A question was recently asked in a Facebook authors’ group that centers around literary fiction, “What is literary fantasy?”
The answer is complicated, and many people who are hardcore readers of obscure literary fiction will radically disagree with me: Some work qualifies as literary fantasy because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a much broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”
Each story has a life of its own. Authors envision how that tale must be set down, and some stories that take place in a fantasy setting are focused on the characters and their internal journey more than on the external experiences. That focus on the internal rather than the external is a literary trope. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well. Allusive prose, steeped in allegory, is also a literary trope. Place those tropes and your characters in a fantasy setting, and you have literary fantasy.
Consider Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.
Yet, it is a fantasy, written about a man who believes he is a superhero.
Don Quixote had a major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Among modern work, in my opinion, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale about a young man’s internal journey to manhood, steeped in allegory, and told with beautiful, poetic prose in an unhurried fashion.
Within the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud. Among readers, those who love and seek out literary fiction are deemed “snooty” while those who love the sheer entertainment offered by genre fiction are deemed “unschooled.” Readers are just people after all–there are haters on both sides of the literary aisle.
Let’s talk about Stardust. According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can commit: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.
Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire.
Those narcissistic gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, and limited talent of their own really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:
- He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
- He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
- Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
- Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.
I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a telling, passive sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.
To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.
That is why I consider Stardust literary fantasy.
In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.
If you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book but haven’t read the novel, you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.
In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.
In my opinion, the arrogant perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.
True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.
You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. Read old books and new–but read. When you come across authors whose work deeply moves you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you. You may find yourself learning from the masters.
Credits and Attributions:
Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
First UK edition cover of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Stardust, Illustrator: Charles Vess, Publisher Avon Books, Publication date: 1 February 1999, via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use.