(Sub)Genre Is a Marketing Convention

(Alternate Title: "Epic Fantasy Is What We Point to When We Look Down on Epic Fantasy.")

I've been on a bit of an epic fantasy kick lately, evidently due to the thousand-ish pages of The Crippled God not being enough. This means that I was in a weirdly appropriate mental space to catch the recent furor over a fairly dumb NYTimes review of A Game of Thrones on HBO that said some snide things about the genre, particularly that women don't read it. Which has led to a lot of discussion of what epic fantasy is, and whether women read or write it.

A lot of what's been said is dumb in various ways-- I particularly liked the person who grandly declared that the only authors doing any worthwhile work in epic fantasy are women, and didn't give any examples-- and a lot of it rubs me a little bit the wrong way. This is probably lingering sensitivity from almost 20 years ago (yikes!) when I was one of the people involved in the creation of rec.art.sf.written.robert-jordan because people in regular rec.arts.sf.written objected to the amount of discussion of the Wheel of Time books. I've spent an amazing amount of time reading the subgenre, and an amazing amount of time listening to people talk about how it's beneath them, so little digs at it really grate. Particularly now that I'm reading a bunch of it again.

The non-stupid elements of the discussion have mostly turned into discussions of definitions, which is exemplified by this LiveJournal post (which is mirrored at DreamWidth, with separate comments). She's attempting to look at characteristics of the subgenre and writers in it, and writes:

To quickly define terms, by "urban fantasy" I mean "Set in contemporary world much like ours, but in which magic and/or magical creatures exist. Typically involves romance, fighting evil, and/or detecting." By "epic fantasy," I mean "Set in non-contemporary world which is not just our world plus magic or an alternate history of our world, big sprawling stories, typically a series of fat volumes, typically involves a huge cast of characters, war, battles, monarchies, and politics. Typically set in a vaguely medieval period."

I have some questions for you all.

1. Am I correct that the bestselling writers of epic fantasy are typically male or writing under possibly-male names? I'm thinking of Robin Hobb (woman writing under possibly-male name), Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Tad Williams, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, etc.

I am under the impression that the female authors writing under clearly female names, like Kate Elliott, Katherine Kerr, are midlist or at least not hugely bestselling authors.

I'm actually not terribly concerned with the gender stuff, but the definition seemed a reasonable enough one. Something bugged me about that list, though, and it took me a while to realized that it was due to the fact that I was in the middle of reading Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. And that book really doesn't belong in this list.

While it's a thick book, not set in our world, and vaguely medieval in setting, The Name of the Wind fails on practically all other counts. The frame story hints at the possibility of wars and battles to come, but the actual story told in the book is a very tight first-person narrative following a single main character through his early life. The total cast, in both the frame story and the story within the story, runs to maybe a dozen significant secondary characters, but the main focus is on one guy.

This book is not remotely doing the same thing that, say, A Game of Thrones is doing, or the Wheel of Time, or Brandon Sanderson's own giant fantasy novels. And yet, Rothfuss is always one of the authors cited as an exemplar of modern epic fantasy. But, really, if this is epic fantasy, then so is Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series-- Rothfuss isn't a tenth as clever as Brust, but the primary attraction of his book, like Brust's, is the narrative voice.

So why is that? My initial snide response is a suspicion that most of the people arguing passionately about the gender distribution of epic fantasy readers and writers haven't actually read most of the books they're talking about. This would be consistent with the whiff of disapproval for the subgenre in general that I get from most of these discussions. (Another data point in favor of snide: there were 50+ comments on that post before I pointed out that one of the authors' names was incorrect (it's been fixed on LiveJournal but not DreamWidth).)

(This echoes the previous stupid argument about modern epic fantasy, which was that all the characters were amoral bastards, which strongly suggests that the people making that claim haven't read either Martin or Erikson, because while they're very bloody, they're also very moral. The Malazans are clearly the Good Guys in Erikson's books, while the Starks are noble to a fault in Martin's.)

