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How little "fantasy" can be in a story and it still be recognizably fantasy, and not mainstream fiction?

The "recognizable fantasy" question is one I struggle with all the time. Fantasy exists on a continuum of clearly fantastic material (supernatural beings, magic spells, etc.), to stuff that might not be fantasy at all, like Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" or the more gentle sorts of magical realism. I've occasionally failed to interest editors in stories because they didn't feel the fantasy element was strong enough.

Do you remember a Karen Joy Fowler story from a few years back, "What I Didn't See"? There was a pretty big dust up because it was published in a science fiction venue, but many people didn't think it had any kind of science fictional element. Sometimes I think I'm pulling a Karen Joy Fowler with some of my fantasy, like this latest piece.

Note: This question was contributed by James Van Pelt.

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7 Answers 7

As little as it is recognizably fantasy for the editor.

Ok, just kidding. First you have to be aware of the fact that the "not strong enough fantasy element" wasn't the real reason why the editor dismissed the book. Even editors have problems pointing always precisely to the real problem. It could just be the most obvious thing which the editor felt uncomfortable about. Maybe he would have ignored that if another part of the book were superior.

Back to the question: As soon as you use something supernatural, you are leaving the "mainstream" fiction, as you call it. That does not mean that it is automatically fantasy. It could be a horror book, which can contain elements from fantasy without being declared as such. Not to mention the diminishing difference between SF and fantasy in some areas.

It would help if we knew what that "weak" fantasy element was. Let us assume you write a story about a girl with a sixth sense. She knows things that will happen in the next ten minutes, she feels, when she is observed.

This is a supernatural gift (I don't have a better word). Readers of the mainstream novels could dislike it, because it is not realistic enough (which does not mean they wouldn't read James Bond novels). If you declare it as fantasy, would a fantasy fan (expecting a Tolkien story, witches, or vampires, etc.) be disappointed? Yes, probably.

Fantasy readers like to "escape" the real world. They want to enjoy the possibilities which are not given in our world (and probably never will, to separate them from SF readers). Magic is the most obvious one. Creating fireballs out of nowhere. Meeting creatures like dragons and goblins, which you will never do on good old Earth.

So your world need to be significantly different from our world to generate a complete new feeling to walk on that world. A girl with a sixth sense does not sound that extraordinary. That does not mean you can't write a really great book with that girl, but if you disappoint the expectation of your audience, you'll fail.

As always it's hard to draw a line. Knowing your fantasy element might help if you (James) want to share it. But be prepared that we find out that your editor is wrong ;)

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As a basic boundary, Fantasy depends on what couldn't be. The amount of fantasy can be slight, or it can be grand, but that strangeness element must be there. More importantly, for a work to be recognised as fantasy, it will require someone of authority deciding that it is fantasy. Karen Joy Fowler is of sufficient status to be able to declare that her work is science fiction, and that is likely to be good enough.

In science fiction and fantasy, there have always been works that sparked debate about whether it is or isn't sci-fi or fantasy. However, unless you're an established author, you don't have the luxury of declaring your work to be fantasy or science fiction like Fowler does; someone else has to do that for you. That means your editor, publisher, your readership, and/or your peers and critics must declare it fantasy to be so.

The only way you're going to achieve this is by reading a wide canon of fantasy works to be able to see how it's been done, which helps give a clear picture of what you can get away with, what people recognise as being fantasy. There is, unfortunately, no other way. I'd suggest listening to those editors, critics and readers to see why they don't consider it fantasy. Once you're established, then you can help push those boundaries of what fantasy is.

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How little "fantasy" can be in a story and it still be recognizably fantasy, and not mainstream fiction?

As little as your readers will tolerate.

There is no hard-and-fast bottom line for fantasy fiction, because different readers and different editors have different expectations. One reader's baseline for "fantasy" might require obligatory elves and talking swords, while another might be happy with the slightest hint of counterfactuality. There is certainly precedent for "fantastic" stories taking place in the real world, with the fantastic elements being limited to an overlay of vampires, magic, ghosts, or something subtler yet.

So if an editor is telling you that a story isn't fantastic enough, the most you can say about it is that it wasn't fantastic enough for that editor at that venue. It doesn't mean that it's not "really" fantasy. However, if you're hearing this a lot from genre editors, you might try selling it to a more mainstream literary press. The literary markets have become a lot more open to stories with elements of the fantastic, and a story with very mild suggestions of fantasy might fit in better in that sort of market.

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I think the key question here is: what element in your story do you see as being a "fantasy" element?

There's no denying we've seen plenty of fantasy published that skirts the edge of mainstream. I've seen this pretty frequently in F&SF, in several flavors; I've seen magical realism in Fantasy Magazine; Andy Duncan's excellent "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse" was published in Eclipse One, and made the Nebula ballot. How little can you pull off? In a lot of venues, pretty darn little.

The bar isn't a lower bound on fantastic content; it's just the requirement that whatever you've got should be felt. If you yourself sense that your story is a fantasy story, you should be able to work out why you feel that way. Would you feel the story wouldn't work well in a mainstream venue? If so - why? That's the element you should be homing in on. And if you feel like this element might not be clear, or might not be clearly fantastical (or fantasy-related), in the eyes of a potential reader - then you'll want to polish that particular aspect, give it more prominence, make sure it gets noticed.

