We as a culture have an awkward relationship with genre writing. We reflexively understand that the Literary Canon should be realistic poetry and writing, but we also break down movie theatre doors in order to give studios trillions of dollars for Avengers and The Dark Knight. We somehow respect genre writing as the entertaining adventure that it is while denouncing it as not having the same artistic merit of any classic novel. Does Frankenstein not have the same literary merit as Jane Austen?
I don’t have the answer to that. I don’t know what to say that will make every English professor in the world say “Oh, yeah, of course Arkham Asylum and Watchmen should be taught as examples of excellent modern American literature.” But I do know that there is a very real confusion around genre. “What makes Fantasy Fantasy, and not Science Fiction? What about Horror? Well, why isn’t Horror just called Fantasy? What about alternate history? Ah hell, what about video games?” This article here is an attempt to at least begin to part that confusion, because I believe that the more you understand the less reason there is to hate (or discount) something. To make things easier, I’m going to focus on the three major genres that most think of when they think of genre literature: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.
It is important to first note that there are such things as Nonfiction and Fiction. Nonfiction of course, meaning “non-fake,” and fiction meaning “fake.” Fiction does not mean Fantasy. A large part of why I think the Literary Canon is so capable of changing to our modern times without bursting into flames or decaying into a desiccated corpse of what it once was is that it’s already based on a set of work that is largely nonfiction. That is, it’s already essentially a pile of work that is fake. These aren’t history lessons. These are stories.
Alright, so what is Fantasy? According to Professor Drout’s lecture “Of Sorcerer’s and Men: Tolkien and the Roots of Modern Fantasy Literature,” (a lecture that all of you everywhere should download and listen to a million times) fantasy can be easily described as something that could have happened, and has a focused magical component. The Fourth Age of Middle-earth in Tolkien’s fantasy anthology is understood to be our own, with the First through Third Ages taking place in a very old and very far removed Britain. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia could have happened during World War II.
Also, the heroes of Fantasy literature are always capable of their task, or have the power deep down inside of them. Fantasy is very fond of the Bildungsroman, and they make great use of it. In Fantasy, the hero always has the “I Win” card ready to play. They just have to remember where they put it, or figure out the (often written in a magical Latin-ish language) instructions.
Professor Drout goes onto describe Science Fiction as what can happen. However, it’s explanations are largely science based. Where Tolkien says “magic ring,” Star Trek: The Next Generation says “mysterious space virus.” Where C.S. Lewis uses a “magic wardrobe,” Star Wars uses “hyperspeed.” Where Tolkien uses “orcs,” Ender’s Game uses those big bug things.
As is the case with Fantasy, Science Fiction has a hero that is largely capable of succeeding. They might need a novel or two to figure out how, but they will win. Their success is never in doubt, no matter how many universes are put into peril.
I know I said I would focus on three genres, but Urban Fantasy is kind of that elephant in the room. It seems to straddle the difference between fantasy and science fiction. This is where I would class superhero literature. In the one episode of the short-lived Youtube series “The Story Board” that was worth anything, author Jim Butcher (yes, of The Dresden Files) argues that urban fantasy is simply the natural movement of familiar Fantasy tropes to an urban setting. Where the old Brother’s Grimm fairy tales told of monsters in the forest, Urban Fantasy tells of monsters in the alleyways. It is a manifestation of our society’s fears moving from the farm to the mall. So, simply speaking, Urban Fantasy is our old friend Fantasy, just with updated digs.
Now. Horror is a fickle beast. It’s not enough to say “Well, Horror is Fantasy with a fallible hero.” There’s so much more working under the hood than that.
Horror is what happens when you take the outs that heroes have and throw them away. Monsters are often nigh-invulvnerable, if not entire levels-of-existence more powerful. That old racist Lovecraft’s stories were terrifying because the entire story hinged on the Old Gods being kept asleep. The minute they awoke then everything was lost. Stephen King’s It is so horrifying because Pennywise is actually a god-creature that a group of kids should have no business even knowing exists, let alone fighting.
In the cases above you have to find that one way to win and then manage to execute it. However, Horror distinguishes itself from Fantasy because a Fantasy story often helps the hero along. Fantasy operates on the central idea that the hero will win. In Horror, the story almost seems to operate without the hero. The story assumes that anyone trying to win will fail, and actively works to make sure that happens. In Fantasy, the hero is powerful enough to take on the villain with just a little bit of growth/help. In Horror, the hero is as powerless as you or I, and the story leverages that to destroy the world.