Fantasy has a problem – it is inherently kitsch. What do I mean by kitsch? Crap that people unaccountably like. I'm a fantasy fan, so please don't put your fist through your computer screen just yet. Give me a chance to explain.
The dictionary defines kitsch as tawdry, vulgarised or pretentious art usually with popular or sentimental appeal. Unicorns, wizards, put upon young wretches who come to be great mages, haughty princesses, riders in dark cloaks - Robert Jordan, if you want it summed up in two words. Jordan's a writer who more than fulfils the ‘vulgarised' part of the definition with his nickel and dime bloated version of Tolkien. Not saying it's wrong, or even unenjoyable, just like a life-size statue of Chucky from Child's Play in your living room isn't wrong. But it is kitsch.
Of course, I'm not saying all fantasy is kitsch or that all uses of unicorns, wizards etc are kitsch – see the works of Robert Holdstock who handles these elements brilliantly and movingly.
But any writer of Fantasy has to decide what he wants to do with the kitsch monster that's holding their book in its hands. You can live with it and love it if you want to, ally with it and rule the world as Jordan did. Jordan laughs all the way to the bank while not bothering a jot about kitsch and writing lines such as:
Ba'alzamon's clothes were the color of dried blood, and rage and hate and triumph battled on his face. "You see, youngling, you cannot hide from me forever."
This is a useful piece of writing. I propose a test in fantasy called the 'Youngling Test'. If the writer uses the word ‘youngling' at any point then it shows he or she does not care about kitsch. In fact, we could cut it to the ‘Ling' test. Lordling, elfling, godling, princeling, hatchling'. If any of these words appear you know what you're in for and can either rub your hands and mutter ‘I will be master of the universe!' or you can move on to something that, rather than cozy up to the kitsch monster, dons its plate armour, pulls out its magic sword and tries to cut out its evil heart.
Those fantasy writers who want to avoid kitsch have a variety of tactics at their disposal. Number one is smash the kitsch monster in the head by ramping up the cynical and grim/realistic elements of the rest of the work. OK, you've got wizards but you've also got more grit than Lord Grit of Grit Towers.
Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin inject a cynicism and a measure of violence into their work, they drain it of all sentiment. Sentimentality is the life blood of the kitsch monster. They cut the monster's throat and watch it twitching on the floor. George RR Martin in particular displays a ruthlessness towards killing his characters that borders on the distressing for those of us who have grown to love them.
If that doesn't appeal, you can inject intellectualism – like Philip Pullman or style and wit like Susanna Clarke in her Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell books. Or you can inject intellectualism, style, wit, grit, grotesquery and a whole heap more in the style of China Miéville.
My response in the Wolfsangel series – and my new book Fenrir in particular - is to try to ramp up the existential horror and strive for a sort of Beowulf or Macbeth-like atmosphere. If I'm doing it right it leaves you pondering about what a cruel and cold universe we live in, as you watch the characters shivering through freezing mires, traumatised by insane magic, shattered by the futility of their struggles against their destinies. If I'm doing it wrong it leaves you thinking ‘hmm, pretentious and depressing, a rare combination'.
And there lies the risk for those of us who are interested in taking on the kitsch monster. In going the other way, in trying too hard to be ‘realistic', honest, gritty or meaningful we end up over-reaching ourselves and the monster eats us anyway.
However, the monster will always sit burbling and belching at the heart of the Fantasy kingdoms and I think that it, and responses to it, will continue to define Fantasy for years to come.
M.D. Lachlan is the pen name of a successful writer of mainstream fiction and nonfiction. The author of Wolfsangel and Fenrir, he lives near London, England, with his wife and children.
Illustration via the WOT Wiki