Ode to a Dark Elf

Recognize this fucker?



Chances are that you probably do if…

  • You were ever fourteen.
  • You ever read fantasy.
  • You were ever a young male.

That’s not to say that, if you’re not a fourteen-year-old boy, you didn’t read Drizzt Do’Urden novels by R.A. Salvatore.  That’s merely to say that you probably stood a higher chance of encountering this oft-misunderstood chaotic good rebel and his amazing adventures if you were.

And why wouldn’t you?  The character of Drizzt Do’Urden was tailor-made for you.

He’s misunderstood and unfairly judged by his peers and society.  He’s a whirling dervish badass with two swords and a magic panther and spells and shit, but he only kills when he’s forced to, so he can’t be held morally responsible for the millions of corpses left in his wake.  He attracts ladies like nobody’s business, but he’s so virtuous he never gets laid.

There’s likely some readers out there who are about to leap onto their keyboards and rend me asunder for the glaring inaccuracies of my summary of our favorite ranger.  I’d advise those people to relax, since we’re not talking about Drizzt much further than this paragraph.  Not directly, anyway.

The idea of cover art routinely weighs heavily on my mind.  Not just because I’m routinely crucified for mine, but because it’s a frequently touchy subject in fantasy genre.  With good reason, it’s basically a free blog post, requiring little more than putting it up and going “ugh” or “not so ugh” and not having to think too hard about it.  Now there is a tremendous debate between bloggers and publishers between what’s good and what actually sells, but I’m far too much a coward to talk about that today.

But in regards to the fact that this is a frequent subject of concern for me, and regards to the fact that I’ve had Drizzt on the brain lately, I had a look at several of his covers.  They touch on all the bases that make bloggers tear their hair out: magic animal companions, glowy weapons, bare midriffs, and…whatever’s going on here.

My reactionary process to these covers, and covers like these over the years, have evolved from a singular to multi-part process.

When I was fourteen, I would look at them and think: “Damn, I like that.”

When I was twenty-five and starting to read blogs and learn more about fantasy, I would think: “Man, stop.  You shouldn’t like that.”

And now that I’m twenty-nine and slowly losing patience and brain cells, I think: “Wait, why shouldn’t I like that?”

The reasons for why these covers are so heinous range from the simple (“it’s cheesy,” “it’s stupid,” “it’s too D&D-y”) to the complex (“it’s not realistic,” “it’s not artistic,” “it’s just tits and swords”).  But the general reason we seem to fall upon, as a fantasy genre: “it looks like a fantasy cover.”

That would fall under the category of simple were it not for the immense amount of baggage that came with the idea.  For some reason, fantasy fans (or at least, fantasy fans who frequently talk about the genre) have an immense problem with being identified as such.  And if you pay at all attention, it almost always links back to the desperation to be accepted by that successful and respected older sibling: mainstream literature.

Fantasy always seems to be in a very big hurry to grow up, or at least to be seen as grown-up, hence why all we seem to write about these days is rape and widespread murder and all the other stuff we used to think made us look more adult when we were seventeen (note: I am not saying that these subjects, books or authors are inherently childish, but equating maturity with sex and violence certainly is).  To that end, we get frustrated when people point at our magic wolves, our glowing weapons, our three-headed liches and say “looks like you’ve got some growing up to do.”

And maybe it’s just me for whom this particular criticism isn’t having a lot of effect on anymore.  Maybe I’m getting too comfortable in my ways.  Maybe I’m not thinking hard enough.  Maybe I’m just too old to continue to give a shit over whether anyone might see me enjoying this stuff.  But the fact of the matter is that I’m having a much harder time caring about what other people are thinking of me.

And I’m not alone.

I mentioned last week that I believe that the geeks at New York Comicon and other joints are the future.  And I stand by that.  But one thing I was struck by at these displays of passionate geekery was the complete and utter lack of shame.  Quite the opposite, being excited and enthusiastic about this sort of thing was considered praise-worthy.  Squee-worthy, even.

