Po-Moing the Pointy-Eared
Over the weekend, I read Brandon Sanderson’s essay Postmodernism in Fantasy. The gist of the essay is this: Sanderson started out trying to write fantasy that had a new twist but in the end just wrote what he liked. While being fresh and thinking out of the box might expand the genre, it may also alienate readers. A postmodern take of fantasy will only end up relying too heavily on the original fantasy in the first place and will fail to stand alone as a work.
As a writer, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with trying to write postmodern fantasy and subvert all the well-known tropes. If a writer wants to construct something that they consider different, then they can have at it. There is no correct way to write a book nor is there a correct reason for anyone to write a book. But as a reader, there’s definitely a difference between a story that succeeds and a story that fails even though everything else looks technically correct. That’s because the reader acts more like an ice cream taster than the visiting food inspector. The inspector doesn’t care what flavors the ice cream parlor carries as long as everything is sanitary. However, the chocolate-loving customer would come away dissatisfied if all the parlor carried were weird, unappetizing flavors like mahi mahi, pickle, and cream of mushroom. So too will most fantasy readers react in this way. They might marvel at the construction of a cream of mushroom fantasy with all its literary po-mo trappings, but what they’d really prefer is the chocolate.
The real difference is not the dichotomy of postmodern versus traditional but rather the intellectual versus the emotional. Yes, yes, pretty much every non-romance writer (and reader) tries to ignore the dreaded “E” word, but there it is. When people pick up a genre fiction book to read, no one expects to be intellectually stimulated. Well, they could be and readers aren’t an unintelligent bunch (generally), but that is not anyone’s expectation. What they do expect is good storytelling with some emotional payoff. A story that makes one think but leaves one cold is not going to have the same impact as something that gives the reader a gut feeling of satisfaction. By the same token, then, why can’t writers write something that is emotionally satisfying rather than the intellectual equivalent of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the ice cream maker just to create something new?
I find that throwing oneself completely into one direction or another is a dangerous path to take. Writing the same thing over and over again without any intellectual challenge in an attempt to fulfill some emotional need is a quick way to kill the enthusiasm of the writer and the reader. There has to be some sort of compromise between the intellectual and the emotional. If it’s only intellectual, people will only recall it as something difficult and unpleasant to read. If it’s only emotional, the readers might be happy but with nothing to engage the mind, it may be easily forgotten. Successful books, for me at least, contain healthy doses of both these elements.