Fantasy is one of those genres where I think that I’ve read a lot books, but I haven’t.

What is fantasy?

Fantasy fiction uses magic or other forms of supernatural elements (as opposed to sci-fi’s use of advanced science). I’ll be honest, when I think of fantasy works, I immediately think of The Lord of the Rings, but there’s much more out there than fantasy works set in a medieval setting.

Fantasy reading

Reddit came up with a great list of popular fantasy books. Out of the 105 books listed, I’ve read:

  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
  • The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I tried to read His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, but I stopped. I just couldn’t get into it (although I may try again at some point – I have much more patience than I did then).

I’ve also read Clive Barker’s Abarat, which is a great fantasy/young adult novel. I still need to read the other three books in that series.

What I’ll be reading

This month I’m going to read:

  • The Earthsea Quartet, by Ursula Le Guin
  • A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

The Earthsea Quartet is a classic, and I want to see if I like it more that the last Le Guin book I read. As for Game of Thrones – I’ve been trying to get into the TV series, but I found it a bit overwhelming in its brutality. I’m hoping that I’ll get into the first book and the show won’t seem so extreme (somehow I doubt it).

Want to find out more about the genre?

Perception

Fantasy fiction (like science fiction) has the perception of being male dominated. Men write it and men read it. That women who write fantasy fiction are better off using a male sounding pseudonym or just using their initials – JK Rowling anyone?

Fantasy author, Juliet E McKenna blogged about this perception, and how, for example, she’s never seen female fantasy author’s works displayed in the ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ displays in book shops. (When McKenna asked, she was told that women don’t write epic fantasy.)

Many see the genre as filled with violence and sex, and the media rarely speaks of women as fantasy authors. (I mean, only men read fantasy, right? And we all know that the only way you can get men to read is by writing about sex and violence*.)

This issue is important to me, because I’m writing a fantasy story – one the that spans several books – and this is the market I’d be competing in. I can see that the attitude of the media and book shops are an issue, but they’re no longer the gatekeepers that they once were.

Intelligent readers will use social media, blogs and review sites like goodreads, to find new books to read. Many readers won’t buy their books from a book shop – they’ll use Amazon, which may get bad press, but I don’t think it has a sexist algorithm.
Perception is a problem, but I think it’s one that’s getting better.

*Yes, I’m being sarcastic!

MOAR sexism

Here’s another issue. A lot of fantasy fiction has stereotypical roles for men and women. Men are the swashbuckling heroes, women are the damsels in distress. Men go off and fight their enemies, women manipulate and scheme. Alliances are made by marrying off your daughters to the highest bidder.

The argument for perpetuating these tropes is, ‘well, this fantasy book is set in the past, and we all know that this is the way society worked in the past’. Meh. This doesn’t have to be in all the books.

The great thing about fantasy fiction is the unlimited ability to be creative and inventive. Who says you can’t create a past that doesn’t do all of this? The real problem is that these books have to appeal to the mass audience. Publishers like to back a proven formula – it doesn’t mean that they’re right. It’s just the way it is (at the moment).

Diversity

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign highlights the lack of diversity in children’s literature:

“We recognize many kinds of diversity, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, those impacted by their gender, those with disabilities, ethnic/cultural/religious minorities, etc.”

I don’t think diversity is just a problem for fantasy fiction, but it’s a big issue. Tolkien has been described as the father of fantasy fiction, but Tolkien based his world off of his studies of North European mythologies. This doesn’t mean everyone else has to do the same.

In her post on the issue, fantasy writer, Anne Lyle, makes the point that since the writer of a fantasy novel is the creator of the world, they’re free to create something unique.

They can, but they don’t have to, it’s a choice they have to make when creating the characters and building the plot and the world. It can’t be forced. It’s a bit like the recent debate on trigger warnings on books – just because people think something should be done, to protect or represent others, it doesn’t mean it will be done. Change is slow.