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October, 2008 : Feature:

Is it the Age of Fantasy?

Fantasy seems to be everywhere these days—in the movie theaters, on the best-seller lists, in the social phenomenon of Pottermania. Although Harry Potter has ended, and after ten years has even fallen off the New York Times best-seller list, fantasy itself has not disappeared from their ranks. A glance at the current fiction best-sellers at the time of this writing shows two works of fantasy among the top ten by Terry Brooks and Christine Feehan (number one), as well as one by a writer who made her name in fantasy and has turned her hand to science fiction with her latest book (Stephenie Meyer).

Despite its popularity, the genre of fantasy tends to be ignored by literary critics even more than science fiction is. Even when a critic purports to be doing a study of fantasy, as in Lucie Armitt's Theorising the Fantastic, the focus is on novels such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Doris Lessing's Briefing For a Descent Into Hellfantastic works with status as literature. Armitt, while recognizing subversive tendencies in literary fantasy, sees contemporary genre fantasy as consolationist wish-fulfillment (60). More than ten years prior to Armitt's study, Ann Swinfen bemoaned precisely this attitude on the part of critics in her aptly named In Defence of Fantasy:

The modern fantasy novel might hardly seem to need a defence, were it not for the curiously ambivalent position it occupies in the contemporary literary scene. ... some critics and academics condemn the whole genre with a passion which seems to have its roots in emotion rather than objective critical standards (1).

Part of the problem may be in the way the individual reader or critic defines "fantasy" and "genre fantasy." John Clute and John Grant, for example, define genre fantasy as "almost always high fantasy, heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery ... in Fantasyland" (396). We, on the other hand, would like to propose a different way of defining "genre fantasy." "Fantasy" as such is a broad trend in literature with roots in the oldest epic works, taking modern impulses from the Gothic novel, and demonstrating significant presence in modern literature in sub-genres like magic realism. "Genre fantasy," by contrast, can be seen more as a marketing category: the fantasy books on the shelves in the SFF section of bookstores, and including any number of sub-genres, all of them together still a subset of the broader category of fantasy. This would include high fantasy, heroic fantasy, and sword and sorcery, of course, but also any book with the word "Fantasy" on the spine or sold or marketed as fantasy.

Even seen in this broader way, however, "genre fantasy" still has drawn surprisingly little critical attention for all its recent publishing success. On the academic front, the books in the Greenwood Press series "Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy" have done much to improve the situation, but they remain the exception rather than the rule—and the majority of the studies concentrate on science fiction. For the most part, fantasy still suffers from critical disinterest and overgeneralization and is often viewed as a basically conservative genre, both in the sense of its conventions and its moral world view—escapist literature set in an alternative world where good and evil are well-defined and easily recognized. (1)

One reason for this may be in the well-known conservatism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of the most influential writers in twentieth century fantasy. Another reason, however, stems from equating reliance on tried and true literary conventions on the part of the writer of fantasy with conservatism of readers, a facile and flawed jump in logic. To quote Jonathan McCalmont: "This is usually explained away as a result of the drive towards accessibility and immersion or escapism but, I would argue, it is also a result of the conservatism of the audience and a value in its own right." (2) The quest-type plot described so uncharitably by McCalmont elsewhere has, however, been around for thousands of years, from the epic tale of Gilgamesh to the Odyssey to the many examples in medieval romance. McCalmont acknowledges this but sweeps it aside, saying that fantasy writers dilute the monomyth.

Archetype, quest, or diluted monomyth—given the sales numbers, fantasy obviously holds a large appeal for millions readers and movie-goers these days. While single-title fantasy accounts for only about 10.48% of fiction sold (3), thirteen of the top twenty grossing films of all time are fantasy, while most of the rest are science fiction. (4) If it is not basic intellectual laziness and conservatism that is sending them—and us—flocking to fantasy, what is it?

Theories of Why We Read Fantasy

Many writers are familiar with Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or if not, with Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. In his study of comparative mythology and religion, Campbell identified a common structure in the mythological adventure of the hero which he summarized in three words: "separation—initiation—return" (30). Of course, when viewed in detail, there are many more steps on this archetypal journey which has also come to be commonly referred to as the quest narrative. Creative minds as diverse as George Lucas and Margaret Atwood have consciously used a structure based on Campbell's archetype; the blockbuster Star Wars is based on it, as is the literary feminist novel Surfacing. Long after these successes, Vogler wrote his book as a kind of road map for writers, summarizing the most important points and skipping the examples from myth and religion, but emphasizing the universal appeal of this structure: "All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies" (3).

