The grand tale

On the merits of dragons, pointy ears and magic

  • Ayame Ulrich

Stigma plagues fantasy fiction like a dwarven mine overrun with goblins. Naysayers denounce the genre as escapist, adolescent and unbelievable. However, there is much reason to think otherwise.

According to Chadwick Ginther, McNally Robinson’s science fiction and fantasy section manager, fantasy now outsells general fiction at the store.

“George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones has consistently been the highest selling title for the last year and a half,” he said. “There has been an explosion in teen-marketed science fiction and fantasy.”

And fantasy’s popularity is hardly limited to Winnipeg.

In January 1997, the British National Library asked the English-speaking world what the greatest novel of the 20th century was. The survey’s results pointed to the Lord of the Rings. Two years later, Amazon users voted Tolkien’s masterpiece the greatest book of the millennium.

Even academic scholarship concerned with the fantastic has become commonplace.

Christina Fawcett, University of Winnipeg English professor and resident Tolkien scholar who wears a replica of the one ring forged by the dark lord Sauron, explains academic interest in fantasy has blossomed over the last 20 years.

“We are starting to recognize the literary merit of these texts,” she said. “Fantasy always has some sort of political commentary, and critics and readers are starting to notice this in a much more supportive way.”

For local author Graeme Brown, fantasy was a literary gateway drug.

“When I was a kid ... I hated reading,” he said. “In Grade 8, a teacher introduced me to fantasy and everything changed.”

Writing fantasy soon became an outlet for Brown. Now he’s published a novella titled The Pact, and has his sights on publishing a full-length fantasy series.

With public and academic acclaim at its back, fantasy’s reputation as a medium for simple boyish adventure need not subsist. Still, the stigma remains. Perhaps, though, it is possible that this myth has been prolonged by the way bookstores categorize novels.

The great genre debate

Traditionally, literature sections are meant to house novels of lasting value. But Fawcett contends otherwise. 

“Bookstores organize literature as texts that don’t fit into other genres. They are designated as literature because they have nowhere else to be slotted,” she said. “You also find writers that are more established in this section. I don’t think this makes them any more valuable than anything else though.”

Bookstore genre categories are not indicators of a book’s quality, Fawcett notes.

“Literature is basically writing that matters - we don’t think of grocery recipes as literature,” she said. “It is texts or materials that are meaningful or will be meaningful.”

For Brown, literature is an all-encompassing force.

“To me, literature is writing, and writing is literature,” he said. “When I hear that term, I think of a body of scholars that have decided on classifications.”

Defining fantasy is an equally daunting task. Chadwick believes big ideas and invention are central to the genre.

“The way I see it, all fiction is fantasy,” he said. “An author is always producing on what they are feeling and what they are thinking, regardless of weather its based on events that happened.”

Fawcett’s definition is more extensive: fantasy involves alternate worlds or realities, races like elves and dwarves and supernatural elements, such as magic and monsters. 

“It is a speculative space of commentary and exploration - but that applies to most literature,” she said.

And for Brown, fantasy and literature, in some cases, are inseparable.

“I think of fantasy as literature,” he said. “But like any art, any medium, it can be done poorly.”

Fawcett agrees.

Can fantasy be literature? Heck yes.

Christina Fawcett, English professor, University of Winnipeg

“Can fantasy be literature? Heck yes,” she said. “Is all fantasy literature? Heck no, but there are bad writers in all genres.”

So, if everyone defines genres differently, why worry about them at all?

Fawcett regards them as a tool for markets and readers to more efficiently identify the attributes they most enjoy in a book.

“Genres exist partly for markets, partly for readers,” said Fawcett. “They are a nice and easy way to help people find what they like reading and what they don’t like reading.”

In light of this, Ginther believes fantasy is challenging the way readers think about genres.

“There has been so much muddying of the waters since Harry Potter,” he said. “Adults reading children books, and children wanting to read more advanced stuff. This is a good thing.”

Composing other worlds

Brown offers some timely advice for aspiring fantasy writers: write a lot. And when you’re done writing a lot, write some more. In addition, befriend people who are also insane enough to write books.

“Attend a lot of conferences and book launches,” he said. “This is where you meet writers and publishers, and stop feeling like an island.”

Ginther offers a new take on the old axiom “write what you know.”

“Everyone says write what you know, but you should also never stop finding new things to know,” he said. “The more you experience, the more it will influence and add to your writing.”

Brown believes the fantasy genre supplies authors with a larger artistic palette than other genres.

“Mainstream fiction has a set of limitations, but fantasy is a medium that allows unrestrained expression,” he said.

Although unrestrained expression might be related to some of the genre’s criticism, Brown thinks this problem only applies to a certain sub-grouping of fantasy.

“I’m not a fan of being able to do whatever you want,” he said. “Writing fantasy is challenging because there are lots of options for wandering off in the wrong direction - especially when it comes to dealing with magic.”

The key to good fantasy writing, for Brown, is in carefully established character limitations. Limitations incite a sense of unpredictability, and help readers relate to the novel.

“Throughout Tolkien, Gandalf does unreal things, but he maintains limitations so the characters cannot rely on (only) him,” he said. “Sometimes in the superficial forms of fantasy, you see a lack of limitation. I don’t read a lot of that.”

Published in Volume 67, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 26, 2012)

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