Fiction or fantasy?

I’ve written often, ad nauseam some will probably say, about young adult readers, who they are, and does it matter. For a change, I thought I’d dip into another questionable category that I have trouble with—fantasy. Fiction is opposed to fact. Logically, all made-up writing is fiction, stuff that didn’t happen and, in some cases, never could happen because the situations described are so ludicrous. Yet there exists a category known as fantasy in which things that didn’t happen and possibly never could happen are segregated from other unbelievable, unrealistic fictions.
So, what’s the difference between fiction and fantasy? The notion of acceptable and unacceptable reality has never existed in children’s literature. Not even in the days when there were just children and adults, and young adults hadn’t been invented. In children’s literature it has always been accepted that wardrobes might lead into magical worlds, you could have wrinkles in time, and visitors from parallel worlds are reasonably common. They are all just STORIES.
Probably most adults believe in the supernatural, and I include God and angels in this bracket. They believe in things they haven’t seen, that defy the laws of logic and physics. People gamble on lucky numbers, wear lucky charms, recite lucky incantations. We don’t believe in coincidence. Since forever, human beings have invented and woven, mysteries, legends, impossible stories around rocks, rivers, memorable people and events. That is how stories began.
Something has changed in our perception of reality. As far as literature is concerned, reality is not real unless it is so absolutely familiar as to be on the limit of boring. Literary fiction has to be so founded in what most of us have either experienced or can imagine experiencing in the ordinary run of events, as to be almost predictable. The ‘might have been’, the ‘could be’, the ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if’ have no place in the new definition of literature. The pure, cold beauty of the language, the way phrases are constructed, replaces the wild flights of fancy of the old storytellers. Introversion and dreary interior monologues on interminable journeys to nowhere have replaced escapes from enemies with incredible superpowers, elopements and betrayals, curses, compromises, battles, wars and adventures in the shape of birds and animals. This ‘realistic’ school of fiction is the one that is equated with ‘literary’. Everything else is ‘genre’ and considerably lower down the food chain.
If you look at the Amazon classification of such flights of magical fantasy as The Earthsea Cycle, you will find that the words ‘literary fiction’ are far more in evidence than the word ‘fantasy’. Same for The Handmaid’s Tale. ‘Dystopian’ doesn’t even figure. They are classics, therefore they cannot be lumbered with the slightly pejorative epithet of ‘fantasy’. I don’t mind admitting that The Green Woman series and The Pathfinders are fantasy since most stories are pure fantasy. It would be nice, though, to think that this admission wasn’t tantamount to agreeing that I write second-rate literature.
What do you think? It ain’t what you write it’s the way that you write it?

This post wouldn’t be complete without a plug for my books, would it?
Why not try The Dark Citadel for starters. It’s only 99c/p and it might change your life 🙂

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

51 thoughts on “Fiction or fantasy?”

  1. We human do like to create categories and subcategories.

    My quick two cents would be that fantasy as a label would indicate the fiction will not be tethered to the known realities of the natural world and the limitations of physics as we understand them. Of course there is a cultural slant to this definition. I’ve grown up being taught that trees don’t talk. A fictional story in which do talk would thus be fantasy. Yet there are those raised in cultures in which a tree talking would not be considered fantasy as such. Moreover, quantum physics and M-theory with its eleven or so dimensions of the universe opens up a whole can of worms about what is actually fantasy. Does the moon exist when I am not looking at it?

    In the end, I suppose, the value of labels and categories on writing is found in providing the reader a set of expectations about the content.

    1. I agree. The expectations are probably the most insidious aspect though. When readers think they know exactly what to expect, when they don’t get it…they complain. I always read the blurb and first few pages of a book that looks interesting. Seems like that tactic’s going out of fashion.

  2. Great, post, Jane – I totally agree. Stories are… Stories. In the old days, when stories were told around the fire, did the storyteller say ‘tonight we’re going to have a middle grade dystopian fantasy’? No, they did not (at least I hope they didn’t!) These are all labels designed by marketers to (supposedly) sell more books. Or to satisfy a desire to put us all into little boxes. My books are fantasy, I guess, but they don’t fit into any of the sub-genres, really. Yet people still find them and read them.

