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(This question is about reading but it pertains to writing as well).

I write fantasy, and as a result, I've read a lot of fantasy books that are supposedly the "best," that are beloved by all fantasy fans ... except me.

Some examples:

  • Lord of the Rings trilogy - I loved the Hobbit, but couldn't get through The Fellowship of the Ring. It was just too boring and it felt like nothing was happening
  • Wheel of Time series - forced myself to read the whole series because a friend and I were reading it at the same time. Overall it was okay, but I felt like each book was way too long, and I couldn't keep track of all the characters. Did not particularly care what happened to the main characters. Would not read again
  • Mistborn trilogy - read it several years ago along with a friend, overall it was okay, wouldn't read again
  • Elantris - forced myself to read it for a friend, did not like the political elements
  • The Way of Kings - was okay, wouldn't read again
  • The Name of the Wind - was okay, wouldn't read again
  • Shannara series - read a few books but felt like it took ages for anything interesting to happen (ages, as in 100+ pages)
  • American Gods - liked it at first, quit about 80% in when it got boring and read a summary of the book online (after reading the summary, I was glad I hadn't finished the book because I didn't like the direction it took)
  • Red Rising - quit because the main character was a Mary Sue
  • Game of Thrones - couldn't really get into the first book (based on the little I know of it, I'm not sure I'd be able to keep track of so many characters, or if I'd care about them)

There are fantasy books I do like (it's not like I have a problem with the genre). Titles like:

  • Sword of Truth series (I do have issues with the declining quality of the books, but I still like the books better than the books above)
  • Earthsea Series
  • Harry Potter Series (obviously)
  • Hyperion Cantos
  • Lunar Chronicles

I should also add that when reading fantasy (or any genre, for that matter), I'm not reading it for the fantasy elements, but for the characters. When I quit reading a book, it's for one of these reasons:

  • Indifferent towards the main character / don't care what happens to them
  • Main character is a Mary Sue

Is it a bad sign if I don't like the "best" books of my chosen genre? Is there something I just don't get about these books? Should I force myself to read them anyway in the hopes of learning something?

Note: I don't want to start any arguments here - I'm not saying that these books are bad, just that they're not for me.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the works on this list and other recommendations has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jan 21 at 18:36

10 Answers 10

3

I think it's fine, but you should consider the possibility that you value different things to most readers.

Any book and/or series is going to have strengths and flaws. If its strengths are things you value, but the flaws are in areas you consider irrelevant, you impression of the book will be pretty good. Whereas if its strengths are things you don't value much, or the flaws are in areas you do value a lot, this will tend to produce a negative impression. This is one of the reasons that talking about the strengths and weaknesses of any given work of art tends to be more interesting than talking about whether we overall liked it.

So, as stated previously, you should consider the possibility that you value different things to most readers. If correct, being aware of this is potentially valuable. For example, you could try identifying the kinds of things you value in a story, and then find someone who values very different things, and try cowriting a short story together. Perhaps you'll be able to "get the best of both worlds" so-to-speak.

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Short answer: J.K. Rowling claims never to have read a fantasy book in her life, and she did just fine. For that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien hadn't read much fantasy either.

Long answer: who considers the books on your list "best" in their genre? I haven't heard anything other than ridicule for Wheel of Time and Shannara, and I'm not too fond of Harry Potter either (nothing"obvious" about liking that series). The Lord of the Rings is for me a life-changing classic on par with Hemingway, but then a lot of people don't enjoy reading Hemingway. People are different in their likes and dislikes.

Be analytical in your reading: if you like a book, what is it about it that makes it "work" for you? If you don't like it, what "doesn't work"? @Weathervane gives a good explanation on this. Any book has its strengths and weaknesses. Try to find those in the books you are reading, learn from the strengths, avoid the weaknesses. If you fear that you're "missing something", it might be enlightening to talk to someone who liked those books: maybe you did miss something, maybe it's they who missed some problems, and maybe it's just that they weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of the book differently from you.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the book he wanted to read, because it had not been written yet. So can you, if you find out what it is that you want to read, and what it is that makes you turn away from a book.

