Monday, November 28, 2011

Has Jim Butcher Changed—Or Have I?

I just can’t bring myself to finish Jim Butcher’s newest Harry Dresden novel, Ghost Story. This frustrates and confuses me, because I’ve enjoyed every book in the series up to this point. This one continues the same dynamic character tensions and intricate situations, and takes the series’ backstory to new levels. So I certainly can’t say the book is any less good than its predecessors—just the opposite, if anything.

Yet I stalled out around page 225, and I can’t bring myself to pick it up again. Why the sudden change?

It’s not just Harry Dresden I’ve strayed from. A friend put me onto the first Dresden novel back in the spring of 2008, and I read all the series in print as fast as I could. The concept impressed me so much that I started snapping up every author I could: Kat Richardson, Seanan McGuire, Thomas E. Sniegoski, Caitlin Kittredge, Jes Battis. As with any genre, some authors really stunk up the joint. But others were quite smart, inventive, and engaging.

I read my last urban fantasy novel in mid-December 2010. I’d read them at a rate of about four per month for over two-and-a-half years, squeezing them in amid grad school requirements, more sober novels, and other “serious” reading. When I put the last one down, I had over half a dozen waiting for my time. A couple were half-finished, the rest waiting for me to start. And I made a good-faith effort to start. Believe me, I tried.

Maybe I burned myself out. If I overloaded on urban fantasy, I have no one but myself to blame. But considering what a glut these hard-boiled fantasies have been on the market recently, why hasn’t the entire genre burned out? Is there no critical mass beyond which readers cannot handle the saturation? Evidently not.

The problem must be me.

Publishers crank these books out so rapidly that the authors have little time to finish one before they must start the next. These companies, many of which began as labors of love by small entrepreneurs who expected only minimal returns, are now owned by multinational conglomerates. And their corporate overlords demand such extravagant returns that international drug lords would blush.

But we can’t blame publishers alone. Sure, they demand ceaseless reiterations of what they already know the market will bear, but that market consists of real humans who buy books. If authors have become factory hands, assembling uniformly predictable product, surely they do so because they know readers will buy it. Inoffensive blandness may curl my hair, but it also ensures a bottomless revenue stream.

Yet people like urban fantasy because it contains at least the germs of an older fantastic form—which is far from safe. As Richard Mathews asserts in Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, fantasy’s founding myth-makers knew their greatest popularity when their work was at its most unsettling. Consider the conflict between the secularist William Morris and the Christian George MacDonald.

Even better, consider the writers who brought the genre to maturity in the 20th Century. Writers like Robert E. Howard, whose classic Conan lashes out against metaphorical agents of the Gilded Age. Writers like JRR Tolkien, whose best works reflect trench soldiers’ fears in World War I. Writers like Lloyd Alexander, who discovered the timelessness of Welsh myth while facing life’s transience during World War II.

The best fantasy is often mischaracterized as bucolic, when at root, it’s profoundly unsettling. It deals head-on with life’s finitude in ways that “realistic” fiction cannot. Like all good literature, good fantasy is slightly threatening. But too many readers want to be soothed like kittens. And paperback publishers, like candy makers, sell anything their customers buy, even if it’s bad for them.

Perhaps I’m the outsider, because I like challenges. As I've said before, I want reading fantasy to be like visiting a foreign country, getting lost on unfamiliar streets, and trying to order coffee in a strange language. Plenty of fantasy still provides that. And while Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden may lack the epic magnitude of Howard’s Conan or Tolkien’s Aragorn, he at least challenges me from time to time.

But those challenges now come too infrequently. I want authors to push themselves harder, so they can push me harder. I want them to take me farther. I want to continue growing. The current crop of paperback writers, including Jim Butcher, just don’t offer that. And Butcher’s newest sits on my bedside table, months later, still unfinished.

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