I have been a long time fan of your blog and was today reading through your essay entitled "The Lord of the Rings and the Medieval Literary Tradition". I found it very insightful, yet on a certain point would enjoy more detail. This being your statement that Tolkien created fantasy fiction or more specifically that in his fiction Tolkien found himself "breaking into a new cavern that we today know as fantasy fiction"(emphasis obviously mine).
Anyone with the least bit of knowledge of modern fantasy knows that much is but cloned Tolkien. That being said, I would rather say that Tolkien innovated fantasy fiction in a direction that is most characteristic of the genre today. To imply that he created the genre minimizes the genius of earlier writers such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany or E.R. Eddison, who were in my opinion all brilliant writers that simply did not break into the public scene. That Tolkien brought fantasy to its peak I will whole heartedly proclaim, yet if the writings of the aforementioned authors aren't examples of modern fantasy fiction, then what are they?
The fairly recent 'New Weird' movement in fantasy also illustrates the endurance of darker authors like Mervyn Peake and H.P. Lovecraft. I can understand not thinking the above authors important due to personal aesthetic preferences, yet that should not hinder their proper categorization in the fantasy fiction genre.
I don't mean to minimize the work of other contemporary or early fantasy writers. As you point out, however, much of what passes as fantasy fiction is the army of Tolkien clones.For the creation of a genre, one must have many people following the work of a set of writers. While fantasy geeks like you and me might know of the contributions of these other writers, by-and-large they did not build durable followings of other authors. Their influence, then, far less than Tolkien's (and Robert E. Howard's).On the other end, of course, Tolkien is really discovering fantasy fiction for himself, not following another's work (this, of course, happens relatively often -- that a particular zeitgeist will lead thinkers independently to the same end). If Tolkien is following anyone's school of thought, it is the work of much older, medieval writers of romance (like Chretien de Troyes).
You make a good point. If only a select few are reading your work then it really isn't reaching a large enough audience to leave a genre in its wake. In that sense we can never really look at what is 'big' in a genre to know what is the best. I mean, look at the horror genre! It's not Poe, Lovecraft or any of the masters that are big, it's third rate writers like Stephen King.
Tolkien certainly did follow his own unique path in fiction. While he mentions enjoying the works of Dunsany, and Eddison's classic Worm Ouroboros, he was always sure to mention they were not influences on him. Indeed, I am not sure where, but C.S. Lewis went as far as to say that in their Inklings meetings 'no one influenced Tolkien, he was as hard to influence as a Bandersnatch.'
I completely agree with you about Tolkien's continuation of earlier literary traditions. It was this aspect of his writings that has lead me to discover the great Medieval, and even Classical, writers.
I think Fellows was responding to a hole in my argument that I need to fill in a bit. What does it take to be an artist, and part of a tradition? I take my own position from T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (which can be read in its totality from the link). To crudely summarize Eliot, innovation of the individual talent only has value within a particular artistic tradition. Why does your love poetry from the 10th grade stink so badly? It's because you didn't read poetry, and so didn't have a good understanding of where poetry was coming from.
I understand Fellow's point about not discounting other contemporary and earlier fantasy writers. At the end of the day, though, the other writers he mentioned were admired, but not followed -- and THIS is what it takes to make a genre. The only possible exception in that group is Mervyn Peake, who, strangely enough, makes his dark vision best felt in the area of children's fantasy, in the works of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and the first Harry Potter book (no, I'm not claiming that Rowling had read Peake, but that she was following through Dahl).
On the other hand, we have people like Lovecraft ... who is much loved, much admired, but not much imitated.* Occasionally we'll see people trying to write in Lovecraft's world, using his pantheon, and this might be the beginnings of a "Lovecraft school," but it's too early to be sure. At the moment, I don't see too many fantasy writings exploring the "Unspeakable."
*Full disclosure: I'm among the fans of Lovecraft. I even taught him in a graduate seminar once, linking his "unspeakable" to Freud's "unheimlich," and the two ideas worked quite nicely together.