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Gulliver Unravels: Generic Fantasy and the Loss of Subversion

a feature by John Grant

Some years ago, when John Clute and I were working on the draft entry list for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1), I felt there was a need for an essay under the keyword generic fantasy. At this early stage I defined Generic Fantasy loosely as the sort of fiction which, while it has "FANTASY" in big letters on the spine and fills to overflowing the section in the bookstore labeled "FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION", is effectively not a form of fantastic literature. Using standard characters and set in a stock environment which I dubbed (probably not originally) Fantasyland, it can best be regarded as a subgenre of the adventure thriller, or perhaps, depending on the author, of the bodice-buster. My intention in creating such an entry, of course, was to use it as a means whereby Clute and I could clear away huge areas of weedy, pestiferous scrub in the forest that is commercially described as fantasy in order to see the trees we were actually interested in.

The more active of our two Consultant Editors, Gary Westfahl, expressed dissent in his characteristically forthright fashion. Quite correctly, he pointed out (2) that the bulk of the potential purchasers of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy would be readers solely of what I was so blithely dismissing as Generic Fantasy, so that we might, through being seen to insult those readers, be committing commercial suicide. Clute and I presented various counterarguments -- including that some Generic Fantasy is extremely well written, it's just that it's not fantasy -- but in the end we took Westfahl's point. The entry was re-christened genre fantasy and its teeth were sufficiently drawn that only the most dedicated John Norman enthusiast could have taken twitching offense.

Nowadays I wish we'd stuck to our guns. Oddly enough, the debate did bear fruit in an unanticipated way. The fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, who had generously been giving us anonymous consultative help in the creation of the entry list, picked up the baton and ran with it until she produced her witty book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which was shortlisted for a 1997 World Fantasy Award (3). Jones constructed her book as a sort of mini-encyclopedia of generic fantasy's clichés and banalities, and with remarkably little difficulty was able to touch virtually every base in this subgenre. As was widely remarked at the time of her book's publication, anyone wishing to become a successful author of high (i.e., generic) fantasy could simply shuffle the entries in the Tough Guide and start writing. A number of authors were honest enough to admit that something analogous to this was what they had in fact done in order to create for themselves what were, thank you very much, thriving careers.

Clute and I became concerned enough about the issue that, as part of our ongoing debate over it, we created and fronted a convention discussion panel called "Why is Fantasy no Longer a Subversive Form of Literature?" (4) In that discussion, while aware that the works of J.R.R. Tolkien were in their own way subversive, we concentrated more on modern traditions of fantasy other than the Tolkienesque. Current representatives of those traditions are remarkable for their low commercial profile -- that is, outside children's and young-adult literature, where they continue to flourish (5). It would be easy, and utterly misleading, to say that, pre-Tolkien, fantasy was a diverse and flourishing form of literature, often deploying the full range of tools utilized by genres such as mainstream fiction and science fiction, but that post-Tolkien the Iron Curtain went up around the borders of Fantasyland, leaving all those who wished to spend their lives in other countries to forage as best they could on the vegetation available there, and most probably to starve. In fact what happened is of course that in the 1960s various US editors, predominant among them Lin Carter, came along and, with the most laudable of goals -- the revival of fantasy -- produced a narrow commercial definition of the genre. Stuff like Tolkien, stuff like Robert E. Howard, stuff like William Morris -- according to them, this stuff was what fantasy was. Unfortunately, it soon came to be commercially perceived that this was all that fantasy was.

It's important to remember that at the time Fantasyland was, if not quite terra incognita, certainly relatively unexplored. It was perfectly possible to create fictions that could both be identified by the "FANTASY" label and actually be fantasy at a time when there were still so many patches of Fantasyland -- some of them great tracts -- where no human foot had trod, patches which the cartographers could mark only with the legend "Here Be Tygers".

And that, perhaps, pinpoints the difficulty faced by present-day Generic Fantasy. Arguably, in order for a fiction to be fantasy it must be prepared to dance with the Tygers: it must take risks by exploring precisely those dangerous territories where no one has ever ventured before and which are still the demesnes of the wild animals. It must meddle with our thinking, it must delight in being controversial, it must hope to be condemned by authority (whatever authority one chooses to identify), it must be at the cutting edge of the imagination, it must flirt with madness, it must surprise, it must be doing things that other forms of fiction cannot.

