Thursday, 15 November 2018

The End of Wonder

One of the best
Nobody reads anymore. This is universally agreed upon by both the literate and illiterate alike. Big book chains have closed because less customers are shopping there, and because amazon simply offers more for those still around. All in all the landscape for literature is not looking healthy.

The highest selling books not propped up by television shows are all by authors who have been dead for decades. It's a small crowd and it's only shrinking. When was the last time traditional publishing introduced a new author that broke out big? And I mean bigger than your best friend who works at the library or indie bookstore. When was the last time you saw a man on the street talking about hot new author X? If you're honest without yourself then you'll realize it has been a very long time.

This is no small issue. By all accounts the industry is flailing and utterly failing to draw in customers or satisfying existing ones, and is unable to offer anything fresh. And no one in those high positions knows how to fix any of this.

Despite shorter attention spans, short stories and anthologies sell as bad as ever. Smaller pulp-length books have been abandoned since the 80s when the old classics were sabotagedleft without shelf-space and replaced with fat unedited tomes the size of Stephen King's ego and former coke habit. They went in the opposite direction of audience trends, and while it might have worked for a bit, they sure are paying for it now. The readership is shrinking.

But television is also dying, as are most traditional art mediums. No one can fight the creeping nihilism hanging like the Damocles blade above their necks. It's going to fall. The difference is that literature has been around so much longer than the other forms that it should be the one with the highest chance of recovery. It has competed with beer money before. It fought off plays, radio, cinema, television, and video games over the years. Why should the internet by any different?

Well, I hinted at why that is one paragraph back. Those in charge of the industry are not catering to the changing audience. They're instead trying to change the audience. Not in the individuals, but in what they like and see as good and quality so they can shape tastes and forever milk money from their paypig readership. So instead of aiming for blue oceans where the big fish are they throw nets into aquariums over and over, and the goldfish inside hardly realize how often they are being drug out over and over.

The problem is the damage the industry has done to writing itself. And I'm not talking about prose or plotting. I'm not even talking about creativity or stale formats like the 400-page-paperback factory mainstream literature has become. I don't even have to mention all the strange and fetishistic anthologies and magazines that need to be kickstarted because no one is interested in buying them normally. Where the industry suffers the most is in a more basic place.

It is the complete lack of wonder. Romance and adventure are seen as quaint and even problematic. Sincerity is seen as a fool's errand.

And all of that is needed if you want a sustainable audience. This should be obvious. It's no secret that few people who leave high school will ever pick up a book again after graduation. Why is that? It is what they were taught to consume and think of as high art, "real" literature. You will find no wonder or wild imagination in those books. That is by design, sure, but also doesn't foster a love for reading when they could just as easily go download Thief Gold from Steam or GOG and get what they were already looking for. The question is are these schools supposed to be teaching students to love reading or to embed messages in their brains? You probably already know the answer but it is pretty obvious which path is healthier regardless.

I was fortunate to have good teachers as a kid who encouraged me to read The Hobbit, and we even put on MacBeth, but most aren't lucky enough to have instructors going that extra mile. Most get stuck with The Lottery and The Giver and have no reason to think other books are any different. That's if anything even gets assigned at all.

And the people writing fantasy don't help either. For a genre that has its roots in history and legend, it is amazing how few writers have any sort of connection with their own genre's legacy. In fact, the more I learn about the early days of pulp publishing the more I realize how disconnected we are to our roots.

Case in point is this video of fantasy author Brandon Sanderson talking about his own genre. This video was a real eyeopener to me. Pay special attention to how one of the biggest authors in the genre makes up categories, forgets important authors, and works backwards from where wonder should start. And he is one of the biggest fish in the drying pond of his genre.


Here is where I must make a disclaimer. I am not posting this to mock Brandon Sanderson. I don't know how much about the genre he knows (it's probably more than me since David Gemmell is one of the few post-1980 authors in the genre I read), and he clearly knows a lot about worldbuilding. The man is knowledgeable. There are far worse authors with terrible advice (and attitudes, to be quite frank) than him out there. Most are on social media. I have nothing against Mr. Sanderson and think he is very talented.

