Where is Fantasy Going?

For a long time some years back, it seemed the trend in fantasy was running to vampires, with werewolves as a sub-genre. That may however have been only because it was what the big publishers were looking for. Be that as it may, I just popped over to Amazon this morning for a little informal research as to what was selling on the Kindle store in terms of fantasy fiction. I imagine most people know this by now, but the vampire sub-genre has become a bit passé, “Twilight” aside.

Leaving the sub-genre unselected, the top seller in fantasy e-books at Amazon was, no surprise, George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, while the second was his A Game of Thrones and the third was a bundled 4-volume set of his Song of Ice and Fire series (of which A Game of Thrones is volume 1 and A Dance With Dragons is volume 5). Getting past books associated with a popular television series (the books themselves, by the way, are excellent, although absurdly overpriced in e-book format), no. 4 is A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (over- but not absurdly-priced at $9.99). Then a couple more Martin books. Then The First Confessor by Terry Goodkind, a spin-off from his Sword of Truth series. Then another Martin title. Then The Third Gate by Lincoln Child, which a little exploration reveals to be an archaeological fantasy sort of reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies. Then Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris, which is a kind of occult murder mystery, one in a series. Following this is The Hobbit by Tolkien (one guess as to why that classic has shot up in popularity), and then The Wind Through the Keyhole by some dude or other named Stephen King (part of the Dark Tower series, of course; King is usually classified as a horror or thriller writer but there’s some crossover). That’s the first page. No vampires so far or at least no obvious vampires.

Scanning the second page I find quite a few witch stories, an epic fantasy about religious persecution, a couple of hard-to-classify things, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Still no vampires or werewolves. If I specify “Contemporary Fantasy,” which is where vampire stories properly belong most of the time, I find one werewolf-related story at no. 10, and finally at no. 13 a book with “vampire” in the title.

(As an aside, you can tell the books that are published by legacy publishers as opposed to those that are indie published by the price without even seeing the publisher imprint. Legacy-published e-books are priced deliberately to retard sales so as not to compete with paper. If it’s above ten bucks, you know it’s not indie.)

Whew! So it’s safe to say, I think, that the epidemic of vampire stories has run its course. If there’s a trend running at the moment it would appear to be witch stories, that is, stories with female magic-wielder main characters. (Come to think of it, I’m working on one of those myself at the moment.) Now, my first reaction is to heave a big sigh of relief, ’cause that vampire stuff never did appeal to me much, but my second is to ponder the mystery of why these trends occur. Why were vampire books all the rage among fantasy readers a few years ago, and now it’s witches? To some extent this is surely a stochastic process, a phenomenon of chaos physics, but in keeping with the connection between fantasy and spirituality/myth that I’ve been suggesting in this blog, there may be other factors involved in setting and changing the trends of fantasy.

First of all, consider the vampire story as it was typically expressed during that sub-genre’s brief dominance of the market. This was typically a dark romance, usually directed towards female readers. The vampire as lover is the ultimate BDSM fantasy, surrender by one lover to another (usually woman to man, although it could be the other way around) to the extreme of giving up her life’s blood itself, with the gift of immortality as a reward. The vampire theme, to the extent readers identify with the undead, involves rejection of ordinariness — this is of course normal in just about all fantasy fiction and much fiction generally — but also rejection of humanity itself, nature, and life, for although the vampire “lives forever” in a sense, he or she does so only as a reanimated corpse, through embracing death and turning away from life, as symbolized by intolerance of the sun.

The witch story is quite a contrast to this. To the extent that it draws upon the lore of real-world witches (which some witch stories do more than others, of course), a witch theme embraces and reveres life and the natural world. In all cases, the witch is an empowered woman, a feminist statement in fiction, in charge of her own life (frequently mucking it up, but don’t we all), and as far removed from the vampire’s paramour as one can easily imagine within the parameters of fantasy. The popularity of the witch story these days might, therefore, actually be a reaction to the prior glut of vampire tales. A healthy one, at that. And in hindsight, it might even have been predictable.

So with that in mind, let me engage in a bit of speculation about where fantasy fiction might be going in the future, when the current rage for witch stories simmers down.

To begin with, we might expect a flip-side of the witch story to emerge in the form of stories about strong, but non-traditional, male characters. This would embody in fiction an emerging new concept of masculinity, with male characters that are a goodly remove from the stereotypical macho warriors, sage wizards, and cunning thieves of prior fantasy.

Another theme that might emerge involves the upsetting of traditional beliefs and norms. This is an ongoing upheaval in our own real-world culture and for it to emerge in fantasy fiction is perfectly logical, given the fantasy-spirituality-mythology connection.

So I’m going to predict that both of those will emerge as prominent trends in fantasy within the next six months. We’ll see if I’m right.

8 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

8 responses to “Where is Fantasy Going?

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. The picture you chose really is what caught my eye from the start. Where did you get this? Is it your own photo-manip? I love it (I’m a nut for wisteria though too so…).

    Photo aside, I found the post interesting as well. I actually wonder if trends follow popular tv shows in a way not obvious from your research. The obvious way exists in the sheer amount of sales with a current or up-coming movie/tv equivalent title. People who like that story, are also buying up other books by the author. Finally, you have stories about other realms and plots seemingly unconnected. Maybe a connection is absent. Maybe, at least in some cases, the other choices share a connection with popular tv shows and movie themes that lack book equivalents or readers choose them based on similarity to a favoured tv show.

