This Wardrobe Closed Until Further Notice

My fellow SF Novelist Rachel Manija Brown posted today about portal fantasies, and why nobody’s buying them. (Quick definition of a portal fantasy: Narnia. Person from our world is transported to another one, has adventures there.)

The inciting incident for this is a panel at the Sirens Conference, in which five agents discussed the state of YA fantasy. Apparently they get a lot of queries for portal fantasies — two of them said it made up as much as a quarter of their fantasy slushpile! — but they never follow up on the queries. And indeed, there’s virtually no YA (or adult) portal fantasy being published nowadays.

The thing we’re all chewing on, over in Rachel’s post, is why. It would be one thing if portal fantasies really were a dead sub-genre, with nobody wanting to write or read them. But apparently people do want to write them, which calls into question the assumption that nobody wants to read them. What’s going on here? Why is this type of story anathema in publishing right now?

I’d like to distill here some of the proposed answers that are coming up in the discussion over on Rachel’s site, with commentary, and see what the commentariat here thinks.

Portal fantasies are pointless because there are no stakes for the real world. I’m putting this one first because it’s what one of the agents said. What happens in the fantasy world doesn’t affect this one, and nobody cares what happens in the fantasy world.

As explanations go, this one boggles me. It’s so antithetical to the entire genre of fantasy — and, to my eye, antithetical to fiction in general. None of these stakes are “real;” the author always has to convince the reader to care about the characters and their situation. And logically, this argument would make secondary-world fantasy (think Lord of the Rings, where the whole thing takes place in an imaginary setting) even more irrelevant than portals. While it’s true that’s less popular in YA than urban fantasy is, it isn’t less popular than portal fantasy, not by a long shot. So I find it hard to buy “there’s no reason to care unless it’s connected to the real world” as the explanation.

Portal fantasies are bad and clichéd. Person falls through into a fantasy world and then has to save it, yawn. Person then comes back to our world older and wiser than they were, yawn. Etc.

Is it true that these stories are often clichéd? Sure. But so are vampire romances, cheap dystopias, and a lot of other things that are selling like hotcakes. So this doesn’t suffice to explain publisher disinterest, either.

Portal fantasies are obvious wish-fulfillment. They’re set up to give the reader the vicarious experience of imagining him- or herself escaping this mundane and boring world, going somewhere full of magic and doing awesome things there.

. . . yeah, I don’t think that covers it, either. While this puts off some readers, a lot more actively enjoy that kind of wish-fulfillment — as seen in the popularity of other types of story.

There’s no room to do anything new in a portal fantasy. So many of them have been written, the entire sub-genre has been mined to death.

I say, bull. For starters, so many of them still operate on the model where of course the protagonist comes back home at the end and this is the right decision, we have plenty of room to explore staying in the fantasy world, and that being a good decision, or a bad one, or the decision not having to be made at all, etc. And what about protagonists who aren’t privileged white middle-class Westerners? Or protagonists from other time periods? (Somebody, somewhere, is writing a steampunk portal fantasy right now.) I don’t think “there’s nothing new left” is any more true here than in other kinds of fiction.

Portal fantasies are seen as childish.

Here, at last, I think we may be on to something. Many of the portal fantasy examples people are citing on Rachel’s blog, both classic and recent, are more middle-grade than young adult (let alone adult). Also, as one commenter pointed out, portal fantasies are frequently among the first stories a writer produces, when they’re twelve or fourteen or whatever. (Probably, as I added, with a Mary Sue authorial insert character as the protagonist. I’m guilty of that myself.)

I think it’s very possible that this is indeed the brush being used to tar the sub-genre, whether the agents and editors acting as gatekeepers consciously see it that way or not. Escaping our world to have adventures somewhere else . . . it’s the sort of thing you want to do when you’re eight or ten or twelve. And, as Ursula le Guin pointed out in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”, this isn’t an impulse we approve of in adults.

But that doesn’t mean we necessarily grow out of it. Arguably it’s the impulse behind the vast majority of fiction: the desire to leave behind your tedious and familiar existence, and to step for a time into somebody else’s shoes. Somebody braver and smarter and cooler and more important than you, in a world where the impossible becomes possible.

Me, I would read the hell out of a good portal fantasy (and have a couple I may someday try to write). But — looking back to the arguments listed above, and the comments on Rachel’s blog — I want it to be fresh, to pick up the narrative opportunities most examples leave by the wayside, and to do things that can’t be done without the juxtaposition of a character from one world wandering around another. I want protagonists who aren’t privileged white middle-class Westerners. I want stories that problematize the colonial implications of an outsider needing to come save the natives from their problems, or write about different plots entirely. I want fantasy worlds that don’t welcome the main character as a hero. I want contrasts between our world and theirs that call into question our values and those of the standard fantasy genres. I want a character from one secondary world falling into a totally different secondary world. I want a character from a fantasy realm falling through a portal into our world.

