Recognizing The Fantasy Literature Genre

Those who have read some fantasy only

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Those who have read some fantasy only

There seems to be little difference between avid fantasy readers, and those who have read only some fantasy. In both categories, whether readers were familiar with current fantasy or not, their conception of fantasy seems quite limited. In both cases, students had read the works of Tolkien and some other fantasy novels (mostly Harry Potters), but a lot of other kinds of literature, too. In general, in the group of those who read only some fantasy the story was seen to be simultaneously strange and confusing but also tempting, as in this quotation from one student: ‘I was totally confused. -- The end of the story was interesting and fine, because you can complete the end by yourself.’

As with many answers in the other categories there was a deep need to understand the story more clearly: ‘The story wasn’t logical and clear, as good ones are. I’m lost.’ The society in the story was described as remote for the students, as one that could not be made sense of with the resources of a young adult. Even when the text itself was found to be quite an ordinary one, it was nevertheless seen as a strange one: ‘Rather average literature -- quite strange terminology’.
Not familiar with fantasy

The strongest expressions such as ‘pure disgust’, ‘the most difficult story I have ever read’ and ‘I am completely frustrated’ were to be found in the answers of the pupils who were not familiar with fantasy at all. They were mostly those who told they had read very little of any kind of literature during the last year, or generally, too. However, ten out of those twenty-three readers who had not read fantasy found the story to be demanding in a positive or interesting manner, even to be a delightful or skillful text that would make you think through its ambiguous demanding narrative elements. One student described the reading experience like this: ‘One of the best short stories I’ve ever read’. On the other hand, such expressions from other students as ‘I found the story a little bit fuzzy, first, but after reading it I started to understand it’ testified to a surprisingly open attitude towards the text. What was interesting is that, by contrast, only three out of twelve avid fantasy readers used similar, clearly positive expressions.

A considerable confusion concerning the meaning of the story, and the expression of repulsion and disgust, climaxed particularly at the moment of the skinning of the dead mother’s arm. But this particular reaction was to be seen in the other groups, too. In general the flute scene created a true Todorovian feeling of the ‘merveilleux’ – the feeling of the strange and unexplained – and in this group the readers did not even try allegorical and poetic interpretations (Todorov 1993, 25-33). At the same time they did seem to be involved in rather realistic readings.
Avid readers of SF

A common and surprising factor for an absolute majority of the answers in this whole study was the use of powerfully emotional expressions. There were some very interesting exceptions, however. I had already expected that avid readers of science fiction would be able to sustain an analytical attitude towards Le Guin’s story as a piece of fantasy using the metaphorical alien culture. In the same way, I expected the avid SF readers to find some deeper structures in the story, and to evaluate it and speculate about it. Surprisingly, this was shown in a rather special manner in this small group of avid SF readers’. Firstly: the responses lacked strong emotions compared to the answers of the other groups, where the story seemed to arouse disgust, frustration, aggressions (but moments of delight, too). The overall tone of the answers was exceptionally neutral and the answers lacked the strong emotional negative expressions of the other groups – but not emotions themselves.

