Sunday, 17 November 2019

Why Fantasy Shouldn't Stand in Tolkien's Shadow

So t'other day I was having a discussion on those interwebs and heard someone expressing my bete noire of the moment, that being the idea other fantasy writers are ripping off Tolkien - or as he later put it, that the genre lies heavily in Tolkien's shadow. And I argued with that, as I reflexively do nowdays, but I never said why I thought the argument that it wasn't was important.

So here it is.

It is my belief that the Fantasy genre has an image problem. This comes in many forms, from the irritating barbs you get from casual passers by, to the amusing disavowals of writing fantasy from people writing fantasy for various reasons, to the financially detrimental lack of attention from the mainstream media, to the talent and readers missed by the perception of being for stale pale males.

I am generally unfussed as to where my preferred past times are popular, maybe erring to the side of preferring them not to be, but I would like Fantasy to get the acceptance it deserves and reach everyone who'd enjoy it; I'd like everyone to feel welcome. Also, as someone with aspirations of being an author and friends who are in those trenches right now, the financial viability of the genre is of some interest.

When thinking of the various times I've seen that image problem in action, Tolkien often seems to loom large. I have seen people dismiss fantasy as a genre for the very reason that writers are ripping off Tolkien; more often, its people claiming its just elves and dwarves and nothing real and nothing new, a viewpoint that only really holds up if one believes that fantasy is all just Tolkien. Some of the recent comments from Benioff and Weiss about thinking Game of Thrones was great because it was all about people and wanting people things echo some of the comments I've read from Pullman about Tolkien. And, of course, many people have taken Tolkien to task for his conservatism, or writing things that racists approve of. In short, a lot of fantasy's image problems stem from negative portrayals of Tolkien and seeing the genre as being in his image.

Of course, arguably this an argument for the genre being in Tolkien's shadow, but it's not an argument for wanting it to be there. Its an argument for, if we are given a choice to proclaim how the genre should be seen, for de-emphasising Tolkien. For saying that while his place as a titan of the genre is unassailable, even Everest is but one mountain in the range and that are a great many other takes on Fantasy on the other mountains and that perhaps people would like to examine them if they're not finding what they want near Tolkien. And we do have a choice. And given how influence is a not entirely objective thing, to a certain extent Tolkien's influence is simply a matter of whether we say its a thing or not.

What's more, we do have an incredible range as a genre and to do that down is to do all of us a discredit - which pumping up Tolkien's status does. Both in terms of style and ideas, there's a lot of extremely good authors and books out there, many of which owe little to Tolkien other than his demonstrating fantasy could be a huge commercial success. The fever-dream intersections between reality and myth, the horror tinged urban fantasies, the picaresque heroes and bloody-handed adventurers, the barely fantastical alt-histories, the endless riffing off of myths and fairytales and Shakespeare... the list is long. The list contains the likes of Gaiman, Attwood, Pratchett, Pullman, to name but a few. The list deserves celebration.

And that's difficult to do if we're constantly pointing to Papa Tolkien.

There is no denying that the man has been tremendously influential. He has been huge in putting the genre on the map commercially. Many great authors have been marked by their use of his templates; many by how they've deliberately ignored or challenged it. He has, as this very blog post proves, created the popular image of Fantasy in the public mind. His influence on the genre's history is huge - maybe even overshadowing. But Fantasy has kept expanding and Mount Tolkien remains still. It is only fair to reconsider where his shadow lies today in those circumstances. Questioning his influence - seeking to promote the parts of Fantasy that offer something very different to Tolkien - isn't about trying to downplay what he's done. It's about trying to promote the genre and all it contains to the fullest.

And I do not think that can be done if we continue to agree to stand in his shadow.

No comments:

Post a comment