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Hybrid Fantasy

Once upon a time, fantasy stories had a relatively simple format. Typically, a hero fought a monster, and there was often some magic involved. This format goes as far back as Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and Beowulf. But like all great things, fantasy grew and evolved. Not only are there now numerous fantasy subgenres, but there are also great works of fantasy that are hybrids, mixing fantasy and other genres.

For example, Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops: Control Point is part fantasy, part military thriller. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a mixture of fantasy, western, science fiction, and horror. Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books combine comedy, satire, and fantasy. Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are historical fantasies, mixing magic and the Napoleonic wars. Heck, virtually every novel in the urban fantasy subgenre blends fantasy and mystery.

2012 JAN Myke Cole - Control Point by Nick Stohlman

So what is it about the fantasy genre that allows for such easy crossover? Why has fantasy spread its influence far and wide? I suspect that some critics would claim that fantasy writers were trying to “transcend” their chosen genre by using a better sort of fiction to hide their colors. After all, in a recent article in The New Yorker, Arthur Krystal dismissed genre fiction as mindless fluff, calling it “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” Surely genre-blending can only improve such lightweight escapism.

But if you’re a fan of this site, comments like these probably get your back up, so I propose an alternate theory: more than any other genre, fantasy is metaphorical, able to approach topics from an oblique angle to reveal powerful truths. Fantasy is not mindless; instead, at its best, fantasy is creative and sometimes even subversive. And fantasy’s use of metaphor allows it to easily incorporate elements from, and blend with, just about any genre.

Fantasy is the court jester of literature, revealing truth through indirect, more palatable means. Distract people with a spectacle, and you can secretly get them to confront sensitive issues. On mythicscribes.com, Myke Cole said:

Writing SF/F allows me to get close to real subjects that I want to address, while keeping a measured distance. My Shadow Ops series is making some hard calls about war, xenophobia, colonialism, and, most importantly, the role of bureaucracy and how it places process over people. But those are REAL issues, and talking about them can polarize. When you deal with it through an SF/F lens, you get some distance from the topic. This lets folks interact with it on their own terms, without investments and agendas tangling up the point.

Satires such as Voltaire’s Candide or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels have used this technique for centuries. Similarly, Pratchett uses satire to explore religion, politics, business, and technology today.

Of course, this technique is not new, but I contend that fantasy uses metaphors more effectively than any other genre because fantasy has something no other genre has. Rod Serling, creator of TV’s The Twilight Zone, said, “Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.” Harry Dresden by thegryphFantasy is better able to use indirect methods because, at its heart, is a love for the impossible, usually expressed through some use of magic. Magic makes anything possible. Consequently, magic provides fantasy the creativity and flexibility other genres lack. Magic allows fantasy to take on all subjects, break them down, and re-examine them in unique ways.

Moreover, not only can fantasy use this magic and metaphor to explore society, but it can also explore the rules of other genres themselves. Again, magic is a skeleton key, unlocking every genre’s back door. Just as many forms of entertainment have entered a post-modern phase, so too has fantasy embraced deconstruction, self-reference, and irony. By tweaking the rules, hybrid fantasy exposes the truths and tropes of other genres, allowing them to be explored from an alternative point of view. For example, fun things happen when an urban fantasy author replaces a P.I.’s pistol with a magic wand, or when she replaces a femme fatale with a (literally) devilishly diabolical dame.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that literary authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, and Colson Whitehead are turning to fantasy. I suspect that they are not trying to uplift fantasy to the higher ranks of literary fiction. Instead, I think they are using fantasy to transcend the rules of literary fiction, to take it to the level of the impossible, to do what literary fiction cannot, to do what fantasy does best.

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22 Comments

  1. Larik says:

    Serling*

    Edit quickly before the Twilight Zone fans begin to riot! xD

  2. Lionwalker says:

    Really great article! Succinctly written, this is exactly how I feel about the genre and why I think it is more important than is credited, but have never been able to articulate so clearly.

  3. Salome says:

    You hit the nail on the head. I wrote the critical part of my dissertation about just this. The combining of highbrow and ‘lowbrpw’ fiction is the new cutting edge. And for exactly the reason you suggest. To elaborate slightly, literary writers try with the tools they have to make us see ordinary situations in a way we haven’t before. But as a culture, the U.S. and Britain are becoming too jaded or too nihilistic to find wonder in the ordinary. Non-realistic fiction interwoven with realism grounds the fantastic, making it believable. At the same time the combination allows the reader to experience the magical or miraculous or even the impossible. It also provides a way of making a point about the real world without seeming to have an agenda. It bypasses the reader’s defenses against straightforward propaganda. It’s subversive, as you mentioned. My favorite example is Haruki Murakami’s Windup Bird Chronicle.

    I respond to this in the middle of listening to Julian Assange make his speech and it hits me that we may be more reliant on fantasy to make our subversive statements in the near future.

  4. Jezrien says:

    “Science fiction is the improbably made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.”

    I like that. Interesting article and a good read.

  5. Khaldun says:

    I think people that dismiss genre fiction out of hand are ignorant. You can say important things about family, duty, honor, sacrifice, etc without setting your story in the real world. You need only look at A Game of Thrones to see that. I’ll plead guilty to judging romance novels outright before even reading them, but I’m not sure judging a book knowing that the romantic elements will take main stage is as bad as judging a novel just because it is science fiction or fantasy.

