Friday, December 14, 2012

Identity Crisis Fantasy

Discussion Topic: Identity Crisis Fantasy

Over the years I've become increasingly aware of a baffling trend - fantasy that does not want to be categorized as fantasy. (Same can be said of science fiction or the umbrella term speculative fiction.) Now I'm not trying to assign any blame here - it could be the idea/intention of the author, agent, editor, publisher, etc. and it doesn't really matter - but the end result is a book with magic or other fantasy elements doesn't sit with its siblings in the fantasy sections of bookstores and libraries, but with regular fiction.

To be candid, this annoys me. The usual hope is that the book will sell better to mainstream audiences if it isn't labeled "fantasy," a stereotyped genre that many readers avoid. Of course, it's a little insulting to the fantasy genre - the implication that this particular book doesn't want to associate with its lesser peers. Fantasy, as with any genre, encompasses countless styles, tones, and sub-genres not to mention varying levels of quality. The fantasy stereotype usually jumps straight to Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy that can feel very Tolkien-esque. Not that I'm implying there's anything wrong with Tolkien or high fantasy works, but what few non-fantasy readers realize is how innovative and complex the genre is, from urban fantasy with magic intertwined with the mundane…to the increasingly popular steampunk with a nod to steam-powered gadgets and Victorian style…to slipstream fantasy that broaches boundaries between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy and horror, fantasy and mystery, etc. Yes, there's bad fantasy, and, yes, mainstream readers will judge genres they don't read based on what few books from that genre they know. However, there's something to be said for taking pride in what you are and whenever I see a book with magic, vampires, witches, curses, etc. shelved in mainstream fiction, I think we need a separate section entitled "identity crisis fantasy" for those magical books that can't figure out where they belong or simply don't want to go there.

Some bestseller examples of fantasy books considered mainstream fiction include THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman about a college that teaches magic, THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern about a duel between two magicians, and A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness about a scholar who finds a bewitched manuscript that awakens a fantastical underworld. I haven't read any of those three, so I would need someone else to present theories on why they're commonly considered mainstream fiction. However, turning towards books I have read, consider Kate Mosse's work, including LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE, historical novels with a hint of the supernatural thrown in. Or THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI by Alma Alexander. For that one, the fantasy element doesn't come into play until a long ways into the book, which could serve as explanation for its placement in fiction.

Of course, this trend isn't limited to fantasy. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro and THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood are both science fiction novels that I never see in the science fiction section. One can find similar examples of rogue books for mystery, romance, and any other genre. Really, genres are just marketing categories that give readers an idea of what to expect. Still I’m confused when a book with magic isn’t in the fantasy section.

To be fair, some books are hard to classify. THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville not only refuses to fit neatly in one genre, but certainly doesn't qualify as mainstream fiction either. If forced to choose, I view it more as mystery and the speculative elements the setting. However, even when you look closer at the speculative elements, there's room for interpretation, and depending on your perspective, this book could count as fantasy or science fiction or neither.

Then there's the "Is it? Isn't it?" type of fantasy book. The ones that might contain magic, but the author won't tell you for sure. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, follows a girl with an eating disorder. However, the girl's being haunted by her dead best friend...or she isn't. LIAR by Justine Larbalestier could be fantasy, except the compulsive liar protagonist might just be feeding readers another lie.

I understand when the harder-to-define books bounce around categories or steer away from the fantasy section, but when I notice a without-a-doubt fantasy book hiding out in fiction I wonder if it isn't having a bit of an identity crisis.

Your turn to chime in. Has anyone else noticed this trend? What are your thoughts? Can you think of more examples of "identity crisis fantasy" books?

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