In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn has said that "the debate over definition is now long-standing and a consensus has emerged, accepting as a viable 'fuzzy-set' a range of critical definitions of fantasy" (xii). In fact, she argues that a combination of Brian Attebery's formulation of the "fuzzy set" (12) with a choice of critical framework chosen from Christina Brooke-Rose, John Clute, Kathryn Hume, Rosemary Jackson, or Mendlesohn's own Rhetorics is all the critical rigor necessary to analyze and understand fantasy. In many respects, she is right; however, there is one major flaw: the debate never happened.
This might seem a grandiose claim, the cry of a young academic seeking to tear down the work of his predecessors to gain notoriety or even an apparent misunderstanding of previous critics due to a lack of ability to parse the nuance of their arguments and intentions. Let me take this one moment to say unequivocally that it is not. The point that I wish to make is one that is both obvious and yet unspoken. We have never had the debate about "fantasy," and the evidence for this is as stark as it is obvious.
A stronger point to consider is that now is precisely the time to have the debate. In previous years, we have sought out small groups of texts, examples, and fuzzy sets around key texts to help us define the nebulous construction of fantasy. Now the genre has consolidated; now we have a huge body of work which has cohered into something definite and discernible beyond literary antecedents, beyond outlying exceptions. There is a core, a genre, which can be examined and investigated. This genre has evolved beyond the early examples and taken on a life of its own. It is vast, it is diverse, and it is self-aware. Now we must have the debate and move the discussion to examining fantasy in its own right.
In John Clute's introduction of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, discussing the difficulty the editors encountered when trying to create a working definition of fantasy for the encyclopedia's remit, he states, "You know it is a fantasy when you see it" (viii). Given that this is one of the foundational critical approaches and definitions that Mendlesohn suggests has settled the debate and Clute has resorted to paraphrasing Damon Knight's oft-cited remark "science fiction is what we point to when we say it" ("Introduction" xiii), it is difficult to see how this is anything other than starting the debate. Attebery has addressed the essential principal of my argument in the first chapter of Strategies of Fantasy. "Fantasy," as a term, is used in three major ways: the mode, the genre, and the formula. This simple statement reveals a problem that has plagued fantasy scholarship almost from its very inception: when we as academics discuss fantasy, we are almost always arguing at cross purposes, not because we have never defined the limits of fantasy nor because our desire for taxonomy has obscured the discussion but because we use the term fantasy to mean multiple things.
In Todorov's The Fantastic; in Hume's Fantasy and Mimesis; in Jackson's Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion; and even in Mendlesohn's own Rhetorics of Fantasy, each has, at times, used the term "fantasy" interchangeably with "fantastic" to refer to the supergenre or mode of "the fantastic," the grand overarching category of nonrealist or nonmimetic literature. This much is obvious when one considers the number of sf, horror, and fantasy texts which are used in these critical works to illustrate the arguments. This is not a problem in and of itself. Arguments concerning the fantastic in literature, the arguments that allow us to explore, explain, investigate, and analyze broad swathes of literature are necessary for the critical endeavor and to place our research in context. If we did not have these frameworks or appreciation of larger structures we would only produce text specific, ad-hoc limited analyses. However, as Attebery clearly states, fantasy is not the same as the fantastic. Arguments about the fantastic differ from arguments about fantasy in particular.
In Gary K. Wolfe's Evaporating Genres, he expands on this very same point. "This book consists of eleven essays on fantastic literature . . . to re-examine these ideas in light of my current thinking and more recent developments in these genres" (vii). The genres with the broad field of the fantastic are his area of investigation—genres, plural. In fact, the IAFA, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, contains within it three literary divisions: fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The scholarly association dedicated to analyzing and researching the literature of the fantastic recognizes that fantasy is distinct from the fantastic, just as it is distinct from sf and horror. This simple ideological or conceptual approach is key to understanding what I am trying to articulate. Fantasy is not the overarching mode. Fantasy is not the term to use for the discussion of the mode, the supergenre, the all-encompassing category. Fantasy is a genre within the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre comparable to and as established as its siblings, sf and horror. Fantasy is a distinct tradition, a distinct genre, a distinct entity with all the complexity, paradoxes, exceptions, and formulas that every other genre exhibits. To argue that fantasy is the fantastic is both limiting and inaccurate. It negatively impacts on our work on the fantastic and on fantasy itself if we continue to conflate the terms.
