I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but just never got around to it. For some reason, I thought of it tonight picking up my son from my in-laws and thought it would be a great thing to discuss.
For a lot of people, Tolkein is the one who ushered them into fantasy. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most common fantasy books that a lot of people started with, and for a lot of good reasons. It invented the genre, inspired many after it, is family friendly, and even entertaining. That wasn’t the case for me though, and with all due respect to Mr. Tolkein and Lord of the Rings in general, the series is incredibly dry and hard to handle. For all those it turned onto the genre, I think it’s fair to say there are just as many it turned off because of the length, complexity, and word count.
That’s why for me, and probably a lot of those out there, the one who ushered me in was Terry Brooks. For good reason too. I’ll pair that first trilogy up against the LOtR trilogy any day of the week. Your favorite Wizard is Gandalf? Let me introduce you to the Druid Allanon who shoots blue fire out of his frigging fingers! The first Shannara book is the weakest, but the next two more than make up for it, and really when it comes into its own. It was the first time I ever considered what the world would be like after it all ended, and still has the best post-apocalyptic take I’ve ever seen.
Okay, I don’t have to tell you why Shannara is awesome. Either you know or the rest of this won’t really matter.
I respect Terry Brooks so much that I bought his writing book, Sometimes the Magic Works. It’s kinda similar to Stephen King’s On Writing. It is semi-biographical and details a lot of his writing method, etc. Since it does tell how he got into the business, he goes into Lester Del Ray’s role in his writing career. Del Ray was the legendary editor that ended up founding Del Ray Publishing with his wife Judy Del Ray. Their experience is actually kind of interesting, he helped build fantasy as a genre, taking it out of the shadow of Lord of the Rings, while she continued to build science fiction. Del Ray, under Ballentine, which rolls up into Random House, made speculative fiction what it is today.
But here’s the thing, Lester Del Ray had to work to make that happen. Terry Brooks was his flagship, the novel (and later series) that he was using as a benchmark to prove that fantasy was viable, that it could be an industry all and of its own. The Sword of Shannarra was his proof of concept for this feat.
Here’s my questions: what if he hadn’t had that agenda?
Terry Brooks wouldn’t have done his thing. We wouldn’t have the Shanarra legacy, wouldn’t have fantasy as we know it. The bedrock of my work, of my savehaven to which I have escaped for years, would not exist. In that way, I owe Lester Del Ray for his pioneering that. In another, I despise the industry for what it nearly did.
And believe me, it nearly did it. Terry Brooks grew up in a world where to get published, not only did you have to play the game, you often times had to actually go to New York (that was kinda how agents came to be in the first place). It was very difficult to for him to get published, and even then it was heavily edited. Brooks, a heavy proponent of editors, has stated that no book he’s ever written wasn’t in some way positively influenced by his editors. I can’t help but wonder at this. I love his work, but it can be uneven and certainly isn’t perfect. Lester Del Ray told him to rewrite massive sections of the first three books, I would kill to see what they looked like before.
As scary as it is to think that Terry Brooks and the Sword of Shanarra did happen, I am going to throw an even more horrifying implication out there.
How many didn’t happen? How many were turned down by publishers, shoved in drawers and forgotten? There have been several authors whose work was lauded years after their death (H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick). There stuff was out there…How many never got that chance? How many brilliant manuscripts are sitting out there that will never be read?
Part of what New York, its agents and publishers and even its writers, decry in self-publishing is the crap that floods the market. And that’s true. There’s a lot of stuff out there that was typed out in a single session without spellcheck even being run, stuff that wasn’t taken seriously by the writer, stuff that lacks professionalism, skill, and/or quality. What they never talk about are the people who are being published who wouldn’t have otherwise. They don’t discuss the empty drawers, the authors who don’t have to shelve their work because of the clusterfuck that is New York publishing. (They also tend to forget that quality plays second fiddle to revenue every damn day of the week with their own books. I’d love to see Simon and Schuster tell me my stuff is bad while they publish this.)
Lord of the Rings inspired thousands of people. A lot of those people went on to write their own stories, often times for Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying games. They then tried to get them published. The market was filled with people who wanted to write this stuff, even more so, it was filled with people who wanted to read it. The industry held off. They didn’t see the benefit. Look at everything that was published after Terry Brooks. My word, they had no idea what they were missing. What if self-publishing had been around? How many more fantasy novels would we be able to add to that?
How many did we miss?