A short rant on the mantasy genre

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[Note: I wrote this while tired and not feeling very well, and it came out significantly more vitriolic than I perhaps intended.

Still going to post it though.]

So a few people asked me to to do a Let’s Read of Brent Week’s Night Angel trilogy in the comments thread of the poll, and shortly after I noticed that my brother had a copy of the first book in his room. Intrigued, I decided to read it for a regular review so as to placate the demands of my legion of loyal fans.

I got about ten pages in. Maybe twelve. It was less than twenty, anyway. Specifically I made it to the part where the book goes on a tangent about the different architectural styles belonging to the random word generator fantasy civilisations in Week’s fictional universe, then I threw back my head and made a noise like “UUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH” and literally tossed the book to the ground.

I’m going to make a pronouncement here, an iron-clad proclamation to stand for all time: if you are writing a fantasy novel set in Ye Olde Europelandia about dudes with swords then you are, by definition, writing something that’s dull and banal and tired.

I dub this part of the genre “mantasy” and it is near-universally shit.

Mantasy authors keep thinking they can just reshuffle the same collection of worn-out tropes and concepts and eventually they’ll hit on some combination that doesn’t make anyone with a glancing familiarity with the fantasy genre feel as though they’re trapped in some sort of literary Groundhog Day loop, but they can’t. The constituent parts are dull and banal and tired, anything you make with them is also going to be dull and banal and tired.

Most great narrative works of art, in whatever medium, are kind of like M&Ms. You have the chocolate, which is the core of the story- the heart at the center of it all, the real human emotion that drove the story’s creator to make it in the first place. Then you’ve got all the other stuff- the world-building, the sci-fi ideas, the setting, the time period, sometimes even the specific characters. This stuff can directly intermingle with the core or it can stand completely seperate, but in almost all cases it could theoretically be removed while still retaining the heart of the story. The central emotion, when you really dig down and find what the author is ultimately trying to say underneath the artifice of the plot, usually remains the same regardless of whether the story’s setting is contemporary New York or some fantasy kingdom. This is because good authors writing stories with actual merit tend to have something they want to say or some idea or emotion they want to convey.

The vast, vast majority of mantasy isn’t like that. There’s no core. It’s all shell. The author builds up all of this setting and world-building and characterisation, but they’re building around thin air. They sit down to write A Fantasy Novel and proceed based on a) what seems cool and b) desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel for some twist on the genre conventions that hasn’t been done before.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the books I’ve been writing about on this blog. You can practically see Brandon Sanderson patting himself on the back for putting those giant crabs in The Way of Kings (ain’t no giant crabs in Tolkien!) and the funky retracting grass, because his primary concern is making sure his empty candy-shell is a slightly different shade of beige than all the other empty candy-shells. Why do you think Kvothe keeps going on about “the heart of his story” and then waffling on with pointless minutiae for hundreds and hundreds of pages? Because there is no heart of the story. It’s all pretence. It’s the vague outline of a real story that collapses with a puff of stale air the moment you look at it too hard.

And so much of it is like this. So much of it. It’s a horde of vapid hacks farting into the same echo chamber and admiring the acoustics.

Before anyone comes at me with “but not all fantasy is like that!” yeah, I know. And look, I’m not claiming that a totally bog-standard derivative sword-dude fantasy romp couldn’t be entertaining but it’s also going to be dull and banal and tired and so if you want me to read your fantasy sword-dudes novel for any purpose other than making fun of it you’re going to have to write the fuck out of that thing and give me a really compelling reason to keep going, because as far as I’m concerned the very style you’ve decided to write in is starting you off heavily in the red with the bank of Me Giving A Shit.

I would rather read ten novels written for children than a single ponderous mantasy brick, because chances are I’ll find far more entertainment and worthwhile, genuine emotion in the former than the latter, and that’s based on literal experience. I’m not joking.

And don’t think my vitriol is reserved solely for the authors. Oh no. Hardly any of these people should be published, let alone successful, but they are and it’s the fault of their fans that they are, and for that I cast judgement upon them. Yes I’m looking at you, with your beard and your love of Rich Worldbuilding and Detailed Magic Systems. The books you like are shit and are making the world a worse place by their existence, and you should feel bad.

These are the cretins responsible for building the echo chamber in the first place, the inferior readers who are happy to shovel the same formulaic tripe down their throats over and over again as long as it ticks off a certain amount of genre boxes. They prop up the sword-dude authors both financially and in terms of ego, actively taking away any incentive for them to improve move out of their creative rut. They’re like the slavering fanbase of a terrible webcomic, instilling in the author a false sense of their own talent and propping up a piece of garbage that should have languished alone and forgotten on a geocities blog into a profitable full-time occupation.