    1. I understand that it makes browsing easier if there are categories, but what happened to reading the cover and the first few pages? I always do that, as well as looking at the cover and the title. They often say as much about the book as any amazon category can. I’m glad you are discovered in the mass 🙂

      1. Yes, absolutely. When I go to the library I wander the shelves, looking for titles that interest me, then flicking through, regardless of genre. It should be the same online (although I do agree that genres make browsing easier – sigh) 🙂

      2. It’s the less positive side of the democratization of self-publishing. there’s such a huge amount of reading matter available. Publishers have always rejected a lot of great stories for one daft reason or another, but they have also rejected a lot of stuff that just isn’t very good. I can’t complain because I’m self-published too, helping the slush mountain to grow 🙂

      3. Yes, same – I can’t complain either, as I’m also benefiting from the ease of self-publishing these days. I guess all we can do is keep creating and move forwards.

  3. I agree with you. Why is ‘literary fiction’ considered so highbrow and superior, when mostly, its just dull and unimaginative? And btw wtf! Is that ANOTHER new cover???

  4. Well, I have to say that for me, fantasy allows us to escape the prison of every day life. In life, we are held back by the laws of man, the laws of nature, and the limits of our own physical prowess. In fantasy, none of that matters and it is because of that that I love to write it. But you are right, the lines between fantasy and fiction have been blurred with new generations. Why do we believe in luck? We can’t see it, and yet as an athlete, I have my rituals before I lace on my shoes.

    Today, with the way books are presented to the public, it truly is difficult to know exactly what your picking up. I personally love “The Three Musketeers” and while it is not fantasy, it is some wonderous fiction. However, someone who does not give it the time of day will never know. Hence, never judge a book by its cover.

    1. I’d agree with you about escapism. If a novel pulls us out of the humdrum, is it fantasy because it could never happen, or fiction because it could happen if only in a fertile imagination? I think what I object to is the stigmatization of fantasy, that there are certain types of unreality that are acceptable, like historical fiction, fictional reconstructions, stories where luck, miracles, or an off-beat character’s visions play a decisive role, but others are considered unrealistic. Magic realism has street cred because of the South American writers who made it famous and also happen to be award winners. It seems to depend very much on the status of the writer whether their work has a fantasy label slapped on it or not.

      1. Now, that I could not agree with you more about. I have learned that in this business it is all about your name. It does not matter if you have the greastest book ever, if no one knows your name, you will never get anywhere. But as you stated, a books can be assumed by its author. If you pick up a book by Nicholas Sparks, the majority of the world is expectong romance. If it has Stephen King’s name on it, they are expecting a horror. If Tolkien wrote it, it better have a hobbit in it somewhere. But as you stated, who is to say what is or is not fiction and fantasy. Take one of my favorite historical fictions, “Abe Lincoln: Vamo Slayer,” yes it is a movie and it is fantastical to think all of those events happened then because of vampires, but, those events did happen and there is documented proof that there were people who drank blood. So how far fetched are we getting?? Is it fantasy or historical fiction?
        I feel like labeling has made book reading hard becuase i feel it can scare readers away. Someone who reads science fiction may pick up a historical fiction and never gove it the time of day and never find out what is between the covers. Truly sad.

      2. People are very conservative in all their habits really. Even in their reading they allow themselves to be steered to a ‘product’ they think they ought to like because it’s like one they’ve already tested. A you say, they miss out on so much by sticking to a category they think they enjoy.

      3. It really is a shame that people do not open their horizons a little. I think people would love classic books, “Picture of Dorian Grey” and “Thr Count of Monte Cristo” are two prime examples of glorious literature that people miss out on.

      4. Maybe that’s one reason why readers like to have signposts in book stores, so they can be almost certain of knowing exactly what they’re getting. A book that has a sign saying anything like ‘literary’ or ‘classic’ is liable to be with long words, lots of pages, and long sentences. I’m sure most adults who read YA do it because they can be sure of getting short snappy sentences with a minimum of ‘dictionary’ words.

