Are You Meandering Around a Castle for 200 Pages? Well, Stop That, Suckah!

I find this Brandon Sanderson quote from Shaken and Stirred’s Thursday Hangovers somewhat fascinating, about “how SFF YA might have influenced epic or high fantasy”:

“I think it made the genre better. I think we’ve had to look at our sluggish beginnings in epic, and realize that two hundred pages of wandering around a castle before conflict appears may not be the best way to begin a story. We’ve had to become more creative in our worldbuilding, partially (I think) to compete with the elegance of YA competition. Probably, most epic authors don’t even think about this, though I bet many of them have read Potter and the others. You can’t help but react to, incorporate, and learn from what you read.”

Just a few thoughts based on this quote that I’d like to throw out there for comment. I’m not wedded to them, but they’re a starting point for further discussion, I think….

(1) The bloated qualities of Harry Potter starting around book four shouldn’t be a blueprint for anyone. The good qualities of the first three have as much to do with following classic tropes of traditional Agatha Christie mysteries as any fantasy element, YA or otherwise.

(2) “Two hundred pages of wandering around a castle before conflict appears” would be a damn good description of a fantasy masterpiece: the first book of the Gormenghast trilogy. It could also describe the best parts of Stephenson’s Anathem–sections in which not much happens in a conventional plot sense but those sections are still fascinating, alive, and interesting. You want to read more.

(3) Epic fantasy has cast off its echoes of Tolkien and its wholesale commercialization by getting grimmer and more adult and complex. Which has, paradoxically, worked just fine in the marketplace. (See: Joe Abercrombie and a host of others.) Although YA can be grim and deal with adult themes, I don’t see much influence of specific YA authors on the best epic fantasy.

(4) I don’t buy that there is a separate “elegance” to YA world-building. As always, there are individual authors in every genre or publisher category who do things well, including world-building (should we need to separate out this element at all). This monolithic approach to ascribing influence or derivation doesn’t truly identify source.

(5) He’s more useful when he cites Pullman and His Dark Materials later in the blog entry. That’s a legitimate, brilliant example of a good source for influence. However, the qualities of that book when it comes to world-building–good but not amazing–are not, for me, the highlights. The importance of His Dark Materials is primarily that it features an extraordinary female lead character. Without that, none of the rest (except my fondness for the bears) really works in the sense of being classic. This is perhaps the hazard of talking about worldbuilding separate from other elements. In other words, the main character in HDM makes the “worldbuilding” come alive.

(6) I’d argue there’s no real “progress” in literature–i.e., we are not making better machines now. We are making different machines. Some of which will stand the test of time and some of which won’t, just like in any era. So the idea of something being made better seems odd to me. An infusion of new ideas creates different kinds of hybrids, some of which survive and thrive through this cross-pollination. But this doesn’t necessarily make them better than what went before, in the context of what becomes classic. (Acknowledging that some classics do over time become unreadable.)

Agree? Disagree? Why?

33 comments on “Are You Meandering Around a Castle for 200 Pages? Well, Stop That, Suckah!

  1. Matt Peckham says:

    Sanderson’s argument distilled: SFF YA is elegant because its innate simplicity draws greater attention to its component parts thrown into stark relief.

    To be persuaded by what he’s suggesting, you have to buy into the idea that archetypal simplicity and a kind of sharp, clean, Western-style narrative symmetry ought to undergird or at least inform more elaborate (“epic”) constructions. All I’m getting here is an argument favoring clean lines. I’m not sure Steven Hall, Mark Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon, Kris Saknussemm, Nabokov, or John Barth (among many others) would, or ought to agree.

    It’s as if Sanderson’s suggesting there’s something not deliberate or out of control about the choices non-YA SFF writers make. Accidental obscurity or dawdling is one thing, sure, but deliberate protraction and orchestrated ambiguity can be choices, no less elegant when carried off with expertise.

