BACK in October, Time Magazine published a list of what it called “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time”. As soon as I saw it linked, I knew I would look at it and be disappointed, but when I got to it I realised that at best the list was dismal, at worst it was a disservice to speculative fiction as a whole.
What struck me first of all was the list’s extreme presentism: despite being an “all time” list, only four of the books on the list itself were published before the twentieth century, and only two of those were published in the nineteenth century. Both of those two were by Lewis Carroll. That means that the genre of gothic romanticism, from which all of modern fantasy was birthed (even if you’re writing your book in Sudan, you’re going to be influenced by it in some way), is totally ignored, which means: no Walpole. No Beckford. No Ann Radcliffe (left). No Lewis. No Shelley. No Hogg. No Poe (NO POE! They’re insane!). No Melville. No Hawthorne. No Stevenson. No Stoker. And certainly no little forgotten treasures of the supernatural.
We then jump extremely quickly from the 1900s to the 1960s—there are some familiar names here, but the list utterly forgets about the Golden Age of Weird Fiction extending from the 1880s to the 1940s, which means: no Blackwood. No Chambers. No Hodgeson. No Benson. No Kipling. No Dunsany. No Lindsay. No Mirlees. No Lovecraft (No Lovecraft?!). No Howard (NO HOWARD?!). No Clark Ashton Smith. The thing is, these mass omissions also include the fantastic adventure fiction of the period (no Burroughs, no Doyle), but even the work of the French symbolists and surrealists, and the German expressionists of the early 20th century are passed over. I’m very happy that Amos Tutuola makes the list (twice), but what is a fantasy list without Kafka (left), or one of the other irrealists of the period? In fact, there are only four books on the list published in the first fifty years of the century.
As we move on, a list which has obviously been constructed to be as “woke” and “inclusive” as possible to the ever shifting standards of our moment manages to forget the entirety of the Latin-American magical realists: no Borges. No Leopoldo Lugones. No Adolfo Bioy Cesares. No Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Furthermore, authors like Anna Kavan and Dambudzo Marechera, who lived very much marginalised existences on the edges of society, are unknown.
In fact, there is a conspicuous lack of modern black authors with relevant works, such as Samuel R. Delaney, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed (left), and the founder of black sword and sorcery (often labelled “sword and soul”), the late Charles R. Saunders who died earlier this year (Marlon James’s 2019 excursion into Afro-cultural S&S, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is chosen instead). Other authors of colour effectively ghosted include Ted Chiang and the late William Sanders (the latter case raises the question: can a single ill-considered comment about Muslims dog you even thirteen years after your death?). Historically prominent white female authors like Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Lisa Tuttle are absent, as are white male authors like Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, Gene Wolfe, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, James Morrow, Ramsey Campbell, Robert R. McCammon, Michael Swanwick, Steve Rasnic Tem, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz, all otherwise considered giants…until now. (Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the “race” and sex of authors shouldn’t matter in the slightest in terms of actual quality, but unfortunately, seemingly more than ever, that’s not the world we inhabit.)
When we reach the present day, the calculations are clear: of the books on the list, sixty-three were published in the last thirty years, fifty-two in the last twenty, and an incredible forty-three in the last decade. Do you think that much of the “best fantasy of all time” has been published in the last ten years? I further believe that a majority of authors on this “all time” list are very much alive…
Even with that, contemporaries lauded by aficionados like Jeff VanderMeer, Brian Evenson, China Miéville, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti (left), Simon Kurt Unsworth, Joseph S. Pulver, W.H. Pugmire, Priya Sharma, and even Caitlin R. Kiernan get nothing.
Looking at the “methodology” included with the list it’s clear what has happened: along with the social pressures that “wokeness” and the threat of “cancellation” have wrought, a lot of it is mates choosing other mates’ books in exchange for them choosing theirs, along with pre-selection bias manipulation by the editors. The largest publishers are given custom (small presses like Hippocampus and Valancourt don’t matter), and Amazon is linked at the bottom of every explanatory write up.
In terms of the works actually chosen, there is an extreme bias towards high fantasy: quests, journeys to search for relics, familial revenge, swords and spells, soul-fulfilment…yeah, all that old crap. In the listed books, these tropes mostly take the form of spunky teenage girls in a dark yet magical world, trying to defeat injustice while figuring out which boy they really like.
Low fantasy, supernatural horror (part of the literature of the fantastic by its very nature), dark fantasy (by which I mean genuinely dark, not just things that happen to have “blood” and “bone” in the title), science fantasy, and works of literary surrealism, absurdism, and magical realism are side-lined.
Whereas most other lists of this calibre are an opportunity for authors to bring out their neglected favourites from just beyond the edge of the literary consciousness, this is much more a case of promoting works that already have a massive presence in that nefarious Goodreads juggernaut (full disclosure: I despise it. It’s a shiny, loud, soulless machine.).
Other than its presentism is the list’s perplexing obsession with juvenilia: of the one hundred books on the list, an astounding forty-six are children’s literature or young adult. Some books like this are inevitable on such a list, but nearly half of it? I also strongly suspect that I have undercounted—some books on the list are categorised as “adult”, and yet the protagonists seem very young and very spunky…
(Continue next column)