Influential Figures in Fantasy, 11

New Turns

JK Rowling (1965-)
China Mieville (1972-)
Matthew Stover (1962-)

You’ve probably noticed that I’m sounding more and more of an idiot as I go through these authors – my level of ignorance is holding steady, while your level of knowledge is probably increasing as we get to the more recent authors. So I’m not going to say too much about these last three authors, none of whom I’ve actually read. Yet they really ought to be mentioned nonetheless.

JK Rowling is the best-selling fantasy author of all time, probably (or possibly second to Tolkien according to some – Tolkien’s total global sales are impossible to accurately measure). It’s hard to point to anything particularly original or noteworthy about her novels themselves, but her popularity – and in particular her popularity with a generation of children (and a generation of parents) who otherwise might not have read fantasy at all is not to be sneered at. Rowling has helped open the door to new authors by showing the potential of the genre – and doubtless she will turn out to have inspired a whole generation of new authors in future. In more concrete terms, her influence can be seen already in the growing genre of secret histories – fantasies in which the magical is present in the real world behind a veil of conspiracy or supernatural concealment. Rowling is certainly not the originator of this subgenre, nor of the magic-school subtype (which I grew up reading…), nor arguably even the original source of its modern popularity (which is probably largely ported over from horror, with the novels of Anne Rice and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer key moments (oh, there’s a point – should I have included Joss Whedon in this list? No, probably not – but I should at least have thought about writers for film and TV. Oh well, never mind)) – but she’s certainly helped to encourage the subgenre, and to legitimise the genre as a whole. [If you’re seeing a trend here – yes, Fantasy probably does have to be ‘legitimised’ anew each generation – there seems a default assumption that Fantasy is old Fantasy and cannot meet modern demands or deal with modern topics, and it takes author after author to show that it is not just for children and nostalgics]

China Mièville is the posterboy for an entirely different movement in fantasy, a movement that has more in common with Peake, Moorcock, Vance, and Gibson than with Rowling, or with Tolkien. The ‘New Weird’ movement (of which he is of course not the only representative) may not have had the same commercial success – may not even have lived up to critical expectations, with no other author rising to the level of critical or commercial success that Mièville occupies, but it has certainly helped to open up and diversify a fantasy genre that was at risk of becoming stale on a diet of derivative heroic epics. [Though, as a Planescape fanboy, I feel obliged to note that in terms of weird urban settings D&D got there first, and weirder…]

Last of all, Matthew Stover may be most famous as the author of a number of unusually well-regarded Star Wars tie-in novels, but he is also the writer of a critically acclaimed series about the adventures of Caine, a violent adventurer in a fantasy world. The Caine novels combine science fiction (‘Caine’ is actually a character played by an actor in a future form of entertainment) with a revitalisation and modernisation of the old sword and sorcery genre that had fallen into obscurity for several decades. As such, Stover is often cited as a forerunner of such S&S-influenced new authors as Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch.

And there I’ll leave it, with 2000’s Perdido Street Station. I don’t think there’s much sense in trying to talk about ‘influential’ writers of the last decade – we don’t know who will turn out to be influential yet. Already with these three turn-of-the-millenium authors I suspect the real extent of their influence has yet to be seen.

…and now you can shout at me for not including Zelazny, Norton, Kipling, L’Engle, Beagle, Caroll, Baum, and half a dozen others too. Like I said at the beginning, this was only ever meant to be a first wild stab.


Additions In Hindsight, and a Round Number

I think that makes a total of 57 authors. Wouldn’t 60 be better? Well, coincidentally, I’ve decided to edit in three more authors that I didn’t originally mention.

First, there’s Anne Radcliffe. Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the leading lights of the gothic literary movement, specialising in intense psychological horror (rather than the gorey terror of some other authors of the day). She’s an important figure in the history of Fantasy, however, not only because she was perhaps the greatest populariser of the gothic, but also because she was unusual in emphasising the supernatural and the uncanny elements of the genre, breaking the trail for later writers like Shelley and Poe. She is also apparently responsible for the popularity of lengthy landscape descriptions and detailed descriptions of travelling, two things the Fantasy genre has certainly not failed in seeking to provide…

Second, there’s one of those writers following in the footsteps of Radcliffe and the other early gothic writers: John Polidori (1795-1821). Polidori was barely a writer at all (two books, some poems), and his chief profession was as a physician. In that capacity, he was employed by Byron to accompany him on holiday in Italy, and was present on the rainy evening when Byron challenged the company (Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron himself, and Claire Clairmont) to each write their own ghost story. These were only fragments and sketches, but Mary Shelley continued to work on hers until finally publishing it – as Frankenstein. Polidori, meanwhile, enjoyed Byron’s tale (later published simply as ‘Fragment of a Novel’), and on returning to England reworked and expanded it into the novel that earns him a place in this list: The Vampyre. Polidori’s significance is not in quality, nor in his immediate influence (the story was popular and a few more vampire stories were written over the years, but it was not until Carmilla, and then Dracula that the subgenre took root), but in one brilliant conceit: his vampire, rather than the shambling undead of most folk tales, was Lord Byron himself (given a pseudonym already associated with Byron in the public mind). It was this dashing, handsome, seductive, arrogant, amoral and in some ways tragic image that has continued to form the lynchpin of the public conception of vampires ever since.

And third, there’s Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Kipling was an influence in two ways. First, his tales of Imperial India, told from the point of view of a resident rather than a gallivanting explorer like Burton, formed the apex of the orientalist genre, topping writers like Haggard both in literary quality and depth and colour. Not only did this continue to demonstrate the power of exotic settings to enthrall the public – from the most discerning critics (Kipling remains the youngest ever Nobel Laureate for Literature) down to the common man – but in presenting such a real and vivid image of the world outside Europe, he forced writers to go further afield to compete. After Kim, writers like Burroughs had to take their adventurers to the stars, or to the centre of the world.

So, that’s 60. I’ll re-iterate one more time: this is not a definitive list. Man of these 60 writers could fairly be omitted and replaced with some other author; and there are many other authors who might fairly be included in such a list. But this is my own first wild stab at compiling such a list, and others can think for themselves what alterations they might make to it.

3 thoughts on “Influential Figures in Fantasy, 11

  1. […] 1980s)The Big Boom III (the post-war generation’s contribution comes to a close in the 1990sNew Turns (the torch passes on to three writers of the new generation in the last few years of the […]

  2. Rabindranauth says:

    Hmmm. You probably haven’t read him, but I think Brandon Sanderson may be a better choice than Rowling for influence. He’s a pretty crappy writer based on what I’ve read some lit crits say of him, but he’s got a major following that’s growing exponentially, and a lot of genre fantasy being published today has already begun to show marks of his influence. Finishing up Jordan’s Wheel of Time really kicked him up a couple notches, and based on what I’ve read in both his short and long fiction, he’ll only get more and more influential.

  3. Well, I was only going up to 2000, and Sanderson didn’t publish until 2005. Also, his own works have only sold a couple of million copies – not to be sneezed at, but not attention-grabbing by itself (Jordan sold something like 100 million, and Rowling has sold nearly half a billion). And I’ve never been clear on what Sanderson is meant to have done that’s actually new or influential – my impression has always been that he’s pretty firmly in the Eddings-D&D-Jordan continuum somewhere? A bit more arrogant perhaps, in his comments – insisting that everyone needs a D&D-style magic system, for instance – but then it’s not like Eddings and D&D and Jordan and so on didn’t have ‘magic systems’ already…

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