    1. Rowling strikes me as a writer who gives great jargon but little else. The Potter books are like skinning your operating system or iPod–different epidermis, same internal organs.

    2. Seconding Gormenghast and Anathem. Some people enjoy particularly contemplative or existential or metaphysical (or whatever) writing. Nothing wrong with that.

    3. I see nothing–nothing recent, anyway–on writers like R. Scott Bakker, or Glen Cook, or Steven Erikson, Were these guys influenced (one way or another) by Lewis and Milne and Carroll et al? Perhaps. I don’t see any leap-out links in their writing, however.

    4. Looking for “source” as an instrument of justification (or vindication) is messy, troubling business. It’s like going hunting for the origins of language, or the “original” meanings of words.

    5. I think it fell down badly at the third book, but HDM definitely has some value as the first collection of popular YA SFF explicitly atheist lit, as well.

    6. Time’s always been a dubious litmus test, hasn’t it? I respect Moorcock’s position in his inspiring Christmas FM editorial where he wrote “Tolkien has mass sales, Peake has more likelihood of longevity,” but it’s not the best way to make the point. Lots of what I consider fairly bad writing’s still read canonically today (if arguably more for historical reasons than literary ones).

  2. Natania says:

    I would agree, in some respects. However I don’t think YA has much to do with it–like you, I don’t see that distinction. When I was younger, rather than the opposite of the suggestion, I loved the complexity and pause that epic description gave me; shit, I wanted to know what kind of rubies were on the hilt, what cut, and what size they were. Now, I get a bit impatient, admittedly, when a book doesn’t set me up, doesn’t get moving.

    That said, I don’t think that’s all there is to the problem. I think badly written fantasy may lean on such meandering description as a crutch because people enjoy reading it, and it can distract some readers from other glaring holes in the narrative. However, there are plenty of well-written fantasy epics that do give you a sense of scope and take their time to wind you in–but the strength of the writing, characterization and plot prevent it from feeling lumbering.

    As to progress, it’s foolish to think we can tell what’s going on when, as time will attest, the staying power of any book has to do with the generations that come after it. Popularity only sometimes is a factor. That we’re more aware of how this works today might make us think we have some control of it, but we don’t. What is loved and cherished and read (sometimes even in spite of changing language) is up to the masses. It may be awesome,and it may be drivel. It may counter the trends, it may go with them. But we’ll never know. Likely we’ll all be dead and gone when the jury’s out. Or preserved in gelatinous goo…

    However, it’s always important to try new things. To push the envelope. To just tell damn good stories!

  3. JeffVanderMeer says:

    Matt: Yeah, I agree re Pullman and the third book. And in part it’s for me because his complexity of story in that one isn’t matched by further complexity and interest in the form of that female character (whose name escapes me at the moment). He kind of diluted what made it work by diluting her influence on the text. That’s my theory, anyway….I dunno. Time does weed out a lot of stuff. As for source, yeah, that’s true. But I guess even with the examples he gave, “YA” seemed amorphous to me in that context. Granted, in some ways it was just a puff piece.

    Natania: I’d suggest some sub-genre protocols *insist* on meandering, and that meandering can be a sly and subtle way of introducing narrative, plot, and forward thrust. As in Gormenghast when all of that meandering is essential to the later thriller-type momentum of the second book. But also in subgenres like space opera. Take Banks’ space opera. There’s a necessity to explain galaxy-wide stuff, and done right all of that summary and explanation of history and whatnot, alien civilizations, etc., is mindblowing. On the one hand you could say it’s clogging up the plot. On the other hand, you could say it’s the whole *point* and why you read a space opera.


  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Not that I’m arguing with your basic points, though, NB.

