Monday, September 21, 2020

more than three

Something else I heard about at Oxonmoot is that a few months ago Dimitra Fimi ran a snap poll on Twitter, asking readers to name their candidates for the three best fantasy authors besides Tolkien. "Best" is a big word, but I'd have had no trouble naming my three favorites fitting that criteria, and all three came fairly high in the final results: Ursula K. Le Guin (#1), Mervyn Peake (#14), and Lord Dunsany (#15). If I'd been limited to my three favorite post-Tolkien fantasists, it'd have been Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones (#6), and Patricia McKillip (#18). My three favorite individual works of post-Tolkien fantasy would have been somewhat different, however. Along with a Le Guin (Always Coming Home) and a Wynne Jones (Fire and Hemlock), I couldn't single out one McKillip: her books all exist on the same level for me, and indeed I have trouble remembering which ones I liked better than others. But I could not omit a favorite by an author whose other works don't much measure up, and who indeed does not appear on Dimitra's list of the top 30: Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Analyzing my reactions to the remaining 8 of the top 10 is a more dismaying sight. Two of them, C.S. Lewis (#3) and Neil Gaiman (#4), have written books I like very much, and which I often re-read, and I've written scholarly articles on both authors. Yet I'd classify both as writers whose works I find it easier to admire than to love, so I hold them at a slight distance. Robin Hobb (#5) I'm somewhat blank on. I enjoyed her Wizard of the Pigeons, written as Megan Lindholm, but I've never re-read it, and I've never tried anything from her Robin Hobb oevure. I understand they're mostly epic fantasy trilogies, a genre that, after Stephen Donaldson and Guy Kay and all, I'm thoroughly allergic to. (But you love The Lord of the Rings? Yes, but it's not at all like any of its imitations.) That perhaps puts her in a category with George R.R. Martin (#8), an author I liked very much until he became an epic fantasist. I actually tried the first volume of that monster, and it bored the bejesus out of me.

The famous series by J.K. Rowling (#9) took longer to elicit a negative reaction from me. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter book, a light and sprightly children's fantasy, though not anything I'd have marked down as a masterpiece for the ages. But the subsequent books got heavier as well as repetitious, and reading volume 4 was like trudging through thick mud, so after that I quit. Terry Pratchett (#2, and the only all-around favorite after Le Guin) I just don't find funny. His attempts at humor seem to me terribly labored. Nobody agrees with me on this, but then a lot of people also disagree with my finding Douglas Adams utterly hilarious. Philip Pullman (#7) and Brandon Sanderson (#10) are authors I tried one early book by each, and found them both so dreadful I have no desire to continue. The Golden Compass is supposed to be the good one of Pullman's first trilogy, but though I found it readable, the crudely manipulative plot and the cardboard sub-creation were enough that, if that's the good one, I'd hate to see the bad ones. For Sanderson, I tried a stand-alone called Elantris. I could make no sense whatever out of the plot, the character motivations, the rules of magic, or even the physical layout of the setting; it was complete gobbledegook.

If these are the ten best fantasists, then I don't really like fantasy very much, a conclusion I came to long ago without the help of this poll. What I like are a few good authors who happen to write fantasy. I triangulated this finding against various lists of the ten best classical composers, and found that I liked as many of them at least as well, and didn't reject any so emphatically or entirely. Music, then, I like, but not fantasy.

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