A quick summary of the arc of American fantasy

The purpose of this post is to give a quick abridged history of the development of American fantasy, as much for my own setting of ideas as anything. It squashes many issues and developments down smaller than it deserves, generalises repeatedly, and doesn’t explore many ramifications. Such is the nature of quick summaries. It also might be wrong in some fields, which shouldn’t be the nature but is unavoidable when writing history. My hope is to one day expand it and give proper references, to explore more and generalize and be wrong less, but for now it will do.

The starting point of American fantasy is the pulp magazine Weird Tales. That is not to say there was nothing that smacked of fantasy before then, or that all fantasy in America stems from that magazine and its fellow pulps. However it is the point at which what came before coalesced and became a recognisable genre with conventions and commercial concerns. Weird Tales can be most easily summed up by the names of its three most famous contributors: R.E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. It produced work that was unsettling, macabre, and visceral, ranging in settings from the pseudo-historical lands to the modern day. It gave us Sword & Sorcery and the Cthulhu mythos, as well as a general vein of horror influenced fantasy.

Indeed, much of the influence came from gothic and horror authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and R.W. Chambers; other traditions that can be seen include the Lost World genre popularised by Henry Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two-fisted pulp adventure, Oriental stories such as Crawford’s Khaled: A Tale of Arabia, and romanticism.

Many of the other notable fantasy authors of the time, such as Abraham Merritt, Francis Stephens, Seabury Quinn, and CL Moore, wrote in a similar vein even when not writing for Weird Tales itself. The only major American fantasy works written at this time that seems to stand apart are those of James Branch Cabell, which were noted for their ironic, satirical, detached nature (although also considered an influence on Smith and some other later S&S writers, notably Vance).

While Weird Tales flourished artistically, it never succeeded commercially and eventually its place – and with it fantasy’s direction – was taken by Unknown, edited by John Campbell. Campbell insisted on logical takes on fantasy and abandoning the blunt cosh of gothic horror for more subtle and humourous takes on the genre, and since he also edited the sci-fi magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, there was a good deal of writers crossing over too, particularly when Unknown folded due to poor sales. The result was fantasy became more aligned with sci-fi than with horror and, to a certain extent, dwindled due to a lack of market. It is notable how sword & sorcery authors such as Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance would predominantly write sci-fi from the 1940s up until the 70s.

Leiber and Vance are of particular interest as their work might be seen as combining the fantastical brutality of Sword & Sorcery with the more humourous, at times satirical edge demanded by Campbell. Some fantasy works went completely the way of the latter – see those of Sprague deCamp and Pratt – while others sought something of ancient blood and thunder, such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, but Leiber and Vance represented a middle ground that would in time become influential.

A resurgence of interest in Sword & Sorcery in the 60s led to more work from said authors, and also a casting around for similar works to satisfy a market that didn’t have enough active writers due to a long period of neglect. One such work was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which would become a cult classic that had seismic effects on the American audience. Before too long, publishers saw there was a bigger market for fantasy like Tolkien than fantasy like Leiber, and the market started to move.

The decade after LotR’s 1965 publication in the USA can be seen in hindsight as a time of exploration and diversity in the fantasy market. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series reintroduced a number of older works, from both inside and outside the USA, including a number from the Weird Tales oeuvre. Sword & Sorcery continued to do well, with many new authors emerging into the field, leading to the establishment of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America to honour those driving a new wave of fantasy, such as Andre Norton and John Jakes, as well as those who had contributed in the past. Lin Carter was a driving force behind both, one of a number who held a position of influence similar to Campbell and Weird Tales editors such as Farnsworth Wright.

The New Wave Sci-Fi movement also contributed a number of writers who worked in fantasy as well, such as Ursula le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ, many of whom pushed the boundaries of fantasy’s demographic both in what they sought to publish and who they were. The US New Wave was also diffuse in that it had no natural single outlet like Unknown or Weird Tales, the closest being British New Wave publication New Worlds.

Other Sci-Fi crossovers included Anne McCaffrey and the Pern series, initially published in Analog; the prolific Robert Silverberg; and CJ Cherryh, who was initially published by DAW Books. DAW would also publish British author Tanith Lee’s high fantasy debut, just like Ballantine published an even more high fantasy debut from Joy Chant; the American market was attracting authors from abroad who couldn’t get published at home. Other important original works published by Ballantine at this time include Katherine Kurtz’s pseudo-medieval dynastic intrigue series The Deryni Chronicles, and the continuation of Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion retellings.

While it would be a mistake to regard all of these strands of fantasy as equal at the time – some authors regard Sword & Sorcery as dominant in this period – it is a time that stands out in retrospect for having less of a dominant model than other periods. Weird Tales and Unknown/Astounding Science-Fiction dominated their time, but a profusion of publishers allowed for a number of veins to be mined. This would continue, but in a lot of ways that continuation was missed due to the appearance of two colossi on the American market: Dungeons & Dragons, and Epic Fantasy.

D&D – a wargame that got repurposed into a roleplaying game and spawned an industry – was more than just dice. It was a view of fantasy, and one that would get into the hands and heads of a number of authors, not to mention fans. Exploration driven and conflict based as a game, D&D founders drew on a number of fantasy sources to create their worlds and rules. This combination can loosely be described as mixing LotR‘s races, benevolent wizards, and battle between good and evil with the weirdness and savagery of pulp, with a generous seasoning of Poul Anderson’s ideas of Law and Chaos from Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Epic Fantasy didn’t owe its start to D&D. It owed it to The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks’ heavily Tolkien influenced debut, and Del Rey books, the Ballantine subsidiary that published it. It was a huge commercial success and American publishing quickly realised there was a market here. Works that emphasized a similarity to Tolkien’s triumph over evil and rural, comforting worlds who proliferate and come to be seen as dominating the fantasy world for a long time.

