Literary Fantasy - do you read it?

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

  1. Silvion Night

    Silvion Night Sir Readalot Staff Member

    I agree with Peat on this one. I'd also call it a good Epic Fantasy. And as stated by some others before, the label "literary fantasy" sounds inherently snobbish. I'd be hesitant to pick up a book that is labeled as such.
  2. Silvion Night

    Silvion Night Sir Readalot Staff Member

    Yes I did, it's awesome.
  3. Maark Abbott

    Maark Abbott Journeyed there and back again

    Ehhh, it was passable enough, but it's more poking at his delays with the (purported) third book.
  4. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Journeyed there and back again

    @Elvira - I think it's fine to differ on inclusion. It's a fine line.

    @Peat - I would never have picked Deptf0rd up except that a friend handed me it with a 'read it, you won't regret it' command. And I did. And I never have, nor have I ever forgotten it, although, oddly for me, I've never wanted to reread it. It's in my head, and doesn't need to be revisited.
  5. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    THIS. My whole confusion with the term "Literary Fantasy" was that...well...why is it even a thing? If we're applying the word "literary" to genre writing to convey that it is well-written (as the definition implies) then...using the term "Literary Fantasy" communicates, "My writing is better than average - or at least I think it is." The pretentiousness shines through. And if no one is out there deliberately searching for Literary Fantasy as its own genre, then what's even the point?

    This also makes sense to me. Perhaps instead of re-branding my epic fantasy adventure as "Literary Fantasy" I should simply cross-index the book. For now at least, I'll use "Epic Fantasy" as my main genre, and "Literary Fiction" as my secondary genre - because honestly, "Literary Fantasy" isn't marketable to either group of readers, and yet my book would be at home on Literary shelves as well as Fantasy ones.

    Thanks again, y'all.
  6. Bierschneeman

    Bierschneeman Journeyed there and back again

    Wow, lot to read,

    I'll just deposit my opinion on what seems to be the major argument (examples and definition) and then read.

    I tend to think of literary fiction at it's best being: Anna Karenina, scarlet letter, Hemingway, faulkner, some dickens, a more modern example being bonfire of the vanities. At it's worse, romantics like mary shelley, pride and predjudice, and Moby dick. Im not saying these are bad, but they are more likely to bore into your skull when reading.

    Literary fantasy, sounds more like Gulliver s travels, homer, epic of Gilgamesh, early Arthurian tales, worm ouroboros, and maybe a more modern example Jonathon strange and mister norrel.

    I do not consider rothfuss literary fantasy, maybe more epic or maybe heroic fantasy.

    All opinion, seems to be a very vague definition.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2017
  7. Bierschneeman

    Bierschneeman Journeyed there and back again

    Caught up, also there seems to be more ambiguity and vagueness here than I was going on.

    So I looked up the definition from four seperate websites, my dictionary, and an old textbook lying around. What I got is pretty similar to what I was going on, literary fiction is definable by social merit, it is making a specific commentary on prejudice, social interactions, or political. This is not to confuse the word merit with quality, and not to say genre fiction can't have elements of the same.

    Lists ( cause what else is the internet for but lists, cats, and porn?)
    Literary fiction I didn't include already.
    Ayn Rand, one flew over the cuckoo's nest, to kill a mockingbird, uncle Tom's cabin, wizard of oz, wheels of chabce, james joyce, cantebury tales, most shakespeare (Some literary scifi) utopia, time machine, most PKD, 1984, it can't happen here.

    Genre fiction is a very broad category that encompasses most fiction that isn't literary fiction: treasure island, most mark twain, Sherlock Holmes, James bond, greys anatomy, most fantasy, mystery, and horror, anything to subtle to notice the commentary.

    More lit fantasy examples: paradise lost, midsummer nights dream, beowulf, last of mohicans , Evangeline.

    Ambiguous or unclear examples, some say tolkien is lit fantasy because he was writing on nazis, or loss of the idyllic rural life, or the world in general. But tolkien claims it's just genre fiction. I included early arthurian tales and not later because they stop making social commentary at some point.

    Literary fantasy can also be applied to seperate genres.

    Still opinion, but this time I backed it up with reading definitions.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2017
  8. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    You're a rock star! Thank you for taking the time to contribute your clarity to the issue.

    I watched a great documentary (I'll try to find the name) about how Tolkien set out to codify the various folktales, legends, and myths of Northern and Western Europe into "a modern mythology" for his homeland. The documentary explored his various influences and covered the real myths behind the story (like the Viking myth about a hoarding dragon enraged by the theft of a single gold cup, and the Scandinavian legend of a magic ring that turned its wearer invisible).

