The fantasy ghetto of your dreams…

“Mamma! Mamma! Look!”

“Put it down, dear. You will drop it and then we’ll have to buy it. And pull the wings in, there’s a good firedrake. When you grow into a proper dragon you’ll learn manners, I suppose.”

Well, there’s THAT kind of fantasy ghetto. The place where the Strange Ones live. Where that conversation between a momma dragon and her excited young progeny might have taken place in a crowded shop selling things you cannot even imagine, watched over carefully by a winged or pointy-eared proprietor keeping an eye on breakables or things that can get singed by inadvertent enthusiastic flaming belch. The place you get to by flinging yourself against a brick wall to get to Platform 9 and 3/4. The place where magic is real, and evil overlords slink in shadows, and everyone gets what they deserve in the end – but perhaps that last is in the next ghetto over, the much older one, the one where the fairy tales go. Although not even there the happy ending is mandatory. And over here we have…

We have bookshop aisles that are stacked with speculative fiction of all stripes. We have the megabooks like the Harry Potter phenomenon, and before that the Lord of the Rings – and all the followers and all too often bandwagon-leapers that come crowding after. We have nonpareils like “Tigana”. We have the stuff that skates on odd semi-Gothic horror, like “Gormenghast”. We have Neil Gaiman, and Ursula le Guin, and Robin McKinley, and Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L’Engle, and Susanna Clarke, and China Mieville, and Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and then (if you’re in the business yourself) you start having ranks and ranks of friends and colleagues – just read down the list of the people in this community.

Are we all in the ghetto?…

The thing I keep reiterating, whenever anyone asks me that, is that quite simply *ALL FICTION IS FANTASY*. By default. Thank you very much. It’s an invented story, existing nowhere except in the author’s brain before it gets picked up and paid for (one hopes) and published – it’s all lies. All lies are created equal – except that it would seem that there are those out there who might insist that some lies are created more equal than others. Hence the, “Oh, *genre*” kind of pitying look that one is often on the receiving end of when one admits in public that one not only writes, but writes *that* stuff, fantasy, the ghetto lit. Except… except… that can so easily get turned around. If all fiction is fantasy, then it’s the mainstream lit that is different. At least fantasy is shameless about its nature. What shall we say about fiction that aspires to be truth? Realism demands – well – precisely that, realism; it presents the look and feel of the real, the familiar, and it’s THAT aspect of it that has spawned the famous “This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental” – even though anyone can tell you that characters in novels don’t spring full-blown fromĀ  the author’s forehead like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, and EVERY character in every book is based (in some way) on some person living or dead somewhere. Even if it IS coincidental.

In pure fantasy, you are not constrained by the need to fawn on the real. You are free to choose your own world, and tell your own truth (so long as you make it solid enough to stand as a story). This is harder than it sounds. Writers of “mainstream” books often dismiss worldbuilding as time-wasting play which is of no practical purpose except insofar as it makes the worldbuilders happy, so let the children have tneir toys, as it were. That’s because the mainstream novels are set in worlds already built for the writers of those novels, the world which they themselves live in, which doesn’t need a huge amount of explanation or care because it is already so familiar to the reader. It takes a great deal of courage and yes, I’ll say it, a certain amount of talent to sit down and create a blueprint for a completely alien world, whether it be Mars or Wonderland – because only your words exist as the bridge between that world and your potential readers, strangers to you, with whom you will have no other connection but those words. They will either understand them and embrace them and cross into your world and accept it, or they will recoil confused and annoyed; this (other than in terms of pure bad writing, which isn’t what we are talking about here) just doesn’t happen in the mainstream lit. The world’s already there. Standing. The stage set is already up. The spec fic writers not only have to create the play, they have to stage it from scratch, often with very few props.