  5. Natania says:

    Nah, nah, I get you. That’s sort of what I was trying to say. Sometimes it is necessary, and if done well enough, absolutely engaging. Other times? Not so much. Totally depends on the genre, the writer, and the story itself. :)

  6. undeadbydawn says:

    After the [in my opinion] genuinely good if not superb Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling refused to be edited. The result was a couple of books that squeezed 50 pages of story into 750 of fluff. They were terrible. Had not Azkaban made me care about the characters I would have not read the rest. As it is I got around to reading some quality authors, such as Jeff vanderMeer, Shirley Jackson and Neil Gaiman, and could not get past the first few pages of Deathly Hollows. I want to know what happens, but her writing style is still aimed at dyslexic three-year-olds.

    HDM: My issue with Spyglass is the strange amount of book Pullman wastes with an arbitrary new character building the eponymous glass. It takes her, what, 3/4 of the book to figure the world needs more love? Right. Sorry, not necessary. The page-wasting low point of an otherwise magical trilogy.

    Gosh, just had a whopping bout of deja vu.

    May I also note to Jeff that I loved City of… until the scene in The Transformation of Martin Lake where he gets lost in conversation a boozey cafe scene. Two pages of not knowing who was saying what or why and my attention was completely lost. I do not object to being out-smarted by a book [VALIS still defeats me every time] but out-attentioned is not so good. I will return to Ambergris. Every page until then is Gold.
    But hell, you’re a vastly better writer than I could hope to be.

  7. Larry says:

    While this is a topic that interests me some (I might blog about it later, if I have the time this week), I think I’m going to have to disagree with #3. Or rather, the notion that Tolkien is somehow less “grimmer” than the epic fantasies coming out today. There were some rather horrific things that Tolkien included in his stories, but he just chose not to show those with the cursing, sweating soldiers because of his choice of narrative approach. But I suppose this just ties back into your #6, as for me, the epic narratives really haven’t “improved” or “regressed” as much as the styles have changed to emphasize different narrative possibilities.

    That being said, I wonder how many readers get frustrated with a Gormenghast precisely because it takes some mental retraining not to want to skip ahead a bit and to get to the conflict-ridden scenes?

  8. Michael says:

    The first book in the Gormenghast trilogy was definitely slow paced and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a hard time getting through it. But I do love Mr. Peake’s descriptive powers. I had to read it in small sections while reading a few other books on the side.

    I can say the same for Mr. VanderMeer’s work as well: I RACED through City of Saints and it’s gloriously weird short stories. … while Shriek is a much slower paced read and took a bit longer for me to get through. That being said I loved both books.

    I REALLY tried with the Harry Potter books. …. but after 3 books all following the same basic pattern I gave up. I do think it’s a cool that some of the kids ( heck, adults even ) reading HP will want to expand their reading horizons.

  9. Joe Sherry says:

    Jeff: Pullman’s female lead is Lyra.

    Undead: This may be apocryphal, but I heard today that Rowling wanted to be edited but due to publisher demands in getting the next book out faster, was not edited to the extent she was in the first three books. Reportedly (and I can’t stress how much I can’t verify this), Rowling enjoyed the editorial experience of the earlier books and missed that in the later ones.

  10. jeff vandermeer says:

    Thanks, joe. I knew it was L something but was too lazy to look it up.

    Yep, Shriek has to be slower to work. Finch is faster than City. Also because it has to be.

    Undead–never gotten lost in a cafe/pub conversation? had it kind of swirl around you? That’s the intended effect. Doesn’t matter who is saying what. Only matters what’s being said. In that scene a lot of info gets dropped without it seeming to. But each reader’s different.

  11. Robyn says:

    I found Gormenghast so slow I never even tried the second one. So at least for me it didn’t work. And I wish the first HP book had been more edited. #3 is the best… the right balance of good writing and no bloat. Down with house elves!

  12. undeadbydawn says:

    Joe Sherry: I’m very tempted to believe that, but it does not ring true with the sheer power Rowling held at that point. Her contract gave her huge amounts of control over the whole franchise – Lucas levels of control – and as such I find it difficult to believe she could not demand a little oversite or an extra month to tighten things up. Still, you may well be correct.

