Rachel Aaron Talked To Me!

Squee! A real live fantasy author answered my question! (This was actually the second one she answered – the first one was more about my own personal insecurities though.)

This is what I asked:

Hi! Me again. Early in this thread you said: “Fantasy has changed a LOT as a genre over the past few years, and if you’re not reading modern books, you might be surprised.” I didn’t see where you had already done this, and if you did, feel free to ignore this, but I wonder if you could expand on that a little (or a lot, that’s fine too :). In your view, what’s changed about the genre? I am curious to hear your take on it. Thank you!

And this was the response (I hope she doesn’t mind me posting this):

Ohhhhh, you’ve opened the can of worms now! This is one of my soap box topics. Ahem.

I grew up reading Fantasy in the 90s and early 2000s. This means lots of Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon (I practically memorized The Deed of Paksenarrion), Mercedes Lackey, Sherri S. Tepper, and way too much Robert Jordan. I also read classics like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

Up until about 10 years ago, the feel of Fantasy was largely sweeping and epic. Writers took their cues from the Tolkienian influence. When people grumble about fantasy being trope ridden, they’re largely talking about this area. Thanks to growing geek culture and the mega success of several fantasy authors like Jordan, Fantasy was flooded with books that were very similar – lush, sweeping, but often laboring under the weight of their own cliche.

And then, something happened. It started in the early 90s when authors like Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison started writing books with fantasy elements like magic that were not only set in modern times, they were written more like thrillers than epic fantasy. I’m of course talking about the rise of Urban Fantasy, which exploded into the happy hobbit hole of the fantasy genre in the early 90s.

By the early 2000s, Urban Fantasy was a booming industry, meeting and then outselling its older, stuffier, dragon loving Epic Fantasy sibling. But the real kicker was the way the readership changed. Fantasy, long seen as a realm for kids and aging nerds, was now picking up a whole slew of more main stream adult readers. Combine this with the success of UF shows like Buffy and Angel and you had a serious cultural wave building.

The real kicker through was Harry Potter. HP brought money like never before into our genre, but even better, it brought readers. Kids who grew up reading HP learned from a young age that reading fantasy wasn’t just fun, it was cool. Everyone was a nerd now, and they wanted more to read, and publishing gave it to them in the form of the massive and varied selection of fantasy books no available.

With change comes innovation. Thanks to all the money that UF and then HP brought to Fantasy publishing, the door was thrown wide open. Modern fantasy is no longer defined by the tropes of its predecessors. Fantasy no longer has to be even remotely Tolkenian, or epic, or sweeping to be treated as Fantasy. The very idea of what is Fantasy (elves, a quest, etc) has been thrown completely out the window. Major publishers are taking big money risks on high concept series they wouldn’t have touched a decade ago. Fantasy books no longer resemble doorstops as a rule. The playing field is wide open!

(This is why threads on NaNo that talk about “most annoying Fantasy tropes/cliches” drive me CRAZY. I always want to go and shout HAVE YOU LOOKED AT THE FANTASY SHELVES LATELY?! Because it’s a whole new, wonderful, dazzling, diverse world out there.)

Also, the style of fantasy books has opened up enormously thanks to these influences. Where as before most fantasies were largely variations on the epic style – huge word counts, sprawling worlds, political nuance, numinous writing that was heavy on the description – modern fantasy is everything you can think of. There are huge epics like Game of Thrones, small personal dramas, fast paced adventure fantasies that read like thrillers, dark fantasy that reads more like horror, brutal military fantasy that reads like the most classic war thrillers. Fantasy is in no way a unified mass anymore. It’s this huge, diverse, beautiful genre that is so varied it’s actually hard to define any longer what fantasy really is (though we know it when we see it)

Funny enough, my books are actually considered very retro because of my quasi-Euro, quasi-Medieval setting where as if I’d tried to sell the same books in the 80s, I would have been totally out of line thanks to my urban fantasy style quick pacing. This just goes to show how much Fantasy as a genre has changed and evolved. And now, thanks to the mega popularity of Fantasy video games, we’re changing again. That’s fine, change is good. So long as writers keep bringing us amazing new ideas, Fantasy will continue to be one of the best selling genres in publishing.

Anyway, I hope this sheds some light on the subject. I’ve said many times now that I believe we’re living in a golden age of fantasy publishing where a combination of money from huge best sellers, the enormous widening of the fantasy fan base, and an increasing willingness on behalf of publishers to take risks will later be hailed as a glorious time of really amazing books. There’s fantasy everywhere, on TV, in Target (seriously, what was once a tiny rack is now a full wall of YA and adult fantasy). It’s huge, it’s flourishing, and it’s not going away any time soon. It’s truly a great time to be a fantasy writer!

(After I read this I immediately thought of Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day.)

Suck it, thrillers and mysteries!

I totally agree about those fantasy-trope rants against elves and princesses. Nothing I’ve seen published recently has even remotely resembled the “traditional” fantasy I remember.

P.S. I am tremendously jealous of young people who get to grow up in a world where reading a fantasy book doesn’t get them beat up in high school.

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