Friday, July 2, 2021

What sword-and-sorcery needs

I've been seeing some promising signs of a modern day sword-and-sorcery revival, with a growing number of small publishers putting out new works or collections of reprinted works from the old masters. Digital and print magazines are springing up (Tales from the Magician's Skull, etc.), and there's some good scholarship going on in certain corners (DMR, The Dark Man, etc.). All encouraging, and maybe there's a kernel here that will grow.

But sword-and-sorcery is still a niche within a niche. If it's ever going to reach its former heights it needs a lot of help.

Here's what I think sword-and-sorcery needs in order to flourish once again.

1. More readers. We are now seeing many small outlets for S&S fiction crop up, but nothing resembling real commercial markets. It needs to get mainstream, with a larger audience, and more paying consumers to create a viable market for writers and artists. Morgan Holmes once said something along the lines of, what is needed is the modern equivalent of the mass-market S&S paperback of the 1960s and 70s--cheap, eye-catching covers, with good, simple, page-turning stories to back up the packaging. With wide distribution, although times have changed. Printing costs are higher and the days of the drugstore wire-spinning racks have gone, replaced by the online juggernaut Amazon.

2. Good authors. From what I have read there are a few talented modern S&S authors working in the genre today, but who will be our next Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, or Jack Vance? There are a few modern bestselling fantasy authors that I dig--Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin come to mind. Could we see them or their equivalent attempt an S&S splash?

3. A cohesive community, perhaps organized around a fanzine. Guys like Jason Ray Carney are building this right now, with the likes of Whetstone, an amateur magazine that also has a Discord group. I belong to several good Facebook groups, and there are some reasonably well-trafficked Reddit groups and the like. You've got the Swords of REH Proboards and a few other hangouts for the diehards. But it all feels very disparate. Sword-and-sorcery lacks a common gathering space and watering hole, like Amra used to serve. Leo Grin's now defunct Cimmerian journal is the type of publication I'm thinking of.

4. Some type of award, a recognition of excellence for authors and publishers and the like. The closest we had were the Gemmell Awards, which recently died off. I'd love to see a "sword-and-sorcery" category at the Hugos or the Locus Awards but I'm not holding my breath. 

5. A crossover hit, probably a film (or a video game). There's a lot of debate over whether these types of media foster readers, but an actual good sword-and-sorcery film (if such a thing were possible) that garnered a lot of good press, and led some mainstream journalists and bloggers to take the time to point the way to the fiction, could spur new interest and new blood. A wildly popular video game may have the same effect. I don't think comics are popular enough these days to spur the level of interest we saw with Conan the Barbarian in 1970.

We will never see the likes of 1968 again but I do think we could experience a third S&S renaissance, if we could make a few of these happen.


Matthew said...

I don't how you are going to get more readers other than have a hit movie or something and maybe not even then. It is possible that S&S will remain an niche of a niche forever. If there was a Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tv series or something it might bring in more people, but I don't know what else?

Brian Murphy said...

Elric, or a Kane miniseries! Would love to see something animated in the style of Primal.

Matthew said...

A good animated s&s series would be great. Yeah, something in the style of Primal (which is half s&s anyway.) Elric could be great. I read a few articles over the years about upcoming Elric movies or tv series but it never pans out.

Alex Beecher said...

The drugstore spinning racks may be gone, but they and grocers usually still have a big shelf of mass-market paperbacks, loosely categorized as romance, westerns, crime/mystery, and action thrillers. It feels like sword-and-sorcery could comfortably slot into the latter category, and also appeal to readers of more popular epic fantasy series.

Of course, to get that shelf space, a mainstream publisher would have to think it's worth the investment, so we would probably need to see success at a fantasy publisher or two first. But there's a problem of scale, there, fantasy publishers have drifted from producing mass market paperbacks, for the most part, and tend to make more money on hardcopies of the Abercrombies and Sandersons of the world.

Which means fantasy publishers would probably need to buy proven self-pub'd titles or web serials to think the investment worth it. Which means we're basically back to the start of poor exposure and distribution.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comment Alex... I do see those in my supermarket(s), but I don't think it's nearly enough exposure. Dropping an S&S novel in those racks probably would not make a dent. That setting seems to cater bare-chested romance novels to moms. Although some would say that classic S&S is romance for manly men :)

As I think about it, a young adult, violence reduced/stylized S&S hit novel, would probably provide the type of blood infusion I'm looking for.

Unknown said...

You've got a prog rock band pushing Sword and Sorcery now. Lots of press last year for Glass Hammer, and probably again this year as we release part 2 for our s&s yarn about Skallagrim and the "Screaming Sword."
Love your blogs - keep up the good work!

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Steve! As a fan of Eternal Champion, Manilla Road, Manowar, etc I will make it a point to check out Glass Hammer. Rock on.

Greg said...

I so need new S&S in my life.

thecromcast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
luke. said...

As far as Abercrombie writing S&S, it has been done. I am baffled why/how so many new-S&S haven’t read ‘Sharp Ends.’

Ryan L. said...

#6 Brian LeBlanc to provide all cover art henceforth. Seriously though, art has a strong relationship to the appeal of this genre. I picked up Worlds Beyond Worlds on art alone (it was a nice bonus that the stories within absolutely kick ass).

Doris V. Sutherland said...

Realistically, I think that the best chance the genre has for making a large-scale publishing comeback is if there's a popular, trend-setting sword and sorcery novel aimed at the young adult market -- something that does for S&S what Twilight did for vampires, or what The Hunger Games did for dystopias. Some would consider that more a curse than a blessing, of course; I can only say to those people... be careful what you wish for!