Literary Fantasy - do you read it?

Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by D.N.Frost, Apr 19, 2017.

  1. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    Hi everyone! I've recently come across the idea that literary value + magic = the Literary Fantasy sub-genre. So I joined with a question for dedicated fantasy readers:

    Do you read Literary Fantasy as its own sub-genre? Or are you more likely to root around your preferred fantasy sub-genre (Epic, Urban, etc) for your next great read?

    BFB defines Literary Fantasy like this:

    "A lot of that has to do with the characters, who are unique, interesting, convincing. They are complex, and this allows the plot to develop in a more complex, yet intuitive way. The themes of the books and their development are compelling, and could be called uplifting, seeming to carry meaning beyond the story itself. Good literature does that, and that's why we value it. One good test of whether something can be classified as Literary Fantasy is if a person who does not like “fantasy” in general enjoys the book, it's probably safe to say it's literary."
    The message I'm getting is that Literary Fantasy is when great writing and magic power unite under one book cover. So if Literary Fantasy is the sub-genre shortcut to the best books that fantasy has to you use this shortcut? How do you browse Literary Fantasy compared to other sub-genres? And if you don't read Literary Fantasy in its own right, why do you choose not to? Would you consider your favorite fantasy books to also be Literary Fantasy (based on the definition above)?

    I'm trying to get a better sense of how this sub-genre is perceived and leveraged by the fantasy community. What do you think of Literary Fantasy, and how (if at all) do you use it to pick out your next book? Thanks.
  2. Noor Al-Shanti

    Noor Al-Shanti Philosophizes with Kellhus

    To be quite honest if I heard something was literary fantasy I would probably be less likely to bother with it. For me the word "literary" carries with it a kind of pretentiousness. I associate it with the irritating books they make you read in English classes where everything, down to the color of the curtains, is a symbol for something and the whole story is just groaning under the weight of all these literary devices to the point where there's no enjoyment left in it...

    *sneaks out of thread*
  3. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Journeyed there and back again

    I'm Irish (sort of but we'll not go into border nuances) and we do literary everything and, ergo, I have a decent tolerance for literary stuff..... Anyhow, I have a vaguely literary fantasy coming out this July so did some reading around the genre.

    I'd be prepared to be argued down on any of these.

    Carlos Ruiz Zafon possibly, at a stretch. Nice turns of phrase, great sense of place. Also maybe Isabel Allende.

    Moving from magical realism. Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry might fit the bill (although it didn't turn me on, I'm afraid). I also wonder about some if Ruth Frances Long's material.

    Another name I'll call out (not sure what she'll think!) is @Teresa Edgerton who does, I think, write much in this style and may know others who do.
  4. Vasher

    Vasher Helped Logen count his fingers

    Love it. Put some magic into any other genre and it immediately becomes way more interesting to me, and literary fiction is no different. Love me some south american magical realism. I don't think the word "literary" necessarily means pretentious, I look at it as any other genre label. Literary novels have different goals than a typical fantasy novel, that's all. Less emphasis is placed on a compelling plot and escapism, a lot more is placed on aesthetically pleasing prose, copious internal monologue that really lets you get to know a character, and exploring the nuances of everyday human relationships and existence. One novel can't do everything, so you pick your battles and focus on what's important, and then the suits sort you into a genre at the end. My girlfriend reads a LOT of fan fiction, and almost all of it is plot-less character studies. If they were novels, they'd be marketed as literary fiction. Kinda weird to think of fan fiction, some of the most maligned and looked down upon writing, and literary fiction, which people perceive as high class and pretentious, as essentially the same thing, huh?

    The term literary fantasy is definitely used pretty loosely, though, since it's not a very common term and there's not a ton of consensus on it yet. Like you said, sometimes great writing is said to be enough to qualify, and I don't know that I agree. Patrick Rothfuss has fantastic prose, but I don't know that I'd call Name of the Wind "literary." Book of the New Sun definitely is, though. Maybe it's just one of those, "I know it when I see it," things.
  5. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    I am cautiously interested.

