In the Shadow of Genre

I was sitting in a bar tonight reading Mary Renault’s novel, The King Must Die. It’s a pretty fun book, and while it’s a mundane, magic-free novel about Ancient Greece, its characters clearly believe they inhabit a “magical” world animated by gods and spirits. Theseus and his fellows believe in the whole Greek pantheon with greater conviction than one normally encounters in contemporary mainstream fantasy.

It got me thinking. A lot of fantasy seems to take its cues from the pulps. But I wonder if there’s a shadow history of epic fantasy that thrived in historical fiction and sidestepped the pulps.

Off the top of my head I’d place Renault, Mitchison, Flaubert, Dumas, Sabatini, Graves, and even Bashevis Singer (his novel King of the Fields in particular) in this shadow history. It’d certainly be a more amorphous tradition, one with more narrative complexity and more “Grandmothers and Godmothers” in it. It would likely lack a fandom trading the original magazines in mylar baggies. Maybe it’s the simplicity the pulps offered—the hero battling his way through insurmountable odds for a bit of wealth and/or maiden skin, all that sense of wonder and escapist derring-do, but I really wonder if this is just a narrative we’ve all been fed and swallowed. A heap of lies that says THIS IS THE GENRE’S HISTORY when really the genre’s true history is a lot more crusty and weird.

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6 responses to “In the Shadow of Genre”

  1. ridlerville says :

    It’s about the links, I think. Besides, say, Jeffrey Ford and his kin, who’s making the links with the shadow history? It’s likely there, but unless someone ties it to their own work (as opposed to the mass media of the pulps) it becomes an object of its time, not enduring past the memories of readers and perhaps a handful of writers. It would be cool to look at it in terms of epochs instead of influence, though. But Graves and Dumas are pretty standard fair, being taught in schools and republished every year (Flaubert, too).

    • Justin says :

      How do you mean “epochs instead of influence”?

      • ridlerville says :

        Epoch as in being important in the moment, defining it, but who’s influence afterwards does not last as much others. Lots of works have influence after the time they were created (Moby Dick comes to mind), other works define an age and then vanish (Jim Tully’s work). It’s a rough distinction. Happy to revise if you’ve got a better one!

    • Justin says :

      “Epoch as in being important in the moment, defining it, but who’s influence afterwards does not last as much others.”

      Hmmm. I don’t know if I agree with that, at least in this case because I can see how these books have influenced and been largely subsumed by three genres (Romance, Mystery, and Fantasy).

      My point, as I get at it, is that people speak about the development of more complex subject matter in Fantasy as if it were a new thing. But it only is if you buy the tradition that our heritage is the Pulps and paperbacks. If you look back at Historical Fiction you’ll see that complexity was there from early in the 20th century, and earlier, and not in neglected works (for example Naomi Mitchison has her champions in genre), but in work that has been left outside the tradition.

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