This does not exactly constitute a formula for the commercial success of Dragonspume Chronicles of the Sorcerer Kingdom Ancients, or whatever bloated trilogy the publishers' presses choose next to excrete into the toilet bowl of the book trade. One can guarantee that the only surprise to be discovered in Dragonspume Chronicles of the Sorcerer Kingdom Ancients -- or its many indistinguishable kin -- is at the fact that any sane adult should choose of his or her own volition to waste perfectly good retinal cells reading such stuff.

Perhaps, although I am by nature and habit the most moderate of men, I am here being a trifle harsh. For these ghastly, unnecessary and derivative books clearly do fulfill a function: people do not read them because they are stupid, and nor are they necessarily stupid to do so (6). The readers of Generic Fantasy seek something from their chosen form of fiction, and its most successful authors make sure that those readers are succored in exactly the way they want to be.

So what is it that readers seek that cannot be found in the full form of fantasy? One of the elements that Clute cast into our discussions was the concept of phatic literature. A phatic conversation is one in which no information is actually exchanged and yet from which all participants gain something, archetypally reassurance. An example might be:

"Nice weather today."

"Sure is."

"Really hot."

"Too hot, maybe."

"Could be."

"Well, top of the morning to you ..."

In one of his songs Robin Williamson captured the essence of the phatic conversation in a single sentence: "Hello, I must be going, well I only came to say: I hear my mother calling and I must be on my way." Similarly there can be phatic fictions -- fictions that tell us nothing, that involve no exercise of the intellect whatsoever beyond the basics involved in understanding the words, yet which satisfy some need in ourselves. In the case of Generic Fantasy that need is, as with the phatic conversation, a form of reassurance. More specifically, it is the exercise of vicarious imagination. The reader of Generic Fantasy requires to bolster his or her self-image as an imaginative person -- as any drunk in a bar will tell you, unimaginative people are the pitsh -- and hence turns to that form of literature which has the "FANTASY" label on the spine: if it says right here that it's fantasy, it must be, and therefore any reader of it, like me, must be an imaginative sort of a person, no?

Of course, in order to properly fulfill this phatic function, Generic Fantasy cannot in point of fact contain any material that might stretch the imagination -- cannot be fantasy, in other words: its readers by conscious choice are not prepared to explore the mental regions where the Tygers roam -- that would be to try to sell them apples when they want to buy oranges. They seek to gain the zing of imagination vicariously; they do not seek imagination itself, and would be terrified at the very prospect of the Tygers. To draw a perhaps unnecessarily brutal analogy, men generally read pornography in order vicariously to experience the delights of bedding lovelies; not only are such delights unavailable to them in real life, such readers would probably be terrified if they suddenly became so (7).

So we have two quite distinct forms of literature. One of these is Generic Fantasy; the other is fantasy proper. Much muddle arises because of a conflict between marketing and literary-criticism details of classification: what is in literary terms Generic Fantasy, and therefore by empiric definition not fantasy at all, is in marketing terms classified as fantasy -- and it's the marketing folk who put that word "FANTASY" on book-spines -- thereby confusing Joe Public, who trustingly believes what the marketing folk say. It's entertaining to speculate how long it would take for the language to change if some bright-eyed marketing whiz came along and stuck the label "CORNED BEEF" on every tub of ice cream in the land.

A silly example? No sillier than the notion that the language might change through publishers plastering the "FANTASY" label on fictions that are not fantasy.

Another interesting aspect of Generic Fantasy is that no one is responsible for it. Ask any self-designated fantasy reader and they'll tell you that what they really like is the cutting-edge stuff, not the pap which the publishers churn out in its place. Ask any publisher's editor when they're in their cups (traditionally an easy enough situation to engineer) and you'll be told that s/he can't personally stomach such garbage, but it's what the market wants: left to their own devices the editors would publish nothing but Helprin, Nabokov, Pynchon, Barth, Le Guin, Tepper, Borges and whichever writer has just asked them the question and whose synopsis is at this very moment, purely at the marketing department's insistence you understand, destined for the office shredder. Ask the writers and, with a very few extraordinarily honest exceptions, they will assure you that what themselves are writing is not Generic Fantasy but the true, dangerous, intellectually subversive stuff -- Jonathan Swift with all the sea elves, lisping dragons, good-hearted-but-constantly-getting-into-scrapes rite-of-passage kitchen-boy monarchs-in-exile, comic-cut trolls, Hoirish leprechauns, under-hormoned princesses, Dark Lords, sorcerers and the rest of the stomach-wrenchingly overfamiliar crew there purely as embellishments, as bell-ropes pulling different bells (8).