    Jeff: it could well be that my reaction to that scene stems from my intense dislike of being drunk, and of drunken conversation :-). Also the fact that the standard of your writing is unusually high, which made my dislike of that scene all the more glaring. As such [and I run risk of FanBoyIsm here] you perfectly managed to capture a feeling I hate.

  13. jeff vandermeer says:

    It’s just making me chuckle because of all the immorality, insanity, and grime you had to read thru *before* you got to the scene that scuppered it for you. Cheers.

    Re Gormenghast, I think one difference btwn readers who like it and those who don’t might be that some readers see themselves as heading toward a destination and some are happy in the details of the journey. (and some adapt to both) I find G so alive at the level of character and sentence/paragraph that I find its pacing just fine for what it is doing. I think in the case of G it’s proved itself enough that just like me not getting into Gravity’s Rainbow, admitting defeat is on the reader.

  14. How funny! People are becoming better writers because of Harry Potter? What the fuck were they writing before? I realise a lot of folks have attention span deficit, but ….

    When I was a “Young Adult” (code for getting your ass kicked in gym every day) I seem to recall loving a lot of pretty cool stuff: Dumas, Kafka, and more than anything Dostoevsky.

    It seems to me this whole “YA” thing is really about talking down to your audience in the hope of their aunt in North Carolina spending 15 bucks on a book to send them for their birthday because the mushroom growing kit they originally asked for was a little too expensive.

  15. undeadbydawn says:

    I’m a horror fan. I live in [and am writing about] a city that used to leave bodies of executed criminals hanging for months as a reminder for the peasants to behave, and in which the poor had to near literally live underground in rivers of filth. The early stories in City interested me, not disgusted.
    The way you wrote that scene forces the reader to think like a drunk to make sense of the narative. It is immensely uncomfortable, to me. As such, given your intention, it is completely successful. I lent City to my ex-wife, who was struggling to find ways of collecting various pieces she’d written. When I get it back I’ll have another go. I already have Shriek waiting to be read, and will buy Finch when it appears.

  16. Transfiguring Roar says:

    undeadbydawn, interesting that that drunken scene repulsed you. I just read through it quickly, and it didn’t matter who was saying what.

    That scene made me laugh because many of the english teachers that I had during my schooling frowned upon writing things that were confusing, even when stories warranted such writing. It always had to be clear and concise to get a good grade. Bah!

  17. Hellbound Heart says:

    …..transfiguring roar, howdy….i believe the word you’re looking for is pithy, right?

    i don’t know, i find it very hard to get excited about a lot of the ‘fantasy’ novels that are in my local book stores because a) most of them seem to have the same dungeons and dragons type theme (i mean, how many books do i need to read where there’s a dwarf/elfin-type guy as a sidekick and the bad guy wants to rule/destroy everything?) gimme lord of the rings and that’ll satisfy me, b) the books i see on the shelves seem to be something like part 3 of a 7-part fantasy epic and i won’t be able to get the previous books and c) the covers all look the same!!!! maybe the pictures of square-jawed young warriors kinda blur into each other…….

    i couldn’t really get into harry potter…..give me clive barker and tad williams and steven king at his best and your writing of course, sir…..

    i’ll pith off now…….

    peace and love…..

  18. Terry Weyna says:

    Brendan, I don’t think that young adult readers are talking down to their audience these days. Quite the contrary, in fact: I don’t know why the “young adult” label is slapped on as many books as it is, books that have quite adult themes and can easily be read with great enjoyment by adults. It seems these days that the only distinction between regular fiction and young adult fiction is that the protagonists in the latter are teenagers.

    I just reviewed Kristin Cashore’s Graceling on my website, and, as I said in my review, I wish books like that had been available when I was a kid. I never had a female character who was as strong to serve as a sort of role model. Because I was a girl who wanted to be a lawyer in a semi-rural Illinois town in the early 70s — as well as one who knew from an early age that she didn’t want to have children — the lack of characters anything like me made an already difficult situation that much more difficult. I think it’s way cool that YA fiction can now offer up truly strong women for young girls.