    Tolkien arguably established the modern fantasy genre, so it's amusing that he claimed his work was "just genre fiction". From what I've learned, Tolkien was deeply impacted by the trench warfare of WWI, and he dealt with his shell-shock by world-building, creating languages for his cultures, and later writing his stories - he wrote the first line of The Hobbit on the back of a student's linguistics test. He infused the horrors of war into his work, in addition to numerous other thematic symbols (human greed is a big one, plus the love of power, the idleness of good men, etc). The documentary posited that Frodo was Tolkien's own avatar, journeying from his countryside homeland in his youth to fight the Great War, only to be tormented by the dark side of humanity and to return home forever scarred by his ordeal. Sam, on the other hand, was apparently based off Tolkien's dear friend from the war, who did his best to boost the morale of his brothers in arms. (Unfortunately, Tolkien watched this friend die beside him in the trenches; he gave fictional Sam a much happier ending.)

    Tolkien's work is definitely literary - can you innovate a new genre of fiction and NOT be literary? I think his work became so classic mostly due to his depth of social commentary, and only partially due to the innovative way he combined European mythologies to create an other-world landscape. When people read (or watch) LotR, they tend to fall in love with the adventure, the bravery and daring, and the endurance of hardy characters dedicated to doing the right thing no matter the great personal cost. This is in stark contrast to many modern fantasy books, which have a more "Ooo! Magic is shiny!" approach to the genre.

    EDIT: Found it! Clash of the Gods, Episode 9: Tolkien's Monsters
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2017
  9. Bierschneeman

    Bierschneeman Journeyed there and back again

    On tolkien.

    He may not have specifically said "genre fiction" (memories are very fragile things, one can remember all sorts of things that never happened succumbing to suggestion or vagueness.) But you can easily find a literal ton of material on how much tolkien work is literary fiction and or inspired allegory for human condition or ww1 or ww2..

    You can also find lots of sources where he insists it's not an allegory on anything, has nothing to do with Nazis or ww1, and not social commentary of any political situation.

    I know Chris tolkien has been the biggest advocate for insisting it's an allegory, and I will insist that's just more of Chris riding his father's corpse down money mountain like he's done his whole adult life. If he was the first to state this, it really shines light.

    It could be like led zeppelin, clearly extremely heavy for the time, heavier than other heavy metal bands. But they get angry if you call them heavy metal, they insist they played British blues .

    What you think of your own work might be different from what it is.
  10. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    I think this is the crux of the issue! Whatever an author is trying to do/write/accomplish, it's really the READERS that determine if a book is good, what genre it falls into, and the themes/symbols/"literary value" it imparts.

    Whether or not Tolkien intentionally imbued social commentary into his work, the fact remains that it is there to be seen (or ignored) at the reader's discretion. This circles back to my own work too - no matter what I was trying to impart with my work, it's really based on the feedback and reviews I've received that I started contemplating the "Literary Fiction" genre in the first place.
  11. Darwin

    Darwin Journeyed there and back again

    It's frustrating when the metrics of critics are so fundamentally different from my personal tastes. This same thing happens with movies and TV; Moonlight won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and Academy Award for Best Picture. Here's the blurb for the movie: "Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality." Idk about you, but I'm not sitting through two hours of that shit.

    On the other hand, there's things my favorite authors do really, really well, but these innovations don't seem to make an impression on literary critics. Here's a passage from Abercrombie's blog that I read recently. It describes part of what he loved about Game of Thrones:

    "It was also interesting from a technical standpoint – Martin uses the third person limited approach, as it’s called, with the events always narrated from “inside the head”, if you like, of one of the main characters. All the action is seen powerfully close up, coloured by the personality of the narrator. For me, fantasy went suddenly from being all about the huge, the spectacular, the sweeping wide shot (following on from Tolkein’s approach) to being about the experience of individuals. You feel the sweat, the pain, the fear, the blood, you understand the motivations. You see how no-one is a villain in their own mind, even if they are in everyone else’s. The great achievement of Martin’s books, for me, is that they cover vast, epic, immense events, but never lose that sense of tight involvement with the characters. It wasn’t a new approach in wider fiction – I guess Tolstoy was doing something similar in War and Peace – but it was the first time I’d seen it applied so rigorously and effectively in fantasy, and it seems now to have become pretty much the standard method of narration in the genre."

