A large part of the corpus of fantasy fiction is, and generally has been, aimed at youths.
Sometimes, this is explicitly intended – Narnia, Harry Potter, etc. – and in some cases, the underlying themes and assumptions so common to high fantasy find a young readership because they hold more appeal for the kids these days than they do for those of us who are more concerned with paying bills than hunting dragons.
How, then, does one write fantasy for adults?
In some ways, the assumptions behind that question are mildly silly. C.S. Lewis thought so, and gave us a gorgeous quotation in an essay on writing for children: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Which is to say, of course, that I don’t think adults typically find anything inherently off-putting in youth-focused fiction. The Bildungsroman is a fiction staple in any genre you could care to name, Glee is hyper-popular among its teen target market and adults alike, and of course everybody on the bus is reading Harry Potter (even if they’ve slipped it into a War and Peace book jacket out of embarrassment).
So on the one hand, I think the oppositional way in which some people approach adult-oriented vs. youth-oriented fiction is misguided, as is the (bizarre) idea that adults no longer have formative experiences and thus can’t be arsed to read about them.
On the other, of course, there’s a real difference between fiction targeted at somebody else that one can nevertheless enjoy, and fiction aimed directly at… well, us. And it’s true that, the Kays and Bakkers of the world notwithstanding, there really isn’t so much out there. Few fantasy novels have much to say about parenting, or mid-life crises, or nostalgia, or trying to keep a marriage together when you’re always heading out on business trips to chop some heads off.
But let me tell you, the I-just-want-to-pay-my-bills experience of adult life is very well represented. Semi-honourable thieves, poor honest men who could make a killing by… well, killing, but gave it up for lent, mercenaries willing to take any job with no questions asked: such characters are very much the stuff of fantasy. Indeed, once upon a time, sword-and-sorcery was built on their iron thews.
Meet Conan. Some of you may know him from a mildly awful (yet amusing) Arnold movie that entirely misrepresented the poor chap. The literary Conan was whip-smart, defiant, bipolar, not terribly discerning about where his income came from, and often disappointed or disgusted that the world outside his native Cimmeria just didn’t value good, honest, barbarism. (His answer was generally to cleave it in twain).
He was one of many such. Sword and sorcery was not really aimed at children (inasmuch as an entirely child-oriented fiction industry existed at the time; that’s a more modern conceit). The pulps, particularly the fantasy pulps in which we’re interested here, were penned at a difficult time, sandwiched between a war, a depression, and another war. They reflect it. There’s a wonderful Onion article in Our Dumb Century that laughs about the US finding solace in the wit and whimsy of H.P. Lovecraft’s utopianism. The joke is that the depression was so crushing that being killed or driven mad by gibbering cosmic entities and Nouns Man Was Not Mean to Verb constituted a step up.
Which isn’t to conflate adult with dark, of course. Those are orthogonal. I’m only pointing out that the answer to the question “Why doesn’t anybody write fantasy for adults?” is “We did.”
Why did pulps fall out of favour? Firstly, the ’50s did them in. When everything’s peachy-keen and our greatest concern is finding a way to hide our pregnant daughter from the Joneses, Lovecraft seems a relic of an entirely different eon, to say nothing of decade. There’s a reason why the ’50s gave us so much utopian sci-fi (up until the Cold War got a bit hotter). I also suspect we stopped identifying with the purely mercenary protagonist. Most of our thieves and lawbreakers these days have hearts of gold under there somewhere, and in fact the actual human consequences of their actions are usually glossed over so that we never have to think too hard about the fact that they’re maybe not the best of role models. At their best, they’re often the Sams Spade of the modern world – fakers who pretend at corruption and world-weariness but are actually driven by a rather strong moral idealism and a desire to do good things.
And, of course, one needs to consider the business of it all. When high fantasy sells and sells and sells for decades, publishers will want to see more high fantasy. There’s a perception among some of them that genuine, adult concerns don’t belong in genre, and so when books that deal with them are successful, there’s a bizarre song and dance to ignore and reclassify. 1984, Oryx and Crake, The Road. They’re not sci-fi. They’re not post-apoc. They’re Big Serious Literature.
(And they are, of course. But they’re Big Serious Genre Literature, or as close to it as makes no meaningful difference).
So how do we write fantasy for adults? We throw in a flawed protagonist and pull him into a situation that challenges those flaws. We remember that our characters may worry that their children are getting the wrong idea about their mercenary escapades. We write honest, adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, between people who are likely to already know their needs. We deconstruct – if somebody’s life involves drifting from town to town and righting wrongs, what does that say about this character? Who on earth would do such a thing instead of living a normal, healthy life? What are the costs of a lifetime of violence?
In other words, we just write books. Genre is a shorthand, not a story in and of itself. Certainly, if we use it, it should be for a reason, but that reason doesn’t have to be a checklist. Fantasy is an ideal backdrop for stories about uniquely powerful individuals and the things they can achieve for good or ill. It can also be an ideal backdrop for stories about common, mundane, everyday people caught up in a world where a wizard might fry them because they looked a mite uppity.
And now that independent self-publishing is again a viable option, an author who believes in his work and is willing and able to market it can sidestep a whole lot of publishing houses talking about what sells – or, to be more specific, about what sold. Many will seize that opportunity, and fantasy will be richer for it.
Next time: I don’t know. Something. Maybe we’ll talk about magic.