Musings on the Fantasy Boom

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 4, 2011 — 36 Comments

The other day I was at my local used bookstore and found an out-of-print edition of Rosemary Edghill’s “Book of Moons,” part of a trilogy of mysteries involving a Wiccan protagonist and a number of lightly-fictionalized real-life Pagans. While not fantasy in the slightest, as Wiccan and Pagan spells in the novels “work” much as they do in the real world, I can only imagine that these books, if released today, would benefit greatly from the current boom in fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and genre fiction in general. The old saw states that escapist entertainment thrives during tough economic times, and with some saying that were already in, or about to be in, a new depression, something to take our collective minds off the increasingly grim news is probably one of the few safe investments you can make.

Whether its recent rise is due to growing economic unrest, or if we are simply witnessing a tipping point after years of slow and steady growth, I can’t remember a time when mainstream entertainment was so flooded with fantasy. Some have speculated that this current boom is simply a bubble, but I think there’s a far larger shift at play here, as evidenced by the growing number of literary authors dipping their toe into genre work. This isn’t surprising since fantasy and science fiction, as a genre, now eclipses literary fiction, and has claimed a far bigger stake on the bestseller lists.

“In the face of declining print sales, major publishers are increasingly seeking crossover hits that break genre molds and resonate with a broad swath of readers. Fantasy and science fiction made up 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared with 7% for literary fiction, according to a survey by book industry analyst Bowker. In 2010, 358 fantasy titles hit the bestseller list, up from 160 in 2006, according to a study by Stuart Johnson & Associates and Simba Information, which track books sales.”

I’ve been a fan of fantasy novels since I was a teenager, and am used to selections being much smaller, and my choices limited. Genre works were always relegated to the back, separated from the “regular” fiction that deserved respect and proper consideration from book reviewers in newspapers. While fantasy authors like Ursula K. Le Guin have long argued that genre fiction be taken seriously, it seemingly took a great recession, the partial collapse of the bookselling market, and the massive success of fantasy-oriented media franchises like Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Southern Vampire Mysteries for it to sink in. In addition, fantasy itself has changed. While there are still many popular “high” (albeit grittier) fantasy works from authors like George R.R. Martin, hybrid genres like urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mythic fiction, steampunk, and gaslamp fantasy, have been ascendant in the last decade. These genres, while fantastical, are often grounded in some form of our “real” world and feature flawed protagonists who seem to take more than few cues from Raymond Chandler. Harry Potter, for all its high fantasy topes, is thoroughly grounded by the fact that the witches and wizards there coexist with humanity in an uneasy balance.

Today, fantasy fans are spoiled for choice. I think I have read more works of fantasy in the last year than I have in the previous five. Most of them are urban fantasies that feature magic colliding with our mundane lives in some manner. Authors like Jim Butcher, Darren Shan, Mark Del Franco, Kate Griffin, Mike Carey, Richard Kadrey, and Patricia Briggs fill a space that was once only occupied by authors like Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Terri Windling. A growing number of these fantasy novels feature modern Pagans in some capacity, most notably in the works of S.M. Stirling and Charlaine Harris, to name but two popular examples. There’s also a whole lot of Witches popping up in mystery novels nowadays, not to mention the recent crossover sensation that is “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. I can’t but think that the currently widespread popularity of fantasy, the increasing utilization of real-life Pagan religions in fictional works, and the active participation of Pagans in fantasy-oriented subcultures, will have some effect on us.

Now, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t think that fantasy literature converts children (or adults for that matter) to modern Paganism. We should all hearken well to the words of Oberon Zell.

Harry Potter fans aren’t interested in Wizardry, Witchcraft, Magick, an online school, or anything that isn’t specifically and only about the Harry Potter stories and characters. The only successful vendor was the one selling licensed trademark Harry Potter merchandise—such as Hogwarts House patches and regalia, movie replica wands, Harry Potter games and toys—and pointy hats.

So despite the paranoid fears of some, reading about magical beings or fictional Witches (or even fictional Wiccans) won’t necessarily make you or your child want to be one. That said, I do think this could be a wonderful opportunity to start dialogs, engage with people who have negative perceptions of modern Pagan faiths, but like fantasy novels, and use works that mesh the mundane and the magical to provide jumping off points for a better understanding of where fantasy ends and the reality of our religions and practice begin. Because the curious will seek us out, and we should have an educated and positive response to those seekers. Maybe some enterprising group can produce as “so you’ve read [insert novel here] and you’d like to know more” pamphlet that will lead them to good sources.

There’s also the question of if the fantasy boom is a by-product of a decline in traditional religious adherence, and a rise in individualistic spirituality in a time of reenchantment. Perhaps, in addition to looking for some escapist entertainment during tough times, people are also looking for a sense of wonder that has all but fled Western expressions of faith. For those religions that do embrace ideas of magic, a sacred landscape, and an enchanted world, this fantasy boom may also see a new boom in converts to those belief systems. One that could make the “Teen Witch” phenomenon of the 1990s seem quaint by comparison.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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