You Don't Know What Fantasy Is.


15 minutes

You don't know what the fantasy genre is. I know, I know, you're sure you know what the fantasy genre is. How could you not? It's not that complicated....or is it? This essay is kind of long but it will construct a definition of fantasy from first principles -- and go over how we can improve the genre in the future. So, what is fantasy?

Aristotle's three genres

In the beginning, there was Aristotle (always fucking Aristotle man). Aristotle laid out three genres: deliberative, judicial, and epideidic rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric "juxtaposes potential future outcomes to communicate support or opposition for a given action or policy", judicial rhetoric "encompasses any discussion of past action including legal discourse", and, finally, epideidic rhetoric, which is also called "praise and blame rhetoric", covers any rhetoric that does praise and blame during ceremonies. These were the ONLY three genres Aristotle identified. I don't feel like I need to point this out, but this is severely limiting. In fact, here is a quote from Caroyln Miller about the Aristotelian genres:

David Kaufer makes a telling point about classical Greek rhetoric when he observes that the 'number of definable types of rhetorical situations in Classical culture appears both curiously small and stable." The three Aristotelian genres signal a particular and limited role for rhetoric, according to Kaufer, but a very important one: maintaining 'the normal functions of the state'
So, over time, as the amount of literature increased, we had to find a way to classify it more specifically. This led to...

Contemporary Conceptions of Genre

Our current conception of genre! Now, for the most part I'm going to pretend like you have a good idea of our modern conceptions of genre. In a vague sense, it comes intuitively to us, the important note is that contemporary conceptions of genre divide works taxonomically by form and substance. For example, here is an excerpt from Brian Attebery about how the fantastical genres split off from realism in the way we know them today:

Whereas once upon a time (I use the phrase advisedly) storytelling was divided into things that were true--history--and things that weren't--romance--now the division comes at quite another point. Once the realistic novel was invented, it claimed kinship to history and denied its ties to romance. Hence, the gulf opened between histories true or feigned, on the one hand, and fantasies, on the other. Accordingly, the more history-like a novel seemed, the more highly it was regarded, and the less incentive writers had to exploit the romance-like potential of the form.

So Attebery hints at something here..okay, well, it's not very hint as much as laid out clearly in the book, but he hints at genre being used to push some...well "genres" to the margins and prioritize others. On the same page, Attebery brings up a point by Ursula k Le Guin (who we will be hearing more from soon):

Le Guin points out that even though genre ought to be a neutral descriptive term, applying to the dominant mode of narrative realism as well as to such categories as science fiction or mystery, it is applied only to those genres whose primary readership is outside the power structure of the academy.

What all of these points are alluding to is, in genre studies, referred to as...

The tyranny of genre

Genres you the whole history of art, you know, genres have been put in place, to discriminate. You know like high art was paining, sculpture...[but] needlework? Not high art. It's about access, and you know, all women, female artists, historically have always had to defy genre in order to even have access to artforms. So I have no problem with people who are saying it's 'not really standup' I'm like 'It's not really the point.'
Hannah Gadsby

According to Richard Coe, "the tyranny of genre is normally taken to signify how genric structures constrain individual creativity." John H Patton argues from a critics point of view, saying genre criticism invites reductionism, rules, formailism, and causes "critical determinism of the worst sort" (Miller, Genre as social action).

But, perhaps the worst part of genre is how it changes audience, reader, and publisher expectations. Hans Robert Jauss says "genre creates a 'horizon of expectation' under which readers will interpret texts". Okay, so, that was a lot. Let's draw some examples.

Ah, Brandon Sanderson, you never fail to give me content to criticize. So, Brandon Sanderson, perhaps the most popular fantasy author of the late 2010s, has written these "laws of magic," you may have heard of them. If not, here are summarizes from the Sanderson site:

  1. An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Limitations > Powers (Or, if you want to write it in clever electrical notation, you could say it this way: Ω > | though that would probably drive a scientist crazy.)
  3. Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Now, I have a lot to say about the "laws" of magic--but firstly can we appreciate the hubris required to write the "laws of magic", like, I'm not laying out "laws of fantasy" right now as much as I'd want to. Ok, ok, so, we have these "laws", first thing to note is in no ways do these "laws" hold true for many pieces we consider fantasy. The reader does not understand the magic in Lord of the Rings or A Wizard of Earthsea, yet characters in both use the magic for solving conflict all the time to great effect. In fact, I think each of the laws are absurd and entirely unuseful for helping authors write, readers read, and critics to analyze.

