Talk about a fantasy. In 2002, a largely unknown writer's debut novel sold out a 50,000 first printing and went on to be translated into 36 languages and garner nearly three million copies in American hardcover sales alone. The book was the story of a murdered girl, but with a twist—it was narrated by her from the afterlife, as she spied on her family and visited Heaven.
And it's not just a dead girl speaking from beyond the grave. It's a boy wizard at boarding school, a quest through strange lands to defeat evil, a spooky, not-so-deserted island packed with castaways—not so many years ago these may have sounded like the easily dismissed stuff of children's dreams. Now, they are recognizable as several of the major entertainment phenomena of the past decade. Following the success of television's Lost, at least five new fantasy-themed TV shows hit the airwaves last fall. Movie theaters and video games reflect a similar preference for fantastical settings and stories. Fantasy has conquered popular culture, and the successes are continuing to build in the final frontier: literary fiction.
Novels featuring prominent fantasy or supernatural elements have found an eager new audience in the literary world. Hot on Alice Sebold's heels were Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, to cherry pick from dozens of titles.
This season, literary readers looking for a sense of the fantastic in their fiction will have no trouble finding it. Rayo, HarperCollins's Latino interest line, published The Nymphos of Rocky Flats by Mario Acevedo in February, featuring an American soldier in Iraq who comes home a vampire. Last month Pantheon released one of the year's most anticipated novels, Kevin Brockmeier's end-of-the-world/ afterlife parable The Brief History of the Dead. Coming next month from Nan Talese is Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child, the dual story of a fairy changeling and of the child whose place he stole.
For decades, an imaginary but effective chain-link fence has divided the science fiction and fantasy genre from literary fiction, scaled every now and then by a few intrepid writers.
Harry Potter Meets the New Yorker
The most obvious reason for publishers to suddenly start merging fantasy with literary fiction was that there was an audience. How did they know? That boy wizard who debuted in 1997: Harry Potter.
"The Harry Potter phenomenon plays a part," says Brockmeier, whose second novel for children, Grooves (HarperChildren's) was published last month. "Adults became less ashamed to pick up children's books."
Edward Kastenmeier, a senior editor at Pantheon (and Brockmeier's editor on The Brief History of the Dead), agrees. "For a long time, these types of books have been relegated to children's and genre literature. But Harry Potter and the success of the Lord of the Rings movies opened up adults to this," he says. "Our culture is exploring the literary margins more than in the past. Exposure to fantastic elements and technology in our daily lives has made people more accepting of them in literature."
The New Yorker has been providing some of that exposure. Always a bellwether for literary trends, for many years the taste-making magazine defined literary fiction solely as realistic fiction. But that's clearly no longer the case. Brockmeier's exquisitely written novel, set about 50 years into the future, follows the lives of assorted dead people trapped in a mysterious city, alongside the apparently unrelated chronicle of a living woman's tortured journey across Antarctica. Turns out she may be the sole survivor of a plague that has wiped the planet clean. Despite the obvious fantasy elements, the New Yorker published the novel's first section in 2003. Besides Brockmeier, the magazine has been publishing fabulist fictions from other writers for several years, running the gamut from literary heavyweight George Saunders to genre heavyweight Stephen King.
To many, this is far from a new development. The blurring of borders signals a return to a broader idea of literature. "Great writers have been incorporating fantasy, science fiction and horror in their fiction for a very long time," says Tina Pohlman, editorial director of Harcourt's Harvest imprint. But she concedes, "I realize that the contemporary literary world tends to equate literary fiction with narrative realism, so maybe there is something in the air."
Something in the air, indeed. Pohlman recently snapped up the paperback rights to three well-received books with a fantasy slant: Kelly Link's second short story collection, Magic for Beginners (zombies and an imaginary television show, published by Small Beer Press); Salavador Plascencia's debut novel, The People of Paper (mechanical turtles and people made of paper, McSweeney's); and Lydia Millet's latest novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (time travel and the Rapture, Soft Skull).
"It's more of an aberration," says Brockmeier, "that those elements were stripped out of literary fiction in the first place. No one is rejecting realism, but there is a greater openness to accepting fantastic fiction as a form of literature."