    Me and literary fiction are... something? Okay, lets try this again. I don't full comprehend what literary fiction is. Heavy use of themes and symbolism? I love that shiznit but I don't that makes literary all by its ownsome. Very ornate prose? Often associated but like, GGK has that and I'm not sure I'm calling him literary. The stuff I read in English classes? All Families Are Psychotic did not feel literary to me.

    Is it the stuff that a group of snobbish critics, with the need to maintain a dividing line in order to justify a living, say that it is? So some tell me.

    A mix of all of the above? Probably.

    I love symbolism, poetic language and deep character studies. So I am interested. But I love plot, I love mystery. I'm not keen on foregoing that. Literary fiction's reputation for thinking that stuff is unimportant is offputting. I don't think I can agree that Literary Fantasy is the shortcut to the best in the genre, at least not from my perspective.

    Mind you, that's the theory.

    The reality is I simply don't know anyone talking about literary fiction, fantasy or otherwise. I pick up a lot of recommendations across a lot of genres from a lot of people and virtually none of them, for whatever reason, involve the literary. So I don't read it. I've got too many things I do want to read that people are making me excited about to even think about what I'm missing out on (unless people are talking about them). My theoretical position is nowhere near as important as the things I see everyday.

    At a rough guess, I've got about 600 physical books I want to keep and 200 I don't, and gods know how much on the hard drive. To the best of my knowledge, I only have two books that might be considered literary fiction - Hundred Years of Solitude and Unbearable Lightness of Being. I got the first based on a combination of a signature quote on an Ulster Rugby forum and an interview with At the Gates singer Tomas Lindberg where he talked a lot about Magical Realism. Not quite sure why I got the second and I've never even opened it. Probably a newspaper article I saw at work. I've got a few books I've never touched, admittedly.

    Or in short, I'm a book nut who'll extract recommendations from just about anything. Friends, family, a teeming multitude of forums. And yet literary is just not a big part of the world I can reach.

    Until it is, I doubt I'll read much of it.
  6. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Journeyed there and back again

    @Vasher - my husband suggested Rothfuss too but we couldn't decide. However, on balance, I'd put The Slow Regard of Silent Things (which I adore) in there.

    @Peat - I think it would normally be seen as evidencing a thoughtfulness in terms of the words chosen and why. Some depth of meaning in the language. (Which makes me think a certain new writer on the block, Bryan Wigmore, might fall under the category - and I know you love his writing). Sometimes that depth obscures the story, which for me feels like a fail. Sometimes it adds a new layer to the book and transforms it into something very special with turns of phrases that I can stop and read several times before moving on.

    Have you read Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I challenge you to read Marina - I think it might surprise you. Or, indeed, The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. It's astonishingly clever.
  7. Vasher

    Vasher Helped Logen count his fingers

    You know what, yes, I would also probably classify Slow Regard as literary fantasy. It discards a lot of ideas about what a fantasy story should be. It's a plotless character study, basically Pat writing fan fiction of his own original creation. It's nowhere near as deep into that hole as Book of the New Sun is, there's no real emphasis on symbolism or subtext, but it's certainly close enough to qualify considering what's marketed as literary fiction these days.
  8. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Every time somebody says literary fiction I cannot help but think of this awesome video:

    As of the question above... labeling something as literary fantasy would probably make me wanna stay away from it. In my opinion all books have some literary value, especially the good ones, in any genre and it comes to personal taste which kind of stories( genres) exite us. But I cannot help but think that literary fiction readers scoff on the other genres, as if their prefered genre has some kind of monopolly on good prose, intriguing ideas, great phylosophy.

    Also - every book that tries to put itself into a specific sub-genre, and let's pretend for a bit that literary fantasy is an evolved enough sub-genre, is bound to be shit. Becuase good books are usually more than one idea, trope, and very often - sub-genre. I want stories that have it all - a story, great characters, fascinating world, and if the author is able to put clever thoughts between the lines - all the better. If he is able to spin prose like Rothfuss - that could be a bonus too, although reading only high prose kind of works would be a boring task if done for long enough.

    So to sum it up:

    A great literary fiction story with orcs in it is bound to make me warry of the book.
    A great story with orcs that has some literary fiction elements in it is bound to make me curious.

