High fantasy fiction began with Tolkien and continues strong in such YA favorites as Christopher Paolini's Eragon books and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, writes Adam Gopnik in a great article in the December 5 New Yorker. Gopnik explores what a strange creature high fantasy is:archetypes battling in a vaguely medieval world with a vast imagined history and culture. Sometimes, especially for boys, learning the details of that history and geography can be as important as the story itself. (I can attest to this: when Damian was little, he derived great pleasure from mastering the confusing, semi-Polynesian cultural history of the Bionicle series of books and toys put out by Lego.)
Gopnik suggests that in Tolkien, the sense of mythic history and loss (gone are the days of Numenor) substitutes for the psychological subtlety and ambivalence we expect in modern realist literature. Tolkien's modern descendants bring back ordinary psychology, but they still ride on the mythic. Gopnik doesn't have much good to say about either Meyer's ("awkward") or Paolini's ("tedious") writing, so he looks elsewhere for the source of their power to delight their readers.
He comes back to an explanation that I've seen used also for why dystopias are so popular in current teen fiction: it's just a heightening of how kids experience their real lives. High school is an arbitrary, cruel social system that suppresses freedom and converts good people into outcasts: there's your dystopia. Similarly, Gopnik says, young girls are often "torn between the cool, sensitive boy from the strange, affluent family and the dishy athletic boy from across the tracks." The Twilight series is real life ennobled by scary symbols. As for Eragon, the series represents life as a series of ordeals and tests. The books are not about a boy becoming a man so much as they are about a boy learning to ride dragons and do other cool stuff, navigating among helpers and hostile impediments. This, Gopnik says, sounds like high school.
My handicap in responding to this analysis is that I haven't read either the Twilight or the Eragon books. (Masterful writing is part of what I need to keep turning hundreds of pages.) But there's food for thought here. One project I have simmering on a not-very-far-back burner is a book called The Beechwood Flute that comes close to being a fantasy of this type. There are no elves or dwarves or wizards - I really think there's very little new to be done with those tropes - but there is an invented history and culture at little more than a medieval level of development. And the hero, Kiran, does undergo a series of ordeals, all arising in the natural course of his life. The ordeals as a way of exploring courage and how a boy's conception of courage develops as he becomes a man. I want to bring the best of psychology and mythic echoes together in The Beechwood Flute, and I want to do it with writing that is neither tedious nor awkward but a pleasure to read. Polishing that book is one of my goals for 2012. I'll let you know how it goes.