Will we ever get past Tolkien?

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Will we ever get past Tolkien?

Postby pengwenn » Fri Jun 19, 2009 12:14 pm

When I read a book I read it cover to cover. That includes the copyright page, author's book list and any pages filled with quotes from other authors/reviewers/etc. about that book. I recently picked up Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan to read for the first time. I was struck by something repeated over and over again on the quotes pages.

They constantly refered to RJ as "the next Toklien" or that he writes "in Tolkien's territory". Even the quote on the cover states: "Robert Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal." (NY times). And then I had to wonder. What does one author have to do in the fantasy genre so they're not constantly refered to and compaired to Tolkien?

I'm sure this could be said for any genre. Horror has Stephen King. Mysteries have Agatha Christie (or PD James). Science fiction has Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein. But at some point a new author has to be able to stand on their own and we have to get past those authors as "gods" in their fields. I don't think Stephen King was ever labeled "the newt Edgar Allen Poe". And in science fiction we've had Frank Hubert, Ray Bradbury and Harrlin Ellison and many more that haven't been "the next Isaac Asimov". Why can't we do that for fantasy?

Now I will admit that the only thing of Tolkien's I've read was The Hobbit. I've read it twice. And although it's been a while since I've read it I don't remember it being that great a book. Each cahpter seemed to have a climax and denoument which felt like I was riding a rollar coaster that just went up and down at regular intervals. I also think there were some elements of deus ex machina at the end of the chapters. Once or twice okay I can buy into that. But almost every time? No thanks.

I have a lot of people tell me that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is so much better than The Hobbit. I want to be believe them, but I'm hesitant for two reasons. 1) I didn't like The Hobbit much and I can't believe Tolkien would have changed his writting style that much to make the two seem all that different, and 2) I've gone to a lot of conventions where authors/agents/editors have all said that they can tell when they read an author's work whether or not that author has read Tolkien. They say reading Tolkien will have a profound impact on your writing. They say everyone starts to write "in Tolkien's world" and not their own. For me? No thanks, again. I'd like to stick with writting in my own world.

Yes, I know I shouldn't call myself a writer of fantasy if I'm not willing to read books by one of the genre's masters. But can't we get past this one writer? Robert Jordan doesn't have elves or drawves in his books. Okay, trollics might be comparable to orcs but if that's the only similiarity between the two, why is everyone saying Jordan's "writing in Tolkien's world"?

Science fiction has many "master writers" so why can't fantasy? You wouldn't think to say Brandon Sanderson writes in Tolkien's world, even if koloss could be seen as orcs. So why can't a brilliant writer like Robert Jordan stand on his own two feet as a fantsy master in his own right and not be constantly compared to someone else? While I would think that to be compared to someone so great at first might be flantery, when it happens for 12 books over the course of a couple of decades? Come on people, we need to move on.

(Sorry for the rant. I'm sure I could have polished it up into a more acceptable essay form but emotions need to run rampant every now and then.)
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Postby Saphyre » Sun Jun 21, 2009 10:19 pm

I think Yes we will, and No, we won't. (this in responce to your original question.)

On one hand, Tolkien's sort of become a Mona Lisa. Reguardless of whether you think it's a good painting or it isn't, no one dare critizes it and everyone had better be able to recognize it. Despite that, very few people could tell you why she's famous. In the same way- you just aren't supposed to mess with Tolkien. Maybe he's great and maybe he's not- it doesn't matter because he has everyone who matter impressed. On that same point (we won't get over him) but a different approach, perhaps at least some of this adoration is deserved. He wrote an entire mythology for the English people and helped define fantasy as it is. He made famous the idea of a bad guy that cooks up his own troops (orcs) and he cemented a lot of what is now considered typical of elves. He helped us define fantasy and helped that same genre get some real recognition.