I liked that.

And I find that, the older I get, the more comfortable I am with admitting that there are things about fantasy that I like.  Not that this wasn’t obvious to anyone who has read my books rife with exposed skin, sword fights, magic shenanigans and fiery urine, but it’s kind of refreshing to just look at the shit you’re writing and say: “Yeah.  Actually, I really like that.  That’s really fun.”

Let me tell you, I am a lot happier being able to take “fun” as a positive.

I’ve talked about this before, but we’ve got a problem with the word “fun.”  It’s inherently negative from a critical standpoint.  “Fun” has become coded for “unthinking, unchallenging, uninteresting.”  We apologize for it.  We say it with a wince.  We look at it and sigh and it doesn’t even occur to us once how immensely insulting it is to readers to attach that connotation to it.

Sure, it’d be a problem if things were only fun.  But–and it’s downright embarrassing to have point this out–there isn’t such a thing as a reader who feels only one emotion.  And it’s kind of troubling that we seem to think there is only one definition of “fun.”

This was touched upon by Justin Landon’s blog, but what gets my goat about the high and mighty declaration that “fun” is inherently trivial is the idea that fun does not engage.  The idea that a reader shuts her brain off when reading–and take a moment to appreciate just how ridiculous that idea is–is downright mistaken.  The idea that a reader gets nothing out of a book that they’re having fun with save some mindless faffery is mind-bogglingly stupid.

How do I know?

Because I used to read Drizzt novels.  So did a lot of my fellow authors.  Like it or not, we got something beyond just fun out of those books and it shaped our writing.

I’m sure some asshole out there could chuckle blithely at that statement, stroke a goatee and say “case in point,” but I give about as much of a shit about them as I do about mainstream literature giving a shit about what I read.  I just don’t have enough shits left in me to spend on people having opinions on how I enjoy myself and whether or not I’m enjoying myself properly.

And here’s a tragic secret about writing: it’s selfish as shit.

You can write only for yourself.  If people love it, then great.  But no one’s going to love it if you don’t love it first.  And if you’re possessed of shame for enjoying what you enjoy, you’re not going to be writing what you love.  You might achieve that perfect nirvana of becoming an anti-fan, pointing out the great and glaring flaws of the genre you despise but can’t get away from and otherwise masturbating furiously to your own genius on the page.

But maybe I’m just speaking for myself here when I say I find that more tiresome than a dude with two swords on a cover.

27 Responses to “Ode to a Dark Elf”

  1. Jennie Ivins

    Hear! Hear! Great post! On one of the panels at NY Comic Con Anton Strout introduced his books as having gargoyles in them, because he liked Gargoyles. It made me want to read his work, because he was so enthusiastic about it. And cause I like gargoyles too. 🙂

    I think if more people wrote what they loved instead of what they thought other people wanted, literature (mainstream and genre) would be a much richer place.

  2. Alberto

    You have just described the process that I am going through for the past year. I recently allowed myself to have fun again as well, and I have to say that it is liberating. I think I got to a point that I am not interested in impressing anybody else but myself.

  3. Chelsea Kinjo

    The first time I picked up a Drizzt novel I was 12 years old. Immediately obsessed, I brought them to school everyday to read between assignments. I absolutely LOATHED the covers because they outed me as a nerd. I would hide them any way possible, including putting a fake book cover around it just to hide the fact that I was reading…GASP… a fantasy novel. It didn’t help that the males I knew who read similar titles mercilessly teased me for beings GIRL WHO LIKES BOY BOOKS (complete taboo in seventh grade). Now im 24 and damn proud of the books i read, but it was a long time before that Drizzt loving nerd could bare her book covers in public. And yes, I did swoon over Drizzt’s moral superiority as much as I drooled over the epic battle scenes, in case you were wondering. Great arguments and point, Sam. Glad to hear the great fantasy cover debate from someone I respect!

