Tag Archives: genre

Farah Mendlesohn’s Four Funky Factions of Fantasy

howl2

Once upon a time, a scholar named Farah Mendlesohn set out on a valiant quest to create a classification system for the fantasy genre. The result was her 2008 (yes, “once upon a time” is approximately in the realm of 2008) book Rhetorics of Fantasy, an analytical and example-piled volume that digs deep into the question of what the different types of fantasy are, what we expect from them, and why they work.

Mendlesohn assures the reader that these four categories she’s come up with—Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusion, and Liminal—are not the new “rules” for fantasy writing nor the be-all-and-end-all of classification within the genre. They’re a tool meant to make studying these stories easier and more interesting, allowing readers, researchers, and fans to look at the genre from new angles with a new frame of reference. And so, just as I have previously brought you Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story, and Leavy’s Swan Maiden, I bring you Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, summed up in several paragraphs and with a lot more anime and video games than the original textbook. Continue reading

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Boy Meets Boy: A Fantasy Novel…?

boy meets boy

Boy Meets Boy is a sweet little story about the complications and shenanigans of adolescence and first love, set in a world so accepting of its LGBTQ+ youth that it broke genre. Critics and reviewers had no idea how to categorise this novel when talking about it. By all counts, it’s a contemporary YA romance: as author David Levithan himself described it, it’s a pretty simple “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back” love story. The difference is, of course, that that plot is usually “boy meets girl”. It’s this queer twist on a recognisable formula, combined with the delightful unusualness of the story’s setting, that sent everyone into a headspin. This novel could not simply be labelled a YA love story—it had to be “fantasy” “utopian” or “magical realism”. The whole thing conjures up the mental image of an office full of reviewers clutching at their hair, staring into space, muttering “but the gay kids are happy—so it can’t be realistic fiction!” Continue reading

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Genre is Fake (But Very Useful)

"You're all just jealous of my jet pack"

Credit to Tom Gauld

Every text I’ve read that has anything to do with genre study dedicates at least a few paragraphs to the disclaimer that genre is slippery, arbitrary, and, while a useful tool for analysis, kind of a pain in the ass. This pain is only made worse if we take this system of categories to be Holy Doctrine rather than something we made up to make talking about stories easier. So, okay, maybe genre isn’t fake. When I say genre is “made up” I mean genre is “socially constructed”, rather than “not real”. Here, Brian Attebery says it better:

Both literary studies and folklore are built on the idea of genres, rather as biology is built on categories, from kingdom to species, reflecting morphological similarity and common descent. However, unlike, say, raptors and perching birds, different genres do not exist until someone imagines them.

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A Comedy of Horrors

All logic tells us that horror and comedy are two genres that should be worlds apart. But, finally getting to hang out at the big genre dinner party, while Fantasy and Sci-Fi are chatting happily, Romance and Drama have retreated to the kitchen with the champagne bottle and Arthouse is smoking in the bathroom, Horror and Comedy find they have more common than one might initially think.

The conventions that make us laugh are, strangely enough, the same sort of things that make us scared. Juxtapositions, for example. Things doing what they should not normally do are funny; for instance, elderly women forming gangs and beating people up a la Monty Python, or children’s stuffed toys being foul-mouthed drug users, a la Ted. Things being the wrong size, like a giant sandwich falling from the sky, or being where they shouldn’t, like finding Rowan Atkinson in the cabinet under your kitchen sink.

These tweaks of the ordinary make for humour, but the same idea is also a fundamental ingredient in scaring the bejeezus out of people. The dead, for instance, should stay dead. It is an accepted piece of logic in most cultures, despite whatever succinct beliefs they hold about what happens to the soul afterwards. That is why zombies and ghosts are scary, because once somebody has died and been laid to rest, the general consensus in society is that they should stay there. It’s immediately eerie when the dead in question subverts that by dragging itself back into the picture.

Furniture should also not move of its own accord, which is what makes poltergeists and other demonic tomfoolery freaky. In fact, generally speaking, demons and company should stay in mythology where they came from, and black magic, unquiet spirits and bloodthirsty night-crawlers are immediately disconcerting to any viewer because they’re already defying the rules of the world.

The Empty Child, Doctor Who

No I am not your Mummy. Leave me alone

Just as the image of old ladies going savage amuses us, the image of children acting creepy terrifies us. Old ladies are, traditionally, quiet and refined and soft and lovely and not going to go out into the streets on motorbikes and start bashing up phone booths. And children are, traditionally, pictures of innocence and cuteness and need to be protected by adults. This is why it’s so effective when horror movies or books use the creepy child trope—it subverts every instinct we have about the nature of children, and it freaks us the hell out. Continue reading

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