Thursday, June 02, 2011

Fantasy Goes Mainstream?

Here's an article—from the WALL STREET JOURNAL, believe it or not—about the recent boom in fantasy and horror tropes in bestselling fiction as the supernatural goes mainstream:

Season of the Supernatural

The article cites many examples of highly successful novels and series "blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art."

Fantasy and SF, the writer mentions, comprised 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared to a 7% share for literary fiction. Mystery is glanced at, too, although its market share isn't stated. Michael Chabon, author of THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION (an alternate history detective novel set in a Jewish nation in Alaska), says, "There is a critical sniffiness still toward stuff that smells too strongly of the mystery novel or the space opera." Romance, by the way, which outranks all the other genres in market share, isn't mentioned.

Lev Grossman, author of THE MAGICIANS (which has been accurately described as "Harry Potter discovers Narnia is real"—I found it riveting) and its forthcoming sequel THE MAGICIAN KING, declares, "We are the mainstream. Literary fiction is a subculture." About time somebody noticed!

It's pointed out that "the divide between popular and literary fiction was established relatively recently by the modernists, who favored hyperrealism over plot and narrative." Among the works of the great classical authors of the western canon, e.g. Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, and many others, supernatural elements are more commonly included than excluded. Since any literary historian could have told us that, it constantly baffles me when critics trained in the academic tradition disdain all novels that aren't purebred descendants of George Eliot and Henry James. (An attitude less dominant now than in the past, as demonstrated by an academic organization I belong to, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.)

This attitude splashes over into the general readership, too, as in the exasperating review presently at the top of the reader comments for THE MAGICIANS on Amazon. The commentator praises the book to the skies, while continually assuring us that it isn't fantasy. It's a Real Novel, with characterization, theme, and all that Important Stuff, also containing fantastic elements. An egregious example of the "it's good so it can't be SF" trope.

Happily, as even the WALL STREET JOURNAL acknowledges, "The pendulum may now be swinging back, with literature that can be both popular and literary, realistic and fantastical."

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Why is it so hard to admit fantasy is ruling he market right now and not only in books. Lots of TV and movie focus on my favorite genre right now. I love it.