The Guardian book blog posted a piece earlier today arguing that fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction. The crux of the argument is that fantasy authors need not just novels, but mega-novels (single stories split into multiple volumes, like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire) to build out their ideas. Rather than simply acknowledging that this is one type of fantasy, Natasha Pulley – the author of the the piece, who seems to see no meaningful difference between “fantasy” and “high fantasy” – argues that nearly everything which isn’t a mega-novel cannot be fantasy:
To write short fantasy is very difficult. If the usual big-fantasy detail is taken out and you only sketch a plot, you get a fairytale. If you write real high fantasy in 4,000 words, details and all, it tends to be a snippet, not a story. If it’s something set in a basically real world but with a fantasy element, it’s not fantasy so much as speculative fiction, or alternative history, or a ghost story. That means that there is an incredibly narrow taxonomical window in which short fiction can be recognised as fantasy at all. What we recognise as fantasy is long. Sometimes really long.
The argument here is a classic bait and switch: Saying one thing and then redefining it as something else. Fantasy, for as long as the word has been used, has always encompassed more than “high fantasy” – a term coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander (see “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance“) and retroactively applied to works like The Lord of the Rings. It may be that Pulley only recognizes “long” fantasy as true fantasy, but that certainly isn’t a well-established view, either by contemporary standards or historical ones.
Pully writes, that “fantasy short stories…lean in some way on an existing corpus of novels” – I would have left out “of novels,” but the point remains intact. Of course, this is true of all short stories, not just fantasy, as well as all long stories, since all literature is referential in some way. As Pulley points out about mundane fiction, “stories of people in the real world lean on the reader’s knowledge of the real world.”
Where her argument breaks down, however, is implying that this same situation doesn’t also apply to high fantasy. “Everything else [beyond world building] about high fantasy is shared with fairytales – settings, objects, stereotypical characters, stereotypical plots.” But what else is there besides settings, objects, stereotypical characters, and stereotypical plots? For Pulley, high fantasy “builds its reasoning from the ground up, brick by brick” and “becomes sprawling and densely populated because often it isn’t about a unifying plot, but a common world.” Which is silly, not only because nobody would actually read plotless high fantasy, but also because Pulley acknowledges that it shares stereotypical plots.
But even if high fantasy is built “brick by brick,” those bricks are nonetheless just as referential as any piece of short fiction. Kings Landing is Camelot in a tattered cloak. Reshaping the world and calling it Middle-earth rather than Pangea might change how we think about it, but our thoughts are still formed by our associations of geography with the real world. There’s no element – no brick – of high fantasy that isn’t borrowed from its literary predecessors and the real world.
Which is to say that high fantasy is just like other fantasy.
Rather than claiming that high fantasy is somehow the only true fantasy, we need to take a look at what shorter fantasy stories are doing. They are short for a reason, and just like mega-novel high fantasy stories can do things that short stories can’t, the reverse is also true. Recognizing where that difference lies is much more valuable than trying to dismiss all the other fantasy sub-genres in favor of their most popular sibling.