I recently read “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman, and it’s got me thinking about genre fiction vs. literary fiction. Get your ramble pants on, because here I go:
“The Magicians” is a good book. It is urban fantasy. I was originally going to write, “It is urban fantasy in the loosest sense,” but this is an incredibly stupid sentiment that I will get to in a second. “The Magicians” focuses on this genius kid named Quentin who, instead of going to an Ivy-League college, ends up becoming a student at a university for budding, young magicians. He’s obsessed with this Narnia clone called Fillory, and much of the book waffles between Quentin’s education in magic and how it sometimes is glorious and fable-like and how sometimes magic is just really a ton of work and pointlessly boring. There’s a tension between “real world” magic and the beloved magic of his childhood fantasies, the kind of back-and-forth between HOLY SHIT THIS IS AWESOME and I AM SO BORED that you would probably experience if you did a master thesis on Arithomancy.
And speaking of, the book has been heralded as a kind of “Harry Potter” for adults—albeit with the angst of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” turned all the way up—I think mostly because there’s a School of Magic and a Male Protagonist alongside openly homosexual secondary characters, a mostly unhappy love story, and sex. The language is incredibly well executed, giving an even greater shine to the filigree of magical background descriptions that often purple fantasy prose. The way in which Grossman usurps Quentin’s (and the reader’s) Narnia-lust for magic is engaging, such as when Quentin pranks a professor, and in doing so accidentally unleashes a monster into the classroom that devours a student. I often found myself reading a passage, putting the book down, and staring blindly out of the subway window or at my coffee table, unassembling and reassembling Grossman’s narrative and logic, and finding myself enthralled and surprised.
So let me repeat: “The Magicians” is a good book. You should buy it. It is urban fantasy. It is urban fantasy. Because urban fantasy is fantasy in a modern, urban setting, and the book is almost entirely split between school and New York City.
What grates me is the back cover copy, and how it hedges around calling a very clearly urban fantasy book, ahem, “literary fantasy.”
This might be a nitpicky kind of thing, but we are readers; words mean something to us. They are sacred. They should be employed exactly, and where they carry a timbre of bullshittery we should excoriate them or, at minimum, powerwash the hell out of them until they’re so polished they reflect back at us what they were supposed to in the first place: the mirroring effect of an author’s words sowed in a reader’s mind.
“Literary fantasy” is a moniker for “GENRE FICTION THAT IS SAFE TO READ.” It only serves to make people too scared or too wimpy to admit they like fantasy to feel OK about reading it. It carries with it an expectation, one designed to specifically juxtapose the expectations of “urban fantasy” or “high fantasy.” It’s a microaggression against genre fiction, basically saying, “We’re not like those other fantasy books, we’re actually good. You can stow us on your living room bookshelves and your friends will be impressed.”
Just the word “literary” teems with pomp and wit, with depth, with a suggestion of superior language and intricate plotlines. Or, well, it’s supposed to. But describing your work as “literary” is akin to describing yourself as “asshole.”
So why the hell do publishers do it? Who made these rules? Why is Kurt Vonnegut—a guy who writes science fiction and literally draws assholes in his books—tucked away in the Fiction aisles, while Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, and many other necessary/canonized fantasy and science fiction authors are doomed to lurk in the Fantasy and Science Fiction aisles?
No, seriously can you tell me? BECAUSE IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND I DON’T KNOW.
Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” challenges what we know about urban fantasy, what we can recall or reread about our childhood fantasy books, just how dark and how modern and how real fables can be. It doesn’t belong on any shelf, really, but in your hands, as well as in the conversation about all fantasy. It is shamelessly genre fiction; artful, beautiful, tragic, gripping, complicated. The frankness with which is treats common tropes of fantasy is deserving of straight-forward categorization. Let’s be specific, y’all. Let’s be real. A fantasy is a fantasy is a fantasy, after all.