This insistence on terminology is not simply an academic quibble or a specious argument for argument's sake; rather, this goes to my initial assertion. The debate never happened. We have debated aspects of fantasy. We have debated key texts within fantasy. We have debated approaches to the fantastic. We have agreed on a consensus of critical frameworks that can be applied to the fantastic as well as to fantasy. But we have never had a debate about fantasy. The very shape, size and core of the genre remain areas that need meaningful and concerted debate, deconstruction, and discussion. Identifying innovation in the works of George R. R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay needs to be placed in the context of the subset of fantasy in which they write: historical fantasy. Like Paul Kearney, both Kay and Martin take historical inspiration for their fantasies and build on them. This is not necessarily as innovative as it may first appear, but this is only apparent if we consider the whole of the genre of fantasy. Innovation, trends, tropes, and formulas need to be discussed, but we need to discuss them in relation to the whole of the genre of fantasy.
Scholarship tends to focus on distinct or original texts that attempt to deepen or widen the genre and define its outer boundaries. However, in order to identify how texts subvert genre norms and push the boundaries of genre convention, we must have a clear conception of the stereotypes and clichés they subvert, as well as their origins. As Amy Devitt has said in relation to the construction of genre, "Variation within literary texts is generally more highly valued than is similarity" (706). She also notes:
Where rhetorical genre theorists often seek texts that typify a genre, examine writers' conformity to generic conventions, and study readers' roles in promoting generic expectations, literary genre theorists are more likely to seek texts that break the rules of a genre, to value writers who violate conventions, and to act as readers promoting unconventional generic readings. Great authors have often been admired for their "breaking" of generic conventions, thereby expanding the literary universe. (704–05)
Innovative novels are interesting, engaging, and often of a higher literary quality than their more formulaic, genre-grounded counterparts. Yet, texts which exist on the periphery are, by definition, not representative of the genre as a whole; they are the exceptions and not the most illustrative of genre conventions. In fact, non-conventional texts and the importance that academic scrutiny places on them create a distorted perception of the genre as a whole, skewing the focus towards ground-breaking works and the edges of the genre, rather than toward its center.
In this respect, and with the exception of Diana Wynne Jones's parody of perceived stereotype (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland), it seems that literary genre theorists have overlooked an important point. The core of the genre, the center of the mass of popular fantasy literature, is better suited to explain the fundamentals that nontypical texts then exploit or subvert, while the unique or distinctive texts better illustrate the range of possibilities beyond them. Literary merit is not necessarily an indicator of critical worth, and popularity should not always be anathema to critical value.
We need to discuss the distinction between children's fantasy, core genre fantasy texts, and modern innovations within the genre, rather than assume that these examples are representative. Comparably, if one were writing on the genre of sf and half the examples given were children's sf novels, innumerable scholars would take issue with this construction as representative of the core of the genre. Yet this same approach, using the works of J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, and Phillip Pullman in discussing the genre of fantasy, passes without comment. Yes, the discussion of these authors is important; yes, we should analyze their works; yes, we should analyze children's fantasy—but we should not do this on the understanding that these are representative of the genre.
There are numerous fantasy series, franchises, multivolume epics, stand-alone fantasy novels, and anthologies of fantasy stories. There are a myriad of forms of fantasy, and this list has not even included hybrid texts, cross-genre pollination, exceptional texts, and texts on the very periphery of fantasy. We need to debate these. We need to analyze these. We need to integrate our understanding of these texts within the broader genre of fantasy. This is already a Herculean task without conflating fantasy with the fantastic. These debates can only happen if we start by acknowledging that fantasy is not the same as the fantastic and being clear from the very beginning what we are discussing, debating, and arguing. If the term fantasy is still contentious in this sense, perhaps the term gf, genre fantasy, could be an easily used and understandable abbreviation for the genre texts. This would make the concept of the genre of fantasy as discernible as the term sf does for science fiction.
When we address fantasy we should address it with the same rigor and the same specificity as we do sf. We need to acknowledge the historical antecedents such as Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and J. R. R. Tolkien. We also need to acknowledge the dross, the hack writing, the poor examples as well as the key texts that subvert, innovate, and push boundaries. If we do not understand the formulas, if we are not familiar with what is happening at the core of the genre, we can never be sure when one of our more favored or critically accepted authors has done something innovative. We can never say with any certainty that an author or work is notable if we are blind to the structures and developments within the genre. If we wish to analyze and debate the state of the genre as it now stands, modern texts must be considered in conjunction with key historical texts.
