The Next Clichés

Genres change. It’s one of my favourite things about them.

It’s a fascinating process. A new thing comes along, people like it, it gets popular, everyone does it, everyone gets bored of it, then variations pop up until either someone takes one and runs with it or the whole thing dies away and we start on the next thing.

Sometimes the capstone is obvious. Modernism (though a movement, not a genre), for one – it was pretty much over when Joyce released Finnegan’s Wake. There was just no making a text more Modernist than that, and there’s really no way to parody Modernism that doesn’t itself become Modernist, so that was it. We were done.

Genres are different. I talked recently about horror, and how it has faded into the background, and how I’d like to bring it back. But what was the turning point? What made horror into such an underground thing? Can we measure the decline in the horror genre in units of Saw sequels? What about marking the point when we stopped making original cyberpunk?

I keep an eye on the fantasy genre, especially in recent years, and it’s interesting watching the sea change. I already watched a few sea changes in Young Adult fiction – by definition, Young Adult readers have a very short ‘lifespan’. It’s not like adult fiction where you can expect one batch of readers to keep reading for thirty-plus years with tastes refining and branching rather than completely upheaving; when you write for a young adult audience, you expect to keep your audience for an official figure of five years (14 to 19), and let’s say a more practical figure of ten years (14 to 24). Now, the difference between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old in terms of how they think about books and reading is a whole lot bigger than the difference between a 34-year-old and a 38-year-old. Four years’ experience at 14 and 18 is a much larger percentage of that person’s overall level of experience, after all. There are also more stigma associated with reading a book “for 14-year-olds” at age 18 than reading a book “for 25-year-olds” at thirty, particularly in the case of students who read books at school where classmates can see them. As a result, changes move quite fast in YA – I remember Harry Potter being very suddenly usurped by Twilight, and then Twilight being equally suddenly usurped by The Hunger Games over the space of the last decade.

Adult fantasy, on the other hand? I’m still making farm-boy-and-magic-sword jokes, and that subgenre hasn’t been a supergiant since the 80s.

Books in that genre are still kicking around. I mean, the Wheel of Time series wasn’t completed until just recently. But the big doorstopper bricks of fantasy novels in pseudo-medieval societies with Destined Chosen Ones and such have sort of fallen by the wayside. They got stale – we were happy to keep reading the series we were invested in until they ended, but we didn’t want to read any new stuff in that vein. Nowadays, it seems like every second book I see on the bookshelves at stores is either a fairytale retelling/reimagining or a book about a Thieves’ or Assassin’s guild, or just a plain old Thief or Assassin against the Mean Old World.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m quite enjoying several books in those veins at the moment and intend to continue to do so as long as we keep producing books in that genre that I enjoy.

But it kind of hits home that soon, I won’t have the fallback of the farm boy to make my point about cliché fantasy. One day I’ll be in a room full of people and I’ll make a reference to farm-boy-with-a-sword stories, and I’ll be met with blank stares. Those people may not even be as much younger than me as I expect.

I mean, I mostly learned that phrase from hearing people who read fantasy before me talking about it. I read the first book of the Wheel of Time series for the first time after the last one had been published, specifically to have a frame of reference for the farm-boy-with-a-sword fantasy clichés. I’d read Sword of Truth before it, but years ago. For the record, I vowed never to do so again, but that didn’t stop me from going and finding the Wheel of Time to see what all the fuss was about. I did read Eragon at the right age to enjoy it, but unfortunately its sequel didn’t fare as well.

For a long time, the farm boy has been the touchstone, kind of a cultural phenomenon in fantasy. One day, I’ll say that and people will think I’m referencing Star Wars. And then they won’t remember that Star Wars started with a farm boy at all.

I wonder what the next touchstone will be? Maybe one day I’ll be referencing Thieves’ Guild fantasy, or that one type of fantasy that’s trying to pretend it’s a fable but is actually several orders of magnitude longer than any fable by definition. We’ll have to come up with a catchier touchstone than that, though.

This is short because I don’t have many more thoughts on the topic. Just … what will the next generation think of when they hear ‘cliché fantasy’?