But if this "hackish" plot (McCalmont) of the monomyth is not only common to fantasy and is instead a universal narrative structure, it can hardly be used as an argument for the popularity of fantasy—either in a positive or a negative sense. Another characteristic of fantasy which is often cited for its appeal is nostalgia for a squeaky-clean, non-existent past: "Nostalgia ... is the dominant feeling of the fantasy genre... that spic-and-span Medieval Europe that's populated by swords and sorcerers and so forth." (5) Unfortunately, many of the works of fantasy that are selling so well these days have very little to do with medieval Europe. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga, for example, which is now leading the New York Times bestseller list in YA series fiction, is a new-kid-in-school-vampire-love-story. Dark urban fantasy in general is one of the hottest contemporary sub-genres in fantasy. And even in George R.R. Martin's best-selling Song of Ice and Fire series, which does have settings reminiscent of medieval Europe, very little is antiseptic.

On the other hand, fantasy does often contain a sense of setting things to right—even when it is dark and gritty. This ranges from the clean, crisp nobility of Tolkien's heroes (even amid their own shifting allegiances) to the gritty faux-Medieval realism of Martin's works to the urban fantasies in the vein of Patty Briggs and Carrie Vaughn. This is a trait which it shares with mystery, where the sleuth stereotypically restores normalcy to the disrupted community of the story through resolution of the crime, but not necessarily with science fiction, which often uses other story structures than that of the hero who goes out, solves a problem, and restores a community. The "what's-going-on-here" story, for example, very common in science fiction that deals with alien worlds and societies, is more difficult than fantasy, mystery or thriller to squeeze into the "universal" narrative of the monomyth.

Rather than making a distinction based on the narrative structure or the moral world of fantasy, perhaps it makes more sense to examine the role of the protagonist in fantasy literature. A literary critic deeply indebted to Campbell's work on myth, Northrop Frye, attempted in his Anatomy of Criticism to develop an all-encompassing theory of archetypes, modes, symbols, and genres in narrative. The theory of modes is based on the "hero's power of action" (33) and is divided into myth, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic. Many of the protagonists of fantasy fall into the mode of romance(6):

If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established (33).

Perhaps part of the appeal of fantasy can be found in this elevated role of the hero or heroine. Following Frye, the protagonist of fantasy is by his or her very nature a positive figure for us to identify with—one of us but also special.

The Relationship Between Everyday Reality and Fantasy

Fantasy is selling very well these days, in the form of books and games and movies, but it is fantasy of many different types and sub-genres, and most of the biggest sellers don't conform to the stereotype of the Tolkien knock-off. Rather than nostalgia, the appeal may be more in the unreal and the exotic and the contrast with the everyday. We have as little expectation of meeting a hauntingly handsome vampire in the high school cafeteria as Bella in Meyer's Twilight, but this kind of clash with the strange and the different can bring the primary world into sharper focus. The Harry Potter series, too, begins in our world—the real world—and takes us from there to the secondary world, in a fantasy of escape from parental control.

Fantasy brings magic into our world, and while of course very few of us actually believe in magic, the work of fantasy itself does. Fantasy has a narrative logic much post-modern literature does not have. It displays a trust in narrative and the narrated world—in much the same way most genre fiction does, be it science fiction or thriller or romance. And it displays a trust in its heroes and heroines, who are confronted with a problem and go out of their way to solve it—also the case in much genre fiction.

The single consistent difference between fantasy and all these other genres, including science fiction, is that fantasy introduces the marvelous into the narrative. Science fiction has technical marvels and secondary worlds which are also intended to induce a sense of wonder in the reader, but according to its own internal logic, the wonders should be rational and scientific. Perhaps in the present era of skepticism, the protagonist of fantasy who undertakes the hero's journey has more freedom to return bringing a message of renewal or cleansing or hope—it's fantasy, after all. We don't have to believe in it except between the covers of the book.

But when we do believe it, when the fantasy gels into something as real as the living world around the reader, then the true magic occurs. The doors open to our sensawunda and the mundane concerns of life fade like the firelight reflected on a departing hero's blade. The huge attraction of such stories in these days of miracles and wonders from the laboratory may well justify us in calling this an Age of Fantasy.

Footnotes

  1. As proof that this assumption is still alive and well, see Jonathan McCalmont, "Conservative Fantasy, the son of." (http://www.sfdiplomat.net/sf_diplomat/2007/08/conservative-fa.html)
  2. "The Aesthetics of Fantasy - Part One." (http://www.sfdiplomat.net/sf_diplomat/2007/02/the_aesthetics_.html)
  3. For market numbers in genre, see our article in last month's IROSF, "SF and Fantasy: Siamese Twins or a Marriage of Convenience?" (http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10461)
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films
  5. See Chris Ritter, "The Fantasy of Fantasy." (http://critter597.blogspot.com/2008/02/fantasy-of-fantasy.html)
  6. "Romance" here of course is not referring to the contemporary genre of the love story, but rather to the kind of epic romance common in medieval literature and including among others the vast cycle of Arthurian tales.