At this point you might wonder why I even bother with this segment of the fantasy market. Partially it’s because this is overwhelmingly the face of fantasy, the kind of book that lines the shelves in fantasy sections in bookstores all over the world, the kind of book that gets film adaptations and TV series. There are many authors writing excellent, original, wonderfully creative fantasy stories, but by and large they get crowded out by the gritty sword dudes. It’s also worth pointing out that many of these good fantasy authors are women, or LGBT, or people of colour or writing in languages other than English whereas the plague center of mainstream fantasy is dominated by anglophone straight white men.

I realize there’s an inherent hypocrisy here in that I myself overwhelmingly write about the mantasy authors on this blog, even if it is to mock them. That’s something I’m going to try and change going forward, and if I can extract anything positive out of all of this bile it’s the realisation that there is no point in me trying to read sword-dude fantasy unless it’s for a Let’s Read. I’ve always had this idea that I should like mainstream fantasy, that I’m the sort of person that genre appeals to and the problem must just be the specific books I’m choosing to read. Now I realize that isn’t true. It’s not me, fantasy, it’s you. And in any case I’ve seen the sort of person you appeal to and I don’t want to be one of them.

If something new comes along that really gets all the neckbeards clamouring I’ll give it a fair and honest chance, but apart from that I’m done trying to engage with mantasy. This is clearly not a section of the market that’s going to meet me halfway, and I’m yet to be convinced there’s anything much of value there anyway.

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25 thoughts on “A short rant on the mantasy genre

  1. Pingback: Let’s Read Wizard’s First Rule ch. 30 | Doing In The Wizard

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  4. q___q

    Cool. they even have Mr. Fox at my library, thanks!

    Do you know the URL of that blog (it might be possible to get the snapshots from the Internet Archive).

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      I’m not sure if this stretches the definition of “fantasy” too much but I really liked Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi.

      There was previously a blog called Let’s Read Diverse SFF on this very topic but it seems to have been taken down….

      Reply
  5. halikon

    I would’ve chosen some analogy other than M&Ms (because it’s not exactly a flattering comparison) but I agree wholeheartedly on the distinction between the “heart” of the story and the shell and presentation. For a story that is all style and aesthetics and not much else, it better be exquisitely written. It has been some time but what I remember of Neuromancer seems to fit this category. There’s not much to it if you take out the cyberpunk elements, but despite that it was still very enjoyable. On the other end of the spectrum you have the Discworld books, which, regardless of the subject matter or plot, invariably dealt with human themes.

    Reply
  6. redsilkphoenix

    Great analysis of a major problem in fantasy these days: unaware SWM doing cookie-cutter books without the creativity to do something with their settings/tropes. Or even using a sense of humor (light, gallows, black, ect.) to liven things up a bit.

    Oi, looks like if I want to read something that’s different, I’ll have to write Nubian stuff. As usual. 😛

    Reply
  7. Reveen

    You get the sense that a lot of these hacks want to write something worthwhile that says something, and they make a basic half-assed effort to try, but it’s always doomed because of the ways they’re locked into the genre mindset. And the fans want to justify spending money on another fantasy slog by pretending they’re reading something important.

    What would be a hundred times more refreshing than the 9000th attempt to subvert the tropes is if they’d just be honest about it. I mean, modern fantasy owes as much to Howard than Tolkien, and despite some of the pontifications you people doing about Conan, those stories pretty much we’re unapologetic pulp trash.

    Just write unpretentious nonsense about people killing eachother, except without the dudebro baggage that makes the genre righteously hated. I mean, the result won’t be anything new unless you go really crazy with it. But atleast it won’t be based on self-deception.

    I’ve always wondered why there’s never been a Hitchhiker’s Guide or Spaceballs equivalent to gritty mantasy. The genre is seriously ripe for something like that.

    Reply
    1. welltemperedwriter

      There’s something to the genre-mindset element, for sure. Much as I love fantasy–even escapist trash, if it’s reasonably well-written escapist trash–my own work got way, way better when I stopped focusing on the minutiae of the world and started focus on the characters and their story.

      Seems so blindingly obvious, but I’ve been in a number of workshops where people just didn’t…get this. And the problem is that it makes that lovingly detailed setting seem thin and insubstantial, too, because the characters moving around in it have no life.

      Reply
    2. braak

      You also get the sense that a lot of the hacks think they ARE writing something profound about the human condition, only they don’t realize it because if the foundation of your understanding about philosophy comes from other fantasy novels, then you actually probably don’t know anything.

      It’s probably not for nothing that they’re all a bunch of middle class, straight, white men — trying to say something profound about the nature of “kingship” no doubt seems really easy when you’ve never been outside the confines of the ruling class.

      Reply
      1. ronanwills Post author

        Ugh. Let me just say that along with failed marriages and ruminations on masculinity the nature of kingship is something I wish people would stop writing about.

        BOOOOORING

        Reply
      2. braak

        A lot of it is this sort of pseudo-Machiavellian business about all the terrible things that MUST be done for the greater good. A lot of it is the constant portrayal of all parliaments or bureaucracies as being ineffective and corrupt, and every state is just waiting for a proper King to come in and set things to rights.

