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Robin Hobb on What’s Wrong with Epic Fantasy

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Robin Hobb Ship of Destiny-smallOver at SF Signal, Andrea Johnson has put together one of the more interesting round-robin interviews I’ve read in a some time. As part of their Mind Meld series, she asked eight well known fantasy authors — including Martha Wells, Melanie Rawn, Sam Sykes, and Robin Hobb — to answer the question “What’s Wrong with Epic Fantasy?”

Many of the answers are both fascinating and insightful. Martha critiques the current trend towards multiple viewpoint characters (“A perfectly valid style, but… when it’s done wrong, it’s tedious”), Marc Alpin comments on the necessity to switch gears between books (“Some readers, especially those who wanted more of book one, freak out and think they’ve been cheated”), and Patrick Tomlinson discusses inevitable book bloat (“The longer an author writes inside a world, the longer the books tend to become.”) But it was Megan Lindholm, aka Robin Hobb, who I thought had the most salient comment, pointing out that the rise of independent publishers has also unleashed a host of amateur marketeers, whose newbie mistakes have left us with countless books that are misrepresenting themselves on the shelves:

I’m going to commit heresy here. I think that old time publishers are actually better at targeting the audience and showing readers the books they want than our current climate of ‘Everyone quick, promote a book you like’ is. Authors see their own books differently from how their publishers see them, and some of the author promotions I’ve seen led me to expect one sort of book and then [they] delivered another… I think that some (not all) of the people who are hired to create the book trailers don’t really know much about marketing… They make terrific trailers, and I get so excited to read the book, I buy it, and then think, ‘Well, this is a pretty good book, but it’s not at all what I thought it was going to be…’

To find a book that you really want to read, I recommend going to a bookstore (a big building sometimes made out of brick and mortar where they sell books made out of paper), and talk to the book seller (a person who knows all about what she or he is selling)… If you do not have a bookseller who can do this, then I am very sorry for you. Try your librarian.

Read the complete article here.

10 Comments »

  1. The only thing I’ve read of Ms. Hobb’s is her story “Homecoming” in John Joseph Adams Epic anthology last year. In my opinion, it was hands down the best story in that book, which is surprising given that it doesn’t really fit the tropes of what I was expecting as “epic” fantasy. Nevertheless, her character portrayal was so engrossing, I found myself really engaged with the story.

    I also heard a interview with her not long ago and was greatly impressed. We fantasy enthusiasts should keep our eye Ms. Hobb’s works and thoughts. I think she really knows the genre.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - February 5, 2014 11:44 pm

  2. I like what Teresa Frohock had to say, implying that she grew tired of epic fantasy because that’s all she read. Once she started reading more widely, her exhaustion vanished, and she could again appreciate epic fantasy.

    That describes my lifetime reading experience perfectly.

    Comment by markrigney - February 6, 2014 2:59 am

  3. Like Teresa Frohock and Mark above, I have to take breaks from reading epic fantasy and even related material, S&S and the like. I finished Erikson’s 10 Books of the Fallen a little more than 2 years ago and had to take a huge break after that. Only now am I working myself back into reading the genre.

    As for Hobb’s opinion, I don’t disagree with her that authors don’t necessarily know how to target their audience, but I’m thinking asking your local bookseller is an oversimplified solution, especially as I’m finding it more and more difficult today to find knowledgable booksellers than I did even a decade ago. I’m not sure there’s a perfect solution to this, other than to trust readers and for today’s authors to learn “on the job.”

    Comment by Ty Johnston - February 6, 2014 9:54 am

  4. > The only thing I’ve read of Ms. Hobb’s is her story “Homecoming” in John Joseph Adams Epic anthology
    > last year. In my opinion, it was hands down the best story in that book

    John,

    Glad to hear it (and it reminds me that I need to put that anthology back on my To Be Read pile…)

    Megan Lindholm wrote a number of highly regarded contemporary fantasies in the mid-80s, but success eluded her. She re-invented herself as “Robin Hobb” to write more traditional epic fantasy, and became a breakout success with her first series, The Farseer Trilogy. She’s sold over a million novels as Robin Hobb… pretty impressive, and a great object lesson in how to re-start a writing career.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 6, 2014 3:22 pm

  5. > That describes my lifetime reading experience perfectly.

    Mark,

    Agree completely. Moderation in all things is a code I live by.

    (Except with regards to collecting paperbacks, of course. Or vintage games. Or pulps, or SF digests. Or computer games. Or comics. Or….)

    Comment by John ONeill - February 6, 2014 3:32 pm

  6. > As for Hobb’s opinion, I don’t disagree with her that authors don’t necessarily know how to target their audience,
    > but I’m thinking asking your local bookseller is an oversimplified solution, especially as I’m finding it more and
    > more difficult today to find knowledgable booksellers than I did even a decade ago.

    Ty,

    For sure. Years ago there were lots of small bookstores in town, peopled with owners who loved books, and loved to talk about them. They’re all gone.

    I’ve met some excellent, and very knowledgeable, book sellers at Barnes and Noble. But I’ve also met many who had no ability to help me.

    When I was growing up, I got 80% of my book recommendations from friends. I was lucky enough to fall into a group that also loved SF and fantasy. If you’re lucky enough to find a similar group, consider yourself fortunate.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 6, 2014 4:19 pm

  7. While there is much to lament in the decrease in bookstores, missing out on their employees’ advice isn’t part of that. Between Amazon reviews/recommendations, my friends, and online forums/blogs like this one, I’ve been able to find almost too many interesting stories. I need more time to read them!

    Comment by Tyr - February 6, 2014 7:43 pm

  8. I would note that very few are epic fantasy…but that could just be me having no interest in reading a 10000 page work of fiction.

    Comment by Tyr - February 6, 2014 7:47 pm

  9. The problem? Too many books/series are defined by choices that are commercial rather than artistic or creative. George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan didn’t really have 10,000 or 15,000 pages of worthwhile things to say, but publishers’ and authors’ accountants like it when things are spun out past all literary justification; it’s just more cash in the register. When I think of my great fantasy reading experiences, I think of unique books and odd singletons like The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Blue Star, The Circus of Dr. Lao, The Well at the World’s End, The Worm Orobourous, A Voyage to Arcturus, The Face in the Frost, Lud-In-the-Mist, The Last Unicorn. Even The Lord of the Rings is really (as Tolkien always said) just a single book, one that is shorter than many writers’ inaugural volume these days. These are all works that were written before “fantasy” emerged as a publishing category, so authors used the mode as a vehicle to unleash their solitary imaginations rather than to provide for a cushy retirement. These books are too heady, too strange, too unsettling to be spun out for twelve volumes; even if the authors could do it, reader’s wouldn’t really want it; the banquet is too rich. The only books in their category today are works like Little, Big that come from writers who aren’t a part of the genre formula treadmill at all. Fantasy – the real, beautiful, frightening, awe-inspiring thing, is very, very rare. It always has been.

    Comment by emcgargle - February 7, 2014 6:12 pm

  10. Come to a con! There are a few of us knowledgeable booksellers left :-)

    My problem with epic fantasy is that too often, epic fantasy tends to equal bloated monstrosities these days.

    The stories don’t feel tight, and don’t tend to grip me and keep me reading.

    There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve mostly lost my taste in slogging through these.

    Comment by akomins - February 27, 2014 9:43 am


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