Recognizing The Fantasy Literature Genre


The story and the research questions



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The story and the research questions

In Le Guin’s story a sister and her brother, two talented young people separated by the guild divisions, face the limits of social tolerance of this peasant or pre-technology society. The brother Kwatewa is a sculptor who creates art in a way that manifests greed, according to the religious norms of the society, a sin that leads to his death.


The story is told through the eyes of his sister, Chumo, the story’s protagonist. It opens with a short scene where Chumo remembers her own life, recalling growing up from a child to become a respected member of the guild of barkers. She stands by the cemetery, waiting for the burial escort of her brother to arrive. In her memories she looks back to Kwatewa’s life as an artist and his first triumphant exhibition of sandstone sculptures that ended, as it was bound to end, with the wind returning the pictures to sand, back to mother earth. That is the meaning of art in this society; to create solid, unbreakable art was a sin that one could not wash away. So when shepherds find the cave where Kwatewa had hidden his sculptures, he too is found guilty of a sin without the possibility of atonement. He commits suicide.
The burial escort arrives, and in front of it the musician plays the mute flute. Chumo had made the flute out of the skin of her own mother as a diploma work of her studies in the guild two years earlier. The music is only heard by the dead, and Kwatewa alone could tell if the music was about shame, sorrow or homecoming. The story ends in this sad mood.
Even though the mood of the story is deeply sad, its style is calm and unassuming which is typical of Le Guin’s work. The characters speak simply by their acts; their inner thoughts are seldom if at all described through dialogue. The description of the community creates the strong feeling that the society belongs to the writer’s wider world of Hainian tales, set around the universe.
Despite its rather realistic tone, the story clearly belongs to the genre of fantasy literature by creating an imaginary world different from ours in so many ways; in its religious rituals, values and habits. In this way it fulfils the broad definition of fantasy; the majority of the events do not exist in our known world (Hume 1984, 21) There is no door or other entrance between Le Guin’s world and ours, as there is for example in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. In this sense Le Guin’s story ‘Kerastion’ may been described as a ‘closed secondary world’, within a system in which our known world is ‘the primary world’ (Nikolajeva 1988, 13). But although the story was chosen primarily for its because of its carefully built, divergent world, it must be noted that it was also chosen for its literary merits. Le Guin herself has said that the story is important in itself – it is not just a carrier of ideas, as a box can carry candies (Le Guin 2005).
The story proved an interpretative challenge to our readers, as their answers demonstrated. Our approach was to explore the ways in which readers negotiated between contrasting discourses in their readings – one of which is fictionally supported (and probably accepted by many within the genre’s confines), while the other stems from the readers’ actuality in which the values of individualism may be strong. The overall research questions guiding how we analyzed the responses to Le Guin’s story were as follows.
A) Individuality, family and society in the story

  • What kinds of moral code did they find in the story?

  • How is cultural ‘otherness’ handled in their readings of the story?

  • Do informants take a personal moral stand in their accounts of the story?

B) Narrative: construction of stories from the text



  • How do the readers describe the story in terms of events, characters and action (i.e. what happens in the story)?

  • Are there variations in their story constructions depending on their different thematic interpretations of the text?

  • Are there explicit discussions of the means of narration, such as the handling of plot, the ways the characters are built up, and style? Do such considerations affect the construction of the story and its interpretation?

C) Expression of emotions in the responses



  • To what extent, and in what ways, do emotions arise from the events and characters of the story? Are there patterns of identification, repudiation, or ambivalence vis-à-vis the characters?

  • To what extent, and in what ways, do emotions arise from the handling (plot and style) of the story?

D) The identification of genre, and the effect of previous reading on the reception



  • Are there explicit references to ‘fantasy’ as a genre? If not, to what extent is there any implicit understanding of it?

  • What kinds of correspondence (in terms of interpretation or identifying the genre) may be found between responses, and respondents’ having / not having read fantasy?