That doesn't really work, though, because it took me a while to realize the problem myself. And even once I started thinking about where The Name of the Wind did belong, I was very hesitant to compare it to Brust, even though that's really the best analogy. Of the other authors on that list, the only one who's really working the same territory as Rothfuss in the same way is Robin Hobb, whose first series also had a tight focus on a single character with the narrative voice as one of the main attractions. Her second series broadened things somewhat, but nowhere near the scope of George Martin or Robert Jordan. I wouldn't really want to add Brust to that list, either-- the "right" fix, to my mind, would be to take Rothfuss and Hobb off the "epic fantasy" list, and move them into some new category with Brust. (And Scott Lynch, and maybe Bujold's Chalion series...)

But as I said, this was a slightly hard mental step to make. So, why was I reluctant to put Rothfuss with Brust? I think the answer has nothing to do with the books themselves, and everything to do with the way they're packaged. That is, people naturally think of Rothfuss as being in the same category as Martin and Jordan because they're all writing big thick books, and those books are put together and marketed in similar ways. The contents aren't actually all that similar, but the covers and cover copy is, which is what creates the impression that they're the same, when they're not.

Which is something to keep in mind in reading these debates-- a lot of the suggestions people make for "epic fantasy" are rejected on the grounds of, basically, not being "epic" enough, but I think that's more a matter of marketing than any quality of the text. A lot of the books that get lumped into the "epic fantasy" category don't really belong by most of the text-based criteria people suggest, but end up there because they're marketed in the same sorts of ways that more "epic" books are marketed.

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Oh, man, are we having genre definition conversations again?

I tend to agree with your categorization of Brust, Lynch, etc (I haven't read the Rothfuss) as "non-epic." In my mind, epic is not a setting, it is a plot style. I've seen (and used) the term "secondary world fantasy" to describe the superset that contains both Brust and Martin, although back in my day, we just called that "fantasy." I have also seen "low fantasy" to describe the "person living their life" type of story (vs. "high fantasy" to describe the epic-y world-spanning stuff).

In any case, yeah, it is all marketing convention.

I'm not sure I agree with Rothfuss being placed outside of epic fantasy. Sure, the story doesn't have the same scale as other big fat fantasy series, but the books are certainly riffing off a lot of the conventions of the (sub)genre. Name of the Wind & The Wise Man's Fear read as commentary on the epic fantasy genre, so to me that puts it squarely within the genre.

By Dave Smith (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

"That is, people naturally think of Rothfuss as being in the same category as Martin and Jordan because they're all writing big thick books, and those books are put together and marketed in similar ways"

Sure, because genre and subgenre categorization mainly exists for marketing purposes anyway--clumping together dissimilar items so that consumers will see them as sufficiently similar to buy them. At least from the marketing perspective epic fantasy = derivative of Tolkein, and urban fantasy = derivative of John Crowley. Or at least can be packaged that way. Before Lester del Rey invented Terry Brooks, there was just "fantasy," and even fantasy, as a category, didn't really exist as a category before the 1960s.

I enjoyed reading this. I don't think I can really add anything to the conversation, but will anyway. 30 years ago, I was reading a lot of what you are calling epic fantasy. About 25 years ago, I quit. It all seemed to simply be a rehash of LOR. But, I did read "Tailchasers Song," by Tad Williams and although I have cats was really surprised to find out he was actually a dude. Don't get me wrong, the writing style didn't necessarily reflect gender, I really liked the whole cats as mythic heroes thing. I grew up around ferals and barn cats there is nothing really frou-frou about 'em. But, everything I'd read, except Tailchaser was written by women or had these weird, fanciful, cutesy sort of vibes that would lead you to believe they were written by a woman. Also about that time I bought a rather odd book based on it's cover appeal and it was about college, which I was attending at the time, called, "The Big U." I thought the book was great. I couldn't explain why, but I loved it. At any rate, life got weird, I didn't stay in SF or heroic fantasy because it all seemed so damned stilted and where I was at, their were few other SF readers. 15 years later, I found out that Stephenson had written other books and he hated that first one. I read 'em, loved 'em and am currently trying to branch out further into hard SF. I like Peter Watts, but many others seem to have one good story, but nothing more. As far as epic goes, I'd never call Stephenson an epic SF writer...but Lord, a triology of books with 900+ pages as an average! Talk about a baroque story line!