But, what the laws are really good at is establishing a "horizon of expectation." By codifying magic systems Sanderson has used his power to establish what his audience considers "good" fantasy, or even as a framework for analysis in general. I've experienced this in my own life, I distinctly remember talking about Hunter x Hunter to a friend and them saying, quote, "it's like Harry Potter in anime, very good soft worldbuilding." Let me say it here--soft worldbuilding or magic systems or whatever will NEVER be a good measure of how good a text is. These distinctions and nearly meaningless and entirely irrelevant. But, I digress. In fact, Sanderson explicitly tells us that he sees his laws as foundational to the genre, in the first paragraph introducing his laws, he says "magic is a large part of what makes the fantasy genre distinctive." Is Sanderson wrong? Not necessarily. But there are a lot of books with magic, and a lot of genres with magic that straddle the line (such as magical realism), so who's to say? Nathan will have an essay up soon doing a much deeper dive on this topic, so you should go check that out. Either way, the point is that Sanderson's laws are an excellent example of the sort of "horizon of expectation" that genre gives readership, and how that horizon of expectation can be damaging.

Everything before was assuming you happened to be a straight white man. If you happened to be marginalized in any way...forget it, you have bigger things to worry about. Now this applies to genre as a whole and to fantasy specifically. To be genre-ed at all is to be marginalized, and genre-ed texts often have liberatory powers, as Brian Attebery notes in his landmark book "The Strategies of Fantasy":

In her acceptance speech for the 1989 Pilgrim Award, Ursula K. Le Guin explicitly makes the connection between the exclusion of women’s texts and what she calls the “genrification” of nonrealistic forms like fantasy. “I first thought about this issue of genrification,” she says, “not as a woman writer but as a writer of science fiction, fantasy, children’s books, and young adult books—four fictional modes categorized by both publishers and academics as genres, and thereby, by the simple designation, excluded from serious criticism and consideration as literature.” But later, “having been myself so thoroughly genrified, I was quite ready to accept the feminist perception of the construction of Literature as essentially political, an issue of power and control” (“Spike” 18~19).
This is, also, in essence, why this channel exists. This channel is dedicated to the serious criticism and consideration of the fantasy genre (whether that genre exists or deserves to continue existing is up to debate in my opinion).

Now, we talked about genre as a whole, but fantasy itself exists as a tool for marginalization. There is a lot to be said here, and the initial quote in this section is quite a good overview, but we'll return to this soon, right after we discuss a new form of defining genre. Speaking of which...

Genre as Social Action

So, we've identified a lot of problems with genre. Let's work on defining a model less susceptible to the tyranny of genre. So, Carolyn Miller has come up with a concept called "genre as social action." As far as I can tell it has been very popular in genre studies since the 80s but I hadn't heard of it before doing research for this essay.

So, what is genre as social action? Well...everyone talks about how difficult this article is to parse but here is my best shot. Many approaches to genre are fundamentally Aristotelian (fused form and substance), but genre as social action subverts this. From the article by Miller:

"A rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of the discourse, but on the action it is used to accomplish."
And later on,
"Genre becomes a complex of formal and substantive features that create a particular effect in a given situation"
Or, if you would humor me with one more quote from Amy J. Devitt:
Genres don't just sit there, they do something.
For example, an invoice is not defined by its form, or even its content, but from "the action it is used to accomplish", which is, in potentially over-simplified terms, clear financial communication between a buyer and seller. Or, as another example, Devitt observed that tax accountants had to gauge their legal liability in letters, making their letters a distinctly different genre, than, say, if you gave tax advice in a letter to your friend, even if the substance and form was the same. So, genre is not defined by form and substance, but rather, more importantly, what the piece tries to convey or advocate for. And from here, we can finally get to...

What is fantasy

So...I just looked at my outline..and it seems this section is as long as the last three sections combined? sigh. Well, let's do this then. So, with our new conception of genre, what is fantasy?

Fantasy is defined by Brian Attebery as "a set of texts derived primarily from the literary fairy tales and romance revivals of the nineteenth century" and he claims fantasy is judged by its "effectiveness in conveying a sense of a radically altered or augmented world" (Attebery, “Fantasy and the Narrative Transaction.”). Attebery, perhaps without knowing it, has given us both a form and rhetorical combination, priming us for a definition under the context of genre as social action. Namely, that we have a rheotical act to tie fantasy to, fantasy as a genre can be defined to "convey a sense of a radically altered or augmented world". If you wanted to change this definition to separate fantasy from scifi, you could make a concession that the radically altered world needs to be along the lines of the literary fairy tales and romance revivals of the nineteenth century...but that defines fantasy as almost strictly a European tradition, which leads me to my first problem with this definition.

