Forward In All Directions: The Intricacies of Genre
I have learned a valuable lesson about writing a weekly column, which is germane to today’s topic: make sure that when you mention your column topic for “Next Week” that you can actually write about it!
This is germane because, as I conducted my reading and pondering about the topic I had mentioned, I realized that what I want to talk about this week is not the anti-epic per se, but the step away from the epic in fantasy literature. The proliferation of subgenres (some of which are more clearly marketing tools than others) is not about producing a single antithesis to epic fantasy. It is more about the expansion of alternatives, a splintering of fantasy genres that mirror to some extent the raveling of the fiction market and its social webs. It is about creating new literary niches, it is about trying to gain congruity with readers’ ideas and existing categories (sometimes in an act of appropriation), and it is about a marketplace and reading culture that is undergoing rapid, sometimes momentous, change.
My initial hypothesis was that epic fantasy was, in part, waning in its classical form because there was a combination of fatigue with the genre and changes in the publishing field that made such lengthy works harder to sell, particularly to merchants who wanted slimmer volumes on their shelves. Both of these reasons seem sensible at first glance, but as I thought more about my hypothesis (and looked at some shelves in bookstores and lists online), I realized that these are not causes, but symptoms. People still enjoy epic fantasies (warts, imperialism and all), but fewer authors are writing them, not out of fatigue but out of changing expectations from all quarters of the literary field. This may be a sign of exhaustion with the classic epic fantasy, but there is a more tangled interplay taking place in the social life of fantastika.
This is a problematic point to explicate, because it is so difficult to understand all of the positions in the literary field: readers, authors, fans, editors, publishers, distributors, merchants. But the volatility of fantastic literature right now is not hard to miss, and it produces both space for innovation and pressures of conformity. Readers are consuming more stories while creating market shifts with their tastes and their desire for availability and inexpensive consumption, especially those devouring (and often pirating) e-books. Brick-and-mortar booksellers are apparently demanding shorter works (as some of the authors stated at the WFC panel on epic fantasy) that maximize the number of books they can sell while online retailers undercut them and e-books are artificially priced low to sell e-readers and co-opt readers into exerting pressure on publishers. And even in this brief summary I can see complications under the surface and dynamics undetected.
Given these social and economic dynamics, the idea that the “anti-epic” has great importance (and exists in some easy opposition to the epic fantasy) is too simplistic, and too reductionist of what is happening in the literary field. Furthermore, the “anti-epic” has to be understood as something more complicated and intriguing than the opposite of the epic. This idea is reinforced by the fact that some epics are also considered anti-epics, creations with multiple intentions and great depths. For example, last week I used Paradise Lost as an example of an epic, when it is also considered an example of an anti-epic. One can argue that each, and both, of these genre descriptors can apply to the work. And while I initially wondered if there existed actual anti-epics in fantastic literature, I came to realize that there are few of them, but there are many other works that eschew epic characteristics, while others play with the conventions associated with the genre.
Take N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy; it has resounding echoes of epic fantasy, yet it introduces ideas and characters that recast the sturm und drang nature of of genre by personalizing and humanizing it. Instead of the the combination of predestination and progressive story arc that most epics adhere to, Jeminsin’s books have more of the chaos of life in them, and characters who are much more than the farmling-to-be-monarchs or fallen sovereigns that usually serve as protagonists. The shift affects the divine as well as the mortal, as the city of Shadow teems with godlings and flourishing magic in the second book, rather than some generalized creeping evil. It is not a shift to gritty realism, but a tempering of the rigid morality and stereotypes that often power the standard epic. It is a messier world, one more resonant with human experience.
This turn away from the austere and often inexorable march of the standard epic is further reflected in the growth of a cluster of subgenres glossed as “urban fantasy.” In 2010 these works vastly outsold their aged progenitor. The question is, however, if this comparison is fair: are the two genres comparable? Are the borders of both so easy to define? A search on Amazon produces odd results: there are over twice as many titles shown for a basic “epic fantasy” search as there are for “urban fantasy” yet the latter are much higher on the sale lists. This despite the fact that “urban fantasy” supposedly has a more encompassing meaning, one that is not oppositional to epic fantasy (and a definition that would apply in some sense to Jemisin’s work!). Speaking of encompassing, this becomes a more demented discussion when one includes “paranormal romance,” which had nearly as many hits as “epic fantasy.” The field of fantasy fiction has both broadened and diffused in multiple directions.
This is the most fascinating aspect about discussing and trying to codify genre; it can be elastic, elusive, and defined differently depending on the viewer’s purpose. The idea of urban fantasy is greater than its surface definition, as many fantasy works take place in cites; I have yet to see, for example, The Return of the King listed so, despite the fact that much of the action is centered on a great city. Paranormal romance would seem to be almost meaningless, given the proliferation (and often centrality) of romance in so many works of fantasy, and the odd use of “paranormal” rather than,say, “fantastic.” But this designation strives to be more encompassing than urban fantasy or other genre designations, subsuming works under the genre preconceptions of the romance novel, which is an enthusiastically-read variety and massively commercial. This may be why other genre labels are pulled into its vortex of definition, less for literary reasons than social or economic ones.
This could lead to a very involved discussion of how genre contains paradigms and symbolic capital, how they function as modes of constraint and spaces of possibilities, but my point for now is that what they are not is a simple group of opposites. They are living ideas because we invigorate them with our stories, our interpretations, our arguments, and our agendas. Their constraints exist only so long as we reproduce them, either in literature or in social discourse. And our use of them can make them surprising and frustrating, sometimes at the same time. I certainly learned that lesson this week!
NEXT TIME: A change in gears: a critical appreciation of the works of James Enge.
Filed under: The Bellowing Ogre
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