Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: Are Fantasy Tropes a Punk Response to Literature?

Last week, public radio mainstay STUDIO 360 featured a conversation with Lev Grossman on the trend of fantasy elements creeping their way into conventional literature. The introduction of the segment briefly alluded to current Game of Thrones-infused fantasy popularity boom, but also the Tom Perellota book The Leftovers. (You can read an excerpt at the link.) In the span of about ten minutes, STUDIO 360’s Kurt Anderson attempted to probe just what is going on with this trend, and the ever-venerable Lev Grossman delivered some striking answers. Perhaps the most interesting quip was when Grossman said that “coming out as a fantasy writer” was like his “punk moment.”

Does incorporation of the fantastic constitute a punk moment of defiance for writers?

As the staff writer for, I have to admit some favorable bias in regard to Lev Grossman. In full disclosure, I happen to think he’s a great guy, he’s blogged for and we’ve excerpted The Magician King. But despite winning the John W. Campbell this year for best new writer (he’s hardly new!) Grossman can’t really be claimed exclusively by the SFF camp entirely. Unlike some of the people I discuss in Genre in the Mainstream, Lev is familiar to readers on both sides of the fence. Because of this, Lev Grossman the author is discussed quite a bit, but what is revealing about this particular interview is the way in which Lev Grossman the critic responds to the questions of genre elements in mainstream literature.

Lev GrossmanGrossman asserts that he wishes certain literary writers who dabble in the fantastic would “drop the bullsh*t” and “embrace the storytelling figure of genre.” This seems somewhat in opposition from what we heard from Steven Millhauser in my last column where he claimed that defining the terms of the fantastic puts an author in “opposition to the real.” This, Millhauser feels, is problematic because the fantastic helps get at something more real than the real. Now, I know it seems like I’m trying to get Grossman and Millhauser into some kind debate that I’ve staged for my own reasons, but these viewpoints from two genre-bending writers and thinkers seem to genuinely be in contrast. On the one hand, it feels like Millhauser views the fantastic as one tool in the toolbox, whereas Grossman views the fantastic as a whole toolbox you can pick up and embrace. (Embrace your toolbox!)

Instead of starting with the premise of writing a mainstream literary novel (or series of novels) and then adding layers of fanciful events or occurrences, Grossman’s approach appears to be start with a fantasy novel and then subtract elements normally found in big fantasy narratives. Most specifically, Grossman mentions the exclusion of an all-powerful villain from The Magicians and The Magician King. This he feels gives the novels a “moral complexity.” A novel that lacks a villain therefore lacks a hero, and hardly passes as high fantasy or epic fantasy, at least in regard to how we talk about those sub-genres.

And yet, at least in his head, Grossman was playing with the fantasy toolbox, and removing things. This makes him doubly a punk insofar as it’s a protest to literature to do that in the first place, but then a protest to fantasy to exclude certain elements. Looking at it this way, one could argue that Millhauser then is also something of a Grossman-style literary punk by rejecting conventional realism from the onset of his career while at the same time asserting that the work was actually “more real” than realistic fiction. If both Grossman and Millhauser are punks, then perhaps their philosophies on genre aren’t so different. There. I’ve already had these two make up in the fake fight I created.

George R. R. MartinBut are writers firmly in the camp of genre doing any punk-like moves? Maybe. You could argue one of the reasons why George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is so popular is because it initially downplays the idea of a central villain from the narrative. However, in my view, this doesn’t make Martin a rebel in the fantasy genre, because he’s not concerned with stigma.

Millhauser doesn’t claim to be rebelling against anything, and it seems Martin isn’t either. Perhaps a real punk wouldn’t call themselves a punk, but the notion of protesting an institutionalized notion of art is likely a result of some amount of stigma or shame associated with the (punk) choice. Someone with a literary background like Grossman is going to be faced with more stigma or shame when he goes genre than someone like George R. R. Martin when he pulls a slightly punk move in Game of Thrones by not having it necessarily be about a big bad guy or quest. Perhaps Martin never faced the stigma, so the “risks” he took seem less punk than Grossman.

Genre fiction that is, well, very genre-y, isn’t inherently a punk response to literature. Only when the crossovers occur do things begin to feel that way. I always like to say that growing up with no genre biases allowed for me to read nearly everything. A background in science fiction and fantasy narratives can actually allow a reader to jump into any story that may have a historical or social context they be unfamiliar with. In my case, historical fiction is a snap after you’ve read Dune. But I don’t think Frank Herbert was a punk, because he never really had, to my knowledge, switch from a mainstream literary context. Neither did Tolkien.

Now if George R. R. Martin were to suddenly come out with a collection of short stories in the genre-light style of Jim Shepard or Steven Millhauser he would probably be accused of alienating his fan base. Would this be a punk move? A genre author going mainstream, completely? Maybe J.K. Rowling’s next novel won’t have any fantasy elements in it all, and maybe that would make her fans want to read it less. But maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, if we’re fans of a writer, it’s probably a good idea to give whatever they do a chance.

Can you dear readers, think of other writers who switched genres in a move of “punk” defiance?

[Grossman interview via Studio 360] Full interview below:

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for


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