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    A bit of side point, but for that matter, I think (a) there were'nt many fantasy books to read at JRRT's time - he is considered after all to be one of the founding fathers of the genre, and, (b) he himself as far as I remember didn't consider LotR "fantasy". – Gnudiff Jan 19 at 8:22
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    @Gnudiff yeh, that was exactly my point. You do see Lord Dunsany's influence on Tolkien's work, so he did read some, but fantasy didn't really exist as a genre back then, so he could hardly consider LotR to be "fantasy". He did speak about it not being "fairy tale" which is the closest genre that had a distinct name at the time. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 19 at 10:48
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    Michael Moorcock (of Elric fame) advises aspiring fantasy writers to stop reading fantasy works and start reading everything else. – EvilSnack Jan 19 at 20:01
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    Re J.K. Rowling: She wasn't even trying to write fantasy when she wrote Philosopher's Stone. I'm not sure she's the best point of reference if you're trying to fit into the literary/genre canon of fantasy. But if you just want to write books that people enjoy reading, you could do worse than emulating her, I suppose. – Kevin Jan 20 at 6:14
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    @Galastel - It seems to be part of her 'schtick' that she came up with this character and these settings entirely in a vacuum. The reality is, of course, that many of the things that Harry is and does are basically tropes and archetypes that have been extensively covered by others. – Valorum Jan 20 at 20:19
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First of all, what you list as the "best" books is far from an established canon of fantasy. It is a mix of classics (LotR), modern books with a wide fanbase (Sanderson, GoT) and fresh titles that are hyped and may or may not become classics with time (Red Rising).

Note that I'm not bashing your selection, but pointing out a fact: ask a hundred fantasy fans and you will get a hundred lists of titles that are "must-read", "masterpieces" and "not to be missed." And another hundred of lists of books that are "overhyped" and "not worth all the fuss."

Do not worry about it. What is important is two things:

  1. It's great that you try to figure out why you do not like titles from the top list. Analyse the stuff you read, both the positive and the negative experiences. What was it that put you off? Bad characterisation? Tone and atmosphere? Overcomplicated or oversimple plot? Putting books apart in your mind will help you figure out which elemental parts of the story appeal to you most. You can use this knowledge to figure out what aspects to flesh out in your own writing. After all, you want to write books you would like to read yourself.

  2. Try out different things in fantasy. Do not, as a reader, get stuck in one or two sub-genres. You never know what new trend, theme, or topic may catch your fancy. However, if you try something and do not like it, don't persists just because "it's canon". Your writing will not improve if reading is a chore.

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    I just read the original post a few minutes ago, and I too was wondering just where souzan got the idea that everything on that list is considered "the best," and is loved by virtually every other fantasy fan. (Heck, I'd never even heard of anything called Red Rising.) I agree with your point that the word "fantasy" is a very large umbrella which includes all sorts of approaches to storytelling, and there's no law that says we all have to worship the same select group of authors. – Lorendiac Jan 20 at 23:39
  • If you wanted 200 lists, I think you'd have to ask 200 fantasy fans. – Strawberry Jan 21 at 11:26
  • @Strawberry - or ask 100 fans at 2 different times in their life. My list today would differ greatly from the list I would given when I was young, and not just from new books being added. I find different things meaningful now than I did then. – Paul Sinclair Jan 21 at 15:36
  • There is an old saying that where there are two jews you have three opinions. Admittedly this is a slight exaggeration, but I am quite sure that getting 200 lists from fifty fans is not a challenge. – hildred Jan 21 at 18:08
  • @PaulSinclair Looking at such lists can be fun, sometimes, but what really bothers me is when I see someone post a list of "The Top 25 Fantasy Novels That You Should Read," and then they include, let's say, each volume of the Wheel of Time and each of the Harry Potter books. That's most of the 25 slots filled, right there! I'd rather they just list 25 books, each by a different author, that are either "stand-alone novels" or "first installments." That might actually call something to my attention that I hadn't noticed before. – Lorendiac Jan 22 at 1:22
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I notice the books you don't like you consider "too long", "too long for something to happen", "too boring"...

Despite you saying you like characters, longer books without much happening are likely character-driven; i.e. there is less plot and more character development.

There actually isn't a lot of character development in Harry Potter, it is much more of a mystery/action series than a character-driven series. Just like Sherlock Holmes was an interesting character, but not a well-developed character; we watch Sherlock through the window called Dr. Watson, we don't know what Sherlock feels like or what it feels like to be Sherlock. We watch Sherlock like we watch a stage magician; we don't read Sherlock as if we are Sherlock, we don't see his uncertainties or insecurities or regrets or guilt or inadequacies, or even how he feels about his drug addiction (just that he dismisses it as an issue).

You don't have to love character-intimate fiction; but it sells very well. So does mystery/action, so does horror. If you can be more specific about what you don't like in the stories you wouldn't read again, which passages or scenes you don't like or are uncomfortable with and which you do like, then you will go a long way toward defining the type of story you like and would like to write.

I agree with Galastel; there is absolutely nothing obvious about liking Harry Potter. JK Rowling is technically not a great writer. She gets an A for plotting and writing a mystery, an A+ at pleasing young adults, an A+ for imagination, but only a C for writing. This is probably why "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was rejected 12 times.

You will become a better writer if you use some analytic skill to figure out why you like some books and why you dislike other books. That is how you learn who your audience is, and what you want to avoid writing about, and what you need to fill the pages with instead. Perhaps you just want action or physical conflict or more danger every dozen pages, or continuous mystery and clues, or more comedy, or more new magic every few pages.

