Gygax on post-70s fiction.

There is something missing in the big conversation about the current and future state of sff. Well, I’m sure there are many things, but I will focus on one.

Some of the people I read and follow claim that what is needed is to go back to the more pulpish roots of the genre, with AD&D’ Appendix N (not exactly pulp, but still, close enough) being a great starting point to know more about those now-forgotten or ignored classics. Some even read the editorials and interviews from old magazines to better understand the cultural zeitgeist of that era. Now, Appendix N may very well be a fundamental document of a bygone age, but it’s not like its author (Gary Gygax) died, struck down by a malignant curse in the prime of his life, just after penning his sacred doctrine.

Gary Gygax lived for many decades more, and before his unfortunate passing (2008) he left his opinions about many (game-related) subjects in innumerable editorials, articles, and Internet forums, where he spend a lot of time during his later years.

Now, we certainly cannot know his opinion concerning, let’s say, the OSR or Jeffro’s take on the Appendix N. Perhaps he would have considered the importance some of us put on that list as something amusing. But, in any event, we should be able to know what he thought about literature and fantasy during those 30+ years after he first wrote this in the foreword of the first D&D manual:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS & DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!

We know how important those works were to understanding the “spirit” of D&D (at least before the game became its own thing, dissociated from its origins) because they appeared in the introduction and, later, in a somewhat more difficult to find appendix. And for how casually the whole thing is mentioned, we can surmise that this is something that was kinda obvious back then (at least to those of that subculture.) Sure, Appendix N did not include ALL fantasy (no Mervin Peake for you, sorry,) and it certainly reflects certain preferences, but those were tastes that were, and still are, shared by many people.

If you want a list of some of the best action/adventure fantasy novels, that’s the list you need until someone rediscover an even more obscure and forgotten canon or somebody starts writing better (which may take quite a while.) However, and this is the point I want to make, books describing themselves as fantasy did not stop appearing after 1974, Gygax did not stop reading books after that year, and, in fact, D&D developed its own brand of fantastic literature.

It is curious, and probably a sign of the times, that the game that had been inspired by a specific genre of literature was unable to recreate the same kind of literature even though it spawned hundreds of books in a markedly “sword & sorcery”-like vein.

I don’t want to imply that the fantasy genre would be better off if our current fantasy sagas didn’t exist since, after all, fantasy may have disappeared from the public consciousness if it had not been for them, but still…

Imagine, even if it’s a painful exercise in alternate history, Drizzt Do’Urden written by Fritz Leiber or Elminster by Jack Vance. Of course, that’s an unfair hypothesis, like asking people to imagine Star Wars written by Shakespeare or to wish that random buildings from your city had been designed by Brunelleschi, but it’s nonetheless a useful experiment to realize how things have changed and what is not being done anymore even when people claim to follow the tradition of past masters.

And this is my point, because (as far as I know) Gygax was mostly a rule designer, not a settings designer, but he had to be aware of all that new literature his game had spawned. D&D was published almost at the middle point of Gygax’s life, which means there were two thirty-year literary eras in his life.

The first 30 years of his literary life include everything he had read before writing D&D, and without which the game would not have existed. Although there are some ancient works there, the median publication age in the Appendix N is probably around the 40s-50s, so those are the books he read as a teenager or, later, as reprinted paperbacks. But that was followed by another 30+ years that witnessed an ebullition in works also labeled as fantasy, and as a direct inspiration (and competition,) D&D was directly or indirectly behind a lot of them. We already know his opinion concerning those first 30 years; he wrote a game based on it, after all. But what was his opinion concerning more than thirty years of literature, of an era that witnessed an editorial explosion in fantasy and science fiction? Mostly silence, apparently.

He did say a few things, but they were not very flattering. A year before his death, in 2007, some people asked him if he would add any new books to the Appendix N, and this is what he answered:

The fact is that I wouldn’t change the list much, other than to add a couple of novels such as Lanier’s second Hiero yarn, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, and the Disc World books.

Two months later, to a very similar question, he answered:

Frankly, I find very few new fantasy books in the general S&S [sword & sorcery] vein worth reading. I do enjoy the “Discworld” series, and Glen Cook’s “Black Company” novels are appealing to me. Those are about all that springs to mind. The fiction I have been reading these days is mostly murder mystery (I loved the “Judge Dee” series), historical (such as Cornwell’s various series), alternate history, and some re-reading of old fantasy & SF books.

