Wednesday 2 February 2011

I blame Tolkien!

So, yesterday I found myself in a big chain bookshop. I don't normally frequent such places, but – well – it was raining, and seemed more interesting than the greeting card shop next door. Naturally I went to the 'Fantasy and Science Fiction' section (because of course, these genres are the same) to see what was on offer.

Doorstops. Nothing but doorstops. The science-fiction wasn't as bad here, and at least there were a few books that I wouldn't need a back-brace to pick up, but I don't think I saw a fantasy novel weighing in at least than seven hundred pages...and most of them were part of trilogies or longer series! When I look at the old Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber paperbacks on my shelves at home, I am led to wonder how we got to a situation where apparently a fantasy novel must resemble a brick!

The rot started with the 'Lord of the Rings', I think. As with any successful work – and no-one can argue that Tolkien represents a critical aspect of the fantasy genre, though I must admit I personally think that he is a tad over-venerated, there were bound to be imitators. Now this is bad enough when it is taken in terms of style and setting – how many pseudo-Tolkien sagas set in fantasied European settings are there out there – but that was not the only 'lesson' that was taken. Big is Good! The more pages the better! And the result – huge, heavy books that tell no more story than a writer like Clark Ashton Smith (who could do in a short story what took Tolkien a trilogy), but using about a hundred times as many words.

OK, I admit it, I'm biased here. I'm a freakisly fast reader, but darn it all, I don't like large paperbacks! The spines crack in the middle, they are cumbersome to read, and never mind the fact that such rambling plots never seem to go anywhere! Give me one of the old Sphere Conan paperbacks any day of the week.

So that's what I intend to do. No hundred-thousand-word epics for me!


  1. I beg to differ. Tolkien, and I'm assuming you're referring to LotR, did not write a brick. The book we're used to seeing is actually six books, originally published as three volumes. And the entire thing is not a lot more than 1,100 pages with appendices.

    If you want to blame someone, blame the publishing industry. They pay authors by the word these days, or so I'm told.

  2. I think it is unfortunate that fantasy seems to need to be epic in scope requiring multi-volume tomes to complete. If you think back to the 70's and before, many fantasy stories were one of novels, novellas or short stories in fantasy/sci-fi mags. I actually lay the blame more on TSR. TSR you say? Yep, look at Dragon Lance and the Forgotten Realms novels. Dragonlance originally was written so that if the novels didn't sell well, then the first book could ostensibly be self contained. Well, there was a public out there hungry for epic fantasy (I'll admit as a teen I was one) and thus the large sprawl of many stories was born. Granted, there were other series like Thieves World, the Piers Anthony books, the Belgariad, etc, but I think TSR really cemented this as the norm rather than the exception. It was about that time you began to see the shorter, self contained stories kind of disappear.

    Not necessarily saying that I am angry at TSR for this, they were simply trying to make a profit off of what they thought folks wanted, but they really had a hand in the generation of these large multivolume tomes. Have you seen the later Dragonlance series? One of the books in the latest trilogy is about the size of the original trilogy in its entirety.

  3. I prefer short stories, brevity being the soul of wit and all...

  4. I'm a short story fan myself. I have nothing particularly against epics, but I like atmosphere and ideas in fiction on the fantastic--and those are less dilute in shorter works.

  5. @Harald: Hear, hear!

    If you buy LotR broken up into individual books like I did, it takes up less space on your shelf than Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser do.