    Is the worldbuilding any the less? I don’t think so. Nor is the sort of fiction I’m talking about usually as literary in its content as the Gormenghast trilogy, Jeff’s work or many of the other works being discussed here. But that still doesn’t mean that the authors are talking down to their readers. They’re telling a story. Most adult fiction does just that, too. Yes, there’s the occasional Pynchon or Nabokov, but there’s also Lee Child, who writes just damned good thrillers. Maybe the real distinction you’re trying to make is the venerable one between “high” and “low,” in which case we’re really off to the races.

  19. Terry Weyna says:

    Um, that should be “young adult authors” in the first sentence. It’s young adult authors who are not talking down to their readers. I was a little too quick on the “submit” button.

  20. Very interesting, Jeff. I think the trick with discussing this is to understand the way in which Sanderson is approaching the topic. I agree with everything you said… and yet I’m not particularly put off by his point because he’s speaking in generalities. Which is not the best way, perhaps, to delve deeply into specific analysis, but might be fine in regards to opening a topic for thought, in regards to starting a conversation (such as this one). By speaking in generalities he, in a sense, is always speaking to the average, to the typical rather than the rare. And so the rare, in this case, might be the brilliant castle rambling of Gormenghast, an oddity that breaks form and expectation and succeeds, perhaps, on the strength of its vision and the propulsive oddity of its language. But typical, here, is Elf Guy and Knight Guy wandering around Big Castle Building for two hundred pages until Minion Guy of Dark Lord Guy finally arrives to do Bad Thing. This, sadly, is a far more typical choice than the eccentric path of Peake, both for readers and writers.

    Genius and vision, I think, can transform anything. But not everyone has that sufficiently. So if Peake took something typical (castle rambling), he made it something rare and different through his talent and teh vividness of his vision. So to take Sanderson’s warning as an all-encompassing proscription against certain choices… no thank you. But as a general comment that maybe asks writers to take a look at those first two hundred pages… I can live with it. I mean, I’d like to know if I’m writing about Steerpike and Swelter or Elf Guy and Knight Guy.

    I’m okay with his generalities as a point of departure, as long as it’s understood as speaking to a sort of genre median point. A mathematical average serves only the general and never the specific. An individual work must stand on its merits, and be evaluated according to its aims. I’m guessing that the two hundred page castle ramble, more often than not (far far more often), is not a good idea and not the right choice for the story, because most writers will not have the requisite genius to transform it (and many wouldn’t want to, if they even understood the need). Though that doesn’t mean, of course, that they shouldn’t try. And so while it might be a terrible choice a majority of the time, that won’t hold true for every instance, and so each such instance must be considered on its own. The world can do without more bad castle rambles, so a little thought on the topic seems good. So… Steerpike or Elf Guy?

    I’m usually for Steerpike, but lots of other writers (and readers) are really fond of Elf Guy, and so if they Elf Guy (and, of course, Knight Guy) to be as good as he can be, well, I think there’s a certain aptness to Sanderson’s comments. In general, it comes down to a sort of “Let’s take a look at the best of the YA fantasy and see what we can learn and what we might adapt to our own Epic ends.” Which I’m fine with, as long as it doesn’t try to cut off other paths and prevent new moments of transformative genius from providing us the next Steerpikes and Swelters and Groans.

    So in the end I’m happy enough that he made such comments, and even more happy that you took them and ran with them, challenging the assumptions and broadening the scope of the conversation (if only by opening it to the idea of specificity).

    And I totally agree about the progress of literature. Gotta love the hybrids. As for me, I just discovered Kobo Abe. Interesting. Very interesting.

  21. Wasn’t Gormenghast originally YA? I thought it was… My dad saw me reading it and kept telling me it was a kid’s book when he was a kid. It’s recent placement in the “adult” section has to do with critical acclaim and influence, I thought.