On the other hand, one could say we are already over him. He has been watered down and over used. Yes, Robert Jordan is compaired to Tolkien, but as you pointed out there are few similarities. So really, Jordan's just using Tolkien for a good line. He's standing on his own feet and we've made Tolkien into this name that can be easily used and thus somewhat abused. On this same point and another perspective (as I did above) we have also gotten over him as readers. You said it: it is no longer required to have read Tolkien. He's praised, but not demanded. You want proof of this- our public library has 6 copies of Tolkien. The last time I was there, 5 2/3 were in, and each set of Return of the King had a much less-used demenor than the Fellowship of the Ring. It seems no one finishes the series. He's becoming like Shakespeare- kids read the sparksnotes or the comentaries when required- the texts only on rare occation.
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Postby pengwenn » Mon Jun 22, 2009 10:49 am

You've made some very excellent points Saphyre. I wish I had said some of my thoughts as eloquently as you did.

I love your comparison to the Mona Lisa. With my limited amount of knowledge about painting I can see that the Mona Lisa ia well painted, but so were a lot of other paintings during that time and even earlier. What is so intriguing about that painting is that snarky half smile. And yes, I guess there was a lot of work involved by the painter to convey that smile just so, otherwise it would look stilted or comical.

But you wouldn't say Rembrandt was the next de Vinci would you? (or who ever came first/second) Yes, they're both premier painters, but they have their own styles and are recognized indiviually for that. Van Gogh included. In the fantasy genre we've come so far that there's more to fantasy than elves and dragons. Yet as soon as someone creates a self-sustaining new world for their fantasy (like Robert Jordan or Stephen R. Donaldson's "the land" in the Covenant series) all of a sudden they're "the next Tolkien" no matter how limited the similiarities are.

I don't want to disrepect Tolkien or his effect and influence he's had on the genre, even if I haven't read enough of him to appreciate his body of work. I guess it's the reviewers and commentators of people's work that I have real issues with. If a new writer writes a new novel that stands out from the rest but in the style of Katherine Kurtz or Robin Hobb or Dave Wolverton the review should reference those more established authors in the article. Unfortunately those names are not as well known to the general public as Tolkien's is so it's his name that gets mentioned instead of someone whose style is more similiar. A reviewer writting in a field that caters to fantasy readers might reference someone else (or write a more specific review for the book) than say a New York Times review who is writing for the general public. The reviews in Knife of Dreams that come from a specific sf/f market publication are more specific to the world and writing of RJ himself. Eveyone else seems to use generalities and the cliched reference to Tolkien.

(And once again my points are rambling, wordy and probably miss the mark.)
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Postby TheMudge » Mon Jun 22, 2009 7:53 pm

Two things, Pengy: marketing and timing.

Tolkien is considered the "father" of modern fantasy mostly due to timing: his works--which ARE quite good--also happened to be published right when fantasy was coming back into vogue, and frankly, LOTR just trounced the competition, from a quality perspective: no one has produced anything in the fantasy genre that is as highly defined, long-lasting, profitable, and thought provoking as LOTR. You can argue that, but just by the fact that it has been around so long, it would be hard to compete on that "iconic" level.

The other thing is marketing: Yes, you have Robert Jordans out there, a lot of Stephen Donaldsons ... but for every one of them there are a hundred Piers Anthonys or ... who was that stupid punk kid who wrote "Eragon" (when that guy said he could tell immediately if a writer had read Tolkien, THAT kid was who he was referring to.)

But there are a quazillion books at the local B & N ... how do I know which one to pick up? Well, marketers figure, the benchmark is LOTR. OBVIOUSLY everyone (not just fantasy lovers) loves LOTR. If we can just make the average idiot believe that this book is CLOSE to LOTR, they will pick it up, be hooked, and then read all 14 books in the trilogy. That's why all books aimed at tweens these days sound like, and are compared to, Harry Potter.

See, Tolkien did such a great job at setting up the entire UNIVERSE of LOTR, and there is so much subtext, and the characters are SO well-defined ... it's like, everything people write in the fantasy genre either doesn't measure up to expectation, or sounds like an imitation of Tolkien. I can pick up Heinlein, or Andress, or Asimov, or Dick - BLIND - and pretty much tell you which one is which within a couple chapters: they all had a style, a niche. Harder to do that with fantasy, I guess ... which is why any fantasy book I pick up seems to sound like a 3rd grader wrote it, or it sounds like Tolkien.

