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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.

9 Comments on Forward In All Directions: The Intricacies of Genre

  1. None of it is new. Well, there are new authors, but the sub-genres are not new and having alternate world fantasies that are not straight epic war novels is not new either, including having stories in cities. Epic fantasy became a sub-genre name that had very little to do with the meaning of the word “epic.” Contemporary fantasy, what we started re-calling urban fantasy, a revamp of the term as used in the 1980’s, has been a steady part of the fantasy market for decades. Some time periods it has more bestsellers and category top sellers than others, but it’s never gone away. Parnormal romance has been around since the late 1990’s (well actually before that, but in large numbers since the late 1990’s,) and sold well then too; it’s just that the SFF media never paid attention to it until the romance writers began to push their way into SFF conventions and PR venues. Historical fantasy, comic fantasy, etc., all there, and as fantasy fiction drew in more readers in general, the quieter top sellers of fantasy began to get more media notice, whatever their sub-category. I would love it if some of the top writers of their time, like Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen Brust, Tanith Lee, Glen Cook, Charles de Lint, Tim Powers — all still producing — and so many others were not always having their contributions erased for the now we’ve finally got fantasy fixed and have variety idea that does not fit the actual history of the field. I’m not saying that Jemisen is not doing interesting things that are very human and less rigid, but the idea that she’s a rare, new flower in fantasy fiction seems to be stretching things quite a bit. And saying that alternate world epics are the progenitor of urban fantasy is just not accurate at all.

  2. I agree with KatG: I think we’re not dealing with new subgenres but rather with lack of memory of older works (or older works were/are classified as something else, which often results in people not reading them if the class is not on their preference list).

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Ditto with genre works.

  3. @KatG & Athena:

    To help me respond better, can you point out where I say these are new subgenres?  It was not my intention to say that, and it is not part of my argument that they are new, just that this resurgence and attention is more recent.  I would appreciate it.

  4. Hi John,

    Since KatG and Athena have answered not your question let me try. Shortly after your phrase, “the proliferation of sub-genres”, You go on to mention, “it is about the creating of new literary niches.”  Now maybe “new literary niches”, do not encompass ” sub-genre proliferation”,  but that is the meaning that I also would take from your arguments.


  5. @Honey:

    Thanks for pointing that out.  I see what you’re saying, and it was not my intention to conflate those two things, but to say that some genres, old or recent, are carving out new places and relationships in the changing literary field; niche is not genre.  My understanding, for example, of the urban fantasy genre is that it has morphed from a “traditional” definition (de Lint, Bull, and others) that was more based on mythology to an incarnation that fuses romance and mystery genre conventions with the supernatural, often in a contemporary, urban setting.  This version (which I think, like all genres, is contested to some extent) has achieved much more prominence and popularity in recent years (by which I do not mean just the last few). At the same time there are newer subgenres, such as steampunk, which are part of the changes too.

  6. Jules Verne was steampunk.  He just didn’t call himself that.  Tanith Lee and Angela Carter wrote paranormal romance twenty-plus years ago (try Magritte’s Secret Agent and Master, respectively — just two I could recall right off the top of my head; the latter is from 1974).  I could go on, but you get the gist.

  7. A cold-hearted suggestion for you.  Although you have excellent command of the language–no typos, no mis-usages, you should probably run the spell checker before posting your columns anyway.  I found two repeated words in the text–a the the and a to to.  Happens to me when typing all the time. Is why I spellcheck, mostly, altho my keyboard also drops letters.  Otherwise, another fine essay.

  8. @Ken:

    Thanks!  I try to catch those, but sometimes they do slip through.  I always appreciate corrections.


    I understand your point, but part of my argument here is that genre is a cultural tool and a social connector.  Verne’s work is certainly a major influence for the current steampunk aesthetic/genre/movement/carnival, but was not labelled that in his time for a number of reasons.  The genre of romance you are referring to (there’s more than one, all influencing one another) definitely has deep roots in the literary past, and authors have blended love stories and the supernatural for some time, but there is now a very heavily marked and marketed category called “paranormal romance” which is what I am referring to in the piece.  I am not writing about the history of discrete genres, but more about social perception and reception, and how that is affecting the literary field.

  9. (This is going to be long, sorry.) Well then I probably misunderstood some of what you were trying to do.  But phrases like this contributed to how I read it:

    “it produces both space for innovation”– The implication is that the new market provides opportunities for innovation, which the older works didn’t have.

    “while others play with the conventions associated with the genre.” — This is creating a very limited definition of epic and what was done as epic fantasies. It’s more towards the dictionary definition of epic, but that fails to take into account how the word epic has been used in the category market over time. It has not been used to only mark stories that are like Tolkein. It was used to encompass a large range of alternate world and cross-dimensional fantasy tales, some adventures, some mysteries, some war epics, etc.

