Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An uber-long post on fantasy...and other stuff

I’m a big fan of questions, because it gets me thinking, something I’m not encouraged to do in my work environment. Much as I try to turn it off—occasionally random thoughts break through. The other day I was thinking about behavioral science (never going to do that again…) and this kid at the far end of the kitchen said, “…so she logged into my MySpace account and wrote I broke up with you! Stop calling me!

...so he keeps talking, telling anyone who’ll listen all about this girl, and how she’d picked him up and dumped him. And he can’t shut up, even though it’s horribly obvious Jose doesn’t care and I’d already given him the “evil-Jodi” talk. (“You know you’re making yourself sound like a loser, right?”)

Which would have shut me up.

But not this guy because—BRILLIANT behavioral science insight—he was trying to create interpersonal relationships by sharing confidences, which sent me off into this long, involved train of thought. Amazing I’d never noticed stuff like that before, amazing people actually “did” stuff like that, and why was he still talking?

Which lead to “how can I make him stop?” and “should I point out I’m a dysfunctional personality, and Jose’s English is about as good as my Spanish?” He finally petered out, but not before giving us an “any buy-in?” look.

Hailey, brave woman that she is, asked for my opinion on the whole fantasy vs. paranormal debate and broke it down into high/low fantasy, rural fantasy and dark fantasy.

High fantasy, from my reading and trying to explain it when I was a bookseller tends to be things with elves, dwarves, goblins and wizards. Sword and sorcery existed in the 1920’s with Robert Howard’s Conan series, and space opera with Edgar Rice Burroughs, but outside of poetry and fairy tales, there wasn’t anything with elves and dwarves and some kind of epic struggle until the 1950’s (1937 for the Hobbit) that Lord of the Rings came out and defined high fantasy.

Low fantasy, in bookseller-terms meant all the trappings of a high fantasy, minus the elves, dwarves and epic struggle.

Not to say you couldn’t have dragons, ala Patricia Brigg’s Dragon Blood series (low fantasy) or Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series (low fantasy) Or books where the genre line was so close it blurred and became a whole different genre altogether. (The Wheel of Time and the Eddings books) High fantasy, big black and white struggle>no elves and dwarves>”epic” fantasy.

And then fantasy sort of did a side-step with Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series. Not really a traditional European-derivative, but a strange, moody Native American Appalachian blend. Rural fantasy?

Looking at the definitions, I never really thought of it before, but the difference between high and low fantasy isn’t really what it’s about, where it’s set or whatever people want to focus on. It’s a matter of “slant and focus”.

There’s a huge central conflict in Lord of the Rings and Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane--there are wizards, dwarves, dragons, hoards of gold, good and bad guys. But…Dragonsbane is low fantasy, not because it’s missing the elements of high fantasy, but because of its focus. It’s down in the dirt, deep pov, up close and personal. The people might have bad motives, no motives, good motives—but they’re just ordinary people doing the best they can.

Lord of the Rings is stylized. I remember reading it when I was a kid, but I re-read it last year and it suffered in the re-reading. Lots of telling, omni pov and cut-aways to what was happening “elsewhere”. Good for its time, but despite Frodo, it’s at a one-remove. Imho, low fantasy with high fantasy elements is the evolution of high fantasy into a more readable form. And a good example would be the Belgariad versus the Wheel of Time. Eddings to Jordan.

Which could be why even when I’m cruising a brick and mortar bookstore, I rarely see high fantasy. It’s great required reading, but as a cash-purchase? My gut feeling says it’s on the verge of disappearing like Johanna Lindsey’s pirate novels.

The question is what type of fantasy do I write? How is it different from paranormal, which is my all-around favorite genre?

Back in the sixties—Roger Zelazny (the Amber series)did what was called new wave fantasy. In Nine Princes in Amber, Corwin starts out in New York, escapes to the “Real World” of Amber and just about everywhere else. I remember the books being labeled science-fiction when they came out, fantasy a few years later, and now they’re—lol, new wave fantasy because they grew out of science fiction. In other words sci-fi with fantasy elements.

The best way—the only way, I think—to describe sub-genres is this entry from Wikipedia:

The Merchant Princes (by Charles Stross) is a series in which some humans have an ability to travel between parallel Earths, which have differing levels of technology. This series is science fiction, even though it was originally marketed by the publisher as fantasy.

The Merchant Princes, if you haven’t read them, are sort of like Nine Princes in Amber done up corporate Mafia style. They’re not sci-fi. They’re not really fantasy either--high or low--or urban fantasy. But, shortly after it came out, I noticed a whole rush of books with a similar “feel”.

