Fantasy Fiction: The Battle For Meaning Continues
But the commodification of fantasy does not mean it must all appeal to the lowest common denominator, any more than the presence of Starbucks on every street corner means you can't find a decent cup elsewhere. As the recent announcement of the David Gemmell Legend award, and the less-than-positive response it engendered shows, contemporary fantasy is seeking to do more than just entertain the masses. While the Gemmell award highlights fantasy novels at their most commercial and generic, and has been accused of doing little more than rewarding publishers for their marketing strategy, contemporary fantasy is becoming more experimental, diverse and exciting.
With the growing profile of distinctive writers such as Neil Gaiman and China Miéville, and the "smuggling" of fantasy into literary fiction by (among others) Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell, the fantastic is making a comeback in mainstream literature. Acclaimed cult writers such as Graham Joyce, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Martin Millar, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer and many others are taking fantasy in more personalised and distinctive directions. And at the grassroots, short fiction magazines like Weird Tales, Electric Velocipede, Clarkesworld and Fantasy are giving a platform to an emerging generation of writers who are serious about fantasy.
We still love a well-told tale, and our need for the fantastic is not so different from that of our tribal ancestors. We may live longer and in more comfort, we may believe we understand our world better, but at heart, we're still trying to find meaning in a complex and mysterious universe. JRR Tolkien referred to fantasy writing as mythopoeia, the creation of myth for the modern era. The best of it achieves exactly that, and deserves to be rewarded whether it be a multimillion-selling novel or a short story published in a fanzine. But as fantasy becomes more heavily commodified, it is more important still that we keep sight of what the genre can achieve beyond mass entertainment.