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Thread: Fantasy subdivisions
May 15th, 2005, 03:55 PM #1
This is an article I wrote recently for the Indian Express. Its not complete, of course, and most of the subcategories are open to debate, but here it is nevertheless...
Any attempt to draw a map of something as popular, diverse and indefinable as fantasy literature is bound to be messy and mind-numbing, leave everyone unsatisfied, and cause both profound self-doubt and premature hair loss. Nevertheless, from a hero determined to save the day despite overwhelming odds and strange costumes, here is a brief insider’s guide to fantasy literature.
What is fantasy literature? Fantastic fiction, or speculative fiction as it is now called, is that which demands imagination in its readers as well as its writers. The single defining characteristic of fantasy is the existence of an otherworld – a world that is either our world with a few drastic differences, or a world completely different from ours, but remarkably similar in social structure/value systems at some point in our history. Exploring the themes which concern us in an otherworld, or the effects of changing the rules in our world, is what fantasy literature is all about. This makes the definition of fantasy very wide, covering everything from magic realism to superhero comics, Beowulf to Buffy, not to mention most of recent popular children’s writing.
But what we commonly describe as fantasy literature is what book publishers and distributors call genre fantasy – an incredibly popular genre worldwide, that took off as a publishing phenomenon with Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, and today, married to children’s writing, gives the world its greatest publishing phenomenon since the Gutenberg Bible, the Harry Potter series. Interested in knowing more about fantasy? This is where the road branches.
• High/epic fantasy is what drives the genre worldwide, though four-fifths of these series are footnotes to Tolkien and offer very little in terms of breakthrough plots. The stories are in the same vein as medieval ballads or sagas, set in sprawling pre-industrial words full of heroes, magic and monsters. Try Robert Jordan, or Terry Brooks. Popular subsets of epic fantasy are sword-and-sorcery series like the computer-game inspired Dragonlance, and action fantasy, fast-paced thrillers by writers like David Gemmell starring heroes dying to be played by Vin Diesel.
• Urban/Contemporary fantasy usually receives more mainstream critical acclaim. This is where fantasy literature is headed – dark post-industrial tales, often in urban settings in this world and others, starring multimdimensional characters dealing with real, complex issues, and an innovative creature-list free of elves, dwarves and orcs. China Mieville and Neil Gaiman are personal favourites, and part of a movement called the New Weird, which draws heavily from original myths and cult writings in early pulp magazines. Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the most talked-about fantasy novel in recent times, would fit in here as well. A conscious effort to avoid genre stereotypes makes these books completely absorbing, if slightly heavy reading.
• Humourous Fantasy novels are rare, and often not particularly funny. But Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt and Robert Asprin are well worth reading. Terry Pratchett’s fabulous Discworld series, now thirty-odd hilarious books long, is Britain’s best-selling series for adults.
• Animal Fantasy novels are the easiest to define – anything with talking animals. Richard Adam’s Watership Down is a good example, and Animal Farm could have been marketed in this category! But then, nearly all of Rushdie’s works could have been sold as fantasy writing as well.
• Dark/Horror Fantasy is often sold separately, as Horror. Stephen King, an industry unto himself, and Anne Rice are the two best-known names in this field.
• Graphic novels are the fastest growing phenomenon in world literature, and often feature brilliant fantasy-driven work. Alan Moore’s superhero novels and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series are not to be missed.
• Children’s Fantasy is where the real action is in world publishing today. A blend of all the aforementioned types of fantasy, written with younger audiences in mind (though these books truly appeal to readers of all ages) children’s fantasy has captured the imagination of the young worldwide and made sure, thankfully, that books will survive for a few more centuries. Harry Potter needs no introduction, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an all-time classic. Jonathan Stroud, Christopher Paolini and Eoin Colfer are currently the other big names in this field.
A final word of warning: It’s still popular in India, where very few people read fantasy, to be snooty about a genre that many fail to realize is the driving force of world literature today. Admittedly, most of the fantasy writing available in Indian stores is cliché-ridden epic/action fantasy, but then, by SF writer Theodore Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap. Make sure you don’t miss out.
May 19th, 2005, 04:44 PM #2
Hey! Welcome back! Very nice break-down of things in the article, but can I offer a few minor criticisms for next time?
1) Contemporary/urban fantasy is not where the entire genre is headed. It's a sub-genre of fantasy that was extremely prominent in the 1980's and is now becoming more prominent again as fantasy expands exponentially. But epic fantasy will continue, probably taking the same increasing variety route that happened when the mostly adventure-focused sf world branched out into social sf and other sub-genres. The return of the alternate realm epic fantasy -- a mix of contemporary and pre-industrial settings as someone travels back and forth between them -- are likely to increase too. With the growing interest in the "New Weird," contemporary/urban may split into several new sub-genres in the market.
2) Humorous fantasy also was very prominent in the 1980's and declined somewhat in the 1990's when epic fantasy got its second wind. But it's not as rare as people seem to think and its popularity is also growing. There is a steady market for humorous fantasy. Britain, with its history of and genius for comic fiction, will likely never give it up completely.
3) Animal fantasy is not a sub-genre of fantasy. The examples you mention are all non-genre fantasies and many fantasy fans have no familiarity with them at all. Non-genre fantasy is an increasingly wide and complex field these days, as fantasy stories become more popular with mainstream audiences and non-genre publishers. At some point, there may be some interesting mergers between non-genre and genre fantasy, especially as world fantasy literature includes so many authors whose cultures have a fantasy tradition (like yours,) but no separate genre market.
