There has been an increase in the use of the phrase "literary fantasy" of late. Discussion on the topic has ranged from reviewers using the term to praise fantasy novels with a literary style or certain quality of prose, to arguments over whether Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, is too good a.k.a. too literary, to be considered fantasy. Literary it turns out, is an imprecise term, a moveable feast if you will, and so to no one’s surprise, no one seems to be able to agree what it means.
But then the word literary isn’t used to define a genre as much as a quality. Or at least, it is frequently pressed into the service of both. So we have literary fiction on one hand, but we have fiction outside the literary category, being praised as literary. This is understandably confusing and lends itself to misuse that borders on willful. Fantasy by comparison is rarely so unclear. While you might argue over the borders of the genre, and people frequently do, fewer use fantasy as word to describe a novel’s style or even more unlikely, its perceived quality.
Taking the first instance of literary fantasy being used to describe what is clearly a fantasy novel, I draw attention to a recently released debut by author Den Patrick: The Boy With The Porcelain Blade. You can read the first three chapters online and peruse a handful of early reviews provided in cover blurb snipets.
Among them is this to-the-point bit of praise from UPCOMING 4 ME.
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade packs a lot of punch and is extremely well written in an excellent literary style which is sadly often absent in modern fantasy… The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is a rich, literary fantasy thriller which bodes well for the rest of the series (UPCOMING 4 ME)
This mention of the book’s literary credentials is not limited to UPCOMING 4 ME, but echoed elsewhere such as on the Waterstones blog:
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade could be described as literary fantasy steeped in a kind of alternate history Italian Renaissance.
Not to be outdone, over at Forbidden Planet International’s blog, the reviewer adds Mervyn Peake and literary both to the mix:
I mention Gormenghast not as some lazy literary reference or a familiar sound-bite to draw a curious reader in, I genuinely feel its influence at play, but there is much more youthful gusto in the writing.
In fairness both reviews do a good job of suggesting literary may be a bit of stretch when it comes to describing this debut novel, but blithely or unselfconsciously at least, still make use of the term even as they point out its rather non-literary aspects. Likewise with the references to Gormenghast floating about in the ether which feel a bit like a game of Telephone where someone, somewhere said it once but no one is sure why or if that’s exactly what was said.
Outside of a possibly author-made, possibly publisher-made reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and which reads in the actual sample as more of a science fictional origin device than a literary one, I haven’t seen any real reason to use either comparison so freely. Certainly, after reading the sample three chapters of the book itself, I found no strong urge to mix my literary with my fantasy. There is on display all the typical excesses and disappointments of typical fantasy debuts, along with a sea of over descriptive writing - but no sign of any literary magic.
While the review on Tor.com is more prosaic about the book, I feel that I’ve seen this pattern before. And expect to see it again: a debut fantasy novel, made the subject of unsupported but heartfelt praise regarding its literary qualities, confusingly intermixed with claims of being easy to read, fast paced, or full to the roof beams with pure accessible entertainment. And I regret to say, very little in the way of actual literary quality on display once the online dust settles.
That is not to suggest literature can't be exuberant, easy to read, or fast paced. But generally, there will be something more alongside all of this. I find Kafka's The Castle to be very easy to read, but it is not a straightforward novel. Conversely I am not a fan of John Updike whose "Rabbit" Angstrom novels have never satisfied me, but I accept there is something powerful there for other readers. Defining literature, and arguing about the existence of a literary genre, is not what I'm interested in here. Not least because I suspect the latter doesn't exist.
In a way this brings us back to Calvino. One of the products of this tendency to misuse literary as a rather it-means-whatever-you-want-it-to-mean descriptive term when discussing books that may not be considered literary or belong to the fuzzy category sense of the word, is the fierceness with which fans of fantasy or other particular genres will annex writers who territories overlap.
Fantasy is a place where it rains.
Italo Calvino made this quote in reference to Dante. One could argue, that both these complex, important authors, were writers of fantasy and of the fantastical. But you’d be hard pressed to limit them to Fantasy with a capital F because their works are of course, so much more than just that. Complex, allegorical, wrestling with points of both philosophy and theology, these authors are not to be typically found shelved among the work of J.R.R. Tolkien or Brandon Sanderson. And with good reason, though the reason is perhaps not their quality alone, but what they represent in literature and as texts upon which rest, countless other important or less important, works of literary fiction. In this sense I am quite content to find them at Waterstones, filed under plain fiction.