  4. Jared

    I totally agree (which may come as a surprise? I dunno) – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fun.

    I do, however, add the caveat (AHA!) that it is ok to find something fun AND think about it critically. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to its faults. It is ok (encouraged even) both to love fantasy and still want it to be better.

  5. Danie

    Read them as a young female (slap), and have endured quite some scorn from certain quarters for refusing to part with them. And the core DragonLance texts.

    They’re right-of-passage novels, I think – simple, but basic building blocks.

    Long live Drizzt 🙂

  6. adrian faulkner

    There will always be high art (the obscure and critically acclaimed) and low art (the popular). The problem is that in the wider world, genre is considered by default to be low art and there are people that are driven mad by wanting genre to be considered high art in some psuedo search for wider acceptance. And (in more massive generalisations) they think the low art fantasy (the fun stuff) drags genre away from that aim.
    But it’s all bullshit. I can find meaning in Star Wars as deep as any philosophy text, my sense of storytelling can be traced to GI Joe comics. I spent a decade highlighting and loving low art (From Masters of the Universe to Ben 10). And just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it can’t have meaning. Just because it’s high art doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
    The real worry, as an author, is that I worry these prejudices are starting to filter down to readers where people feel (through peer pressure) they should be reading Mieville (high art but still fun) rather than a W40k tie-in (low art but still have meaning).
    My personal wish is that we celebrate genre in all its current diversity (from the low to the high) rather than wish it was something ‘more’.

  7. Jared

    I (somewhat) disagree with Adrian on two points:

    >>”And just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it can’t have meaning. Just because it’s high art doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.”

    That is true, but not everything has equal amounts of both. I’m just not sure that Star Wars is as ‘deep’ as, say, Moby Dick. But, in the same vein, I’d question anyone that says Moby Dick is as ‘fun’ as Star Wars.

    I agree that it is completely ok for things to be what they are – but part of that means we shouldn’t pretend they are what they aren’t. (Good lord, that was a confusing sentence.)

    >>My personal wish is that we celebrate genre in all its current diversity (from the low to the high) rather than wish it was something ‘more’.

    I mostly agree with this as well. But celebration without criticism means we never get better – not as readers, writers or, more broadly, as a genre. Take the Drizzt series. IT IS OK TO ENJOY THE BOOKS. They’re fun! People can/should cosplay and have a great time and read them all. Do it! The books are a hoot! But we also can/should discuss that this is a series predicated on the assumption that dark-skinned elves are born evil and spend their lives in jealous plots against their light-skinned counterparts. That’s not cool. IT IS ALSO OK TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT’S A PROBLEM.

    What’s the ‘more’ in this situation? Readers and writers that are then influenced to write fun, swashbuckling, awesomely entertaining books that don’t have racist subtext. That’s a good kind of more.

    • adrian faulkner

      Sorry, I’ve been lazy about checking comments! I have also been drinking!

      >> not everything has equal amounts of both
      Completely agree and I think that’s good. Some things are meant to be mindless fun. Some things are meant to challenge you as a reader. And there’s varying levels inbetween. That’s great.

      >>I’m just not sure that Star Wars is as ‘deep’ as, say, Moby Dick.
      Pah, says someone who has never heard my Dagobah monologue 😉 My thinking could do with a little refinement here and I don’t completely disagree with you (more coming at it from the opposite angle). I would say that something we are ignoring is possibly that ‘meaning’ is partly what the author commits to the page and partly what the reader / viewer brings to it. Themes and storylines resonate differently in different people. The meaning we take away can be incredibly personal. Now admittedly criticism can only take what’s on the page into account which is where my thoughts need refinement.

      >>But celebration without criticism means we never get better
      Agreed. I should have said “rather than JUST wish it was something ‘more’”. I don’t think there are any holy cows but all too often low art gets looked down on because it’s populist and accessible. That’s slightly different than saying that by today’s attitudes something comes across as containing some form of predjudice.