  6. Good article.

    Just a word on that BS quote about genre fiction (his BS, not yours) – my objection isn’t the suggestion that fantasy is escapist, but that “literary” fiction isn’t. Shakespeare’s escapist; Dickens is escapist; the most boring, plotless slice of life is escapist. Fiction is a way of escaping from the limitations of our present situation and finding anything from fun to deep philosophy (and fantasy can offer both). These people are just jealous that we have the best stories.

    • Eric C. says:

      This quote of his really bothered me too. In fact, I used it as a spring board for my next article here. I kept thinking–fantasy can be hard work. It’s not fluff. So why do we keep coming back for more? I hope you enjoy that one too.

  7. Larik says:

    I actually enjoy reading romances as light reads (Not twilight or 50 shades of grey), but I agree that people who dismiss something because of a genre are ignorant, at least without trying it. It’s rather like peer pressure, if you think about it. If all the cool kids are saying One Tree Hill is lame (just an example) , would you really go out and watch it to see if it was or just sit quietly and nod your head quietly? I like to try all things, but if I tried it and thought it wasn’t to my taste, I can’t do anything about it. I was forced to read historical biographies of America’s most celebrated historical figures, so naturally, I hate anything considered a biography or even simply historical. But, it’s not the same as dismissing a fantasy book because it’s “trash” and “unreal” to quote a friend of mine… Well, not really a friend anymore. xD

  8. Mark says:

    I can see where Arthur Krystal is coming from, writing fantasy is the ultimate form of escapism, and reading its pretty high up there too. But that’s what makes it so damn good.

  9. “Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.”

    Typos are a pestilence upon the written word. (I am trying to politely point out the typo of “improbably” for the above quote.)

    Sometimes I think we get carried away with the taxonomy of genres — this Wikipedia page provides a hint: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_genres. On the other hand, having these subgenres is useful: they help me be selective when I read. We may slide toward a system of classification where “fantasy” is subdivided by every possible combination of every trope.

    Another problem subgenres create is selecting which classification defines my story. My work-in-progress series has space aliens and their alien worlds, dragons, spaceships, special swords, prophecies, time-travel, romance, mystery, comedy, fairy tales, medieval settings, current day settings, futuristic settings, and magic (of sorts. Everything has a scientific explanation, so the magic is not really magic.). I have no idea to which subgenre the story belongs. Thus, my life is made complicated.

    I also find disturbing Arthur Krystal’s dismissal of genre fiction as mindless fluff, as “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives,” as if that is a bad thing. While it is possible to use genre fiction to teach, to use genre fiction to pass cultural knowledge and values from generation to generation, genre fiction’s greatest value is to entertain, to help us “temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” In that respect, genre fiction, and all of its subgenres, is magic.

  10. Fight fire with fire and snootiness with snootiness: I find it *incredibly* easy to ignore the opinions of a man whose oeuvre consists of “The Half-Life of an American Essayist”, “Agitations: Essays on Life and Literature”, and “Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic”. Storytellers will continue to tell stories – and the good ones will use magic whenever they bloody feel like it to serve the purpose long after the Arthur Krystals of this world (Seriously, by the way? Arthur *Krystal*? Surely Pixar are signing him up as a bad guy) break their necks from turning up their noses too high.

  11. Ben Galley says:

    My initial response as an author is to hell with the taxonomy of genre! It’s the same with music – there are countless subgenres spawned from countless bands all obsessed with hybridising genres based on minute differences – some good, some imperceptible. I go by a simple rule – if I like what I hear, then I like what it is. I do the same with books. I don’t live within the fences of genre, and don’t confine myself to a set of characteristics. The only thing that matters is the story, and if the story knows what it is, then so will the reader. I vote hybridising moves for interesting, new writing, and let it not be bogged down by taxonomy.

    As an indie publisher though, and to play a devil’s advocate, defining genres accurately can help sales and attract fan bases. Getting bogged down in the minutiae of genres can confuse and bewilder fans. I know from experience that the category of Fantasy on Amazon only runs to a limited range of subgenres. And you’re only allowed to define two!

    Fantasy should be a wide, and loose term – magical, elusive, and powerful. Whithin it there should only be a few subgenres – good stories, not-so-good stories, and great stories.

  12. Anne Lyle says:

    I see this as a virtue: “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.”

    I’ve received some amazingly touching fan mail from readers whose everyday lives are not merely humdrum but fraught with stress and physical and/or emotional pain. Genre helps such people in ways that more “worthy” fiction cannot.

  13. Eric Honaker says:

    I hate that genre is considered a category rather than a descriptor.

    All of the genres would be better used as a tag, as part of a list of qualities of a book. Particularly in this time of databases and online bookstores, that’s their most efficient use. I can’t think of any book I’ve read in a long time that’s just one thing. Even “literary” is better used as an adjective for books that utilize literary devices and stories that operate on multiple levels than as a category.

    Even brick and mortar stores need not depend on genre for shelving anymore. One touch-screen kiosk and you could shelve all the books together by author. Heck, having them mixed up that way might encourage browsers to branch out their selections a bit more.

  14. Great article. I completely agree. Fantasy allows the author to talk about subjects that otherwise they may be chastised for. Putting them in story form it’s not as direct, but hovering in the story.

  15. […] my last Fantasy-Faction article, I quoted a recent article in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal in which he denigrated genre […]

  16. […] difficult questions, or books that challenge a reader’s preconceived notions. Recall my August article, in which I quoted a Myke Cole interview from mythicscribes.com. Cole said one of the benefits of […]

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