“Best of” Lists: The Greatest, the Essential and Personal Favorites

So, TIME Magazine is the latest publication to release its list of “The Best Fantasy Novels of All Time.” The magazine even went further than Forbes and known fan sites (and critics) and had a panel consisting of leading fantasy authors to form, to vote, and to finalize their “selections.” While this list is impressive with selections ranging across centuries, age groups and cultures, you are left wondering whether or not this list is more of the panel’s “favorites” and/or “suggestions” than the “best of all time.” Now, I’m NOT insulting the panel! In fact, this panel did an excellent job with including books that were released within the last decade by P.O.C. authors; not to mention, some of the books on the list are meant for readers “of a certain age” (children and young adult), but can be read and enjoyed by fans and readers of all ages. So, why are so many fantasy fans upset with this list? And, why do I feel that this list is still lacking some other great books? This is my opinion, but I’m impressed and perplexed by this list, and other ones from recent years. 

            What do I mean by this? First and foremost, it seems that some of the same titles and/or authors do appear on all of these lists (i.e. Forbes, Unbound Worlds, etc.). This is a good thing because it means certain books have the same level of merit across fans, readers, authors and critics. However, certain titles end up on certain lists which makes you wonder how they made that list. And then, there are titles (and even certain subgenres and formats) that are omitted from those lists, which leaves you wondering whether or not those titles were considered (or read) by those on the panel. Once this realization is made, these lists become nothing more than a “how many have you read?” list.

            Then, there is another question: is this supposed to be a list of “essential” reads? In this case, the answer is NO. There are lists of “essential fantasy books ‘every fan’ should read” and lists of recommendations. Note the difference between the former and the latter. The former is a list of books fans “should have” read, almost like assigned school readings. The latter is a list of books you may or may not enjoy, but should consider reading anyway. And, that’s the issue surrounding all of these lists. When you look over all of these lists and note which books continue to make them, you wonder whether or not those books are “essential” to the genre. When you read the history of the genre (and, there are several books on them, some of which I own and I have read), many of those books played a huge role in formulating the fantasy genre. Yet, fantasy, like imagination, is not a “fixed” concept. Eventually, readers decide to write “new” fantasy stories that allow for new worlds to be presented and for new fans to emerge. In fact, one of the things I like about TIME Magazine’s list is that 63 of the books were published and released within the last 30 years. That’s right, the list is in chronological order, so you can see how much the genre has changed and expanded during the last 3 decades. It’s an interesting homage to how quickly the genre has expanded. Then again, some titles are left off the list.

            As a bookblogger, I read and I review books encouraging other readers to read them. There are so many books to read. And, while I don’t always get to finish reading certain books when I want to, and I read faster than I write, I take the time to mention all of the positives and the negatives within a book review. Meanwhile, I read reviews and I watch videos about books by other bookbloggers and Booktubers so I can learn whether or not books on my list should be read sooner rather than later, and whether or not we have the same thoughts for the same books. At the same time, these reviews are recommendations for other fans and readers. I don’t expect readers to enjoy the same books I do, and I’m not insisting that they should. This doesn’t mean I don’t look into books other fans and readers suggest, it’s how I ended up reading certain books no matter its genre. 

            Some of those books were not mentioned in TIME Magazine’s list. No graphic novels and no novellas or short stories were on the list. And, the grimdark and the witches subgenres were omitted. I’m not sure if any of those titles made the initial list, but it does make me wonder if we’re starting to limit what consists of “good” fantasy books. Yes, a few translated books made it on to TIME Magazine’s list, but I’m going to say that some works written by either Australian or indie authors should have been considered as well. Are we slowly becoming like Tom Shippey and Robert Silverberg (which is sort of scary)? So, are all books within the fantasy genre being considered? Should we be reading more of what is available BEFORE compiling such a list?

            Obviously, one cannot read all of the books within a genre, but all titles and all formats should be considered for a “best of all time” list. Yes, some titles will always end up on the list, but what about the other books? Think about your favorite books. Now, think about your favorite fantasy books. If we were to compare our lists, then we would expect to have some similar and some different books. In fact, my list is always changing. Some books will always be appealing to me, and others will fall off of that list. Who is to say that within the next 5-10 years this list will be exactly the same? If fantasy continues to expand as a genre, then I hope the list does alter, continuously, overtime. 