(I want the book a friend and I thought up once, where King Arthur was the Prophecied Hero from another world, come to save us from our enemies before returning to his own land. And the whole “he will come back in our hour of need” thing comes true, only it turns into this problematic fascist thing where he and his people use their magic to basically take over our world for our own good. I’m never going to write that novel, but if somebody else wants to, I’ll be first in line to buy it.)

Of course, I’m spitting into the wind, here. Agents aren’t repping portal fantasies, and publishers aren’t buying them, which means that even if you write the awesomest portal fantasy ever committed to paper or pixel, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to get it recognized. But I reject the notion that the form is inherently childish and therefore not worth doing for anybody over the age of ten. And I reject the notion that because they’ve been done badly, they’re not worth doing well. Clearly a lot of people still want to write them, and I believe that means a decent number of people want to read them, too.

The sub-genre of portal fantasy isn’t dead. It’s just pining for the fjords waiting for its chance.

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  1. 1. Zoë Marriott

    Maybe it doesn’t count because I’m writing YA but… I’ve had a partial portal fantasy trilogy accepted and the first one is coming out next year. It’s also partially urban fantasy, so maybe that’s why it slipped under the radar. Mash-ups (blergh) do seem to be a hot thing, although I didn’t intentionally write a mash-up, just a story where the heroine hops backward and forward between several levels of reality.

    However, the first book of this trilogy is my fifth book with the publisher, so maybe there’s an added level of trust there, that they think I’ve got a bit of a built-in audience and can pull it off.

    Incidentally, the parts of the book where the heroine is in the secondary world were my editor’s favourites :) So at least some publishers still thrill at the idea of falling down a rabbit hole.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Actually, it almost counts more because you are writing YA. The agents who started this whole riff were specifically discussing YA, not adult fantasy or middle grade.

    What’s the name of the first book?

    I think it’s interesting (and possibly relevant) that your story goes back and forth, rather than being the classical setup where the real world is the frame story, and the portal world occupies the bulk of the novel. Rachel referred to those as “multiverse” stories more than portal ones, which is arguably an important distinction — it changes the relationship between the two worlds rather substantially. But still, there aren’t a lot of multiverse YAs out there, either.

    I do suspect, though, that you’re right: your track record with the publisher was a benefit in you getting this one through. You might have had a harder time if you were a stranger to them.

  3. 3. Mindy Klasky

    Wow. Isn’t Harry Potter essentially a portal fantasy? Harry lives a terrible mundane life under the Dursleys’ stairs until he slips through the train-station gate to the other world… Make friends, learn things, fight the bad guy, come back older and wiser.

    That said, my first (way, way, way unpublished) novel fragment was a portal fantasy. It suffers from a lot of the points that you raise above — most importantly the childish Mary Sue bit.

    Oh – as for “the stakes aren’t high enough for the real world”? To me, an equally important question is “are the stakes high for the *character* — does s/he learn and grow and become a better person, even if we’re not bringing in epic battles between Good and Evil.

    Off to read on Rachel’s site…

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I see HP as portal fantasy, yes, though it starts to break down that structure a bit as it goes along. But not everybody agrees. (In fact, that’s one of the debates over on Rachel’s blog.) Certainly it wasn’t marketed as portal fantasy, even if it shares a lot of the characteristics.

    The issue of stakes is bigger than just this sub-genre. There’s a general pressure toward making the Fate of the World rest on the protagonist’s actions — which sometimes does a great disservice to the story.

  5. 5. Eliza

    Interesting… specifically because I’m working on an e-reader novella series which will eventually be multi-verse portal fantasy– my main character moves through worlds (and often back) trying to return home. Which also means that my immediate genre could change every novella. So far I’ve done a journey plot, a romantic intrigue, and a horror.

    So far, the reactions I’ve gotten on its storyline and drafts have been overwhelmingly positive. Any word on variations of portal-fantasy?

  6. 6. Alyx Dellamonica

    I haven’t heard the term portal fantasy before, but my next three-book series from TOR is so very a portal fantasy, for adults.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Eliza — one of my own portal-fantasy ideas is like that, actually: a world-hopping protagonist who originated here, but goes to many other places. I haven’t yet followed through on it because there’s a real challenge in shifting the setting that much (not to mention I have some worldbuilding issues to resolve), but I’ll be interested to see how your own series does!

