On the fantasy genre, Part I: The (un)importance of tropes

Over on G+ (memento mori), +Brendan S was asking what made classic fantasy work for people. This post is largely a reaction to that thread. I wasn't the only one who felt compelled to blog about it, Richard G also decided to tackle it in a way that eruditely answers the implied antecedent question "what is fantasy?". I'm not going to formulate my own definition of fantasy here (although that has been in the pipeline for a while), instead, I'd like to talk about genre and quality a little more broadly.

In the thread I admitted my confusion in regard to what Brendan meant by the term "classic fantasy". Fantasy, as a genre appears to be a collection of tropes, the selection of which may appear to be almost entirely subjective, not unlike the "I know it when I see it" test for obscene pornography.

However, the word classic to me suggests a set of characteristic or particularly recognisable tropes, especially if accumulated or repeated over a period of time to the point they could be boiled down to a list and can easily be depicted satirically (for satire to work, it needs to satirise the familiar). Like I said in the thread, if I was to define classic fantasy, it would be by necessity defined by a degree of social consensus and certain broadly recognisable traits rather than my own private choice of authors. Incidentally I think this would fit rather well with official D&D setting materials produced by Wizards of the Coast.

Ironically, while the earlier incarnations of D&D have been a hodge-podge of diverse influences (clerics and vampires from Hammer Horror movies, monks from Wuxia and Kung Fu movies, combat mechanics inspired by Douglas Fairbanks movies and naval wargame mechanics, setting details cribbed from diverse fantasy authors like Tolkien, Vance and Howard, etc.) its collection of kitchen sink influences has come to represent the most trite and commercial variant of the fantasy genre. What we recognise as fantasy today is an otherwise incoherent but persistently reproduced selection of imagery from myth and precursor genre fiction.

Dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, magic users, demons, vampires and zombies, quasi-medieval societies, ancient ruins...all of these originally fantastical elements have become today's cliches. Familiar and unexciting genre tropes, readily recognisable even by non-nerds and present across all kinds of media (videogames, comics, novels, movies, board games, anime and so on). When you say "fantasy" to a general audience I imagine that the image that will pop into their head will be more or less consistent with the pages of the Player's Handbook, the setting of World of Warcraft or a season of Game of Thrones to an equal degree. Without getting too far into it, I think we can safely say that today this kind of repetition of tropes is more often than not a kind of automatism and done as part of commercial reproduction and not any kind of deeply personal creative endeavour as it might have originally been with Tolkien.

That said, every genre has its own tropes, cliches, formulas and rules. I am always ready to argue that the so called literary fiction, that is, the "serious" and "respectable" member of the contemporary literature family that usually looks down on its trashier cousins like murder mysteries or science-fiction novels, is really just another commercial genre, with its own rules and audience expectations. The presence of tropes is not in itself a measure of quality. At the same time, originality can be easily overrated. Most (or even all) great works of fiction have been heavily inspired or sometimes even directly cribbed from other, previous works. Being different for the sake of being different is likewise not an indicator of excellence.

So going back to Brendan's question, let us first assume that "classic fantasy" is whatever list of bestseller books you might pull up from the internet on a cursory search. Like, oh, I don't know, this one. Classic to me means a canonised selection of authors, their canonisation independent from myself. It's the recognisable and obvious, because it's public. Once you have such a list, if I was to choose novels from that list based on my subjective tastes, based on what works for me, the criteria by which they ended up on the list in the first place would not, ideally speaking, overlap with my own criteria for picking them as my favourites.

I think that what makes fantasy good is no different from what makes other (literary) genres good. That is: a certain level of expertise or at least a distinctiveness of prose (or animation, or cinematography), an authentic interest and emotional investment on the part of the author, an engagement with themes that goes at least a little beyond the most superficial aesthetic reproduction and the capacity to communicate something new to the audience. For a thing to be good, it has to score high on most if not all of these scales.

Now, we might also talk about how a thing being good and a thing working for someone (ie. being up someone's alley, befitting their sensibilities, etc.) are two different things, but I think for a thing to work for you, it needs to have at least some level of quality to it in the first place.

So to recap:
1) Is the work aesthetically accomplished or distinct in some way? Is it well crafted or crafted with passion?
2) Did the author genuinely care about the work, does it reflect something deeply personal or sincere (even if it is hermetic, ironic or playful)?
3) Does the work touch on human, political, philosophical or other themes and experiences in some capacity? (something can be well crafted but devoid of ethical content)
4) Does the work make me think new thoughts or learn new facts? Does it spark new ideas or produce new emotions? If the work only affirms or repeats things I know and I just not along with it, it will feel empty.

If a work (fantasy or otherwise) gets a positive score on those criteria, then it works for me.

P.S.: There are of course also personal peeves, tastes, preferences, etc. at play but they are deeply subjective, multitudinous and rarely examined, so I doubt the practicality of discussing them. Like the fact that I prefer the early/dark middle ages and the late middle ages/renaissance to the high/middle middle ages. So if the fantasy world is set in an analogue of Europe in the year 550 or 1450, chances are I'll prefer it to a fantasy world set in an analogue of Europe in the year 1250. But it needs to fulfil the quality criteria to some degree first.