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Sparked by a conversation in a forum thread about 'commercial' v 'literary' fiction, and genre in general, I wonder if I can ask for knowlegeable opinions from more experienced SF&F colleagues?

As an oldie, I've always slightly struggled to get my head around the fantasy genre definitions currently used. Specifically, the seeming dual use of the 'high' and 'low' fantasy titles. As I understand it, currently: 

- 'high fantasy' is used to denote a book that takes place in an 'other' imagined world different from our own - Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones

- 'low fantasy' is where fantasy elements intrude into 'our' normal world - Harry Potter or Carnival Row

- 'epic fantasy' is a sub-genre of 'high fantasy' which takes place on a very grand scale and deals with 'global' events or events over historic time-scales

- 'urban fantasy' seems to be synonymous with 'low fantasy' above

Have I got that right?

Because this runs alongside and slightly conflicts with my old (and perhaps incorrect) understanding of the 'high' and 'low' fantasy labels, which I think used to mean...

- 'high fantasy' - as above, stories that take place on a grand scale and/or over historic time-scales. Even if the protagonist is of humble birth (the 'stableboy who fate makes a hero') the cast usually features kings, queens, princes, huge armies, vast battles, assorted members of 'Dark Lords Anonymous' etc. Often spread over multiple volumes! Lord of the Rings is probably the definitive example, but work like Moorcock's earlier tales of Elric or Corum would also fit.

- 'low fantasy' - events that involve smaller scale happenings and 'ordinary' people or adventurers - Fritz Leibers 'Lankhmar' stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, for example, or C. J. Cherryh's 'Merovingen'. Even the Conan stories would fit this definition, or Jack Vance's 'Dying Earth' saga. Nobility and 'affairs of state' are usually part of the background setting and not directly involved, or not present at all.

Both of the above usually take place in an 'alternative' world, so nowadays would probably both be placed in the 'high fantasy' pigeonhole, regardless of the scale of the events they portray. Is that right?

The reason I ask is that I'm not at all sure where my current WIP novel sits. Maybe that doesn't matter at the moment, but in the event that I ever get to the point of pitching to an agent or publisher, or trying to self-publish, I'm inevitably going to be asked what 'genre' it is. And, truthfully, I haven't a clue. I've always considered it 'low' fantasy, in that the potagonist and most of the other characters are of common, ordinary stock, and the events that transpire (although having world-changing potential) are small-scale and personal to the characters. On a 'global' scale they wouldn't even attract general notice. It's small scale events (but with world-altering potential), ordinary people (as opposed to 'heroic'), essentially character-driven but with (I hope) a reasonably complex plot. The setting is a huge city state in a quasi medieval/rennaissance alternative world but with elements of early technology (basically a society on the cusp between magic and science). Magic is present but extremely rarely interacted with directly (think quantum mechanics - it underpins everything, but you're fairly unlikely to run into a quantum physicist down the chippy).

So I can't settle on which genre of fantasy novel it is - epic, high, low, heroic, hard, gothic, even slipstream ... and don't even get me started on the whole 'noblebright' v 'grimdark' thing! 😆

Any thoughts? On where such a beast might fit. Or on fantasy genres in general even.

  • Complete can of worms, Jon. And the more you look at it the more confusing it gets.

    Basic principle is as you said - a different world = high fantasy. Our world with fantastical elements = low fantasy.

    But there’s also the idea of a world within a world. So although Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is in Scotland, the magical world is different enough that it can fall into the world within a world idea and can actually be classed as high fantasy rather than low!

    There’s also the role playing game influence that categorise worlds that feel more realistic and less mythic eg Conan the Barbarian as low fantasy. So it depends how you view it as whether it’s low or high.

    At which point I take a paracetamol and walk away.

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    • Thanks Kate! I'm glad it's not just me who gets confused! Oh well, I guess I'd better stock up on those painkillers too, then! 😀 

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    • FWIW, I'm just going to call mine fantasy in my sub letter and let the pitch do the work.

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      • Hi Jon,

        I have the same understanding as you about fantasy classification. But I am still learning all this. 😁 

        For me fantasy is something with magic. 😁 

        But from what I red on line, I have the same understanding as you. 🙂

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        • Hi Jon

          Agreed - and I'd hate as an author to be classified within a narrow category and so diminish opportunities for wider readership. 

          If you really wish to be confused, look up the 73 potential sub-genres of fantasy fiction listed at  http://bestfantasybooks.com/best-fantasy-books-by-female-authors 

          The genre I'd aim for is 'best-selling fantasy novel', and I'm with Kate re the headache tablets.

          Cheers, Vic

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