Growing Tired of Fantasyland

I was at the bookstore today, and my buddy Mur (who is awesome and also just got interviewed by USA Today, and has a new book coming out which includes many things that really truly happened to us in New Orleans) gave a book a vague recommendation. “It’s okay,” she said. “It didn’t work for me, but it might for you. I’ll loan it to you.”

“Eh,” I said, realizing that there was no chance I would read this book. “I’m just not reading very much genre fiction these days. Well, our genre, anyway.”

And this is the truth. My genre–my great love and the one that everything I write wanders into–is fantasy. I love fantasy. I love it dearly and I believe it is terribly important and it was the one thing I wanted to read as a kid and god help me, I am so very sick of nearly all of it.

There are still a few authors that I will buy instantly, immediately, without checking my bank balance. Most of them are fantasy, though a couple of mystery/horror have slunk in there. And I read them. And I enjoy them.

And I go on jags where what I want is Miss Marple or Brother Cadfael (and the nice thing about being me is that my memory is not what it used to be and I can’t always remember who the bad guy is.) or Georgette Heyer, and I re-read them with great love. And there are times when I re-read fantasy I love, and I still love it very much. It is a visit to an old and much-loved friend’s house.

But I scan the new book section of Barnes & Noble and go “Cloak-guy, Cloak-guy, Steampunk Guy, Cloak-guy, Tiger, Cloak-guy, John Jude Palencar That I Would Buy A Print Of But Not The Book, Tough Urban Fantasy Woman, Cloak-guy.*”

None of it excites me. It’s the setting, I think. Has to be. I picked up The Ghost Bride and read it in two fascinated days. When I discovered Sarah Addison Allen’s magical realism books, I devoured every single one, one after another.

I think I am tired of Fantasyland.

You know where it is. It’s the vague European city and countryside that has no sense of place to it. (Chocolat, for example, was magical realism set in a European city, but it by god had a sense of place to it that is not remotely found in most fantasy. I would not cry if most of these cities were half so clearly rendered as Chocolat.) There are no plants in it that are not darkly dripping trees, healing herbs, cloak-catching brambles or grass suitable for feeding horses/rolling around in. Oh, and heather. You can order a DLC pack with heather in it, if you’re trying to write a vaguely Celtic fantasy. Angry carnivorous vines cost extra.

The only birds are crows, swans, eagles, and vultures, forming a somewhat improbable aerial food-chain.

This is not, however, a call for more non-Eurocentric fantasy, because people have made that call better than I will, and anyway, I write many things set in vaguely European fantasy worlds and so I have no moral high-ground whatsoever.

(Perhaps that’s part of the problem. A book set in Fantasyland is not escapism for me anymore, it’s attending a party at work. Reading most fantasy novels now is pretty much a staycation.)

Perhaps it’s just a call for books to take me someplace that I haven’t been already. Many, many times.

Most of the books I read and love now are set in places, when I think of it, some of them real-ish, like–McCall’s Botswana or Peters’ England, some of them not, like McKinley’s Damar and Pratchett’s Discworld. (The rest seem to have grisly murders. Suitably grisly murders will stand in just fine for a sense of place, apparently.)

I cannot bear what China Mieville does to his characters most times, and I will still buy any Bas-Lag book he puts out, even if Iron Council did make me want to yell “Yes, we get it, you’re a communist, that’s fine, you’re among friends.”  Because his books will take me somewhere I have not been.

And I return to LeGuin’s Kesh whenever I am reminded, because that is a place, a real and true place, that merely happens not to exist. Gont and Atuan too, though not quite so starkly.

Hand in hand with my increasing ennui toward Fantasyland is a great boredom with its denizens. You will have to do something truly extraordinary with fairies to impress me these days. Otherwise they are just more people from work. “This is Oberon, from Accounting.” (Do not even talk to me about vampires.) Dragons have been done and dragons that are friendly characters have been done and I have witnessed many states of their done-ness and about the only one that I still find interesting is the one where they are a not-particularly-exciting form of vermin, because very few people do that yet.

I am desperately tired of farmboys in search of their lonely destiny, and if you are going to introduce yourself as a ranger, you goddamn well be putting out fires and fretting over declining woodpecker populations in the next paragraph.

