Death of the “Genre Story” in Fantasy

Magic Swords“We don’t want your genre stories.”

I see this message more and more in the submission guidelines of writing journals and magazines, especially in those dedicated to fantasy and science fiction.

Speculative fiction is what we’re calling it nowadays. The Sword and Sorcery glory days are at an end. Writers and journals alike don’t want to be pigeon-holed in hopes they’ll reach a broader audience. And fantasy is fighting to be taken more seriously, which means intensified abrogation of the regular tropes. There’s still a place out there for the old classics, but that’s because they’re, well, classics.

This contrasts sharply, though, with what I often see most prominently displayed on the shelves at bookstores. In some respects, readers are looking for escapism books that fit the code of ten other books they’ve read and enjoyed. Paranormal Romance is still a category. The cut-and-copy murder mystery will never die.

Perhaps this is one difference between the novel and the short story. The money involved in a novel makes publishers hesitant to try out anything too experimental or new. Not always true, of course, but a general trend. Whereas many independent short story journals peek under all the rocks to find the most curious treasures. Many of them have bulleted lists of no-nos:

  • no time travel stories.
  • no steampunk pirates.
  • no zombies.
  • no magic swords.
  • no wizard schools.
  • definitely no magic swords.

Well, look at that. I’ve just made a list of all the things I’m still seeing in the most popular novels that are still coming out. Does this mean that the short story should be more innovative, more forward-thinking than the novel? Not necessarily. As I said, I think money is a very real difference.

But novels that take the path most trod upon are not necessarily less creative either. Length is an obvious difference, and a longer story has more time to twist common themes into something all its own. By the same token, some of the best short stories are ones that manage this and are still able to capture the emotion, the character.

But we still call it speculative fiction.

At the end of the day, what’s really happening is that many journals don’t want the writer’s genre stories because that’s as deep as they go. Sometimes it’s just disguised fan fiction. The focus on the genre subtracts from the story’s ability to engage in a character. Genre is setting (and many times a pre-established setting). Character is why we read.

So don’t think in terms of labels. Ask yourself how the emotion drives the story and how that effects the reader. Then we’re getting places.

(image credit to Martial Arts Planet)

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