had the right of the matter when she said, in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’:

The general assumption is that, if there are dragons or hippogriffs in a book, or if it takes place in a vaguely Keltic or Near Eastern medieval setting, or if magic is done in it, then it’s a fantasy. This is a mistake.

. . . [A] writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything.

But having the right is not the same as being right. Her definition of fantasy would exclude nine-tenths of the books with FANTASY in small lettering on the spines. Such a categorization is every bit as unhelpful as the attempts by John Grant and others to define fantasy in a way that excludes The Lord of the Rings. It is an exercise in locking the barn door when not only the horse but the very walls have gone.

We cannot now hope to exclude the cookie-cutter Fantasyland books from the category called ‘fantasy’. But I will make so bold as to call them failed fantasy, in rather the same sense that the Argonautica could be called a failed epic, or The Phantom Menace a failed Star Wars prequel. The word novel has been defined as ‘a book-length work of fiction that has something wrong with it’, and in every art form failures far outnumber successes. There is no shame and little harm in having written a failed fantasy; but that does not place the failed work beyond the reach of criticism. Le Guin in ‘Poughkeepsie’ again:

When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too. In art, “good enough” is not good enough.

Of course, some violinists and some writers fall short more than others. Some of those whose books are labelled ‘fantasy’ seem genuinely to believe that Fantasyland is ‘good enough’, and make no attempt to move beyond its trite conventions and faded scenery. Others don’t even bother with that. They not only strip down their settings to the bare minimum, so that their characters seem to live in a vacuum, but praise themselves for doing so and heap scorn on the idiots who actually put effort into their settings. This is from a talk Terry Goodkind gave in 2000:

The books I write are first of all novels, not fantasy, and that is deliberate; I’m really writing books about human beings. I believe that it’s invalid and unethical to write fantasy for fantasy’s sake, because fantasy for fantasy’s sake is non-objective. If you have no human themes or values, then you have no life as a base value. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake is therefore pointless.

At the other end of the spectrum from my writing are a kind of book that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “world-building”—and I don’t mean to disparage pure world building books for what they are: entertainment. I don’t consider them valid novels.

. . . . . . . . . . .

World-building to me is no better than holding up the drug dealer as an ideal because it is holding up as a normative value a world in which humans do not exercise volition, but instead is a history lesson of when this person was born 300 years ago and had 12 daughters with unpronounceable names who had offspring who went on to have this and that convoluted history, which may be entertaining, but is not a novel.

The contempt could scarcely be more obvious. And yet, at that time, Goodkind by his own admission had never read The Lord of the Rings. He considered it a ‘world-building book’ rather than a ‘novel’. (The ‘history lesson’ sneer is a clear hit at all the detailed back-stories inspired by the Appendices of LOTR; a fortiori at the original, whether he was aware of it or not.)

But if The Lord of the Rings is about anything, it is about humans exercising volition. It is about power and renunciation, death and the desire for immortality, and coping with irreversible change. Those are ‘human themes or values’, or the word human has lost all meaning. According to Goodkind this cannot be so, because his particular brand of reductionism will not allow a book to accomplish more than one thing. He does pay lip-service to the idea of a range or continuum between ‘pure novels’ and ‘pure world-building’, but in fact he never speaks about anything but these two extremes, always heaping scorn upon the latter. If a book contains world-building, then it must leave something else out. That is like saying that a house with more than two bedrooms cannot have a kitchen. Houses are not all of a size, and neither are books. Tolkien’s epic is roomy enough for both. Goodkind’s books are also roomy, or at least they take up a great deal of space, but he fails to fit in more than the sketchiest strokes of setting.

The effect of this is very curious. I once saw a student production of Richard III, done without props, backdrops, or even costumes: not so much as swords for the fight scenes. (The cast wore monochrome tights of various hues, and consequently looked like a ballet class.) Nothing remained but the actors themselves, standing in various poses on a plain black stage and reciting speeches from Shakespeare. This made for a cheap production, a considerable virtue in the circumstances; and after all it was never billed as a professional performance.