    I love the characterization technique that Abercrombie describes here, and IMO nobody does it better than Abercrombie himself. To me it adds an entire new dimension to the stories. It's a literary technique that fundamentally changes my experience as I read the story. Is The First Law part of the literary fantasy genre? Why not? What makes the innovation and cleverness in The First Law, these things that are so popular with readers in general, less "literary" than ... what? Being written a long time ago? Being about a gay cowboy eating pudding (southpark reference)? I'd be less critical of the genre if being labeled "literary fantasy" weren't a nearly perfect predictor of my dislike for a book. I'll give Tolkien props for being ahead of his time and helping to popularize and change this genre that I enjoy so much, but there are plenty of newer books I enjoy considerably more than LotR.
  12. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    Yeah, Tolkien is iconic but not the most enjoyable by modern standards. Fortunately, "literary" and "enjoyable" don't mean the same thing, so we can call LotR "literary" without implying that it is somehow more enjoyable than some works that don't get the L-word. Or can we? The word "literary" seems to be so emotionally charged (good/bad, quality/pretentious, written well/sacrifices plot) that no matter WHAT you think about the word, you're likely to A) have an opinion about it that B) differs drastically from some others. So we probably should just leave it at "Literary Fiction" and let readers apply this label to books of any genre, based on their personal tastes and perceptions of what it means to be "literary".

    ...That movie sounds dreadful. This is why we can't have nice things - and why the word "literary" is so polarizing. On the one hand, it is used to convey that a certain book was crafted with mastery over storytelling techniques and written language. On the other hand, it is also used as the catch-all category for plotless ramblings about internal landscapes. Like any genre, it can be done really well, or it can be executed poorly. But it seems like every reader out there has a well-fueled opinion on what "literary" means, the two main camps can't agree, and authors who are true masters of their craft get caught in the crossfire.
  13. ExTended

    ExTended Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune

    In my opinion the moment you start calling yourself literary fiction author - you aren't, same as when you start describing yourself as beautiful, you stop being beautiful.

    Beauty and merit are much more part of the beholder's experience rather than of the object of phyisical/conceptual beauty.
  14. Peat

    Peat Journeyed there and back again

    Tolkien might have dismissed the idea that he was writing allegory (okay, less might, more did) but he also wrote plenty about how his work had themes and what the themes were. If you're saying Death and Immortality are two of the big ideas fuelling the book, you're correct. If you're saying Gandalf/Aragorn/Frodo are Jesus allegories, you're not... although if you say "they come across as Jesus allegories" then, well, that's open to debate. A creator doesn't have to have intended a message for the message to come through.

    Is that enough to make him Literary Fantasy or Literary Fiction? I dunno.
  15. D.N.Frost

    D.N.Frost A farm boy with a sword

    This is really insightful; thank you for sharing! I agree for the most part - if you have to apply a label to yourself, the label is often less genuine than when others apply it for you. Applying this insight personally, however, gets a little tough for me. Many of my readers and reviews convey praise for what, in essence, are literary qualities (writing, characterization, story structure). A label like "literary fiction author" is not something I would have chosen for myself, but as you pointed out, any author/genre labels I assume are less for me to wear and more for the right readers to find me. If I don't attach the label "literary fiction" to my name/work somehow, then those readers have no way of knowing that I'm what they're looking for. That's the trouble with any marketing really - you have to figure out what labels your ideal readers are using to look for their next book, and shoulder those labels because they arise from your (intended) beholders.

    My understanding of Literary Fiction (and by proxy, crossover genres like Literary Fantasy) has evolved thanks to this thread and the extra research I've done since. You're right - intended execution and actual execution are often different, and unintended messages can be conveyed just as intended messages can be muddied or lost entirely.

    I think the biggest confusion with the term "Literary" (especially as it applies to genre) is that the people who DO like it use it in a different way than the people who DON'T like it. This is really the case with any genre label, so let's take the more familiar genre label "Fantasy" as an example:

    Fantasy lovers use the word "fantasy" in many contexts, but whenever they use it, the term generally implies A) magic or phenomena unexplained by science and B) a positive connotation of general approval. People who dislike fantasy, on the other hand, will also use the term, but with different implications. For them, the term "fantasy" still implies A) magic, but it also implies B) a negative connotation of scorn or disregard. People who dislike fantasy (probably not anyone here) use the exact same word to convey the presence of magic in a story, but for them, the term "fantasy" triggers all these negative feelings - implausible, silly, escapism, pointless, unscientific, irrational, etc. But to us, the term "fantasy" has the opposite effect - fun, exciting, interesting, thought experiment, nerdy, intricate, etc.

    Let's concede that when an author labels their work "fantasy", they are using the term with a positive connotation. They are, in essence, using the fantasy-lover's version of the term. By doing so, they invite fantasy lovers to connect, read, and enjoy. Nobody who thinks of fantasy negatively is going to apply the term to their work, even if there are fantastical elements in their work (which is unlikely, since they have a negative outlook on fantasy). In essence, the negative version of the term "fantasy" is completely irrelevant to fantasy lovers and fantasy authors. We just don't care what the haters have to say (except when we engage in debate to defend the merits of our beloved genre, or maybe to try to hash out criteria to differentiate between different types of fantasy).