Fantasy scholars have typically placed J. R. R. Tolkien's 1954 work The Lord of the Rings at the heart of the genre and argued that this text has greatly influenced the formal and generic composition of much fantasy literature. As the construction of genre is obviously mutable and evolving, we must be prepared to reconsider established positions and re-evaluate customary approaches and terminology. Andy Sawyer has argued that fantasy as a popular genre has evolved at least twice, the first iteration of "sword and sorcery" or "heroic fantasy" stemming from Howard's Conan stories, and the second stemming from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (16). Two key related and mutually supportive influences on the evolution of the modern fantasy genre subsequent to Tolkien are the numerous franchises and role-playing games (rpgs) that have developed in the last forty years. Yet due to our distaste for these books, dislike of rpgs, or our dismissal of their "hack" writing, we do not consider their impact on a genre that by definition is "popular" literature. David Hartwell has written on sf in a similar vein,
Gernsback was the man who first saw science fiction as the ordinary pleasure reading of the new technological world. But his standards were not the standards of a literary man, of a modernist. They were the standards of a publisher of popular entertainment in pulp magazines, low-class, low-paying, low-priced popular entertainment serving the mass market. (18)
Clearly the work of Hugo Gernsback is not well written. Ralph 124C41+ is an embarrassment in terms of literary techniques and the craft of writing. Yet no serious sf scholar would dismiss the importance and the impact that Gernsback, his work, and the writing of the pulps in general had on shaping the modern genre of sf. So it is a curiosity that we as fantasy scholars routinely dismiss or ignore a large core constituent of the genre simply because it is not to our taste. RPG-based franchises such as TSR's Dragonlance, Games Workshop's Warhammer, and now computer game tie-ins and novelizations continue to add to the field. We ignore them at our peril, for to ignore what is evolving at the core of the genre (or at its most formulaic, if we are going to be elitist about it) is to ignore the very real innovations that are happening in front of our eyes. The result of this academic myopia is that we are blind to the true shape of the genre, and as a result our analysis is becoming skewed, unrelated to and unrepresentative of what is actually taking place in fantasy. Considering rpgs and their related franchises is not a call to ignore Tolkien; far from it. But it is a plea to acknowledge that the genre continues to evolve and has assimilated, adapted, and argued against more modern forms of fantasy beyond the classic texts.
When we constantly look back only to Tolkien and to Lewis as formative influences on fantasy as a genre, we do a disservice to how the genre has evolved and changed. Stephen R. Donaldson's essay "Epic Fantasy in the Modern World—A Few Observations" clearly articulates his view and formulation of fantasy; that of the internal externalized, the literalized metaphor, the psyche made manifest. Like Clute, Donaldson works with a paradigm in which fantasy connects character, story, and landscape on a deeply thematic and often psychoanalytical level. Yet the advent of rpgs forcibly moved fantasy into a more sf-like construction. Secondary worlds in fantasy have become less an extension of the characters' internal psychology made manifest or functionality of story and closer to the paradigm of an alien world, inhabited and populated by monstrous and heroic alike. The setting is no longer dependant on or servant to story; it is a world in which multiple stories can happen. When trilogies stretch into series, when authors build a world to function as a setting for multiple stories, we have to move away from considering this as an exception within fantasy or as Clute puts it, "Full Fantasy" ("Grail" 330). We must acknowledge that the paradigm has shifted, or, if not acknowledge, then at least be open to the debate. The genre has evolved because the readership has evolved, the fans have changed, the authors have changed, and the world has changed. As David Hartwell said,
It is a source of both amusement and frustration to sf people, writers and readers, that public consciousness of science fiction has almost never penetrated beyond the first decade of the field's development. (19)
If we locate our scholarship of the fantasy genre solely in the consideration of early fantasists such as Howard, Leiber, and Tolkien, and we base our conception of the fantasy paradigm predominantly on their work, we continue to perpetuate the myth that fantasy has not evolved. In essence we risk committing the self-same sin; not looking past the first few decades of the field's development. To not consider the impact of rpgs such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is to deny their influence on the genre. This would be despite the fact that established fantasy authors such as John M. Ford, Steven Erikson, Ian C. Esslemont, Raymond E. Feist, Jo Walton, George R. R. Martin, and China Miéville and newer authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Jim Butcher, and Adrian Tchaikovsky have openly discussed their personal histories with gaming and in many cases have published rpg material themselves. If we are to understand the approaches and concepts that have influenced these new fantasy authors, whether they are reacting against them or utilizing them in their fictions, then it seems both inevitable and essential that we consider the role and impact of rpgs. In fact, given that a number of authors have described the impact and influence of rpgs on their writing, it could be argued that the rpg has supplanted Tolkien as "the mental template" for fantasy and thus assumed a central position as key text within the gf fuzzy-set. Attebery has argued that
Tolkien's form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template, and will be until someone else achieves equal recognition with an alternative conception. (14)
I am arguing that the rpg and its related literature, including franchise writing and "pulp" fantasy, have generated that "alternative conception" and deserve that "equal recognition." If the identification of key texts is solely the province of the fantasy academic who refuses to consider rpg related material, then the set constructed will not resemble the genre as a whole but rather only its periphery.