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

I agree the genre distinctions are mostly marketing, and I suspect the gender stuff falls out of that. Hence, big fat multivolume vaguely medieval series written by male authors tend to get labeled "epic fantasy" and lumped in with Martin and Jordan, while big fat multivolume vaguely medieval series written by female authors (Melanie Rawn, Sharon Shinn) don't get the epic label, and get skewed toward romantic, no matter how many battles and dead bodies pile up. It's about "if you liked X, you'll love Y".

Melanie Rawn books are CLEARLY marketed as epics -- they come in giant thick volumes with Michael Whelan covers, and nothing is more on-point than that.

As for Rothfuss, I know what you're getting at, Chad, but I think they still have the epic feeling to them. They do the travelogue thing, they do the coming of age thing, they do the acquisition of power thing, and they do the thing where characters sit around spinning tales of ancient history to explain who the bad guys are.

In fact, I think Rothfuss is actually a bit of a throwback -- if you leave the narrative style out of it, he's actually a lot more like Feist/Eddings/Brooks than he is like Jordan/Martin/Sanderson.

Melanie Rawn is still writing?!

. . . googles . . .

Okay, two books in the last decade, both of which are modern-day urban fantasy/paranormal. All her thick Whelan-cover books were in the 1990s.

Tangent over.

What about Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion books?

Sorry Kate, didn't mean to get your hopes up about Melanie Rawn (if that's what I did.) Captal's Tower is never going to be written.

Sherri, I'm not sure I've ever read any of her books--I may have read one of the very early ones, but obviously it didn't stick--I was just surprised to see her being used as an example in a discussion about active writers.

I have read Rawn, so she was just an author who came to mind when I thought of big fat multivolume vaguely medieval series. And her books remain in print, even though she didn't finish her last big fat vaguely medieval trilogy (hence the Captal's Tower reference.)

In fact, I think Rothfuss is actually a bit of a throwback -- if you leave the narrative style out of it, he's actually a lot more like Feist/Eddings/Brooks than he is like Jordan/Martin/Sanderson.

I don't think you can really leave the narrative style out, though. I mean, that's really the most interesting thing about the books-- the third-person framing-story bits are so ostentatiously angsty that I have trouble reading them for my eyes rolling. They make me wish I was reading on paper, rather than electronically, because skimming is much easier with paper books. It's Peter Watts levels of overwrought, and if the whole things was written that way, I'd've given up long ago.

While there are hints of bigger plot to come, the focus of at least the first one is way narrower than even the Feist/ Eddings/ Brooks scale-- yeah, he has a long-term goal of confronting something ultimately evil-ish, but in terms of the immediate plot, it has more in common with Harry Potter than David Eddings. The whole thing just feels smaller than what I'd call "epic," even in an old school sense. Feist's first books, maybe, but he got completely ridiculous after a while.

I mention Brust because the Vlad books also have the giant cosmic plot hanging in the background-- gods and demons and Jenoine, oh my-- but the immediate focus of the books is much smaller, dealing with just one protagonist and his immediate associates. And, of course, there's a first-person smartass voice, though Brust is way better at dialogue. I wouldn't put these in Brust's league, writing-wise, but the feel of what he's doing is must more like Brust than Martin.

Brust actually fits epic fantasy better with the Parfi books, which have the empire sweep and various viewpoints rampaging about.

Maybe books should get a Tough Guide to Fantasy rating, indicating how well the guide describes them. Epic Fantasy gets a high rating. Using this metric, the Rothfuss qualifies much better than any Brust.

I'm pretty sure that Rothfuss's idea is to do the entire epic fantasy thing while skipping over the "epic" parts. Either that, or he's going to be stuffing a whole lot of stuff in the third book (which assumes, of course, that unlike every other fantasy author in existence who's not Brandon Sanderson, he'll actually finish his trilogy in three books.)

I think I've decided I'm not a big fan.

And, for what it's worth, Melanie Rawn's entrance into urban fantasy is godawful.

It's only epic fantasy if the women all tug on braids and sniff a lot, and women don't write that?

(ducks and hides)

Seriously, when the definition of epic fantasy is "can't have close focus on characters and character relationships", even if the world-building is equivalent, you're going to skew the gender distribution. I read a lot of fantasy set in epic worlds. Looking at definition lists, I read very little epic fantasy.