      5. Hmm…I havr never thought of that. I suppose the genre I write is like that too. Most times, epic fantasies are always associated with YA. I mean all of the most successful books are YA: LOTR, Harry Potter, Hunger Games

      6. Why is LOTR YA? I’d never cast it as YA. HP is written for kids, and so’s Hunger Games, but LOTR is written about adults doing things only adults do. I would say though that fantasy is often clumped with YA because agents and editors don’t take it seriously. And it’s also true that a lot of fantasy is written for a young audience, for the same reason.

      7. I don’t know why I always considered LOTR YA, I suppose since it is fantasy. But why not take it seriously, it obviously does the job better than other genres for the time it it is being ran with. I mean, it will never be like The Three Musketeers, whrre they are making remakes 200 years in the future, but for the present, it has produced heavy results.

      8. They are books that won’t necessarily be read by the same people. Dumas wrote adventures set in a historical past and using real historical events. Tolkien imagined a who different world, and there are many people who consider that fiction set in a world that isn’t recognizably ours is no longer fiction, it’s fantasy. Fantasy is regarded as not serious so lots of people never read it. At least the classics will continue to be read out of snobbery if nothing else.

      9. Which is an awful reason to read them because they are just so fantastic. However I do believe that LOTR will be one that contiues to be read until the idea of popular culture evolves into a new generation of reader.

      10. It’s funny when you think that Dumas, Hugo, Dickens wrote their novels as popular entertainment. Ordinary people devoured each episode as it was published. Now if you say you enjoy reading Victor Hugo people think you’re some kind of intellectual.

      11. Its funny you say that because, I named my newborn son D’Artagnian and the criticism and confusion that we saw was crazy. No one had any idea where it came from and unfortunately my thoughts were “Do you even read?”

      12. This is true. I mean had I named him Ratatouille, everyone would have known. But, I am a writer and I have never liked traditional male names. So he was named D’Artagnian Alexander. His first name sake, a great swords man who followed his dreams, and the second, a great emperor who always led his men into battle. Everyone will know he is a writer’s son. Haha.

      13. See, I guess because of my age and because I have only started breaking into a more solid attempt at writing, I never knew how many successful writers there were. In my head only the greats were successful yet there are thousands of people who make deceent livings writing and are only known from their fan base. Like Renault, never heard of her, yet she has a published trilogy that (atleast you) say is good. So she is doing something right.

      14. She died over thirty years ago, so she almost counts as a ‘classic’. It’s much harder for women to be accepted as great writers, and she has a ‘genre’ label stuck on her which makes her less credible, but she is recognized now as an extremely talented writer. There are hundreds and hundreds of great writers still in print, but it requires an effort to find out who they are. Disney doesn’t tell us, or Tim Burton, and if a teacher dares to put them on a school reading list there’ll be some idiotic PTA denounce it for being unsuitable, blasphemous or too difficult.

      15. Whats crazy is you are right. It is amazing to think how many talented writers there is probably out there that does not get the credit they deserve. Unless you are a book writing machine like King or Patterson, they recieve no recognition.

      16. It’s a shame, but success isn’t just to do with talent. It’s a lot to do with fashion and publicity. Catch a trend, do it well, and you could make lots of money.

      17. See, when Twilight was big, my wife kept telling me to write vampire stuff like ALOT of people did. I don’t eant to be a writer that gets in on the coattails of others though…even if a lot of people do find fame and publicity that way.

      18. I know. My husband keeps asking me why I don’t write a best seller. If JK Rowling could do it… I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to. I don’t have the right technique.

      19. All we can do is do our best and hope to snag an agent or write something that suddenly everybody wants to read. I wish you the very best of luck 🙂 (you need that too lol)

      20. Oh I agree…I mean if you pick up Stephen King it is horror, Nich,olas Sparks is romance, and if it has Tolkien on it, there better be a hobbit running around somewhere.
        I think labels had made reading hard. A scfi reader may never pick up a Hist-fic becuase that is what it has been labled. But think about “Abe

      21. There’s logic in expecting a particular writer to keep the same style, if not the same type of content. So it’s normal people read the novels of an author they like. It’s just a shame, as you say, that if an author isn’t a household name they have to write ‘like X’ in the style of Y or nobody will even look beyond the cover.

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