Kastenmeier, however, does view these latest developments as a sea change. "What is unique to our times is the fluidity of the borders between genres," he says. "There's always been fantasy in literature, and children's literature was accepted as literature, but now we're seeing people incorporate fantasy aspects into mainstream literature without being marginalized."
Exploring the Margins
Mirroring the rise of fantasy and science fiction in popular culture, literary stars like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem ascended to the top of their field. Both have long championed genre fiction. Along with such writers as Aimee Bender, Colson Whitehead and Haruki Murakami, these writers acknowledged their influences from mystery, comic books, science fiction and fantasy.
"It used to be that serious writers had to leave their childhood passions behind and that's no longer the case," says Kastenmeier. "Jonathan Lethem was embraced by both audiences and able to indulge his passions. In the past, writers needed to hide their genre interests more."
Many of these writers admit they were sneaking over the fence as children. "I grew up reading mainstream literary fiction, but also fantasy and science fiction. As my own tastes matured, the first literary fiction writers I responded to were people who were playing with the fantastic, like Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez," says Brockmeier. "Most writers I know are just as happy to find a well-written work of mystery or fantasy as of mainstream literary fiction."
Harcourt's Pohlman reads the same way. "I don't think great writers who venture outside the confines of realism ever really find themselves stuck in some kind of genre ghetto. At least not in my mind," she says. "I have my tastes, but I'm an equal opportunity reader, and I don't like narrow categories any more than the writers who find themselves relegated to them do."
Some within the science fiction and fantasy field are hopeful the genre will also benefit from the loosening of borders. Juliet Ulman, a senior editor at Bantam Spectra, publishes literary speculative fiction aimed at genre audiences. "I view the recent literary speculative fiction as a gateway, showing skeptical readers a path into a genre they might otherwise have written off," she says.
Ulman cites similarities between Plascencia's experimental novel, widely hailed as the debut of an exciting original voice in literary circles, and acclaimed speculative fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, celebrated for its literary quality within science fiction and fantasy.
"Genre writers have always had more in their bag of tricks than I think the larger audience gives them credit for, but I have seen a real explosion of what could be called 'literary' SFF recently," says Ulman. "For me, it's the best of both worlds. I feel very 'you've got your chocolate in my peanut butter/you've got your peanut butter in my chocolate' about it."
A Fantasy Future
The readers who snapped up Sebold, Niffenegger and Clarke's books may have started as book buyers hungry for the next big title, but publishers hope some will develop a regular taste for fantasy. The amount of fantastical literary fiction hitting the market may signal that's already happening.
Gavin J. Grant, publisher at Small Beer Press and co-editor of the fantasy half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin's Griffin), says, "The market is self-regulating to a certain degree so that, if science fiction and fantasy—flavored fiction is successful, more of it will be bought."
"Ordinary readers used to be afraid of fantasy," says Kastenmeier. "Writers like Susanna Clarke and books like The Time Traveler's Wife are making it easier to package fantasy subject matter for a literary audience. The audience isn't defining literary fiction as narrowly as it once did."
As an editor, Kastenmeier says he has to consider what people will pick up and read in public. "It used to be people wouldn't read genre books, there was a reticence of the mainstream audience, a feeling that it wasn't acceptable. But now it's okay to be seen reading these books on the subway." Del Rey editor-in-chief Betsy Mitchell finds overall that books "that are essentially SF or fantasy are being published in a mainstream way, so that readers who do not identify with reading a particular genre don't feel alienated by a publisher's use of a genre label."
Ulman welcomes the opportunity for these books to find new readers, but thinks there's still a learning curve. "I'm not necessarily convinced that the literary audience as a whole really is accepting fantastic fiction as literature," she says, "certainly not anything that unabashedly carries that label."
Grant believes work like Brockmeier's is responding to larger global and political factors. He doesn't see that climate changing anytime soon. "One of the more interesting things to me is fiction that is tackling the present—which is well into our imagined future. The present is as dark as a J.G. Ballard or an Iain M. Banks novel; as confusing as Philip K. Dick," says Grant. "For fiction to keep up with that kind of reality is hard, which is where the tools of SFF can come in handy."