Works Referenced

Armitt, Lucie. Theorising the Fantastic. London and New York: Oxford University Press. 1999.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. (1949) Second Edition, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press: 1968.

Clute, John and John Grant, eds. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. (1957) New York: Atheneum. 1967.

Garner, Dwight. "Ten Years Later, Harry Potter Vanishes From the Best-Seller List" (http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/ten-years-later-harry-potter-vanishes-from-the-best-seller-list/?scp=4&sq=bestseller&st=cse)

McCalmont, Jonathan. "The Aesthetics of Fantasy—Part One." SF Diplomat (Blog), February 25, 2007 (http://www.sfdiplomat.net/sf_diplomat/2007/02/the_aesthetics_.html)

---. "Conservative Fantasy, the son of." SF Diplomat (Blog), August 28, 2007 (http://www.sfdiplomat.net/sf_diplomat/2007/08/conservative-fa.html)

Ritter, Chris. "The Fantasy of Fantasy." Techritter (blog), February 25, 2008 (http://critter597.blogspot.com/2008/02/fantasy-of-fantasy.html)

Swinfen, Ann. In Defence of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature Since 1945. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1985.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Film Productions. 1992.


Copyright © 2008, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

Oct 7, 05:28 by IROSF
Express thoughts on this subject here.

Article is here.
Oct 7, 10:21 by Robert Urell
Sorry, but this seems just more of the same "they don't like us because they're snobs," only dressed up with footnotes. Genre fantasy doesn't get much respect or attention because there's not much of substance in most of it. Stephanie Meyers' books don't "bring the primary world into sharper focus," they explode the boundary between the real and the not-real by pandering to a particular audience's bias. The results of this are evident. You can only escape reality for as long as you refuse to acknowledge its hold upon you. Same with HARRY POTTER, same with anything written by Terry Brooks, et al. The shop worn perjorative "Tolkien knockoff" aside, the genre fantasy that sells best performs no higher a function than "Weird Al" Yankovic parodies and Twinkies: they amuse.
Jack Cady, in THE AMERICAN WRITER, demarcated two general story types by a hybrid reader response method: entertainment and amusement. Entertainment, says Cady, both imparts and receives, the reading experience demands inclusion of the reader in the story, which is almost certainly an allusion to the multi-valence that critical theory relies upon when analyzing literature; amusement, on the other hand, requires nothing from the audience. "For instance: one may feel obligated to laugh at a joke, but one is not obligated to become part of the joke" (8).
Tragically, most of the bestselling genre fantasy is a joke, which isn't funny at all.

Cady, Jack. The American Writer: Shaping a Nation's Mind. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
Oct 7, 15:19 by Donna Royston
Most of what you're arguing against seems to be your own conceptions rather than what the article said. I doubt that you've read "most of the bestselling genre fantasy" to know what's in it (I know I haven't), or to judge whether the reading experience demands your own "inclusion." If you think an entire genre is not worth your while, fine, don't read in it; just don't convince yourself that you know much of anything about it. Popular fiction in all genres -- actually, all fiction, call it genre or not -- is a highly varied lot: many novels are transitory things that disappear quickly, but a few keep getting handed to new readers with the injunction "Read this!"

It is more enlightening to discuss even one specific book and tell others what you found in it than to try to argue that an entire genre deserves no respect, without bothering to discuss some good representatives of the works in that genre.
Oct 7, 15:48 by Bluejack
Both points bearing in mind Sturgeon's law, naturally. Actually, both variations of Sturgeon's Law -- the one he called his revelation (now generally considered "the" law), and also his original "law."

