Old Classics and New Stars

Someone on a forum I'm on posted the question of what's more important from a professional standpoint (as opposed to simply reading for pleasure): to be well-read in the classics, or to be well-read in the current state of speculative fiction. I certainly try for both, and I think there's a danger in being well-read in only one of those two options. I've run into writers who are steeped in the pulp-era stories, have read all the classics from that period and most of the lesser known works, but they know nothing of the ways contemporary writers have taken some of those tropes and re-envisioned them. And their writing ends up coming off as pastiche, pleasing to others who love, say, Conan and nothing else, but they don't attract other readers.

And I've certainly known writers who think classic means Feist's work from the early 80s (or whenever it was). (Nothing against Feist, by the way--his books were probably my first after Tolkien, so there's a sentimental fondness there even as I recognize them as not being the type of thing I have any interest in writing.) Their only familiarity with fantasy or speculative fiction is in bloated series, in things that came along after fantasy became codified with strict and silly restrictions and overly influenced by the strictures of gaming. And their work feels shallow, pale.

Some years ago I read an awful book. Absolutely horrid, by a bestselling fantasy author (the only thing of that author I've read). It made me despair about the current state of fantasy and set me on a path of focusing on the classics...or at least the early touchstones of the genre (sometimes I think we overuse that word classic). It's also what inspired me to take my writing much more seriously, but that's a tangent.

I think that served me well, but I also know that I wouldn't be at all the writer I am if I wasn't aware of some of the more recent works--there's some incredibly exciting things being done in the genre today, and often I feel woefully behind when I go over to the FBS forum and see all the books on my to-read list that others discuss (I finally got Valente's In the Night Garden from the library today). But I can't imagine being a speculative writer and not at least being aware, for example, of what a writer like China Mieville does with fantasy (Perdido Street Station was an absolute paradigm shift for me, even if there are other books I think are better). I know it's hard to find time to read when you want to use spare time to write, so I wouldn't say it or anything else is required reading. But oh...you better at least be aware of books like that. Skim a chapter at the bookstore, read a few reviews, and pay some attention to discussions about books like these.

And then hop back to Dunsany, LeGuin, Tolkien and Peake now and then too. (Not to even mention the broader field of classics, which contain many that are well worth the time.)