  • Similarly, what correspondences may be found with regard to reading / not reading a wide range of literature?

  • Are there similar correspondences with regard to science fiction readers?

E) Locating the story



  • Do readers locate the story in a ‘real’ geographical place or in some identifiable cultural space? (This question is also interesting in relation to the identification/non-identification of the genre, and the issues brought up under A.)

F) Notions of ‘good literature’ in the responses



  • Are there direct expressions on this matter, or perhaps indirect suggestions (e.g., different kinds of disappointment)?

  • To what extent, and in what ways, are such notions related to considerations of the means of expression (handling of plot, build-up of characters, style?)

G) The effects of gender on the responses


In this essay, as I have said, I focus particularly on questions D) The identification of the genre, and E) Locating the story, analyzing the texts that Finnish students produced to the three questions given above.
The Study of Young People Reading Fantasy
The theoretical background to this essay lies in the thoughts on the problematic nature of the reading process suggested by the French hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricoeur. For Ricoeur, every individual reads a text in an ambiguous way. Reading is seen as a process in which the text is seen as an authorless subject. However, in practice the reader tries to explain the text as an object in terms of its internal relations, but also as something connected with his/her own experiences, everyday communication combined with narrative suspense (Ricoeur 1981, 152). Thus a dialectic of attitudes is formed in the reading process, making it complex and unpredictable. This was shown in the way the young adults of our study tried to place the narrative elements somewhere in their own reality, drawing on their world view, their previous experiences in literature, and their common knowledge.
Here I draw upon some ideas from Kathryn Hume’s work, and particularly from her book Fantasy and Mimesis, Responses to Reality in Western Literature (1984), to describe the nature of fantasy literature as compared to other genres, and the reception of fantasy genre particularly. Hume rejects the claims that fantasy should be seen as marginal compared to the traditionally mimetic role of literature. She points out that the fantastic element exists in almost all literature, so that fantasy can be seen as ‘the deliberate departure from the limits of what is usually accepted as real and normal’ (Hume 1984, xii). In her book she goes through the numerous uses of and attitudes towards fantasy, from selective Platonian rejection to Todorovian hesitation, Christian and utopian thought, from Rosemary Jackson’s Marxist and Freudian desire to Tolkienian joy and to W. R. Irwin’s idea of fantasy as a game (Hume 1984, 5-17). Hume points out how mimesis and fantasy are neither separate, opposite dimensions of literature, nor opposite impulses in a text’s creator. Hume sees fantasy not as an isolated genre3 of escapist nature, but as an active element of literature in general: ‘[a] literary work can offer readers four basic approaches to reality, namely, what I am calling illusion, vision, revision, and disillusion. Further it can attempt to disturb the reader’s own assumptions, or reaffirm those assumptions and comfort the reader. It can also invite emotional engagement or disengagement’ (Hume 1984, 55).
The way in which the text generates certain themes in readers’ minds can reveal a lot about the role of the text in the reading process. Hume points out how many stories share more than one of the four elements of her categorization (1984, 55-58), thus addressing the difficulties and the demands the text poses to the reader. Hume’s ‘Illusion’ refers to texts where the dominant elements could be described as comfort and disengagement, whereas ‘Vision’ invites the reader to experience a new sense of reality using the disturbing elements, such as passionate protests or strong engagement with the ideas expressed in the text. ‘Revision’ expressively shapes the futures with notable didactic elements but its aim is not necessarily to confront the reader. ‘Disillusion’ demands that readers abandon their fundamental world view, the possibility of objectively observing and codifying reality, but this sometimes rather negative view may still open the possibility of ambivalent pleasure to its readers, despite the disturbing and disengaging nature of the narrative elements (Hume 1984, 59-143).
Le Guin’s short story could be classified as ‘Disillusion’ in Hume’s sense because of its realistic descriptions of the crisis of the protagonist and his community, and especially because of the way it demands that the reader reflect on the events of the story. In our study young readers struggled with the text drawing upon their knowledge and experience, and also their imagination, in their effort to enter its unknown culture and to understand the writer’s well recognized but scarcely understood intentions.. In general, fantasy is used more and more specifically and intentionally in literature, advertising and in all cultural products. In this context the identification of the genre of fantasy appearing in literature, cinema and generally in visual culture containing commercials, music videos and fan products of contemporary culture is an interesting question.
Planning this study, we expected to find differences between avid fantasy readers and those not familiar with the genre, especially in their ability to recognize the story’s fantasy narrative elements. In practice, during my career as a teacher of creative writing to adults I have learned rather soon to tell those who were fans of fantasy or science fiction from others, by their ability to identify the structures, plots and references of these genres. I have also been surveying the Finnish fantasy fans on www.risingshadow.org homepage so I had a rough idea of how young Finnish readers slowly across the years, have become better versed with the basic narrative elements of the genre and with the traditions and value systems of fandom and the discourse of the fantasy literary canon.4
As a long-time SF-fan I was also interested in the possible variations of the attitudes towards literature between SF-readers and fantasy-readers, and those who did not read either of those. I expected that avid fantasy readers and SF readers would have some kind of a shared narrative toolkit with which to analyze Le Guin’s story in an advanced manner, while those who were not familiar with fantasy would perhaps find the text more difficult to approach. I expected that there would probably be some evident differences between the two groups’ attitudes towards the fantastic elements of the story. In addition, I expected some emotional expressions from the avid fantasy readers, perhaps losing themselves in the events and in the fatal destiny of the protagonist, a young artist destroyed by his desire. Meanwhile, from the avid readers of SF I expected perhaps a relatively analytic attitude towards the society described in Le Guin’s text and also perhaps some comparisons to other fictive or known cultures. Thus the central questions in this essay are: in which ways do students describe the text in their analyses, in what ways do they interpret the narrative elements, and considering these two, is there a relation between the ways these are to be seen in the analyses and their reading habits? In other words: is there a special genre awareness among those who are heavy users of fantasy and SF?
The question schedule
These particular expectations concerning the readers of SF literature were derived from the results of my ongoing PhD research, for which I carried out interviews in Spring 2003. In those interviews of (23–70 year-old) members of the Finnish SF-fandom I discovered that people took up their habit of reading SF at a surprisingly early age. What I was especially keen to know was if the evidence of avid reading of fantasy in general and SF in particular could be seen in the responses, as well as their possible influence on the ways of reading fantasy literature. Based on all this, I organized the responses into four categories according to their habits of reading, and studied the answers through this categorization. These four categories were formed through the background questions, which were:
1. How many books have you read during the last month? What else other than books have you read (the instructions were given to teachers to say that everything should be mentioned here: cartoons, leaflets, advertisements etc)?