If you are plucky or spunky or feisty, I come pre-tired of you.

If you are from the Kingdom of Blah, ruled by blah, and must awaken the blah within yourself, with the aid of a rag-tag band of misfit blahs, in a desperate race against time before the terrible Blah occurs, we are done here.

(And yet I still love fairy tales. They still work for me. I do not know why this should be, but it is. I could read fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings all day, and sometimes I do.)

This is not, believe it or not, a call for recommendations. I am actually pretty okay with my ennui. It is as if I have acquired a weird and genre-specific form of depression–no, I don’t care, I don’t even care that I don’t care, there are days when I care very much but not many and mostly there is simply no reason to get out of the fantasy bed in the morning if the day is only going to be more dragons and heroes and vampires and nobody is going to bother to grow peas.

Sadly, while I have dealt with depression as it applies to life, I am not sure how one deals with it when it comes to a genre. They do not make fantasy-specific Zoloft. There are no therapies available for when you have burned out your sense of literary wonder.

So I flail away at my books set in deserts and my gardener heroes, I throw saints into everything because fantasy is sadly bereft of saints, and I try not to feel too much guilt about that thing I just finished that was set in a vaguely European forest or that other thing with the castle. I write about priests and grandmothers and hoopoes in waistcoats.

But mostly I just scan over the new releases and feel no desire to read any of them.

(And some of them are by friends! Who are good people! Who I want to support, and who I KNOW are doing exciting things with the genre, and I just…got nuthin’. Mind you, I still buy the books, because I want to be supportive. And Kevin reads them.)

So I sit in the tub with gardening books. And mysteries. And Gothics. There is no shortage of reading material out there. And except for the vague feeling of guilt that I should be reading this because I’m writing it, and if I don’t love it enough to read it, why the hell am I writing it?–I’m fine with that.

I have no desire to write mysteries. If I try, the protagonist turns into a were-bear. (I tried. It happened.) Fantasy is the thing I do.

I just find, increasingly, that when I’m off work, I want to leave Fantasyland and go someplace else for awhile. And so few books in my genre seem able to do that.



*Seriously, Cloak-guy is getting around. Mur and I counted sixteen hooded figures in flowy cloaks on covers last week, and only two of them were on Assassin’s Creed novelizations.

21 thoughts on “Growing Tired of Fantasyland

  1. Natalie says:

    Ahhh time for a palate cleanse. This happens to me, where it all seems the same tropes and characters are appearing so i jump genre to SciFi or Romance or non-fiction or or or… The other genres have so many different sub genres that you can usually find something that appeals when i feel like i am sick of reading one particular genre.
    Reading recommendation for something different (if you havent already read them) is the Liaden series by Sharon Miller and Steven Lee – i recommend starting with Agent of Change. It has giant talking turtles:) These are one of my re-reads when nothing else appeals to me and there is like 15 books in the series with books set in different times in the story universe.

  2. Corylea says:

    What a wonderful rant! I agree completely, and I don’t even write fantasy. (My writing is limited to Star Trek fan fiction, and yes, I know I should blush about that. :-D)

    I think maybe it’s not just that you write fantasy as that we’re people Of A Certain Age, and by the time one gets to this age, we’ve SEEN all the common themes. One’s FIRST ranger or vampire or Farmboy With A Destiny is a wondrous thing … the hundredth one, not so much.

    At our age, real creativity is required to overcome the DONE-with-that ennui, and that’s okay. Old ladies get to be choosy; it’s one of our rights. ;-)

  3. Kettlesmith says:

    I think it is more of a fatigue. I love fantasy and science fiction literature, but once I got a job reading reports all day, I found that I needed to be very fussy with what I read. Weak fluffy writing can’t hold me. My eyes glaze over and I find myself mired in the same sentence, without realizing it. Just like at work, only without a work ethic dragging me through the document.

    Your hobby, fantasy, has become your work. It is not an escapism for your mind, because you think those thoughts for a check. When your hobby becomes work, you need to find a new hobby, escapism, whatever. I read that advice by some artist doing a wombat webcomic. Probably have never heard of her, but I think her wisdom works here. *grin*

  4. Amy says:

    That’s totally understandable. I picked up Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and nearly threw the thing across the room because it was about An Orphaned Boy With a Great Destiny. Though I’m deeply tired of that particular stripe of character, the world was solid, the story was interesting, and the character could be forgiven as the ideas in the books stayed with me.

