Recently, I spoke with Daniel E Blackston, editor of two fantasy anthologies published by Pitch-Black Books about current and future of fantasy fiction.
Your anthologies Sages & Swords and Lord of Swords are collections of heroic fantasy short stories. Why do you think this type of fiction remains popular?
Thereís something timeless about stories that pit interesting heroes who face long odds against dynamic villains. If you think about it, this is the rudimentary basis of most commercial fiction genres. It all depends upon the authenticity with which the elements of a particular genre are articulated. In other words, someone who is an excellent writer of westerns may be a lukewarm sword and sorcery writer, even if, in cold analysis, certain technical elements of plot, characterization, and theme are virtually identical across the genres. The key is that a given writer grasps the subtleties of the genre theyíre trying to exploit.
On a more esoteric and/or aesthetic level, I think the enduring popularity of heroic fantasy is rooted in the same basis of power as other popular fiction genres like mystery, romance, or horror. These places of power emerge from myth and psychological archetypes. These archetypes, in some ways, partake of "evolution," but in a very real sense, they are eternal, because archetypes transcend any particular vision or interpretation of them. Cosmically Ė myth makes as apt (and far more enduring) of a description of cosmic forces and human reality as the rhetoric and logic of physics or astronomy. That seems a long way from Conan, doesnít it?
For those not already well acquainted with heroic fantasy fiction, which authors would you recommend? Any up and coming authors you'd like to see more from?
Well, if youíre just starting out, and you are lucky enough not to have already read them, Iíd certainly recommend Tolkien, Howard, and Le Guin. I can hear certain folks objecting to Le Guin already, but I consider her Earthsea trilogy a masterpiece. Anything by Tanith Lee. Other great classic writers are Karl Edward Wagner, T.H. White, Mervyn Peake, L. Sprague De Camp, Harold Lamb, Lord Dunsany. I could go on....
The thing is, my tastes in heroic fantasy are very eclectic. I enjoy a wide-range of authors and styles. Everything from R.A. Salvatore to China Mieville, although if you are marking them as "poles" on a spectrum of heroic fantasy, Iíd consider my tastes closer to the Salvatore pole. Iím not a big fan of "urban fantasy" or what a lot of people call "slipstream" fantasy, which seems to me to be largely comprised of fiction which is seriously deprived of fantasy content.
If weíre talking about contemporary heroic fantasy writers of short fiction, there are a lot of hot writers on my radar because thatís part of my job, after-all. Names that spring to mind are Vera Nazarian, Dave Felts, Howard Andrew Jones, Nathan Meyer, and Barbara Tarbox. But thatís really just scratching the surface. Two writers I guarantee you should keep an eye on are Sean T.M. Stiennon and Eugie Foster. Both are contributors to the Sages and Swords anthology, and these are writers with distinctive styles and robust imaginations. If someone could pay any of the writers I mentioned above a living wage to write heroic fantasy fiction, the results would far exceed the investment.
What do you think is essential to a good fantasy story? How important is magic, or fantasy races and creatures?
I have a great fondness for magic and I think it is a crucial element of any heroic fantasy story. I am, in fact, sorely tempted to give you a long and involved explanation of my feelings on this subject, but Iíll do my best to summarize. Letís put it this way: magic, in heroic fantasy, has traditionally represented the "irrational" or the "unknown" and it is by confrontation with these dangerous (or least perceived as dangerous) quantities that tension and suspense has been achieved in heroic fantasy. The sound and sane (if battle-mad) barbarian grunts his way past superstition and greets the steaming demon with a swift blade to the heart. In other words, human rationality, no matter how brutal, no matter how primitive, can cut right into the heart of the mysterious, the arcane, and the cosmically ambiguous or unknown. It is a matter of simplification. Like slicing right through the Gregorian knot.
However, this is, to some extent, heroic fantasyís past. And by saying that Iím not trying to disparage the past, at all. I have a great reverence for heroic fantasyís traditions and, as an editor, I consciously select stories that celebrate these traditions and conventions.
