What did you call me? A little while ago, I was explaining the sort of writing I do to a friend of mine. We barely got into it when he interrupted me, saying, “So, you write fantasy.” I said, “No. It’s Magical Realism. It’s different. It uses magical or fantastic elements to mirror, echo, or emphasize the very real human conflict in the story.” He said, “But your stories have ghosts and talking animals and stuff like that, right?” “Yeah.” “Sounds like fantasy.”
I wouldn’t say I was offended by this, but I was defensive about it. Another friend of mine accused me of being an elitist, that I shouldn’t fight it. Thing is, I’m not wholly opposed to Fantasy as a genre. For me, it’s just that I don’t feel like I write in that genre, though my writing potentially shares some features.
So, what’s Fantasy? Fantasy, as a literary genre, was unfortunately named. I mean, the word fantasy can be used to mean anything that is not real, if we use the definition of the word as the boundaries of the genre. In a sense, all of fiction could fall under Fantasy. I feel like, in reality, genres are defined by the sort of conventions and elements that we talk about with each other when we assume the other person knows what we’re talking about.
So, for example, when I talk about reading a Romance novel, most people aren’t going to think about Orwell’s 1984, despite the fact that the story has a powerful love story. No, the Romance genre is much more specific than this. Romance, as a genre, conjures imagines of paperback covers with a shirtless Fabio for people.
With Fantasy, I mainly picture Quest or Hero fantasy (medieval settings, characters with magical powers, world-building, etc.). And when I polled my friends for their favorite Fantasy novels, a huge majority immediately mentioned Quest fantasy novels. Fantasy feels much closer to Romance, as a genre, than as some sort of meta-genre, encapsulating anything that isn’t strict Realism.
Are genres useful then? I do not subscribe to the postmodernist thinkers who would say that genres are worthless. Deconstruction can go too far, people. The thing about it is, I like the idea of genres being somewhat rigid and defined. In fact, I would like to have very specific systems for genres and subgenres. I know what you’re thinking: stories do not fit so neatly into genres. Exactly.
Stories are like colors. We can know our primary colors by their RGB codes and so forth, yet the variations in shades and colors via blends and dilutions are near limitless. Similarly, most stories would fall across a spectrum of genres, and recognizing the conventions it borrows gives interesting insight into the story.
When we are willing to define a genre as literally anything that is not strictly Realism, I feel like it does not match the shared understandings we have of the genre, it does not help to understand the real conventions of Fantasy, and it becomes so all-encompassing to become nearly meaningless.
I’ll give you an example: In a poetry class I had, the teacher was talking about prose poetry. I know what it is, but I was curious how she would define the genre, so I asked her exactly what prose poetry was. She hesitated, then asked the class what they thought. They all shrugged and turned the question back on her. She struggled, hesitated, and stammered, so I changed the question. I asked her if there was any piece of prose in the world, be it a story, an essay, or a tax form, that could not also be considered prose poetry. She said no.
Net effect = Prose Poetry is pretty much everything … and therefore has nothing that defines it. Essentially, by being everything, it is nothing.
What does it mean? Definition, and the more specific, the better, is not a bad thing. It doesn’t limit stories. Instead, it gives a framework to talk about the work. We should figure out what are the elements of the shared definitions we have when we talk about genres, and though the definition will keep shifting with time, it’ll make for a more thorough and comparative discussion on literature.