While fantasy does "convey a sense of a radically altered or augmented world", it is also consistently racist. I'm guessing most viewers of this video (or readers of the essay!) are in fantasy circles of some form or another, and me calling a genre you associate yourself with racist hurts. But, when push comes to shove, there's no way around it. Nathan will definitely make a video expanding on this at some point, so I will provide a tldr here and point you towards the excellent essays Race: The Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre and Fantasy's Othering Fetish. The tldr is races in fantasy have always stemmed from othering and racism, even when unintended, especially since Tolkien established a canon of races. Do the orcs/trolls/etc. look like people of color on accident? Or...does fantasy just happen to have a tradition of associating "evil" with people of color? So, I would actually argue that in its current form, fantasy also pushes forward rhetorics of racism almost as a rule (though fantasy can also provide liberatory power to oppressed groups).

There is another element here as well, I won't touch on it as much but fantasy has a massive militarization fetish. A glorification and promotion of violence is visible in most of the fantasy genre, enough to potentially label it a genre defined by violence. This may also be why it is often relegated to be for "children" or "teen [boys]" (sidenote: I don't really understand why we associate violence with youth anyway, I feel most violence is done by adults, to youth.). This plays into the racism too, to make the killing of swaths of "evil" enemies okay, you need to otherize them, establish a coherent us vs them. The them, in these cases, are often the aforementioned orcs/trolls/etc.

But there are no wars in Earthsea. No soldiers, no armies, no battles. None of the militarism that came from the Arthurian saga and other sources and that by now, under the influence of fantasy war games, has become almost obligatory. ... A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media, the mechanical slaughter of endless battalions of black-clad, yellow-toothed, red-eyed demons.
Ursula K. Le Guin

Now, as you may have guessed, the same is true just as much if not more about fantasy and gender/sexual discrimination. It is not hard to see this, I mean, hell, Ursula K. Le. Guin wrote about her own book A Wizard of Earthsea:

Anyway, the stories weren’t about the women. They were about men, what men did, and what was important to men. It’s in this sense that A Wizard was perfectly conventional. The hero does what a man is supposed to do: he uses his strength, wits, and courage to rise from humble beginnings to great fame and power, in a world where women are secondary, a man’s world.
Again, there's a lot to be said here, and there is a lot of feminist fantasy, but it is often gatekept out of "epic" or "high" fantasy. Here, again, is a quote from Attebery:
When contemporary women writers incorporate traditional elements into fantasy fiction, as they frequently do as a way of reconstructing myths of the feminine divine and of female coming- of-age, they face a challenge male writers can avoid. That challenge is to find a way to make use of the authority conferred by the traditional storyteller's voice without accepting the accompanying cultural assumptions about hierarchies and gender roles. For the folk narrator's claim to attention and belief is that both the stories and the manner of telling them are the entire community's inherited property, like a village well, and that listening to the traditional tales is a way of reaffirming one's membership in the community and its values. It isn't an option to accept the tale but reject the world view it embodies, even if, as is often the case in European Marchen, the dynamics of the story enforce the beliefs that female speech is dangerous and female agency impossible, that classes are permanently fixed although lucky individuals may move among them, and that happy ending must involve heterosexual marriage and a reimposition of domestic order.
Brian Attebery
Again, this is a very brief overview, there might be more to come here, potentially its own video, but you get the gist.

So, to bring it back around, the fantasy genre is defined by "conveying a sense ofa radically altered or augmented world" but also a habit of racism, sexism, and militarism are deeply rooted in its rhetorical actions. But, then, if you defy the racism/sexism/etc, you get relegated away from the genre, as we can see in examples of N.K. Jemisin not being considered "real epic fantasy" by r/fantasy's readership. Devitt talks about this as well,

Genres matter not just as gatekeepers but also as enforcers. Every genre carries with it sets of not just formal expectations but also cultural ones, worldviews. Genres have developed out of the values, beliefs, and norms of those in power within the community, institution, and culture. They enforce, as Miller (1984) said, “what ends we may have.”"
Amy J. Devitt Genre for Social Action: Transforming Worlds
Attebery specifically points out Ursula K Le Guin as an example of someone fighting the genre, but let's say she's not doing great on goodreads, the mainstream fantasy readership there isn't necessarily giving her amazing reviews, so this still holds. So...what do we do? Give up on fantasy?

Genre For Social Action

Well, not necessarily. I want to end on a high note here, we don't need to outright discard fantasy. The entire point of this video is to bring a serious critical examination to the genre as a whole to move it forward. Amy J. Devitt also describes how critical readers and writers (that's us!) can interact with genre.

Genres work for social action when communicators actively choose and manipulate the genres they use rather than be used by them.
Here are the four ways to use genre Devitt lays out:
  1. Genre mindfulness (choose genre that reflects desired worldview)
  2. Genre resistence (resisting genres with bad worldviews)
  3. Genre revision (revising genre to better perform desired actions)
  4. Genre created (creating new genre with desired worldview)

So, what we need to do is either develop a new genre, leave this genre and boot it, or revise fantasy to become what we all hoped it was and could be when we started reading it. Thank you very much for watching, this was but, especially fantasy, I'll see yall next time!