Can Fantasy Fiction be Adult Fiction? Editorial By Violet Kane
I understand that the world needs its Harry Potters. Even those adults who have grown into strict literary realists can admit to a propensity for magical thinking in childhood. Psychologists speak of the importance of imagination and magical thinking for child development. Many adult fans of fantasy fiction found their introduction to the genre in a childhood book. I remember in eighth grade (age 13 or so) watching the boys in my class pass one another a worn edition of Lord of the Rings to read during class. I, myself, was a devotee of Madeline L'Engle as a youth. The typical fantasy resembles in many respects the fairy tale, a type of folklore labeled "children's reading" in our culture.
But does this mean that fantasy must be relegated to readers in their formative years? That there is something inherently immature in fantasy fiction? That those of us who still read it are lagging behind? We haven't grown up in our reading tastes?
If we want to believe these hypotheses, then there are plenty of sources out there willing to support us. Ask nearly any fantasy writer and most fantasy readers, and they'll tell you the now-stereotypical story of a high school teacher's assurance: "You'll grow out of it." Harry Potter may have exposed more adult readers to fantasy, but it only bolsters the connection of fantasy and childhood. Your neighborhood public library likely sticks fantasy books in the "young adult" section. I recently ordered two books from my local public library system that came marked "young adult" and "teen" respectively. Were they Eragon and Philip Pullman? No. Jennifer Fallon's Hythrun Chronicles and Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. The content of these books are most certainly not "young adult". Fallon's trilogy—while, admittedly, not the earthiest or grittiest fantasy—contains rape scenes, animal and human deaths, suggestive dialog, scenes of successful and impotent sex alike. Pratchett's book, aside from mature philosophical concepts including the question of the validity of organized churches, includes quite a bit of dark humor in scenes of torture and death. I'm not saying that zero teenagers are mature enough to handle these books, but the themes in these stories are most certainly not "young adult" in nature.
Worse yet, the "young adult" rut is perpetuated by some authors whose books are so explicitly adult that no reasonable person would slap a "teen" label on them. As much as I adore the work of George R.R. Martin, I scratch my head at the profusion of child viewpoint characters in his books. I excitedly enter every chapter from the point of view of Tyrion, Dany or Jaime, but I sigh in a shade of disappointment when I see Sansa, Bran or Arya narrating. I keep hoping they'll grow up in one of these books. I took two books by Raymond Feist out of the library this summer, one from the very start of his career, Magician, and another from his most recent trilogy, Talon of the Silver Hawk. Both centered on a middle teen boy coming of age. Maybe I'll give them another try later, but they both gathered dust on my shelves until going back to the library without renewal. Even Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel trilogy, a story laden with sado-masochistic sex, starts out when the main character is a child. Thankfully, she grows up within the first two hundred pages. Same with Blade of Tyshalle. Perhaps the most "adult-themed" fantasy I've ever read, it starts out with the main character at a high school stage in his education before graciously skipping ahead to the character in middle age.
I understand the argument in historically-based fantasy, that shorter lifespans and harsher lives demanded kids to grow up faster and assume more responsibilities sooner. But following that logic, we should find more books like Jennifer Fallon's Lion of Senet where the teenaged characters act more like twenty-somethings. Still, I find myself wondering why this "young adult" element persists in most fantasy. The fantasy genre is not without adult fantasy and adult characters. The most recent of Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasies (Lions of Al-Rassan and beyond) match their adult characters with artistically mature storytelling. I recently found Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint a refreshing change, a grown-up story with no child characters in sight. Why, however, don't we have more of these mature stories? Why does most fantasy still cling to the tradition of the child or teenaged viewpoint character?
Yes, young people, and thus young characters, are part of life, too. I'm not arguing that they ought to be stripped our fantasy stories altogether. And I am most certainly not arguing against "young adult" fantasy. It's a lively genre with great stories written for and about young adults. But we need "adult" fantasy, too. The modern fantasy genre is still so heavy on the "coming of age" viewpoint character, that I fear it only perpetuates the stereotype of fantasy being "un-adult". Any adult reader of a different genre or of mainstream fiction who tries a fantasy for the first time is likely to be put off by the "child narrator" when they are used to adults in their home genre. Or at least a fair mix.
Perhaps it isn't fantasy readers or writers who ought to grow up, but fantasy characters. How is fantasy fiction ever going to garner a "mature" respect if its "adult" stories stick to the tired fairy tale convention of child narrators?
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.