Tolkien and Martin Don’t Have Much to Answer For (Or, Hey, Bad Arguments About Fantasy)

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Apparently A.J. Dalton doesn’t care for J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Here’s the moment when I stopped reading:

They have both come to dominate the genre in which I write, that’s what. All fantasy gets compared to them. They are the standard. They are the definition of fantasy. Anything too different to them doesn’t get recognised as fantasy, as it doesn’t contain enough of the required motifs and conventions.

Anyone who can make that argument with any seriousness has no idea what they are talking about.  Really?  Anything that doesn’t look like Martin or Tolkien isn’t considered fantasy anymore?  Really?  So apparently N.K. Jemisin doesn’t write fantasy.  Good to know.  Diana
Rowland doesn’t write fantasy.  Good to know.  In fact, all those authors who are shelved in the fantasy section who aren’t writing anything that directly mimics Martin or Tolkien are just magically shelved in the wrong place in some grand conspiracy to get people to mistakenly believe they are fantasy writers…Huh?

All fantasy doesn’t get compared to Martin or Tolkien, fella.  That’s absurd.  A lot of fantasy does, but not all.  They are also not the definition of fantasy.  Only a moron thinks that Martin or Tolkien are all that fantasy has to offer (or that the fantasy market only demands derivative work).



Alright, so it’s not true that I stopped reading there.  I decided to read a little more of his argument just so I could say I did so.  And that’s when I discovered this:

A quick example. I published Empire of the Saviours, an epic fantasy, with Gollancz last year. The book starts modestly enough with a boy growing up in a village in a remote corner of the empire in question. Several influential online reviewers refused to read it, saying they’d heard it all before, no matter the book’s purported humour and contemporary social and religious considerations. Hadn’t I heard how Mr Feist’s Magician and Mr Paolini’s Eragon opened with the selfsame premise, and besides weren’t they just versions of Bilbo in his burrow at the start of The Hobbit? An Australian newspaper then reviewed the book with the statement that Tolkien had ‘a lot to answer for’. Sheesh.

Now it’s all starting to make sense.  Dalton isn’t upset that Tolkien and Martin are the standards.  He’s upset because someone thought he sort of wrote like them, and then refused to read his work.  Author is sad or something.  Makes sense, right?

Wait, no it doesn’t.  Dalton just said that you can’t write fantasy without writing like Martin and Tolkien.  That’s the only way to get recognition.  Now he’s saying that if you write like Martin and Tolkien, nobody will love you.  Signals crossed, I guess.

I get it.  Tolkien and Martin do define much of the genre.  That’s bad for diversity, since much of what readers of fantasy want is stuff similar to what they’ve already read.  But let’s not pretend that fantasy is ONLY stuff that looks like Tolkien and Martin.  Let’s not pretend that nobody reads anything that is different, or that people don’t read things that are similar.  That’s absurd.  Derivative fantasy exists.  It sells.  Different fantasy exists too.  It sells too.

This isn’t rocket science…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

One thought on “Tolkien and Martin Don’t Have Much to Answer For (Or, Hey, Bad Arguments About Fantasy)

  1. I agree with you Shaun. There's plenty of stuff out there that looks nothing like Tolkein and is fantasy. That said, writers like these can be seen, I believe, as the trunk of a tree with many varied branches splitting from them. They sort of define the centrepoint of the genre, imho.

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