  8. Jared

    Hmm. Apparently ‘somewhat agree’ means ‘partially agree’ and ‘also very much disagree’. Oops. Sorry Adrian!

    • adrian faulkner

      No need to be sorry. You original post got published whilst I was still writing mine and I remember thinking mine could have probably used some refinement following yours.

  9. A.E. Marling

    The Drizzt book, Homeland, features a city buried below a mile of rock, founded on chaos, with purple faerie lights shimmering up and down the house pillars. It was perhaps the first fantasy story I read and stands to this day as being one of my most exceptional word vacations.

    Fantasy is a beautiful genre because it grants us the permission to engage in imaginative play, an activity we understand as vital as children. Adults sometimes will avoid play, thinking everything must have a purpose. Activities must be educational or at least boast worthy. Such people are at risk of losing their ability for experience pleasure and fulfillment in life and withering into a cardboard mummy.

  10. Val K.

    The complaint that covers like this are too “fantasy-ish” may not be as absurd as you make it out to be. They are too “fantasy-ish” in that they adhere to fantasy tropes- tropes that marketers latch on to and tropes that help homogenize the genre. I have nothing wrong with knights in shining armor. I don’t mind jousting, wise old magicians, mystical companions, etc. But that isn’t all that fantasy is. The problem comes when people think that for something to be fantasy, it has to have all of those things. Fantasy, at its best, is a way to explore. Its a gateway to imagination. It has a capacity to create that no other genre can match. When it adheres to much to tropes, when those tropes come to define the genre, fantasy loses what it is best as.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with the cover. The problem is what the cover represents.

    Recognizing this, lovers of fantasy have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of relinquishing the idea of tropes altogether, they simply create new tropes. Or, even worse, they disguise old tropes as new ones.

    • sam

      Again, though, why are tropes a bad thing?

      I don’t know if I agree that they homogenize the genre, but I definitely don’t agree that the only way to get away from that effect is to abandon things we love about genre. Most of the fantasy that people are reading is full of tropes with the author’s own interpretation on it. People actually enjoy reading it. I don’t think it’s reasonable to discount that.

      This line of thought kind of smacks of us having to prove something to someone, still. For reasons already listed, I don’t agree with it.

      • Val K.

        I don’t think its wrong to fault the tropes, and I don’t fault the reader either. But once those tropes are recognized as the things that readers love, it becomes hard to find fantasy books about anything else. Publishing companies are in the business of making money. If they have a formula for doing so, they will use it. I’m not saying that books about other cultures don’t exist but they are kind of hard to find. Just because I love swords and sorcery doesn’t mean I want it to dominate the genre. I’m sick of reading about European fantasy. I don’t want fantasy to abandon its history, there is some really good stuff in there, but I do want it to branch out. I don’t want there to be a “face of fantasy,” especially not if that face is white and male (also green/grey/purple eyed, red/white haired, and a chosen one. Also an orphan.)

        Tropes aren’t bad on their own, they’re bad because they eclipse everything else out there.

        • sam

          See, I think that still basically demands the reader apologize for what they like. Saying that these things are “bad” suggests that it’s irresponsible for people to like them, essentially shaming them into reading something else.

          The phenomenon of stagnation is hardly unique to fantasy. YA, for example, was not inundated with dystopian sci fi until Hunger Games unexpectedly arrived and blew everything else out of the water. It can’t be forced. It just has to happen.

          • Val K.

            What about realistic fiction? No one narrative dominates that genre. Isn’t there a problem when realistic fiction, as a whole, is MORE creative than fantasy?

          • sam

            Show me a consensus on what’s “realistic” and we’ll talk.

          • Val K.

            That’s a really good point. But don’t you think that perhaps the lack of consensus, the lack of definition could be what gives the genre its flavor?

          • sam

            Yes. Hence why I don’t believe that we should be attempting to get people to apologize for what they enjoy.