There is nothing wrong with not liking some fantasy; but there is something wrong with not bothering to understand why you don't like it. If you aspire to be a professional, you will take the time to understand. It will improve your writing.

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    On a minor point of pedantry: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I'm pretty sure that the publisher didn't produce the US edit (which included the title change) until after accepting it. – Peter Taylor Jan 18 at 23:27
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    +1 for stressing the importance of understanding what one doesn't like in a book. – NofP Jan 19 at 0:43
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    Rowling should get an A+ for creative use of language and traditions when creating concepts and names. I am too old to have ever though HP was a good read, or even decent fiction but I still read them with fondness due to the wordsmithing going on. A disarmament enchantment called expelliarmus, a werewolf named Remus Lupin, Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Peter Pettigrew, Fleur Delacour - these names and words are absolutely fantastic - and instantly recognizeable. – Stian Yttervik Jan 21 at 9:07
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    I agree with @PeterTaylor here; I don't think "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was ever rejected. "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was. – Reinstate Monica Jan 21 at 12:24
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    @Angew: True. Does that make any difference at all in the point I am trying to make? See this: huffingtonpost.com/entry/… – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 21 at 12:55
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It would be a bad thing if you hated the genre overall. Or if you looked down on it. I will never understand people who want to write something they distain because they think it's "easy" or where the money is.

But that's not you. Fantasy is a huge genre and no one could possibly love everything in it. You're not so big on some books/series, including some popular stuff. But you like others. That's okay.

What's important is that you've read widely within the genre and you have a good sense of what you like and why you like it.

Write stuff you would want to read.

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If you want to build your own software you must build your own Hardware. -- Steve Jobs.

If you love stories, you must write your own stories.

There is no "BEST" story in this world..

I got into writing, because I love stories. And that love moves me to tell my own.

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    Not being satisfied by the fiction that is currently considered "best" by many people and wanting to write what you feel is better is certainly an excellent reason for writing. – Michael Jan 18 at 23:27
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I had a similar issue with a standardized story from genre. I'm writing a lot of Superhero-genre stories and one of the stories I hate is when the hero's friend or girlfriend or some other close relation gets the Hero's Powers and the friend is upstaging the Hero and they have to fight. I hate those stories. It brings out traits that aren't ordinarily part of the characters in the worst way possible; it's always the same things.

So I made that story set up the entire focus of my first novel with one of my characters. The Superhero's girlfriend is caught in the cross fire in a fight with a villain and ends up with her own powers (not a copy of his, but her own)... and she doesn't want to do it but he needs some help so she agrees to play superhero until it's not needed... and it turns out she's actually good at it... objectively too (can't get into the details about why, but suffice to say, his public image is a bit more controlled by him than her public image is.).

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In determining your favorite genre, there are two things to consider.

  • What you like
  • How would people describe that in terms of genre.

What currently exists in that genre is irrelevant... except if you're trying to find something to read in your favorite genre.

As far as how well that applies to you as a writer hoping to sell your work... what currently exists is a function of the interests of the authors who have already published, and to the extent their editors redirected them, how their editors redirected them. If there are other people who have your same interests in that genre and nobody else has published? So long as you can write well and get their attention, nobody else having written what you are specifically interested in within your genre could be a good thing for your bottom line.

Of course, if there truly is an untapped market for the work you want to produce, that qualifier is a big one. It would probably be far easier to reach that market if there is at least a small amount of existing fan base, because otherwise you're attempting to get the interests of disheartened fans, many of whom will have given up trying to find what they want to read.

In saying this, I'm trying to take the gist of what goblin said, and spin it a different way, because the readers in fantasy are not defined by the fantasy work that exists but by the interest in fantasy they have, and that might be different in ways that could be very beneficial to you.

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It's okay not to like them, but at least be aware of a) why others like them, b) what has been done many, many times before.

Say you're thinking about putting dragons in your stories. If you're not careful, they could be like all the others out there. So you make yours generous and gregarious instead of miserly hermits, and everyone will say how brilliant and original you are.

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It could be a good thing, if it means that you bring a fresh take and new ideas to a well-traveled genre. It's often NOT a good thing to write in a genre that you don't know very well, just because you're (ironically) more likely to use old cliches and worn-out tropes, because of not being aware how common they are. But that doesn't sound like your issue.

All the books you mention have been endlessly imitated. There may continue to be a market for bad Tolkien imitations, but that doesn't mean you need to be a part of it.

There's always an audience for a fresh new take on a shopworn genre, especially one that addresses some of the most egregious failings of the old battlehorses. One of my favorite finds as a fantasy-devouring kid was a YA "Sword-and-Sorcery" novel whose hero was a single mom trying to escape her past by running an inn in an out-of-the-way town (Caught In Crystal). That was a lot more interesting to me than reading about some Conan clone.

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