Goodkind’s books, however, are billed as professional work, indeed very highly touted by his publisher; and a book laden with scenery and descriptions of action is just as cheap to produce as one with nothing but dialogue. But Wizard’s First Rule gave me just the same sense of talking heads in a void. Sometimes, as in the torture scenes, the action was described vividly enough to give me a clear picture of the character’s entire body, and sometimes Goodkind’s auctorial lantern shed enough light to illuminate a whole room; but not often.

The book contains a map, but it is hardly necessary, as there are really only three places of any consequence: the Westlands, the Midlands, and D’Hara. These countries are separated by nearly impenetrable magical barriers, and have evolved widely divergent cultures from a common origin in the time since the barriers went up. From this one would suppose that the barriers are aeons or at least centuries old. Not so: there are people not yet past middle age who remember when they were built. The world’s history before that is an absolute blank. Nobody seems to have any memory or record of anything going back as much as a hundred years.

Similarly, we never are told much about how Darken Rahl came to power in D’Hara. In a way, this is a refreshing change from the Dark Lord who was Imprisoned in the Mountain by G’grizzwoz the Moonbat in the Eleventh Age of Bapfnir, and emerged after five Cycles of the Moon of Gormwit, etc., etc. Bogus detail is worse than none at all. But it does not inspire confidence when none of the older characters seem able to remember events from their own youth. We are all a product of our culture as much as of our genes, and it is a truism that characters in fiction are best realized when you can see how they interact with their habitat and history. But Goodkind’s characters have a blank page for a habitat, and very nearly no history at all.

One step above no world-building, of course, is the terminally lazy kind. The Belgariad and its interminable rehashes make a fine example. Over here we have Merrie England Sendaria, and there are our stock Romans Tolnedrans, and up yonder are the Vikings Alorns, all portrayed with the careful realism of, say, a Benny Hill skit. The Tough Guide says nearly all that there is to say about these stock cultures, the Vestigial Empire and the Anglo-Saxon Cossacks and so forth; but Eddings goes the template one better, because every one of his characters conforms perfectly to the appropriate ethnic stereotype. Every Arend is fearsomely brave and blitheringly stupid, every Tolnedran is a money-hungry schemer, every Grolim is . . . well, a psychopathic serial killer. Subtle, that. Couple that with plots generated by tracing a path through every country on the map, and you have a recipe for highly commercial fantasy product which requires virtually no imagination at all.

Some authors are very industrious indeed in designing their settings, but their efforts are wasted because they pile detail on detail without ever thinking much about the fundamental assumptions underlying the whole work. One finds quite a lot of this in gaming tie-ins. Ed Greenwood’s ‘Forgotten Realms’, even ignoring the material contributed by other hands, is an enormous feat of world-building, far larger in scope and detail than Tolkien’s, and ought to be a masterpiece of its kind. But it falls short, because it is not based on any coherent vision of what a world could be like, but on the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.

The cultures of the Realms are a mishmash of colourful mediaeval, pseudo-mediaeval, ancient and Renaissance detail, systematically altered in the interest of modern political correctness. There are, for instance, no defined gender roles, virtually everyone is literate, and slavery is practised only by races and nations that are Evil with a capital E. This is revisionism with a vengeance, and the effect is made still odder by the casual racism that squats in the midst of it like — no, an elephant in the living-room is too commonplace — like a basilisk in a shopping mall. Greenwood gives us the titles and trappings of feudalism without the attitude of feudal loyalty, the intrigues of a Renaissance city-state without the economic constraints that made city-states viable, the impedimenta of ancient empires without the indifferent cruelty of ancient imperialism. It does not hang together. It is hardly intended to.

Now, as a setting for a game, this does not much matter. D&D was originally as artificial as chess: ill-assorted groups of ‘adventurers’, patterned vaguely after the Fellowship of the Ring, wandering through improbably spacious underground complexes excavated for no clear reason, practising aggravated assault and grand larceny on an omnium gatherum of exotic monsters. Any attempt at ‘realism’ is an advance on this in a way, and in another way it only shows up the silliness of the original conceit. The Palace of Versailles was built round a royal hunting-lodge, and takes much of its asymmetry and structural inconsequence from that. Well, D&D is like a palace built round one of those astoundingly tacky hot-dog stands in the shape of a giant hot dog. It is a brilliant testimony to the skill of the architects, but less creditable to their judgement.