            I get the fact that there’s a lot of same-y sentiments in the genre right now, but I think there must be a reason for that. And I don’t think the solution is to be dishonest with ourselves.

          • Val K.

            I agree. I don’t want to root out what is already present in the genre. I’m looking to add, not to subtract. My basic argument is this: tropes make good marketing. Good marketing create hegemony. Is that the reader’s fault? Heck no. I fault the system that exploits the tropes, not the tropes themselves.

            Also, thank you for discussing this with me.

  11. Jenz

    The Piers Anthony-bashing in the comments on the cozy fiction post made me sad. I LOVED Piers Anthony as a kid. I still do. And I’m not afraid to admit it. Except, apparently, in the comments on that other thread.

  12. David Wohlreich

    I love Stephen Brust’s theory of literature, which seems pretty topical:

    “The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

    The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

  13. Anne Lyle

    Val is however quite correct that fantasy covers are designed specifically to attract fans of the genre – which means playing up the familiar tropes even if the book itself is about much, much more. Hell, I remember the SF paperbacks in the 70s that almost always had a random Chris Foss spaceship on the cover, regardless of the storyline!

    At that age, I was naive enough to think that book covers ought to be illustrations, accurate to both the characters’ appearance and events in the book. Nowadays I realise that whilst this is one good option, the most important thing is that the cover appeals to the intended audience – that at a distance it shouts “this is a book you’ll love!” Sometimes that means a semi-abstract design such as the blood-spattered parchment of the UK cover for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, but sometimes it’s a hooded man with a drawn sword (with or without a three-headed lich!) 🙂

  14. Paul (@princejvstin)

    The character of Drizzt Do’Urden was tailor-made for you.

    Well, I didn’t groove on Drizzt so much as I did on the world and society he had left behind. I’m a worldbuilding lover by nature, and although character and other considerations have crept higher in my estimation, in the end its all about the Playground.

    The Drow are cool…but their city, their society, their world, are even sooner. In an on-again-off-again Dungeon World game that my local gaming group sometimes plays, my character got killed (its that sort of a game). The GM offered me to play a captured Drow priestess as my new PC. I grabbed THAT idea with both hands, and have helped shape what her home city (which the PCs wound up raiding) is like.

  15. Jeff C

    I’ve been yelling about this topic on my blog every since its inception 6 years ago. I feel like I am constantly having to defend myself (on the blogosphere) for reading for “fun”. I’ve never understood why it wasn’t ok for me (as a blogger/reviewer) to read purely for fun, enjoyment and escapement (might not be a word). As I’ve said on my blog, I spend 8-9 hours a day on the computer, using my brain non-stop…I’m a programmer. So the last thing I want to do in the evening is read something overly complicated that is trying to spin a specific world view. I simply want to be entertained. Being a fan of classic fantasy, I’m tired of the gray characters, the extra gore and grittiness. And I’m starting to move away from those stories..even if it means I end up reading lots of fantasy published prior to 2000 (though luckily there is still Sullivan, Brooks, Sanderson, and some others that are in the mold of classic fantasy).

  16. Tim H

    Amen. Quoting from a review I wrote on Amazon: “I was an English major once upon a time, and used to read plenty of serious literature. But as I’ve grown older, I have less patience for that kind of fiction. Writers of genre fiction, and fantasy in particular, haven’t forgotten that great books are ultimately about great storytelling. It’s about putting interesting characters in tight spots and seeing what happens. Everything else is secondary.”

    So yes, please, keep having fun and give us a fun read. If you can throw in some earth-shattering serious-literature wisdom stuff, that’s fine too. But that’s not why we read.

  17. Tim H

    And, just to follow up. Any writer who gives a crap about life and people — any writer with sympathy — is delving into the insidious beauty of literature: getting us to care about someone or something different from ourselves. I think you manage that pretty well, Sam. 🙂

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