The Shadows of Our Fantasy Predecessors

In his book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom argues that poets are hindered by their necessary but complicated relationship with their poetic predecessors.  Bloom, of course, does not deny that inspiration for poets comes from many places, including the non-literary aspects of the poet’s life, but insists that the “poet within the poet” is mainly inspired to write by reading another poet’s work and will therefore tend to create work that is derivative of existing poetry (and therefore weak).  And because a poet must build an original poetic vision, not only because that is what every artist wants to do but because it is necessary for that artist and his/her work to survive in the future, the influence of those precursor poets are a constant source of anxiety for current poets.  Obviously, the great poets find a way to work past this anxiety and do manage to create something strong and original.

Now, the question remains: why exactly am I talking about Harold Bloom and poets?  Because, while the idea of the anxiety of influence may not work for all artists in all genres, I think it definitely holds true for those of us in the fantasy/sci fi genres.  Or maybe it’s just me…  Who knows?

Now, the question remains: why exactly am I talking about Harold Bloom and poets?  Because, while the idea of the anxiety of influence may not work for all artists in all genres, I think it definitely holds true for those of us in the fantasy/sci fi genres.  Or maybe it’s just me…  Who knows?

Okay, so even if it’s just me, let me explain a little.  I am constantly (I really do mean constantly) worried about how I can create something new and different in the midst of all that has already been written.  I worry, so I read more to learn more (about options, about creative solutions, etc), but that only leads me to worry more.  Here’s an example: many fantasy writers love writing about elves – seriously, who doesn’t love elves?  But elves are one of the greatest, biggest, most frustrating source of anxiety for us.  There’s Tolkien to contend with, first of all, because, let’s be honest, the first thing anyone thinks about when they think about elves is The Lord of the Rings.  At this point, even non-fantasy buffs are going to jump straight to Tolkien.  So, how can we write about elves without accidentally copying (or even just being accused of copying) The Lord of the Rings?  AND it doesn’t end there.

Elves are EVERYWHERE.  They have been tackled in different ways by Tad Williams, Mercedes Lackey, and J.K. Rowling.  They have become a staple in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft.  They are all over the place in animation and comics.  And they have even made appearances in science fiction such as Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, in which the elves are a race of beings who live on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) and breath methane.  So, with all of this floating out there already (especially if you really just want your elves to be somewhat Tolkien-ish), what direction is left?  I have agonized over this question for years.  One answer is to simply not call them elves, give them another name.  This is what Tad Williams did in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy.  His elf-like characters are called the Sithi.  But we all still know they’re really elves.  Another solution is to make little (or not-so-little) changes/additions to the traditional image of an elf.  Of course, what exact changes will make it more interesting and original is a question I haven’t figured out how to answer yet.  In fact, I haven’t really found a solution for any of this yet.

This same problem holds true for quite a few other things.  For instance, vampires.  How do you write about vampires without simply copying the likes of Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, or Stephanie Meyer – or, in my case, Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  And I’m sure if we all put our heads together, we could come up with half a million other fantasy themes, characters, and elements that give us all pause and make us ponder the shadows of our predecessors.

On a side note: this can also hold true in science fiction.  For instance, space operas often run the risk of all sounding the same.  And one of my personal demons is the problem of cyberpunk.  I love it, I love reading it, and I’d love to write it.  But every time I try, I just end up sounding like I’m mimicking (and badly) William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

I don’t have solutions to any of these problems yet.  But I would love to hear what sorts of ideas/solutions anyone has come up with.  Or, if I’m the only one who worries about these things, please let me know so I can add that to the list of things I’m irrationally neurotic about.  Any thoughts?  Opinions?  Well then, press the reply button!  You know you want to.

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2 thoughts on “The Shadows of Our Fantasy Predecessors

  1. I don’t think you’re alone at all! I felt the anxiety of the craft too when I’d been working on my story about ghosts for awhile. I kept thinking, this is probably already out there somewhere, how can I make this new? I think as long as you’re conscious of your storyline, in the end it will come down to voice. We can do as much editing as we like to tweak our storyline, but it will be our voice as authors that will hook the reader. You’ve got one loyal fan here! Tell me everything you know about elves! *sits with chin in hands and eyes wide open* 🙂

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