Generic Fantasy and the Loss of Subversion
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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
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?"
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
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."
"Too hot, maybe."
"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,
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
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.
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- Microcon, March 1994, University of Exeter. The
other participants were Geoff Ryman, Colin Greenland, Stephen Marley
and Richard Middleton. [back
to main text]
- 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]
- 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.
to main text]
- 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]
- 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.
to main text]
- 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.
to main text]
© John Grant 2000, 2001
This essay was first published
in the Millennium Issue of Extrapolation, guest-edited by Gary
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