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What is Fantasy, Exactly?

[1]

I bet some of you have experienced this kind of conversation:
‘So what do you do?’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Oh, really? What do you write?’
‘Historical fantasy.’
Blank stare. This person has never heard of your genre. Perhaps this person does not even read fiction. They have heard the word fantasy before, though, so what they probably say next is, ‘Oh, children’s books?’
You then attempt to define fantasy in layperson’s terms, often by saying what your own work isn’t. It’s not like Harry Potter. It’s not like Lord of the Rings. It’s not like Game of Thrones. There are no elves, dwarves, dragons …

The person who asked what you do is probably not interested anyway – they are just trying to be polite. Maintaining the conversation can be frustrating, though it can also be an opportunity to broaden someone’s horizons. When this happens to me, I explain that my novels are like historical fiction, but with an uncanny element based on the likely beliefs of that time and culture. I say they appeal to readers of historical fiction and historical romance as well as fantasy readers. I mention a couple of other fantasy authors whom my own readers enjoy.

Fantasy is one of the most challenging genres to classify. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy [2], the definition reads in part:
“Fantasy” – certainly when conceived as being in contrast to realism – is a most extraordinarily porous term, and has been used to mop up vast deposits of story which this culture or that – and this era or that – deems unrealistic. (from the 1997 edition: article by John Clute.)

Each of the three sub-genres of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and horror) has its own characteristics. Broadly, fantasy contains elements that are considered impossible in the world as we know it, though they work in the world of the story, which has its own internal consistency. Science fiction contains elements that are not currently proven by science, but that might be possible, perhaps in a world to come. In the body of work publishers label and promote as fantasy, you’ll find many stories that are a blend of these sub-genres, steampunk being a prominent example with its blend of history, magic and technology. Then, of course, there are works that are both fantasy and literary fiction, or fantasy and romance, or fantasy and thriller. Within the fantasy genre itself there’s an increasing host of variants, urban fantasy, fairy tale fantasy, gothic fantasy, comic fantasy, and grimdark being only a few of them.

The breadth of the fantasy genre was brought home to me strongly last year when I was one of the five judges for the annual World Fantasy Awards [3]. We were reading and judging works of fantasy first published in English in the year 2016. A new panel is currently looking at works published in 2017, so it seems an appropriate time to revisit that extraordinary experience. Did I mention that the floor in one room of my house gave way under the weight of books? True story.

Collapsing floors aside, what did I learn from all that reading?

It was eye-opening for me to read so widely within the fantasy genre. I work mainly as a writer of historical fantasy, but most of my recreational reading lies outside the genre, unless you count fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and works discussing them. I do have favourite fantasy authors, of course – they’re all writers who combine excellent craft (especially where voice is concerned) with great storytelling.

Within the monstrous heap of WFA reading, I found not only award-worthy works, but new personal favourites. Not all of the latter ended up on the award short lists [4], since those final choices were made by group consensus. But I loved one novel so much that I bought (and read) all the others in the series while still struggling to get through the stacks of books waiting to be judged. The outstanding qualities in that novel were excellent pacing, great use of voice, strong characterisation, and an author playing to his strengths – in this case using a particular area of personal expertise to give the novel verve and authenticity. I bought three copies of another novel, one for myself and two to give away to family. That book was a real keeper, full of wisdom and heart. The 2016 awards are a thing of the past now, winners announced [5] and trophies presented. My floor has been repaired, but I still have a substantial mini-library of fantasy books, the ones I’m keeping to read again. (Dear Reader, I threw nothing away. The other books all went to appreciative homes.)

The finalists for the 2017 award for Best Novel demonstrate the amazing breadth of the fantasy genre. They were, in no particular order:
– an intriguingly different urban fantasy with a disabled protagonist (YA/adult crossover)
– a skilfully written literary fantasy thriller with some science fiction elements
– an adventurous fantasy/horror novel set in American history; dark themes handled with a deft, often humorous touch
– a beautifully crafted folkloric fantasy for YA
– a stunning and intellectually challenging secondary world fantasy with science fiction elements

A little detective work within this post should enable you to work out which was which. There’s some magnificent reading there.

I know there are many fantasy writers in the Writer Unboxed community, and perhaps you wonder how your particular kind of fantasy can capture the interest of publishers and agents in an age when the market often seems flooded with competitors. It’s not for me to suggest what kind of novel will vanish without trace and what will take wing – that changes all the time. The major publishing houses are still bringing out epic stories with complex world-building, often by well-established writers. Any new entry of this kind would face fierce competition. Urban fantasy has burgeoned and developed; there’s immense variety within this particular sub-genre. Overall, it seems to me that fantasy is becoming darker all the time, with authors tackling more and more challenging themes. There’s a strong horror element in many works. Perhaps that is a reflection of the times we live in.

We often see innovation and experimentation in works written for young adults. YA fantasy may be one of the most competitive markets right now. Both the quality of writing and the originality of ideas are extremely high.

The novella has made a comeback recently, with publishers such as Tor.com [6] bringing out novellas by some excellent writers in both digital and print form, and commissioning cover art from outstanding artists. As for short fiction, I can’t do it justice in a sentence or two; suffice to say I read a lot of short stories when judging, and I found some of the very best writing there: cutting edge ideas, literary experiments, and some fine storytelling.

One last note to WU’s fantasy writers: you can’t second guess the market, but it makes sense to know the market. Reading a broad sample of what is being published, what is winning reader support, and what is receiving glowing critical reviews will help you in your own work. But ultimately it all boils down to this: write the best book you possibly can. Find the story you are passionate about, get it down on the page, seek expert feedback, edit and polish until it’s gleaming and perfect. Then send your precious child out into the world to seek its fortune, and start creating the next one.

Fantasy writers – do you read widely within your own genre? If not, why not?  What kind of reading is most useful to you as a writer?

Image credit: @catiamadio | dreamstime.com

 

About Juliet Marillier [7]

Juliet Marillier [8] has written twenty-one novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a new fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards, of which the first book, The Harp of Kings, will be published in September 2019. Her short novel Beautiful, based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, was released as an Audible Original in May 2019. When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs.