I have been summoned to another thread where I was asked about the amount of adolescent fantasy in LitRPG and most indie-lit, and what I thought about it. So here goes.
The thread was a nice “how not to” if you don’t want to get dog-piled in a thread. I don’t think the person was trolling, but not knowing how fans will react, they got a dumpster-fire response. The OP read several LitRPGs from Russian authors and wondered why there was so much sexism and adolescent fantasy in the genre.
Responders pointed out that Russian authors tend to be more sexist than the American authors. This isn’t true of all the authors, i.e. if G. Akella has latent sexism lurking in his novels, I haven’t read it. But as a general rule, the Russian authors are more sexist than the American ones.
Some people think this is a translation problem, but I don’t really buy that. The bigger problem is that Russian authors tend to intermix political and personal views into their novel.
The ur-example is the Play to Live series by D. Rus. In the first three books, the protagonist doesn’t care about politics and has a bad ass girlfriend. In the fourth book, as D. Rus clearly runs out of ideas, (see: “Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?”), he injects Russian Nationalism and sexism into the novel as plot points. The novel turns into rebuilding the Fantasy World as a Russian Patriarchal society and goes downhill.
On the American side, there’s authors like Larry Correia. I’ve read his Grimnoir Chronicles and Son of the Black Sword. If there’s any attempts to promote an aggressive conservative political agenda in those novels, I have no idea what it is. Larry himself is obviously a conservative, and goes to great lengths to make that his shtick, painting any negative reviews as part of a liberal conspiracy. So won’t you please help this poor millionaire out by buying a dozen copies of his books and sending them to everyone you know?
Despite his personal beliefs and his kitschy marketing campaigns, he doesn’t let much of his personal beliefs bleed into the pages. ** Note that I haven’t read all of his books and can’t make this a definitive statement, but from what I have read, this is true. **
This is generally true of American authors. I have no idea what Russian education is like, but American education tends to breed “corporate writing”. This is a sort of depersonalized writing style that tries to avoid personal assignment, and I think Wikipedia is the apotheosis of this type of writing. As one critic put it, this sort of writing tries to remove “the scent of the human” from it.
The opposite style of writing is what you’re reading now. I’m not trying to persuade you that I’m a neutral observing party, you are getting my opinions and ideas. It’s the difference between reading an IGN opinion of a game vs. watching Angry Joe review a video game. One is corporatized, the other one has the scent of a human all over it.
Done wrong though, this type of writing can be offputting. I don’t think anyone aggressively hates IGN reviews (minus the inflation), but there are people who aggressively hate Joe’s reviews.
For American literary writers, the goal is to let ideas and elements blend into the story naturally. My favorite example is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If you ask almost anyone, regular reader or literary critic, what the book is about, they will say censorship. If you ask Ray Bradbury, he will tell you that is dead wrong.
The book is actually an anti-technology manifesto, which is painfully clear if you know anything about Ray Bradbury. He absolutely hated technology, with a passion that makes George R. R. Martin look like Robert Scoble. He did such a great job hiding his beliefs that he had to publicly tell everyone what they were.
** It’s still taught as an anti-censorship book though, and the problem of literary interpretation vs. artistic interpretation is a problem that Ernest Hemingway wrote about in Old Man and the Sea. Although Hemingway never explicitly stated what the book was about.**
So tl;dr, Russian authors have a way of using novels to interject personal beliefs and screeds into their work that American authors have been taught is bad.
Another difference is that we’re also seeing more women enter into the genre in the American scene, both as readers and writers. This means from a basic marketing perspective, novels with overtly sexist themes will turn off a larger reading audience. Again, I have no idea what the Russian market is like, but can’t imagine an American novel acting like that and getting away with it.
So, what about power fantasies?
Harry Potter is a power fantasy novel where a child grows up believing himself to be an orphan, ruled by a tyrannical family, but he turns out to actually be a child of destiny meant to save the entire World. His real Mom loved him so much that it killed her, and he’s transported away to a magic school to learn how to stop his Mom’s killer. Along the way, he becomes the most important wizard in the entire school and leads an army against the forces of darkness.
While it is accurate to describe Harry Potter as a power fantasy, it also completely misses the point of the novels. It doesn’t touch on all the themes of Harry Potter: Love, betrayal, friendship, mentorship, etc. In fact, several of the trials that Harry passes are because he utilizes outside help and his connections to his friends and mentors, not because he is the most badass wizard.
As I wrote in my Stud-Muffin MC discussion, this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is why is the MC becoming this all-powerful being? What exactly has the MC done to deserve this? In Harry Potter, he undergoes numerous trials and tribulations to become the best wizard. I don’t think at the end of the series, anyone was saying, “Well, how did Harry Potter get to be such a good wizard? Doesn’t seem like he really earned it.”
Now, let’s look at this done wrong. We have Video Game Plotline Tester. By the end of the first book, he’s sleeping with a beautiful woman because plot says so. What has he done to deserve this? Absolutely nothing. He is one of the most popular “game testers” at his company. What has he done for this? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The key difference here is that the entire plot revolves around the MC becoming the most awesome stud-muffin in the entire World, he doesn’t actually do anything to deserve this. The story isn’t about love, friendship, bravery, or overcoming trials, it’s about how awesome this guy is and don’t you want to be as awesome as him?
