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So You Want to Read The ’80s: Here’s Where to Start

30 July 2017

From Unbound Worlds:

Fantasy has been around for millennia.

Yet some eras in that time have seen explosive growth when it comes to interest in the genre. The 1980s is one of those times. Before it, science fiction dominated the speculative fiction publishing world — and even then, few SF writers were being published compared to today. It was an exciting time for fantasy writers, their publishers, and of course readers.

How did this happen? Things began to change in the mid ’70s. With the success of authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen R. Donaldson, and a few others, publishers began to take note of fantasy despite the long shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien. Then editor Lester del Rey took a bet and won it by publishing The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks in 1977, a book that went on to spend 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the final wake-up call for editors at that time. For better or worse, fantasy became commercialized and accepted in a way that it hadn’t before.

Brooks would of course enter the ’80s with a full head of steam, beginning a career that would span decades. He was not the only one. An abundance of fantasy writers found they had a much larger voice with publishers than before — and as readers we gained several dozen masterpiece works. I know this because it is the decade I grew up in. I started with The Sword of ShannaraThe Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara in 1988. And I haven’t stopped reading it since then.

Link to the rest at Unbound Worlds


14 Comments to “So You Want to Read The ’80s: Here’s Where to Start”

  1. Looking at the full article I was surprised to find all the suggested books on my shelves.

    However, I think they get the history a little wrong and that the real explosion started much earlier, in the late sixties in fact. After the success of Ace Book’s “pirated” version of Tolkien publishers like Ballantine and editors like Lin Carter realised there was a market for fantasy and – in the absence of a good supply of contemporary writers – the back list was ruthlessly raided. So we got reprints of William Morris, Lord Dunsany , James Branch Cabell, E R Eddison, William Hope Hodgson and the like. At the same time there were also lots of reprints and rewrites of pulp authors like Robert E Howard.

    These had mostly been abandoned by the publishing industry, though in today’s new world there are e-book versions of many of the titles. I’d still like to see e-books of some of the titles republished at that time, for example Fletcher Pratt’s fantasies (he wrote rotten SF but two good fantasies, the first of which was book number 1 in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series.)

    The mass of new writing came a bit later, I suspect because readers who loved this stuff turned themselves into authors.

    • The thing is, Betty Ballantine hired Lin Carter to put together an ‘Adult Fantasy’ line in the late sixties, following the mass-market success of Tolkien. Ballantine was the only publisher to go in for backlist in a large way, except for the Sword & Sorcery boom of the earlier seventies, which (I believe) also involved Ace and the infant DAW, and possibly one or two other houses.

      The trouble was, these books (except for Conan and his knockoffs) sold like coldcakes. The Adult Fantasy line was a money-loser, and after a few years Lin Carter was kicked to the curb. The other publishers in the paperback business decided there was no money in fantasy, and stopped trying to find ‘the next Tolkien’.

      Then Betty Ballantine went out and hired a couple of old friends, Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey, to revamp her SF imprint. Judy-Lynn got the science fiction end, and Lester tackled the fantasy.

      Unlike Lin Carter, Lester del Rey was (in his capacity as an acquiring editor) a thoroughgoing lowbrow. He was not interested in Cabell’s ironic wit or Dunsany’s evocative language or Eddison’s rich Elizabethan tapestry. He was the Phil Spector of fantasy; he was looking for stuff that was ‘dumb enough to be a hit’. As far as he was concerned, Terry Brooks’s shameless ripoff of The Lord of the Rings was exactly what the market could be made to swallow, and he decided, as far as possible, to build the Del Rey fantasy line with books like that.

      In 1977, the new Del Rey imprint published The Sword of Shannara, the paperback of The Silmarillion, the first three of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, and the novelization of Star Wars – and they were off to the races. Nobody could argue any longer that Tolkien was sui generis; it became clear, after all, that there was gold in them thar hills, and every mass-market published in America (and a few in Europe) decided to get in on the act.

  2. The author of that article was evidently a Brooks fan. I used to read the publisher advertising in the end pages of paperbacks; they frequently extolled Terry Brooks’s works.

    What’s interesting is, I’ve never seen a copy of any of his books. Not new, not used, not in the library. The subject came up with a couple of local meatspace friends who read SF; they had never seen any either.

    I’m half-convinced publishers use some sophisticated algorithm to determine which books go to what potential markets. Possibly something involving a map, a blindfold, and a handful of darts…

    • “The author of that article was evidently a Brooks fan”

      he is Brook’s web master

    • I assure you that in the late 80’s and early 90’s, you could not throw a rock in a grocery store book section without hitting a Terry Brooks. I suppose there were bookstores that did not stock him, but certainly I saw his stuff down South, out East, and in the Midwest.

    • The Shannara books were some of the first fantasy books I ever read. Along with Redwall, Anne McCaffery, and Peirs Anthony. All from the local libray. I went through that place like Wildfire, then turned around and read most of them again. Brooks is out there, and I keep tripping over his new stuff in the grocery store displays (seeing as we lack an actual bookstore)

    • Terry Brooks is ubiquitous to this day. Where do you live, TRX? I’m not saying they are GREAT, but they are certainly widely available. I’m not sure I’ve ever BEEN in a library that didn’t have Sword of Shannara in both hardback and paperback. MTV just made a TV series about his books last year.

  3. “…and even then, few SF writers were being published compared to today.”


    There may be more SF published today if you include self-published SF writers, but I highly doubt there is more SF being published by mainstream publishers today than there was in the past. I would say mainstream SF has just gotten more bland and generic over the past two decades, more cookie-cutter and paint-by-numbers. The truly visionary SF writers are either already dead or close to it. Asimov, Silverberg, Herbert, Vance, Heinlein, Burroughs, etc….

    • Actually, a lot more SF is being published by mainstream publishers than a few decades ago. They just do a much worse job of it.

      When Safeway torpedoed the rack-jobber business in the 1990s, sales of mass-market paperbacks nosedived. The advent of ebooks more or less finished off that format – and Big Publishing, as we know, cannot oligopolize the supply of ebooks as it could with paperbacks. Publishers adapted by switching the bulk of their new releases to trade paper, cutting print runs (because there were far fewer retail outlets), and printing a lot more titles to keep up volume.

      Result: a blizzard of generic SF titles, published with little or no editorial oversight, no marketing to speak of, in trivial print runs, and a blizzard of trad-pubbed authors that hardly anybody ever got to hear of.

  4. I DO NOT understand how you can compile a list of fantasy books from the 80s to start with and neglect Terry Pratchett and Discworld. The Color of Magic was published in 1983. There were 8 published Discworld books by the end of the 80s.

    The only books on the list I consider worth reading at The Blue Sword and The Anubis Gates.

    • Richard Hershberger

      Or how there can be all this happy talk about Terry Brooks with no mention of Piers Anthony. They were both absolutely wretched writers, but seemingly very popular.

  5. Lyle Blake Smythers

    One of my pet peeves: Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books are science fiction, not fantasy. They are genetically engineered biological creations, and she said herself in interviews that she considered her Pern novels to be SF.

    I recognize that there is sometimes a fine line between the two. Hence the slippery term science fantasy. Whatever.

    • Richard Hershberger

      Meh. If you have fire-breathing dragons you have fantasy, whatever window dressing is hung around it. There was an old idea that fantasy was a lower form than science fiction, so it was not uncommon to add such window dressing. We still see it occasionally today, such as S. M. Stirling, who is prone to incantations of “quantum quantum” to turn fantasy into science fiction.

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