Naturally, rather neutral analytic answers could be found in the other groups, as well. For example a 16–year-old boy from the non-fantasy-readers group who reads “preferably historical literature, as realistic as possible” asks in his text: “The idea of the story remains unexplained, though. Do willow, sand, water stream and blood symbolize life/death?”, and finds the story and its soft tone pleasant. However, the avid SF readers seemed to show their emotions as part of their analysis, and with them even sadness and sorrow were not just negative reactions towards the story. Rather, they set the story into a context of historical time, as in this example: “The story made me think about the perishing of the world and the theme of time made me grieve -- but all my feelings were not sad --”. Another student analyzed the melancholic aftertaste of the story: “The story left a little bit of a melancholic after taste, but not sadness. It was somewhat comforting and gave hope even though death and loss were strong elements in the story.” In a third answer, again, the story had aroused in the reader simultaneous feelings of sadness and happiness “I felt sadness and partly happiness -- it was quite touching”.
In this sense it is understandable that four out of five answers could be regarded as a meta-level analyzes of the story. All five students used some sort of philosophical or sociological notions to interpret the society presented in the story. This kind of analytic reflection was quite naturally found in other groups, too, in some form of another, except, much to my surprise, among the avid fantasy readers who seemed mostly to lack it.
However, the young SF readers appeared to read the story metaphorically, i.e., to see it as a speculative mind-game about a fictional society, without trying to find connections to real life. Instead of scrutinizing the story, plot and characters, they seemed to approach it as a philosophical, scientific or sociological dilemma. I was rather amused with this finding, for it could partially explain why flat plots, lousy characters and dizzy narratives have not necessarily been seen as an obstacle to a good SF story among its readers. It was in this group that the deeper analyses, going beyond simple description of the story’s events, were found: ‘The story tells how people have different skills and how this separates people into castes and by respect.’ One boy pondered the beliefs in Le Guin’s description of the society: ‘Most of all the story was about stability and on the other hand perishing nature of the things, it was about how in the life everything along the duties, believes and ageing [sic] finally vanish like the sand statue in the story.’ Two girls in this group also looked at the story through religious eyes, trying to use the citizens’ angle of view: ‘I do not believe that death was so great a sorrow to these people. It was seen as a natural thing, as it should be.’ ‘Kwatewa made statues in the cave, hiding from the rest of the world. Perhaps he wanted to create for himself a more concrete belief in some way.’
Then I made a striking discovery. Only avid SF readers stated that the story was ‘easy to read’. This comment did not appear in any of the other groups. The following quotation from one reader is telling, indeed: ‘It was a touching, fluent text’. Another reader struggled with the exceptional nature of the text, not because of its difficulty. He says: ‘The first impression of the story was that the story is quite strange, but the story was surprisingly easy to access.’ One student told that ‘[t]he text was good (in some parts) and reasonably easy to read.’ and another one even claimed the story was too easy, a cliché and its plot easily anticipated: ‘When Chumo points to the childhood of Kwatewa I actually started to count in my head the stories that had been built this way, and the cliché frustrated me. – You could guess what would happen next.” One of the students in this group was also rather critical towards the text, and made no comments of simple nature of the short story: ‘I did not like the story so much, but I did not hate it, either. – There has to be sound and picture before I am able to put my soul into the story.’, However, even he did not mention any difficulties in reading and understanding the text. I have no simple explanation for this and the number of the informants is not large enough to draw any general conclusions.6
Where the young adults place the events of the story
The second task of this essay is to analyze where the young adults place the events of the story in their mind. The idea of situating the ‘fantasy’ always describes our view of the world in some way, too. Throughout history, maps have shown fantastic phenomena, such as monsters, unknown civilizations, heaven and hell, as situated outside the known world: in a deep sea, underground, in the shadows or in the sky. This applies to both Western and Eastern societies, in which chaos, i.e. things outside our organized society or cosmos, has been placed outside the borders of the known civilization (Korhonen, 2005). In general, this can be related to the well known and worldwide political phenomenon of situating the unknown (often the enemy) outside of the borders of one’s world.
As mentioned earlier, reading a text involves combining the reader’s existing knowledge and previous experiences to produce a reading. In our mediated world, every mention of a place, time and nation is filled with significance, meanings and ideologies. Thus, naming a nation, a specific country or a place means naming one’s own imagined social systems and values, or at least imposing on it (Bhabha, 1990, 4). These values and social systems are reflections of our everyday experiences, knowledge, fears and hopes – even of the borderline between loathing and acceptance. Therefore, the act of naming the society in this context must mirror our picture of normality in our everyday life.
In our study, Finnish young adults situated Le Guin’s story in North American Indian societies (13), ancient Africa (8), the Far East (6) or India (4), and mainly in the past. Those who read fantasy are more eager to name a location or time for the events. The majority of those who had read some fantasy came up with such places as North-America, Africa, China, Europe and Asia, as well as different possible historical times for the events. These pointed mostly to cultures that were described as 'barbaric', ancient, or underdeveloped. In all groups half of the students did not mention the time or place of the story. However, as can be seen in the next Table, the differences were small.
1. Do not read fantasy literature

