discussions writing & publishing

Genre Yearnings & Interview

I was chatting with a friend the other day about crime fiction and the differences with it and fantasy fiction. Soon I began to wonder if fantasy is really a genre at all. (For today, let’s just leave out the whole ‘marketing categories’ and ‘genres aren’t a useful term to assign individual books’ debates.)

In crime fiction, there are mechanisms. The law is broken. There is a crime. Someone has to solve it and the wide variety in the genre comes from the different settings, political backdrop and the detective at the centre. Morality is questioned. The genre – on the whole – has some clear, definite frameworks in place; playing with that framework is where an author’s skill separates the cheaper fiction from true literary masterpieces, and manipulation of the narrative can have a truly powerful effect on the reader. The genre category informs the literature, to some extent.

Fantasy, however, is more a descriptive term – a vague aesthetic. It doesn’t tend to obey logic, and in essence should not obey convention – there is inherently an unlimited potential and yet readers tend to become obsessed by aesthetics and tropes to sculpt a kind of mechanism that isn’t explicitly there.

There’s a yearning to make genre happen out of thin air.

Perhaps there’s an emotional framework here? Maybe that’s why fandom is so strong. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

Finally, there’s an interview with me in today’s Mail & Guardian (South African newspaper), in which I talk about creating fantasy cities as well as the latest two releases:

As for cities appealing to SFF fans and writers, it has to be because they’re the perfect way to represent another world. Cities are where people, commerce, social trends, the arts, government, all meet in one vast, sprawling, horrible and beautiful place…

Read the rest here.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

6 replies on “Genre Yearnings & Interview”

I’d agree that there are differences between crime and fantasy but I don’t think they are anywhere near as big as you make out. I’m also not convinced you are comparing like with like.

As you say, the defining characteristic of crime fiction is a crime. That is a pretty big scope. The defining characteristic of fantasy fiction is another world. That is an absolutely huge scope. So you’d expect plot “mechanisms” to vary much more than in crime. Still, look at the most popular branch of fantasy – epic fantasy – and you will see some common mechanisms: the quest, predominantly, but also the bildungsroman, the war story and the palace intrigue, etc.

And, of course, you can go sui generis from crime or indeed any other genre that you start from, it is hardly unique to fantasy.

Hi Martin,

I think the not comparing like with like is the bit that sticks with me: that the genres aren’t the same inherently, so can’t be compared. While crime’s classic genre markers are generated from within (those certain mechanisms), fantasy’s collection of genre markers tend to be forced from without, a desire from readers rather than as a function of the author’s conscious choice. Sort of.

I’ll admit it’s a bit of a wishy washy distinction.

Really interesting post, Mark. I was going to try to protest your point – something about the difference between mystery and noir, say – but I think you’re right. Crime fiction has a specific mechanism. So, in theory, does hard science fiction: problems being solved with science (like in the movie Contagion, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy; not so much with the space opera, though).

But fantasy doesn’t have a “hard” mechanism like either of those genres, at least not in the general. (Although, arguably, epic fantasy does have a mechanism.) It’s got too much traditional baggage – not in the “traditionally conservative” sense but the fact that it’s rooted in a primordial way in myth and fairy tale.

I almost want to say “fantasy tends to be reductive,” i.e. de-complexifies the world, but that’s not true of all subgenres or of all stories. I think it’s the aesthetic that counts: the fantastic brush allows both broad and precise strokes to a degree with which no other aesthetic can compare. It’s got a certain omniscience.

Well, I suppose I’ve thought enough out loud, also. Suffice to say I agree: fantasy is more aesthetic than “genreal,” whatever the swordslinging questers may think.

Cheers, Ben. Yeah, I tried to think about where SF stood in the debate, too, but couldn’t quite hit the point. What defines SF is almost similar to what defines Fantasy; though in hard SF there are some mechanisms in place, as you say. 

I also wonder how much reader expectations define genres, and genres feed reader expectations and so on. 

I think you’re right… what proves it for me is that there’s no reason why, in principle, someone couldn’t write a fantasy crime fiction story. You’d have the structure of a murder mystery say, but the trappings of a fantasy world.

I guess my point is slightly weakened by the fact I can’t think of a writer who’s done this! But Asimov’s  ‘Caves of Steel’ etc. were essentially crime sci fi.

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