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A Guide To Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment
Philip Martin
Crickhollow Books, 144 pages

A Guide To Fantasy Literature
Philip Martin
Philip Martin is a folklorist, author, and book editor who has worked with children's and adult fiction. He has produced audio, photo-documentary, and written studies of cultural heritage, as well as a number of instructional guides for writers, and is series editor of an annual anthology on craft and career for writers, The New Writer's Handbook. He directs Great Lakes Literary, a consulting firm that helps authors and small organizations get their best work published. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Great Lakes Literary
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

There was an unusual genesis to this book so it is worth spending a bit of time unpacking it. Philip Martin is director of Great Lakes Literary, a consultancy of which Crickhollow Books is the publishing arm. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that this book started life as The Writer's Guide To Fantasy Literature. This edition has supposedly been revised so that it is "now oriented to a general audience of writers and readers." That is a pretty big shift and Martin never really explains why he has felt the need to make this transition, beyond the bald fact that he can.

After an opening that strays perilously close to "Webster's defines fantasy as…", the rather scrappy introduction goes on to state that the "goal of this book is to help you to better appreciate fantastic stories of all sorts." (p. 8) Now, this is entirely inoffensive, even admirable, but I'm not sure what it actually means. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that this deeper appreciation is intended to be engendered by a greater understanding of the history of the genre, the practices of its creators and the thematic links between texts. It is all rather ragtag and vague though, the abiding impression is that Martin has simply used his access to a platform to set down all his accumulated thoughts on a genre he loves. There is nothing wrong with this but it does mean that whilst there are interesting observations, A Guide To Fantasy Literature is not a very cohesive book.

The initial three-page introduction is followed by a second introduction for this new edition which doubles as a brief history of the genre. It is a big improvement on the previous intro but Martin isn't kidding when he says it is brief: he covers 2,500 years in a single page, we get another page for the 19th Century and another couple for the modern era. In the course of this whirlwind historical tour, he describes the development of fantasy as a modern genre thus:

  "In many ways, the emergence of fantasy as a stylistic genre in the 20th century combine those three powerful threads: popular swashbuckling adventure fiction, whimsical Victorian children's stories, and the medieval, mystical tales of romantic intellectuals and religious scholars." (p. 14)  

It is an argument that sounds plausible but he only has seven paragraphs to support it. Nor is the book referenced, leaving the reader unclear whether this is his own argument or simply his gloss on an established line of thought. Either way, the reader is left wanting more detail. A Guide To Fantasy Literature's great flaw -- albeit by design -- is that it is only 147 pages long. This is perhaps acceptable for a writer's handbook but it does limit its usefulness as a critical text. Even so, more signposting would have been nice; Martin quotes copiously from authors but his critical bibliography is sparse and fully half of the 14 texts listed deal with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.

This focus explains why we slide rather awkwardly from the history of the genre to the importance of belief. The introduction -- in something of a non-sequitur -- closes with the argument that:

  "Both fundamentalism and fantasy are expressions of a shift away from the promise of rationalism to the promise of belief." (p. 18)  

This is quickly picked as the main argument of the next chapter, 'Fantasy And Belief':

  "In fantasy, wonder and wishes overcome knowledge and explanation… Fantasy celebrates the non-rational" (p. 22)  

There is much to argue with here in the substance of Martin's words; at the very least his remarks only apply to a specific subset of fantasy. Just as troubling as their content, however, is their forced delivery. It is here that you can clearly see that the new book has been carved out of the old book. To take another example, in a discussion of the origins of The Lord Of The Rings on page 14 we are told that:

  (in the original draft, they were a merry threesome of hobbits called Bingo, Odo, and Frodo)  

In the next chapter, in a discussion of the origins of The Lord Of The Rings on page 30, we are told that:

  (In the initial draft their names were Bingo, Odo, and Frodo.)  

On one level this is simply an unfortunate repetition which should have been picked up in the editing stage. However, it speaks to a wider confusion about what and who the book is for and how it has been structured. A Guide To Fantasy Literature seems to have been assembled at random.

To illustrate this point, after a worthless but mercifully brief chapter on artistic inspiration -- a clear hangover from the earlier book which is stranded in this context -- we get to a more meaty subject, the taxonomy of fantasy. At thirty pages it is the longest chapter in the book but it is as compressed and idiosyncratic as the preceding chapters. Martin looks at five "rings of tradition": high fantasy, adventure fantasy, fairy-tale fantasy, magic realism and dark fantasy.