    Alyx — Good to know! Care to provide details? :-)

  8. 8. Ulrika

    Hmm. It seems to me that His Dark Materials is a species of reverse portal fantasy although the trilogy doesn’t get to that until Book 2 of the trilogy. For that matter I would say Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom books are, as well, although there’s a lot of interaction and back-and-forth and interdependence between the portal world and real one. (Interestingly there, the ‘real’ or primary world is itself clearly somewhat in the future.) I wouldn’t say that either series seems to suffer from lack of readership…

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Cool post. I expect to hear about dozens of newly accepted portal fantasies over the next few months, because any time someone claims a form is dead it tends to come back with a vengeance. My own last (rejected) book was a reverse portal fantasy, but the rejection had more to do with biting off more than I could chew than the whims of publishing fashion.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Ulrika — I’m pretty sure Keys to the Kingdom is middle-grade as well, though HDM is one of those that wanders blithely across the age categories.

    But yes, as you say, it’s not like either one suffers from lack of readership. I’m personally of the opinion that there is an audience out there for such things; it’s just that right now, agents and editors don’t believe that, and so they aren’t letting such books through the filters.

    S.C. Butler — heh. Yeah, I won’t be surprised at all if there’s a breakout example in the not-too-distant future. (Especially with how many people seem to be writing them.)

  11. 11. Elaine T

    I read through most of the comments on the other site, and see an agent saying portal fantasies are being published, it’s just that most of them agents see are BAD. But that doesn’t fit what was described as said on the panel. Shrug. I rather like them, when they’re done well, but don’t seek them out. I can think of a couple more or less recent YA entries, though, all by N. M. Brown(e) – WARRIORs trilogy, SHADOW WEB (sf) and HUNTED. All the portals work differently and in the trilogy the teens are trying to get home and keep missing, for a while, but when they get home it’s not great and there’s more to the story. They’re sort of in the ‘need a white guy to save the day’ dept, I suppose, although the worlds they arrive in are largely alternate historical universes to their own history. vaguely Boudicca, Arthur and Alfred). At the time they were published (all 2000+) I found them in Borders’ YA dept.

    Did you ever read the Zenna Henderson short story about an early colonial girl who time slips through a portal forward to modern day? Time slip stories used to be popular, but I haven’t seen one lately. Last was Jane Louise Curry’s BLACK CANARY, featuring a bi-racial boy timeslipped to Shakespearean England. I don’t recall where the library had it shelved – YA or not.

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    Elaine — Isn’t Delia Sherman’s Freedom Maze a timeslip story? That’s a recent publication.

    In general (as I just said in reply to that agent), I keep coming back to the fact that few if any of the anti-portal arguments make sense to me as only applying to portal fantasies, and not to things that are still being picked up by agents and sold to editors. You’re telling me most vampire romances that show up in the slush pile aren’t bad? Or most dystopias? I feel like there’s an unspoken bias lurking behind those words, and I keep trying to figure out what it might be. At the moment, “they seem childish” is the best guess I can find.

  13. 13. Zoë Marriott

    Marie: Ah. I wonder if all this resistence to portal fantasy in YA is actually the sign that it might be due for a breakthrough soon? I remember people talking about how the timeslip fantasy was dead, how no one wanted it and none ever got published anymore and then, sure enough, Myra McIntyre’s HOURGLASS came out and swept all before it. There are five or six high profile timeslip novels coming out over the next few months now, movie rights already sold, etc.

    I take your point on the difference between multiverse fiction and portal stories. I was very influenced by Diana Wynne Jones in this story and of course a large chunk of her books are multiverse stories. Probably DWJ-esque ought to be a genre all of its own, really!

    The title of the first book in the trilogy is The Night Itself :)

  14. 14. Alyx Dellamonica

    Heh. I just did a Next Big Thing post about it, which covers the basics. And I may well write another about this post of yours, because (I’m embarrassed to say) the term ‘portal fantasy’ is new to me and because a lot of the things you discussed in the panel–real world consequences, characters from there being here, having to decide where to live–are big parts of Stormwrack.

    http://alyxdellamonica.com/2012/10/next-big-thing/

  15. 15. LJCohen

    This is the kind of blanket thinking that frustrates me about publishing these days. I’m also an odd duck in terms of my reading habits–genre matters less to me than a good, engrossing story with a character I can believe in and root for. So portal fantasy? Bring it on. :)

  16. 16. Sam Graham

    I think there’s an argument that portal fantasies aren’t wish-fulfilment enough. If the appeal of the story is (supposedly) about the reader projecting themselves onto the main character in order to live out their fantasy of Being Important, then what’s going to sell more units? A story about Being Important in an alternate world, or Being Important in what you wished the real world was like?

    ie: urban fantasy has a lower barrier to (reader) entry/casts a wider net than portal fantasy if you’re looking to get people interested via wish-fulfilment.

    So, one of the “unique selling points” of portal fantasy being “it’s grounded in the real world, but not quite” (making it easier for people who find secondary-world fantasy too hard to get into) is simply done better by the premise of urban fantasy.

