So, I love recommending books to people, as you might guess from the multiple blog posts doing just that. I love books, after all, and I want to share that with people. Sometimes that’s books I love, as I did on Twitter yesterday, and sometimes it’s just trying to find the right book for the person asking.
I want to talk about a specific case of the latter which has been vexing me recently. For my sins, I frequent r/Fantasy on Reddit, which is a surprisingly great place to talk about books, largely because the Reddit algorithm helps sift the more interesting topics to the top. Or, the most popular – and popularity is the gist here.
In any community recommending books, popular books will have a much higher probability of being recommended. Some of that is because they are well-liked (they are popular for a reason), and the rest is simply due to the numbers. If the readers then go away and read the most popular recommendations, this creates even more advocates for those books, and the cycle keeps perpetuating. Which is great for those books, authors, and the readers who love them.
For me, who has found great books a bit off the beaten track, I’d like to see a bit more variety in the recommendations. Not just because it might better suit my taste, but because other readers might be in the same situation, waiting for those perfect books for them that they just aren’t hearing about. And also for those authors who have written brilliant books that nobody has heard of.
Now, to let the other shoe drop, a lot of these authors are women, and I hope we can all agree that women authors should have just as much chance of success as their male counterparts, if they’ve written comparable (or better) books. But it still seems that the recommendations are skewed male, as are the “Best of…” lists, the “Greatest Ever” lists, and so on. Even when women authors from previous decades sold just as many millions of copies as the men, they seem to fade from collective memory a lot quicker – at least, judging by the written evidence of lists and recommendation threads.
I don’t really want to get into why this might happen, I just want to break the cycle, and bring these great books back. (And no, we’re not considering the hypothesis that men just write better books.)
One of the common “asks” on Reddit and elsewhere is for classic Epic Fantasy, the “like Lord of the Rings” sort where brave bands battle great evils, often featuring a farmboy and a wizard, or something similar. The usual response(s) often run the gamut of:
- Terry Brooks – Shannara
- David Eddings – The Belgariad
- Raymond E Feist – The Riftwar Cycle
- Tad Williams Osten Ard
- Stephen Donaldson (less so) – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
- Robert Jordan – The Wheel of Time
I’m not including the more modern equivalents, like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin, because even they have started to breakdown the tropes of Epic Fantasy and the whole landscape has changed. You can still get some straightforward “classic”-style Epic Fantasy in the indie market, but I’m just looking at those from the 70s, 80s and, to a lesser extent, 90s that really fit that classic pattern.
Which may be part of the problem, because that stereotypical style may always just have been the above handful of Big Books, and not a lot more. Or, if there were, they might have faded from memory for good reasons. But these certainly remain, and in a big way too. Fondly remembered by those who read them at an impressionable age, perhaps. Hugely popular in their time because they are good stories, with memorable characters, and leaving a well-earned legacy behind. I’m not disputing that, necessarily. I just wonder what else was out there – and I can’t help noticing a certain similarity between them beyond the farmboys and wizards…
So I went on Twitter and asked, and got a tonne of responses. I’ll try to transpose the list here (with links) when I have more time. For now, here’s the thread:
One thing I did notice about all the great recommendations, almost all of whom were women (I did ask), was that very few of them were playing the format as completely straight as the above list. These were books you could call more challenging, perhaps, or more interesting. They play with tropes others are just presenting, with format, with style, with focus. Is that why they aren’t more popular, or is that just why they don’t spring to mind when somebody asks for more of the same? Do we need to be braver in our recommendations? I’ll certainly try even harder now.
- Sarah Ash
- Lois McMaster Bujold
- Jacqueline Carey
- CJ Cerryh
- Louise Cooper
- Kate Elliott
- CS Friedman – Coldfire Trilogy
- Robin Hobb
- Diana Wynne Jones
- JV Jones
- Jennifer Fallon
- Maggie Furey
- Katherine Kerr – Deverry
- Mercedes Lackey
- Tanith Lee
- Holly Lisle
- Anne McCaffrey
- Fiona McIntosh
- Juliet E McKenna
- Patricia McKillip
- Robin McKinley
- Andre Norton
- Melanie Rawn
- Michelle Sagara
- Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
- Sheri S Tepper
- Chelsea Quin Yarbro
- Jane Yolen
- Evangeline Walton
- Margaret Weis (& Tracy Hickman)
- Janny Wurts