What do You Mean by “Realism” in “Fantasy?”
As an early aside, I have parts two and three of my Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar awaiting editing. I’ll try to get them up next week.
But for now, I want to discuss a flurry of posts over the past week or so that has caught my attention. Brian Murphy over at Blackgate’s excellent website posted “Why Realism does not Equate to Adult (or even Good) Fantasy.” I read that post and didn’t get it, unsure of what Murphy was trying to say because I don’t think he really proved his case. Now I think Michal Woljcik of One Las Sketch and Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot make far better cases. Still, I am not convinced that there is a problem.
I agree with some of the comments that argue that the “new” “realist” strain of fantasy is a reaction against the dominant/ dominating presence of Tolkein’s clones. Fantasy didn’t have a New Wave like Science Fiction did in the sixties. The New Wave was a loose group of younger writers who brought new methods, styles, subjects, etc. to a genre that needed a breath of fresh air. Fantasy needs a breath of fresh air too, if you ask me.
In this maybe revolution where steampunk, new weird, sword and sorcery, mythpunk, etc. come to more prominence (or too much prominence), there will be fights fought. Battles waged in a Bloomian contest of young writers trying to overthrow their elders. Tolkein is the one of the Two Towers of Fantasy, Barad-ur in fact. As many of the new crop of writers come into their own, they will attack Tolkein because that is how it is done. While being influenced, one rebels for originality.
Yes a lot of the “new” fantasy is only new in that it is violent, sexy, dirty, gritty, and largely dystopic. And yes Howard and Smith did that over seventy years ago. And they did it damn well.
But who has actually read Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore besides the fans, the readers willing to take the time to scour old shelves in used bookstores for treasures? There is a Renaissance brewing, but that is a recent and still tentative thing.
Most people read Tolkein and Lewis and maybe some others (and Rowling too). And then they drop fantasy for other things- “real” literature (like anyone reads that), video games, etc. So when an example of the grittier fantasy is successful (particularly when it is being adapted- A Game of Thrones) then it is declared “one of a kind,” “original,” and all that drivel because the writers are not as informed as they should be. The whole body of Harry Potter criticism can tell you that.
But that said, I like the grittier fantasy, the violent fantasy, the dystopic fantasy. I like Howard, Smith, Mieville, Bakker, and Morgan. Yeah, of the three recent writers, only Mieville can claim to be original in his work. But so what?
So, in the end, I predict that by the time this gritty, bloody revolution is over, that we won’t be returning to the boring old Tolkein clone.