The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
08 April 2011
The literature of the imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Tucked at the top edge of the cover for The Secret History of Fantasy, an anthology of post-1977 short stories and essays edited and collected by Peter S. Beagle, there sits, or maybe floats, a dragon. It is not a whole dragon—just a head, really, with a scattering of spikes and sharp, pointy teeth, some green scales, and an eye the color of burnt gold. It is the only fantastic element in a cover mostly white and wordy and kind of boring, and a small one at that, but there is something in that eye and curl of tooth that promises and threatens, as the best stories do, that things are not what they seem.
What fantasy—the genre as defined by bookshelves, publishers, and those endless covers of blue and red and gold—has seemed to be in recent history, for some, is a collection of heroes, dark lords, and long journeys which used to last for trilogies but now, often, extend into hexalogies, ennealogies, and sometimes into even longer, more made-up sounding words. This particular definition of "fantasy," argues David Hartwell in "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre," one of the essays collected here, began with Lester del Rey, Ballantine Books, and "a manuscript by Terry Brooks entitled The Sword of Shannara" (p. 375).
The theory goes as follows: In the 1950s, The Lord of the Rings had achieved some modest success as a hardback, and had been praised by the likes of W.H. Auden—indicating that, at this time, the presence of dark lords and long journeys did not preclude literary discourse. But then, in the mid-1960s, two mass-market editions—an unauthorized version by Ace Books and an authorized one through Ballantine—achieved best-seller and cult status (Frodo Lives! and all that). Both publishers attempted over the next decade to duplicate the success of Tolkien's work. Neither particularly succeeded—though Hartwell notes the moderate success of "barbarian" fantasy such as Michael Moorcock's Elric—until Lester del Rey discovered The Sword of Shannara.
It was del Rey’s and Ballantine publisher Ron Busch's "insight" that "what people wanted was not more fantasy, but more Tolkien." They brought in the Brothers Hildebrandt, famous for their work on Tolkien calendars in the mid-1970s, to provide color illustrations. And it worked. The Sword of Shannara achieved best-sellerdom. Lester del Rey, thereafter, began the Del Rey fantasy imprint with the criteria for his books being that "magic works" and "a male central character . . . triumph[s] over evil . . . by innate virtue, with the help of an elder tutor or tutelary spirit" (p. 375).
Mr. Beagle says in his introduction, "The astonishing success of The Sword of Shannara meant not only that Ballantine/Del Rey Books would dominate all publishers of fantasy for at least a literary generation, but that the systematic production of what was officially dubbed 'sword-and-sorcery' fiction would come to overwhelm the field almost altogether" (p. 12). In Beagle's opinion, it was because of this that the attention of literary discourse drifted away, as "commercial fantasy abandoned the realm of literature" (p. 12). Writers who might have otherwise been named fantasy writers (Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, various magical realists) remained instead literary writers who happened to sometimes write about the end of the world and/or talking animals. In reviewing Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in The New York Times, John Hodgman agreed, more or less, saying:
Fantasy has not, of course, been absent from literary fiction, but it has been admitted to the mainstream generally only when pedigreed (Martin Amis's "Time's Arrow"), political (Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale") or exotic (which is to say, Latin American). Fantasy and science fiction as a capital G genre, meanwhile, has largely been shelved separately from the rest of the culture.
The Secret History of Fantasy attempts to correct these supposed parallel trends of genre calcification and diminished reputation by revealing those works and writers which for the last thirty years lay tucked—sometimes squashed—beneath the barbaric and derivative hordes of muscle, steel, and magic so adored by certain publishers, as well as by re-claiming those writers of literary fiction who occasionally sample the fantastic as rightful and true practitioners of the fantasy genre. As such, you will find here such literary darlings as Yann Martel, T. C. Boyle, and Stephen Millhauser, side by side with somewhat lesser known fantasy writers (at least to mainstream, or sword-and-sorcery obsessed, readers) like Octavia Butler, Kij Johnson, or Jeffrey Ford. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman also make appearances, and, while their stories are good, they do shed some doubt on this collection's understanding of the word "secret."