It was the first of its kind. Just like LOTR. Cutting edge.

I’m probably meandering, so let me cut to paranormals and dark fantasy. Dark fantasy, in my opinion—is also a feel. I’d definitely consider Anne Bishop’s Blood series a dark fantasy, in the same way I’d consider the Kushiel series a dark fantasy. But it’s pretty much become a generic label for any book with the “tramp-stamped heroine” on the cover. I think it’s evolving in the same way dark fantasy with romance elements evolved out of paranormals and low fantasy evolved out of high. There really isn’t a term yet to separate out the kick-ass heroine with optional vampire/demon/werewolf lover and crossbow/black belt unless it’s urban fantasy, but even urban fantasies are changing. Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series isn’t set in a big city and Ilona Andrews uses post-apocalyptic Atlanta.

I guess this has been a really long post to say I think we need to go back to “fantasy” as a genre without further breakdowns, because the sub-genre definitions evolve. For all I know, there really is a “tramp-stamp fantasy” genre. Sort of like if I threw a couple handfuls of Temple oranges, Honeybells, navel oranges, scarlet navels and Valenicas into a basket and said, “pick out a honeybell and tell me about it?”

They’re all oranges.

Paranormals have a higher proportion of romance and more of a focus on the relationship between the hero and heroine (and that’s the easiest way to tell—because there “is” a hero and heroine, or at least, two people who fall in love and that’s not always the case in a fantasy) But…regardless of whether a fantasy takes place here or there, or is urban or new wave, epic or high. It’s all fantasy.
"Indefinable" is good. Someone needs to start new sub-genres. Anything beyond that is a marketing issue. The publisher will sort it out.


Ilona said...

Very thoughtful post.

Our second series, ON THE EDGE is set in a no-man's land between two dimensions, one ours, the other magic. It has a heroine who uses lightning and lives in this no-man's land but works in our dimension as a cleaning woman. It also has deep south country setting, complete with Wal-Mart and fast food places, sword-wielding wizard nobles, shapeshifters, necromancy, and a strong romantic element.


Classifying it is a pain in the butt, and so where would you put it?

Hailey Edwards said...

“Tramp-stamp fantasy” lol

Great post, Jodi! Thanks for taking the time to address this topic.

First off -*face*palm*

I can’t believe I never noticed your point about tone. I have referred to books as having an “urban fantasy feel” and gotten some strange looks out of it because the content doesn’t mesh with standard UF fare.

What I meant was the tone sets a reader up with the same expectations. In UF, you expect action, a little bit of grunge, possibly sex, though the romance part is optional.

(I have to admit, I measure UF with my Harry Dresden yard stick. Harry’s problems with women are legion, but I admire him for wanting a relationship instead of indulging in mindless humping in every book just to fill the romance-that-isn’t-a-romance quota.)

I have only been reading romance for about the last two and a half years or so. Before that, I was strictly hardcore mystery/crime.

So, when I stepped onto the romance scene, paranormal was established as its own genre. It’s the reason I picked up my first romance title and the reason I keep reading them. I love vamps, weres, and demons. Sexy and dangerous, they are classic hero material with all the extra bennies like fangs and wings. Then you have mating bonds, a way to ensure your man can’t get away. lol

See, in my mind, I always equated “fantasy” with LOTR type material. It wasn’t until I sent my last book to a beta that I heard, “You write dark fantasy.” I thought, really? I thought it was paranormal. She bought me the Black Jewels series and said, “No, really, you write dark fantasy.”

I hadn’t considered the line between fantasy and para being quite so thin, or that the defining factor was whether or not there is a definite romance. That makes a whole lot of sense. The Black Jewels had romance, but it wasn’t the central focus in a lot of ways. It was more of the heroine’s personal journey being enriched by Daemon’s presence.

You’ve definitely given me something to think about with this spin on genre. I was almost sold on labeling myself as a fantasy author, but my work is always character driven and focused on my h/h.

Maybe I can claim to be a paranormal romance author after all. *g*

Also, one day, I promise not to write a novella length blog reply.

jodi said...
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jodi said...
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jodi said...

Interesting question, Ilona.

I bought Magic Bites when it first came out because I’m always looking for something new. I like it because the world was built “just” for Kate, in almost the same way Liz Williams built her sideways Singapore for Inspector Chen. More fantasy, than urban fantasy and a lot closer to the old Turtledove alternate histories.

