I’m currently (belatedly) reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (the sequel, The Magician King,  has recently come into the house, so it’s time). The central character, we are told, has grown up immersed in a series of children’s fantasy books set in a Narnia-like world called Fillory. The descriptions we get of the Fillory novels are charmign and witty, and I could relate to this character, up to a point: I loved the immersive experience of a really long, really fat fantasy sequence when I was growing up too – my adolescent faves were The Lord of the Rings and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books – but as I grew up I stopped reading like that. (Footnote: I read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and then Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books just a few years ago, and found myself reading like a kid again, completely immersed and desperate to find out what would happen next.)  As technologies change with breathtaking speed and all the old models for making and selling fiction – and news, and nearly anything else that comes in a printed form – start to collapse/evolve/change (insert your preferred metaphor for what’s going on here), I find myself wondering, like a lot of other writers out there, what the future of the novel is. What are people reading? And why are they reading it?

One answer does seem to be, there are readers out there who enjoy living in a fantasy world. I’ve been following all the hooha surrounding the release of the Game of Thrones TV series and the latest book in George R.R. Martin’s series, and while I wouldn’t like to be dealing with the impatience some of Martin’s fans have been expressing, I wouldn’t mind having that kind of large and ardent fan base. As we hear more and more about the death of the book, and the end of the professional author, some writers out there are still building large and enthusiastic readerships. Anyone who has been to see one of these writers speaking at a public event, and watched the punters lining up with armfuls of books, knows that some books aren’t dead yet.

So what does the fantasy series offer? A world, which is intricate and fascinating; page-turning plot; the pleasure of knowing that there will be more and more of the same thing, if the thing you fall in love with is a series. Those of us who read are looking for things we’ll love, after all; who hasn’t read a book by an unknown author, loved it, and then gone reading right through their oeuvre, hoping to find more of what you loved? Consistency matters. Is it fair to say that genre writers tend to manage consistency rather better than literary authors?

World-building matters too. It is the art of creating a world which is intriguing and new, filled with possibility and strangeness, like the fulfillment of a wish, but which is also internally consistent, logical and believable. World-building is an art that writers share with movie-makers and now, increasingly, with makers of games. Writers have the luxury of being able to suggest things, possibilities, which owe some of their specialness and strangeness to the fact that you have to imagine them yourself. Even in the age of CGI – or perhaps because of it –  movies don’t have that luxury. Everything has to be made literal, it has to be designed and drawn and brought into being, which is why less-interesting fantasy movies end up looking so generic. (And it’s not just because they film them all in Peter Jackson’s backyard, although that doesn’t help.)

World-building is definitely not something that fiction writers have all to themselves – apart from anything else, it’s a mark of your success these days if your fantasy world gets translated into some other form – TV, movie, game, all three – but it is something that fiction writers can do effectively because we’re working in a long form. You hear a lot about how everyone’s attention span is shortening, but tell that to George R.R. Martin’s readers.

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