            In 2018, V.E. Schwab delivered the 6th annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. Her lecture titled—“In Search of Doors”—she mentioned (and, I’m paraphrasing here) that just because one author made you a reader doesn’t mean that book should become “required reading.” Everyone has that one book which made them a reader; but, they’ve read more than one book, right? V.E. Schwab discusses what led her to write the stories she’s written, too; and, it’s simple. She was sick of reading the same sort of fantasy story over and over again. And, that’s what makes TIME Magazine’s list stand out from previous ones. Several of these stories move away from familiar fantasy tropes and are still amazing and well-written stories, which should be read. However, if any of those books don’t capture your attention enough to want to read them, then don’t feel obligated to do so. 

            I’m not going to nit-pick the genre or this list because I don’t have the time to start all of the never-ending debates that would come from it. Also, I still haven’t read all of the books on this list! For now, like the rest of the fandom, I’ll consider what should be included or excluded from the “best fantasy books of all time” list. I’ll keep reading the books as they are released, and I will offer my critical thoughts on each book. And, hopefully, whoever does the next list considers including me on the panel. I believe I could shake things up. Which books should you read next? Well, tell me the sort of story you enjoy and I will give you a suggestion or two (or three)!

The Disclosure Behind the 2020 Hugo Awards

A lot can happen in a week. Politics and COVID-19 aside, it seems like “everyone” wants to return to a time when “things were the way they used to be.” Out of all of the prejudices that’s been going around, it seems that ageism continues to be accepted widely due to the notion that “the new will replace the old.” Unfortunately, it seems that “the old” keeps finding ways to hold out for a bit longer, which is equivalent to years. Not only have Americans been forced to admit the issues surrounding race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and domestic violence, but also delve into several generational gaps and the beliefs that come from a particular age group. “Trumpeters” aside, it seems that many older White men have nothing better to do than to whine about how modern society is uprooting “the morals and the structure of ‘their youth’.” Yes, because White men have had it so bad, they get to complain about what they no longer have as opposed to other groups of people who are still denied the basic rights and privileges they continue to take for granted. And, it seems that the microcosms are reflecting the macrocosm as certain in-groups continue to find ways to make themselves exclusive as they express their desires to omit other groups of people and to keep them from participating alongside them. In recent years, we all witnessed this happening more and more in Hollywood and film, and in the video game industry. Not to mention, it’s happening within the literary community and the fandom are familiar with the ongoings within speculative fiction.

            One week after Tom Shippey’s comments about fantasy novels in The Wall Street Journal, the 2020 Hugo Awards was livestreamed during Worldcon, which would have been held in New Zealand if it wasn’t for the global pandemic. The good news was, many fans were able to watch the Award Ceremony; the bad news was, those same fans were reminded that those who write speculative fiction are not as open-minded as their stories make them out to be. More people were able to witness the blatant sexism and racism that is whispered about in the publishing industry. Obnoxious doesn’t even begin to describe the behavior of those grown men. 

            First, let me address George R.R. Martin’s mispronunciation of the names of several of the nominees and the presenters. As someone who has worked within education for over a decade, yes there were times when I mispronounced A LOT of names; and, I’m not limiting that list of names to “minority” ones. One, there are some European names a lot of people cannot pronounce. Two, your name maybe unusual and/or hard to say for someone else. Three, names do not always equate to your concept of gender (think of unisex names). So, why were so many people upset with GRRM? It was because many of the nominees saw the name butchering as unprofessional, which it was. Some authors are friends with each other, and they all often attend the same events (I’m assuming here), so it is understandable when after a while the mispronunciation comes off as rude. I understand how those authors felt, and it did ruin the Hugo Award experience for several people, especially the nominees (and the winners). Then again, there are several authors—whose works I’m a fan of—whose names and book titles I cannot pronounce to save my life (audiobooks have been a huge help). I know GRRM issued an apology, but that is neither for myself nor for the fandom to accept because it is for the authors and the creators who were nominated to decide. Whether or not they want to accept it is NOT up to us, it is their choice.

            There was another thing GRRM mentioned that night that has me upset, and it was his statement regarding all of the Finalists for the “Best Novel” category being women. Maybe he was trying to be funny when he said, “maybe we’ll see some men nominated next year,” but the context of that statement—especially after Robert Silverberg’s rant about John W. Campbell’s “legacy”—remains to be open to interpretation. 