Lots of urban fantasies are integrated into a known setting, like the Dresden Files and the Signs of the Zodiac. Chicago and Las Vegas. Real and recognizable. And I know that sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s to point out you’re different. There just wasn’t/isn’t any way to sell you better. There used to be a big argument about classification (and probably still is) in the bookseller world. “If something isn’t one or the other, you need to find that one sentence selling tool people can connect with.”
And that goes back to people’s prejudices. People who shop in the sci-fi/fantasy section “only”, tend to shy away from things shelved in romance, although romance readers will browse sci-fi/fantasy, and urban fantasy readers probably won’t pick up a straight fantasy, which is why cover art is so important.

I’d say On the Edge is close to a lot of things. "Almost" a paranormal, but not quite. A little bit of Anne Bishop’s Belladona series, a little bit of Sookie Stackhouse, a little bit of Butcher’s Summer Knight (love that bit in the Wal-mart), and a little Rob Thurman, which pretty much takes it all over the place.

It'd work as a paranormal, because the boundaries in paranormal are broader and there are some similarities, but it can’t be “called” a paranormal without alienating your core readership, although I suspect booksellers are cross-shelving it in romance.

I think...what is really throwing people are the love scenes which push it close to paranormal for the people who read them and confuse the hell out of the people who don't.

In a lot of ways it has the same problems Sharon Lee and Steve Miller had with their Liaden series. It’s not one thing or the other, and the correct genre label hasn’t been invented yet that will make all the readers happy. It took years for them to reissue the first Liaden books, because it took that long for the general readership to catch up with it bending the genres, but now it’s got a cult following and isn’t compared to anything but itself.
I’d say, On the Edge is simply “you”, and sooner or later someone will find a label, but it’s still a ways off.

jodi said...

Hailey, you see the way my replies and blog posts are. I don't just write posts, I write Norse sagas with a full-on Valkyrie chorus.

I agree with you about the Black Jewels (one of my favorites series) Not really a romance, but more like a four protagonist set of character arcs with one protagonist having a little more "air" time. :) Daemon has got to be one of my favorite characters.

I have referred to books as having an “urban fantasy feel” and gotten some strange looks out of it because the content doesn’t mesh with standard UF fare.

I get that all the time. I say things that make sense to me and totally throw other people for a loop. You just have a different way of looking at things. People who can see the why instead of the current what are always uncomfortable to talk to. It's like you're skipping B to get to D :)

Jennifer Leeland said...

I love the way you break things down.
Frankly, I'm no good at classifying genre. So, it's always nice to have someone do it.
Awesome post.

Eva Gale said...

Ohh I love Daemon. I think I need to read it again-- soon.

OK, So if I were to pin my series I'm writing by you it's a dark fantasy. Which is pretty accurate. I'm also thinking of cutting the first hundred pages of heroine's journey so I can get to the hero and make it a romance...but I know that romance readers WILL cross aisles so maybe I should just write the damned thing as it is.

My problem is tht I don't dabble with the fantasy crowd. They scare me. I read it, but I know of none of its conventions like I know romance.

I really just want to write the book and not think about market.

I remember th term slipstream fiction being tossed about a few years ago-the whole paranormal/fantasy/UF/elements thing kind of reminds me of that. Authors are just making the best darned Dagwoods out of it all.

jodi said...

Thank you, Jen :)

I don't know, Eva. I'd just write it the way you have it. There are conventions for set sub-genres, but they're always changing. I mean, look at the whole Bradbury and Heinlein thing. They both came out of the same time and place, targeted the same market, and were both called sci-fi. But looking back, The Illustrated Man and Starship Troopers are as far apart as you can get and still be in the same overall genre.

Bujold said it best (I bought Dreamweaver just so I could cut that piece out and stick it on my whiteboard)

When I was writing the Warrior's Apprentice, I asked two trusted professional level cps for suggestions, and one suggested I cut the entire beginning and start with the action of Beta Colony, thinking I was writing standard space opera. The other had a totally hostile view of Bothari and wanted a different version of his death. Trying to be a good reviser, I rewrote, sat back and twitched for days. Then tore them out and put back my first version.

The fundamental substance of a book, if you are writing a real book, in your own blood, is not optional.

...er, I can pretty much quote that from memory.

The Warrior's Apprentice came out as sci-fi and was recently reclassified as YA. No clue why. It's "not" a YA in any way shape or form. Maybe because Miles is 18-ish in the story.

But...what Bujold meant was, you write for yourself, because in the end you're the person who has to live with these people. You know deep down inside, what needs to be in your book.

If you're thinking about the whole fantasy aspect, it's all sort of bubbling to the surface anyway. :)

Give it a shot and see what happens. If you don't sell, you can always do revise and resubmits later. :)