How Much Fantasy Makes A Fantasy?

This question came up a few times for me today. It started first thing, when I read today’s story on Every Day Fiction, “Touched” by Kim McDougall. The bio underneath the story contained a strong statement about the limiting power of genre, and, out of curiosity, I clicked through to McDougall’s Website to see more. McDougall calls stories that fall between genres “Between the Cracks Fiction,” and she elaborates here:

As a reader I’m all for an errant knight epic or a sexy vampire thriller, but the books that stick with me, the stories that I find myself reviewing on sleepless nights, are those that break the barriers. As a writer, I strive to avoid stereotypes by writing a great story first and worrying about classifying it later. Unfortunately, writing in the gaps has its drawbacks too. I once sent the same story to two different editors, receiving polite rejections from both, one claiming that my story was fantasy and his magazine did not publish this genre, the other that the story was not fantasy and he only published such. Same story.

This is an interesting story, and it certainly got me thinking. I think there’s a counterargument that I’ll handle in a later post, but I certainly take the point that there are very interesting stories that are hard to place as a writer and hard to find as a reader precisely because they can’t be neatly characterized. This primed the pump for me to read Liz Williams’ “The Hide” today, another of the top stories up for the Million Writers award. Though it was published in Strange Horizons, which publishes speculative fiction, it takes a long time for “The Hide” to wind into its fantasy elements, and, even then, they’re done subtly. The magical elements are certainly not explained. They invade the main character’s life briefly but deeply, and are gone again. Though there is definitely a strong aspect of the unexplained by the end of the story, most of the story did not feel like reading a fantasy. It felt like reading a dense, pastoral work of literary fiction.

The latter is far from my favorite genre, and I would never read something in that style without the promise that at some point something very strange is going to happen. This leads me to my point. I think that in many of these pieces that fall between genre, authors can do interesting things with our expectations. I’m thinking also here of Emma Bull’s and Steven Brust’s book Freedom and Necessity. I also picked this book up expecting it to be a fantasy. Mainly, it was political and philosophical and romantic. It was that same thick and creamy style of writing, set up as an epistolary novel, and what fantasy elements it included were quite subtle.

However, because I was expecting a fantasy, my reading experience was very different. I was jumping at shadows, and seeing the mysterious in everything. Most of the fantastic experiences in the book could be explained away by a determined skeptic, and yet I did not take that stance. There is a state I reach sometimes in real life where I am open that way to magic and mystery. It’s the state good fantasy induces, and it’s also the state I’m looking for when I pick up a fantasy novel or fantasy story. When a story is presented in a way that makes me expect a fantasy, I think the author gets to toy with that effect, making me see magical elements in things I might otherwise see as mundane.

To be perfectly honest, this irritates me a bit. For example, I spent much of my time reading “The Hide” and reading Freedom and Necessity waiting anxiously for things of a specifically fantastic nature to happen. On the other hand, it’s a neat effect. I do want to come back to this argument and consider it a bit more, but, having written this, I think I disagree with some of McDougall’s vehemence. The bio at the bottom of “Touched” says, “She believes that genres are crippling literature.” In the course of writing this post, I’m thinking they’re another tool in the toolkit, and are therefore useful for setting expectations for a reader and then manipulating expectations. While I enjoy stories that cross genres, I think they’re a little delicate sometimes. I’m glad I read Freedom and Necessity, but it did frustrate me, and I think that, while I recognize that “The Hide” was well written, it ultimately isn’t a story that appeals particularly to me. In both cases, I think the issue was that the story promised me fantasy and didn’t deliver.

Should I expect to get fantasy when I’ve been promised fantasy? I don’t know. Perhaps McDougall would say the answer is no. All I know is that the expectation gets to be too much to bear sometimes. There are days that I order Mexican food and would be OK with getting Italian instead, and days when I just want Mexican food. Genre seems to present a similar situation.

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2 responses to “How Much Fantasy Makes A Fantasy?

  1. I agree with you that genres are a valuable tool. I would be upset too if I picked up what I thought was a fantasy, invested my time in it and then found out it was a western romance.

    That being said, a little vehemence is needed in any revolution. I don’t expect Between the Cracks fiction to ever become mainstream, after all, then it would no longer be “between the cracks!” It’s just my way of shedding light on my favorite style of writing.

    I used to be very frustrated by the encouraging rejection letters that said “Nicely written, but not for us.” I knew my fiction was for someone. Case in point, that story mentioned in your post was finally published. It now appears in Twisted Tails III, Pure Fear, and has received great reviews. So to all of you trying to find your niche, keep on plugging!

    And thank you for the great blog about genres!

  2. Thanks so much for your reply. I’m flattered that you read and commented. I’m still thinking about the issue of genre — I just got back from seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, and I’m always struck when I see his movies by how he is “between the cracks,” and, I think, struggles to find the right audience as a result. I’m glad you managed to place the story, and I hope to read more of your work in the future.

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