Creating art and producing quality research is bloody difficult. The effort never changes. Yet, we live in an interesting world that venerates the past and honours pioneers. Undoubtedly, it was more difficult for the pioneer to pave the way. Only it is not necessarily true. It may be this way in science. However, art and literature offer a more nuanced picture when it comes to the price of novelty. We tend to believe that the ‘classical’ is the pinnacle of creation, because, we all know how Tolkien created everything ‘fantasy’ (spoiler: no, he did not, he was just the first one to be recognized as a fantasy writer). Nevertheless, we forget how increasingly difficult creation becomes once so many niches are occupied. Besides, the ‘classical’ was not necessarily new or the most challenging.
The assumption that nobody can eclipse the Professor endures partially because of Tolkien’s brilliance in so many fields (history, linguistics, even painting to name a few). And while classical fantasy works are impressive (Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin and many other now-dead authors truly revolutionazied the genre), there are mans reasons for their cult status. And the subjectvie quality of these literary works is only one of these reasons. There is also another that most of us tend to ignore. It’s something that may sound unexpected: It was easier to write quality genre fiction and please the audience fifty years ago than it is now. Now we face more challenges. They come with opportunities, of course. But they remain challenges.
Fierce competition. Fantasy stories have existed forever. Tolkien was not the first to draw inspiration from Celtic and Germanic Folklore. Elder Edda, Beowulf and popular myths have inspired luminaries like the Grim Brothers and Charles Perrault. So, Tolkien was not the first man to write about the fantastical. He was the first to break through. And he had a whole literary field in front of him and no stigma attached to genre works as such. Everything seemed new. Even if he drew from existing traditions. There was simply not much competition. Nowadays one can simply check recent fantasy releases to see how many works in the genre pop up each month. And, yet, every reader expects them to bring something new to the table. It’s a fun challenge, of course. But it’s also great pressure since some of these expectation may seem outlandish.
Wide audiences. Think of the Golden age of Russian Literature, when such luminaries as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev wrote their masterpieces. Only 30 percent of the population from the European Provinces of the Russian Empire were literate and could read them in the 1890s. You may guess, how many of these literate people had money to buy books instead of booze and how many had time to read them. It’s a gloomy picture if the gritty details of everyday life are added to it.
The Habsburg Empire fared better in terms of literacy. But even their relatively high literacy rates among the population (especially in Austria itself, where the level reached 90 percent in some parts by the 1890s) was nothing like what we, thankfully, have nowadays. Almost everyone can read, write and has an easy way of sharing his opinion. If you could publish literary criticism in the pre-Internet era, you had to edit, print, seek distribution. Now you press enter on your keyboard. It is a positive development, yet, it has a darker side. Typing has become easy. Thinking has not.
From an occupation for a few intellectuals (like most early fantasy and sci fi writers with rare exceptions), we have an occupation for everyone. Thus, new greatness emerges from these new opportunities. And so does new mediocrity. It is no longer the world of the privileged few, which is a positive development. But the field has also become more chaotic and more aggressive in terms of criticism. For example, toxic fandoms and hatedoms are a relatively new trend (on such a scale).
Market oversaturation. Nowadays most queried works are classified as young adult fantasy. Fifty years ago, you would have been hailed super original if you wrote in the same niche. So, however great classical fantasies are, they never faced the same scrutiny and the same criticism as contemporary works. Not because they were exempt from criticism. It is just that Goodreads, blogs and YouTube did not exist, and the power of media, while existed, was never on the level of most contemporary social networks. If you simply look through the lists of upcoming fantasy novels, you’ll get lost in all the titles. And most authors no longer worry about competition, but rather about readers getting tired of this avalanche.
Picky readers. That would be another tough blessing. On the one hand, you have (for the first time in forever) a truly open discourse about literature. As a historian, I certainly find that there are more people I can share my bookish ideas with than those, with whom I’d talk about social reforms in the late Ottoman Empire. Platforms are a relatively new thing. (
and I am not old) But well-informed readers are also a challenge for authors. Surprising savvy readership is hard. And so is finding new topics.
These complicated realities are the result of…progress. They are positive on a grand scale. They allow genre fiction to develop and flourish. They are what makes contemporary genre fiction more elaborate than anything from the past. We tend to forgive the Luminaries (Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or whoever your personal favourite is) for certain mishaps and omissions, while we criticize modern-day authors for smaller missteps. Meanwhile, all contemporary writers have a more difficult time staying afloat and creative in our modern world. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s a brilliant and frightening perspective.