This holiday I've spent clearing out my parents' old house. Part of this process has involved me appraising my old books (of which there are hundreds and hundreds) and trying to decide which can be thrown out and which can go to the local library or charity shop or whatever. I came across Leiber's Ill Met at Lankhmar, a collection from the early 2000s which brings together, I think, "Swords and Deviltry" and "Swords Against Death".
Re-reading these old stories, it occurs to me that you may as well not read any high fantasy series published in the last 30 years or so if you've read Leiber. I use the words "high fantasy" advisedly, because although the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories are more sword & sorcery than high fantasy, almost all high fantasy stuff that was published in the 80s, 90s and 00s was a footnote on what Leiber was writing in the 70s - from the back-story to both men (every main character in every epic fantasy series has a tragic origin story like Grey Mouser) to the sassy, just-as-good-as-you female leads who are just dim reflections of Vlana, to the innocent-girl-turned-unlikely-heroine female leads who are just dim reflections of Ivrian, to the strong themes of revenge, to the very un-Tolkienesque prevalence of magic (divided, as so often the case, into 'good magic' and 'bad magic')... It makes the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories seem like old hat, until you remember that no, it's just that most modern fantasy series were old hat before they were even conceived.
A while ago, because I felt like being controversial, I made the statement on some forum or other that I though that the Dragonlance books are probably just as good as most of the things in Appendix N. Although I said that with mischievous intentions, I also think it's true. The Dragonlance books are not great, but for a 13 year old boy they are good entertainment, and that is really the most you can say for most of the Michael Moorcock books, most of Lovecraft's fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Phillip Jose Farmer, etc. People in the D&D blogosphere might not like to admit it, but the best you can say about a lot of the writings of a lot of those writers is that they pass the time and have some interesting ideas in. Admittedly there are a number books/authors on Appendix N that I've never read, but even if those works were all hidden masterpieces it would still place Weis & Hickman somewhere in the middle-to-lower rung. In a weird sort of a way, they probably deserve more credit; I know this doesn't apply universally, but I generally think of great books as being those which have moved me emotionally - and I have to confess that I was very moved emotionally as an adolescent reading about the death of Sturm or Caramon's efforts to stop his mad brother destroying the universe. Much more so, indeed, than I ever was reading about Elric's exploits, fun though they are.
Which fantasy books are really worth reading? Given that you have a finite amount of time in your life and there are so many other books out there? There's a novel by Jonathan Franzen called Strong Motion, which like all of Franzen's books is beautifully and sensitively written, if somewhat appalling at the same time; in it there is fairly extended section which describes the evolution of the music collection of one of the characters, Dr. Reneé Seitchek. She starts off with a large collection of punk music on old cassettes, but as time goes by and she gets older and older and more jaded her collection starts to dwindle and she starts just compiling mix tapes with some of her favourite tracks on...but as time goes by and she gets older still she starts to grow tired even of them, and she ends up just taking segments of single tracks that she likes and running them together, so that she finishes off compressing all of the music in the world that she likes into a single cassette or two. I sometimes feel like that about fantasy fiction. Give me a single 1000 page volume containing the distilled essence of Vance, Wolfe, and Tolkien and that may very well do me for the rest of my days.