What Is Fantasy Even For, Anyway?

In a blog for The Guardian May 20, author Natasha Pulley did something very naughty. Namely, she said something controversial about the literary genre of fantasy.

She argues that the world building found in high fantasy novels post-Tolkien (and, particularly, post-George R.R. Martin) is impossible to accomplish in short fiction.

Whut?! Blasphemy, right?

But maybe she’s got a point. Isn’t it natural to reason that the world building that takes up, say, a good 50 percent of a fantasy novel (I’m guessing) simply can’t fit in, say, a 5,000-word short story? Sure. But judging from the comments, I’m guessing that there’s a deeper contention than matters of space.

So what nerve is Pulley poking? I’d say it’s the exclusivity/inclusivity of genre.

And boy do people have #thefeels about genre! But these discussions beg a big question: What is fantasy even for? Let’s consider.

Pulley’s Pokey Pontification
Let’s review exactly what Pulley is arguing. For one, she’s reacting to a colleague’s argument, “that fantasy novels now tend toward the enormous because of market forces — because everybody in the publishing and television industries is looking for the next Game of Thrones, and a new author who can open a factory of imagination that will lead to commercial success.”

Pulley’s counter appeals from genre requirements, saying that “high fantasy of the George RR Martin kind hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don’t tell, and these details take even longer to convey.”

And she’s got a point. Just look down the fantasy aisle at the bookstore. Big books. And whole series of them, too. Furthermore, Pulley nails down the limitations on her argument pretty clearly: high fantasy of the George R.R. Martin variety. (Now, I also don’t quite buy the argument that market forces aren’t at play here, but let’s leave that for another day.)

Why the Dustup, Then?
Because reasons. Specifically, hairsplitting of what is or isn’t a genre requirement begs the question of what we even have the genre for in the first place. Why does Fantasy exist as such? For that matter, why does any speculative fiction exist?

You might want to check out an earlier blog of mine, “Why Fiction?” for a longer explanation of the idea that, as I see it, we have speculative fiction for a couple different reasons. But I’ll summarize my thoughts here:

  1. To express our perceptions of the social/philosophical status quo and support or challenge it [in the context of number two].
  2. To ask “what if” in terms of the technological/biological status quo [and play with the results in the context of number one].
Number one has to do with the “real world.” Spec-fic authors write “what they know” insofar as their stories relate to the real world and their real-world experiences. Number two has to do with the details, or, as Pulley describes it, world building. So I suppose a different question would be, Does Fantasy require world building?

Of course, everyone has differing opinions on the teleological aspects of fiction, and particularly of genres, and even more particularly (perhaps disturbingly?) of subgenres(!).

Complicating Factors
What we’re engaging in right now is a form of discourse, and discourse can present an obstacle to outsiders, as Aliette de Bodard argues in a recent Blogtable debate at “nerds of a feather, flock together.” She argues that while genre (and its implicit definitions) are helpful in establishing expectations, tropes, and shorthand, “the drawback of a common language and a common shorthand is that people who do not share this are in many ways left in the cold—when you don’t speak this language or are not in conversation with the right background (as a reader, as a writer), what are you meant to do?”
De Bodard argues for an inclusionary rather than exclusionary approach to genre:

“As a writer, I feel like categories can be more of a cage than a focus; because they set rules of what is and isn’t acceptable; because those rules are so easy to learn, continuously reinforced, and can take years if not decades to unlearn. And because you need people to set new boundaries for science fiction for the genre to renew itself (I’m aware people not everyone will agree with me there!); and this will not happen if everyone remains hemmed in by narrow definitions of the category (some of the most intriguing and fresh genre stories I read came from outside the Anglophone world, and were based on different traditions and different genre breakdowns).”

She also acknowledges that we need to know the rules, especially if we mean to break them. But aren’t these shorthands and tropes exactly what Pulley says fantasy doesn’t have, hence the world building?

This is where Pulley and I start to diverge.

Is the Devil in the Details?
It seems to me that Pulley’s most stabbed-at claim is, “If you take out the detail of fantasy and boil it down to the skeleton of its plot, the result is nearly always a lot of unexplained magic,” which she defines as a fairy tale, not high fantasy. Perhaps she’s right.

But take a look at Pulley’s argument about Robin Hobb’s Farseer series of books (and my apologies for the long quote):

“The time (in the novels) is taken up by the meticulous portrayal of a friendship. If it were set in the real world, this portrayal would take far less time and space… However, Hobb’s stories don’t take place in the real world. The two main characters are not ordinary people who can be sketched and left largely to the imagination of the reader. One of them can see the future and refuses to disclose, for cultural reasons and out of general pig-headedness, whether he’s even a man or a woman. The other is a royal bastard born into political circumstances that deny him an ordinary family and any other truly meaningful friendships beyond that of this wonderful lunatic. They live in a world where there is magic in the air and the stones, and a dragon buried in a glacier. All those things which are not mentioned in literary realism but are important for its context – government, geography, fashion, everything – are equally important in this trilogy, but they are not already understood by the readers. To bring it all to life requires a lot of space, and a huge amount of detail.

Really?*

What Pulley is describing is a narrative about a relationship. Ultimately, I could argue that relationships between characters are what any (and all?) fiction ultimately hinges upon, insofar as we’re talking about mechanics and genre conventions.

Yes, details are the bread and butter of narrative relationships. But is meticulous world building (as such) a requirement to flesh out a fictional relationship between characters?

I’m not sure I buy it. Does a novel do a more extensive job at showing a detailed relationship than a short story does? I’d hope so, yes. But a short story (perhaps every well-written short story) accomplishes the same feat in fewer words, using detail as well as the suggestion of detail.

What do you think? Am I off my dragon saddle? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.

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Jedd Cole

Jedd Cole is a writer and scholar of literature, language, theory and philosophy. He studied rhetoric, writing and Spanish at University of Cincinnati. He produces video essays on the Electric Didact YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/c/electricdidact. Find his fiction and other recent work at electricdidact.wordpress.com.

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