Your own "The Radio Magician," I would say, serves as a wonderful example. For almost the entire length of the story, there's no real fantastical element - quite the opposite; the story is largely about Charlie's fascination with "magic" that's as fake and unwonderous as magic can be. And yet the story is suffused by the sense of wonder that Charlie feels; that's a worthy fantasy element, even though it isn't fantastical. And you introduce and develop the concept of a "radio magician" almost exactly like SF premise, taking the (well-known) phenomenon of old-fashioned radio and giving it a twist; it's "mundane" in the same sense that "mundane SF" is mundane - it's not unrealistic, but it requires a certain extrapolation and flight of fancy. And again, you've put the showcasing of the "radio magician" concept into the very heart of the story - you made the story about your pseudo-fantastical concept, about showing it off and making the reader consider how very close it was to real-life parallels.

If you feel your piece is fantasy, it probably is; you just need to make sure other people know it. Figure out where the fantasy is - even if it's subtle, or just the style, or just the theme - and make that element stand out.

And, of course, aim for the venues that aren't looking for straight-up sword and sorcery stories :)

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Well, I think it also depends on how you personally feel about your text. Many, many years ago, I ran across this same question. The professor (Jim, I don't remember if it was you or not) took two books - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. The professor pointed out that so many people figured Ender's Game was a science fiction story, but he claimed that it was fantasy, whereas McCaffrey always swore up and down that her series was science fiction.

So, in a nut shell, if you can argue to your editor that your book has dragons, swords and sorcery, and it's science fiction, then you've got the makings of a good storyteller.

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A friend of mine, Alma Alexander, writes fantasy pretty much exclusively. Her book The Secrets of Jin-Shei was, however, marketed as "mainstream" fiction. She considers it fantasy because:

  • The setting is a fictionalized version of ancient China, much as the setting of much genre fantasy is a thinly disguised version of medieval England
  • About halfway into the book, it becomes apparent that a character who is said to be a sorcerer has actual magic powers (up until this particular scene, it was all hearsay and could be taken to be simply the way an ancient culture would frame such things)

Her publishers disagreed with her, marketed the book accordingly, and it went on to be a reasonable international success (though, sadly, it did not do so well here in the U.S.).

Genre is a marketing tool that can serve publishers and readers equally well: it allows readers to easily find things they might like to read, and it allows publishers to reach an audience who will be predisposed to buy certain types of books. The question a savvy publisher will ask is not "does this book have dragons in it?" but "would people who never go to the Fantasy section of a bookstore pay to read this?" If it has dragons in it, to be sure, it's probably going to be fantasy by either definition, but give some credit to some publishers for knowing something about marketing books.

To more directly address the question, although this is still pretty tangential, science fiction readers have a word "sfnal" which means "it's not exactly science fiction, but if you enjoy science fiction you'll probably like it." I've heard it applied to nonfiction books like Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which is technically historical fiction. Some techno-thrillers are also taken to be sfnal (one definition I heard of a techno-thriller is "a science fiction story with the President in it") -- Neal Stephenson in fact wrote one of those, too, under a pseudonym.

This is all to say that the dividing line is not necessarily sharp and may vary from author to author, reader to reader, and publisher to publisher.

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I've read one simple rule for determining if the work is science fiction or not: if you can take out the science fiction element out, and still have the same story, it's not science fiction. For example, if it is science fiction just because it's happening on a spaceship, and could just as well be happening on a seventeen century pirate ship and still have the same premise, it's not really science fiction. However, if you take the sci-fi element from, I don't know, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you just don't have a story anymore. That's true science fiction.

I guess the same could be said for true fantasy: if you can take out the fantastic elements and still have a feasible story, it should not be called fantasy, IMHO, although fantasy is somewhat more flexible in this regard than science fiction. You can have worlds similar to ours with no magic or supernatural elements in it, and still call it a fantasy, because sometimes that world is the point of the story.

However, the borders are being redefined every day, and things that pass as science fiction and fantasy today would never have passed fifty or thirty years ago. Eugene Mirabelli's "The Woman in Schrodinger's Wave Equation" was nominated for Nebula in 2008, even though it has no science fiction elements at all, not a drop. There are more and more examples every day. So in the end, it's all up to the author, market, readers, editors, publishers... But like I said, a lot more can pass for fantasy today than it could fifty years ago. A lot of readers today prefer "soft" fantasy rather than full blown Dungeons and Dragons type of story. Guy Gavriel Kay's books, for example, have very little magic or other fantastic elements in them, but rely on elaborately developed characters and story instead. Still, you couldn't take the fantasy part out of them and still have a plausible story. Even though most of his books are based on real world countries during real historical periods, it's still fantasy because you can not take the characters and the plot and fit them in those real world countries and turn it into historical fiction, because for historical fiction you'd need real historical characters and events. Events that take place in real historical setting but have never actually happened are still fantasy.

So, in the end, I'd say, if that fantastical element, how ever small it might be, is something that would break the whole story if taken out, I'd call it fantasy.

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