9.25.2009

Fantasy versus Fiction versus ???

Krispy's thoughtful post below has brought to light a new quandary from me: What makes a story fantasy as opposed to just plain fiction?

According to Wikipedia, "[f]antasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three (which are subgenres speculative fiction)".

As for fiction, Wikipedia says that it "is a branch of literature which deals, in part or in whole, with temporally contrafactual events (events that are not true at the time of writing). In contrast to this is non-fiction, which deals exclusively in factual events (e.g.: biographies, histories)".

From what Krispy has to say about the pseudo-fantasy but-really-straight-up-Japan culture in that novel, it would've fallen into the category of historical fiction if not for the pastiche of Asian names and the token oh-yeah-we-have-magic apparently tossed in at the end.

But since it is so predominantly Japan—from serenity (Zen) gardens to fried dumplings on sticks (dango) to etiquette and society—only with different names, I guess it's also like historical fantasy, only once again, since it doesn't seem set in a particular and specific time period and doesn't seem built around any significant and recognizable historical events, it fails to fit in there too.

This book defies categories. Normally I'd say that's a good thing, but the amount of bemusement, incredulity, discomfort, and WTF I've heard from my two friends has me convinced that in this particular instance, it is not a good thing. It defies categories, but not to any real purpose. It doesn't cross genres or break boundaries and it doesn't make a significant statement or commentary upon any of the abovementioned genres. If it stands out because it doesn't fit, then it should stand out for a good reason—not a bad one.

As I mentioned in a comment in the previous post, I don't think I've ever come across any instance quite like this, where a specific culture was transplanted into a fantasy world and the only thing to differentiate it from its source culture was to change a few names.

Recently in one of my classes, the professor criticized today's generation for wanting everything neatly pigeonholed and categorized. To which I say, "Your point is?" In this instance, I'm not perplexed because this book doesn't fit into a genre or category—I'm perplexed because of how it is perceived as a certain genre, fitted into said genre, and praised in reviews for its inventiveness with regards to its pseudo-Asian society—when in fact that society is just Japan.

Was it praised simply because the majority of the readership knew nothing about Japanese history, culture, and society? And a particularly prevalent problem in the US is that everything "Eastern" is lumped into one melting-pot so that "Asian" has become a blanket term for anything and everything Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, etc. Back when the pilot of the original Iron Chef USA aired (not the one shown on Food Network today—which is Iron Chef America—but the one that had William Shatner as the host), there was Iron Chef French, Iron Chef Italian, Iron Chef American, and Iron Chef Asian.

Iron Chef Asian? I remember quite clearly thinking, WTF. In the US, Panda Express might as well be authentic Chinese cuisine, all sushi consists of solely raw fish, and since it's politically incorrect, Chinese chicken salad has in most places been renamed to Asian chicken salad. "Asian" makes things exotic, and therefore different, and therefore creative. Yes, American culture is as subversive as it is expansive.

Of course, I am presuming (ethnocentrically) that those same reviewers were American—maybe they weren't. The book was written by two people, one who is Canadian but the other of whom is American. The perception of what is "fantasy" in literature is pretty widespread, though, if you take the Borders fantasy section at a glance—everything from Tolkien's traditional high fantasy to books like Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint which technically contains no magic at all but is set in an imaginary Regency-esque city, with its own society, rules, and manners.

The only fantasy book I can think of that comes close to what Krispy has described in the previous post is Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. As I recall, there is only one distinctly "magical" part in that book, although there are hints and indications that there are other magical elements at play in the background/in the past, not to mention they have their own mythology about how the people of Terre d'Ange are descended from angels—and Terre d'Ange itself, as might be inferred from its French name (along the lines of "Land of the Angels") and references to a Hellenic Age as well as Pictish people who live across the strait, seems based on early Western Europe and the Gauls.

But the d'Angeline politics, society, and religion are very complex, it has its own unique history/mythology, and a structured class society which includes indentured servitude and extremely high-class courtesans. The book is not a story set in early-France-with-another-name, the way the book Krispy discusses seems to be a story set in Japan-with-another-name.

At any rate, this is all just a few more tidbits for thought to chew over in your mind, with regards to what the fantasy genre entails as well as how creative (or not) authors can be when sourcing materials and basing worlds/societies on existing cultures.

(On one last note: I do feel a bit bad about criticizing a book I haven't even read, but when Krispy and our mutual friend both tell me the same thing with such vehemence, I have no choice but to believe them. They could tell me that aliens have conquered the earth, Glico no longer makes Pocky, and my shoelaces are untied, and I would believe them without question. But I feel less bad since I'm also broadening the topic to include generalities about classification and genres. So there. And I will read that book, after I finish the two three forty-two other books in queue before it.)

5 comments:

Danyelle said...

I'm hopelessly shallow. >.< I generally only have an idea of what the genre is based on the cover and the story. I like your historical fantasy term. Thinking about it, there are a few I've read that would fit very well into that category.

While I haven't ever been disappointed by genre, my expectations have been disappointed if the cover or the blurb is completely off from the story. Fortunately, this hasn't happened very often. :)

Krispy said...

Dani- Re: blurbs/covers that don't match the actual story. That has never happened to me before, but I have heard of this dread occurrence! It's weird because you kind of feel like it shouldn't happen, but then when you consider that the person who writes copy may have little to do with the actual book (other than writing the copy), then it makes more sense. Haha. And it's ok. I'm pretty shallow about stuff too. ;P Alz, on the other hand, was an English major; she can't help it. :)

Danyelle said...

Glad to know I'm not alone. :D *snicker* Has anyone told you that you have an awesome sense of humor?

Krispy said...

Do I now? :D Well, it's nice to know someone out there thinks I'm funny. Heeh.

Alz said...

Cover art can be quite deceiving, totally agree there, Danyelle, although more than once I've been suckered into choosing a book based on its pretty cover. XP In fact, I daresay it happens pretty frequently...

I've had that horrible blurb thing completely undercut my book expectations too! I picked up a short story anthology based on Anne McCaffrey's Acorna series and in the blurb, it talked about how in one of the stories she gets into a relationship and falls in love...only there was no such story in the collection at all.

Similarly, the blurb on Mercedes Lackey's Black Gryphon book is super dramatic about whether or not the black gryphon Skandranon will ever return from this deadly-dangerous war mission while his friend waits with dwindling hope...and this blurb is entirely resolved within the first fifty pages of the 300 page book, which then proceeds to hare off in a totally different direction.