Roundtable: Fantasy Genres

Karen Burnham

This Roundtable continues the discussion from two weeks ago on recommending books for fans of George R. R. Martin. The discussion moved away from specific titles and wandered into the way ways that we group fiction. What does it mean when fans of X may like Y? How come X number of people can point at a book and come up with X + N different labels for it? And what the heck is the difference between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy, anyhow?

Read on for the view points of Stefan Dziemianowicz, Cat Rambo, Gardner Dozois, Cecelia Holland, Paul Witcover, and N. K. Jemisin.

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Stefan Dziemianowicz

And doesn’t the very notion of “genre” suggest a collective of themes, tropes (did I really just use this word?), set pieces, and signifiers that are repeated regularly across stories, albeit not always in the same order or configurations?

I’m mindful of the pulp magazine era, when scores of hardboiled detective fiction magazines published virtually the same contents by the same writers under slightly different titles. There wasn’t a lot of originality because publishers found that sameness sold.

Cat Rambo

I’d also say that if I were recommending fantasy for someone who liked GRRM, I’d ask them first what they liked about it. Someone who said “the political stuff” would merit a different answer than the person who waxed enthusiastic about the dragons.

Gardner Dozois

There seems to be a somewhat blurry line between “epic fantasy” and “swords and sorcery.”  Is there a difference?  The distinction between “epic fantasy” and “High Fantasy” may also be a bit blurry.  Is GRRM really even “High Fantasy?”

Cecelia Holland

My problem with this is, I don’t know if readers actually know why they like a certain book (reviews on Amazon confirming this), and while publishing believes if readers like A, and A is almost the same as B, they’ll like B too, we all know in our hearts of hearts (because this is how we read) what we want is something we never saw before, something that stuns us and amazes us, knocks us out of our chairs. For instance, Reindeer Moon, not epic, certainly some kind of fantasy, or The Worm Ouroboros. Readers are not an audience. They’re active searchers who use stories to promote their own quests.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Not to get off-topic, but this reminds me that I recently talked with a fan who was incredulous that someone reviewed a Charlaine Harris novel for a major newspaper and never once mentioned the term “urban fantasy”–which prompted me to remind her that outside of the genre, if not within, these subgenres and sub-subgenres have little meaning to the vast majority of readers.

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