    The words YA to me, I think, are a little misleading, in general. It’s a marketing category that seems to only work among people who aren’t aware of the perils of following marketing categories: missing good books!

    I think what we’re really talking about, here, is not YA-Influence, but Television-Influence. Epic Fantasy, to me, is becoming more like a Hollywood Movie, with very visual descriptions of worlds and landmasses (like the glass towers of Scott Lynch, and the densely-packed urbanized landscapes straight of paranormal romance and urban fantasy that has crept over into the city landscapes of numerous other authors). The pace is faster, in general, because the mass culture style of storytelling has crept over to our side of the bookstore.

    It’s natural for different art forms to influence each other.

    In short, it’s not YA that’s changing things. What Mr Sanderson seems to be describing is Star Wars vs Star Trek.

    Old School Epic Fantasy has a pace like TOS, or the Next Generation, or Voyager. Newer Epic Fantasy seems to be moving more towards the Star Wars aesthetic, with a faster pace and an unexplained gloss over the corners of the weird science fabrications.

    That isn’t to say the other side is missing or gone ro not being written. It’s just not as hip or in or fresh in the zeitgeist.

    I hope that makes sense. I have to get back to work, here…

    My ten cents.

  22. Yeah, that didn’t quite make sense. If I could edit it, I would.

    “…is-not YA-Influence, but Television-Influence” Should be “Hollywood-Influence”…

    “ the glass towers of Scott Lynch, and the densely-packed urbanized landscapes straight out of paranormal romance and urban fantasy…)” I’m also thinking of Felix Gilman’s cityscapes, Gaiman’s best work, and the very visual ways New Weird writers like Mr Mieville and Mr Lake have of building their worlds. Imagine New Crobuzon without all the visual oddities to wonder at. Elves and dwarves? Not so much. Cactus people, that look like cactuses. Remade that have been physically altered in unimaginable ways. Imagine Trial of Flowers without the plethora of populated places. Steampunk’s zany descriptions of imaginary contraptions all more visceral – and visible – than the clean touchscreen panels of an Enterprise.

    We’re getting more visual, not younger.

    And, like all trends, it too shall pass.

  23. jeff vandermeer says:

    bryan–i will gently guide u to the beginning of this post. I did not fault sanderson for his post because it is in a very casual context. still, this is a more interesting discussion. and, er, yer trick reads a lot like “the trick to understanding this piece is to lower yer expectations” heh heh.

  24. Lol, well, yeah… sort of. Like with the “puff” comment you made, you were making a sort of distinction in analytical goals. I was thinking about it in a way that tried to find a balance, one that recognizes a disparity in audience. He offered some points, you broke them down and contradicted them where you thought they were faulty. And rightly so. I think they needed that, and I’m glad you did. But you’re speaking to an audience, generally, that will appreciate and desire such an analysis, while there’s also an audience to which some of Sanderson’s comments, I think, are quite apt. Those, for instance, whose castle rambles are not Gormenghastian but merely tedious.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I thought his comments on one hand were limiting and on the other opening. You rightfully pointed out, I think, where his comments were limiting, where they prevented, perhaps, transformative moments open to authors. But you, and I’m guessing most of the writers here, are already operating within those moments, operating on the borders of genres, reaping the wheat from various fields and planting new and interesting hybrids. And so the castle rambling thing is sort of like a door being closed… and who wants a door closed in their face?

    But I think there are a lot of writers who aren’t operating in those moments, and who might be drawn to the aspects of Sanderson’s comments which open up possibilities. Branch out, check out those YA novels… if they can’t afford a two hundred page castle ramble, what do they do? What could be incorporated?

    Lol, I guess I just felt, shall we say, that you were not his intended audience for that particular piece, and that his point was valid enough for his audience. I guess I just felt bad for his nice little comments. :) It’s a bit like someone writing something for your highschool English teacher and having Harold Bloom come in and give it a kicking.