2. What kind of literature (fiction and nonfiction) do you prefer to read? Mention both books and writers.

3. In the event that you read fantasy literature, please mention the titles of the works you have read, or the names of writers whose works you have read.

4. Name cinema and television shows that you like.

5. Sex

6. Age


7. Residence

8. What are your hobbies?


Our primary interest was in the responses displayed within the students’ written reports. However, these background questions were used as additional information. After going carefully through the background questions, especially the responses to questions 1, 2 and 3 which asked about their reading, the following categories of readers could be formed:
1. Does not read fantasy literature at all

2. Has read some fantasy

3. Is an avid reader of fantasy

4. Is an avid reader of SF


For our readers of fantasy and SF, the term ‘avid’ was carefully chosen instead of ‘fan’. The reason was, that the background questions did not include enquiries about the special relation towards a special genre or certain authors – we only asked them “Do you read fantasy?” The term “fan” implies a special personal involvement with a media phenomenon, person, style or period, appearing as activity and networking, and we did not collect information on this in our study. However, as was mentioned before in this article, interesting similarities were found between the descriptions of avid SF readers in this study and previous studies of Finnish SF fans (Suoninen 2003, Hirsjärvi 2005).
By interviewing the students it might have been possible to find and distinguish fantasy and science fiction fans among our 81 students. According to my ongoing PhD study of Finnish SF fandom, there are only a couple of hundred active members of Finnish SF fandom in entire country so it would have been very unlikely that we would find actual members of Finnish SF fandom among these young people. And yet, at the same time, according to other studies, being a fantasy fan or media fan (fan of SF TV-series or cinema) is quite common among young. The genre has become hugely popular in Finland and among the ‘avid fantasy readers’ were some who could possibly have been defined as fantasy fans.
Previously it was mentioned that all those who were categorized to a certain category by their reading habits usually used all kinds of literature and were interested in TV-series and cinema, too. I want to enlighten the nature of the media usage of the students, so I shall point out the variety of the texts they use during the presentation of the for categories.
The categories
The first group (“Do not read fantasy literature at all”) simply comprises those students who answered ‘No’ to our question “Do you read fantasy”. Many of these also said that they had not read a single book during the last month. However, others in this group had read at least two books during the last month, and in other answers reading of newspapers, cartoon and magazines were mentioned. Books the people in this group read were selected mostly through friends’ recommendations. This is quite a typical answer: “I read very little, so it’s very hard to name any favorites. I read a lot of different kinds of books, usually books my friends praise.” In this group several told us that they seldom follow TV programs but the rest liked Reality TV, USA TV-series and movies, comedy, daily soap and animations, usually mentioned by their general title.
The second group (“Have read some fantasy”) comprises those students who mentioned only one or two fantasy titles when asked “What kind of literature you prefer to read?”, or who brought up their general indifference to fantasy.
The following is a typical answer from this group: “I read adventures. My favorite writers are Jack Higgins and Tom Clancy. I also find detective books rather interesting, like Agatha Christie and Carter Dickson [John Dickinson Carr]. I do not read fantasy books -- However, I have read The Lord of the Rings, and Murder in Elrond or something like that”.
