The Fantasy Stigma

Today’s post is by Brent Dougherty Mueller. An extract from his fantasy novel, Children of the End, appears in our anthology

There’s a stigma surrounding fantasy writing. Most readers aren’t necessarily aware of it, but people in many academic and writing circles certainly are. Before coming to Trinity College, Dublin the most common reactions I received from my teachers when I said I wanted to write a fantasy fiction piece was either confusion or flat out dismissal. In fact, there was even an occasion when one of my professors came right out and said they would only let me into a writing class if I pledged to do something other than a genre piece.

I could tell from their expressions and comments that while they liked my writing, they were under the impression that for me to write a fantasy piece was a waste of my time and theirs, and that anything that I could produce would be inherently inferior to other forms of literature.

I won’t lie, that made me a little angry. While I will recognize that there have been some bad fantasy novels in literary history, there have been some amazing ones as well, and I can guarantee that for every bad fantasy novel out there, there’s a literary novel that’s just as bad. It’s always been a point of frustration to think that fantasy gets a bad name simply because it’s a genre. How on earth did literary prejudice come to exist? I can’t say I understand it, and I definitely don’t agree with it.

I’m not really sure where this bias against fantasy came from. I’ve heard some people argue that the weakness of fantasy and genre fiction in general is that it has built-in limitations due to the conventions every genre holds. Personally, I think that’s a bunch of nonsense.

Every form of story has conventions that it follows, and this applies to literary novels as well. Take the “Coming of Age” novels, which are so common amongst the literary titles. It’s a term used to describe any story in which a character, usually a child or young adult, gains a greater (usually retrospective) understanding about their lives through time and experience. Now, these stories have widely differing details, but the core plot tends to be the same. However, “Coming of Age” novels are not considered to be a genre by most people. Why not? They have conventions just like fantasy novels do.

My point is that fiction is fiction. Whether it’s good or not has nothing to do with the story’s conventions. If anything, I would argue that writing a good fantasy novel is a different, yet equally difficult, experience to writing a good literary novel. It’s true that fantasy novels are less restrictive in the sense that you could make nearly anything happen; the writer could set the sky on fire, craft living creatures from clay, strike down a mountain and then rebuild it in a single night. Through these devices, a good writer can tell their story however they want to, using fantasy as a tool to better understand reality. However, with those freedoms comes a higher set of expectations. The writer is expected to tell his or her story differently than anyone else. Even if they’re using old ideas, they have to develop them in a way that will recapture the reader’s imagination. And as outlandish as the world they create is, it still needs to follow some form of logical order. In other words, even fantasy worlds need ground rules, even if the writer has to create them from scratch.

People have been telling stories since time began. Whether people choose to recognize it or not, similarities are going to start to develop, but to lump these similar stories together and brand them as an inferior genre is a mistake. The biggest fallacy a reader can commit is to discount a story without really reading it. So, to them, and anyone else who cares, I recommend keeping an open mind; it’s a valuable tool to have. Who knows, the next book you pick up might surprise you, and isn’t that what most readers are looking for in a good book?

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4 thoughts on “The Fantasy Stigma

  1. Interesting post! I think the same stigma applies to all genres really; romance, sci-fi, horror, even the “literary” genre (for lack of a better word) takes an awful lot of flak from other genre writers. There could be a good discussion around this 🙂

  2. Nice one, Brent. I’m convinced. Another example of a great imagination was Philip Davisons’ reading last evening in the Long Room Hub,. Impressive ! Liz McManus

  3. I read fantasy with an admiration for the creators when they not only create characters I believe in and follow but an entire world to submerge yourself in. It is a talent all of its own! There have been some bad ones as you say but you’re right, no point throwning the baby out with the bath water! There is a reason fantasy fiction is one of the most popular up and coming genres of the decade and I don’t think it’s because it’s not ‘serious literature’ somehow.

    Wonderful post, thanks, x

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