The estimable Gore Vidal, no friend of Updike himself, considered Calvino “a true realist.” The playful Italo would likely have been uncomfortable with being boxed in by fantasy as a genre. His works span everything from fables and stories developed through the random permutations of tarot cards, to literary theory, and the hidden nature of states and cities in the face of their not always happy citizens. This is not to say that these things can’t be fantasy too, but to limit Calvino, to cut him off from his very catholic engagement with deeper themes and very clear literary roots, is to throw out the tree with the baron.
Another quote by Calvino goes more to the heart of his place in and his use of fantasy:
that only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.
Which brings us back to fantasy as a genre, again. Because if there is a defining characteristic to a considerable number of fantasy novels, debut or otherwise, it is a great deal of jam and very little bread. Some, I might go as far as to suggest, are entirely jam with nary a crumb in evidence. This is not to say that one is better than the other, though our mothers and fathers and Italo Calvino are probably correct on this point. And we do not come to fantasy in most cases by accident. A writer does not sit down to write a realist novel and suddenly find that elves and dragons have crept in. Unless perhaps, one is writing urban fantasy. But I suspect that Calvino thought very carefully and at length about the fantastical elements he spread on his bread.
With this other sort of fantasy it is always jam today. Which may very well be part of fantasy’s abiding allure, its very popularity lying in its sticky, insubstantial sweetness and its promise of always more from the jar. Certainly as a child, I was intensely attracted to this style of fiction, over more dry and bread like literature. But with time and having found that my tastes have changed, I’ll admit that I now enjoy more adult fibre with my fantasy, more bread with my jam; the savour of Gogol, the bitterness of Camus.
So while I would be one of the last people to suggest that Italo Calvino - like Dante, like Borges, Kubin, Kafka, Gogol, and the wonderful Angela Carter - are writers who have not influenced fantasy as a genre, I’d be loath to say that is what defines Calvino as a writer. Perhaps he is, at heart, the realist and even hyper-realist, that Vidal took him for. Above all, I suspect he’s too clever to be labeled anything but a masterful writer, weaving his fables, his fantastical, alongside both his critical theory and down-to-earth musings on death, literature, and beyond.
But others are not content to let poor Calvino rest quietly. Nor do they generally take any attempt to extricate literary from fantasy, as less than a call to arms. It is snobbery, they cry. It is all a matter of taste, insist others. Fantasy and literature are the same thing after all, it can be argued, stories brought to us through the medium of authors and words.
Of course, to reduce all art to a matter of taste is to reduce all products of art to - products - to cans of Coke or Pepsi or RC Cola lined up on the shelf according to market preference. Author of The Luminaries and Booker Prize winning writer Eleanor Catton has an excellent article debunking the subject here.
However, to hear some fans argue for the trumping of taste over literary qualities is to suspect perhaps Philistinism is alive and well; incorrectly as it turns out. Philistinism, as Malcolm Bull suggests in his book Anti-Nietzsche, is one of those things that abounds in theory but can be found nowhere in practice. A true Philistine does not believe there is value in art, beyond the practical value of things for their thing-ed-ness, and hence no valuation can be made even on the basis of taste. A fantasy fan however who argues for universal subjectivity, is arguing that art’s only value is subjective. Not that art has no value.
Philistine or fan, consumer or reader, passions on this subject run hot. I suspect this is because we tend to equate our perceived taste in things - or brands if you want to keep this grounded in the wisdom of the markets - with our personal valuation in a consumer society. No surprise that we want to elevate our favoured brand to a higher or at least equal position that others hold, regardless of merit.
While there is no question what we read says things about the people we are, such as do perhaps the shoes we wear or the car we drive or the size of the house we live in, it is a mistake to cling to this exact scaling of value with the novels we most enjoy reading. We can read all sorts of things, without one hopes, each moving us up or down the social ladder of perceived self-worth. But perhaps this requires a belief that art means more than our buying habits on Amazon.
A good book might make you a better person, but liking a bad one does not make you the reverse. We can of course, enjoy all sorts of novels, some of them crude, some of them complex. If the vast majority of our intake proves disposable, we persist, I like to think, in the hope of coming across something that may change the way we look at the world, ourselves, or even the act of reading.
I would suggest that great literature is capable of this, in a way that commercial fiction, however popular, rarely achieves. And that, questions of taste aside, is something worth chewing on.