In her blog Pub Rants Agent Kristen Nelson talks about chick lit, and the lack of editors buying it. I know from my own agent searches that more agents represent chick lit than fantasy, so I was suprised. I also read a few more of the comments under the first post about fantasy openings. The second from the bottom is offensive, not because it's totally false, but because there is a little truth at the root of it.
I love fantasy fiction and have since I was very young. I started with Grimms and Anderson's Fairy tales, went on to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and had finished the Simarillian three times before high school. Fantasy was how I made it through life, and the margins of my notes are illustrated with whatever characters happened to be on my mind at the time. This has been a long-term love affair with the genre.
Lately, very few fantasy books have appealed to me. Actually, to only fantasy books I've read recently that I truly enjoyed were several of Terry Pratchett's newer books and Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy triplets The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt (which I am currently reading). Many fantasy books I pick up feel . . . juvenile. Cliche. I am hit with a sense of nothing-new-under-the-sun and nobody-even-doing-an-interesting-retelling. I have a few theories on why this happens and why some people don't notice.
Because fantasy authors can make up their own worlds, we get sloppy. Sometimes, we get lazy. And we get so caught up in this world we're creating that we overlook the parts that don't make a lick of sense. The worst fantasy is fantasy derived solely from other fantasy. Yes, an author needs to be well grounded in his or her genre, but a historical writer also does research. A contemporary author grounds him/herself in reality. Fantasy authors need to take time and step out of their genre and read non-fiction, read lit. fic., read the newspaper, and draw ideas from there. And they should study history, mythology, folklore, legends, cultures and archeology. These are a fantasy writers primary source. Reading only fantasy and then writing fantasy is like the historian who only uses secondary sources to research.
Fantasy is still a genre that conjures up images of pimply teenage boysjoking about orcs--at least for some people. Fantasy protagonists are often tailored to appeal to the disillusionment and lonliness of teens. This works for that readership, but I'm nearly thirty. I have step-daughter in 7th grade, a mortgage, and a fulltime job. Whining about not being understood or being so bored with your hometown is not going to entice me. (I teach 7th grade; I have little patience with whining of any sort anymore). I recently tried to read an award winning fantasy novel published a few years ago. I picked it up because one of the agents I queried represented this author (and stil does) and I wanted to read some of their list. I'm glad I only picked it up at the library.
If I had read this book in HS,I would have enjoyed it, I think. If I read it in college, especially after finals week, I probably would have enjoyed it. I didn't enjoy it. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't the writing. The writing was good, the style a bit more flowery than mine, but not terribly so. It was the protagonist. He was pathetic. I could not drench up one ounce of feeling for him. Not empathy, not disgust, not anger. Nothing. I didn't care what happened to him. I didn't read past chapter 3.
I would not have read Eragon, which is so popular with my students, if my YA book club here at the school hadn't picked it. They paid for it, the least I could do was read it. By page 40, I was ready to put it down. By page 80, I did, and left it down for several months. It does get a little better by page 200, but there is nothing new in it. Does it appeal to 13-yr-olds who haven't spent years reading fantasy? Yes. Do I mind? No. Those kids will hopefully grow up and still love and read and buy fantasy novels.
So, what is Bujold doing right? Her characters are mature. They have mature problems, like family issues, not-so-happy pasts, etc. They often have jobs. They have people they are accountable to and they don't run off and leave them. They blunder, but it's logical blundering, not stupid, headstrong blundering. They see the world as more than just a place to get happy or get rich--and I like the underlying spiritual themes she uses. If I could write like Bujold . . . *sigh* And if wishes were horses . . .
I have to guard myself against cliches as it is. It is helpful to recall what else I read in my formative years. It wasn't all fantasy. Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were and are favorites(and probably help account for my enormous word count). I read a great deal of Greek tragedy, and world folklore. Fantasy can be incredible. It can include social commentary or explore the relationship between people and the supernatural. It provides an escape, just like most literature. Right now, it needs more great writing and less mediocrity. I hope I can add something to the genre.