    _Zoo City_ by Lauren Beukes is wonderfully different urban fantasy, and I ended up reading it in nearly one sitting.

    Despite the cloaked figure cover, the orphaned boy protagonist, and the vaguely European setting, I adore _The Name of the Wind_ by Patrick Rothfuss with something akin to fanaticism. The world, its mechanics, the pacing, the craftsmanship, I love it all and have reread the blasted giant thing several times.

    Actually, I’m having trouble thinking of a fantasy protagonist with living and involved parents. Hmm.

  5. Heather R. says:

    If you like Georgette Heyer, and you like space opera, you might enjoy the Liaden books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (I’ve seen a picture on their Facebook feed of you and them on a panel together somewhere, so maybe this recommendation has already passed), which I’ve always described to people as “space opera meets regency romance.”

    There’s something like 18 books written over the past 25 years, but fortunately they are written in such a way that there’s several good entry points into the series. If you want a more straight up space opera action, start with Agent of Change. If you want more of the cultural and social interactions, start with Local Culture or Scout’s Progress. And if you want a coming of age story, start with Fledgling.

    I’ve found myself largely burnt out on genre, but the Liaden books are among the few series that I read over and over again.

    • Heather R. says:

      Sorry, I just realized you didn’t want recommendations. *embarassed look*

      Feel free to delete both these posts. I shouldn’t be reading long blog posts after midnight, it seems.

      • Amy says:

        Oh, buggrit, you’re right. I missed that negative there and in my defense I was posting recs at 4 am, and really, nothing suggested at that time of day is likely to be useful. *sigh*

        Delete mine too, for my terrible early morning reading comprehension.

  6. Elly says:

    I hit a similar wall with the fantasy genre almost 20 years ago. (I think it came early for me because I was choosing so much truly terrible fantasy that the repetitive less-inspired elements became tiresome much more quickly…) These days, with a few glowing exceptions, most of my favorite magically-based fiction falls far enough outside the conventions that it’s not even marketed in the genre. Which, now that I think about it, seems like a shame, to the extent that its exclusion limits its influence on the genre as a whole; but on the other hand, were it packaged as “fantasy,” it might not have hit my radar at all…

  7. Julia says:

    I too find myself buying fewer and fewer fantasy books, but part of the blame at least must be put on the publishers and bookstore buyers. There’s good stuff being written, but its very hard to get it published. The cure for such ennui is to get hold of a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, get together with a group of friends, take turn to read it out loud, and fall about laughing – while at the same time wondering how it did not put a stop to all the sameness 18 years ago. Then read any other of her books to remind yourself what original is like.

  8. LonOtter says:

    I just realized I’m tired of Fantasyland, too, with some similar exceptions. This would explain why my TBR pile is mostly non-fiction, mysteries with a quirky or paranormal bent, and the occasional bit of horror.

  9. Escher says:

    I don’t read much vaguely-european fantasy anymore myself. I think I burned myself out on Wheel of Time (where I ‘read’ the last, oh… four books purely on audiobook and mostly out of a resigned sense of obligation to see where this is all going) and played all the D&D I could stand back in the day, and now I’m done with faux-medievalism for a while. I may audiobook “The Blade Itself” sooner or later on a friend’s recommendation.

    Other kinds of fantasy are fine; I’ll pick up each Dresden Files as soon as it comes out, and the Destroyermen series* continues to hold my interest, though it’s arguably more sci-fi than fantasy (it straddles the ill-defined line). But it doesn’t seem to matter how interesting the premise is, I’m just not interested in quasi-medieval fantasy these days. Maybe it’s not just you, Ursula…

    * An aging WWII destroyer is transported to the south pacific of parallel a world where the K-T asteroid never hit and dinosaurs evolved into the violent dominant intelligent species.