    “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.” — This again produces a very limited view of past epic fantasy as monochrome and now it’s all pretty and rainbowy.

    “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.” — This states incorrectly that urban fantasy was born of epic fantasy. It also states incorrectly that urban fantasy bestsellers outsell epic (alternate world) fantasy bestsellers. They don’t, though some of them have sold very well.

    “are the two genres comparable?”– They are not two genres. They are two market sub-categories in which wide varieties of stories are written. We call these market categories “genres” and “sub-genres,” though in the strict meaning of the word, they aren’t. Both of these sub-genres or sub-categories that you’re talking about have always been in the fantasy field.

    “The field of fantasy fiction has both broadened and diffused in multiple directions.” — Implying again that previously it didn’t do this, which is incorrect.

    “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.” – It’s called paranormal romance because the category romance market called it that as a sub-category of romance. It’s a marketing term. Fantasy romance has always been around in the romance field, but in the 1990’s, they got serious about publishing much more of it. This was due in part to the success of Diana Galbadon’s non-category romance series The Outlander. The romance field started using the word “paranormal” along with fantasy and futuristic to refer to romances with SFF elements in the early 1990’s. In the late 1990’s, paranormal stuck as an umbrella term, especially to distinguish it from what was being then called supernatural fantasy in the fantasy category market, even though it was just regular old contemporary fantasy, which then fairly rapidly got changed to being called by the old 1980’s term urban fantasy, which back in the 1980’s was also a term used interchangeably with contemporary fantasy. Simple, right? 🙂

    Jemisin’s stuff is uniquely hers — and she seems a smart cookie besides — but her work is very much in the tradition of previous, acclaimed, best-selling fantasy authors — Patricia McKillip particularly, Ursula LeGuin, Peter S. Beagle, Octavia Butler, Pamela Dean, Terri Windling, Sherri S. Tepper, even Katherine Kerr.

    Contemporary fantasy, which has been around in the market field as long as alternate world (epic) fantasy and historical fantasy, was predominantly suspense related, built on the ideas of thrillers and mysteries, again what came in the 1980’s to be called urban fantasy, a term that is not new but simply reapplied. Contemporary fantasy in this vein included cross-over dimensional works like Michael Moorcock, Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels. It included countless urban fantasy novels such as S.P. Somtowm’s vampire rock musician series, (and Anne Rice of course,) Christopher Moore’s Blood-sucking Fiends series, Mike Resnick’s Stalking the Unicorn, Esther Friesner’s New York by Knight, Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series with multiple author, R.A. MacAvoy’s Tea with Black Dragon, James Blaylock, 1989’s Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy Collins, Clive Barker, Joe Lansdale, and so on and so forth. Pick a decade, you’ll find quite a few, though it certainly increased rapidly starting in the 1980’s. (Then there are historical fantasies that are noirish like P.N. Elrod’s The Vampire Files, set in the 1930’s, and things like Glen Cook’s comic Garrett P.I. series which has been running for twenty years. I’m reading the new one now.)

    In the 1990’s, contemporary fantasy was involved in the field and often sold well – Laurell K. Hamilton started her Anita Blake series in the mid-1990’s — but the SFF media attention tended to focus on several big alternate world fantasy series (epics) – Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth and Song of Ice and Fire, and a few others. But in the early oughts, you had three prolific women authors who were doing very well with contemporary fantasy series – Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong and Kim Harrison – all of whom were often incorrectly called romance novelists but who were actually doing mystery thrillers in the long running contemporary fantasy tradition – and one guy, Jim Butcher – who was not called a romance novelist because he was a guy. And eventually, by 2005, it suddenly dawned on some fantasy readers that there were these other kind of fantasy novels that had been around all this time but which they seem to think Jim Butcher invented or something.

    This certainly must be rather annoying to author K.W. Jeter, who did pretty much invent the term urban fantasy back in the 1980’s, (though he’s better known for his SF than his fantasy horror,) and who with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, got mentored by Phillip K. Dick. The reality is that if you want to read older contemporary fantasy, including urban, detective and dark fantasy (often just called horror back then,) there is tons of it still in print. A lot of the older authors continue to put out interesting books. And the category fantasy field continues much as it has done with contemporary, alternate world, historical, comic and dark fantasy stories. Contemporary had the spotlight on it in the oughts, which did let it bring in more new authors, now historical fantasy is doing well. One sub-category that did sort of get reduced in the 1990’s was the cross dimensional fantasy, but guess what – we’ve got a bunch of those too that authors are trying. I get your central point that you sort of thought things were neatly divided and found that they weren’t. But that’s always been the case. It’s not a recent development, is what I’m saying.

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