    Also a question/request: I’m curious about the connection you made between Harry Potter and Agatha Christie’s novels. It seemed interesting, and yet it’s not a connection that would have leapt to my mind. And now I’m trying to remember the first three novels well enough to make a comparison… So, would you mind expanding on that at some point? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    And another question, re. #3, spurred by Larry’s comments (open to anybody): Do you think views of Tolkien are partly shaped by our views of his imitators? I’ve been re-reading LotR and blogging about each chapter (and thinking about it a lot, in general), and while there is a lot of silly stuff, a lot of straight adventure, there’s also an interesting amount of adult complexity (though handled more symbolically than most writers would now, or at least that’s my off-the-cuff feeling at the moment). And yet I think it’s a lot of those darker elements, the more adult moments of moral complexity (eg. sin and failure) that have failed to make it through to most of his imitators and acolytes. So I started wondering if we sometimes see Tolkien through the prism of his more banal followers, and his text (or at least our memories of that text) is thus shadowed by the legacy of his influence… Any thoughts?

  25. teaver says:

    YA is just a publisher’s label (for me). I can’t think of any other reason to classify books with a particular genre other than promotion.

    Harry Potter is a BAD example. It’s washings, nothing innovative and you know how it’s going to end before you start reading it. It’s a typical fast-book – lots of action, some bullshit, nothing special between the lines. I don’t understand how can anyone claim it brought about change in literature. Maybe only when it comes to “lower yer expectations”. lol

    And I do agree on the “progress” argument. The stories didn’t change – it’s still all about killing monsters, rescue missions, lost treasure and adventure – the way of narration did, but just a bit. Besides, I’m not sure if the influence comes strictly from YA. Why not procedurals?

    And I’m not sure if “We’re getting more visual, not younger.” I’ve read a couple of old books with descriptions as picturesque as the New Weird and Steampunk (Schulz, Kafka and Dostoyevski, for example).

    World-building is, IMHO, far from perfect in YA. I would call it “clear”, “comprehensible” (for an “average reader”), sometimes even “simplistic”. But – “elegant”? Erm, not so much. Well, not in every case.

    And when it comes to YA in general, we – the Adult Censors – tend to forget that children are simply readers. My own example – as a 10-year old I didn’t enjoy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Quo Vadis. I guess parents these days are more restrictive when it comes to what their kids read and prefer to buy them books labeled YA for the sake of protecting their innocence, however stupid that may sound. Maybe that’s why Gormenghast isn’t labeled as a YA anymore? Pity.

    btw – I got my copy of Shriek last week. I think the pace is perfect. (I love the idea of a dark cellar as a reading room. :D)

  26. Bryan: I was kind of just teasing you, although I shouldn’t tease somebody doing blog entries on every chapter of Tolkien’s LoTR.

    Re your question–the books are basically mysteries with fantasy added in. They follow standard, very traditional tea cosy (cosie?) tropes, to my mind, including getting everyone into the drawing room to explain the mystery at the end. This is what I think she did that worked–getting a mystery plot to work in a fantasy setting. That’s what keeps you reading in the narrative, even when the text is just banal.

    Re Tolkien–I do think you are right. There’s a lot of nastiness and adult stuff in Tolkien. But the problem is in some of his transitions, for example. Stuff a modern writer might cut out, which ironically in a round about way goes back to Sanderson’s core concept.

    I would challenge the Gormenghast thing only in that not much happens in the first 100 pages of George RR Martin’s heroic fantasy, and yet it’s the only way the rest of the first book can be as exciting as it is. It is not only impossible to always be in action mode–it is highly undesirable as then there’s no contrast and a novel becomes a monotone as surely as if it’s just about a guy wandering around a castle for 200 pages.


  27. Terry. I agree with you. I don’t think the authors are talking down to their readers. I think the label itself is. By setting up this very specific niche, they are really just trying to absorb a certain chunk of money that seems to be freely given (or so say the marketing experts).

