The Many Definitions of Fantasy

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This post has been on my mind for a while, driven by various chats with friends and reading academic books on the genre. For, you see, on one hand I’d be talking to fantasy loving friends who’d see the genre in the widest possible terms. Then on the other hand I’d be talking to friends who read a bit of fantasy but mostly loved other parts of speculative fiction, and who’d often have narrow views of fantasy and say things like “but this book is weird fiction”. And on my third imaginary hand, I’d be reading academic works where there’d be mentions of authors talking about fantasy as a literary sub-section that has very, very different meanings.

So I wanted to talk about all of them. What they are and who uses them. How they fitted together. Whether it raises any possibilities for how we view the genre. And here it is, from the narrowest going up.

1a) Fantasy is anything that reminds me of Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Games of Thrones

Ah, you all know this one. And I think a lot of fantasy fans kick at it. The confused or sneering tone that accompanies it, the ignorance that informs it. Don’t they know of Gaiman’s psychedelic fairytales and Lee’s wuxia gangsters? That Lucas said Star Wars is a fantasy? Still, it persists, even among people who do indeed know something of these things. It is seen as the core of the genre, and many have a tendency to think of the core and the whole thing as interchangeable.

1b) Various Academic Definitions

W.R. Irwin’s definition of fantasy as “that kind of extended narrative which establishes and develops an antifact, that is, plays the game of the impossible” is one that seems possibly in line with what we recognise, but not really, and the book that quote came from was (second hand knowledge here) more concerned with Anthony Burgess, William Golding, and David Garnett than Tolkien, Lewis, Morris et al. It’s not an uncommon definition. Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion explicitly excludes the likes of Tolkien by saying “they belong to that realm of fantasy which is more properly defined as faery, or romance literature”.

It is tempting to poo-poo this sort of definition as hopelessly out of touch, and I have indeed done so in the past, but as Jamie Williamson points out in his The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, Irwin and Jackson use an older definition of the term. Is there any pressing reason this academic definition should be changed simply because a double meaning has sprung up? Possibly, but it seems uncouth to get loud and insistent on it.

2) Fantasy is everything you find on the fantasy shelves

A very ronseal* definition that therefore, in the natural order of things, leads to a ton of arguments. The obvious cause of this is that not every book that can be considered fantasy by other definitions ends up on the fantasy shelves. Works like Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi getting put in with the general literature is the usual source of rancour here but there are many other possibilities, particularly if you are dealing with the hypothetical of what separate fantasy and sci-fi shelves would look like. I have to say I don’t really know of anyone who defines fantasy this way outside of the industry, where I imagine many might say it’s accurate for their purposes but not in general, but at the same time, the only friend I’ve discussed these definitions with thought this one was the every day one. To me, anyone who’s aware of enough what is on the fantasy shelves and what isn’t to use this, probably favours a less wooly and commercially driven definition.

*For those unaware, Ronseal is a British brand whose advertising slogan was “it does exactly what it says on the tin”, and which I’ve used ever since to mean that as we otherwise have no single word that means “does exactly what it says on the tin”.

3) Fantasy is everything which contains an element of that considered impossible by its intended audience

4) Fantasy is everything which contains an element of what we consider impossible or supernatural

I’m choosing to discuss these two together as I think these contain the definitions that I see most fantasy fans using on an everyday basis, and they’re basically the same bar a boundaries question. These rely on a definition of fantasy as everything which takes place in a manner or place that is impossible as we know it. The latter is important as it brings in a number of secondary world stories which don’t involve supernatural elements i.e. Ellen Kushner’s Swords point and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Not that some wouldn’t reject them, and point to them as a weakness of 2. There are some teething problems mind with these definitions as they logically incorporate large swathes of speculative fiction that don’t consider themselves fantasy i.e. supernatural horror, to an extent magical realism, etc.etc. It is personally somewhat instructive which books get claimed quicker here and I think it speaks to social dynamics as much as logic. Nobody wants to shit on our fellow nerds in horror, but literary snobs? They can do one.

This fight for our genre’s reputation is personally a big part of why 4 exists. What better defence can there be than to lay claim to Shakespeare, Homer, et al? To do so however is to ignore some large likely differences about how audiences perceived these works and the traditions they were in, and one that in places lays claim to religious texts, or what is remembered of them. Some fantasy fans are happy to do so, some fans and academics aren’t. Yet even here there are problems. Is a Maori writing a book that retells Maori myth to never be considered fantasy, even if they want to be? That seems a tough one. What about books that contain angels and ghosts in a way consistent with how considerable amounts of the US believe in them today?