  • American Indians, Indian tribes, Africa, Asia, India, North America

2. Have read some fantasy

  • North American Indians, opposition to Finland, Religions in Africa or Asia, Hinduism, Middle Asia

3. Avid fantasy readers

  • African minorities, American Indians, South Africa, Eastern Europe, China, Ice-Age, America before 1492, Mongolia, Africa, far-East

4. Avid SF readers

  • East, Japan, Ancient great and civilized cultures of South America or Africa, American Indians

Examples of the typical answers
Clearly the differences between the answers in those four categories give us an insight into the world picture of the readers only at some level. Dividing the readers into four groups according to their habits of reading did not necessary reveal anything of the reading processes or the readers themselves, except for the obvious fact that those who read a lot could utilize their knowledge and imagination in their reading. However, looking more closely at the societies and the locations where pupils situated the story, one can conclude that they suggest an idea about ‘the others’; strangers, living in a strange land with odd manners and values, just like the fantastic creatures in ancient maps. Firstly, the places that are mentioned are far away, on the farthest possible side of our own continent or, mostly, on other continents. Secondly, and quite expectedly, the events are situated in lower, even barbaric cultures - except for only one instance, when the SF reader set the events into the ‘ancient great and civilized cultures’ of South America or Africa (my emphasis). Thirdly, terms such as ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘isolated’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘ancient’ were used repeatedly, reinforcing the impression of otherness.
Understanding the results
To understand the nature of the answers it is vital to remember that the pupils were not given any information about either the writer or the genre. Even an experienced reader could be confused in this kind of situation, especially if s/he was expected to produce some sort of analysis knowing that it would be studied by researchers. Thus it is possible that part of the strong emotional responses is actually a reaction towards the experiment, not the text itself. However, all the students filled in the question form and there were very only few answers where the student did not seem to do her/his best.
In one particular situation a group of students raised their voices in the classroom after the task was completed, criticising the story as ‘fuzzy’ and ‘impossible’. Surprisingly, opposition to these protestors very soon emerged, and several students clearly announced that they would read the text carefully and without prejudice. Deeper analysis could tell us more about this, as well as about other differences between the classes and other groups.
In general, the results question the idea of avid readers of fantasy as aware readers of the fantasy genre with special skills to interpret fantastic narration. It actually suggests that those young adults in our study who are categorized as avid fantasy readers perhaps seek the familiar narrative elements of contemporary media fantasy: unicorns, elves, dragons, warriors or heroes on their Tolkienian journeys from fantasy. However, the reason for this remains unexplained. In any case I would still want to argue that in general reading fantasy in general enhances our abilities to understand cultural differences and other people, and that fantasy literature is an essential tool in supporting individual growth7. The quotation from Jane Yolen in the beginning of this essay refers to the important role of the knowledge of myth and folk literature as a key to our culture. Knowing the archetypes of our ancient tales contributes to a ‘broadened and deepened landscape’ of our culture. According to Yolen, Albert Lavin also describes myth as a way of organizing the human response to reality, too. However, for Yolen, the most important function of myth and fantasy is its function as a symbolic language, something which child uses naturally (when a child calls a white dog “Snowball”, for example), but which opens the door to the shared belief system, a key to the reader’s own self (Yolen 1981, 15-18).
