What Fantasy Fiction means (to me)

So I’ve posted a couple of short stories which I have tagged as fantasy. They are stories I submitted to spec-fic ezines as ‘fantasy’ pieces, but I think the term requires a little investigation.

Inevitably this discussion will have to deal with “the ghetto of genre”, but I like to think this is less an issue now than in the recent past. Where once, no so long ago, genre-fiction was something enjoyed by niche readerships it seems now that broad audiences are more accepting of genre-fiction. This manifests in two ways.

Firstly works of genre-fiction are more successful and reach larger audiences. The obvious examples here are “Harry Potter” (Magic Fantasy), “Twilight” (Supernatural Romance Fantasy) and “Hunger Games” (Post-Apolcolyptic Sci-Fi). “Game of Thrones” (Epic Fantasy*) could be added to that in terms of the NY Best-sellers list, and the Showcase adaptation is broadening the exposure still further.

Historically it has been harder for Fantasy to reach such audiences. “The Lord of the Rings” is of course the prototype of the popular Fantasy story, but its readership always carried something of a social stigma, until the success of the Peter Jackson adaptations opened its appeal to a new generation audience.

The enduring appeal of comic-book super-heroism is successful Fantasy, but until recently ‘comics’ were considered childish at best and geek at worst, perhaps (despite the Pulitzer won by “Maus” and the Hugo by “Watchmen”) they still are.

Further back we have the success of “Star Trek” (Soft Sci-Fi) and of course “Star Wars” (Sci-Fi / Fantasy), again with accompanying social stigma being recently reduced, in the first case by the grittier JJ Abrams re-boot and the latter by the prequels.

There was of course a time before genre so defined a text, so we have the canonical status of the speculative fantasies of traditional story-telling; Grimm’s tales for instance, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Wonderland” the Gothic fantasies of Poe, the incipient Science-Fiction of Mary Shelley and R.L. Stevenson, whereas the weird fantasies of Lovecraft and Kafka, and the Golden Age Sci-Fi of Asimov, Clarke, P.K. Dick and Heinlein have achieved comparable respect only within their ‘ghetto’.

Secondly we see the breaking down of genre barriers so that genres are combined, created, morphed, mangled and ignored by authors. China Mieville famously called Tolkein “The wen on the arse of Fantasy literature” (though he has tempered that rage a little more recently) before going on to define the genres of “New Weird” and “Urban Fantasy”.  He wasn’t the only one to criticise Tolkein’s influence on Fantasy (and the influences of other conservative writers – Lewis springs immediately to mind). Perhaps as a result of shaking off the ‘stultifying influence’ of “Rings” (and others), contemporary authors are exploring the limits of what ‘Fantasy’ can encompass (or challenging the value of genres all-together).

Seth Grahame Smith has found a new use for classic literature. Diana Gabaldon uses the Sci-Fi trope of time-travel to create a bare-chested  Romance set against a Low Fantasy milieu.  Neil Gaiman brings myth to the strip-malls and freeways of the American road-trip.  Richard K Morgan creates Noir Sci-fi and an Epic Fantasy (which may actually be a Sci-Fi) complete with magical swords, non-human races, magic… and protaganists who are by turns gay, drug-abusing, sociopathic and decidedly anti-heroic. Joe Abercrombie drags his ‘heroes’ through a formulaic Quest Fantasy… torturing them and any other character that takes his interest along the way and finally depositing them in the most unexpected places.

How then do we define ‘fantasy’?

Tzvetan Todorov identified two modes of story-telling within ‘the fantastic’: ‘the marvellous’, and ‘the uncanny’.

He first defines ‘the fantastic’ as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” He differentiates ‘the marvellous’ from ‘the uncanny’ by how they explain this event.

In ‘the uncanny’ the events can be explained within the laws of nature, perhaps through some fault of the character (or the reader) in understanding them.

In ‘the marvellous’ the events cannot be explained within the laws of physics, and are therefore accepted (b the character and presumably the readers) as supernatural.

I would like to think that my Fantasy writing avoids both the uncanny and the marvelous, or is perhaps different things to different readers.  As a writer I would like to keep my reader in that state of hesitation, in Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, for as long as the inevitable winnowing of narrative progress allows.

And so what does all this mean for me, the aspiring writer with a love of Fantasy Fiction?

I think it means what I want it to mean. I think it means freedom. Genre is not the ghetto it once was, or was once feared to be… Fantasy is a rich landscape in which I’m free to explore and perhaps even claim my own little plot of land, and to build upon it whatever structure I like.

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