High Fantasy, High Art – an Edge-Lit Panel

Judging the book by its author, I expect to be very entertained by this.
Judging the book by its author, I expect great things.

What happens when fantasy fiction and literary fiction meet?

I recently went to Edge-Lit, an annual fantasy, science fiction and horror convention in Derby. It was an excellent event, with interesting panels including….

High Fantasy, High Art: Is Fantasy Fiction Growing More Literary?

Even after attending just a few sf+f conventions, I’ve realised that the subjects of panels get repetitive. Certain issues remain relevant, people want to talk about them, and that’s fine. It means that for a regular con attendee, what makes a good panel isn’t the subject so much as the panelists.

This panel had great panelists. Marc Turner was the perfect chair, asking interesting and relevant questions and getting everyone involved, rather than using his position to keep voicing his own views. The other panelists – Cherry Potts, Edward Cox, Peter Newman and Jen Williams – were all charming and insightful. Newman was particularly excellent, meaning that his book The Vagrant went straight onto my to-read list. Everyone was entertaining and worth listening to – not always the case when writers talk.

So what were my take aways from this?

Attitudes Towards Genre

The panelists generally approached literary fiction from the same angle I do – discussing its flaws while recognising that everything is somebody’s cup of tea. As Peter Newman said, we’re all cheerleading from our own corner, supporting the literature that struck a chord with us early in life. I think that’s very valuable in understanding our own attitudes to fiction, and our limitations. Those early experiences can create attachments that close our minds to alternatives. That’s not always bad, as we find things we love, but it’s worth being aware of.

There was much discussion of the tendency for literary fiction, at its most extreme, to leave out entertainment in favour of literary style. Jen Williams said that, as  a former bookseller, she found that “the interesting stuff goes upstairs, in genre”.

It’s a reminder that geeky interests are pushed out to the periphery physically as well as in the discussion of literature. Games stores end up outside the centre of town, fantasy fiction on the top floor of Waterstones. And again, being aware of it can stop us letting that assumption colour our view of the world.

Perhaps the telling insight came from Cherry Potts. As she pointed out, the phrase “literary fiction” assumes that everything else isn’t literary, implicitly putting down everything from fantasy to romance.

Addressing the Big Issues

Marc Turner raised the question of whether fantasy is a good medium for exploring social and political issues. Like me, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog, the panelists agreed that it is, giving plenty of examples to show that it was as good for this as any genre.

Then came the point I really liked, again from Peter Newman. He argued that using fantasy is often better than talking about issues in the real world. It can be hard to hear someone’s viewpoint if they’re disagreeing with you on real world things you care about. By placing the ideas into a fantasy world, we can make it easier for people to take them in. Fantasy becomes a way of opening minds.

How’s that for a defence of the genre?

Write What You Know?

Finally a comment from Edward Cox, which I thought was useful even outside of this topic. He suggested that the old concept of “write what you know” might now be obsolete. The internet makes research so much easier that anyone can get to know about anything.

“Write what you know” is certainly an awkward concept, and one that can be more restrictive than useful if applied badly. I’m still mulling it over, but I think I might agree with Cox on this.

Far more was discussed in the panel than what I’ve covered above. If you ever have a chance to see any of these panelists talk then I heartily recommend it. And if you can make it Derby, there’ll be another Edge-Lit event just before Christmas. It’ll be well worth your time.