A Response to E.D. Kain’s Claim of a Fantasy Bubble

Pardon the delay, although E.D. Kain’s article is a few months old, I only just came across it, via Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Kain, from what I can put together, is a fan of the fantasy genre. But he thinks that while fantasy is very popular now (as gauged by TV ratings and box office returns), it is most likely just a fantasy bubble.

Kain begins his article fondly recalling picking up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones in 2000. Since that day, the Lord of the Rings movies were box office successes, the Harry Potter series has set records for books and tickets sold, and HBO has filmed Game of Thrones. HBO has also signed on to film Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and The Hobbit will become two movies. Kain notes that “fantasy as a genre grew by 20 percent between 2005, when A Feast for Crows was published, and 2010, when Twilight was at the peak of its popularity.” Yet he thinks this popularity is too good to be true.

Kain argues that unless publishers and studios continue to find source material that can find mass appeal, fantasy is doomed to return to the rear corner of the bookstore, inhabited only by D&D players. He notes that many YA bestsellers (like the Percy Jackson and Hunger Games series) are not “true fantasy” and fantasy books that have some critical success haven’t reached mass appeal (such as The Magicians, whose sequel, The Magician King, I reviewed here).

After making this argument, Kain shrugs his shoulders and says that he wouldn’t mind if the fantasy bubble burst, because fantasy has “simply gotten better over the past decade” (emphasis his). But these better stories won’t be turned into TV shows or movies because they are too dark or violent, or because the effects would be too expensive. Yet he does point to some books that might make for good movies and TV shows.

I disagree with Kain. Kain talks about how fantasy now has mass appeal. He doesn’t mention this, but I think this is part and parcel of nerd culture becoming the mainstream culture. Although Kain belittles D&D players, those players have now come out of the backroom of the comics shop and are living as nerds openly and proudly. They are also having kids, and raising them as nerds. This is why you see various stripes of fantasy selling so well among kids and young adults.

But Kain says these new books aren’t “true fantasy.” I hope he meant epic fantasy or high fantasy, because I reject the notion of “true fantasy.” To me, this sounds as if Kain doesn’t want the masses joining his club. There are many varieties of fantasy, each of which overlap with popular fiction in various ways.

Or he claims that if a book, like The Magicians is fantasy, it doesn’t sell well or will never get turned into a TV show or movie. But Fox recently optioned The Magicians (admittedly, after Kain wrote his article). What’s more, when someone who is not a fan of fantasy buys Game of Thrones, Amazon can now suggest other things to read, heping turn that reader into a fantasy fan. Fantasy doesn’t appear to be going away.

Kain then almost seems to welcome the bursting of the fantasy bubble, because then he can enjoy that “better” fantasy all by himself. But if fantasy has improved, why wouldn’t studios option these stories? A good story is a good story. Yes, special effects are expensive, but they are getting cheaper. And like The Game of Thrones, studios can seek out projects that are light on magic and creatures and heavy on drama and complex characters. That being said, why is studio production Kain’s best metric of popularity? Why are book sales unsatisfactory? Do the huge numbers of cons, web series, and podcasts say nothing about the popularity of fantasy? Do only nerds take advantage of these things? Advertisers would disagree.

While tastes may change over time, and fantasy rise and fall, I don’t think there is anything inflated or bubble-like about the current rise of fantasy. I think fantasy is finally getting the respect it deserves.

What do you think? Is Kain right or wrong? Am I reading too much into Kain’s article? What do you think is the future of fantasy?

2 thoughts on “A Response to E.D. Kain’s Claim of a Fantasy Bubble”

  1. It’s a new generation that he is underestimating I think. It’s a generation that grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, that grew up playing Nintendo, and it grew up with fantasy novels. Now you’re seeing this generation as adults which is giving rise to the most profitable video game sales in history, a sustainable 24 hour cartoon network on cable tv, and a generation of adults who are growing up on the internet, where nerd culture thrives. Plus, fantasy makes great summer blockbuster movies, that EVERYONE likes to watch for spectacle. These nerd things are here to stay, I agree with you.

    I also agree that defining “true fantasy” is problematic. Who decides? Fantasy is fantasy, whether “violent and dark” (which is too bad that he has to lean that way) or more family friendly. I read plenty of fantasy as a kid that I would gladly have my child read that isn’t violent or dark, but heroic, inspiring, and engaging.

    He’s acting like a music snob. He found it first and he doesn’t welcome these “noobs,” he wants it to himself.