And no offense, but I'm not sure I agree with the Mona Lisa analogy. I think lots of people critique Tolkien's work. Hell, there are university classes on it. But regardless of what you think of the story, IT IS AN UNDENIABLY GOOD STORY. A better comparison might be comparing Tolkien to, say, Stevie Wonder. Do I like Stevie Wonder's music. Couple of songs. Maybe. But I will be first in line to tell you he is a musical GENIUS. Same thing with Prince: I dislike him, his music, and everything he stands for, but damn: I do recognize talent when I hear it.

Now as to Tolkien "changing his writing style", well, it kinda can happen: I loved Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, so I picked up a book of his short stories, thinking they would be good, too. Wrong. No. Tired, cliched, banal, just clunky and hard to get through. BUT ... in the middle of that was a chapter he had edited OUT of the Covenant books, a short story in itself ... and the minute I started reading it, BAM! I was right back in that world, feeling it, smelling it, LIVING it. Story was over, and right back to Hack Writers 101.

So maybe some people can only write one thing. With Tolkien, you should understand: The Hobbit was an ongoing story he told to his children every night over supper ... and my understanding is, he kinda made it up as he went ... then later wrote it all down. So the "roller coaster" you described is kind of because of that (and yes, it annoys me, as well).

But LOTR was CREATED: it is a whole other world, with sub-threads and context and layer upon layer of geneologoy and back story and languages and history--most of which you never get, unless you can slough your way through The Silmarillion, but all of which adds to the DEPTH of his work. So yeah, really, it IS a much better work, and it reads much better, and it just feels more real.
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Postby Ejyptia » Mon Jun 13, 2011 9:41 pm

I didn't read all of that >.>. I read the first post, some of the second. I've been reading a lot today, too much reading D:!

However, I do say that "comparison" is rather... Well, I'm not sure what the right word is. Do you know the feeling when you're like, not known as YOU? When you're known as this popular person's friend, girlfriend/boyfriend? It's a bit like that. You're not being recognized for your own writing. You're more so being called another author. And you're not you. Your writing is like that author. And though they might not mean it this way, it could reasonably be taken this way: Basically, you don't have your own writing style, and you've taken after Tolkein, Rowling, etc. I haven't read any of Tolkein's novels. My mom forced me to read the Hobbit when I was something like eleven. It was... so boring. Though, back then, I didn't appreciate books, unless books directed at my age group. It was tedious, it had all of this detail, this grammar use I did not understand, and so on. I would skip (unfortunately, she would ask me questions on the novel to verify I read it. I failed XD).

If I were published, I wouldn't want anyone saying I write like Tolkein, J.K Rowling, ...or Ms. Meyer :shock: XDDD. Though with the first two it may be a huge compliment, judging from how most would think of them as ""god-writers,"" I wouldn't like it. I don't like to be compared to others. I know it is natural for people to do that, but I just don't like it. Then they're not seeing me as me, they're seeing me as something in contrast to which I am to be compared. Tolkein, at times, though, is not really being referenced as Tolkein. He is being referenced like... an adjective. Like, "You write Tolkein!" In other words, "You write amazingly, very detail, it's beautiful!" Which is kinda sad... I'm not sure how he would take it, but the way I take it, it's just a bit insulting, really. .-.
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Postby Mlou » Sun Jun 19, 2011 11:36 am

I agree with your feelings about being compared with other writers. I have a poetry student on another site who keeps trying to compare himself with Robert Frost and others. Which is ridiculous. He is Singaporean. All his experiences and lifestyle are in the Asian way. Frost was a New England Yankee farmer...at the other end of the spectrum in every way.
I've told him, be yourself. Find your own voice. Don't try to force yourself into the mold of someone else and be a poor copy. Finally, he's beginning to "get it".:)

As for Tolkien and Rowley...I like 'em! lol
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