The participants in this study are young adults, and it may be pointed out that the ability to open the deeper meanings of a narrative as well as more general knowledge of literature is still only developing at their age. Following the conversations of young people on the most active Internet-site for readers of fantasy and SF,, shows how becoming acquainted with fantasy in its widest sense gives them wider knowledge, thus affecting people’s attitudes towards ‘difficult’ texts. Nevertheless, parallel to the results of this research, the problems faced by avid fantasy readers have been confirmed by the Latvian studies within this same project. However, as was mentioned earlier in this essay, the remaining studies will prove crucial for our final conclusions about the young people’s reception of fantasy. This essay concerns only one small part of the questions, and the Finnish corpus only. Still, perhaps even these modest results may shed some light on the reading event described by Ricoeur, and on the process whereby a reader, a text and the world encounter each other in an interesting, even fantastical way.
Bhabha, Homi.K, ‘Introduction: Narrating the Nation’, in Homi K. Bhabha (ed), Nation and Narration, London & New York: Routledge, 1990, pp.1-7.
De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Eskola, Katarina & Jokinen, Kimmo & Vainikkala, Erkki, Literature and New State of Culture. Research Plan for the Project ‘Cultural Rules of Interpretation in Eight European Countries’, Jyväskylä: Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, 1992.
Eskola, Katarina & Vainikkala, Erkki (eds.), The Production and Reception of Literature. A Seminar Report, Jyväskylä, Research Centre for Contemporary Culture: 1988.
Grossberg, Lawrence, ‘”Is There a Fan in the House?” The Affective Sensibility of Fandom.’, in A. Lewis (ed.), The Adoring Audience, London: Routledge, 1992, pp. 50–59.
Hall, Stuart (1996), ‘Introduction: Who needs Identity?’, in Stuart Hall & Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage: London, 1996, pp. 1-17.
Hirsjärvi, Irma, ‘Scifi, aktivismia kirjallisuudessa’ (‘SF fans, literally activist’), in Susanna Paasonen (ed), Aktivism: Verkostoja, Järjestöjä ja Arjen Taitoja. (Activism: Networks, Organizations and Everyday Skills) Jyväskylä: Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, 2005, pp. 193-214.
Hume, Kathryn, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature, New York: Methuen, 1984.
Ihonen, Maria, ‘Lasten ja nuorten fantasian kerronnalliset keinot’ (‘Narrativity in children’s and young adults fantasy literature’), in Kristian Blomberg, Irma Hirsjärvi, Urpo Kovala (eds), Fantasian monet kasvot (Faces of Fantasy), Helsinki: BTJ, 2004, pp. 76-96.
Jenkins, Henry, Textual Poachers, Television Fans and Participatory Culture, New York: Routledge, 1992.
Jenkins, Henry, ‘“Out of the closet and into the universe”: queers and Star Trek’, in John Tulloch & Henry Jenkins (eds.), Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. London: Routledge, 1995, pp. 237-265.
Korhonen, Pekka, ‘Maailmakarttojen fantasiat’ (‘Fantasy on the World maps’), in Kristian Blomberg, Irma Hirsjärvi, Urpo Kovala (eds) Totutun tuolla puolen – Fantasian rooleista taiteissa ja kommunikaatiossa (Roles of Fantasy in Arts and Communication), Helsinki: BTJ, 2005, pp. 19-32.
Kovala, Urpo, ‘Kulttisuhde näkökulmana merkityksiin’ (Cultic relation as an aspect to the meanings), in Urpo Kovala & Tuija Saresma (eds.), Kulttikirja, Tutkimuksia Nykyajan Kultti-ilmiöistä (Cult Book, Studies of Contemporary Cult Phenomenons), Helsinki: SKS, 2003, pp. 188-204.
Kovala, Urpo, Väliin lankeaa Varjo: Angloamerikkalaisen Kaunokirjallisuuden Välittyminen Suomeen 1890–1939 (Mediation of Anglo-American Literature in Finland 1890-19399), Jyväskylä: Research Centre for Contemporary Culture 29, 1992.
Kovala, Urpo & Vainikkala, Erkki, Reading Cultural Difference. The Reception of a Short Story in Six European Countries, Jyväskylä: Research Centre for Contemporary Culture 63, 2000.
Lehtovaara, Arvo & Saarinen, Pirkko, Nuorten Mielikirjallisuus. (What do schoolchildren read) Helsinki: Otava, 1976.
Maffesoli, Michel, Maailman Mieli: Yhteisöllisen Tyylin Muodoista (La Contemplation du Monde: Figures du Style Communautaire), Tampere: Gaudeamus, 2005.
Mikkelsen, Nina, Powerful Magic: Learning from Children’s Responses to Fantasy Literature, New York: Teachers College Press, 2005.
Nikolajeva, Maria, The Magic Code: The Use of Magical Patterns in Fantasy for Children, Göteborg: Almiqvist & Wiksell International, 1988.
Ricoeur, Paul, ‘What is a text: Explanation and understanding’, in John B. Thompson (ed.), Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981: 145-164.
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Contact information:
Irma Hirsjärvi

Research Centre for Contemporary Culture

Department of Arts and Culture Studies

Parviainen House

PL 35

40014 Jyväskylä University


1 I owe a deep debt of gratitude to assistant professor Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak from the Institute of English Studies, Center for Children’s and Young Adult Fiction, University of Wroclaw and researcher Urpo Kovala from The Department of Art and Culture Studies, Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, University of Jyväskylä for their many valuable comments. Any faults, however, belong to this author.

