Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing Styles Do Not Define Fantasy Fiction

Derek Herzog argues:

There seems to be a stigma associated with the fantasy genre which makes people hesitant to pick up a book labeled fantasy. A big part of this has to do with what first comes to someone's head when they think of fantasy. For many, the term fantasy brings to mind a long, tedious work of escapism which is weird and unapproachable. They might think this because they associate fantasy with a particular style of writing, one that is slow, straight-forward, and not innovative. To think like that though is a misconception, and it could be what has given fantasy a bad rap for so long.

The truth is, fantasy is not limited to one particular style of writing; if this was the case, it really would have no hope. I've read fantasy works from six different authors recently, and one of the coolest things I've learned is how varied fantasy authors are in their approaches to their work. Fantasy is by no means limited to one style of writing, and coming to this realization not only removes the stigma associated with the genre but it reveals the potential for how many new and innovative things could be done with it, as well.

To begin my recent fantasy escapade, I started with two authors whose books could be considered the roots of fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. They both tell their stories as if they were Grandpas dictating an old tale to their Grandsons; this is why I have deemed this style the "Old Man Narrative." Consider how The Magician's Nephew begins: "This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child" (Lewis 1). The whole book goes along with this sort of feel. While I'm reading it, I actually even read in my head in the voice of an old Grandpa. The Hobbit is told in a similar way. Consider this line, for example: "The Mother of our particular hobbit--what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us" (Tolkien 12). Both of these novels are written in these distinctive narrative styles, which are quite different from other authors in our class. Could you imagine if every fantasy novel were written like this? Sure, both books are good reads, but after being exposed to a style for too long it quickly goes stale. The "Old Man Narrative" helped pave the way for future fantasy fiction, but fortunately other authors moved beyond this--or regressed from it.

Speaking of regressed, this brings me to the next two authors: Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey. Both authors have a writing style which is fairly simplistic. The stories also move along quite slowly. I think the novels by these two would be better received by younger readers, not only because of their coming-of-age themes, but also because of their slow and steady writing styles which probably make the books easier to understand. In both books, a lot of time is spent talking over what is going on in the protagonist's head. As an older reader, this can seem tedious and unnecessary, but to someone who is younger, the repetition might really help them understand what's going on. It is unfair of me to label these two as lesser authors, but their writing styles definitely do not appeal to me that much. Whether I enjoy it or not, though, these authors possess a distinctive writing style which adds validity to the notion that it is not what solely characterizes the fantasy genre.

Sheri Tepper makes up another category of writing styles. Unlike many other fantasy authors, she writes her prose in a more creative, even poetic way. She really gets inside of her protagonist's mind, and this makes her book, The True Game, seem more realistic, and it also allows the reader to become more immersed in the story. Take, for example, just a random line from the text: "How so many could find power to exist, she did not say. We did not ask. It was only a tall tale, we thought. Hum of bees, quiet sough of wind. Then, suddenly, as we climbed a high ridge of stone, a cold gust from above, chill as winter, without warning" (Tepper 39). She presents the information to the reader in a way which emulates the flashes of thought and sensory information going through Peter's mind; this technique is effective, highly creative, and unique. I would argue that Tepper's style proves the great potential for evolution within the genre.

The last fantasy novel I read was Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, which can definitely be set apart from other authors. Being an apocalyptic satirical novel which aims to make the reader laugh and think, a writing style which is similar to any of the ones discussed above would not suffice. Rather, Pratchett and Gaiman tell their story in short, inter-weaving fragments which keep it fast-paced and upbeat. The prose is also casual, witty, conversational, and laid-back. Take a look at this line from the first page: "By the same token the earth itself is generally supposed to be about four and a half thousand million years old.... These dates are incorrect" (Pratchett & Gaiman 13). It is not serious, or boring, or enormously creative, or condescending--it is just natural. By natural I mean the pacing just feels pretty leisurely, if you know what I mean. The effect this style has on the reader makes it one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read, and I don't just mean fantasy fiction. This style is a departure from the others we've seen, and not only proves that fantasy is not defined by a style of writing, but it also shows just how entertaining fantasy can be.

It will be the best thing to happen for the fantasy genre when it loses the stereotype attached to it that all fantasy books are boring and stale. There are so many cool and creative things that have been done with it. Look at Sheri Tepper: she did something that was completely different and innovative, which arguably rivals writers in other, more acclaimed genres, and yet she is relatively unknown because she chose to pour her efforts into a stigmatized genre. This must stop. Fantasy has so much potential but if it continues to be disregarded because of a false definition of it then it will never go anywhere.

Works Cited

Anthony, Piers. A Spell for Chameleon. New York/Toronto: Random House, 1977. Print.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Magician's Nephew. New York: HarperCollins, 1955. Print.
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1976. Print.
Tepper, Sheri S. The True Game. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Print.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post on the styles of fantasy writing and it was helpful to me, as a writer, to see the different categories you've assigned with examples.

My favorite style is Pratchett and Gaiman.

spyder said...

TC, have you provided your class some definition of fantasy fiction that forms the body of works to be reviewed? Reading through the essays so far, i find that most of the students focus on a set of pieces and authors, and wondered if that was the base of the class.

The Constructivist said...

We've reviewed debates over defining fantasy and I explained the definition I was using when I put together the syllabus. The links in this intro post may help clarify their starting points

but they're free to use whatever sources and ideas they want to in the response essay, so long as there is some connection to questions and texts from the course!

spyder said...

Well, this makes me curious for how speculative fiction, as Ted Sturgeon defined his work to me, fits into the schema? He never thought he was a sci-fi author, nor did he consider himself a fantasy author either. Perhaps some of your students have views on this?

The Constructivist said...

Some prefer "speculative fiction" to either sf or fantasy. Some think "fantasy" should be seen in as wide-angle a way as possible (so that sf, epic, romance, magical realism, and other genres including the restricted definition of fantasy are actually subgenres within it). Some think distinctions between sf, fantasy, and myth should be maintained. You'll get a better sense of the range of their views when more of them finish revising their essays! (Although not every one is definitional in focus.)