Postmodernism in fantasy: huh?

Brandon Sanderson recently wrote a piece with the lofty title “Postmodernism in Fantasy” that makes some interesting points. He claims (as far as I can tell, feel free to comment) that virtually all fantasy after Tolkien is in some sense postmodern. Or perhaps he means that all fantasy written after the fantasy that was written as a reaction to Tolkien is postmodern.

His main criterion for what makes a fantasy novel postmodern appears to be how much it subverts or breaks away from the body of work that is primarily imitative of Tolkien. He explains that previous attempts at postmodernism typically yielded unsatisfying results because they were only modifying particular tropes or modestly tweaking expectations; they were either still too similar to the source material to appeal to people seeking originality, or they resorted to twists that undermined the genre rather than expanding its scope. His example:

“Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”

This book idea, he claims, fails because it will alienate readers who enjoy the beginning and therefore feel betrayed by the twist at the end, as well as readers who are immediately bored by the beginning’s lack of originality. He says it’s a fine line between subverting established tropes in an entertaining way, while conforming to those very tropes because readers expect and desire them.

The success of the books was in hitting the right balance for the right people; those like myself who love the old epics, and like some resonance with them—but who also want something new in their storytelling. That careful blend of the familiar and the strange, mixed up and served to people who have tastes like my own.

But, as Jeff VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not reducible to some cosmic scales with convention on one side and originality on the other. Even the definition of postmodernism on Wikipedia states, “Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance…” It has many elements but not necessarily all at once, and even those elements are up for debate. I like the way he sums up his argument:

Perhaps the most important point in all of this (and this now has nothing to do with anything Sanderson said in his post) is that writers don’t choose the way they view the world–that’s inherent in their psyche. When you view the world a certain way, you may gravitate toward certain approaches and techniques–with digressions because no one is all one thing–but it’s not a cynical matter of deciding to be experimental or deciding to be postmodern rather than a modernist, for example.

My humble opinions: It’s one thing to know your genre–modern marketing requires it of any writer. It’s also wise to know what has come before in order to avoid excessive repetition and inadvertently retread well-worn ground. But as far as classifying your work beyond that? Leave it to the literary critics. If you’re choosing your themes and techniques to deliberately conform to some nebulous, decentralized, disorganized and ill-defined literary movement, I submit that perhaps your priorities are skewed.

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11 Responses to “Postmodernism in fantasy: huh?”

  1. Valerie says:

    Sanderson has responded to some of the critiques here, if anyone is interested in even more reading:

  2. John Wiswell says:

    Given that Tolkien was drawing on so much mythology to create his own thing, you could easily toss The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings onto the postmodern pile. If any fiction that reacts to previous works is postmodern, then Virgil’s Aeneid was postmodern for reacting to Homer’s Odyssey, and Homer, recycling existing history, was likewise postmodern. It’s simply not a definition you can get any good use from.

  3. Laura Eno says:

    This is why I hate genre/labels so much. I write what’s in my head – period. The end result is always a crossover mix. I would label all of my writing as escapism reading and nothing else if I could. 🙂

  4. MKR says:

    It’s like how all new media players are compared to the iPod. There were lots of lots of neat players before it, but it was that one that got everyone thinking about the concept.

    It’s possible to make a new fantasy novel/media player without looking at the one that defines the genre, but there’s a reason they were so successful.

    Now for the fun question: tell me some fantasy books that aren’t Tolkienesque. I’m a sci-fi nerd, so haven’t dipped much in to the fantasy box.

    I require reading.

  5. Valerie says:

    John, I tend to agree. There comes a point where using that as your metric is going to yield a set of everything but Tolkien, in Venn diagram world. I don’t think Sanderson believed that to be the only criterion, just a major one, and his argument was interesting to read but ultimately pretty weak. As he notes in his “rebuttal,” his intent was more to explain his own work and approach, not to make pronouncements on all of fantasy literature, but he kind of did the latter anyway. I say this as a fan of his, by the way; I saw him at DragonCon a few years ago and he was a super nice dude, very humble and kind of nerdy in an endearing way. I will be eternally jealous of the magic system he created for Mistborn.

    Laura, I feel like genre serves the purpose of helping people sift through books rapidly, if that makes sense. In the same way that SAT scores are a lame way to judge college students’ suitability, yet incredibly useful for large-scale sorting, genre is a shortcut to finding books that a given person is likely to enjoy. Again, though, that’s something more for marketers than writers. At the same time, like I said, I think it’s worth being cognizant of genre history and tropes to avoid staleness.

  6. Valerie says:

    MKR: a few authors that come to mind are Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones and Tim Powers. Urban fantasy is a sub-genre that tends to combine elements of fantasy with things like mystery and suspense and horror; this isn’t to say that “high fantasy” can’t do the same, but urban fantasy does it in a modern setting. That alone tends to set it apart from the Tolkienesque. Let me peruse my bookshelves and see if I can throw any other names your way.

  7. M. Dominic says:

    Man, I don’t understand fantasy at all.

    I am trying to read Sanderson’s novel though. Uhm, the new one? The Way of Kings? I don’t think I have the brainpower for it though, sadly.

  8. K says:

    I think literature would benefit from something similar to the Music Genome Project — an attempt to break down a work into its component pieces and categorize those, instead of trying to shove it into a slightly arbitrary ‘best fit’ category. There would be kinks, sure, but I like the idea of specific elements along with broad categories. Perhaps tropes are a place to start, the more specific the better.

  9. Laura Eno says:

    By the way, I am now (trying) to read LOTR for the very first time. LOL! Since I write fantasy I figured I should know why people refer to it so often in the genre.

  10. Valerie says:

    Melissa, I’m not sure what there is to “understand” about fantasy. I would argue that it’s the closest genre we presently have to the oldest of our collective stories; it evokes epics like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Beowulf, and everything in between. It hearkens back to legends and fairy stories told in family units and at social gatherings from well before there was anyone to write them down. It can be purely escapist, as some stories are regardless of genre, but it can also examine and illuminate facets of the human condition that are best explored through hyperbole and allegory. Most speculative fiction operates in a similar fashion, using the fantastic to comment on the real.

    It also tends to incorporate aspects of other genres, such as mystery or horror or suspense, to appeal to a wider range of readers. I know I often bring up Pratchett as an example, so here I go again: his Watch books are detective stories, pure and simple, but they happen to include dwarves and werewolves and vampires and dragons and magic. Most of his Discworld books after the first couple are also biting social commentary in some form or fashion. Fantasy may be the most pliable of the genres because there is so much to play with.

    If you have any specific questions, ask away! Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t. 😉

  11. Valerie says:

    K, I think that would be a rad experiment that could potentially revolutionize how we look at genre. I am all for it.

    Laura, read on! At best, you’ll fall in love like so many others over the years. At worst, you’ll know what everyone else is talking about. I found the series a bit dry but loved The Hobbit.

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