It is a curious truth that while I “know” what fantasy is, but I cannot define it. Every time I would ever try, I would fail to include everything that Fantasy is. Or, alternatively, include too much so things that aren’t fantasy fit. I had the same problem last month with my post on What is a Genre?, which was more shitpost than fact.
So lets track down what exactly fantasy is.
Well, I spend a lot of time on Reddit, so let us see what they have to say about what fantasy is.
/r/Fantasy is the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater Speculative Fiction genre. We welcome respectful dialogue related to speculative fiction in literature, games, film, and the wider world.
Well, that is helpful. Good to know I can put my upcoming posts for Science Fiction and Horror here in the coming months, though. I couldn’t find anything more on what Fantasy is on the subreddit, probably because they sub itself tries not to be a gatekeeper. Let us move on.
Many may not know it, but TV Tropes actually have pretty decent pages on genres. I know it, though, because I have viewed 831 “this month” without ads. My Trope Time posts are not without their downsides. So what does TV Tropes have to say about what Fantasy is?
Fantasy: it’s stuff with magic in it, not counting Psychic Powers, or Magic from Technology, or anything meant to frighten, or Magical Realism, or anything strongly religious, or the technology behind the magic that is Magitek, or — where did that clean-cut definition go?
Yup, TV Tropes knows how complicated this is.
TV Tropes goes on to say that the boundaries are fuzzy between fantasy, science fiction and horror, and to this I just point to zombies, which can fall into any one of those genres. Also that fantasy also relies heavily on magic, but isn’t required, and some more common features. I actually quite like how TV Tropes defines what Fantasy is, but I think we can do better.
The TV Tropes page actually gave us a new avenue to look down: What do the publishers themselves have to say about what the genre is? Surprisingly difficult to find actually!
Though Tom Doherty Associates (which is actually Tor and various imprints), Orbit Books, and various imprints of Penguin-Random House, Hachette, and other publishers accept fantasy and science fiction submissions, not a single one of their submission guidelines defined what that actually meant for the publishing house and I couldn’t find anyplace else they defined it. So this area looks like a dead end. Looks like publishers require authors to know what genre their work is in before they submit. Which can be tricky when the lines are so blurry between the genres. If I didn’t procrastinate so long on this and didn’t start writing this the night before I posted, I might have reached out to the publishers to ask.
This isn’t a school assignment, I can use Wikipedia if I want to. What do they have to say?
Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore. […] Fantasy is distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the absence of scientific or macabre themes respectively, though these genres overlap.
Nothing surprising, but also not very helpful. What else does it say?
– Most fantasy uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting.
– Many fantasy authors use real-world folklore and mythology as inspiration; and although another defining characteristic of the fantasy genre is the inclusion of supernatural elements, such as magic, this does not have to be the case.
Hmm. I feel like Wikipedia is way too broad and too narrow in definition. It focuses on one small aspect of the genre to the exclusion of everything else, and that aspect is so broad it potentially catches a lot of false positives. The History section is better, but this is too long already.
Encyclopedia of Fantasy
Still not happy, I have to find somewhere else to look. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (and in this case fantasy) is a good next step. If you haven’t checked this resource out before, you should, even if it is outdated. Let’s see what they have to say on Fantasy:
“Fantasy” […] is a most extraordinarily porous term, and has been used to mop up vast deposits of story which this culture or that – and this era or that – deems unrealistic.
…Yup. (Of course we also see people discuss whether Fantasy is realistic enough…)
When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.
Okay. I like this.We’re getting somewhere. It’s a light definition, and it doesn’t exactly help with fringe cases (though really, I doubt I’ll find a perfect definition for all the fringe cases). Unfortunately, this page is wordy and doesn’t add much that I more I can easily share. I’ll leave you this quote that made me giggle:
Fantasy, which dominates the marketplace, is normally structured so as to defer completion indefinitely, to lead readers into sequel after sequel;
What is Fantasy by Brian Laetz and Joshua J. Johnston
I had one last recourse: googling “what is fantasy”. I hit paydirt with this article (pdf warning) by Laetz and Johnston. It is 12 pages long, but I highly recommend reading it as it is the best resource I found by far. Even if it makes this feel like a uni assignment. The summary for the entire 12 pages is:
At last, we may fully state our theory. On our view, fantastic narratives are fictional action stories with prominent supernatural content that is inspired by myth, legends, or folklore. Further, this content is believed by few or no audience members and is believed by audiences to have been believed by another culture. Moreover, it is not naturalized, solely allegorical, merely parodic, simply absurd, or primarily meant to frighten audiences.
This is found on page 7 of 12, and condenses all of the nuances of the first pages into one neat package. Yet within the rest is a bunch of nuance that I don’t have the room to share so I highly recommend reading it yourself. The authors covered their bases well, and I’m pleased with the result. Yet it is also a bit easy to pick apart, perhaps in part because it is so well defined. It tries to define the genre while also figuring out what it isn’t. It covers why fantasy isn’t religious fiction, horror, or science fiction, while also pointing out places where the genres converge. And it has an interesting bit at the end about things we don’t think about as fantasy but may indeed be considered fantasy by some.
I do have some comments on parts of it, but I think it is the best single definition I can find. When talking about fantasy not being “simply absurd”, I wonder where Miévelle falls if not fantasy (though I think this just fell through the cracks). And my entire counterpoint to the entire article is Sourdough by Robin Sloan, and with it slice of life in general. The Wizard of Oz and Alice and Wonderland could be considered solely allegorical but most don’t read it that way. And so on.
However I want to point out the bit about fantasy not being naturalized:
Plausibly, the reason why this story is not fantasy is simply that the dragons are presented in a naturalistic fashion, for the characters in the film view them no differently than we regard dinosaurs, whereas dragons are not presented along these lines in fantasy. this suggests that the supernatural content in fantasy must not be naturalized within the work and this condition successfully excludes similar science fiction works from the genre.7
7.It should be noted, nonetheless, that nothing we have said excludes the possibility of hybrid works or works that belong to both fantasy and science fiction
This feels like the biggest oversight in the entire article, because it seems to exclude hard magic systems where things are super well defined. Which seems to exclude hard magic systems, where things are super well defined. However, the authors do end this definition that this should be the start of the discussion, not the end.
My initial thought was that I shouldn’t have agreed to do this, but now I’m in too deep. Join me next month as I struggle to define Science Fiction. 😬
For me, I would combine the final article with the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Between the two definitions they cover the most ground and fix problems the other has.