"Yes – 90% of fantasy is crap," he tells me. "And so is 90% of science fiction and 90% of mystery fiction and 90% of literary fiction. But I don't think the mere presence of an elf means it can't be a great book.
I have to admit that whereas I read an awful lot of fantasy in my teens, I can hardly bear to read it anymore, unless it's parodic or brilliant: Terry Pratchett does it for me, especially the children's ones like Tiffany Aching because he's clearly an emotional lefty at heart, as does Sheri S. Tepper (eco-feminist with a great turn of phrase). I find myself agreeing with C. S. Lewis (whose work I simply cannot abide other than Surprised By Joy), who during a reading by his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, supposedly burst out with 'Oh no, not another fucking elf!" (in actual fact it was another don, Hugo Dyson). I admire Tolkien's industry and linguistic skills, but the dialogue, plotting and characterisation are all awful.
This is Lewis on his childhood - wonderful (if you exclude his mother's death when he was nine, and growing up in gloomy Belfast):
"I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also of endless books," Lewis wrote in his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy (1955). "There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most empathically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves..."
(If you want to read a fairly sympathetic account of the slightly odd Oxford academics who invented modern fantasy, read Carpenter's The Inklings. I've drifted hard towards the hard SF subgenre: proper physics not pointy ears.
The problem is that fantasy is in many ways far more difficult than realist writing. To escape the shadows of Tolkien (someone else I now find almost unreadable) yet create convincing fantastic worlds is really challenging: you've got to suspend people's disbelief while making the existence of various magical creatures and far-fetched scenarios convincing. Space opera, in a sense, is easier: life aboard a cramped spaceship can be nicked from the naval novel tradition to achieve a sense of realism, and SF is always about the concerns of our contemporary society - DNA, genetic engineering, racial conflict, terrorism, environmental collapse - it's all there. Fantasy presumably taps into our concerns too, but too much of it is distracting: silly names, stupid dialogue, repressed sexuality dealt with badly, showing off. Far too much of it simply takes the established generic paradigms (elves as ethereal, evil to be vanquished blah blah blah) and does nothing interesting with it. Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth was one of the profoundest disappointments of my recent reading history: who'd have thought that a massive novel set in the last period of human existence before the planet became uninhabitable could be both boring and whimsical?
I've posted that XKCD comic before, but he's just right. I'm sure I've read lots of good fantasy, but few pop into my head. Peake's Gormenghast hardly counts as fantasy. Actually, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods do come to mind. The Jasper Fforde novels are pretty good but fit under parody and literary humour really. Pryce's Aberystwyth Mon Amour series is set in an alternative history Wales (dramatised on Radio Wales and no longer available, damn their eyes), but it's really crime parody. China Miéville's New Gothic Fantasy novels are dark, witty, sometimes horrifying and highly political. Gwyneth Jones is one of the living authors I most respect, but I'm not sure her work is fantasy, really. What else? Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y is wonderful: sex, metamorphoses and literary theory in one witty romp. Jo Walton's Among Others is a profound exploration of our psychological dramas, reading strategies, identity formation and post-industrial Wales - highly recommended. Michael Moorcock is, I'm convinced, going to be one of the cultural highlights of the twentieth century when people look back in a couple of hundred years - like a countercultural, naughty version of Ballard and Wyndham (see also Alan Moore).
Children in general get a much better deal: Pullman of course, Melvin Burgess's Bloodtide series retelling the Icelandic Völsung saga in post-apocalyptic London, John Masefield (The Box of Delights is a chilly, Christmassy masterpiece), Alan Garner (totally wonderful), Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. I'm going to put a word in for J. K. Rowling here too. Yes, her genius is for pulling together very familiar tropes from pre-existing children's literature (hello Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch, Diana Wynne Jones - who passed away recently - and Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick amongst others) but she's funnier than she's given credit for and she has a true gift for conveying the complexities of childhood friendships and enmities. The Wind in the Willows is a book I re-read every year, and of course there's Alice. Oh, and The Princess Bride, one of the funniest, most knowing and postmodern novels I've read in years. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series is gripping (badly served, as many authors are, by poor-quality films). Peter Dickinson's The Changes is strange and terrifying: the TV adaptation is sadly only available in chunks on Youtube, but the novel is even better - it took many years of guesswork and hunting before I tracked it down. Then there's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (early eco-children's fantasy) and Mary Poppins: the novels are a long way removed from Disney's sugary confection (which author P. L. Travers hated - she left the showing in tears).
If you fondly remember lots of these children's novels but have a darker sensibility, get yourself Alan Moore and Melanie Gebbie's Lost Girls: a deliberately pornographic graphic novel tracing - in three volumes - Alice, Dorothy (Oz) and Wendy (Peter Pan) as they explore their traumatic pasts and offer each other sexual and psychological solace in a hotel on the eve of World War I.
OK, I seem to have become quite distracted. What am I saying? Oh yes, that sword-and-sorcery novels are absolute unmitigated bilge (I'm looking at you, The Sword of Shannara, though my inner 14-year old is crying), but actually, there's some quite good stuff out there. Damn it. But my point remains. Perhaps when you're 14 and the real world looks pretty gloomy and you're trying to work out what you believe, adventure stories in which good triumphs against evil (or, shockingly, evil triumphs in a few rare cases) is irresistible. It may be a boy thing: I don't think girls (sadly) are encouraged to consider the Big Issues, and definitely not meant to fantasise about martial derring-do. They're (or were) given stuff to make them worry about breasts and boyfriends and fitting-in and learning to behave. I think I was better off with fantasy actually.