Sep 27 2011 1:00pm

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 Tor.com, 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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Valerie Robertson
1. Valerie Robertson
Isaac Asimov switched genres all the time, from science fiction to mystery, to non-fiction math and science, to non-fiction handbooks on Shakespear and the Bible. He wrote whatever he felt like, apparently.
Valerie Robertson
2. seth e.
My understanding of punk aesthetics is pretty deeply rooted in DIY ethics. So, if we're talking about authors we've all heard of, who are published by corporations and appear in bookstores: no, no fantasy writers are punks, except the actual punks who publish their own cult-fave zines.

It's more like pop musicians deciding country music might add something they've been missing, some kind of "authenticity." Or else some kind of "performativeness," opinions on country music vary. Genre-shifting isn't a revolutionary statement in and of itself, and generally "punk" is just a code word for "I wish I was cooler than I actually am."

Also, sorry to do this, but:

The ever-venerable Lev Grossman

He's always old? Poor guy.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
@2 seth the definition of venerable can include people who are afforded respect because of their character, not just age. And his character is of the highest order!
Valerie Robertson
4. seth e.
ryancbritt @2 - No, I know. There's just something funny about the idea of venerable punks.
Valerie Robertson
5. Yael Tiferet
I keep trying to tell people that Salman Rushdie is not only funny as
hell but one of the best fantasy writers out there, and nobody EVER
believes it. But it's true.
Stephanie Stein
6. stephaniestein
I tend to agree with Seth E. in his characterization of punk above me. To call yourself "punk" implies active resistance to/lack of cooperation with some kind of mainstream that in turn looks down on or ignores your efforts. So Lev Grossman defecting to the fantasy genre and sticking up for its value as a method of storytelling (when mainstream literary criticism tends to scoff at it/ignore it) could be a "punk moment." But GRRM tweaking a popular formula within the genre and in return, being lauded widely as one of our best contemporary epic-crafters? Not so much.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@4 seth :-)

@6 steph and seth
I think you guys are onto something and maybe
crystallizing where I was headed in my thinking.
Valerie Robertson
8. N. Mamatas
"DIY" was an emergent property of punk after the big labels passed it by. Punk started as basically a response to prog rock, arena/stadium/guitar gods, and the like. Stripping things down and keeping them simple. It's an aesthetic of collapse and rebellion simultaneously, which leads to some odd bedfellows.

Fantasy isn't instrinsically "punk" except insofar as it draws from pulp, which was a disreputable cultural vehicle that was later granted some historical importance. But Grossman et al don't seem to be drawing from pulp wells.
Peter Stone
9. Peter1742
What about Jonathan Lethem? He started out with four science fiction novels, then a mystery and two mainstream novels. I don't even know how to classify his latest novel, Chronic City. It has science fiction elements, but is being marketed as mainstream.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@9 Peter
I like Lethem's first novel so much that I can't shut up about it! It's been featured in this column here and here. As for Chronic City, I loved it.
Valerie Robertson
11. Mark Hinton
I like the "punk" metaphor... I written more about it at
Ian Johnson
12. IanPJohnson
My thoughts:

Punk rock started as a response and a reaction against mainstream rock of the mid-70s. So unless we say that fantasy is a reaction against mainstream literary fiction, then I don't really see it as being "punk".

Of course, there are definitely some fantasy writers who write fantasy as a reaction to mainstream litfic. I'm pretty sure Grossman is one of them. But as for the rest of fantasy? Nah. Fantasy writers, for the most part, don't really seem to care about or follow the most recent trends in litfic.

Sorry if this is kind of incoherent– I just woke up.
Valerie Robertson
13. Alex C. Telander
Dan Simmons immediately springs to mind who has covered the gamut from horror to mystery to epic science fiction to historical fiction. In an interview I did with him (http://www.bookbanter.net/episodes.html#bb004), he admitted he doesn't categorize himself in any particular genre, and writes what he wants to write. The fun with this is that you really never know what to expect next. When the best things he's ever written is "The Terror" which never would've come from a regular fantasy or science fiction writer. By the same token though, his last two stories -- one a historical fiction, "Black Hills," and his most recent an overused scifi trope in "Flashback" have been sub-par at best. But when his next one comes out, I'm still going to be there to check it out and see what he comes up with next.
Valerie Robertson
14. Misti S.
Neal Stephenson went from bad-ass cyberpunk to encyclopedic historical fiction. Punk move?
Valerie Robertson
15. kilks
I don't think he switched for in any way for a "punk" reason, but David Anthony Durham definitely switched from mainstream historical fiction to epic fantasy, and is now going to be switching back to historical fiction.

He's talked about having different fan bases (I love his Acacia series but haven't read his other historical fiction), so its interesting how he can have 2 fan bases. I'm sure he has some fans who read both.
Valerie Robertson
16. Eugene R.
Iain Banks seems to maintain two writerly identities, one slipstream/mainstream (sans 'M') and one more clearly sf/space opera (with 'M'). Yet, seemingly with a simple orthographic maneuver, he avoids triggering all the reader angst associated with other "in-and-out" writers like Jonathan Lethem (over whose "loss" sf fans have obsessed). So, Mr. Banks seems to be blatantly switching fiction categories but remains unpunished for his defiance! What a punk!
Ryan Britt
17. ryancbritt
@14 Misti
@15 kilks
I'm not up-to-speed on his work. I guess I have to check it out now!

Totally. And he's cool.
Valerie Robertson
18. Laura Lee Nutt
Sorry I’m coming in on this discussion late.

Orson Scott Card is another who crosses genre. Of course, he’s famous in science fiction and fantasy, but he also has his biblical series. I’m reading his Rebekah right now, and so far, it’s excellent.

Regarding the use of the term punk, I very much see the point that it’s usually an intentional defiance of something else. However, let’s not forget that one can be given the attribution without ever intending on earning it. We label people and things with no regard to their intents or desires all the time.

Very interesting discussion.

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