Debate on fantasy literature currently in progress

Ken Wong’s “Stay and I Will Love Thee.”

Ken Wong’s “Stay and I Will Love Thee.”


I’d like to direct your attention to a very active conversation that is currently going on over at my blog regarding the “essentials” of literary fantasy. I’ve asked my readers to recommend five titles that come to mind when they think of the term literary fantasy, and so far the response has been outstanding in both sheer volume and diversity. Most interesting is the side-conversation that has developed about the nature of fantasy and whether both authorial intent and the social context of the work should be deciding factors in genre classification. Here are some excerpts thus so far:


For me the definition of big-ell Literary Fantasy comes to this: while solidly-written Fantasy has the capacity to *move* me, Literary Fantasy has the capacity to *change* me.

It’s really not about conventions, or world-building, or even the tendency of some literary works to require a thesaurus be kept close at hand (Gene Wolfe. New Sun. Oh! the words!) Instead, by one means or another these books, these authors, have stuffed my head with Big Ideas. Through their words and their worlds they have changed my perspective, and fundamentally altered how I look at my *own* world.


This has been a question popping up all over blogs recently (OF Blog of the Fallen recently posted a poll concerning ‘when’ fantasy literature should be dated back to).
The notion, I think, neglects issues of intention, orientation, and meaning as the time frame expands beyond recent centuries and beyond certain geographical boundaries. Gilgamesh, Paradise Lost, The Dvine Comedy, all seem to orient themselves differently than later, ‘modern’ fantastic literature. Certainly, it is easy for many to dismiss the religious, ontological and epistemic meanings in such writings as only fantastical, as a disease of language (as the grandfather of religious studies, F. Max Mueller defined myth) but this too me seems unfair. The Lord of the Rings and the Consolation of Philosophy differ along the same lines: Tolkien wrote for intellectual gratification, and he is read for entertainment (by most), while The Consolation, Beowulf, etc, yes may have indeed been entertainments, popular, and the like, but that does not negate their inherently religious, mythological quality, which places them in, I think, a category distinct from fantastic literature.

“J.M. McDermott:”

I wonder, like Matt, if it wasn’t the rise of industrialization. I actually suspect that the harsh reality of the first World War exploded the art world, in every way. Dadaism rose from the ashes of World War I, as did countless other movements that attempted to rebuild concepts of reality out of the wreckage that the war had wrought. Still, the Surrealists continued to do magical things, and the Spanish-speaking world never lost its sense of the wondrous. I also wonder if it wasn’t the rising influence of psychoanalyses categorizing and science-ing the subconscious. Instead of facing a void of unknown things, we had a language to discuss and control the numinous realm of our heads.
There is a lot more just like this. Feel free to join the conversation, or start a new one here.

9 comments on “Debate on fantasy literature currently in progress

  1. Upon reading this discussion, the role of emphasis occurred to me (which may already be obvious to everyone else). Different writers can present the same subject in a variety of ways.

    For example, changing lead into gold.

    A science fiction story might begin with the concept of bombarding a lead atom with neutrons to change the particle combination from that of lead into that of gold, and expand on this by showing how, in the 30th Century, the process has become commonplace and cost effective.

    In fantasy, there is no need to explain the science of it. The procedure might involve a wand, a mortal & pestle, and a jewelry store inside a giant star fruit, were the proprietor is a toad.

    In sci-fi horror, some poor scientist gets shoved into an atomic reactor by greedy industrialists who want his secret formula (or into a matter transmitter with a bar of gold). He trans-mutates into a grotesque, half-gold monster, thumping and lumbering after the bad guys. Glitter and blood.

    In fantasy horror, the bad guys steal an innocent wizard’s gold formula and wall him up in a sepulcher. As a last ironic taunt, they place a gold chain about his neck. The spirit of justice stirs and smolders . . . in due course, a living golden Golem wizard exacts his revenge on the misers who betrayed him.

    Anyway, it’s the emphasis, I think.

  2. I’m with Jeff Vandermeer in that I’ve long thought that all literature is fantasy in a fundamental sense: Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens etc. Any fiction is the attempt to create an artificial world through the imagination. This conviction has grown partly from arguments with genre-bigots. I’ve had too many pointless conversations with people who think fantasy is escapist or childish (but why do you NEED to read books with wizards and fairies?) – not like ‘real’ literature. I know I shouldn’t fall for it and try and defend books like Lyonesse or Starmaker as being among the greatest works of English literature, but I can’t help it. I guess it’s a personal, egotistical thing in that part of your identity can be bound up with these imaginative and intellectual experiences.

    I agree with the idea that there is no easily defined historical boundary either: Apuleius, Petronius and Lucian go right back to the first recorded western literature, not to mention Sumerian and Egyptian texts – the list should probably go on infinitely into oral epics and fireside stories and myth.

    The observation about Spanish language literature is apt. I’m sure other languages don’t create this crazy division. Look at how Bulgakov is revered in Russia. In fact I find it quite amusing and ironic how the critical world in the west always took him so seriously as great literature (quite rightly) whilst sneering at their own fantastic authors.

  3. Oh, and can I just add that I love the painting! is it Katje Borgesius and Grigori perhaps?

  4. I love the painting, too!

    Also, I want to make sure everyone knows that I wasn’t deriding fantasy in my last reply.

  5. I didn’t pick up on any derision, Bill. I see what you mean about generic strands or emphases. It reminds me of Iain Banks getting somewhat impatient with the ‘M’ initial dividing his SF from his ‘straight’ fiction. I remember him at a reading getting a bit testy and saying ‘Science Fiction has spaceships and robots and time travel etc.’ It’s a good a way to look at it as any I suppose.
    I’m going to google Ken Wong now.

  6. Aargh! I don’t need to google, Matt put the link in already… Cheers!

  7. MARY C says:

    WOW! Thanks for the link. Love Ken Wong!

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