Unfortunately, the bookshops over the years have been crowded with Forgotten Realms tie-ins, Dragonlance books, and other subliterary properties taking after these; and still more with fantasies not overtly related to D&D worlds, but in which one is never out of earshot of the rattle of polyhedral dice. A good many of the more ridiculous entries in the Tough Guide can only be explained genetically. The treatment of horses in failed fantasy, considered in its own right, makes no sense whatever. But when you reflect on the battalions of fantasy writers whose knowledge of equitation is chiefly derived from the overland movement tables in gaming rulebooks, you can see how something of that sort was bound to come about. To this day there are still younger writers who slavishly imitate the absurd conventions derived from role-playing games, just as there are writers who imitate the obvious and showy bits of Tolkien without ever having read his works.

Lowest of all are the chimaerical creations of the reckless genre-benders: the punk street elves, the samurai vampires, the Orcs in mirrorshades, who had their brief vogue in the 1990s, and mercifully failed to take over the whole ecology of Faërie. Suffice it to say that you cannot come up with a Good Idea for a fantasy story just by bunging together two tropes pulled out of a hat. Brian Aldiss says that his best ideas come from the intersection of two ideas, but not any two ideas: his ideas come in pairs of a particular kind, one ‘exotic‘, one ‘familiar’ (in his usage of the words). Stephen R. Donaldson reports the same phenomenon; so can I, for what that may be worth. But if you cross and re-cross exotic specimens without ever going back to the familiar for fresh genetic material, the resulting hybrid will almost always be sterile. It may not even survive being decanted from the test tube. Fantasy works by juxtaposing the strange and the familiar, so causing us to look at the familiar with fresh eyes. A landscape composed entirely of the bizarre is not fantasy but dada.

I should, however, mention some of the many honourable exceptions. Guy Gavriel Kay does brilliant work with well-researched and well-drawn analogues of historical settings. Susanna Clarke has mined a vein all of her own, rich but narrow: part English folklore, part Regency novel. China Miéville and his fellow-travellers have built bizarre Victorian Gothic structures that owe little to the gingerbread castles of commercial fantasy, though I don’t care for the relentless nihilism that informs their work. And there have always been those like Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Lloyd Alexander, and Evangeline Walton, who went back to the myths and legends of many cultures and produced their own strikingly original variations on those themes.

Tolkien used to talk of putting real people and historical events into the Pot of Story until they became part of the Soup. Easily nine tenths of the fantasy books on the shelves are of no interest to me, because a slight glance through them reveals that nothing has been added to the Pot except the leftovers of yesterday’s meal. The Soup has become a factory product: Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy. All we need now is Andy Warhol to do the cover art.


  1. I strongly recommend Dianna Wynne Jones’ Reflections, a collection of her writing about writing. It includes young people as better readers than adults, the evolution of YA fiction, and a theory that fiction needs to be about people’s minds working as they ought: thinking very hard to solve a problem.

    I found the Tough Guide tiresome, but in Reflections, she talks about what she does want in fantasy as well as what she doesn’t. For those who did love the Tough Guide, there’s Dark Lord of Derkholm which takes up those issues in the form of a novel. Not my favorite, but no Dianna Wynne Jones novel is entirely bad.

    This Goodkind quote: “World-building to me is no better than holding up the drug dealer as an ideal because it is holding up as a normative value” is amazing– it’s a modernized version of the Lewis (Tolkien?) quote about jailers being the most opposed to escapism.

    In re “talking heads in a void”: I’ve noticed that authors have to give me something to grab on to. Usually it’s visual information, but I like Heinlein and Bujold, neither of whom are especially visual writers.

    A couple more for your list of good strange fantasy: Moonwise by Greer Gilman and Lifelode by Jo Walton.