Meanwhile, Harry Potter becomes the most powerful wizard secondarily to everything else that he does. None of the plots revolve around Harry Potter getting worshipped as a demi-god, and the plot never becomes contrived around the idea that Harry Potter needs to become a demi-god. Lots of things happen, and it just so happens that one side-effect of all this is that Harry Potter becomes extremely powerful.
In contrast, not much of anything happens in Video Game Plotline Tester except sequences designed to make the MC powerful. He’s wealthy and successful and the greatest by the end of the first book after having every solution handed to him on a silver platter. He’s also taking care of his crippled sister, because isn’t he the gosh-darndest nicest guy ever?
He levels up because he gets a NPCs to kill enemies for him, which strangely boosts his experience more than if he killed the enemies himself. It’s utterly and completely contrived. Every scene is only about how wonderful he is, and anyone who is against him is written as a cartoony bad guy.
I liken it to what happens most Halloweens. I get a bunch of candy for the kids that come trick-or-treating. I buy enough candy to feed twelve neighborhoods worth of kids, so after Halloween, I have a truckload of candy. So I gorge like a tick on six hundred pounds of Reese’s and Snickers. At the time, I love it. Then I get sick and regret the decision. And I do this every year because I’m a mature adult.
For novels like this, that’s how I feel about them. They’re junk food. A bit every now and then is ok, but this shouldn’t be a staple of your literary diet.
This is why I don’t review William Arand’s books. It’s not that I think he’s a bad author, far from it. He’s a very good writer. But his usual setup works like this:
- Invent interesting idea that puts MC in a bind.
- Invent unique challenges that the MC must overcome.
- Introduce females into story.
- Invent reason why MC will now go from being utter weakling to super Saiyan badass.
- Females will now swoon over MC.
- Forget unique challenges that MC must overcome since he is now a God, make story revolve around MC getting females and playing Fetish Pokemon, where the MC must bang every female. (Hat tip Scottie Futch).
The longer any of his stories go, the more I find myself skipping over paragraphs, then pages, and finally entire chapters. As an action-adventure author, he is a real talent. As an erotic author, I’d rather read a Kitty Glitter/Chuck Tingle/Sandra Hill fan fiction piece: Banged in My Ass By a Time-Traveling Viking Kitty.
Despite the high point whenever I start reading any of his books, under his name or a nom de plume, they end up at “Everybody wants to have sex with the MC who is the greatest person ever.”
With other authors like Michael Scott-Earle, Aleron Kong, Jason Cipriano, James Hunter, Domino Finn, Blaise Corvin, Luke Chmilenko (I’m calling him Luke C from now on because I have to spell check it each time I write his name), etc., I don’t feel as if the novels just revolve around the MC becoming insanely overpowered for doing nothing so that all the women can become his lovers or that the MC becomes overpowered for the sake of becoming overpowered.
Note that I’ve talked about this before, but having a harem does not automatically make it a power fantasy: It’s about what role the women have outside of being in a harem.
The novels are ultimately about something else: Friendship, Family, Responsibility, Personal Courage, etc. As a result of these other things, the characters end up becoming powerful, rather than a story about how someone became powerful and why we should all want to be that awesome person.
A simple test I like to use is, “If the Ying Yang Twins wrote a novel, would this be it?” If yes, then you have an adolescent power fantasy story.
On a deeper level, what’s wrong with adolescent power fantasies? You end up making all the mistakes in the sins.
If the plot is about why your MC is so awesome, then your MC is going to collect powers and levels by the bucketful. This leads to What Level Am I? and How Many Powers Do I Have?
Since the plot is really just the gruel sauce to get the MC powered up, you will soon have a NPC wandering around doing a lot of nothing or just solving other people’s problems: The Tale of the Village Janitor and Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?
Because the MC must be the most heroic and greatest guy ever, he will have no faults, so we get a Vanilla-Wafer Good Guy. This means bad guy cannot point out the good guy’s flaws, (think of Kingpin telling DareDevil that punching people in the face isn’t going to stop crime in Hell’s Kitchen, it’s a brilliant interplay on how a good villain goes after the good guy where they are weakest), since the good guy can have no flaws. Instead of a conflict between two opposing forces, we get a mustache-twirling, puppy-kicking villain against Dudley Do-Right.
In short, when you write an adolescent fantasy novel, the elements of plot, story, structure, and theme all take a backseat to worshipping the MC. This leads to stale, boring writing. And I don’t like reading stale, boring books.
And yes, there is a genre of writing which is about the enjoyment of life after becoming super-powerful. If you like Michael Chatfield’s Emerilia series, you will enjoy this sub-genre. From my perspective, this is like asking me to watch someone play The Sims. I can understand why someone would play the Sims, but I cannot fathom just sitting around and watching someone else play it.
There are people who are posting Pennywise sex fantasies (The Clown from IT). I mean you do you, but don’t ask me to sympathize.