Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Commodity Fantasy


The other day, David Stone posted a thoughtful response to a blog entry here, noting that he had been shocked to learn that a lot of the really bad fantasy he read as an adolescent was consumed by adult readers.

Critic John Clute coined a term which explains this phenomenon and, since it's a useful one, I thought I'd share it with you:  Commodity Fantasy.

Commodity fantasy is work whose main purpose is not  to give the reader a satisfying experience, but to buy the next book in the series.  It's important that such a work leave the reader a little unhappy, a little dissatisfied, a little edgy -- and anxious to snatch up the next volume in the hope that it will provide the experience that the last book failed to.  The more like a pack of cigarettes (if you've never smoked, trust me -- cigarettes temporarily ease the craving but they never quite satisfy it) a commodity fantasy is, the more successful it will be.

Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories had some of the qualities of commodity fantasy.  Conan, it was stated up front was destined "to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."  But the Kull stories had taught Howard that all the fun was to be had during Conan's adventurous years and would abruptly cease once he became king.  So the reader never was going to see him fulfill his destiny.

Later, John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian stories took the Conan matrix and turned it into a cartoon of itself.  When we meet Brak, he's decided to make a trek to Khurdisan the Golden, the southernmost city of his world, apparently because it sounds kind of neat.  Story by story, he fights monsters and acquires supernatural enemies who try to stop him from reaching Khurdisan.

I read the Brak books when I was young because I read every fantasy book that came out.  There simply weren't that many of them.  For a time, I kept reading them because I wanted to know what would happen when he reached Khurdisan.  But finally I realized that he never would.

That's simply not what commodity fantasy does.

John Jakes went on to have a smash series of Civil War novels, and I went on to read other and better stuff.  Samuel Johnson was right when he said, "Why, let him read what he will.  He'll come round to better, by and by."  I don't suppose that reading commodity fantasy is any worse for you than smoking cigarettes -- something else I used to do -- and it's a heck of a lot easier to give up.

 Oh, and . . .

If you're in the market for an enigma machine, one is going up for auction in London.  It's expected to bring in forty to sixty thousand pounds.

You can read about it here.

Above:  There it is, the holy item itself.



Eddie said...

At first, I thought that the term Commodity Fantasy would equate to Extruded Fantasy Product, the fat epics that Jordan's Wheel Of Time represents so well.

Not so much...CF, by your description, seems much more popcorn than doorstopper.

I enjoy both.

Michael Swanwick said...

No harm in enjoying either. Though I'd recommend Conan over Brak any day.