It’s been said that “genre” is a very fungible word and can mean anything that it needs to mean – that “mainstream” writers who write books with roots squarely in speculative fiction of one stripe or another will fall over themselves denying, and having it denied on their behalf, that they have written or even tried to write that sci-fi stuff. Often the result is… well… bad science fiction, not good New Weird. But if you want to be a respected litrachur writer you better not mess with the ghetto lest you get tarred by the association, and there goes your rep, thunkety-thunkety-thunk-thunk all the way down the hill and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the establishment will allow you to EVER climb back up to the rarefied heights where the “chosen” dwell.

But genre is also a marketing strategy, and it often seems arbitrarily applied, to say the least. And it can be a double edged sword in many cases. Take “The Secrets of Jin Shei” – conceived and written as historical fantasy, accepted and published and marketed largely as mainstream, which you might think gives me an edge because while fantasy readers WILL cross the invisible borders in bookstores and go from the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” section into the “Literature” (ain’t that a divide…) section, very few readers are apparently brave enough to do the reverse and go fossick in the ghetto section for their next read. That means that my historical fantasy got shelved in the “Literature” shelves. THAT means that I may well have a “wider” exposure – but it also means that the straight “Literature” fans are confused and annoyed by the magical and fantastical aspects of what they took as being a straight historical narraative, and many fantasy readers who might have enjoyed those very aspects may never have heard of the book because it was never shelved in the ghetto section. Sigh.

But I go wandering through the sectioned off bookstores of my world, and although I can understand on a purely practical shelving level that it makes sense to do it this way – and in some ways I’m buying into this because I hardly ever wander into the “Mystery” sections (because whodunnits have never been my preferred reading matter) or the the pure genre romance section – the Harelquins and such – because that, too, is not my the sandbox I play in by choice. And in a way the bookstores are doing me a favour by segregating certain books out for me, so I don’t have to waste time poking at books I know I won’t be interested in reading. But “mainstream” is so wide that there are dozens and dozens of sublevels in there, and it would be utterly impractical to break things down further and further until every section had three volumes in it before some boundary was crossed and the subject matter became reclassified as Something Else. And if the mainstream shelves are such a hodge podge why can’t the readers be trusted to know what they want and make their own choices…?

Ah. Genre. The perennial subject of doom and gloom and discussion. Are better better off or worse off, being segregated into our own little corner? Is the outside world being protected from us… or are we being protected from them?…

Is a sense of wonder such a rare and fragile thing that it needs to be sequestered off into its own corner, lest it be contaminated by too much reality…?

“Momma, what’s *this*?”

“Put it DOWN, junior. and keep your claws to yourself. Can’t I take my eyes off you for one second before you’re hock deep in trouble? It’s a snowglobe. It depicts the Reality Ghetto, out there, beyond the borders of Wonder. You wouldn’t want to live there.”

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There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    Heh . . . when I voted for this topic, I actually thought you meant the first kind of ghetto. :-)

  2. 2. green_knight

    The best of real-world writers get the worldbuilding right. And I don’t just mean people who tread the borderline and whose stories contain devices and settings that could just as well occur in speculative fiction – magic and ghosts and talking bottles of wine – but people who write straightforward ‘mainstream’ novels. Take Dick Francis, for instance. Who knew that readers wanted to know so much about horseracing? Most, it turns out, don’t – but they want to know what it’s *like* to be a jockey or a painter or someone contemplating suicide, they want to live inside the heads of strangers and be taken into their world.

    ‘The real world’ has a lot of really scurile, really interesting corners, and it’s a shame that so many mainstream writers choose their characters from a small selection and give them the same narrow band of problems to cope with.

  3. 3. Daemon

    The “literature vs genre” thing has always bugged me.

    The arbitrariness of the division as it stands now is rediculous when you look at past works that are considered to be quite firmly on the literary fiction side…

    Dracular and Frankenstein are rather obvious – but what about Keats, Shakespeare, Wilde and all the other, very “literary”. authors who have written stories featuring ghosts, demons, faeries and their ilk? It’s not exactly a short list.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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