Ever since the inception of the internet, the concept of ‘subgenres’ in fantasy has emerged into common view, with some ranging from ‘epic fantasy’ to grimdark to historical. This makes sense: so many fantasy books are published and translated each year and it helps readers to navigate their choices. Therefore, I do not object to subgenres existing. They are a useful tool for both readers, publishers and writers. Yet there is concern about how subgenres are framed as well as the importance given to them.

The Struggle With Reducing Fantasy To Subgenres

Fantasy has roots in folklore, mythology, religion, fable and legend. Yet fantasy is also modern, and if anything, represents the dialogue of contemporary readers with the past. This is explicitly shown in Richard Wagner’s The Rings of Nibelung, which is derived from literary sources in Old Norse, Middle High German and Old High German. So is Tolkien: the engagement with Beowulf, chivalric romances and the Gothic language is evident. Even ‘newer’ fantasy works do this, too. Harry Potter is a prime example of medievalism, as is His Dark Materials and the Narnia books. George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is also a great example of the marriage between the medieval and the modern. Although written with a postmodern sensibility and scepticism towards the mythic nature of Tolkien, there is little to deny the presence of fantasy in Game of Thrones, even if it is more melodramatic and ‘realistic’ than other stories.

The dynamic nature of these fantasy stories makes it a challenge to reduce them to ‘subgenres.’ Is Game of Thrones a dark or epic fantasy? The situation worsens when age categories of ‘young adult’ ‘middle grade’ and ‘adult’ are thrown into the genre potion. This is an issue with a hyperfocus on subgenres: this richness, the ambiguity, the originality of fantasy is reduced to bullet points on a list. A vast number of fantasy novels, especially written over fifteen years ago, does not assimilate perfectly into subgenres.

Less Out-Of-The-Box Thinking

Subgenres, when taken to their most extreme conclusion, can limit creativity. Now an author must work with another set of genre conventions and standards, as well as the need to appease a certain readership, who may not match with the author’s ambitions. This is certainly true for epic fantasy where certain archetypes (such as the warrior) are preferred by readers. More generally, fantasy tropes such as ‘the final battle’ are expected.

I also worry that subgenres limit fantasy readers to a particular style. There is nothing wrong with having your own preferences and it’s silly to expect every reader to read, well, everything. Yet subgenres can turn into silos and minimise the potential of the fantasy genre. I’m also concerned that authors are expected to fit their novels into subgenres. This definitely, more than anything, limits the creativity and potential of an author, and disrupts the potential for ‘out of the box’ thinking.

Whilst subgenres are a necessary reality of reading and publishing in the 21st century, there must be wisdom in their interpretation and application.

Limitations on Cross-Genre Conversation & My Situation

All of this does not suit the fantasy genre as a whole. We need fantasy authors, communities and publishers in dialogue with one another so ideas and innovation can spread. Also, fantasy authors should read outside their respective subgenre (most, from my understanding, do this) for inspiration and to make their writing more dynamic and interesting.

I want to write and publish my fantasy novels. But they don’t fit into any subgenre and this requires a rethink of tactics. Often, I imagine myself as a directionless chicken, failing to fit into any farm category. Yet I’ve come to value my ability to transcend easy genre categories and to fuse a variety of fantasy elements together. It’s not always easy. Pitching my novel will bring difficulties yet I accept these. Again, I don’t mind subgenres – I just wish fantasy readers, writers and publishers were less rigid about them. This article is not meant to mock or belittle anyone associated with fantasy literature. But this is an important conversation.

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