2 Still, some questions arise when comparing the answers of the avid readers of SF to the results of my PhD about Finnish SF fandom, as I point out in my chapter “Is there fantasy in this text?”.

3 In the fields of fantastic literature in general and science fiction particularly this has been brought forth in all media, but in a special, delightful manner in the editor David Langford’s ‘How others see us’ column in Ansible magazine ( In those comments of journalists, researchers or sometimes even writers who write science fiction themselves, like Doris Lessing in many of her statements, science fiction is seen simply as space opera, stories of aliens and ray guns.

4 Rising Shadow (RS) presents introductions to hundreds of authors and thousands of publications, and its 1800 registered users between 6-63 years old (but with an average age 18) write up to 4500 messages per month on 20 different topic areas covering hundreds of titles. They are typical examples of fandom, experts in the genre. Even though none of avid fantasy readers we interviewed were asked if they would have visited in the homepages of RS, it is likely that many of them do, considering school children’s active Internet usage at schools and libraries. In any case, those websites reflect the tastes of young readers, and the critical comments of ‘good fantasy’ were used as background material when choosing the texts for this study.

5 Only Henning Mankell and Jack Higgins of all these are not considered fantasy writers. Arto Paasilinna also writes SF, Ilkka Remes writes dystopic SF.

6 However, there are also some Finnish studies that already have brought up the interesting connections between science fiction literature and its reading, and I will be examining them closely in my PhD about Finnish Fandom. Already in 1962 and again in 1972 Lehtovaara & Saarinen (1976) made a survey of school children’s habit of reading. The only strong correlation in the whole study was found between boys who read a lot and those who read ‘space adventures’. Later, in the international study of young people in 12 countries, it was found that SF readers are truly heavy readers, and they are also clearly more media orientated and use media more consciously and with better skills than others (Suoninen 2003) In my work I have been able to confirm both these conclusions. Moreover, the SF fans who participated to my study learned to read at a very early age. (Hirsjärvi, 2005) I am impatiently waiting for the results of Farah Mendlesohn’s wide international study that should throw more light on the childhood reading habits of SF -readers, too (

7 In the postcolonial world that aims keeping ‘the foreign’ out (Smith & Brinker-Gabler 1997, 10) the way that fantastic literature brings strange cultures, values and habits into our consciousness is vital to our tolerance, understanding and knowledge (Hall 1996, 4). One aspect of the importance of fantasy is in its social networks, fandoms, which form exceptionally tolerant societies, where handicapped and isolated people as well as sexual minorities have found free space (Jenkins 1995, 237-243). Fandoms bring about bigger changes in our social life, forming new tribes (Maffesoli 1995, 90-91) that are triggered by popular phenomena, such as the Harry Potter novels. These new kinds of communities are created by affects, active devotion or desire towards the phenomenon (see Grossberg 1992). It could be claimed that fantasy as a genre is devoted to moral and ethical issues, practically to the questions of life and death, and this way it is an excellent tool to young readers intellectual, social and identity growth. Especially science fiction fans seem to be active, critical and aware citizens (Hirsjärvi 2005) which could strongly be seen to be connected to the utopian and critical nature of the genre (Williams 1980). No wonder that its role is seen in preventing the future shock in post-industrial world, too (Toffler, 1970). Fans of fantasy and science fiction also blur the line between real world and their favourite texts. However, they also seem to be very aware of the difference between fantasy and realism in an analytical way, perhaps guided by the symbolic ambivalent struggle between good and evil and by the constant reminders to readers of one’s limited ability to perceive the world around us (Ihonen, 2004, 78-79).

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