4) Dark fantasy and horror aren't the same thing. Dark fantasy is meant to titilate and spook and contains fantasy elements. Horror is meant to horrify and scare, and may contain fantasy elements (the bogeyman,) sf elements (the Thing,) or real world elements (psychokillers with no special powers.) But as a road map, they are usually grouped together.
5) It might help to mention in future that graphic novels are illustrated novels that may be either reprinted comic book issues in the form of a novel (the Death miniseries of Sandman,) or original graphic works (Sin City.)
I should also say that the article is quite cleverly and stylishly written and that I like the humorous tone.
I wonder if India or other countries could be conquered out of their "fantasy is juvenile" views not only by the success of children's fantasy but by the route that the U.S. took -- the juvenile readers building up their own community while ignoring disapproving adults, getting older and then corrupting their children. Key weapons in that campaign proved to be magazines with short fiction, followed by sf/f conventions, often with movie/t.v. tie-in celebrations. Maybe you can encourage some folk to start magazines in the provinces and hold a few conventions to give the teenagers something to do.
Last edited by KatG; May 19th, 2005 at 07:54 PM.
May 22nd, 2005, 07:09 AM #3
I bow to superior knowledge
The word limit for this article was extremely binding - in fact, i think i even exceeded it a little and a paragraph got decapitated as a result - which is basically why i couldnt get my teeth into the subject as wholly as i would have liked to
1) Out here in India, where fantasy fan translates as anyone whos liked LOTR, no one has any idea of the kind of segmentation that exists in the market in the west. also, the new weird has been getting more attention than any other subdiv in the last few years. hence, when i said 'the entire genre' i sort of meant 'the market in india'
2) Again, by rare, I meant 'not available to the reading public of this newspaper apart from the authors mentioned'
3) Since we dont have a genre market, and animal fantasies are fantasies even if theyre not marketed as genre, thought would throw them in wholesale as well. at least people who like these would identify
4) This thankfully I was aware of, but just didnt have the space to get into it.
5) graphic novels, at least, are growing really fast in terms of popularity in my country, so people who read them are pretty much aware of what goes on in the comics/graphic novel market. like animal fantasy, was basically trying to establish that fantasy is also available in graphic novel format...more to encourage graphic novel readers to read fantasy graphic novels than to persuade fantasy fans to try graphic books, which theyre probably doing anyway.
fantasy conventions in India would not only be hell to organize, they would eventually draw very tiny audiences. so i think ill just have to wait for the next generation to corrupt their children. by that time, i should hopefully also have earned enough to invite you to come and speak at that convention
May 22nd, 2005, 12:59 PM #4
And I think I will bow to my American limitations. Considering that most people here haven't a clue about these sub-divisions either, it's nice that you're trying to let India in on the madness.
That's interesting too about graphic novels. One of the things that helped North American fantasy a great deal was the increased interest in graphic novels, like Gaiman turning his Sandman comic books into novels, Frank Miller, various Japanese tomes. One of my bosses back in the 1980's predicted graphic novels were going to be big in pop culture and that was one prediction that proved fairly correct. The graphic novels also led into more tie-ins with game companies, movies, etc. If graphic novels are getting more interest in India -- likely from the young? -- that's a potential sign of an increasing market.
May 24th, 2005, 06:15 AM #5
Hi Manticore, I enjoyed your whistlestop tour - yes, newspapers are ruthless about their column inches, and subs give nary a thought to the wordsmith who has so painstakingly crafted those pars!
I don't predict the death of epic fantasy any time soon!
I would certainly include anime and manga as a fantasy subdivision, and they're certainly hip among teens, schooled I suppose as seven year olds by the Pokemon phenomenon. (I assume that must have hit India? It was a primary school lingua franca - I was overseas with my kids at the height of it, and children of all different languages could point and commune over Pokemon. A problem of homogenous global culture, maybe, but it did help them make friends).
My 17 yo son, a complete Japanophile, brought back a suitcase full of manga and anime dvds from his last visit to Japan (schooldays sure are different than in my time). He was wearing five layers of clothes because he couldn't fit his clothes into his luggage... now that's fandom for you! I can't read them, obviously, because they're in Japanese, and it's a bit disconcerting to read a book backwards... but the graphics in some of them are incredible. I guess Japan has a whole different attitude to the graphic novel than we do, but I don't think there's any doubt that the idea is catching on.
May 26th, 2005, 03:30 AM #6
Originally Posted by manticore
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Also start a blog on livejournal or blogger. Once it gets popular, which it will if you write sense, you will find that you are getting lots of international orders too.
May 26th, 2005, 12:15 PM #7
Well, India's technology revolution is definitely going to increase interest in sf/f there, but given that publishers in the U.S. haven't gotten PDF sorted out yet, I would not expect it to become the norm in India anytime soon. The big problem, besides the piracy and royalty issues, is that the web is big. Even when you try to target one country, such as India, it's still big. So trying to publicize any one publication is rather like dripping a drop of water into the ocean. Yes, you may get some sales, but to maximize sales and exposure, that's the trick. And no one's come up with a good way to do it for books yet, that I'm aware of.
May 27th, 2005, 12:01 AM #8
Originally Posted by KatG
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