  10. Wolf Lahti says:

    John Crowley, in a LiveJournal entry, 6 Jan 2007, said, “I am going to ask my students to read one book of travel, history, cultural anthropology, or similar account that will illustrate this contention, and shame them out of concocting another pseudo-medieval non-society peopled by folks like themselves (and a few dragons and vampires, also much like themselves).”

  11. Andrew Ragland says:

    Thanks, Ursula. I have sent a link to this rant out to the writing team for 1879, with instructions to read it and take it to heart. Our steamweird roleplaying game must absolutely NOT elicit a “meh”. I can deal with people telling me it sucks, because they’ll tell me why it sucks, but someone who’s bored with the work will not tell the author why it bored them. It’s just more effort than it’s worth.

  12. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    It doesn’t help in the slightest that the vast majority of “Fantasy” writers have a grasp of pre-industrial cultures, or indeed History in general, that could be rivaled by a particularly obtuse colony of cherrystone clams. Nor is this problem limited to “Fantasy”. I have TWICE run into stories where a major plot point was the supposed lack of African-American officers in the United States army circa WWII (i.e. a black man in an officer’s uniform had to be an impostor). Now, I’m not going to pretend that the Unites States Army in 1940 was a haven of racial enlightenment, but the first Black general was promoted in 1940. And that fact isn’t hard to track down; I got it from Wikipedia just now, and first encountered it in the OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN MILITARY HISTORY. Yet neither the authors of the stories in question, nor their editors, could be bothered to check.

  13. dester'edra says:

    Certainly there are some patterns in the standard writing of almost any genre that, after the millionth repetition, make me wonder if i’m still supposed to be surprised by them. Feisty romance heroine whose will must be tempered by a much wiser male love interest? Check. Innocent neophyte who arrives at house of learning with godlike powers but little or no grasp of how to use them safely? Check. The authors i come back to over and over, i come back to because they continue to surprise me.

    That said, i’m reminded much more of a painting teacher i had in college. She worked a second job as an art critic, but she said the only ever reviewed sculptors, never painters (or, i believe, photographers). Why? Same kind of reason; working with 2D art was her standard, and because she spent so much time in that world with her own work, it no longer surprised her the way 3D art still could. In order to write a good review, she needed to write as carol-the-viewer-of-the-art, not carol-the-painter-analyzing-brushstrokes-or-framing.

    Besides, i imagine there’s more potential for inspiration and cross pollination if you’re reading something just a little bit removed from what you do; your own work has to surprise you too, after all. :)

  14. Prof. Godel Fishbreath says:

    The best writers of a genre can cut through such blahs.
    I am into science fantasy fiction.
    Bujold is doing some amazing things. The Sharing Knife books should be a writers reference on how to do that correctly. She has had a few books that are only good.
    Her latest is a wonderful romp, but knowing the series makes it better. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is ace, Cryoburn is not. Memory is ace.
    M.C.A. Hogarth has grown as a writer. Her latest pair is a nice and quiet story of friendship. Low tension as in McCaffrey low, but also quality. I am impressed by her ability to keep my interest. Mindtouch (The Dreamhealers 1) & Mindline (The Dreamhealers 2)

  15. Melissa Trible says:

    I know you said no recommendations, but… Barbara Hambly. She’s got a graduate degree of some flavor in history, and it shows in her work. In a good way.

    One of the stories, the main plot thread was about potatoes… elsewhere in that series, the young man (from our world) who tried to jump on the horse and ride off like in the movies… was, rather predictably, deposited rather abruptly on the ground by the disgruntled horse.

    She’s got another series that’s set more or less during that world’s industrial revolution. Well before steampunk was a Thing. One of the major characters in that series is a computer programmer (from our world).

    She’s got another short fantasy series that involves Nazis.

    Her worlds feel like real places, because… she knows what it takes to make a world actually *work*.

  16. Teresa Nielsen Hayden says:

    So very there. What I learned from meh quasi-medieval fantasies is that there’s a variety of boredom that’s neither listless nor passive. It leaps, seizes you in its jaws, knocks all the wind out of you, and smacks you hard enough in the head to make your eyes blur.

    On those occasions when I have to read it anyway, I tell myself that Spike is a character in this story. He’ll show up any minute now, and then there’ll be a lot less chanting, and a lot more fun.

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