Feature (December 2020)

 

With no place for Poe, Kafka or Stoker – to name but three – can Time Magazine’s list of ‘The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time’ be taken seriously?

HARRIS COVERLEY thinks not. Here, he explains why. He also makes some picks left out by 

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.

Ignored

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.

Lack

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.)

Calculations

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.

Bias

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

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There is also an overwhelming bias towards series books—a lot of the entries I looked up had “Book One” or “First in the Trilogy” or even a hideous “#1” as part of their full names. Are they just advertising stuff to maximise profits? You can’t just have the one, you have to keep reading (and buying) the lot…

It’s interesting to note that for such a “woke” list, a lot of the blurbs for these contemporary novels have a lot of protagonists who have “special” “blood”, are part of a “noble lineage”, have “magic within them”…it’s not very egalitarian at all. (Such is the reoccurring problem with high fantasy.)

Predisposed

Despite being a list of books rather than just novels, there is a conspicuous lack of short story collections (I counted two) or anthologies. with the sole exception of the Arabian Nights—a good choice, but why no other great works of classical global literature that could be counted as fantastic? You could point to Le Morte D’Arthur, the next item on the list, but that’s it. Why not Homer’s Illiad or the Odyssey? Why not Shakespeare’s The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Or one of the Four Classic Chinese Novels such as (left)  Journey to the West? I am sure there are many I’m missing.

The list is fundamentally predisposed towards current American authors. Those like Nnedi Okorafor and Akwaeke Emezi may technically count as “African”, but they have been domiciled in the United States for much of their lives.

Myopic

The history-myopic and adolescent-centric approach of the listers is ultimately resultant of an ideology that has enforced a new and proudly ignorant homogeneity. If you don’t believe me, let me quote N. K. Jemisin who has two books on the list (isn’t that something?) and wrote the list’s editorial (making her essentially the “face” of it): “This is what both classic and modern fantasy teach us, however: that you have to fight anyway. […] Don’t think of fantasy as mere entertainment, then, but as a way to train for reality.” Read in the context of the rest of the piece it is clear: fantasy literature is subservient to political activism and ideological posing, and it shows. In the write up on Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, the guy actually opens by disparaging “the broader hegemonic influence of northern and western Europe on culture”…he’s a senior editor at Time. This man has more than minor influence in the cultural zeitgeist!

The thing is that one can indulge this programme of hand-wringing, virtue-signalling cultural politics, where one can as Jemisin puts it “wrestle with the need to reform institutions and change the leadership of society”, while writing for the flagship publication of the Meredith Corporation media conglomerate and helping give Jeff Bezos a host of new customers to assist in funding his one man space colonisation mission. But such is wokeness: “anti-system” “activists” and “anti-establishment” writers holding hands with corporate power as they turn a shared profit.

Better

It’s all very depressing, and I put off writing this piece for two-odd weeks, but it needed to be said. If you want a better list, go to the Worlds Without End website where you can find in full such great directories as Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, left, (edited by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock) and David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, amongst several others, which are far more diverse and relevant to the history of the genre than the Time list ever could be. It would also be worth your time (pun not intended) to look up “The Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf”, a series of lists compiled by Karl Edward Wagner, Thomas M. Disch, T.E.D. Klein, and R.S. Hadji, and originally published across the July and August 1983 issues of Twilight Zone Magazine.

And if I could be as arrogant to offer up my own suggestions—the following list (of five samples) I meekly suggest as a very minor and very partial corrective to the Time list, and not as a total alternative (the aforementioned lists are of course far more extensive, varied, and scholarly):

The Man Who Was Thursday (left) by G.K. Chesterton: a philosophical and theological rumination wrapped in a gripping yet frequently hilarious and surreal conspiracy thriller, which deals with the nature of good and evil in a totally unique way. Don’t let the Christianity put you off—I’m an atheist and I count it amongst my favourite novels.

Animal Farm by George Orwell: a very adult allegory disguised as a children’s fable. Given our discussion of wokeness it becomes more and more relevant with the passing of time and the ever-crazying of cultural discourse.

Perfect

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges: this is the book that made me want to become a writer. There are some tales I appreciate less than others I admit, but those that I find exquisite truly are so, most of all “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, the most perfect speculative fiction story ever written. This collection should be on everybody’s bookshelf.

Deathbird Stories (left) by Harlan Ellison: one of my most formative reads, even if I only first read it a few years ago. Ellison collects here all of his short works dealing with gods and godhood, whether that concern a senile Jehovah wandering the apocalypse, or the “new gods” of machinery and the ecology.

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror by Thomas M. Disch: it begins with a corpse in the grave and ends with Jesus Christ piloting an airship…isn’t that enough? A supernatural horror-thriller mixed with Bangsian fantasy, concerning revenge, redemption, and a complex depiction of the afterlife which deals in everything from philosophical discussions about the nature of reality to reincarnation. There’s even lots of bloody violence and a necrophilic blowjob thrown in—it’s brilliant!

 

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As well as previously at HorlaHarris Coverley (right) has short fiction published or forthcoming in CuriositiesHypnosShotgun Honey, and Eldritch Journal. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet and member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse most recently accepted for Star*LineSpectral RealmsOrdinary MadnessYellow Mama, and View From Atlantis, amongst others. He lives in Manchester, England

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Is Harris Coverley right? Readers are welcome to let us know. Well-argued submissions will be considered for publication.