The sub-genre had a natural alliance with D&D. Some works in or close to it were direct spin-offs, such as Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance and Salvatore’s Drizzt. Others bore the mark of their author’s roleplaying experiences, such as Feist’s The Riftwar Saga and Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

Yet even works with no obvious crossover, such as David Eddings’ The Belgariad, fitted neatly in to the general idea. These were war fantasies, violent adventure fantasies, yet fantasies marked by a real sense of belonging and found family as these large adventuring parties bickered yet bonded, and a triumph of good over evil. These two overlapping ideas became seen as the dominant model, and are sometimes still seen that way.

Yet the explosion of fantasy continued. The urban fantasy genre took shape in Terri Windling’s Borderlands anthologies, as well as other works like Megan Lindholm’s (Robin Hobb) Wizard of the Pigeons. Ellen Kushner, a contributor to those anthologies, would help found Fantasy of Manners with Swordspoint. Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and KW Jeter would coin and help create the Steampunk movement. The now disgraced Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote her celtic/New Age feminist retelling of Arthur, The Mists of Avalon, as well as publishing anthologies of female orientated sword & sorcery. Authors such as John M. Ford, Gene Wolfe, and John Crowley continued to pursue individualistic and literary expressions of fantasy.

The 90s and early millennium would see the genre take on edgier, darker forms. Urban fantasy’s folklore influenced roots gave way to monster hunting detectives, a form pioneered by Anita Blake, and violent shadow organisations of horror creatures such as vampires and werewolves, partly inspired by White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire transformed the epic fantasy genre with its brutal medieval atmosphere, helping to pave the way for the grimdark movement.

Another big tale of the millennium was YA, a category kickstarted by the success of Rowling’s Harry Potter books and then perhaps crystallised by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Its commercial success was sustained on the backs of female authors, many of them no longer teenagers, and along with the internet provided a launchpad for demographic change – or perhaps a recognition of existing demographics. Twilight in particular also helped push the success of paranormal romance, and the many urban fantasy books that either exist in or near that sub-genre.

The current landscape of the fantasy is shaped by that demographic change and rise of YA, as well as the post-SoIaF approach to historical-ish fantasy and the shadowy underworld/detective models of urban fantasy, along with the rise of gaming/sci-fi influence hard magic systems. Viewed through some prisms, it seems hugely hegemonic in terms of what is deemed commercially viable and will get to the top of the pile. Through others, the genre is huge and there is space previously undreamt of for different expressions of it to flourish. A view that combines both would see a genre with a huge amount of room to be moderately successful, but big commercial gatekeeping barriers in the way of being hugely successful. A quick look inside Target will show how fantasy’s expression narrows to a few points in the mass market.

The reach of the internet might also make the idea of viewing fantasy in terms of what one country has done and is doing outdated, yet Jen Williams’ The Winnowing Flame series won the Best Novel at the British Fantasy Awards series two years in a row yet struggled to get published in North America. The easing of borders is always uneven. It is true that at this point that fantasy in the Anglosphere, and people plugged into the Anglosphere, draws on what is now a global tradition, but global traditions mingle with local traditions and local tastes determine what will be accepted.

It seems to me that in the USA, one can see a clean line of influence back to Weird Tales in what is accepted. A craving for visceral, bloody clashes with the monstrous has not yet gone away, and may never do so. The influence of Lord of the Rings, of D&D, of SoIaF and World of Darkness and Harry Potter has change the shape of that clash but it still remains. Even when fantasy authors deliberately walk away from that model, they often retain some of its aesthetics and form, and a sense of being a reactionary omission rather than a simple not interested.

That, however, might be shaping perceptions to fit a story. And if there is one thing this summary had struggled to do, it is to tell of all the influences from the outside that has shaped fantasy.

But that, more or less, is an outline of the story to date.


10 thoughts on “A quick summary of the arc of American fantasy

    1. Probably should have mentioned him alongside Cabell; I keep forgetting about Baum (possibly because I’m always mainly talking fantasy for adults rather than fantasy for children, which is a somewhat artificial but also important distinction) but no doubting it was major and fantasy.

      That said, for all the Wizard of Oz itself endures, it feels like an offshoot that didn’t produce much fruit (like Cabell). In all the combing for influences I’ve only found three authors listing Baum as an influence/favourite – Gene Wolfe, Kate Elliott, and Jack Vance. Vance apparently borrowed quite a lot from Baum (and was also heavily influenced by Cabell) but even so, we’re not talking a big influence. I might find more influence when I focus on the earlier authors more, but so far no dice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would argue that Seanan McGuire goes on that list as well. Her “children’s series,” “The Up-and-Under” (as A. Deborah Baker), which is tied to her “Alchemical” series, is influenced by Baum’s books.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Alas my list doesn’t extend much into this millennium yet! That’s something I’m going to have to get to at some point. But still, while I imagine he’ll have more cut through than just about any other author from 1900 on that list, I’m also not expecting much cut through from authors over a 100 years old at that point…

        Liked by 1 person

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