Blurring the Genre Lines in Fantasy

The members of the Genre Bending panel on Friday afternoon in the Fantasy Literature track discussed figuring out where the lines are between different subgenres of fantasy. Chris Kennedy, the moderator, noted that 64 subgenres of fantasy, including erotic and Christian, came up in his search as he prepared for the panel. He then asked the other panelists, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Griffin Barker, Quincy J. Allen, David Coe, and Christopher Ruocchio, what they considered to be urban fantasy. Lamplighter responded that it was fantastic and urban, incorporating the look, style, and language of fairy tales with the substance of urban life. Griffin added that the setting should be urban but can be any era. Lamplighter suggested, “Fantasy meets noir mystery.”

Allen observed that “pure” urban fantasy leans toward contemporary settings. Coe, however, took issue with that observation because he writes an urban fantasy series set in 1765 Boston. In his view, all subgenre definitions are made by people who are not professional writers, such as marketing departments and bookstores. Ruocchio agreed that the only reason to specify genre is for sales purposes. He said he doesn’t like genre distinctions except for “wizards versus spaceships or wizards and spaceships.”

Citing experience in publishing, Lamplighter said she agreed with the other comments, except that she seen Amazon buyers purchasing by genre designation over the last year.

Kennedy proposed broccoli brownies as an analogy. When a writer mixes genre, he said, there’s a risk of alienating readers. Barker agreed, “Yes, until the first time it’s done right,” mentioning Coe’s Thieftaker series as an example of a successful blend.

Lamplighter mentioned having been on a panel about fantasy and mystery. Fantasy readers, that panel concluded, would enjoy a mystery subplot, but mystery readers would not enjoy the story if it didn’t allow them the same opportunity to try to figure out the story as a mystery novel offers.

Coe suggested that fantasy readers would try anything, while mystery readers are less accepting. Speculative fiction authors can do what they want because readers are willing to try it. Discussing reader expectation, he added that cooks can add to a dish, but people who’ve asked what’s for dinner won’t like it if they don’t get what they expect—that readers look for familiar tropes. Authors thus should use tropes from both genres when they blend.

Allen commented that there’s a difference between traditional publishers and the newer breed of smaller presses. Traditional publishers still want delineated, firm categories. Smaller presses, however, are more inclined to see those distinctions as fuzzy. He cited the broad range of appetites being satisfied by Amazon offerings.

Kennedy observed that publishing on Amazon allows a book to be uploaded under one set of key word and categories, but those are not set in stone. If those don’t work, the publisher can change them.

Barker added that selling a book that blurs the genre lines to traditional publishers can be difficult. They’re reluctant to comment serious money to a book that doesn’t fit a particular shelf.

Coe said it’s easy to overstate the rigidity of traditional publishers about genre. As examples, he cited Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Earthsea books as well as the Chronicles of Narnia. He doesn’t believe attitudes toward genre are as rigid as they’re sometimes considered.

Barker noted that a large publishing house has more people involved in the process, which is why smaller presses can shift perspectives more easily. Coe said that one might think the larger houses could better afford to take a risk, but they are more risk-averse than smaller ones.

Kennedy pointed out that science fiction and fantasy are often complementary, though fantasy is often more receptive to science than science fiction is to fantasy elements. Lamplighter observed that genre conventions are often culture-specific, that Bollywood and Asian films may mix genres differently. As an example, she cited Happy New Year, a Bollywood heist and dance movie.

Ruocchio said we think of fantasy as a separate concept because the world has been demystified. People no longer believe in ghosts and charms and fairies as they once did.

An audience member cited Dianna Wynne Jones as an author blending genres. Ruocchio said fantasy tends not to have thoroughly explained rationale for magic and said he prefers not to see everything thoroughly explained. As an example, he said no one knows exactly how the Force works in the Star Wars films. “Han seems to,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience, “but not everyone does.”

After an hour of discussion, the consensus seemed to be that no one knows exactly where the lines are, with one audience member suggesting the difference between epic fantasy and traditional fantasy is the length of the book, a comment that drew laughter. The panel also believed the rigid genre lines are becoming less critical, with more room for authors to experiment.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.