    So in conclusion - story is king. And tone is queen. Or maybe the other way around. If an author cannot express his literary ideals through the king and queen, then he can go shop his pawn book to a crowd with a better disposition toward such things.
  9. Vasher

    Vasher Helped Logen count his fingers

    You're misrepresenting Pat, here. Big time. He's basically saying that you shouldn't be a genre snob, which is exactly what you're being by saying, "literary fantasy," makes you want to stay away. You're turning your nose up at literary fiction which as Pat said, is just another genre. Literary fantasy is just fantasy with enough conventions from literary fiction that it seems different enough to warrant a more granular label. Is literary fiction shit? Is fantasy that borrows from it lesser, somehow?

    Also, you'll find that most books don't try to put themselves into a sub-genre, an author writes a book he wants to write without really thinking of genre, and then figures out where it fits after it's done (or his publisher does), and because everything has been done before there's almost certainly a place where it fits well enough to appeal to fans of the genre. Genre specificity is good, it helps people find what they want to read, I don't think anybody views them as something that "good books don't have," and that bad books are defined by, what a weird idea.

    Also, books inherently can't have it all. A book is an exercise in compromise. You can't have a slow pace, and also have tons of action. You can't spend a lot of time creating character depth and also have a taught 200 page thriller where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Different books are trying to accomplish different things, and inherently place more or less effort and thought in certain places. In my experience literary fiction is an exercise in patience, but that patience is often rewarded with a harder emotional hit at the end. It sacrifices plot and pacing to achieve this. Everything is a trade off.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2017
  10. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    Jo - That would be a good definition but it doesn't feel like the one in use by the wider world. It feels like they're looking for more, you know? I mean... John Banville is still using an extraordinary care with words when writing as Benjamin Black. Yet he feels the need to write those crime novels under a different name and there seems to be a dividing line between them in his head.

    Maybe I'm wrong. But I can't imagine Bryan or GGK or Jacqueline Carey (very careful with her language, very avant-garde) being longlisted for a Booker. I can't imagine them being part of that world. *pause* Unless they become cult classics and get recognised 40 years down the line at which point their very last books might get recognised :p

    Would Mythago Wood count? That is bumping slowly up my reading list. Haven't read Zafon or Davies. Can't say the wiki blurb for Deptford Trilogy filled my heart with excitement I'm afraid, although that might be disappointment that it was Deptford Canada and not Deptford London :p

    Early John le Carre might disagree with this to a large extent, as might Benjamin Black.
  11. Silvion Night

    Silvion Night Sir Readalot Staff Member

    I think the Return of the King could be classified as literary fantasy. It has certain elements to the prose, themes and setting that just screams "Literature!".

    Some GGK books would classify as well. I don't think Pat's books would qualify though. He's good with prose, but that's about it.
  12. afa

    afa Journeyed there and back again

    Nice video.

    I've seen a couple of other videos of Rothfuss, interviews and stuff, and seeing him and listening to him makes me like him more than reading him does. If that makes sense.
  13. Maark Abbott

    Maark Abbott Journeyed there and back again

    Maybe if he spent more time writing and less giving speeches that I can't view 'cause I'm at work eh
  14. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Don't put words in my mouth I didn't say. I'd want to stay away from such book, because if it's being marketed as literary fantasy, I'd understand it as the book being about literary first( the elements that are usually associated with the term), and fantasy story/elements second. How does having a preference about story structures/elements and tropes makes one a snob?

    If a fantasy book has enough literary fiction elements to classify as literary fantasy, this would most likely mean that it's more literary fiction books with fantasy elements than the other way around.

    A truly magnificent fantasy book is deemed good, because it could have in it everything that the other genres have a strenghts, combined and used as tools for forging a compelling story. It borrows cool concepts and ideas and structures and elements from any genre the author would like it to. What you are describing as literary fantasy as a concept doesn't mean perfecting what fantasy does, it means removing most of what fantasy is, and putting what's left as a wig on a literary fiction story. That's how I understand it. I am not saying there are no good fantasy stories with strong literary elements in them, I am saying those books are having a good fantasy story first, and are seasoning it the right way, not the other way around.