By combining this gaming perspective of fantasy with more traditional subgenres of "mythic" or "epic" fantasy and "sword and sorcery," we can construct a more meaningful fuzzy set or grouping that corresponds to core genre conventions. It is this subgrouping that the term gf describes, in effect a form of "typical" fantasy positioned at the center of the genre. Consequently magic realism, literary fantasy, historical fantasy, et al. are here viewed as wider extensions of the genre, located at a distance from this core "stereotypical" adventure quest. In this framework, the "fantastic" is the broadest of categories, while other forms of fantasy may contain aspects of gf's conventions and clichés, they exist toward the periphery of the genre as they attempt to push the boundaries and create innovation. The central gf texts are those most representative of genre norms and conventions. By isolating and analyzing the core concepts of genre fantasy, we gain a clearer picture of it. As David Fishelov has argued:
even in those areas of modern literature where it seems that generic rules are absent, the innovative areas of canonic literature, generic rules are still a vital part of the literary communicative situation. These generic conventions might be viewed as a challenge, or a horizon, against which the writer and his reader have to define themselves. The writer may stretch the generic rules, he may produce some unpredictable "match" between different existing conventions of existing literary genres (or even between literary conventions and conventions taken from other media), but in order to understand the overall significance of his text, we should be aware of the generic system against which he is working. A writer does not create in a textual vacuum, and a rebellious child is still part of the family. (82–83)
In order to accurately analyze innovative fantasy texts, one must first be clear on the generic conventions. When the fantasy critic has defined and codified the core, it becomes easier to isolate those elements of the wider genre that subvert, invert, or play with convention. While it is commonly accepted that fantasy contains clichés and conventions (as illustrated by Jones's Tough Guide), rpgs and their related fictions identify these conventions, as well as provide rationales and a set of terms with which to explain and utilize them. However, as Ralph Cohen has argued:
[Genres] are historical assumptions constructed by authors, audiences, and critics in order to serve communicative and aesthetic purposes. . . . Groupings arise at particular historical moments, and as they include more and more members, they are subject to repeated redefinitions or abandonment. (210)
The rpg is illustrative of the historical rise of convention within the genre as fantasy evolved from Tolkien through to the modern day. Games, gamers, and game designers have become part of the dialogue through which the genre is defined. An inclusive definition of the genre of fantasy should therefore also consider the perspectives of the consumer and fan, editor and author, in addition to that of the critic and academic. Stableford has said that "our first and most intimate experience with the fantastic is the substance of our dreams" (323), yet while this is almost certainly true, one of the first experiences of the "genre of fantasy" occurs upon our first entrance to a bookshop and seeing the section marked "Fantasy."
This is part of the debate we need to have. We each have specializations, areas of interest, text-specific knowledge, and differing perspectives on the genre. This goes to the heart of fantasy criticism as the field, the genre, is simply too vast to know it all. Yet we cannot have this debate if we argue at cross purposes, if we cannot agree on simple terminology and cannot even agree that fantasy is a genre. The fantastic is the mode and fantasy is not the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre, and that genre is not sf. Fantasy exists as a genre in its own right with a body of work that has become increasingly self-aware. If the genre is aware of itself, then as fantasy scholars the least we can do is engage with that awareness. It is time to call a sword a sword and move on to the debate.
A. P. Canavan lives in Liverpool.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.