Since when did fantasy mean… well, Fantasy?

If can't tand my pretentiousness... click this picture!  Recently I found myself doing some research and ended up reading The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges  which is a series of [very] short fantasy stories.  I was particularly interested in The House of Asterion which invokes a particular Greek Myth.  As I read I was struck by how narrow the modern interpretation of “fantasy” has become.  Ask a person on the street what, in literary terms, the word means and they will likely define it in terms of swords and sorcery, magic, elves and dwarfs or perhaps modern supernatural stories (invariably featuring a moody person staring out of the book cover).  They also mean doorstop books that have very specific story types and you buy them in sets – or the hopes that the overall arc will someday be finished.

I’m pretty sure Tolkien would wonder what he started.

In The Aleph Borges tells a number of tales.  He even goes out of his way in his afterwords to say that the stories should be considered fantasy and he covers everything:  Magic, Myth, The Other, Timelessness and he does it all in very short stories that make you stop and think.   I don’t claim to have discovered Borges after all I he’s pretty famous in certain circles but I only decided to read him from a happy accident.

The problem is genre.

Now I don’t mean genre as story type.  I don’t mean genre as popular writing.  I  certainly don’t mean it as poor writing.

What I mean by genre is that concept of bookshelf.  Perhaps even genre as shopping experience.

Let me tell you a story…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and points to the shelves where there are an array of hooded men vs the dinosaur analogues (some of them are even the good guys).

The man thanks her and wanders off for a browse under the convenient sign.

Genre is a marketing term.  It’s a happy pigeonhole.

Notice that the man doesn’t go and look in the “fiction” section and he certainly doesn’t go to “dark fantasy”.  He goes to the shelf that says this genre and that.

It’s not surprising.  We like our generic handles.  We like being able to buy easily.  That man has also been me.

It strikes me that there are a lot of books out there that we genre fans (and writers) might like but we don’t get to easily read them.  We don’t see them – they’re hiding away somewhere else. There’s a distinct partition “This is our territory and they are over there“.  I also understand why the big publishing companies like that shelf.  It makes it easier to produce books that people are looking for.  And it sells.

But I worry.  That’s a big shelf.  And there’s a lot of hooded men and beardy sidekicks but there’s not a lot of variation.  I worry that there’s a very narrow horizon on display.  It’s hard to find the gems in there (and there are a few great books squirreled away in amongst the rest).  I remember reading horror as a lad, I still like the occasional horror tale now but can you find any decent new stuff?  No, not really.  Horror collapsed at the end of the 20th century as copycat novels and over exposure caused an entire (ancient) story type to disappear.  You still find horror but more often in the generic fiction section or as an extra veneer on other stories.  I am told that there’s a healthy underground but I’ve never managed to find it.

In an ideal world my story would be different…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and says “That’s great.  You can buy some of that over there but we also recommend this stuff.”  They have a chat.  She points out a few different options and the man realises there’s more out there than his habitual spot.

In this story the man widens his horizons and goes off to find gems.  Maybe I’m atypical in my reading habits.  Maybe I’m more arrogant than I like to admit.  But I do like being surprised.  I do like being told stories that surprise and entertain.  I like stories that fill me up and I like stories that show me that there’s no horizons.  I like to read everything – I even like reading about beards and pointy hats but sometimes, just sometimes, I like to worry about what’s round the corner on the other bookshelves.

In short.  Read The Aleph by Borges it’s great.

And recommend me some gems so I am proved wrong.

Advertisements


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s