A couple of weeks ago, I posted a tweet which ended up developing into a snap poll with over 450 responses. The question? Here it goes:
Please help me with a quick experiment to inform a discussion with our #Fantasy PhD students tomorrow: if I asked you to name the 3 best Fantasy authors of all time EXCLUDING #Tolkien, who would you list?@TolkienSociety @FanLit @UofGFantasy @FantasyArtStudi @BritFantasySoc pic.twitter.com/mXNAV8Gju7
— Dr Dimitra Fimi (@Dr_Dimitra_Fimi) May 4, 2020
As most of you know, I am Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow, where I work alongside three other colleagues who research and teach on fantasy: Dr Rob Maslen, Dr Matt Sangster, and Dr Rhys Williams. At Glasgow we also have the world’s only Masters in Fantasy, and an amazing community of approximately 30 PhD students working on various aspects of fantasy literature and culture. In normal times, we meet our PhD students as a group once a month (over lunch), to discuss work in progress, go through a forthcoming paper, share and discuss a piece of scholarship, etc. As soon as the COVID19 crisis forced the University into lockdown, we moved these meetings online and made them more frequent (once every two weeks) to maintain as much as possible a sense of community in a time of isolation.
In these online meetings we often assign a particular essay/journal article/book extract to discuss. A few weeks ago, the assigned reading was Patrick Moran’s recent The Canons of Fantasy (Cambridge University Press). I had all sorts of issues with this book (no space or time to discuss those now) but one particular extract just struck me as particularly provocative:
The canon of fantasy has a Tolkien-shaped problem. In the eyes of the general public, the Oxford don embodies the genre; he is often the only fantasy author that people know. The popularity of Peter Jackson’s films has only heightened this hegemony: no other adaptation of a fantasy work has reached such a wide audience. Of course, fantasy fans can name dozens of other authors who feel as important to them as Tolkien, maybe more so, be it Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert E. Howard, T. H. White, Michael Moorcock, George R. R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robin Hobb, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis and many others. But ask three fantasy fans who is the greatest fantasy writer besides Tolkien, and chances are they will give three different names. (p. 25)
Now, this sounded like a challenge to me. I will leave aside the question of whether Tolkien would actually top all the polls currently on who is the best(-known) fantasy author (again, that’s a discussion for another day and post). What really didn’t quite ring true for me was the suggestion that no clear “top” fantasy authors (apart from Tolkien) would naturally arise. My first instinctual response was that – whomever I could imagine I may have asked – Ursula K. Le Guin would come at the top. I was just absolutely certain about that, and willing to put my neck out.
This hopefully explains my Twitter question above, especially the request for three authors and no more (and I know this made it very hard for some people). What I think I had hoped for was perhaps 40-50 responses, and my hypothesis was that at least a couple of fantasy authors would come top at a good distance from others, disproving the statement above (and I was definitely expecting Le Guin to be the top one). So I just released my question to the Twittersphere, and – as per above – I just ended up doing nothing for about 24 hours other than recording and counting (and double-counting!) the responses I got (yes, 450 is a lot more than 50!)!!! And here are the results:
Poll results alert! Just over 450 respondents. Question: pick your 3 best #fantasy authors of all time EXCLUDING J.R.R. #Tolkien. 222 authors listed. Pie chart below, names of top 20 on the right. See THREAD for breakdown of votes for top 20!@UofGFantasy @FanLit @TolkienSociety https://t.co/tbyMl85Bt5 pic.twitter.com/TKyIoZKlsp
— Dr Dimitra Fimi (@Dr_Dimitra_Fimi) May 5, 2020
So, let’s have a look at the pie chart (which also includes the top 20 fantasy authors respondents voted for) more closely:
As you will see, we most definitely have two clear winners: Ursula K. Le Guin, with 171 votes, and Terry Pratchett with 111 votes. So main hypothesis vindicated (hooray!) but also a clear picture of not only a top 1 spot, but 2 top spots. After that, we have 4 authors in the 3rd spot territory, with votes around the 45-50 mark: C.S. Lewis (53), Neil Gaiman (50), Robin Hobb (45) and Diana Wynne Jones (also 45). The 4th spot is taken by 4 authors in the 25-30 votes range: Philip Pullman (31), George R.R. Martin (28), J.K. Rowling (26), and Brandon Sanderson (23). And that completes the top 10.
The next 10 spots are taken by authors who attracted roughly 15-20 votes: Susan Cooper (20), Alan Garner (18), Guy Gavriel Kay (17), Mervyn Peake (17), Lord Dunsany (16), N.K. Jemisin (15), Robert Jordan (15) Patricia McKillip (15), Susanna (14) and Michael Moorcock (14).
I am also giving below a table with the top 30 fantasy authors as voted by my respondents (actually 33, as there were many ties):
Now, a few caveats: this was a snap poll and not a properly-designed academic survey. I have no data on the demographics of my respondents (I could, perhaps, work out locations from Twitter handles, though this isn’t always reliable, but I can say nothing about age, gender, etc.) At the same time, there was a strong self-selection bias: the Tweet was posted on my personal profile and was naturally first seen by my followers, and also by the followers of the accounts I tagged (@TolkienSociety, @FanLit, @UofGFantasy, @FantasyArtStudi and @BritFantasySoc). The original post was re-tweeted a lot (Twitter Analytics said that it has 54,527 impressions and 3,366 total engagements) but still, the Twittersphere is a limited pool with its own demographic preferences.
Still, I think the results I got from this small sample were really interesting and at least worth thinking about. A few points that seem important to me:
- Ursula K. Le Guin emerged as the undisputed winner with over 50 votes difference from the next author. Terry Pratchett was also a clear runner-up, with over 50 votes difference from the next group of authors. This seems to at least somewhat contradict the argument that after Tolkien we’d have a big number of authors scoring roughly equally. I am wondering how the results would differ if Tolkien was not excluded, but, again, that’s a question for another day (for what it’s worth, I think that Le Guin and Pratchett would still be 2nd and 3rd respectively, with a clear difference).
- There is well-balanced mix between writers of fantasy for adults and children’s fantasy writers. Fantasy is a broad church in this regard, and the differentiation between books for adults and books for children isn’t as sharp as in other genres.
- I was really pleased to see one of the earliest fantasy authors make it to the top 20: Lord Dunsany was very influential in his time and clearly remains so!
- The list is dominated by UK- and USA-based authors. I think this is more a result of the demographics of my respondents (my feeling – and it’s only a feeling, mind you – is that most people who responded lived in the UK or the USA). Fantasy writers not writing in English who were nominated included: Michael Ende (actually made it to the top 30), Astrid Lindgren, Italo Calvino, Cornelia Funke, Jorge Luis Borges, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
- The vast majority of respondents interpreted fantasy as modern fantasy, i.e. did not consider the authors of what Clute and Grant have called “taproot texts”. Still a few of those were also nominated, including: Homer, Aristophanes, the anonymous authors of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Shakespeare.
Last but not least, it was wonderful to see some important fantasy authors, artists, and editors, add their response to my snap poll. Here are a few responses that I think I, at least, would like to take note of:
Hope Mirrlees, Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip.
— Terri Windling (@terriwindling) May 5, 2020
I knew it! Damn!
I’m going to go with living authors as an act of support & encouragement for all creative souls who fear they must be dead before they’ll matter. So I choose Frances Hardinge, Juliet Marillier & Naomi Novik!
— Kate Forsyth (@KateForsyth) May 4, 2020
Ursula Le Guin
Diana Wynne Jones
— Piers Torday (@PiersTorday) May 4, 2020
— Sophie Anderson (@sophieinspace) May 4, 2020