I do believe it is important for heroic fantasy to evolve and to Ė if you will Ė penetrate even deeper into the themes and substances of magic, as well as magick, which is a completely different thing than Ďmagic.í If Howardís "Conan" can be construed as a symbol of manís rudimentary rational senses and innate integrity in the face of irrational, primeval, and magical forces, then we, in the twenty-first century, are entitled to as iconic a character, whose attributes and symbolic functions extend that first, almost superstitious, barbaric confrontation with the supernatural or preternatural.
This precise dynamic is achieved splendidly in the story, "Detour at Abbinford," by Barbara Tarbox, which is in the Sages and Swords anthology. Here, Barb has succeeded in extending the sword and sorcery genre in a meaningful way by blurring the lines between rational and irrational, magic and strength of arms and moral fortitude. A brilliant story, in my opinion.
Anyone browsing the children's section at a bookstore can see the huge impact the popularity of such books as the Harry Potter series and Eragon have had on young adult fiction. Is the children's market giving the adult market a boost?
You bet. Iím not one of those people who has spent considerable effort looking for a "bad" side to the Harry Potter phenomenon. The success of Rowlingís series more or less confirms my own feelings on popular fiction and what flies. I didnít predict Harry Potter, of course, but Iím not in the least bit surprised.
In fact, Iím elated to see so many young people reading speculative fiction. It makes my day. Now, what the speculative fiction genre was most in danger of, by my reckoning, prior to Harry Potter (and Paolini and Eragon, etc) was the so-called "Graying of SF." Thatís a reality, too, not simply an assumption Ė or it was Ė prior to the "new wave" of YA speculative fiction.
I come out of a literary background, personally Ė I am a poet and I am educated literary matters Ė but, however much I may admire literary SF, or spec-lit, I never thought it was a good solution to the shrinking audience base for speculative fiction. And, for the record, I donít feel there is any innate conflict between spec-lit and commercial SF. Itís purely a matter, as R.A. Salvatore intimated in his interview with me (available in Sages and Swords), of personal snobbery and ego in many cases.
The last thing speculative fiction, and particularly fantasy fiction needs to be is pompous, erudite, or self-involved. And by this, I mean: it is fairly easy to pillage literary traditions and fashions of the past, throw in a dash of "speculative" content, and feel you have created both a literary work and a work of speculative fiction. Iím a skeptic on pastiching of this variety. Couldnít I then, simply add an android to Hemingwayís "Nick Adams" stories and, in doing so, create some very real narrative tension and inventiveness? Sure. Itís still just a pastiche, though. Itís like certain kinds of pop music that rely so heavily on sampling. Is it original? Maybe. Does it sell? Probably, because of nostalgia for the original content or technique.
But, back to your question: yes and thank the fates for it!
In general, what do you see as the future of fantasy fiction? Is there still a place for the well-known conventions or the genre (quests, good v. evil, etc) or are readers looking for something fresh?
As I said, fantasy fiction seems to endure by virtue of eternal archetypes. If you go back to the Mabinogion, youíll find conventions of fantasy fiction that still propel pop-songs and popular fantasy fiction, movies, and games to this day. "Rhiannon" is a Celtic Goddess. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is a Celtic turn of phrase. The idea of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is implied in the most ancient surviving poetic-epics on the face of the earth. What Iíd like to see from fantasy fiction in the near-term future, is the development of a narrative style that truly represents a contemporary voice and Ė writers who write stories rather than elegant prose. Thereís far too much concern paid at the grassroots level by fantasy fiction writers on writing technique and not nearly enough on theme and world-building. The key to any work of fiction is character. It seems to me that fantasy writers are slow to react to the changing publishing conditions and by that I mean online and electronic publishing and I have not seen convincing evidence yet that new writers are adapting narrative technique Ė even slightly Ė to accommodate the new pulp, which is electronic publishing. Itís like everyone is holding their breath waiting.