        Reply
      3. Reveen

        Remember all that “ABLOO BLOO BLOO” chosen ones like Rand al Thor would do about their destinies and the wight upon their shoulders and how they’d rather fuck off to a farm somewhere with their love interest if not for GREAT JUSTICE?

        Yeah, that. Though given a philosophical veneer and is nowadays applied to more mundane statecraft.

        Reply
      4. Grumpus

        The “nature of kingship”-type stuff often has an extra layer of strangeness because of the disconnect between fantasy monarchies which are often tacked onto anachronistic concepts of statehood and IRL monarchies which often more closely resemble patronage systems. So it’s not just fascist, it’s fascist *and* irrelevant to actual forms of government :p

        Reply
      5. Signatus

        Know what you mean, alhough I admit I haven’t read much fantasy about the nature of kingship. Most of what I read has been Dragonlance, much of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, some of Hickman himself (Bronze Canticles), and Forgotten Realms. And yeah, Eragon because after three years of it being published, and always tossing it back to the shelf thinking it was an amateurish piece of crap by just reading the summary, I finally thought; “why not?” (it was an amateurish piece of crap).

        Anyways, in most of what I’ve read, it has been mostly about RPG typical heroes, who take up arms to fight against the evil queen/troll/assassin/dragon, and that’s as deep as it gets.
        However, Brent Weeks does board the nature of kingship… and that’s the second worst thing that book has got, the first being the ending of the trilogy.

        It is funny, there have been numerous forms of government, from Spartan two kings and a council of wise men (if I remember correctly), to the greek democracy, to matriarchy in several tribes around the world, pure anarchy in others, the state cities, parliaments, the fascist police regime… you name it. And every single time we have a king? Is it because of Tolkien’s vision of noble kings and writers don’t have enough imagination to try something different? Or is it because they are so displeased with the current politics, they yearn for a strong, noble man to guide the world and represent their ideals?

        Reply
  8. braak

    the inferior readers who are happy to shovel the same formulaic tripe down their throats over and over again as long as it ticks off a certain amount of genre boxes.

    These guys and their genre boxes drive me nuts. I swear to God I will drop kick a man into space the next time he says, “this author plays with genre tropes” and when he actually means “familiar genre tropes appear in this story.”

    Reply
  9. Austin H. Williams

    “…a horde of vapid hacks farting into the same echo chamber and admiring the acoustics.”

    If nothing else, this rant is eminently quotable.

    What’s interesting to me is one of the reasons I hear so many people vaunting mantasy titles is because of the characters, and the rich emotions they supposedly evoke. And I find myself wondering, Do they realise that these characters are all effectively interchangeable? Do they realise that these characters are walking tropes with new veneers slapped on? The stories themselves certainly don’t break any ground – there isn’t even any suspense about what might happen to the characters, and yet…?

    I think maybe it starts in childhood. When you’re a kid, and you have fewer experiences, and these archetypes can captivate you. There’s a great swell of emotion for many people the first time they read about Chosen One X defeating Evil Overlord Y, often regardless of the quality of the prose, characterisation, etc. ad nauseum. My personal theory is that mantasy fans have been conditioned to appreciate that swell of emotion more than the stories themselves. The great things they find in the stories aren’t something inherent to the book, but utterly dependent on the experiences the readers bring with them. It’s the literary equivalent of falling in love with a body pillow.

    At any rate, most people aren’t looking to art for any sort of genuine edification; they’re looking for something that’s cheap, fits their preconceptions and can fill up the idle hours of their lives. And mantasy writers deliver with aplomb on all points…

    Reply
  10. Signatus

    “It’s also worth pointing out that many of these good fantasy authors are women, or LGBT, or people of colour or writing in languages other than English whereas the plague center of mainstream fantasy is dominated by anglophone straight white men.”

    I agree with this on so many aspects. I have talked about Trudy Canavan before. Well, she’s an amateur author with way too many flaws to count, but I loved her first book because it had this human appeal to them. As I read, I was reading about a system of classes, about gay rights, and everything else was just background information. That is what I liked about her.
    She has some pretty empty books, tho, but nobody is perfect.

    My first fantasy book was The Legend of Huma, from Dragonlance super long series of books. I have read over 30 to 40 books and quit because most of them are the same old shit. Same thing happens with Forgotten Realms and quiet a few others. One gets tired to read manchild fantasies born from a WoW fanfiction.

    I agree with this post so much. There is good fantasy out there, but most of it is the same old shit I read when I was 14 and I thought bravery was stuffing your sword up someone’s ass.

    Makes me feel slightly good that I focus on the content, on the story I want to tell, rather than the tropes. I have a fantasy novel in mind I still haven’t brought up the courage to work on, and the idea was born from a wolf killing in my country. That’s the story I want to tell, evrything else are just the balls on a christmas tree.

    Reply

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