1. 90% of everything is crap.
2. Nothing is absolutely so.
Oct 7, 16:08 by Robert Urell
I doubt that you've read "most of the best-selling genre fantasy" to know what's in it

This and the attendant "love it or leave it" phrase are egregious. Besides the obvious demurrer, you don't know me well enough to make that assertion, there's the fundamental silliness of such an argument. All best-selling book products are homogenous. That's what makes them "bestsellers." "Readers" who buy only best-selling genre fantasy do so to recreate the experience they had with their last book, not to challenge themselves or to grow as persons, but to retard just such personal progress by escaping such obligation. Ask any book professional, homogenizing product leads to greater returns. It's a pretty standard corporate model, and publishing is not immune to the profit motive.
That said, I've been reading genre fiction for over thirty years. Yeah, I know from whence I speak. Most of my friends have written books that you've either read or heard of. I have myself read thousands of titles, and those with the highest profiles are usually the least challenging, the shallowest end of the literary pool, and hardly worth the time they took to read. So, while my post is only an opinion, it's an educated, thought out one, and worthy of more than the equivalent of "you're a big doo-doo head!".
So there.
Oct 7, 23:28 by Jim Frenkel
I was going to respond to Robert Urell's first post, until I saw Bluejack's mention of Sturgeon's Law, with which I quite agree. However, I'm moved to respond to Urell's second post. Touchy, are we?
I'm mightily impressed that Mr. Urell has been reading genre fiction for longer than thirty years without having his head explode from all the empty calories it contains. One might wonder exactly why he keeps reading such "product."
Since he mentions book professionals, of which I am one, I will answer his question: no. Homogenizing "product"--an odious word to most book publishing people--does not lead to greater returns. Continuing a successful series does, but producing original, fresh work is the best way to increase profits, as long as the new work finds an audience.
It is axiomatic that there are big, huge bestsellers that appeal to a large audience. And yes, it is true that readers who buy only bestselling fantasy don't necessarily look to challgne themselves. But I argue that they do not do so to retard personal progress. If they really want to do that, they wouldn't be reading anything more than cereal boxes.
It is sad to me that he seems to have become bitter and cynical about genre-fantasy work. Perhaps he is unaware of the many bright, talented writers creating fantasy that is well within what we professionals call "genre" and yet is also different, fresh, unique. As Donna Royston points out, there is a tremendous variety out there. And yes, some of it is crap, like fiction of all sorts. But when one finds a new voice that is like nothing you've ever read before, it's all worthwile. I hope Mr. Urell will find some of that, and not feel that anyone who differs with him feels he is a b it of cranial escrement.
To address the article in question directly, my own thought is that fantasy in general suffers a lack of critical attention largely because it is a relatively young form in terms of its popularity. Mysteries have been around as a very popular form for far longer than fantasy --yes, fantasy, one can argue, has been around for centuries if not millennia, but we're talking about the fantasy novel as delineated in the article--and yet mysteries have only within the past twenty years or so gotten greater cricical attention than previously, and even so, still get for the most part a critical brush-off. This is the fate of puopular culture. It's always been this way, and I suspect always will be this way. Works that stand the test of time will, as they have in the past, become part of our cultural heritage. And some people will, pardon the expression, be snobbish about it, saying things like, "Well, it's too good to be fantasy. It's literature." C'est la vie.
Oct 8, 00:20 by Nick Mamatas
I like how everyone assumes that Rob doesn't know what he's talking about and doesn't read widely in the genre. It would be odd for someone like that to register for the IROSF, hmm? At any rate, Rob does keep close tabs on the genre and has published short fiction in Polyphony.

I'm a book professional too, and I hear "product" being used all the time in the office. Where do you work, Utopiaman?
Oct 8, 04:31 by Robert Urell
Utopiaman:
Touchy? No, not particularly. I simply don't appreciate dismissive posts that fail to address the substance of an argument, but only skirt the issue with ad hominem rhetoric designed to place me outside the fantasy community.
As to your assertion that the term "product" is odious to any book professional...gonna have to call you on that. From agents to editors to publishers and even many writers, I hear that term used regularly and generally. Conversations at conventions revolve around the fundamentally commercial nature of our (shared?) vocation. And that's not at all a bad thing. Keeping in mind that writing to sell means embracing the profit motive makes for better storytelling; you tend to write what people will read when you know a publisher won't buy it if she can't sell it.
As to my reading experience, I said most, not all, fantasy lacked substance. I read fantasy because I love it. I write it because I have no choice. I write about it because I believe it deserves to be addressed with serious critical objectivity.
Oct 8, 15:28 by Donna Royston
Hmm, well, to rephrase what I said, it wasn't "love it or leave it," it was more like "if you scorn it, don't read it."

Robert, you sum up the original essay with "they don't like us, so they're snobs" and my reply as "the equivalent of 'you're a big doo-doo head'." I think you're bringing in your own material here.

Let me clarify. First, I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion; the article was about fantasy, genre fantasy. And second, I was not surmising that you don't read in the genre, but making this observation, perhaps too briefly: with 2 or 3 dozen new titles (SF and fantasy combined) each month, who but the most avid reader (perhaps also unemployed) could read most of it? Anyone who makes a sweeping dismissal of an entire genre should perhaps not be surprised to be met with skepticism.

