What is it?

This is a blog dedicated to literary criticism and reviews of the various pulp fantasy novels published by TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, in the 1980s and 1990s. Since there are so many and I’d like a tight focus for this project, I’m starting with the Forgotten Realms, a wildly popular line of novels and D&D game materials that began under TSR and continues to be published up to the present day.

In 1967 a man named Ed Greenwood, inspired by fantasy writers such as Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, started putting together notes and stories for a home-grown fantasy world in which to set his swords-and-sorcery stories. In 1986 TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, wanted to publish a new campaign world to set D&D materials in, so they bought his twenty years of notes and compiled them into the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting “Grey Box” set. It rapidly became the most popular setting for D&D games, spawning a long-running series of adventures, sourcebooks, novels, and even comics. (But thankfully, no movies thus far.)

So what made the Forgotten Realms novels so successful that they were published steadily, hundreds of them, for nearly thirty years? Several reasons, I think. They were cheap paperbacks occupying a lot of shelf space in any bookstore, so they were easy to stumble into. There was a lot of cross-pollination going on where fans of D&D would discover the novels through the game and vice versa. But most importantly, I think they were the literary equivalent of eating at McDonald’s. It was a well-known franchise full of satisfying (if not necessarily technically excellent) stories set in a familiar world by a rotating stable of authors. You’d look at an aisle full of random fantasy novels in a bookstore but end up choosing one with the familiar Forgotten Realms logo on it because, like a person stopping at a McDonald’s drive-through on the way home, at least you knew what you were going to get.

I remember them fondly, but as I’m very suspicious of nostalgia in general, I’m not sure whether I’m remembering them fondly because they were actually any good or because I was a different and less critical person back then. Chronicling the experience of rereading them from my modern perspective may be a good way to look back on them without being misled by nostalgia. And there are a lot of questions I’m curious to explore along the way. How does the media we absorb when we’re younger affect us? What messages do we absorb from it? How do pop-cultural works from three decades ago hold up against modern cultural sensibilities?

Why would you even do this?

Why not?

The inevitable response from some people will go something like this: “But they’re just trashy paperback novels! Why would you subject something so trivial to any sort of serious thought?” To which I’d reply: Nothing is so trivial that it doesn’t deserve to be considered critically. Every work, no matter how ostensibly silly, becomes part of our cultural consciousness and is worth thinking about. Thinking deeply about a work is a compliment, not an attack — I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t to some extent a labour of love.

Why these particular books?

A couple of reasons. First, it gives the project some much-needed focus, since the realm of “all pulp fantasy novels” is much too large. If I restrict myself to a limited list of books, it gives me a clear plan and keeps me on track.

Second, these novels were widely distributed and widely read, so they were a part of popular culture for quite a few people. Odds are there’s at least a few folks out there who will find this interesting enough to read!

Can you do some particular book next?

Sorry, but I’ve got a plan. I’m planning to work my way through the Forgotten Realms books in chronological order first, although since there’s so damn many of them and the point of this is to examine things people are nostalgic about with a critical eye, I might focus on the classic TSR era and stop around the time of the TSR-to-WotC changeover in the late 1990s. If I get that far and I don’t feel like I’ve said everything I have to say, I’ll start looking at books from various other campaign settings: Dragonlance, Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, et cetera.