Friday, November 19, 2021

Sword-and-sorcery had a BAD reputation in the late 70s/early 80s; here's more evidence

In Flame and Crimson I advanced the claim that one of the principal reasons behind the demise of sword-and-sorcery was its poor reputation. I was mainly referring to critics and academics and cited many which were regularly lampooning the subgenre, but publishing houses were beginning to consider it anathema as well.

I feel pretty confident in that claim, and believe I backed it up pretty well in the book, but here's some more evidence courtesy of James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog. This post includes some screenshots of an interview conducted with the late, great Greg Stafford in the pages of White Dwarf #17, published in early 1980. Here Stafford relays a story about submitting a sword-and-sorcery story to the editor of a semi-pro 'zine, and meeting with a harsh rejection slip stating that "all S&S is the same hackwork."

Worse, Stafford mostly agreed with the assessment.

The cool bit is that he used that rejection as fuel, and a springboard to create a highly innovative role-playing game, Runequest, which I played the hell out of back in the 80s. 

If it took a kick in the balls to S&S to produce Runequest, that rejection slip was probably worth it. 

But, like a kick in the balls it doesn't hurt any less.

It's an interesting post, and leads to unanswered questions about sword-and-sorcery and whether it can continue as a viable art form. How do we maintain its traditions and archetypes and themes, while not falling into the same repetition and pastiche trap that led to its demise in the mid-1980s?


Matthew said...

I find it obnoxious if a person considers an entire genre or subgenre to awful. Every genre has work that covers the spectrum of quality. It's rank snobbery.

The worse I've heard was a commentator who talk how horrible all rock music was in comparison to his beloved showtunes and easy listening. He also talked a lot about the importance of masculinity. If I met him I'd asked him what he really wanted: men to be masculine or to listen to his sissy music.

Oliver Brackenbury said...

I feel like I'm collecting research to answer the How Do We Get Another S&S Renaissance question though my interviews as much as anything. Haven't got a final answer but increasingly I think highlighting the way S&S re-enchants the world and brings a strong, but grounded feeling of personal empowerment are key ingredients. Most people are kinda worn out and feeling overpowered by a dull, dangerous life right now, which to me feels like priming them for what I just described.

Cora Buhlert said...

Was there a lot of bad S&S in the late 1970s/early 1980s? Yes. Does this mean that entire genre is hackwork? No, of course not. There is a lot of excellent S&S as well. Even in the late 1970s/early 1980s, there was still good S&S, e.g. Imaro.

The same goes for any other genre/subgenre, whether it's space opera, cyberpunk, horror, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.... Even during boom times, when publishers pump out everything they can find in subgenre X, there always are gems among the dross. For example, during the urban fantasy boom of the 2000s, some of the most interesting books were not the big bestselling series, but books by authors who wrote one or two novels and then vanished from the face of the Earth.

Besides, the overproduction of poor quality material which leads to entire genres/subgenres collapsing (S&S in the 1980s, horror in the 1990s, chicklit in the 2000s, urban fantasy in the 2010s) is very much the publishers' fault for first publishing poor quality work and then deciding that no one wants to read genre X anymore.

James Enge said...

These are good questions, and the bias against S&S in the 1980s (and 90s) was severe. I must have gotten hundreds of rejections through that period, and it was not uncommon to see "no sword-and-sorcery" in submission guidelines.

On the other hand, there are things much worse than a bad reputation: respectability, for instance. We should absolutely work hard at making this stuff new, but respectability is the graveyard of creativity.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks all. Sword-and-sorcery had and has its drek, quite a bit in fact, but I have yet to see anyone make a compelling case that its noise-to-signal ratio is any worse than other genres. I have read enough bad horror, Tolkien-clone high fantasy,etc., to feel pretty comfortable saying that.

James, great point. I like S&S's rough edges and occasional sharp corners that can cut. Am not in favor of filing those off.