As for addressing the substance of Robert's argument, what exactly is it? He says there's "not much substance in it," a pretty vague claim, and says Stephanie Meyers' books pander to an audience's bias and "the results of this are evident." And same with Harry Potter, and same with Terry Brooks. Since I don't find these works exhaust the fantasy genre, or even begin to -- and I personally wouldn't choose these works as exemplars of good fantasy -- I don't see much to argue with.

To answer my own question above -- who could read most of it? -- I can't, and I have to choose. I've found some excellent books and some poor ones. I expect to find more good novels, over time, perhaps fantasy's Philip K. Dick, who appeared to be a hack, until readers found out that he wasn't.
Oct 8, 18:55 by Nick Mamatas
First, I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion

Probably because the article referred, repeatedly, to bestselling fantasy titles. It didn't mention genre fantasy that is studied or lauded by academics, such as Little, Big by John Crowley, or stuff by LeGuin, etc.

Further, clearly Bob's comments were restricted, at most, to the "bestselling" fantasy -- publishers don't release dozens of bestselling fantasies per year. It's easy enough for him to read most of the bestselling stuff.
Oct 8, 19:10 by Robert Urell
Sorry, Donna, most of this debate is so old that it's conducted in shorthand. It's raised often, beat into the ground, and subsides with the usual whimper that recalls literary movements of days gone by and writers whose importance fades with their bankability.
When you say, "I don't know why the qualifier "bestselling" gets slipped into the discussion; the article was about fantasy" as a means of declaring the true intent of the article, which implies that I missed the point, I have to ask: Did you read the article? The term, "bestseller," is raised twice in the thesis statement, along with the specters of Terry Brooks and Stephanie Meyers. Throughout the piece, terms such as "publishing success" are placed opposite concepts such as critical acclaim, the implication being that critics must not know good literature, since good literature makes money. Economic imperative is constantly brought forth to reinforce the message that fantasy deserves more attention. Nearly every section of the piece is tainted with it. So, I ask you, if the most common thread within the article is this sense of entitlement to critical acclaim, vis--vis the current commercial success of the genre, why would that not be fair game for criticism from a commentator? I truly don't understand your objections.
Oct 8, 19:10 by Robert Urell
Or, what Nick said.
Oct 8, 22:17 by Donna Royston
This argument doesn't bear any resemblance to your original response... Bestsellers were mentioned to illustrate the popularity of genre fantasy, not to equate bestsellerdom with quality.

And I am familiar with the background of this issue, and recognize the futility of discussion in the abstract of "genre fantasy." Let the essay speak for itself.
Oct 9, 16:51 by Lois Tilton
The inverse relationship between bestsellerdom and literary quality is not limited to fantasy.
Oct 9, 18:15 by Robert Urell
Sure you're right. That inverse relationship isn't even limited to literary products. Starbucks doesn't make a particularly good cup of coffee, but they're consistent; order a caramel machiatto in Paris or in Portland, you get the same thing every time. Product homogeneity yields maximal returns in books, in coffee, hell, in military hardware. Quality writing, however, is a cottage industry, and only rarely does a really good book make lots of money. It's usually the mediocre, non-threatening, non-challenging literature that sells out 100k print runs and gets made into blockbuster movies.
But the article consistently tied commercial success to literary quality, which is a direct, not inverse, relationship.
Oct 13, 16:37 by Janine Stinson
If I might follow a tangent here...

It seems to me that this article is referring mostly to those literary critics who focus on "mainstream" fiction in their reviews and essays. But to determine whether there is such a group in fact, one would have to conduct an examination of all the review outlets for mainstream fiction over at least a few years' time. This, of course, would require the setting of parameters for such an examination. I wonder if anyone reading IROSF has the time, skills or inclination to conduct said examination? I'm sorry, but I don't, though I'd be interested in reading the results.

SF and fantasy have their own critical circle, writers who devote the majority of their critical writing to these genres. Names like Clute, Nicholls, Langford, and Stableford shouldn't be unknown to IROSF readers (and if they are, you just got some more reading to do). (grin) By searching on Amazon, I found six books of literary criticism focused on fantasy that I haven't read, sounded worth reading, and were all but one published in the 2000s. The exception is Brian Attebery's <i>The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature</i> (1980).

Perhaps those of us who read and/or write fantasy should be less concerned with what academic/"literari" critics think about fantasy. I think these two groups are still operating under the big-fish-little-pond model of assumed importance. If we no longer consider literary critics' opinions important, do they not lose their power, eventually?

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