I also think his focus is incredibly misguided and part of the problem as to why post-Tolkien fantasy is so bland and toothless.

For one encapsulating example, take a random Lord Dunsany short story and get any random modern fantasy novel off a Barnes & Noble shelf and put them side by side. Dunsany's stories are rarely longer than a page and he fills them with wondrous sights, sounds, adventures, and ideas that leave the reader enthralled and possibly mystified. Rarely are you left without at least some semblance of satisfaction. Modern fantasy stories stretch on for near a thousand pages, they dig into minutia and world details that aren't very important, go deep into character histories, and you need sequels to get the entire tale. It spends books and years to finish a single story that doesn't contain half the weight or an eighth of the wonder of one Dunsany short. They are focused on precisely the opposite thing they should be leaning on. Wonder is fantasy's biggest strength.

Both the industry doesn't notice. They care more about the hard shell then the appetizing lobster inside. Audiences will go to where they can get the most bang for their buck, and fantasy is losing that battle more and more as the years go by. Why is it chefs can understand what writers and publishers can't? Customers aren't interested in how lovingly you place the lobster on the plate--they care about what it tastes like.

There is no wonder to a magic system. There is no wonder to nihilistic violence that ends with the least terrible person getting what they want. There is no wonder to a romance that is filtered through modern post-porn sex. There is no wonder to any story filtered through "reality", "content checkers", or hackneyed writer formulas that have been stale since the '70s. In other words, there is no wonder to modern fantasy.

Fantasy authors are more obsessed with the aesthetics then they are sufficiently wowing the audience. As long as the rules are consistent, the reader won't care what you do.

But it isn't about the reader, is it? At some point it became about telling the customer what they should want then calling them entitled and/or stupid when they don't want it. They should feel lucky enough to slurp up the gruel they are handed and praise the muddy texture accordingly. Have you figured out why the industry is shrinking yet?

Fantasy is no different than other mediums and genres in that area. Think of science fiction and John W. Campbell for an example. How hard revision killed that genre is quite the tale. It's also impressive to the extent certain fans still think he created a Golden Age. This despite his influence completely being erased from every book currently on the stands and a sharp decrease in sales following on him taking control of the genre. This while the rest of the world reveled in tropes and ideas the pulps invented before him, and still engage in to tremendous success. A Golden Age is marked by record high sales and quality output--the Campbell Age was the complete opposite of that and started the downward trend leading to where the genre is now. The audience wanted Merritt, and instead he was airbrushed out of the picture and his genre rendered unrecognizable by gatekeepers just like Campbell.

We know what the Golden Age of fantasy is, even if some of us don't want to admit it for whatever reason. It is what it is.

So what can we do going forward? I would say to keep an eye out. Personally I'm still working on my Heroes Unleashed project with Silver Empire, and just had two short stories put out in StoryHack and DimensionBucket Magazine. But there are other authors trying their best to put out something different and better than what the mainstream is squeezing from their rotting lemon trees. You can do better, and you will if you look for it.

It's going to take a long time, but it will eventually turn around. One day you might even see a group of kids passing around an old Anthony Hope paperback and discussing the incredible ending to the book they just went through. Bit out there, no? But that sure would be something.

We've just got a ways to go. Hold tight.

It's coming!

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Where Are We?

Before I start I would like to mention the fact that two of my stories have been released recently via two different outlets.


The first I've already brought up, but I was included in StoryHack #3 with my story Inside the Demon's Eye. This is a fantasy about a lone adventurer wandering through the Black Lands in search of a precious item while another pursues him. Enter a world of demons where humans constantly find themselves under assault--in more ways than one. I was inspired by quite a few things in writing this from CL Moore to an old legend of a sinking city that isn't Atlantis. Can you guess what it is? Probably. I'm not very subtle.

Check out and let me know what you think! It's new territory for me.

But that's not all!


