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?’
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, 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. 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?