Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Let the Voters Decide

When I was a senior in high school, my A.P. English teacher decided to have a "science fiction" quarter, in which we read a selection of great science fiction novels. Our reading list consisted of the following novels (which I only remember because I'm a huge nerd and was one of the few students who actually did my reading): 1984, by George Orwell; A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; and Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. There may have been another one in there that I've since forgotten, but the course always stuck in my head as something out-of-the-ordinary--how many English teachers would be willing to teach an entire quarter of science fiction novels?

Though I've never been a particular fan of science ficton as a genre (long-winded descriptions of quantum physics don't appeal to me for some reason), it lends itself to social criticisms (as did all four of the books I read my senior year). By looking forward at where we're headed, we can clearly see what we're doing wrong today. In addition, the boundaries on science fiction are much more fluid than those placed on "regular" literature, resulting in the capacity for greater creativity on the part of the author.

The fantasy genre, on the other hand, appealed to me at a very young age. Growing up, my favorite movies all tended towards the fantastic: The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, The Little Mermaid, etc. When I discovered the joys of reading, I gobbled down every book on which I could get my hands. When I was twelve, I read all of my mom's fantasy books as well as most of those at our small public library, but my favorite authors were Anne McCaffery, Robin McKinley, Melanie Rawn, Ru Emerson, Tamora Pierce, Tanya Huff, and Patricia C. Wrede--generally, female writers who wrote about strong female characters.

By the time I reached high school, however, my fervor for the genre had faded, dulled by the limited plots I began to come across. I shifted my attention to more "literary" works, spurred on by Honors classes and a fascination with the changing literary cliques--the Romantics, the Beats, etc. My fantasy obsession officially ended when I came across a copy of William Goldman's The Princess Bride, a book that is wonderful in its own right but was highly disappointing to someone who had fallen so deeply in love with the movie.

Now, however, it seems I've come full circle--I've rediscovered the genre, but I am now very careful to pick out books that seem to be saying something and don't depend too heavily on dragons, wizards, or anything else that is too cliche. It's interesting to look at the field with older, more educated eyes, to see what it can be instead of what it too often is. While cheesy fantasy novels definitely have their merits, there is so much that can be done with fantasy that too often is not.

My interest led me to recently do some research into what is discovered the "best" fantasy. On the one hand, there are relatively few awards given to outstanding fantasy novels, due in part to the fact that fantasy is considered by many to be a sub-category of science fiction, and it is often overshadowed. I found a list of the "top" one hundred fantasy novels, however, at Fantasy 100 (http://home.austarnet.com.au/petersykes/fantasy100/lists_books.html) which is compiled by an online book poll. It seems to be updated monthly, so it is a very fluid representation of what fans of fantasy consider "good." I've included the list below for those who are curious.

I looked up this list partly to serve as a counterpart to the science fiction I studied in high school, but also as a form of research for my own novel. By looking at what fantasy readers consider good, I'll be able to discover sooner rather than later if my book is just an exercise in futility--and whether or not I care. (This brings up differing definitions of "good," of course, but whatever. We could talk about it all day and night and still not come to a conclusion.)

Looking at the list, however, I was struck very forcefully by one fact: many of the books on the list wouldn't be classified by most as 'fantasy.' Gabriel Garcia Marquez? He virtually invented magical realism, but is that the same thing as fantasy? Dante? It's true he made up most of what he wrote--and it is in turns both bizarre and fantastical--but does that make Inferno a fantasy? Shakespeare? Oscar Wilde? While most of the books represented here do seem to be escapist reading, some most definitely are not and have something to say.

I guess I'm just trying to figure out where I want my novel to fit in in the rest of the world of literature. Is it fantasy? Yes. Do I want it to be escapist? Not particularly, but I suspect it won't get published without at least an iota of that factor. Do I care? ... maybe, maybe not. The jury's still out on that one.

(More on fantasy publishing to come, but it's interesting to see what the readers, looking back on everything that's been published so far, think is worth rating in the top one hundred fantasy books.)

1) J R R Tolkien, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 1957

2) J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937

3) J K Rowling, Harry Potter Series, 1997
4) Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time Series, 1990
5) C S Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe, 1950
6) George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice & Fire, 1996
7) David Eddings, The Belgariad Series, 1982
8) Terry Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule [s1], 1994
9) Raymond E Feist, Magician [s1], 1982
10) Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials Trilogy, 1995
11) Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara [s1], 1997
12) Ursula K Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea [s1], 1968
13) Christopher Paulini, Eragon [s1], 2002
14) Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy, 1995
15) R.A. Savatore, Dark Elf Trilogy, 1990
16) Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series, 1982
17) Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle In Time, 1962
18) Richard Adams, Watership Down, 1972
19) Neil Gaiman, American Gods, 2001
20) Lewis Carrol, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, 1865
21) William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973
22) Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic [s1], 1983
23) George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945
24) Weis & Hickman, Dragonlance Chronicles, 1984
25) Stephen Donaldson, Thomas Covenanat - The Unbeliever, 1977
26) Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber, 1970
27) Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, 1983
28) Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl, 2001
29) Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire, 1976
30) Gaiman & Pratchett, Good Omens, 1990
31) Brian Jacques, Redwall [s1], 1986
32) Roald Dahl, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, 1964
33) William Golding, The Lord of the Flies, 1954
34) Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
35) Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, 1997
36) Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn Series, 1988
37) Garth Nix, Sabriel [s1], 1995
38) Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight [s1], 1968
39) Piers Anthony, On a Pale Horse, [s2], 1983
40) T.H. White, The Once & Future King, 1958
41) Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted, 1997
42) Stephanie Meyer, Twilight, 2005
43) Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, 2003
44) Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure, 1983
45) Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, 1962
46) Michael Ende, The Neverending Story, 1979
47) Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818
48) Unknown Author, Beowulf, 800
49) Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife, 2003
50) Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, 1995
51) Dianna Gabaldon, Outlander [s1]. 1992
52) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1942
53) Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, 2004
54) Homer, The Odyssey, 800
55) LaHaye & Jenkins, Left Behind [s1], 1995
56) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967
57) Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones, 2002
58) Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain, 1964
59) Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 2001
60) David Eddings, The Malloreon, 1987
61) Terry Pratchett, Mort [s4], 1987
62) J.R.R. Tolkein, The Silmarillion, 1977
63) Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures [s1], 1993
64) Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, 1917
65) Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon [s1], 1994
66) Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana, 1990
67) Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian, 205
68) Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, 1992
69) Anoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, 1943
70) Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World, 1991
71) Moore & Gibbons, Watchmen, 1987
72) Jacqueline Karey, Kushiel's Dart [s1], 2001
73) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
74) China Mieville, Perdido Street Station, 2007
75) Frank Miller, Batman - The Dark Knight Returns, 1989
76) Cornelia Funke, Inkheart, 2003
77) Richard Bach, Jonathan Livinston Seagull, 1972
78) Richard Matheson, I am Legend, 1954
79) Weis & Hickman, Death Gate Cycle, 1990
80) Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, 1915
81) Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing With Dragons [s1], 1990
82) Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962
83) Mercedes Lackey, Magic's Pawn [s1], 1989
84) Patrick Suskin, Perfume, 1987
85) Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, 1966
86) Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn, 1968
87) Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair [s1], 2002
88) Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000,
89) Dante Alighieri, Inferno, 1321
90) Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun, 1980
91) Christopher Moore, Lamb, 2002
92) Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkan [s1], 2003
93) Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1994
94) Susan Cooper, The Dark is Risisng [s1], 1973
95) David Eddings, The Elenium, 1990
96) Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle, 1986
97) Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword, 1982
98) Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood [s1], 1998
99) William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1600
100) Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, 1959

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