  "Today if a book is labelled a "fantasy" story, often it is a version of what might be called High Fantasy. High fantasy is marked by a grand approach to the genre, in the style of Tolkien, to name one stellar example." (p. 38)  

This gives the reader a pretty good idea of what is meant by high fantasy; it appears to be being used as a synonym for epic fantasy, the Tolkien-esque secondary-world fantasy which is currently the most popular commercial subgenre of fantasy. Almost immediately, however, Martin starts discussing Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling. In fact, it turns out he is using high fantasy to describe what Farah Mendlesohn in Rhetorics Of Fantasy refers to as a portal-quest. Mendlesohn's term has the benefit of being descriptive (we know what a portal is, we know what a quest is, a portal-quest is pretty intuitive) whereas not only is Martin's term far less descriptive, it has a common usage -- as mentioned above -- which is quite at odds with his own usage.

Similarly when Martin starts talking about adventure fantasy as embodied by the work of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it seems clear he is using the term to describe sword and sorcery. So it is a surprise when he also draws in the work of A.A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame. He acknowledges this fact but his justification is not particularly strong:

  While connecting Conan the Barbarian and Winnie-the-Pooh may seem far-fetched, adventure-fantasy yarns share a common goal: to satisfy the desires of their characters for interesting escapades. (p. 46)  

Perhaps we could be more charitable about the fact his definition of dark fantasy also seems wayward, after all the meaning of the term has undergone a radical change in the last decade. However, A Guide To Fantasy Literature simply ignores paranormal romance, the immensely popular subgenre that has somehow insinuated itself into ownership of the term. There is no reference to Laurell K. Hamilton, nor to Stephenie Meyer, and there is only a single glancing reference to vampires in the whole book. So Martin must be referring to the old meaning -- the proper meaning -- of dark fantasy. Once again he is lackadaisical and overly inclusive though, drawing in ghost stories, the gothic and erotic fantasy. Early on he states:

  [Elizabeth] Hand points out that many successful dark-fantasy novels set in our world, whether a modern or historical setting. (p. 59)  

Firstly, the sentence makes no sense, presumably because it is missing an "are" after "novels." Secondly, Martin here uses "dark-fantasy," having previously used both "Dark Fantasy" and "dark fantasy." This is symptomatic of the book's lack of rigour. Thirdly, and most importantly, Hand says nothing of the sort. The long passage Martin quotes from her does not mention dark fantasy at all and refers only to the supernatural; he may take the two to be synonyms but he has in no way established this. Likewise the simple equivocation of horror and dark fantasy over the page:

  Although dark fantasy or horror fiction today may seem intended mostly to shock and titillate, its roots lie in ancient tales closely linked to religion and taboo. (p. 61)  

Martin is repeatedly using terms in a way that most critics within the field would not easily recognise. This is without even getting on to the topic of the other two major, yet remarkably casual and unsupported, assertions in the sentence. Martin has ideas and opinions, what he doesn't appear to have is any arguments.

The final four chapters cover fantasy archetypes. As with the earlier chapter on inspiration, these are predominantly aimed at writers and are of little interest to the general reader. Here, even more than in the rest of the book, Martin relies on great wodges of quoted text from author interviews. Regarding these, he notes on the book's website that:

  In the old edition, I had interviews as stand-alone pieces. In the new edition, I've merged most of them into the text. I've also trimmed them a good deal, but for those interested, I'm posting a fuller text of the interviews here on the website.  

They haven't really been merged though, Martin provides very little connective text nor does he use the quotes to building towards a wider point. And then the book ends, its unclear aim unrealised. I still can't tell you who the intended audience of The Guide To Fantasy Literature is, it falls between so many stools. Looking over my review, similar words and phrases crop up again and again: "scrappy," "ragtag and vague," "compressed and idiosyncratic," "lackadaisical," "remarkably casual." These are not individually damning criticisms but they certainly don't present any incentive to read this book. Martin's book has passion but it lacks utility.

Copyright © 2010 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. He is the reviews editor of Vector and also regularly reviews for Strange Horizons. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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