            Robert Silverberg is an award-winning author of over 1,000 sci-fi and fantasy stories, some of which won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Awards. In addition, he was the Toastmaster of several Hugo Award Ceremonies throughout the years. Silverberg’s publishing career started in 1954 and he retired around the early 1990s. As he mentioned in his rant—which was prerecorded—he is a fan (and I want to say a friend) of John W. Campbell’s stories—he is considered to be “the father of modern science fiction”—which he wrote and published during the 1930s, and he talked about the sort of “person” Campbell was when he met up with other authors, including those who were influenced by him. In fact, Silverberg was so defensive of his “idol” that he decided to insult the author who “insulted” Campbell after winning the award that was renamed once it was rediscovered that he was a bigot. Did anyone else notice how many viewers “left” once it became obvious what Silverberg was saying a loud? No one is denying the contribution Campbell made to science fiction, but the truth of the matter remains in tandem with his legacy, which is that Campbell was a racist and a sexist. Like many other (fantasy) readers of my generation, I enjoyed and I’ve been influenced by the Harry Potter series. However, J.K. Rowling has some disturbing views about transgenders (which, she has voiced more than once). Neither the fantasy community nor the fandom—myself included—cannot deny the contribution Harry Potter has had. Yet, while we are able to separate the art from its creator, we must know when to say, “that’s not right.” 

            Let’s face it, everything is changing whether or not we want them to change. I grew up during the 1990s during a time when the Internet was becoming communal tool. Yes, I have my moments of nostalgia, but I don’t wish for things to revert backwards! There are a lot of things that must change and there are some things that we all look forward to happening. Halting progress or returning to the past brings about chaotic results, something we are all witnessing firsthand on a global scale!

            Now, I’m going to sound like the English teacher/instructor I used to be: did you all even bother to read (or, to watch or to play) any of the works that were nominated for the Hugo Awards?! I was under the impression that members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) got to vote for the Hugo Award nominees and winners. Don’t get me wrong, it is NOT easy to attempt to read ALL of the books that get nominated for awards (my Shortlist Award Reading Challenge is a challenge), but to act as though these works aren’t worth reading because it didn’t suit your “preferences” or “expectations” of the genre? Or, were you worried that you wouldn’t be as familiar with the context of works written and created by females, BIPOC/BAME, and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals as you are with those of yourself and your peers?! No one is denying that the authors of the past (and the present) contributed to the genre, but there shouldn’t be a “shared model” for a genre that is dependent on the imaginations and the creativity of each individual. No genre is supposed to remain the same overtime. This is because stagnation kills progress of any kind! If science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the other genres, and the subgenres, within speculative fiction have changed over the course of the last century, then why should it remain constant in order for the genre to befit YOUR preferences? As John Scalzi mentioned on his blog, “’The canon’ didn’t just somehow ‘happen.’ It is a result of choices…” The genre was different before I was born, it has branched out and evolved since my childhood, and it will go beyond our expectations and imaginations with posterity. However, we get to decide on what we read based on what is available, which is A LOT!

            Here is my first of many proposals (hopefully). There are books about the history of fantasy, the encyclopedia of literature, the companion to science fiction, etc. In literature and in poetry, there are “schools” and “literary movements” and “periods” that categorizes the evolution of that “form” of literature based on the era in addition to literary form and genre. We are all familiar with the general history, the definitions, the genres and the subgenres of speculative fiction. However, if the influences and the changes of the genre are going to keep getting mentioned by the “elder” generation, then we should at least consider compiling “schools” and “periods” of the genre so that there is more comprehension than saying, “this author was a contributor of this subgenre due to the works which reflected the genre,” or “this author’s stories cemented this movement within the genre, etc.” For example, one of the most familiar eras of fantasy are “The Inklings.” When that group is mentioned, many know it refers to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other Oxford professors of literature who were also fans of folklore, and wrote stories based on those tales. We need more groups and/or eras like that so that there is recognized clarity within the community. Is this similar to canonization? Yes. However, if time frames and eras are going to keep being brought up, then we can find ways to make it all easy to understand.

            This could be the opportunity the genre needs in order to progress further. I’m not saying that this will resolve any of the issues that have been and continue to be brought up within the speculative fiction community, but it with academic scholars, numerous awards, and an ever-growing fandom, we should consider a plan and/or a project that will involve everyone; especially, if we want the genre to continue to be taken seriously without all of the attention focusing on “elder White heterosexual males” who won’t stop bringing up the past. Think about it because the Hugo Awards are a celebration of the best of the (current) year, and not just the past. All of the groups within this in-group should start working together more in order to include all who participate in the speculative fiction community. For that to happen, we have to acknowledge (and perhaps learn) of all of the eras and the communities within the genre. 

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue