Recognizing The Fantasy Literature Genre

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Recognizing The Fantasy Literature Genre

Irma Hirsjärvi


In this study, 15–17-year-old students were given a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin to read anonymously. The theoretical background of the study and of this essay is a combination of concepts related to reception. The questions addressed are twofold: how is the text read by the students in the countries involved, and what can be read off from these responses in relation to the on‑going changes in our societies (in relation to globalization and nationality, media, values, cultural transition, and individualization)? This essay focuses on questioning whether avid readers of fantasy are necessarily conscious readers of fantasy. On the other hand the essay does reveal that a few avid readers of SF seem to be an exceptional group when it comes to understanding this given short story.
Key words:

Fantasy, science fiction, literature, reception

Background of the Study

With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and trepidant helpers, even incompetent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading the archetypal ways throughout the cultural history of planet. (Yolen, 1981, 15)

In this essay1 I present some results of a Finnish study of the reception of fantasy literature which was carried out in five Baltic Sea countries: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Sweden. The title of the project was ‘Young people reading fantasy – a study of literary reception’. The field work was carried out in schools in all the above-mentioned countries. The Finnish part of the study, to which this essay is limited, was conducted at the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture in Jyväskylä University, Finland, which was responsible for the overall project. In this study, 15–17-years-old students were given a short story to read. They were asked what the story was about, in their opinion, what kinds of feelings the story aroused, and if they liked/disliked it. The theoretical background of the study and the essay is drawn from a combination of theories and concepts related to reception. In this case the focus is on fantasy, which seems to be the most fruitful genre what comes to the responses of the young readers. Fantasy literature seems to more easily open “the richest ways of knowledge” about children’s worlds, and it seems to produce excellent responses to the researcher. The questions addressed in this research project in general are twofold: how is the fantasy literature read by the students in the countries involved, and what can be read off from these responses in relation to the on‑going changes in our societies (questions of globalization and nationality, media, values, sex and gender, cultural transition, and individualization)? In this essay my focus is restricted to questions of understanding the ways in which young adults described and interpreted the story.
The reason why we wanted to find answers to these questions was the recent interest in the readers and reading of fantasy in the Baltic Sea area. It can be connected to the increase in fantasy literature published during the last decades, including the ‘Harry Potter’ novels which have been a phenomenal success in all these countries. Especially in Finland the popularity of fantasy has become huge, even succeeding in bringing boys into bookshops and libraries. In Finland, as in other European countries, the roots of fantastic literature can be traced back to European and world literature. Fantastic stories were written in Finnish starting from the late 19th century, while translations of popular literature also made Anglo-American fantasy available to a much wider audience in the first decades of the 20th century. This contributed to the later wave of science fiction for young boys, in the mid-1950s. The popularity of science fiction in Finland grew steadily until the mid 1980s, but the rapid rise in the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien and his followers subsequently had an impact, and since 1985 more fantasy than science fiction was being published in Finland. Since then the situation has not changed much, though the popularity gap between those two – in many ways closely related – genres seems to be shrinking again.
This popularity of fantasy is strongly related to Anglo–American popular culture, including the success of fantasy in cinema, as well as the fast rising interest in Japanese manga and anime. Also there has been an increase in fan activities connected with these cultural phenomena, not to mention the number of people participating in these via the Internet. Thus, fantasy can perhaps be seen as a response to some deeper needs of young readers in a way that reflects the changes of society and the individually experienced but collectively shared processes. Fantasy, especially in the form of folk tales, has been seen as a carrier of shared archetypes, values and utopian impulses. During the last centuries folk tales and their modifications have purposely been used to mediate ideologies and in contemporary literature to reverse taboos and against oppression, too (Zipes 1988, 9, 181-183). We chose young adults as our target group, since social and cultural issues are also being processed by the youth culture they relate to. Attitudes to fantasy in popular culture become more conscious and discriminating at that age, too, along with development in taste, social skills and more general abilities in media use.
In our study, we wanted to get responses to some crucial issues in contemporary culture and in particular to the question of community and the relationship of individual desires to the idea of community. The rapid changes in today’s culture and society have made these relations unstable and consequently the questions related to the conscious selection of elements of one’s identity as well as the coherence/fragmentation of societies have become urgent issues in our time. The theoretical background of this essay lies in reception studies in the context of cultural studies, and the broader change from the idea of a passive audience to one of active, productive readers (see for example Fiske (1992, 37) which took place in late 20th century, and the parallel shift from a behaviourist paradigm towards a spectacle/performance paradigm (Abercombie & Longhurst 1998, 3-4). These changes shifted the focus from texts and their impacts towards the codes of communication, and from there to the readers and the meanings they produced in relation to those texts. Henry Jenkins (1992) has gone further. Referring to the work of de Certeau, Jenkins sees readers as textual poachers, who not only use mass media for their own purposes, but inhabit the texts like empty houses, furnishing them with their own new meanings and creating new uses for the texts, like anarchist illegal occupants of the empty buildings, to use the words of Urpo Kovala (2003, 198).
Jenkins’s study of SF fans still remains the most exact description of the multifaceted SF fandom and its activities, as well as of the complex relation of the texts to their readers. In this essay that relation informs both the general perspective and the specific idea of testing whether avid fantasy and SF readers might approach the text in different ways compared those who are not familiar to either of those genres. Even though we did not consciously seek SF or fantasy fans in this study, among our students were some whose literary tastes and media profiles reminded us a lot of those of Finnish SF fans. That suggested to us that there might be a similar genre awareness between SF fans and our young adults. However, this essay is not about fan research, nor about the networks, activities and productivity of a certain fandom.2 Nor do I describe those students that appear to be avid readers of science fiction in my study as science fiction fans because it is not likely they are members of the active SF fandom for their young age. This particularly article focuses on some parts of the wider scheme of the larger only: the young readers’ understanding, explaining and interpretation of the given short story as fiction and as a representative of a specific genre: fantasy.
The project was launched in 2003, as part of the Baltic Ring project, a more general non-academic project whose aim was to enhance the co-operation of literary actors, especially literary centres of the Baltic area, namely Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Thus this particular reception study of fantasy literature is a special contribution within the larger scheme, and its aim is to account for the phenomenal popularity of the genre in these countries. It ties in more broadly with cultural studies, and especially with previous research carried out at the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, where reception research is a major focus. (Eskola & Vainikkala, 1988, Vainikkala & Eskola, 1989, Kovala 1992, Vainikkala 1993, Eskola & Jokinen & Vainikkala, 1992, Kovala & Vainikkala, 2000). A collection of articles is to be published in English under the title Young People Reading Fantasy (work title) covering the wider research questions of this study.
In each country two fantasy stories were selected for the study. It was decided that one of the short stories would be the same for all countries, to be a piece by an international best-selling fantasy author writing in English. For that we chose Ursula Le Guin’s story ‘The Kerastion’. This is found in Le Guin’s collection of science fiction short stories A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994). The other story was chosen separately in each country and was meant to represent the local literature and language. In one sense the choice of ‘The Kerastion’ was easy, in that we wanted a short story by a well-known contemporary writer, well-established among the writers of this particular genre, with international recognition. However, it also involved careful consideration of the nature of fantasy in general and as a genre. Fantasy was seen in the project in a larger domain which includes also magical realism, speculative fiction and science fantasy. Of the many available definitions of fantasy, three are helpful in framing the way fantasy was understood in selecting the story. First, Kathryn Hume (1984, 102) defines ‘fantasy’ as “any departure from the consensus reality”. Second, J R R Tolkien (1947, 194) understands it as “the most nearly pure form” of art, characterized by “arresting strangeness” and freedom from the domination of observed ‘fact’ – in other word, a form of creation combined with “strangeness and wonder” (Wolfe 1986, 38-40). In the third, Maria Nikolajeva, who had analyzed a range of fantasy definitions, proposed that it be understood as a narrative in which two worlds, a real one and a magic one, are described, and where magical elements are used as literary devices to connect the two worlds (Nikolajeva 1988, Abstract).
In making our choice, we considered the range of contemporary fantasy short stories since the 1970s which had been translated into Finnish. However, we tried to pick up less known works of these writers in order to avoid recognition of the writer. We wanted to minimize paratextual influence on the story’s reception, so Le Guin’s text was given to the students anonymously, with no clues as to the writer or the genre. It is important to remember this when considering the responses. Finally, the length of the story was also important: it had to be short enough (no longer that 1000 words) so that it could be read, analyzed and reported on by the students during a one and a half hour session. All these clearly limited the amount of the candidates. Ultimately many elements and themes of ‘The Kerastion’ turned out to be fruitful: its society, its guild system, its religion and norms, and the tragedy of a brother and a sister. The story was not a simple “quest-story”, but a rather complex narrative. Clearly it would not give simple answers, and it was expected that some philosophical themes would arise in the students’ answers. This made it particularly suitable for the research questions we were asking, along with the themes we wanted to scrutinize more closely through the students’ answers.
The texts were read by the students, both boys and girls, at school as part of their literature curriculum. The average age of our 81 Finnish respondents in three school classes was 15-17 years. The informants had two hours to answer these questions:

  • What is the story about, in your opinion?

  • What kinds of feeling did the story arouse in you?

  • Did you like the story? Why? / Why not?

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