    With this understanding of how a genre label is perceived (and applied) by readers/authors vs. non-readers/critics, let's circle back to the genre term "Literary". Whether applied to a specific genre (like Literary Fantasy) or left more general (as Literary Fiction), the label "Literary" suffers from the same split personality that "Fantasy" suffers from. Fans of literary writing use the term to convey A) writing technique that is notable or unconventional and B) a positive connotation of general approval. They like unusual, innovative, or experimental writing, and they use the word "literary" to describe this quality. People who dislike the literary genres, by contrast, use the term "literary" to convey A) writing technique that is unconventional and B) a negative connotation of scorn or disregard. They don't like books where they have to consider the writing itself as a storytelling factor, and they use the word "literary" as an insult, along with other descriptors like pretentious, weak plot, bad pacing, arrogant, high and mighty, etc.

    So the term "literary" gets applied by literary lovers to books that really exemplify the best the genre has to offer (the same way we are happy to label really great books with magic as "fantasy" books). But just as fantasy haters out there call dreck and drivel "fantasy" as an insult (because they can, since the dreck still contains "magic" so it's still technically fantasy), literary haters call drivel "literary" as an insult (because they can, since the drivel still contains "unconventional writing" so it's still technically literary). So we have the camp of people who take the term "literary" to mean snobbish, pretentious, and indicative of a bad reading experience, the same way we have people who take the term "fantasy" to mean stupid, unoriginal, and indicative of a sad rip off Tolkien or D&D.

    The difference is, haters of a genre aren't out there searching for books to read in that genre. People who hate fantasy aren't going to read a book labeled "fantasy" and people who hate literary writing aren't going to read a book labeled "literary". As @Peat and @ExTended (and a few others) have pointed out, it's the READERS of a genre who decide if a book qualifies for the genre label - not the haters or the critics. Now, things get a little tricky when you consider the defining criteria of a genre (the A) parts above), because in fantasy it's more objective - most people can tell whether or not there are non-scientific phenomena in a story, regardless of whether or not they enjoy that type of story, so applying the term "fantasy" becomes less about personal taste and more about objective story elements. But in literary writing, it's still pretty subjective - what exactly qualifies as notable or unconventional writing anyway?

    Ultimately, then, deciding whether something is "literary" or not comes down to whether or not you actually LIKE books that are considered literary. If you do like literary works, then you have the authority to apply the "literary" label to new works (or old works in other genres), because you are using the term as it was intended - to help other fans of literary works to connect, read, and enjoy. But if you don't like literary works, you'll default to using the word "literary" as more of an insult than a descriptor, and you do NOT have the authority to decide whether or not a book counts as literary because you are actually using the term to communicate with your fellow non-fans about why you didn't like it.
  16. Maxal

    Maxal Drinks Elfbark tea with FitzChivalry

    @Peat : I loved the Unbearable Lightness of Being: it remains one of my favorite must read once in a lifetime book, but it may be you need to read it when you are young, say late teens to early twenties. One of the only books I was forced to read I actually enjoyed and recommended to others.
  17. S.W. Wilcox

    S.W. Wilcox A Muggle

    I always found that "it's not an allegory" thing in Tolkien's LOTR preface curious as the writing of a preface at all is highly didactic, and thus "partaking of allegory" even if such a simplified term is not meant to define a genre in modern times; for that, the term "novel" suffices. Heck, if you don't at least partially allegorize your life experiences, just a dash here and there to taste, the reader may well wonder if the author is writing anything they truly know.

    Also, how do you learn nine languages, worship Beowulf, and rescue rare Celtic texts for the Oxford library and not deserve the term "literary?" Yes, some English profs publish some dreadful novels, but most don't have the time/ambition to publish at all. Just some random thoughts, imho, and all that. :=)
  18. GiovanniDeFeo

    GiovanniDeFeo Might as well be a Malazan regular

    This topic is very tricky for me because I found myself prone to write 'literary fantasy' when I had to present my own work. Which yes, disturbs me a great deal. The reason why I do it, if I do it, is because:
    • the better known writers whose influence I recognise in my writing are: Italo Calvino, Gene Wolfe, Hope Mirralee, Mervyn Peake, Susanna Clarke, Michael Ende. These are all authors who have been described as 'literary' and have created their own peculiar brand of fantasy, much in the same way as I'm trying to create mine.
    • I don't recognise my self as part of the current 'epic fantasy' / 'grim dark' trend, be it Sanderson/Martin/ etc. My stories are intimate, local, partly historical, and share a lot of characteristics with New Weird and Slipstream genres, so I think that putting 'fantasy' is not in good service of readers of that genre.
    Having said that: indeed, 'literary fantasy' is snobbish as f*ck.
    It means of course "well written fantasy", an implication that is quite ludicrous (as if all 'literary' novels were all well written, ah!) So, if you have a better way to put it, I'd more than welcome to pick that up ("weird, surreal, part-historically accurate, not-epic fantasy" being a tad too long).

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