5) Fantasy is everything containing an element of reality that is heavily exaggerated

I’ve only really seen this one in Kathryn Hume’s Mimesis and Fantasy and it’s like grandmother’s nightgown; it covers everything. Tolkien? Fantasy. James Bond? Fantasy. Mills & Boon? Fantasy. In a lot of ways I appreciate the sheer logic of it, but outside of dividing books for academic purposes between attempting to emulate reality and not doing so, it seems far too broad to be useful.

But then, so maybe is a lot of our uses of fantasy. Or maybe they are insufficiently broad. Maybe we need to think more in terms of speculative fiction at times.

Which isn’t to say we should change how we think about fantasy totally. Or even that much. Any definition, any attempt to create a grouping, is going to come with ambiguities and boundary conditions. I don’t think how we discuss fantasy has so many we need radically change, not that such a thing would be all that easy anyway.

However, being able to pinpoint how we view fantasy and why, and how others view it and why, just makes things a little easier, does it not? I have to say that the less bothered with negative views of fantasy that I get, the more I don’t see an issue with people holding narrow views of fantasy or the use of a narrow subset as the standard held up commercially. The more the genre grows, the more I see it as natural that we end up with communities that aren’t interested in the full width and breadth.

And the more I read, the more I find the idea of multiple definitions makes sense. There’s no reason the commercial definition should match the academic definition, or even the popular definition, even if the pedant in me would like them to do so. After all, whatever way helps you find what you loves is the right one.

10 thoughts on “The Many Definitions of Fantasy

  1. Hmm, lots of good food for thought here! My instinct is to define fantasy in the #4 way, but I know I generally put more limits on my personal definition of fantasy than that. Some years ago I wrote a post about what ‘speculative fiction’ means, cos the term was new to me. If I’m not sure whether I consider a book ‘fantasy’, I generally call it ‘speculative fiction’, which I use as an umbrella for anything beyond strict realism. At that time I sort of tossed defining ‘fantasy’ out the window and declared I would read whatever I like, whether others considered it fantasy or not. But that sentiment fundamentally ties in with your concluding point – ‘whatever way helps you find what you love is the right one’. I can understand how having multiple/commonly used definitions of fantasy can help facilitate conversations about the genre and the books with in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a thoughtful post Peat.. I didn’t know about these various definitions, especially the academic ones, so it’s nice to know. Loved your last line 😍😍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I think you’re right – there’s no one way to describe the fantasy genre and that’s part of what makes it great. Since it includes so many elements and sub-genres, there’s something for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. (finally read this! I wonder if you are warned about new comments, even on older posts…)

    I’m also with Jenna and number 4, but just like her post and your reply, it still raises a few questions…
    Can I join the group that throws buckets of cold water at the 1a people? 😉

    By the way, you might like this book by A.J. Dalton, “The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature”. He’s got some great fantasy trilogies, as well as short stories and academic non-fiction on the genre.

    https://uk.bookshop.org/books/1605844412_the-sub-genres-of-british-fantasy-literature/9781911143161
    “Nominated for the BSFA Awards 2017 for non-fiction and cover art!

    ‘This is an essential guide to help readers and writers of fantasy know their grimdark from their urban, dark, epic, high and metaphysical fantasy. International fantasy author A J Dalton explains how each of the sub-genres of fantasy literature is a response to their own social and historical period. Each sub-genre thereby describes a distinct political and philosophical outlook. Fantasy is far more important than many people truly understand!’

    “Thoughtful, insightful, while sure to prompt debate, and that can only benefit all facets of the fantasy genre.” Juliet E. McKenna”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see all the comments! And hadn’t heard of that Dalton book, might stick it on the list.

      And tbh I’m increasingly thinking that the 1a people’s view is more useful and new interlinked genres is more useful than sticking them all in one (although I guess not for publishers).

      edit: And if I’m honest I’m gently tee’d off by the traces of snobbery that comes through on fantasy fans rolling their eyes at 1a. Everyone has incomplete understandings of things they’re not into and latch onto the big names sooner or later, it shouldn’t cause the reaction it does.

      Like

  5. Yeah, I get it, but my peeve with 1a is the *negative* attached to it.

    I have zero issues with people that say “Fantasy is anything that reminds me of Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Games of Thrones – I’m not that into that, is there any other type of Fantasy?”.
    My problem is with those that say “Fantasy is anything that reminds me of Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Games of Thrones – I hate it and I will never ever read Fantasy, they’re crap books”

    It’s like me saying that “Fruit is anything round and orange, I don’t like oranges so I’ll never eat fruit”, and ignore or dismiss anyone who tries to tell me that Fruit is also bananas and apples and strawberries.

    Liked by 1 person

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