So, basically, it’s just Discworld, the only series that appears in both answer, and a few others isolated books. And his answer isn’t really enthusiastic as he just says they are novels that “are appealing to me.” Now, Gygax is certainly not any final authority on literature (not that there is such a thing, of course,) and he was only speaking for himself, but it’s relevant that one of the men who spawned a big chunk of contemporary fantasy, looking back at more than thirty years of literature he just says, “Nah.”

True, that’s the answer I have reconstructed from a few posts, and he certainly wasn’t thinking the answer thoroughly, knowing that someone would dig it up years later to make a point about an issue that had not even crystallized back then, but still, it’s a curious answer, isn’t it? I mean, at the very least, if he believed some D&D novels had managed to keep the flame of sword & sorcery alive, he would have mentioned them, right? The first 30 years were a cauldron of creativity and a constant source of inspiration but, apparently, the next thirty were… meh.

Those post I have quoted first appeared on enworld.com, but that was not the only place Gygax frequented. He also wrote a huge Q&A at dragonsfoot.org which later would be compiled in a document known as Gary’s Clarifications. Most of it are questions about rules and gameplay but there are a few about books and literature. For example, what about Dragon Lance, a bestseller saga that defined an era of fantasy? He was asked this:

Gary,

I am pretty sure you had nothing to do with Dragonlance, but I wondered what you thought of the story, particularly the first novels that came out.

Have you read them? If so, do you consider them to be representative of a D&D-type world, or do you envision the worlds of D&D differently? (i.e. magic-use, dragons, gods, etc.)

If you haven’t read them, well… how’s the weather? :roll:

And he answered:

I prefer action in my fantasy :wink:

Cheers,
Gary

Yeah, that was his whole answer, “lmao Dragonlance, where’s the action, my dude?!”

To be fair, he then added:

Well…

That was indeed my way of saying that the novels in question were not the sort I found to be compelling reads. Certainly they appealed to a large audience, and I have no problem with that. Different strokes for different folks and all that :roll:

Cheers,
Gary

A user named Cimerians asked him:

Hi Gary just a few questions and maybe some that have been asked before (sorry).

-Dragonlance. Your thoughts on the novels and other matter when you were with TSR way back then. Basically was it something that you approved etc.

Answer:

I had no connection with the project, and I found the modules less than satisfactory for any RPG system as their outcome was too scripted.

The novels were very successful and made a fair amount of profit for TSR. I found them lacking the sort of swashbuckling action that I enjoy in my fantasy reading.

What about Forgotten Realms? Well, he apparently never played it:

Never touched it [Forgotten Realms]. I was a Greyhawker, of course!

That’s about playing, though, so perhaps it would be different about FR novels and the like, right? Well… here’s the problem, it’s that blaring silence again.

We can gather a few hints here and there, though, and although it does not deal specifically with our famous drow ranger:

Finally, what is your opinion on the “popularity” of the Drow? I know they were originally made as kinda “one shot” monsters for the G-D-Q series, but do you approve/disapprove of the direction the race has been taken in?

He answered:

The drow were actually created to be the dominant human-like race in the vast subterranean world. what little i know about how they have been treated by other authors since then is not at all palatable to me. The drow are purely malign by temperment, as hateful as wolverines, as opportunistic as hyneas. they have absolutely no angst, save when facing an immediate threat from a more powerful drow or demon

To be fair, in a later post, to someone who was criticizing R.A Salvatore:

Anyway, don’t be too harsh in your judgement of Bob Salvatore. After all, he is a fiction author seeking to earn his likelihood, and I am sure Lorraine Williams gave him free rein in regards the AD&D material.

All of this isn’t much, that’s true, but I suspect that what is not being said is more notable than what is being said. Gygax probably didn’t think too much about all this stuff, but I’m sure he was aware, at some level, that the literature he loved and had, in fact, created his game, didn’t exist anymore (otherwise, why would he say he was mostly rereading old stuff or reading books from other genres?) In fact, the D&D project had already been a bit of an archeological effort since some of its main sources of inspiration had been books already old back then.

