The Genre Wars I: Why Fantasy Is The Future (or, the merits of underachievement)

by Shannon

It’s not exactly a secret in the literary community—heck, the entertainment industry in general—that genre fiction is kind of the bastard stepchild, doomed to online college in mom’s basement in a family full of ivy leaguers and overachievers. Fantasy is to magic realism what Harlequin romances are to Romeo and Juliet. One you’re forced to read by your Intro to Literature professor, and the other you hide from your more intelligentsnobbier friends, though in the end, they’re not all that different. To make the case that genre fiction is and has always been unfairly maligned would waste both of our time. It has been done too many times before, and more thoroughly than I would do here.

No, what I’d rather say is that maybe I don’t WANT that to change. Sure, as a long-time avid fantasy reader, I get tired of the recycled plots, the bad covers, even worse movie adaptations. I get sick of people making pointed glances when I read in the break room and subsequently assuming that I either have too much time on my hands or have no valuable contribution to a literary conversation. But, you know, things aren’t as bad as all that, because the fact of the matter is that the people amazed at the sheer number of pages in one volume probably don’t actually read, and the ones looking down their noses? Despite their efforts to come off as post-modern scholars, nine times out of ten, these proponents of exclusively high-brow literature are just hipsters with an inferiority complex, who have more fun showing off than they do actually reading the books they brag about.

Which is not to say that I do not enjoy literary fiction. I’ve read enough poetry to know that “The Waste Land” belongs more to Ezra Pound than it does to T.S. Eliot. I have read enough Shakespeare to say with authority and certainty that there is a good reason that his obscure works are obscure, and that Christopher Marlowe was the better playwright. I know that the best poetry and fiction this century has been written by people whose first language is not English, and I know that writers of magic realism have secretly discovered that spark of the fantastic in everyday life that we fantasy enthusiasts have thrived on. But that’s not the point.

And I know that there are reasons that genre fiction is in such ill repute, but as somebody who will spend an entire Saturday behind the shelves in hopes to find just one thing that I’m really excited about, I can tell you with confidence that buried under all the purple prose and the pale Tolkien imitations are works of such precise, limitless brilliance that you can hardly bear to finish reading them, and there are young writers, published and unpublished—ESPECIALLY unpublished—who, resigned in the belief that due to the niche nature of their interests that their writing will never be worth anything, find the daring and the confidence to take chances nobody else would take. And these gems might never exist if it weren’t for the stigma set against them, dashing young authors’ hopes at every turn, whispering insidiously, “you are not intelligent if you write like this.”

With a lack of expectations comes the freedom to experiment without repercussion. That is why, no matter how fantastic magic realist novels become, the authors will never admit to writing fantasy. That is why there is a line between horrifying and Horror, between romantic, Romantic, and Romance, and why most literary fiction writers will only ever venture out of their section to write children’s literature. That is also why every time somebody successfully navigates the treacherous waters of experimentation and creates something truly, startlingly brilliant, the walls between genre and Real Literature begin to crack. Right now, every time somebody writing genre fiction produces something truly great, great enough to catch the attention of the people who aren’t already looking, it takes People Who Matter by surprise. Take Game of Thrones/ASOIAF for example, which, despite having been published for more than a decade, is only now getting attention due to the upcoming HBO adaptation, brilliant enough that those involved in the production deny that it is truly fantasy at all.

Coincidentally, I read something just today over at Scriptshadow that made a similar claim with regard to film versus television… another maligned genre quickly surpassing its more reputable cousin in terms of risk-taking, creativity and overall quality. I guess it’s the natural order of things in the creative world. Just like the tortoise overtaking the hare, eventually the little guys you’re not paying any attention will do something spectacular and unexpected.

What do you think? Is there something to this idea, that being shoved into a corner and written off somehow liberates you from all the shackles of expectation that would otherwise hinder your writing? Or am I just living in a fantasy world?

Ha. Anyway, I’ve picked this blog up again. I hope to post 2-3 times a week, so please follow, and recommend 😀