So nobody's really responsible for Generic Fantasy, just as nobody's really the father of a bastard.

To digress, there's an intriguing diagnostic test that can be carried out to discover whether a text is a Generic Fantasy or the real thing. One of the characteristics of fantasy is that it's very often recursive -- drawing together from elsewhere disparate elements, juxtaposing them and creating something new from the mixture. The recursions of Generic Fantasy, however, are based on Generic Fantasy itself. Ouroboros-like, it swallows its own tale.

So the question Clute and I asked in that long-ago discussion panel -- "Why is Fantasy no Longer a Subversive Form of Literature?" -- was actually rather misdirected. Fantasy -- true fantasy -- is just as subversive as it always was, or at least is capable of being so: it's just that there's very little true fantasy about. What we were really pointing at was the self-evident fact that Generic Fantasy is not, and almost from the first has not been, a subversive subgenre. While the firemen of Fahrenheit 451 carried out their raids they could have left great mountains of the stuff lying there untouched without in the slightest way endangering the stability of their society.

In case I should be accused of kicking a dead horse when it's down during this perfectly dispassionate discussion of the differences between Generic Fantasy and fantasy proper -- and, believe me, nothing is more reminiscent of thoroughly dead horsemeat than some of the Generic Fantasies that have oozed through my hands -- it should be pointed out that the traffic in strong description is not entirely one-way. One of the curious paradoxes of this whole area of discussion is born out of the fact that some devotees of Generic Fantasy are not just frightened of the dangers of real fantasy: they are actually angered by it, and vociferously so, presumably because it represents a threat to what they have come to perceive as the genuine form of the two confusingly named literatures. Rootstock fantasy, they seem to be saying, is neither Gulliver nor Gormenghast but only the derivative stuff that can exist only within the walled frontiers of a pseudo-Tolkienesque and ultimately hack Fantasyland; everything else is the enemy army at the gates -- or even, horror of horrors, the Fifth Column within them -- and is to be detested accordingly.

I have a recurring nightmare, a terrible fear, and it goes something like this. One day I open up a copy of some magazine like Interzone and start reading the lead fiction review. The beginning of it reads:

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (presumably a pseudonym) recounts the improbable adventures of a man who sets sail on various sea voyages, where he meets strange folk. Some of these folk are big, some of them are small, and some of them look like horses. Swift should have realized that he thereby left very little room open for anything by way of romance, because Gulliver would have practical difficulties pursuing his passions with either the very little or the very big women, and the author bridles at the notion of letting his hero frolic with the horses. This lack of romantic potential leaves the novel without any passion at its core, something Swift should have thought about before he began this plaguey novel.

I had great hopes of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, since the blurb told me it was about a young woman going down a rabbit hole, and the similarity of "rabbit hole" and "hobbit hole" could not be, I thought, coincidence. However, the young woman in question proves to be a vapid Victorian miss, and her adventures underground are devoid of all logic. According to the press release there's a sequel on the way tied in with a popular board game, and perhaps Carroll will have more success with that.

Turning now to Dragonspume Chronicles of the Sorcerer Kingdom Ancients Volume 6: Sword of Blood by Jerome E. Housename we discover a real pearl, a delight of a book, a volume that according to its publisher's justified claim is better than Christopher Tolkien at his best -- one of those novels that shows us what fantasy should be ...

My nightmare, of course, is not that this review should exist but that I should read it, nodding my head in brainwashed agreement.

It is rather sobering to think that we have permitted, through negligence, the sham version to attain a position of such eminence that it has come to regard itself as the genuine article. For, in ironically describing the various categories of people who are in no way really responsible for Generic Fantasy, I omitted to mention the worst offenders: ourselves. We have sat back -- all too many of us -- and watched with a sort of snobbish complacency as a form of literature which I at least passionately love and believe to be crucially important to our culture has been smothered and strangled and drowned by this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage -- this loathsome mire. And the worst mistake we could make, now, is to prolong that complacency -- to say meekly that it's too late to do anything about the situation.

