Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Genre Fantasy

During the Andre Norton Breakdown, I eliminated 2 nominees as for being for adults, one (with some agonizing) as being for children, and was ambivalent about how to categorize one other. So it's fair to ask what my rules are for classifying something as YA.

This may be the hardest call to make in all of literature, at least since the advent of the YA (as opposed to "teen books") concept. Back in the 90s I had an opportunity to ask a buyer for one of the megabookstores how she selected which book went into which section, and her response was "Trim size." In certain bookstores I routinely find paperback Diana Wynne Jones books in the "Fantasy" section among adult titles, and hardbacks (sometimes of the same books) in the "Juvenile" section. Agents and publishers and authors, when asked, tend to go with the age of the protagonist, the cut-off age at the lower end being usually thirteen or fourteen, and at the upper anywhere from 17 to 21. And then you go into the library and find Eleanor Updale's Montmorency books, with their protagonist who is an adult in all senses of the word on page one, book one, in the YA section; and you read them and agree that's where they belong.

This is an extension of a situation readers of fantasy and science fiction have been wrestling with for a long time. Once upon a time, back in the 70s, a prime reason I never stopped going to the children's section when I hit adulthood was that, at that time, if a book was fantasy and had no overt sexuality, librarians automatically shelved it among the children's books. I think the Gormenghast trilogy, which I read all the way through and disliked, was the only fantasy I ever found in the adult shelves. The adult half of the larger libraries had separate science fiction and mystery sections, where you could find much that I would these days class as YA, but Patricia McKillip and Tolkien were on the juvenile shelves - in hardback. Lin Carter was editing the Adult Fantasy line for Ballantine Books, which got fantasy into the spinner racks. Come to think of it, that's how I first got into the adult section - checking the spinner racks for those back-to-back Bs that spelled "fantasy" on that side of the wall.

As the 20th century wound down, this became less of a given; more and more often, the fantasy I found in the children's section of the library was in fact for children; and the "science fiction" sections in bookstores became "science fiction and fantasy" several years before the signs began reflecting the change. For awhile it was popular among the fen* to gripe about this lumping, but either I don't hang out in those circles anymore or most people have relaxed about the distinction between the two genres. The term "speculative fiction" has arisen to cover the editorial behind.

But when you get down to it, the difference is primarily about imagery. If the bearded wise man wears a lab coat, it's science fiction, even if there's no scientific justification for what he does. If he wears a robe, it's fantasy, even if the things he does are rooted in theoretical physics. If time travel is accomplished by machine, it's science fiction in spite of having some species of archaic sapiens in America; if by dreams, it's fantasy, even if the author has spent seven years researching the archeology, paleontology, and anthropology to get her Pleistocene setting into line with what is known. (Yeah, that'd annoy me if I let it.)

Anyway, all genres are like this. Some horror is fantasy, some science fiction, some realistic, some realistic except for an occult edge. Some romance is paranormal; some fantasy is romance; some adult fiction is YA and some YA is for children. Bambi was published in Europe as adult fiction - my 1929 Simon & Schuster edition has a foreword by John Galsworthy - and became a children's book in America because books with talking animals are for children. Even the lines between "true" and "made up" blur sometimes.

In fact, all categories are like this. Half to three-quarters of the definition arguments on this earth could be eliminated if we'd face up to this fact: A classification is not a real entity. It is a convenient way to talk about real entities that share certain qualities; but which classification an entity belongs in will shift depending on which qualities are regarded as important at a particular moment.

Consider my button accumulation. As I am not a dedicated seamstress, I don't have what I consider to be lots of buttons; but I have enough (mostly snipped frugally from old clothes) that, to save time when I need one, I decided I needed to divide them up. I realized when I dumped them out that I had a number of viable ways to categorize them, all of which would be useful in a different situation. Size? Number of holes? Color? Plastic and metal? Flat or hemispherical or funky shapes? If there's a "funky shapes" category, might it not include other kinds of fasteners, such as frogs or hooks-and-eyes, that I had assumed didn't belong in the same container as buttons?

A barn is a house, if one lives in it. If residence constitutes houseness, because style of architecture does not, then a bird's nest is a house: and human occupancy is not the standard to judge by, because we speak of dogs' houses; nor material, because we speak of snow houses of Eskimos -- or a shell is a house to a hermit crab -- or was to the mollusk that made it -- or things seemingly so positively different as the White House at Washington and a shell on the sea-shore are seen to be continuous.
(Charles Fort, Book of the Damned, Ch. 1)

People sometimes resent having this drawn to their attention, and most of the time it doesn't matter. But in the endless discussion of whether a book is YA or juvenile or adult, fantasy or science fiction or magical realism, it saves time to face up to it. The important thing is to send the manuscript to the agent who will believe in it and knows the editor who will like it at the house that will publish it, and locate the book in the part of the library, bookstore, or catalog where the person who will like to read it can find it. That's all that matters. Once you think of it in those terms, everything looks much simpler.

Not easier, necessarily. But simpler.

*"Fen" is the plural of "fan," as in "science fiction fen," in case you aren't of that subculture.


  1. Hi Peni:

    Stephen King books in the young adult section of my local library kind of feel wrong to me, but King provokes such strong feelings in people (there seems to be no middle ground in liking/hating him) that I don't dare mention it.

    Question, if you disliked the Gormenghast Trilogy, why did you read all three books? As much as I wanted to love Lord of the Rings, I could never get past the first 100 pages of the first book.

  2. Um, because they were there? That was over 30 years ago and if a thought process existed I don't recall how it went. In those days, fantasy and SF weren't mainstream - far from it. If you wanted it, you had to hunt for it, and once you'd caught it, you ate it all up and then decided how you felt about it. So I probably finished Gormenghast for the same reason I and my entire D&D group went to see Krull and the Conan movies.

    Partly I think I was holding out for a satisfactory conclusion, and didn't make a judgement till the last book, which I read as a total disconnect from the first two and a cop-out. Also, it wasn't that big a time commitment. In those days the longest it ever took me to finish a book was three days (and that wasn't a Gormenghast book, but a history of Spiritualism.) I was never one of those short-attention-span readers. I don't think LoTR hits its stride till the Mines of Moria, which is p. 385 in the Ballantine paperback.

    I don't read horror at book length, so I can't comment on where King belongs, but though I also tend to think of him as an adult writer, if all I knew about Carrie was the plot I'd call it YA. The VC Andrews Incest Abuse Horror Series always looks wrong on the library YA shelves to me, too. But when you come right down to it, "teen-agers will read them obsessively" is as good a qualification for presence in the YA section as any.