Similar doubts may also be felt at this collection's understanding of the current state of the fantasy genre. If one glanced over the past ten years or so at the best-selling fantasy books on Amazon, or as tracked by Locus, one would not see sword-and-sorcery so much as love-and-fangs. While series like George R.R. Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire or Robert Jordan's/Brandon Sanderson's Wheel of Time still make appearances, the popularity of urban fantasy—particularly female-centered narratives such as Holly Black's Faerie tales, Charlaine Harris's southern gothic vampire series, or Kim Harrison's bounty hunter and witch, Rachel Morgan—certainly seems to indicate that a great many readers have moved on from wanting only more Tolkien.
Also, to this idea of fantasy's continually diminished state in literary discourse—of a need to bring forth some "secret" evidence that good things have been happening in the genre for the past thirty years—there also exists some doubt. Octavia Butler received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, as well as memorial articles in Salon and The New York Times (hardly genre-obsessed venues). Francesca Lia Block, Gregory Maguire, and Terry Bisson, among others, have also all been discussed, or been considered notable, by various literary venues. Michael Chabon—not included in this collection, but certainly a lauded literary writer with fantastic tendencies—has published an entire collection of essays in defense of genre. It may be true that fantasy remains a tarnished word to some (including, as always, some of its own practitioners), but it may also be worth asking if the Secret History's spirited defense of the genre as legitimate has perhaps surpassed its necessity.
Still, whatever doubts one may have concerning this collection's raison d’etre, the stories here do represent some of the best work in fantasy over the past thirty years. The stories range widely in subject matter and style, from Martel's fairy tale poem on the making of mirrors ("The Vita AEterna Mirror Company"), to Patricia A. McKillip's medieval fable "Lady of the Skulls." There's Terry Bisson's naturalistic take on humanity coming to terms with bears discovering fire ("Bears Discover Fire") and Jeffrey Ford's caffeinated and fugue-inspired investigation of parallel universes, reality, and love ("The Empire of Ice Cream"). Jonathan Lethem's slice of social satire and superhero homage, "Super Goat Man," has always been a particular favorite of mine, mashing together as it does the faded idealism of the '60s with a B-list hero/political science professor whose main superpowers consist of cliff-scaling and furriness.
One of the drawbacks of packing your collection with such well-respected and award-winning authors, though, is that you run the risk of a lot of your stories having already been read by your readership, rendering any further purchases unnecessary. For most regular readers of Strange Horizons, or similarly inclined, broad-minded lovers of prose, it's doubtful that many of these names will actually be secret. Some, like Michael Swanwick, have won multiple Nebulas and World Fantasy awards. Literary author Aimee Bender—while not exactly terribly well-known even among mainstream readers—has been both interviewed and reviewed within the pages of this magazine. For those who tend to stick with mainstream fiction (probably none of you reading this and also probably no one who will pick up a book called The Secret History of Fantasy), or any who tend to stick with a certain type of fantasy (sword, sorcery, elf steampunk), this collection may open your eyes to the many different ways of being fantastic. For others, though, you may find yourself nodding in recognition more often than gasping in surprise.
In recent years, there has been something of a glut of collections seeking to re-define, or un-genre, this or that genre. The companion to this book, The Secret History of Science Fiction (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel and also published by Tachyon), for one, as well as Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrontonio, and to a certain extent, the continuing series put out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation, Interfictions. All mix together writers considered to be the most generic, with writers considered to be the most mainstream, the most literary, or Neil Gaiman. And most have been successful, if not always in exploding the concept of genre among casual readers and inert publishers, then at least in providing interesting juxtapositions of styles, as well as evidence and inspiration for those writers of the unclassifiable, to keep writing in the face of a mainstream world that may dismiss them, and a fantasy world that may sometimes ask them if they couldn't fit a sword or sparkling vampire in there.
Whereas something like Gaiman and Sarrantonio's Stories—which in its very name eschewed the idea of genre as brand or marketing tool—had a more secret and, to me, more interesting collection of writers, this collection by Beagle and Tachyon strikes me as both more and less than it seems. Its title promises a collection of secret and historical wonder, but instead provides a bevy of stories mostly well-known and barely thirty. And yet, if you come to this collection as a non-reader of fantasy (or even a casual one), you may very well be dumbstruck by the variety and quality of the stories on display. In either case, one may say that The Secret History of Fantasy provides another nicely collected bit of evidence that the world of publishing, for all its bookshelves and genres, is larger than it may appear. Alternatives do exist, and for writers and readers of literate magic, hope lives.