New poll - Innovation - Familiar versus original

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


This month, Brian Staveley is presenting his debut Fantasy novel, The Emperor's Blade.  I'm currently reading the book and already, there's several reviews available from various bloggers.  Moreover, Brian participated in an interesting AMA on Reddit. One of the aspects of his book which looks like a prevailing observation, and I can acknowledge to it, is the traditional Fantasy premise, including many themes usually found in the most significant portion of the Epic genre works.

In the last years, some books were celebrated as groundbreaking for the Fantasy genre (the first to come to mind is George R.R. Martin's a Song of Ice and Fire) and some authors even tried to shake things up crudely (Richard Morgan with the Steel Remains for example, which is a very good book but not quite groundbreaking).  On the other hand, traditional Fantasy is still written more often than not. It's at the source of our love for the genre so it shouldn't come as a surprise that a majority of authors tend to work within the canvas of the tropes developed over the years.

Some examples fell flat when they emulated too much their original source of inspiration.  The Eye of the World, the first book of the Wheel of Time by Robert Jodran, the Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks and more recently The Unremembered by Peter Orullian where too close to dear old Tolkien or borrowed too much without adding enough novelty to it.  Even with interesting characters, there ought to have at least something original, even in the traditional way of it. Don't you think?

I think that many readers are asking for more originality but reviewers are even more demanding in term of novelty. New magic systems, out-of-this-world settings, larger than life characters, etc... "Going traditional" almost looks like a risk. With so many books to compare with, you ought to have great writing skills, amazing storylines, extremely compelling protagonists and still a touch of innovation, even if it's subtle, to impress.  There are spectacular examples of this.  The Malazan Book of the Fallen fits right into the Epic genre with some traditional bearings but do it in exemplary ways. Ok, maybe this title is a stretch... but you get my meaning.

Going back to Staveley's debut, here's what the always excellent Niall Alexander had to say in his review:
Innovation is overrated. 
Genre novels that do something new are released on a regular basis, and there’s no question that new things are nice. Neat in theory, at least. To wit, we should applaud the authors who attempt to put original ideas into practice. But just because something’s new doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be great out of the gate. Innovation is initially as likely to result in the sort of dissonance that can spoil a story as it is the resonance its agents anticipate. 
These days, the pressure applied to purveyors of fantasy fiction particularly to come up with something distinct and different—something to emblazon in all caps on the back of the jacket—is palpable. Listen too closely to picky critics and you’d be forgiven for thinking that a novel that does nothing notable in terms of the furtherance of the form—a novel that plays it safe, I suppose—is no novel at all. This is nonsense of the highest variety. There is, I think, plenty to be said for books that take hoary old tropes and put them to good use; books like The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley, which I enjoyed an awful lot—excepting one big, blokish blunder—never mind its by-the-numbers nature.
And the reaction to a question from another great blogger on the AMA, Justin Landon:
I’ve read EMPEROR’S BLADES and thought it was very solid. The writing was good, the structure was fine, the world building was original and creative, but the themes felt very familiar within the genre. 
Why did you write an epic fantasy? What do you feel like EMPEROR’S BLADES is adding to the conversation? 
I’m glad to see this question at the top of the list, because honestly, I think it’s a great one.
Modernist and romantic writers tend to insist on originality, and though the tricks and techniques people like Woolf and Faulkner pioneered are now old hat, the boldness of novels like As I Lay Dying and Mrs. Dalloway still sometimes makes me want to quit writing and take up something more in keeping with my talents: maybe moving mud from one place to another.
This interest in originality, however, is not shared in all places and all times. Take J. S. Bach. For his day job, Bach wrote over 300 sacred cantatas, and they are wonderful, even sublime. They are not, however, defiant statements of originality. Bach’s approach to his art was not the approach of Faulkner and Woolf. He worked within the boundaries of tradition, often so assiduously that many of his contemporaries completely overlooked his talent. Scores of other baroque composers were doing the same sort of thing, often more flamboyantly. What set Bach apart from them was his execution. 
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing myself to Bach. The man had more brilliance in his left large toenail than I’ll ever possess, but his model, the model of an artist working inside a fairly rigid tradition (rather than one trying to blow the doors off of one), is a model I admire.
That said, there are some elements in The Emperor’s Blades that I’m pleased with. The monastic veneration of the Blank God by the Shin, for instance, looks a lot like other pseudo-Buddhist business we’ve seen before in fantasy, but the origins of the Shin discipline are much darker, the implications much muddier, than what I’ve seen elsewhere. I enjoyed writing the Kettral because I’ve never quite seen a fantasy analogue to modern special forces (although there may be one out there – anyone?) The leaches (the world’s magic users) intrigued me because I thought I saw a little corner of the fantasy magic world that (to my knowledge) hadn’t been staked out yet. So, although my model is Bach, not Woolf, I think there’s enough new material to engage hardened fantasy readers.
I think that both the traditional and genre shaking books have their place and need to exists to keep the genre strong and healthy.  However, it's a poll and we have to make a choice.  Mine would be the familiar framework so I think that innovation is kind of overrated but absolutely necessary in a right dose that keeps the novel within the genre. 

What do you think?  Is innovation overrated in Fantasy?


Davieboy said...

Thanks, a thought-provoking post which led me to order both the hardcover & audiobook versions of Brian Staveley's novel.

Anonymous said...

Innovation is welcome but may not always be rewarded by the reading public (in terms of book sales) or by genre fans (in terms of awards). When people say that want innovation, they often make it sound like they want innovation of a particular sort, but what they really respond to is innovation of a different sort.

The first sort of innovation produces works that are sui generis. The sensibility is unique and overwhelms elements of the plot or setting that may seem familiar while making those that are original even more striking. But as products of a very personal vision, most of these works are, if not inimitable, very unlikely to be imitated by other writers.

The other sort of innovation again comes with a new sensibility, but it's a sensibility that is shared by a younger generation of writers, and the works that are produced more often take familiar elements but combine them in unfamiliar ways and endow them with a different set of assumptions about the world. When the first couple of innovative works of this sort have been published, the floodgates open to a horde of imitators.

So while talk of innovation may bring to mind authors like Delany or Wolfe or Cordwainer Smith, whose innovations are of the first sort, few writers imitate them and most readers remain blissfully unaware of them. Has anyone tried to write a new Babel-17 or Book of the New Sun?

On the other hand, John Brunner's innovations with Stand On Zanzibar and similar novels spawned a sub-genre of glum tales of futuristic political collapse and eco-catastrophe that resonated with readers in the 1970s. Bull and de Lint with War For the Oaks and Moonheart gave birth to the still growing urban fantasy market. And Powers and Blaylock transformed the Victorian era from a backwater of fantasy into the beloved habitat of steampunk. As for A Song of Ice and Fire, little needs to be said at this point about its impact on the genre.

The first sort of innovation may seem more artistically satisfying to the purist, but the bulk of genre readers (including many who express no interest in innovation), as well as authors and publishers, respond more enthusiastically to the second sort. Really, we're fortunate to see either sort.

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