    You'd find that most of the successful authors, Brandon Sanderson included, talk about writing a story you'd like, while having some idea of it's genre/sub-genre if you'd like to publish it and make some money out of it.

    I cannot believe I've spend 10 minutes replying to a person who uses sacrificing plot, pace and trade off as a way to explain/defend/sell a genre...
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2017
  15. Alucard

    Alucard In the name of the Pizza Lord. Charge! Staff Member

    I thought you didnt even like his books. Like Silv..
  16. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    Come now, he just wants to participate... can you begrudge him that?

    Go on Maark, tell us more about Kingkiller and WoK. :)
  17. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    Wow! Thanks for all the in-depth responses. I kind of don't know where to start...

    This seems reasonable, but it doesn't really apply in the same way to other fantasy crossover genres. (We'll leave out genuine sub-genres like Dark, Epic, or Urban, since they are arguably just modifiers.) A "science fantasy" is not necessarily more about science than about fantasy; rather, sci-fant merely implies that there are futuristic or technological elements in the fantasy. A "historical fantasy" is not necessarily more about history than about fantasy, etc.

    I think the biggest issue here is the ambiguity of the label "literary fantasy" itself. Half the replies so far have touched on literary fiction as if "literary fantasy" were the exact same genre. The general consensus seems to be that "literary ANYTHING" = literary fiction with a sprinkle of some other genre added in, as opposed to a solid genre piece that has exemplary writing, plot, characters, and symbolism. Since I asked for your opinions, I'm glad to learn this is how the Literary Fantasy genre is perceived. Do I think that there are misconceptions? Sure. But it's not my job to moderate the connotations of each sub-genre label. I wanted to know what people thought so I could navigate the application of those labels conscientiously.

    I found this interesting too. I guess the problem with the word "literary" is that people associate it with TOO much high-brow writing and symbolism, such that weak plot and pacing become dreadfully obvious. Honestly, not all Literary Fiction works have great writing - just like some fantasy writers out there don't care about realistic characters or the impact of magic on cultural heritage, some literary fiction writers put plot and pacing on the backburner to facilitate their lengthy (and sometimes egoic) explorations of symbolism and themes.

    I'd like to point out that weak plot and poor pacing are NOT hallmarks of the literary genres:
    (from the genre definition in my OP)

    Literary works are character-driven, which allows for complicated plots that unfold at a pace that feels natural to the story at hand. Obviously, any novel that forsakes plot and flow (story pace, pulse, and momentum) in favor of heavy thematic motifs and character study...well, that novel has missed the point of reading entirely. Unless you're in school, you're going to read a fictional novel for entertainment, and a book with no story is like a dinner party with no food. There's nothing to draw people in (an exercise in patience), and the ultimate reward is a lot of milling around and chatting about the ramifications of our one-sided experience.

    Ultimately, I asked my question about Literary Fantasy because the BFB definition (in my OP) describes my own fantasy novels to the letter: strong characters, compelling plot, gripping pace, captivating prose, and a magic system fully integrated into everyday life. (These qualities were pointed out in various reviews; I'm not just blowing my own horn on this.) But since the core concept of the Literary Fantasy genre is still so undefined - even for fantasy-specific readers like us - I wasn't really sure what the marketing impact might be. I've been using the Epic Fantasy sub-genre to describe my work for years, and based on the replies here, I think it's safe to say that I should NOT re-classify my novels as Literary Fantasy.

    My own opinions about Literary Fiction (and by proxy, Literary ANYTHING as a sub-genre) have been open-minded lately, but in the past I've scorned Literary Fiction for being pretentious and overburdened. I think this is because, while there are a few authors who are really skilled and DON'T have to trade off plot/pace for characters/symbolism, the majority of authors (in any genre, really) just aren't those stellar exemplars. Every genre has its great books, and every genre is proliferated with far more middling books than greats. So the whole Literary Fiction genre is saturated with plotless human studies and purple prose, which impacts our perception of "Literary Anything" much more potently than the minority of truly great LitFic that checks off all the requisites with flying colors.

