The Stigma of Fantasy

There exists an unwritten assumption that certain books are considered literary fiction and belong in one section of a bookstore, while others are genre fiction and, therefore, belong somewhere else. And literary or even speculative fiction pieces receive fancy awards, while not a single fantasy author has ever won a Nobel Prize. Despite general assumptions, these attitudes have nothing to do with the actual quality of fantasy novels. This is not even an anti-fantasy movement. Instead, it is the bias against the supposed readers of fantasy that determines this stigmatization.

Popularity is a mixed blessing. Fantasy somehow oscillates between two extremes when it comes to readership: it is either too mainstream or too specific. Does everyone like The Song of Ice and Fire? Well, then it’s too popular to satisfy a sophisticated reader. Have the Shadowhunter Chronicles found love among teenage girls? Well, then these novels are considered unworthy of serious and mature readers whoever they may be. In the end, there is always a label attached to all kinds of ‘fantasy works’ despite the abyss of themes and ideas that separates them.

Simultaneously, fantasy novels that are considered pieces of ‘classical literature’, are rarely acknowledged as pieces of genre fiction. Why don’t we call Canterbury Tales fantasy? How is Faust not fantasy? How is Balsac’s Peau de Chagrin not an urban fantasy? There’s exists no rule that dictates the exact amount of supernatural elements one needs to add to a novel in order to create ‘fantasy’. What matters are the roots of genre fiction as such. And those are fairy tales and folklore.

The fairy tale dilemma. Fantasy is, supposedly, something for kids or young adults. So is, supposedly, animation. Perhaps, not all people watched Elfen Lied or Persepolis, thus this myth persists. Partially it endures because of the fairy tale origins of most fantasy works. We all know, where the inspiration for elves, mermaids and vampires comes from. Folklore and fairy tales are too often juxtaposed against ‘high culture’. In fact, few intellectuals treated folklore lovingly before the European national revivals in the beginning of 19th century. With all the problems that nationalisms caused later on, those were romantic artists (the Grimm brothers were among them), who first turned their attention to folklore, presenting it as an integral part of what is now considered ‘high culture’. Nowadays, it seems, these approaches are mostly forgotten.

Because fantasy art like surrealism attracts attention and asks more questions than gives answers.

Obscure fantasy art and cheap paperbacks. Another weird reason for the marginalized status of fantasy is, as strange as it may seem, artistic experimentation that began roughly in the sixties. A new field allowed artists to express themselves in whatever way they wanted, and chain bikinis and dragons did not always look ‘serious’ or ‘mature’. Your story could be about existential dread, violence, and the philosophy of power, but your book cover reflected something else entirely. Whenever I need to remind myself of that, I look at my childhood copies of the Witcher Series. Overdosed bodybuilders, mermaids with breasts the size of balconies and multi-coloured dragons do not really have anything in common with the story. They look interesting, though. But, perhaps, it is the very unconventional nature of that unusual art that makes them somewhat strange for non-fantasy readers. And, perhaps, many of them do not understand what fantasy is and can be.

Fluid classification. Fantasy comes in all shapes and forms. Unlike other categories or genres, everything ‘fantasy’ is brushed under one carpet. In the end, you can have a light-hearted romance and a jaw-dropping philosophical thriller on the same shelf in the same category, in the same genre. It is all fantasy, right? We tend to generalize, so, in the end, you will most likely assume that ‘fantasy’ is whatever your first pick was. Buried Giant and Anita Blake are both considered genre fiction. Most non-fantasy readers do not care to distinguish between ‘fantasy heist’, ‘fantasy thriller’, ‘new weird’, and ‘contemporary fantasy’. And all the hundreds of other labels that overlap and confuse. Gaslamp fantasy, steampunk fantasy, political fantasy…., etc.

And, of course, there is always ‘Fabulism’ (or ‘magical realism’ if you focus specifically on South American literature). While I appreciate the term, I too often see it mentioned in relation to ‘serious books’ as opposed to ‘not serious’ epic fantasy. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, for example, is often considered fabulism or satire, while it has all the elements of a typical urban fantasy. How is a novel about a witch, a talking cat, the dashing Faust-type devil, and flights on brooms over Moscow is not urban fantasy? I have always assumed that it was.

All fantasy works deal with the ‘what if’ concept that does not fit into the conventional reality. (unless you are from Eastern Europe, then…sure, our reality is weird) In the end, ‘fabulism’ is still ‘fantasy’. And, more often, than not, it is also literary fiction: well written, addressing complex topics and themes, etc.

As a grad student in a ‘serious field’, I was not expected to read or appreciate ‘fantasy’. Because I am a historian. Because fantasy is supposedly not serious, not for scholars and not for adults. (mind you, hard sci fi is fine, since it defines you as a ‘fancy science person’, so reading Lem and Asimov elevates you)

Not all books are created equal, but all genres are. However, genre snobbery is an interesting reality that reflects not the attitudes to ‘fantasy’ or to ‘romance’ genres as such, but mostly toward people, who prefer them. In the end, it is the recognition of readers and writers of the genre that can make a change. And, yes, a Nobel Prize awarded to a fantasy writer would, certainly, be a nice touch.

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