    Authors themselves for the most part are just trying to write something people like and, like the rest of humanity, be happy.

    The author of Harry Potter was certainly not talking down to her readers. She was writing the best she could. That it is terrible writing is not her fault. She tried.

    Is what I feel needs to happen is we need to boycott these labels. We need to do away with them completely. Because they not only make society less friendly, but they make it less intelligent, more limited, as well.

  28. I should also add, that publishers and book chains, by setting up this artificial label, tempt many authors into bending themselves into these labels, since that is what is “selling”.

  29. Re. #3 – although this eschewing of Tolkien and making epic Fantasy more “adult and grim” is the angle that many people are pushing as a great positive thing, I just see the market becoming more and more full of George R.R. Martin imitators who’re doing little that’s particularly interesting in imaginative terms.

  30. Brave man! Well, okay, probably some truth to that, but let’s say you’re right. I still find an imitation of a masterpiece much preferable to a copy of somebody else’s mimeograph of something that might once have been original. Which is what it was coming down to.

    I actually think there are elements of epic fantasy in China’s Bas Lag novels. I think that darkness also cross-pollinated into the darker epic/heroic fantasy we see today.


  31. Thanks for the Agatha Christie expansion. And your idea makes me think that part of the reason the latter books struggle in places is because they get away from this format. Rather than school-set mysteries, they open with long rambling summer vacation bits, lots of scenery changes, etc. A lot more build-up, and it seems to hurt the stories (to me, the first half of book four and five were the most poorly executed parts of the series). There certainly seemed an attempt to insert more adventure aspects into the more self-contained Hogwarts framework set up in the first three novels.

    As for Tolkien and Martin… I’m guessing we’ll get a lot of Martin imitators now, but the key is we’ll hopefully also get some writers who take aspects of it and run with it somewhere new. Martin’s just joined Tolkien in that fantasy mulch that’ll feed new growth. Derivative growth, some of it, but hopefully some interesting hybrids and new species will pop up if the soil is rich enough.

    And I should mention that one of those dark and gritty fantasists, Joe Abercrombie, has a nice little bit on Finch today (via his blog). Certainly whets the appetite…

  32. Well, now I want to write a book where someone is meandering around a castle for exactly 200 pages…

    I think the YA thing is definitely about an arbitrary category, but what it comes down to is expectation. I first read HDM back in the day when I was not an out atheist, and I did so under the expectation that it was YA. It was a bit more magical than when I re-read it later, but I got a better understanding of the writing involved. Gormenghast… maybe I’ll have to re-read it later. I wanted to love it so much, and the descriptions were amazing, but the crapsack characters made it almost unreadable. Like the scenery and worldbuilding were lush 35mm, but the characterization was a fucking Atari 2600. I definitely think that as parents, people shouldn’t lock their kids into YA mode. Other than some John Bellairs here and there, I didn’t read any YA until I was an adult. I got all my dad’s old SF and the stuff my mom said I shouldn’t read, like HST and Castaneda. AND I TURNED OUT OKAY(&(*&$!

    As far as Tolkein goes, I’m not afraid of people being consciously derivative. The stuff that sucks is people being unconsciously derivative at second or third hand, like writers whose main (or only!) idea of how fantasy works is from RPGs, or hand-me down stuff like Goodkind’s atrocious off-ripping of Robert Jordan, who at least seemed to crib from Tolkein with intent.

  33. undeadbydawn says:

    Excellent. I reclaimed City.. from my ex-wife [along with Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’ – another reallyshouldread] and slipped through the rest of the Cafe scene with considerably greater ease. Now on with the rest. My thanks to all concerned for prompting me to get over myself

    after all if you can’t enjoy a beheading masquerade there’s something far wrong with you. Right? Right.

    Jeff, I shall now aquire Secret Life so that I may enjoy Secret Lives all the more. You, Sir, are a Gentleman and a Scholar.

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