    Do I feel like my books are literary, when qualified by that OP definition? Yes. But do I feel like the term "Literary Fantasy" will accurately represent these qualities to the reading public? ...Perhaps not anymore. More powerful than any genre definition is the power of public perception, and tragically it seems that the literary fiction drivel that some egoic authors pump out has tainted the word "literary" across all genres.

    So I come to a new question: If you read an epic fantasy novel that had all those qualities of deep characterization, enthralling plot, eloquent prose, and thematic would you describe it to someone else? Would you even bother categorizing it as "literary" or would you just call it "epic" and communicate the story's quality as a corollary?

    Thanks again, everyone :)
  18. Noor Al-Shanti

    Noor Al-Shanti Philosophizes with Kellhus

    I think you've inadvertently touched on one of the main reasons why the term literary gets me angry. The way you said "and communicate the story's quality as a corollary" seems to suggest that you think literary = quality and other stuff is "just genre" with low quality. I find this problematic. And just to be clear I'm not blaming that on you, I think this is the kind of attitude that the "literary" world has towards genre and quality.

    If a book had what you described above and was an epic fantasy I would call it a good epic fantasy novel! Because that's what it is. Think of any of the great fantasy books out there: do they have deep characterization? Of course they do! Do they have eloquent prose? Of course! Do they have an enthralling plot? You bet! Do they have symbolism, etc? Yes! Are they high quality books? Of course!

    But for some reason the idea that fantasy and quality can go together, that a fantasy story can be deep, that you can talk about elves and orcs and still be saying something meaningful isn't easily accepted by the world of literary fiction, or english teachers, or the gatekeepers of "great literature" and even in the minds of the general public. Which is, I think, why a lot of fantasy lovers have come to kind of scorn the concept of literary fiction, because it's used to sort of look down upon the great books we love.

    So why would we want to apply that term to fantasy? To gain more acceptance in the literary world? If it has anything to do with fantasy it's probably not going to have much luck in that department no matter what other labels you put on it.

    In terms of labeling your own novel I think that has to do with helping readers who love books like yours to find it. As a reader I love fantasy and if I'm looking for a new book to read I will head straight to the fantasy section whether that's at the library or on the kobo site (which is where I look for my e-books usually) and if I want to narrow it down a bit I will hone in on epic fantasy. I have no idea if this is what other readers do. Maybe there are readers who are specifically looking for "literary fantasy"? Maybe that genre is smaller and your book will be more likely to be noticed there? If you self-publish there's nothing stopping you from playing around with the labels and seeing what happens... you can always change it back if it doesn't work or slows sales down, or the readers that find it were looking for something else. That's the beauty of self-publishing: you have the ability to experiment a little bit with these things! :)
  19. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    Yeah, I'd just call that really good Epic Fantasy. I'd never think to call a solid genre piece Literary X; I don't think Literary signifies quality.

    For me, Sci-Fan or Lit-Fan or Paranormal Romance or any other sub-genre name on similar lines implies a book that fits comfortably in either parent genre i.e. all Literary Fantasy should comfortably sit in the Literary shelves and the Fantasy shelves.
  20. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    We have already discussed in this forum how the concept of Literary Fiction applies only or mostly to Anglo Saxon countries, as most, if not all non English speakers forum members agreed on this.
    Therefore, this discussion is somehow elusive as simply LF doesn't exist in other languages.
    If I ignore the negative connotation of presumptuousness that seems to awake in some readers, and I follow the main definition of LT, I wouldn't have a problem reading this genre, whether it would apply to Fantasy, Science Fiction or any other category.
    @jo zebedee sorry, but I'm going to disagree with you regarding Ruiz Zafón books as I wouldn't place him in LF. He is considered a creator of bestsellers of quality. Zafón has revived what we call the genre of folletín or feuilleton, inspired by authors such as A Dumas or E Sue. However, I wouldn't place Zafón books on my shelf next to García Márquez nor Borges, who were indeed formidable authors without whom Magic Realism wouldn't be the same.
    @Peat One Hundred Years of Solitude is an extraordinary book and I believe you might like it. I didn't particularly enjoy The Unbearable Lightness of Being but it would qualify, in my opinion, as LF. If I remember well @Silvion Night liked it.

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