    I don’t think any of that argument applies to how good a book is, or how much people who like a wide range of fantasy would like the genre, but I can see it being seen as a valid argument when it comes to widening the reach of a book, especially a YA book.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    LJCohen — well, there have been a couple referenced in this thread! And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more coming.

    Sam — that’s an interesting point, and for me falls into the camp of “that sounds more plausible to me than what the agents actually said on the panel.” I really just can’t wrap my head around the “stakes” argument, unless I read it as being a sneer toward fantasy in general, which I doubt is what they intended.

    But it still doesn’t, to my eye, explain why so many people are writing it, and yet agents say it won’t sell (i.e. nobody wants to read it). One agent at Rachel’s blog says it’s just because they’re bad and the market is glutted, but I don’t see a glut at all compared to the vampire romances etc that *are* still selling. It’s very confusing.

  18. 18. Peter Gray

    Wasn’t Sheri Tepper’s “Beauty” a reverse portal fantasy? Keith Laumer used to write a few portal fantasies. Dunno what age they were aimed at but very tongue in cheek.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Peter — hmmm, dunno. I can’t say I’ve read those — though now I’m tempted to check them out.

  20. 20. Janni Lee Simner

    And logically, this argument would make secondary-world fantasy (think Lord of the Rings, where the whole thing takes place in an imaginary setting) even more irrelevant than portals.

    Actually, I’m not sure this is true … because in a secondary world fantasy, our protagonist lives in the world, and doesn’t get to go home when the journey is through the way a portal protagonist does.

    I still agree it seems from both the slushpile and reactions to the larger discussion that there’s an audience for portal fiction done well. Just think it’s not the other-worldness that makes it easy to make the stakes too low in a portal fantasy gone wrong so much as the fact that the protagonist doesn’t live there, so the fate of the world isn’t his fate, unless the portal fails to let him back through or his world and the other world are somehow entwined.

    Actually, this whole discussion has me thinking thinky thoughts about what makes portal fantasies work and not work in general.

  21. 21. Emma Bull

    Daphne DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand. Portal fantasy for adults. I offer it as an example of the variations possible in pf, and a counter to those who say portal fantasy is inherently childish and fraught with wish-fulfillment.

  22. 22. Andrew

    Was there a period of time that there was a flood of portal fantasies hitting the shelves? Sure back in the eighties Alan Dean Foster’s “Spellsinger” series was one of my favorites, and Greg Bear’s “Song of Earth and Power’ is in my top 5 list, but I don’t necessarily think that there was an explosion of portal fantasies blowing up the market.

    Agents/publishers seem to say very general and negative statements to discourage what’s predominant in their slush piles such as, “no vampire stories” only to publish vampire stories …

    This kinda attitude keeps us guessing and at times the writing-drive to prove them wrong.

    We already have two authors here mentioning that they have Portal-esque fantasies being published. Of a relatively small publishing sample that seems pretty big.

  23. 23. Andrew

    Additionally (got me thinking):

    There have and seems to be currently a fairy story trend. I would say that many Fairy stories, historically, are portal stories.

  24. 24. Chad Hull

    Lev Grossman seems to be doing okay with portal fantasy. His series starting with The Magicians has done well.

  25. 25. T.L. Bodine

    I’m late to the party (found the blog from link-hopping, and boy am I glad I did!) but I wanted to chime in because portal fantasy = my favorite genre. It’s one thing that’s making me start to re-think my “big house publishing” aspirations and start looking into the small presses — I just can’t imagine abandoning my favorite type of fiction because it’s not trendy enough. Glad to hear so many others are similarly passionate about it.

    I even blogged at length on the topic: http://tlbodine.blogspot.com/2012/10/in-defense-of-portals.html

  26. 26. Marie Brennan

    Well, don’t give up hope right away! The way trends get started is that a really cool example catches the eye of an editor and sets a new standard. But it’s true that small presses do offer a home to things that don’t fit into the expectations of the major houses, so yes, by all means don’t abandon what you love.

  27. 27. Lauren

    I tend to agree with the above comments. I think the reason a lot of agents reject these is because most of them are very poorly done and they do pack an awful lot of cliches, usually. Most are repeats of Narnia and not done nearly as well. I’m not an agent or anything, far from it, but I can see why that would make up the majority of the slush pile from their point of view.

    That said, I still love a good portal fantasy, when it’s done properly. And I’ve got my own unpublished ones.

    I also loved the “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons” post that you linked in. Great read.

  28. 28. Marie Brennan

    It isn’t that I disagree there are badly-written portal fantasies in the slush pile. I have no doubt they are. But there are lots of badly-written things in the slush pile (god only knows how many derivative, uninspired vampire fantasies they have to wade through) — that doesn’t usually lead to the entire subgenre being declared verboten.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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