Somebody on Goodreads recently posed the question: who are the fifty most influential writers in the fantasy genre? Where ‘influential’ in context means influential on other fantasy authors, and on the fantasy genre as a whole.
It’s a good question, and some of the answers were good too, though many weren’t – ‘influential’ isn’t the same as ‘good’, or as ‘my favourite’. My own initial response was that in terms of genuine influence, the number would have to be far lower than fifty – surely there weren’t even that many notable fantasy authors, let alone influential ones!
So, I dismissively drew up a quick list… then added… and added… and occasionally subtracted and then added again… and I realised this was a larger issue than a forum post was really suitable for. So here we are.
To begin with, because academic essay writing is too engrained in me, and philosophical essay writing in particular, I’m going to start with the most important, the most critical, the most influential, and the most interesting part of any answer to any question: definition of terms. And the caveats…
First off, ‘fantasy’. Boy this one is tricky. Personally, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a fantasy genre, and a lot of historical writers of fantasy didn’t know they were writing ‘fantasy’ either. As a result, I’m not going to race down the rabbit hole of trying to define fantasy precisely, but I do have to lay down some markers. Most importantly, I’m not considering ‘fantasy’ as existing prior to the development of an assumption of realism in the Enlightenment. Before Realism came along, fantasy was just how a lot of fiction worked – but Fantasy as a genre requires fantasy to be exiled from the mainstream, to be abnormal and different, and that only happens with the dominance of Realism. Furthermore, I’m only considering fiction primarily intended as fiction, and I’m discounting ‘fantasy’ that is primarily just veiled symbolism, religious or political. It’s not possible to draw a pure line here, because inevitably all fiction has some symbolic or allegorical dimension, and likewise even the most polemical allegory has its moments of whimsy and unmotivated narrative ornament; but I think a distinction can nonetheless be made that is useful for us here. To be fantasy, the fantastic elements must in some way be treated seriously (which is not the opposite of comedically). In particular, I’m excluding here the satirical fantasy travellogue exemplified by Gulliver’s Travels – partly because that tradition in literature goes back a very, very long way, and is not greatly represented in later fiction. I’m also paying only minimal attention to the tradition of utopia fiction, which likewise is very ancient, and typically intended more as politics than as literature. I don’t doubt that books like Gulliver’s Travels and Utopia have been very influential on fantasy writers, but I think this influence is only the general kind of influence that great old writers have on people, rather than actually actively shaping the modern genre.
Second, I’m only counting authors ‘influential’ through their work, not just as individuals, and I’m only counting work in the fantasy genre, or in genres reasonably close to fantasy. I’m also only counting positive influence specifically over the genre itself. If we were being completely honest about this, many of the most truly influential writers for fantasy would be writers who shaped OTHER genres, and the mainstream, and gave a shape to fantasy only in a negative way. One obvious modern example of this would be John Campbell, minor SF author and immensely influential SF editor, whose helmsmanship of Astounding gave SF its ‘golden age’: by imposing his own preferences on SF, and in particular by firmly moving it away from weird tales and planetary romance toward hard shiny rocketships and flashyzappy lasers, Campbell arguably did more than anyone to create a viable space for the modern fantasy genre, as authors who previously might have written ‘SF’ stories about obomblecks on Venus instead were exiled to writing stories about elves on middle-earth.
[And let’s not forget, of course, that if we were really listing the authors with the most influence on fantasy novels, the list would all be people like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding – you can’t have fantasy novels without someone inventing the novel, after all. But that would be an entirely different sort of list, and not one I’m interested in writing right now]
I’m not, however, only counting authors who wrote what was considered fantasy at the time, or that would be marketed as fantasy today – particularly with early authors, as when a genre is to be born it must derive its early influences from outside itself. To answer the question of the chicken and the egg, you need to be willing to talk about eggs laid by things that weren’t yet chickens…
To caveat: I am not a historian, nor a literary expert, nor even some sort of fantasy super-fan. I could be talking total nonsense here. In fact, I’ll correct that: at some point here, I almost certainly will be talking total nonsense. I don’t mind that; I’m used to it.
To further caveat: this list is not the result of years of research and months of formulation and weeks of writing. It’s a blog post written more or less in one go*, that should be considered only one step more elevated than “off the top of my head”. The main reason it’s not just off the top of my head is just that my head can’t hold this many names, so I had to get them down on paper, at which point I took the opportunity to briefly look at them before writing this post. There are undoubtedly omissions made here – some forgiveable, where I’m simply ignorant of so-and-so, the hugely influential but little-remembered pulp short story writer from the early twenties, and others less forgiveable, where the existence of what’s-his-name has inexplicably slipped my mind even though we all know about him. And on the other side, almost every name on the list could be debated – perhaps I’ve overvalued this trend or that, or have a fondness for one author in particular, or have simply misunderstood something about the genre or its history.
In short: please don’t flay me.
[*I was writing it in one go when I started it. By the time I’ve now (almost) finished it, that ‘go’ has lasted quite some time. However, I’d rather you looked at it in the spirit of a spontaneous thing, since the extra time has been getting around to writing a few explanatory words for each author, rather than spent refining and revising and editing and whatnot. So, this is all written in one go (other than this footnote), beginning to end… it’s just that that ‘go’ has had to fit in slowly around other obligations, so has taken a while.]
Also don’t flay me because: most of these people write in English. This is partly because I know more about people who write in English, and partly because I’m thinking primarily of the English-language genre, since that’s what Fantasy means to me, as someone who grew up reading English-language Fantasy novels. Non-English writing is mentioned here only where I’m aware it had a major influence on English-language Fantasy, or where it itself was influential with Fantasy fan through its translation.
One last reason not to flay me because: yes, I know that some of the best authors in the genre aren’t mentioned here. I did try to aim at ‘influential’ rather than ‘best’, which means that some critically-acclaimed but unique authors aren’t here.
And finally: no, this isn’t a list of fifty authors. It’s closer to sixty, and some of the authors are actually two people each. Like I say, it’s just a first stab, and I preferred to include a few extra for you to trim it down rather than leave out someone who maybe should be mentioned.
…Right then! Some names!
This introduction being itself rather long, I’m leaving the actual names for subsequent posts…