Postmodernism in Fantasy

Since this is the latest SFF discussion which has created a few waves, I thought some of you might be interested. . .

As a guest blogger on John Scalzi's Whatever, bestselling author Brandon Sander wrote an essay titled "Postmodernism in Fantasy." Here's a teaser:

Before postmodern literature can start appearing in a genre (and therefore, before deconstructionists can start pointing out the irony inherent in that postmodern literature) you need to have a body of work with dominant themes and concepts. You need an audience familiar enough with those themes to recognize when they are being molded, changed, and built upon.

Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late ’70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)

You can read the essay here.

Two days later, Jeff VanderMeer wrote his own essay on the subject. Here's an extract:

Brandon Sanderson, god love ‘im, does a somewhat crappy job of defining postmodernism here. For one thing, “postmodernism” isn’t some monolithic thing, so to describe it as he does, even within the more limited context of fantasy, is misleading. For another, some subjects do require a more complex treatment, so when you simplify them down, as Sanderson admits he is, you actually wind up losing the ability to convey any real information in what you are saying. What Sanderson says in his blog entry is largely meaningless.

You can read the full article here.

To a certain extent, the comments left in response to both essay are more interesting than the essays themselves. So you might want to check it out. . .

8 commentaires:

machinery said...

from what i always understood, tolkien became popular in the mid 60's, decades after the publishing of lotr.

Eric M. Edwards said...

It was a good day for the SFF blogsphere, in my opinion.

A lot of readers and writers in the genre bemoan the fact that the literary world rarely takes SFF seriously. That there is an intellectual snobbery in place that keeps "them," the literary establishment, from recognizing its true worth. That we don't win (or even get a listing) in most of the major scrambles for prizes.

Preconceptions and the emptiness of prizes aside, it would help if the community at large were to take themselves, especially fantasy, more seriously from time to time. If fans as well as authors were willing to step up and take more risks - by experimenting outside the common limitations and expectations, of the genre. This sort of thoughtful discussion (with very little name calling I was happy to note or cries of elitism and snobbery in the first tier of responses) might well become more common. And yes, I'm aware we have some great writers currently active in the genre who are doing their best to raise the bar, but I still find them to be in the minority. And while they have their appreciators, too often I hear negative comments by fans and bloggers who are looking for frankly, simpler fare. No doubt there is the hurdle of the publishers to jump as well, as the lowest common denominator often sells.

With those caveats aside, there is I'm realizing more and more (though it's never been a surprise) some very nimble minded and well "read" readers out there who have the platform to discuss their criticism, literary musings, and in-depth opinions like never before. Good to see that it can be used to spark such lively, smart conversation rather than just shit-stirring and meetings of the various mutual appreciation societies that flourish alongside it. Oh, and free give-aways.

I noted that there were ripples spreading out, with authors and readers talking intelligently about world building, magic systems, and critical reading of text - questions being posed, and long (for the interweb) considered pauses while people chose to go off and think, rather than just reply defensively or dismiss.

I hope it continues.

Keep up the good work,


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I totally agree the comments are more interesting than either post. And that's a really good thing because my fear is it'd devolve into name-calling or something. I think I'll even amend my blog post's opening para, because although the style of my blog is sometimes off-the-cuff and sharp that para doesn't fit the conversation in the comments.

I also thought Sanderson was a gent in his comments. And I learned a few things.



Patrick said...

See, the SFF Blogosphere can sometimes surprise even the most jaded of us! ;-)

Anonymous said...

The reason the "literary establishment" doesn't take fantasy seriously, is because the vast majority of it is garbage. The same old plot lines, characters, stilted prose, and a general lack of intellectual sophistication. The fact is, few fantasy authors are even trying to write "literature." They simply aim to give readers an exciting read.

There are notable exceptions; Gene Wolfe, comes to mind.

Just my two cents....


Anonymous said...

I don't know what "postmodernism" exactly means. It seems to be quite a vague conception and not even necessarily bound up with modern times even though its name would suggest specifically temporal characteristics. Could we say with a straight face something about medieval post-modern writings?

And since I've seen labels such as post-postmodernism, I've gathered that perhaps I shouldn't feel too uncultured about this.

Luke said...


Problem is, the vast majority of EVERY genre is trash. You can sweepingly generalise ANY genre by snidely reducing it to a few cumbersome standbys that "define" it.

Plus, what exactly is fantasy? You seem to be referring to only high/epic fantasy. Isn't, say...anything with fantastic elements technically fantasy? Yes, unless of course it's hailed by critics, at which point it's promoted to literature.

All of this has been discussed before, and better, and in more detail, but you get the idea.

Nightflier said...

I shall have no God but Prime and Pat is his prophet :)