Spreading Your Wings-Is Fantasy Broadening as a Genre?

Guest Speakers: Stephen Aryan, Epic Fantasy author; Julia Knight, Adventure Fantasy author; Steven Poore, Epic Fantasy author; Natasha Pulley, Historical Fantasy and Steam-punk author

Spreading Your Wings was a discussion about the changes, in recent years to the genre of Fantasy. Once seen as ‘always the same’, are people now more aware of the variety on offer within Fantasy?

People think fantasy is all the same, why?

When you talk to someone about fantasy as a genre, you know there are certain leaps their mind is likely to take. Such as, “Oh, you mean like Lord of the Rings?” Now you might be thinking, “yes just like that”, but maybe you are inwardly sighing to yourself. If it is the latter, you aren’t alone, as this is something the authors on the panel all seem to have experienced.

Stephen Poore blamed film and T.V, saying “T.V. always shows the same kind of fantasy.” For many people their only experience of fantasy might be what they see in a film or on T.V. Julia Knight expressed a concern that most bookstores also perpetuate this skewed vision of fantasy, when she commented that, “Waterstones’ books don’t necessarily give a full fantasy scope”. This is an increasingly broad genre, but is it only the fans who are aware of it?

Natasha Pulley raised another interesting reason for Fantasy’s struggle for recognition, “Fantasy is increasingly popular, but never wins prizes.” The literary world seems to have an anti-fantasy snobbery, an assumption that nothing in the genre could possibly be well written. However Pulley has seen signs of this improving, with universities beginning to offer specialist courses in writing fantasy literature, showing that they are, as she says “starting to be academically recognised.”

Steering the conversation back to the breadth now found within the fantasy genre, Poore brought up the subject of new age heroes, “Heroes are changing, we now have lesbian and bisexual characters.” This is a big change for literature in general, not just in fantasy. After all it wasn’t so long ago that Oscar Wilde’s only novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray, was censored to make it less homoerotic, and it was only in 2011, that an unaltered publication of the book was finally made available.  with the world a more accepting place, there is a wealth of previously off limits subjects to be explored.

Stephen Aryan added to this by saying, “Readers want diversity, they want characters they can relate to.” It is the readers who are really pushing this genre forward, their support for independent authors selling on websites like Amazon, has encouraged publishers to step out of their comfort zone. As Pulley commented, “Publishers are choosing diverse books now.” However the big publishers are still risk averse, giving the burgeoning independent presses a chance to support new ideas. She continued, “If something is completely new it is hard for big publishers to do it. The small independent press can take the risk, which big publishers can then follow up on.” As this trend progresses it will change mainstream publishing, perhaps dramatically so.

Fantasy books are also represented by their covers, but are they any good, or are they adding to misconceptions?

The views on this topic were mixed, with some authors loving the covers of their books, while others were only content. Aryan expressed his distaste of hooded figures, “No man in a hood, that is one thing I insist on. It is over used.” He has a point, I can’t think of many fantasy books with a male protagonist, that don’t have a hooded figure on the cover. This is really just a lazy way for publishers to identify something as fantasy, whether there is any relation to the story or not.

Most of the authors said they loved their covers despite their input being minimal. At the end of the day, as Julia Knight pointed out, “the cover is part of marketing the book, and I know nothing about that”. Like many authors whose books are published in more than one country, Knight’s books have a variety of covers depending on the country, and what appeals to that culture. This is something only a large publisher would have the experience, knowledge and resources to deliver.

Are we tired of rape and violence towards female characters?

The final, and most controversial of the subjects in the talk was about the portrayal of women in fantasy. Specifically the use of rape and other violence against female characters as a plot device. This isn’t always down to the book, but the T.V. adaptations, which sometimes turn a love scene into a rape scene, though why we should find this more entertaining is a mystery. As Knight said, “T.V. can show women in a lazy way by using rape”, but authors can be guilty as well.

Aryan expanded on this, highlighting that, “the woman gets hurt so the man has something to do.” It’s a shame for any character to be nothing but a plot device, and I can’t say I’ve experienced it all that much, but one thing I’m sure we’ve all noticed, is how fictional characters rarely react in the way a real person would. Pulley made the point in relation to rape that, “there is rarely the emotional fall out that should go with it… They never react like real people would”. So often women in fantasy put up with abuse, without any real attempt to retaliate. On the other extreme they murder their attacker. Is this really representative of the trauma people have to face during and after such an attack? Is it OK to be so unrealistic because it is Fantasy? And would it be accepted in other genres?



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