    An example that comes to mind is Lost Girl on syfy. The main character’s a succubus rather than a witch, but she’s got the power-thing going on. Some people might find themselves intrigued by Martin’s Melisandre character, or even Danaerys and search for similar pov characters/stories.

    I don’t think all reading choices are connected to tv and movies, but I do think some reading choices are people looking for more stories like their favourite tv shows and movies.

    Either way, I find this trend more exciting than vampires as well for the very contrasts you mentioned.

  2. Much of the appeal of vampire stories — These ‘people’ never lacked for money, could keep themselves well (and darkly) housed via wealth accumulated in the past & invested with the shrewdness of long experience — couldn’t survive except as parasite/predators. A nice fantasy for a time when many people aspired to such status themselves, not so popular now that the karmic fallout of such dreams is upon us.

  3. The “sexy vampires” thing kind of started a long time ago, with Hammer films, then Anne Rice, and the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Twilight and the other YA dark romance vampire fiction seems to me like the latest (or last, for now?) wind of the same trend, with a lot of the shock toned down and with strictly hetero rather than queer vibes. But I shouldn’t talk – I haven’t read any of the new stuff! And in any case I hear the birth scene in Twilight is quite shocking enough.

    I need to check out these new witch books, even if it’s hard to imagine I’d love the new stuff more than I love Discworld’s witches. I expect this new trend is partly an aftermath of Harry Potter.

  4. You know, I mulled on this some more while I was going about my business today, and I think you’re wrong in your prediction. Vampire romances and probably these new witch books are girls’ YA. Girls’ YA is not going to be replaced by boy’s YA, or “mainstream” (men’s) fantasy. If there’s another trend coming up in the same continuum, it’ll be another girls’ genre – though that’s rather a self-fulfilling prophecy, since if a boys’ genre gains popularity next, I can always say “yes, but it’s not really the follow-up to vampire romances and witch books”. There’s an interesting lit paper out there somewhere about whether or not all this means that fantasy’s shifting into a girls’/womens’ genre, though I doubt it, considering Game of Thrones is still doing well, and it’s not like female fantasy fans/writers haven’t been here all along – though they may be catered to more now than before.

    • Hmm. Let’s start with the premise that the reason vampires surged as a fantasy theme and then were replaced by witches is that this represents an influx of young female readers into a genre with previously lopsided male readership. Makes sense. But go from there and assume that these girls remain fantasy readers as they get older. Now you’re not talking about girls’ YA, but about fantasy for more mature women in their mid to late twenties and older. (Along with a new crop of youngsters, of course, and it remains to be seen how the gender mix will break down with them.) YA readers don’t stay YA forever.

      Could it be argued that the witch is a more mature female-focused motif than the vampire romance? Here the female character is strong, courageous, and cunning, facing down dreadful odds with a wily mind and a grasp of the arcane arts, rather than a hormone-drenched teenager with self-esteem problems being ravished into immortality by a Prince Ghastly. It’s hard to find good data on this, but would that not appeal to a slightly older young woman, with a bit more self-confidence?

      The idea of a male character with strongly revised, non-traditional masculinity doesn’t assume a switch in the gender of readership. It could simply mean continued maturation of the readership that started with the vampire-paranormal romance. In fact, a male character that isn’t a stereotypical macho man might very well appeal to female readers. I can even think of an example: Sarah Monette’s Melusine series, with two very non-traditional male main characters. The author is female and I suspect so is a lot of the readership (although I loved it and I’m not female).

      • I think it would rather be a case of more female authors on the shelves rather than more female readers, and publishers publishing more fantasy fiction specifically tailored for girls. Women have always been reading and writing fantasy, but it wasn’t always fantasy that was particularly directed at them. I say as a mature woman who’s been devouring (non-children’s) fantasy since I learned it was a thing!

        I really haven’t read much vampire YA or any witch YA, so I’m not well-placed to comment, but the obvious conclusion to jump to is that vampire romance = damsel fantasy, and witch fiction = power fantasy. There’s nothing particularly mature or childish (or wrong!) about either kind of fantasy. Adult romance of the Harlequin stripe is all about the damsel fantasy. I think Twilight was first published by a sub-company of Harlequin, and their writers’ guidelines suggest strong male characters and less strong female characters (I know because I thought of writing for them at some point – couldn’t!). However, I am rather pleased if it turns out the de-empowering fantasy is being replaced by a backlash of empowering fantasy.

        As for non-traditional male characters – in fiction specifically directed at women, it’s more commonplace to find a female lead, with the exception of slash fiction or slash-culture-derived fiction, which is another post entirely. Then again there’s a whole field of stuff between the clearly defined women’s/girls’ fiction and less-often-defined but still clearly recognisable men’s fiction, and stuff on the soft edges of each, written by both men and women, and I’d love to see this field produce fiction that’s read by both genders (rather than men’s fiction being read by both genders and women’s by women) and treats men and women as people (as opposed to prizes or dream lovers) and equals.

        Personally I hope we will continue to have fantasy fiction featuring female leads, and, oh! in a perfect world! female supporting characters and female villains and female everybody in the whole book, because my television is bursting with dudes and sometimes I just like to read about people like me being important. I like slash-derived fiction because it’s queer (like I am) and challenges gender roles, but if women’s fiction starts to be all about men, too, there won’t be any fiction about women left!

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