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.