    Possibly a sidetrack, but what do you make of the current trend towards having large numbers of monsters which leads to stories about vampire and werewolf and fey politics?

  2. houseboatonstyx says

    Some cafes (seldom restaurants) post a sign: “Breakfast served all day.”

    What I’d call the ‘relational’ or ‘system’ meaning of the word ‘breakfast’ is, “one’s first meal (usually in the morning) after their longest sleep of the day”. That is, how this meal relates to other meals and to one’s daily schedule. “On that shift, I woke at midnight and breakfasted on leftover champagne and wedding cake.”

    What I’d call the ‘referent’ meaning is, “bacon and eggs and similar dishes” — which is what the cafe is offering.

    It’s tempting to call these the ‘relative’ vs the ‘absolute’ meanings.

    The relational meaning of ‘fantasy’ might be something like, “story disconnected from reality in a surprising way”, including ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Kafka’s stories, THE GREAT DIVORCE, PHANTASES, SILVERLOCK– and marvel tales including Medieval ‘romances’, stories about knights and dragons and damsels, etc, and spinning wheels. (As Lewis said, the cottages and spinners and woodcutters of Grimm are as remote to us as the dragons. As is Dorothy’s Kansas, and, becoming remote, the Blitz.)

    Perhaps for some readers, ‘fantasy’ refers to the bacon and eggs often found there: the castles and knights and dragons and such, with the surprise and newness left out. IE, Jones’s Fantasyland. Which can be a nourishing dish by itself, if well done.

  3. The offspring of the Missing Link and a mule, if happily married to the promising child of a Manx cat and a penguin, would not outrun centaur and griffin; it would be something lacking in all the interesting features of man and beast and bird. —
    G. K. Chesterton

    • But now I want to read a story about the winged horse Dobbin whose home is at some suitable place for a slow and gentle winged steed. . . .

  4. But if you cross and re-cross exotic specimens without ever going back to the familiar for fresh genetic material, the resulting hybrid will almost always be sterile. It may not even survive being decanted from the test tube. Fantasy works by juxtaposing the strange and the familiar, so causing us to look at the familiar with fresh eyes. A landscape composed entirely of the bizarre is not fantasy but dada.

    Hmmm. I think I’d like you to unpack this more, because the default connotation of “exotic” in fantasy tends to be “from some place other than Western Europe” — which then contrasts with your comment about turning to the familiar for fresh genetic material, since what we usually run into is people strip-mining other parts of the world for something fresh. And there’s all kinds of problems with that, as with the “exotic” formulation of The Rest of the World. But without knowing better what you mean here by your terms, I’m not sure I can usefully respond.

    • By ‘exotic’ in this context, I simply mean the opposite of ‘familiar’: that is, not drawn from life, from firsthand experience or a reasonable facsimile. Anything that has come to us through the medium of fantastic fiction is already exotic by this definition; to cross and recross different fantasy elements is what produces dada.

      I mentioned that Donaldson is one of those writers for whom a good idea requires the intersection of the ‘familiar’ and the ‘exotic’. In the case of the Thomas Covenant books, the ‘exotic’ was the idea of the Secondary World, of a magical realm; because no matter how much our vicarious experience tricks us into thinking we are old and blasé travellers in such places, none of us have ever actually seen one. The ‘familiar’ was the man who has been uprooted from society and his life destroyed by leprosy — a fact (as Chesterton said about something else) as practical as potatoes to Donaldson, who grew up in India, the son of a missionary surgeon who worked with lepers as a matter of daily routine.

      ‘Familiar’ and ‘exotic’ are thus terms relative to the actual lived experience of the writer, and not to the frequency or infrequency of a particular element in the presumed cultural background of the reader.

      • True, although ironically to many 21st-century Westerners, Donaldson two perspectives could well be reversed. “Oh, I’m seeing elves and dragons? – Must be some new super-3D CGI virtual reality for another blockbuster movie or theme park”. But “A leper? You’re joking. What is this, the eleventh century?!”

        • (… Or perhaps “Okayyyyyyyy… remind me ever to take any tablet that Corey swears is ‘the good s####’.”)

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