What “fantasy” means: Fiction genres and how we search through them

I’m often bothered by the fact that fantasy is a term for a whole genre. Sci-fi applies, too. These two terms have basically the same issue, so I won’t quibble over science fantasy or any other gradient of speculative content.

When you pick up a mystery novel, you can expect there to be clues to put together and a bad guy to catch, probably with a good dose of suspense involved. If the book is a thriller, it’s similar to a mystery but with more action and peril. These genre terms not only describe the general plot of the story, but suggest the mood and the type of content the reader can expect. If you dislike tough guy characters, chase scenes and life-or-death tension, you quickly learn that the typical thriller novel doesn’t appeal to you.


Fantasy, on the other hand? That classification is given to any story with a speculative element. The typical fantasy novel has a spiritual, mystical vibe and some sort of magical force beyond our understanding. Unlike science fiction, fantasy doesn’t need to explain itself (or imply that it can explain itself). But that’s about all we can demand of the fantasy label. No guarantees on how much magic there’ll be — never mind what the characters will be doing, thinking, feeling or fighting.

So how weird is it that we can say a book is “a fantasy novel” and act like that describes anything? If Book A is a tender love story between a medieval princess and a werewombat, and Book B is a thrill-a-minute saga of competitive dragon-racing in a steampunky version of the 1980’s, those books could easily end up on a bookstore shelf right beside each other. Because they both have fantastic elements — and that apparently overrides all the other story elements.

Sure, some people think fantasy should be kept strictly separate from non-fantasy. We’ve all heard of snobby literary critics who seem to hate using their imaginations. But does the fantasy designation really trump everything else about a story? Its pacing, its themes, its soul? Sometimes the fantasty elements are only there to evoke a certain flavour of drama, or to pose a philosophical question.


I think about this every time I need to describe my writing or write a synopsis. Because of Lord of the Rings and other iconic quest stories, fantasy is often considered synonymous with adventure, sword fights and evil wizards who must be stopped. J. R. R. Tolkien is well respected for his intricate constructions of language and culture, but Frodo’s heroic journey with the One Ring is the part of the story most people remember. Most of our familiar fantasy stories are hero’s journeys with high stakes. My stories of Aligare, on the other hand, are less showy. They’re about character growth and existential questions, and the nature of being a person. If you open Remedy up hoping that it’s an action-adventure quest to find a plague cure, then, well, yeah. You might be disappointed.

But grouping books exclusively by content doesn’t work, either. I’ve heard of people sifting through the Adventure section to find Conan the Barbarian books, back before sci-fi/fantasy books were deemed worthy of their own section(s) in bookstores. It must have taken a lot of browsing to find the sword-and-sorcery stories among the more contemporary works. Saying that adventure trumps fantasy isn’t a more accurate way to classify content, and it’s not any more fair to the variety of books out there.

I think the tag system is the best way to go about it. Label every book with a bunch of descriptors, then let the reader decide how specific they want to be. If one reader wants a highly political, action-adventure fantasy with dragon-riders, they can search for books that have all (or most) of those tags. If another reader just likes dragons and is open to all other factors, they can search for “dragons” and see what shows up. It works no matter which story elements you consider most important.

Tagging works very well when you’re trying to filter an electronic environment, but it’s problematic for paper novels. Those still need to sit on shelves in some order, any order: it’s an unfortunate consequence of having a three-dimensional physical form within space and time. This is why searching through a million ebooks can be much easier than searching through a thousand hardbacks on shelves.


But there’s nothing to say that we can’t use an electronic tag database to look up a book in a bookstore. It’d be a bit jarring at first to remove the big genre signs from bookstores, but bookstore employees could show you how to search a database in the same way librarians teach people to use the Dewey Decimal System. I think it would be great if more booksellers took on the approach of tagging paper books, regardless of whether the storefront is physical or virtual. It would definitely help people navigate the ever-increasing selection of books out there. It might even help SF/F stories become truly accepted as meaningful literature, when fantasy isn’t treated like a one-quest-fits-all classification.

Although, tagging does raise the question of how specific we should be. Should each book have five defining tags, or fifty? If a griffon is offhandedly mentioned on page 167, should griffon be tagged? Will we all have to agree on a spelling variation: “griffon”, “griffin”, or “gryphon”? There’ll always be room for debate in a field as broad as fiction. Organization might be a fantasy in itself.

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