A start can be made by at least, as I suggested all those years ago, defining our terms -- by adding to the list of commonly distinguished genres and subgenres of fiction a new one, called either Generic Fantasy or whichever better name someone comes up with. There is no intention here to cast Generic Fantasy into purdah by so doing: it is simply a matter of making a distinction between one form of writing and another. Neither would we be establishing a qualitative hierarchy: I can think of extremely well written Generic Fantasies just as easily as I can think of direly written full fantasies. What we would be doing is both (a) focusing our own minds on the genre that is actually at the heart of our interests, without the distraction of the mass of pseudo-fantasy, and (b) with any luck stirring the commercial publishers into the recognition that they can actually make more money by discriminating between the two quite separate markets which currently they are treating as if it were only one. For how many readers do each and every one of us know who have simply given up on buying books with the "FANTASY" label through having so often been disappointed by what they've bought? How many of us ourselves fall into this category, if only we would be honest enough to admit it?

For that, surely, is the final and greatest danger of allowing the failure to discriminate between the two genres to continue (9): that potential fantasy readers will seek elsewhere before ever they discover the gold, and that even existing fantasy readers -- not to mention writers -- will eventually give up the struggle.


  1. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, Little, Brown & Co., London, and St Martin's Press, New York, 1997. [back to main text]
  2. Various letters and e-mail to John Clute and the present author from about 1992 onwards. This correspondence still continues intermittently. [back to main text]
  3. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones, Gollancz, London, 1996. By one of those incestuous quirks of the publishing industry, the present author was commissioned to serve as Jones's editor on this book. [back to main text]
  4. Microcon, March 1994, University of Exeter. The other participants were Geoff Ryman, Colin Greenland, Stephen Marley and Richard Middleton. [back to main text]
  5. It is at least arguable that Jones was able so accurately to drive the nails into Generic Fantasy's cross because most of her fiction is for the young. Moreover, her familiarity with the greater imaginative freedom acceptable in commercial juvenile fiction, by comparison with its adult counterpart, may have contributed to the difficulty she had until a few years ago in being accepted by publishers as a writer of fantasy for grown-ups as well. There is no argument whatsoever that most serious readers of full fantasy, as opposed to its generic equivalent, spend much of their bookstore time in the children's department. [back to main text]
  6. It is obviously true that publishers are not necessarily stupid to publish them, because many of these middenfuls of words are commercially enormously successful. And yet one wonders if in the longer term the publishers are not making their customary mistake of gorging on today's kill without a thought for the morrow, because -- or at least one would like to think this to be the case -- any stagnant literary subgenre, and stagnation is an arch-characteristic of Generic Fantasy, has only a finite lifetime. An example of one such that has more or less died on the vine is the Multiple-Choice Fantasy Adventure Gamebook. Another is the Country-House Detection. [back to main text]
  7. There are of course other purposes of phatic literature. Who has not curled up with a Golden Age detective novel as a way of relaxing on a cold winter's night? But, while very many read detections, very few are fanatically devoted to them to the extent of reading little other fiction. [back to main text]
  8. It is in fact perfectly feasible to use the standard tropes of Generic Fantasy to create fantasy proper -- it's just rather rarely done. It should be mentioned that true fantasies quite frequently and legitimately borrow elements from other modes of literature. A true fantasy that borrows elements in this way from Generic Fantasy is thus merely doing what other fantasies do, the only difference being the literary subgenre from which the borrowing is being done. [back to main text]
  9. It's a danger to commercial publishers as well. Do you remember the time when, if it wasn't a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spinoff, it wasn't worth marketing? When the craze abruptly died a good many manufacturers, caught unawares, lost money and were left with warehouses full of junk toys. There's going to come a time when the market for Generic Fantasy will suddenly collapse; the way publishing works, it'll take two or three years before the publishers can actually stop issuing Generic Fantasy books, losing money on each one. Furthermore, it may well be that fantasy proper will have so far declined by then that the publishers will have nothing to offer readers of imaginative or quasi-imaginative fiction in Generic Fantasy's place -- so they'll lose money twice over. [back to main text]

© John Grant 2000, 2001

This essay was first published in the Millennium Issue of Extrapolation, guest-edited by Gary Westfahl.

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