Also just released is my story Endless Nights in Villain City in the Autumn issue of DimensionBucket Magazine! Also different from me, this one is story from the perspective of the villain. Not very surperversive, I suppose, but maybe you'll disagree. It was definitely fun writing this from a different angle.

This is the first issue of a brand new magazine, so please check it out even beyond my story. There are plenty of great stories by talented authors here.

And now for our regularly scheduled post.


Before we start this time, I'd like to draw your attention to this episode of Half in the Bag by RedLetterMedia. You do not have to watch the entire thing (these are always long) but there is something I want to point out. Just skip to their general impressions of each movie. You'll know why I'm bringing this up pretty quick.




One of the reasons most enjoy RedLetterMedia is their deadpan and deflated reaction to the end of pop culture and Hollywood's slow death. The movie Mandy is a rarity in that it shows the last remaining sparks of creativity left in Hollywood, even if it is still coated in nihilism. At the very least it is a creative attempt at a story. This is becoming rare in that industry.

Where Hollywood fails is when they have to write heroics. This might seem strange in the era of the MCU, but you also have to remember that the MCU is still the only proper success in the superhero film world. DC has floundered and, unlike the 90s, no one is taking a chance on more obscure comic books or heroes (like The Shadow or The Phantom) or creating new ones (like Darkman or Mystery Men) to capitalize on the trend. Even if you think superheroes are big their success is limited and not leading to any larger trend. And when the final Avengers movie happens they will never again reach the level of popularity.

But aside from heroics, Hollywood also doesn't understand their own properties--even those who worked on them. For an example check out the video above. The Predator is a colossal failure both critically and commercially.

The Predator is a shallow, spiritually dead movie of stolen imagination and rehashed ideas with a message that could only have been thought up by someone too pathetic to grow up beyond adolescence. And it was written by someone who was there when the original film was being made. And not a talentless man, either. He wrote the original two (and best) Lethal Weapon films as well as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He knows action and how to give the audience what they want.

And yet not only is this film completely out of joint with the franchise, it is completely out of tone with the genre it is supposed to be. It doesn't give the audience what it wants, and it doesn't do so on a scale that is as impressive as it is inept.

Which sums up the dead end state of pop culture as it is right now.

I didn't expect to write a post about this movie, but I had to do so after recent events involving bad decisions by Marvel. The fact of the matter is that the MCU has peaked. There will never be another film like the original Avengers' impact on the genre, and there will never be another Infinity War of building up around a decade of work to one event. It will never happen again.

So we begin our downhill slide of the company telling audiences what they want and cramming uninteresting characters into their own films to replace beloved ones. The MCU has passed its peak with these two new Avengers movies, like every other trend, and will never be the same again.

And that's fine. Trends come and go all the time. Superheroes first hit it big with X-Men and Spiderman back in the early 00s and we're nearing two decades. Just like westerns, action films, noir, and fantasy films, we're nearing the end. But there is a problem.

The difference this time? There is no trend coming.

Hollywood didn't pounce on John Wick's success. Outside of Marvel, they've sidestepped superheroes. Star Wars is dying as a brand. Their award shows go down in ratings every year because no one is interested in the movies they're making and dumping directly into the 5 dollar movie bin at Walmart. How can they pounce on trends when they either ignore them or, like The Predator, completely misunderstand them?

An industry can't survive on low selling auteur wank, and product that has no respect for the audience.

But that's another reason I posted my work at the top of the post. It wasn't just for promotion but to highlight that the future are people like those in StoryHack and DimensionBucket. It's about creators willing to give the audience what they want while trying new and exciting things at the same time.

Much has been written about the Pulp Revolution and other similar movements in other places and industries, but they exist for that reason. The big boys are fading and have no intention of changing their ways. Their too bloated, arrogant, oblivious, and low energy for that.

So while the old guard crumbles to dust, I suggest strapping in for a ride. 2018 has been one strange twist after another, and that's not going to change any time soon.

I'm not exactly sure where we are in the overall scheme of things, but we're definitely in an interesting position.

Let's see what happens next.