From this delightful interview with Lev Grossman over on Tor:
I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions. We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them.
The world of Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, has been described as a deconstruction of Harry Potter, which it certainly is. But it’s not just that. It’s “literary fantasy”, which just means fantasy written in the voice of the “literary” genre, which is to say, generally, it sounds like a conversation with someone who has studied a lot of Deep Themes and knows a lot of words and wants to make sure you aware of this fact.
This can be done well or badly. Here in SF we often make fun of “literary” writers who wander into the genre and act like they’re the first ones to come up with, I don’t know, aliens who are also vampires. They’re not genre-savvy. They don’t know how to throw in the secret signals that say “I am a member of the club”. And, quite often, they become critical darlings and/or bomb and/or are optioned for blockbuster chick flicks. (I mean, I thought The Time Traveler’s Wife was *okay*, but not exactly blockbuster chick flick material. This goes to show how much my opinion is worth.)
Grossman does it well. It never feels like he’s trying to show you how smart he is; none of the narrative feels forced or contrived (except the parts that are obviously contrived, everyone in the book knows they are contrived, look at everyone rolling their eyes at the ridiculous contrived-ness of this thing!). It’s a self-aware fantasy, which plays with the conventions of the genre even as it rejects them. Grossman is attacking Fantasy at its root and making off with all the best bits to consume, messily, in the library. And the second book is better than the first, so it wasn’t some damn fluke.
Breaking genre has to be done carefully. One way is to write one genre from another’s perspective, with another’s voice, like The Magicians, or like this story that Arthur read and described to me the other day that is basically epic fantasy except the characters are semisentient rats on a generation ship. Maybe I’m getting it wrong, having heard the plot secondhand, but that sounds like a cool idea so let’s pretend that exists.
Another way is to subvert a trope, with or without jumping up and down and pointing out how clever you are for doing so. Maybe the aliens show up to kill us all and it turns out they have the wrong address. (AWK-WARRRD.) Maybe the raygun shoots bubbles. These are relatively small ideas to build a cute story around but not really breaking, per se. Chipping, maybe. Denting slightly. That’ll buff out.
The biggest break you can do, I think, is to troll hardcore. Get your reader into a comfortable rut and then piss them off so hard they throw the book at the wall. (Hopefully you can entice them back again and do this multiple times. Fool me once…) The covenants of genre are sacred, and you shouldn’t go for the nuclear option unless you’re okay with obscurity or you have some serious career cred to burn. I think one of the greatest genre trolls I’ve ever seen was Douglas Adams, and I’m still not even convinced he was doing it on purpose. The master of humor plunged suddenly into existential darkness a few times so hard I just about lost my lunch. (Maybe it’s a British thing?)
So, as my first post on my fancy-pantsy author website, I’m going to make a promise that might take decades to pan out: I’m going to write something that makes you really, really, really mad. And you’re going to like it, and maybe you’ll even forgive me someday and keep buying my books.
Art is discomfort. It’s seeing something at the corners of the world, something your audience might have never noticed – or tried to forget – and pointing it out. Art is speaking when others would rather you shut up. Art is taking the most terrible things about being a living person and turning them into the best things, and vice versa. I like the idea of Art being a promise that someone can make, a kind of declaration of intent to live the kind of life that would make a good story, in order to gain the perspective necessary to write great stories. The garret is only a small facet of that promise. So are the numerous personality flaws that seem to crop up in such promise-makers and which I certainly do not lack. So are the promised heartbreaks, the inevitable failures, the close scrapes, the scars, the tears, the wild joy of being human and reveling in all the shit and shiny that brings.
Tear it down, smash it up, log most interesting failure modes. Our grandest duty to that which we love is to learn how to destroy it utterly and then rebuild it harder, better, faster, stronger. Comfort is the enemy (she says, her most recent work dripping with sentimentality – hey, I like junk food as much as the next person). I will live this life, and you will be my audience, o readers few in number. May you and I grow together like trees with tangled roots and jostling branches, may we fight under the sun and love under the stars and write under Heaven and be fruitful and multiply.
The Magicians and sequel The Magician King.