Often the students in this category were not avid readers in general. However in this group there were avid media users who carefully mentioned names of the series, many times using the original (usually English) original title. In several occasions students also told some background information on the programmes (e.g., “Gladiator that is based on the history of Rome”). Many students also ranked the programs in different ways (e.g., “Frankly, TV-series are mostly miserable and stupid. However, there was one brilliant TV-series, Six Feet Under.”) One student says: “Equally liked are 24 and Alias, but they possess a higher entertainment value”. Students in this group brought up many films, for instance A Clockwork Orange’, Spirited Away and Finnish Lunastus. As the directors acted Stanley Kubrick, Hayako Miyazaki and Finnish director Olli Saarela. Along with these, Japanese, and also German and French movies were mentioned. So it could be said the despite these students were not experts in literature, many of them could be described as aware media users.
The third group (“Avid readers of fantasy”) mentioned several fantasy authors and titles in their reading list and/or fantasy as their main interest. The students in this group usually mention fantasy titles and authors in all first three background questions. They consume fantasy in all its forms, as novels, short stories, cartoons, nonfiction books and TV series. Some of them also mentioned some SF titles, too.
Here is a quite typical answer from a student in this category: “I truly like to read fantasy and crime fiction. For example J.R. R. Tolkien, Harry Potters, Ilkka Remes, Henning Mankell, Jack Higgins, Arto Paasilinna5, from J. R. R. Tolkien I have read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion & other stories, every published work of J. K. Rowling, the Dragon Lance series, Terry Pratchett.”
Many students mentioned also fantasy cinema in their answers. In general they were very genre-aware, and most of them were read a lot all kinds of literature. In this group the variety of TV-series and cinema was wide. Fantasy movies, TV-series like Frazier and Friends were mentioned as well as comedies in general and war literature as an special interest. One of the students said: “There is a lot of movies I like, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Moulin Rouge, Gladiator, Requiem for a Dream, Dead Poets Society, Pet Cemetery, animations”. Pure entertainment was mentioned, too: “I watch a lot of so called trash from TV”. However, daily soap operas were not mentioned.
The fourth category (“avid readers of SF”) consist the people, whose main interest in what they read was in science fiction. Avid readers of SF did read fantasy, too, and were active readers in general, Again, here is an example of a quite typical answer: “SF is something I’ve read a lot, but I like every kind of literature. Not before Sundown [by Johanna Sinisalo] was marvelous; the books of Neil Gaiman are good as well as the works of Umberto Eco, Hermann Hesse from whom I have read some books. I haven’t read much nonfiction, but I found the books of Stephen Hawking extremely interesting. J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman – I haven’t read so much fantasy, though – and Narnia and Alice in the Wonderland, too”.
One of the respondents reported that “everything despite daily soap-operas is ok” while another liked SF TV-series, comedy and action. One girl mentioned her favorite movies: Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, A Clockwork Orange. She says: “In general [I like] even rough movies about reality, or not so much about this world. And intelligence is a good feature in cinema, too.” One of the students mentions movies with quite complex narratives: Memento, Cube, Children of the Corn and 2 Days Later and finally brings up Late Night with Conan O’Brien as her favorite. The other feminine respondent juts writes a list: “David Lynch: Mulholland Drive, Coen Brothers: O Brother, Where Art Thou, Hayako Miyazaki: Spirited Away and Totoro, movies of Almodovar and Ingmar Bergman”. If one wants to make any generalizations, one could say the media profiles in this group remind the media profile of the members of the Finnish SF fans (Suoninen 2003) and the members of Finnish fandom.
Due to the small number of responses it is not possible to draw quantitative conclusions from our data. However, as was mentioned earlier, our results do generally match wider studies of reading of Finnish schoolchildren. In general, the results also provide us with a very typical profile of Finnish young adults in a country that heavily supports literature and reading.
Is there fantasy in this text?
Some definite and patterned differences did show between the four groups.
Avid fantasy readers

My expectations that avid fantasy readers would turn out to be at least relatively experienced readers of fantasy as a genre, were poorly met. By ‘experienced fantasy reader’ I meant a person with the capacity to deal with fantastical elements in the text, with the means to avoid being irritated by unexplained or weird narrative elements, and with some skills in understanding deeper meanings in the texts. As an opposite case, an ‘inexperienced reader’ probably would therefore find the fantastical nature of the text difficult or hard to understand. As this essay shows, I was wrong in two ways: the avid fantasy readers did not turn out be more experienced or aware fantasy readers. Rather, they seemed to analyze the text at a surprisingly superficial level, whereas, as is shown later in the essay, many of those who read very little or no fantasy at all were found to be able to approach the short story in a positive manner, and many of them even derived intelligent pleasure from it.


Actually, avid fantasy readers appeared to struggle desperately in trying to interpret Le Guin’s elegant story. The word ‘fuzzy’ was used repeatedly by avid fantasy readers when they described their struggle to understand the text, and most of the answers displayed strong emotions towards the text. The words ‘disgusting’, ‘crazy’, ‘gruesome’ and ‘irritating’ came up repeatedly. The following quotation, sounding almost like a cry of help, tells a lot: ‘-- too difficult – could not find the idea of it --’. These readers seemed to be really lost.
The constant efforts to find a meaning in the text were particularly striking. The description ‘Rather realistic story--’ perhaps refers to the author’s lively and careful style. However, the struggle to understand this story about a society so unlike our own present was shown too: ‘-- people in the story differ too much from us today --’. The more abstract narrative levels were perhaps noticed, but were not experienced as familiar elements: ‘It was fuzzy -- Well, I’ve never understood abstract art --’.
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