Therefore, not even his own game had managed to recreate that type of literature, and beginning (I think) with AD&D 2e, no rule book has ever mentioned its literary influences. From that point on, if you desired to know about D&D “literature,” you were told you had to read Dragonlance or FR novels and similar tie-in material instead of Vance, Lieber, Poul Anderson, or other pulpish authors. And, yes, the word (even if ambiguous and too broad in its denotation and, especially, connotations) is pulp:

By the tender age of twelve, I was an avid fan of the “pulps” (magazines of those genres), and I ranged afield to assimilate whatever I could find which even vaguely related to these exciting yarns. […]  Somewhere I came across a story by Robert E. Howard, an early taste of the elixir of fantasy to which I rapidly became addicted. Even now I vividly recall my first perusal of Conan the Conqueror, Howard’s only full-length novel. After I finished reading that piece of sword & sorcery literature for the first time, my concepts of adventure were never quite the same again.

From these literary fruits came the seeds which grew into today’s most popular roleplaying games. […]

A careful examination of the games will quickly reveal that the major influences are Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft. Only slightly lesser influence came from Roger Zelazny, E. R. Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, and many others. 

Source: “Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games” Dragon #95 pg 12

I don’t want to overstretch my point or draw too many conclusions here. However, even if you believe focusing on the Appendix N as some kind of canonical list is misguided, perhaps because you prefer other authors and styles, you still have to admit something: a way of writing, a type of literature (which Gygax described as “action,” “adventure,” “fantasy,” or “swashbuckling,”) without which a good chunk of today’s gaming industry would not exist in the first place, has simply disappeared. In fact, it was probably already dying off in one way or another when the Appendix N was first written.

And from almost thirty years of literature, the most that Gygax could find that was appealing to his tastes was Discworld (and that isn’t even Sword & Sorcery, he probably mentioned them because they are funny and he had to mention something) and a few more. No Tolkien pastiches, Wheel of Times, George R. Martins, or anyone from today’s most known names are mentioned. And from science fiction? Well, he mostly focused on fantasy (as the 0D&D introduction states) but, unsurprisingly, nothing slightly sci-fi is even hinted.

You may agree or disagree with the path that contemporary fiction has taken, but it’s obvious that there has been a huge departure and that entire genres have disappeared or mutated into something that feels very different, so much that one of the men whose work inspired the next 30+ years of fantasy felt indifferent towards it.

I’ll leave you to decide what to make of it.

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5 thoughts on “Gygax on post-70s fiction.

  1. Pingback: PC Oshinbun: Battles and pulp and glory – PC Bushi

  2. An excellent post. That was pretty much the impression I got from random Gygax quotes I’d read.

    I’ve said for a long time that D&D/TSR basically created what I would call “middling fantasy”. That is, if JRRT-derived fantasy is “high fantasy” and REH-derived fantasy is “low fantasy”, the stuff like Drizz’t and Dragonlance is “middling fantasy”. It splits the difference and is really neither fish nor fowl. Too much jack-of-all-trading and no mastery. It really is its own sub-genre and I can spot such works within a few pages, if not from the back cover. It has spread far beyong publishing by TSR/WotC.

    I have to say that I do not find this a good thing. At all. Such books drained off valuable $$ from possible sales of sword and sorcery. Morgan Holmes and I have had conversations about the mid-’80s “S&S Implosion”. There were several factors, but middling fantasy was surely one of them. I wanted to enjoy such books, but like Gary, I just couldn’t find much to get excited about.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It doesn’t help that the worlds they’re set in are crap. Greyhawk was by far the most “pulpy” of the D&D settings and that was basically abandoned at the first opportunity.

        I have to say I sympathize with the writers a little. Sword and sorcery fiction doesn’t lend itself all that well to a “party” dynamic. For that matter, even “single hero” S&S novels are hard to pull off. S&S thrives in shorter fiction. Thus, all the D&D/TSR authors may have had a nearly impossible task. The fact that the solo Drizz’t books are probably the best out of the whole bunch probably comes back to it being about one hero, basically.

        Whatever the causes for all the lack of readability and quality, the bottom line is that the whole “middling fantasy” subgenre has infiltrated a vast portion of the fantasy market.

        Liked by 1 person

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