WaterhouseAlthough there are some members of my family who value a good novel now and again, there’s still an underlying current of distaste, embarrassment, and outright disrespect when it comes to the genre of fantasy. It’s as if people can accept that I’m a writer, and that’s well and good–when I wrote an essay, a non-fiction essay about my family, people practically lined up to get copies, tripping over themselves to read what I’d written. But when it’s the work I spend the bulk of my time on, the fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk stuff, well… let’s just say the volunteers aren’t exactly queued up around the block.

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, though, let me back up a moment. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of people who have read my writing, mostly non-fiction essays and the occasional poem from college. It’s just that it irks me when individuals, not just in my family but in the larger circle of literary critics/publishers, dismiss works that are overtly fanciful with no other reason than well, it’s hard to understand.

Yes, there is a heap of terrible fantasy writing out there (as well as any other genre, I should point out). And for some reason, bad fantasy and bad science fiction seem to be exponentially worse than, say, bad historical fiction (this, I am certain, has to do with cover art in many respects).

But no one should treat fantasy as a single flavor of novel because, at least in my view, fantasy writing is as dappled, diverse, and unfettered as any genre out there. Magic or no, elves or no, dwarves and fairies or no, fantasy writing can take you anywhere. Things to avoid? I happen to think that (although I have a soft spot for them myself occasionally) there are too many dragon stories. There are also too many orphan stories. And too many main-character-discovers-his-great-powers stories.

There are, however, too few believable female heroines (especially the sort who would wear actual armor, rather than iron-clad bikinis). There are too few believable worlds, worlds which breathe their own character into tales. There are too few consequences when it comes to magic. And of course, there is simply too much in the way of the line between good and evil.

To take fantasy writing through this next century, fantasy writers need to examine their motives. We need to look into our collective crystal balls and ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing and why, above all, we tell these stories. Because fantasy writing stems from the oldest literary traditions–the myths, legends, and religious texts of the ancients–it has a power over the human consciousness. One need look no further than World of Warcraft to see how much impact a fantasy world can have on (MILLIONS of) people.

Fantasy writers ought not forget the power and the responsibility we have in opening the eyes of others to words never before conceived of; we must also understand the line of ancestors before us, who’ve paved the way. It’s not something to be taken lightly, I don’t think; fantasy fiction that’s taken lightly often ends up laughable, cliched, and painfully hokey.

So yes, it’s taken me 500 words or so to say it, but here’s the thing: I write fantasy because it speaks to me. The decisions I have made in my life can all be traced back to a love of literature, and especially literature that took me somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with our Earth, of course; it’s a lovely place. But the weird, the wonderful, and the wild of fantasy literature is, to me, one of the most delightful paths to tread. When I let my imagination go, I don’t visit France or Morocco or Tunisia: I go to Arda, to Narnia, and the thousands of other unseen worlds, just under the surface, their reflections shimmering in In Between.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I just like to make my own rules.

William MorrisFiction is curious. In the last century or so, it’s seen more movement and change than ever before, morphing and shifting as culture, philosophy, religion, and expression continue to influence writing.

I mean, fiction wasn’t even a viable means of writing at all for many centuries. Sure, there’s allegory and myth, legend and religious writing–but the concept of alternate worlds, horror writing, romance novels, these are all concepts we’ve accepted now as fairly standard.

So, I’ve been wondering about steampunk writing. In fact, I posted about it to the Brass Goggles forum last week, wondering what people thought: is steampunk writing an offshoot, or its own genre? I tend to think it’s growing into its own genre, even as a subsidiary of its cousin cyberpunk. It either will represent a new genre, or it will prove that, perhaps, genre writing is dying itself.

Why do I say this? Well, I think that, more and more, books are failing to adhere to the expected. Horror blends with fantasy blends with mystery blends with science fiction. Take something as mundane as Harry Potter–it’s part mystery/part fantasy/part bildungsroman. Take away any of those elements, and you make for a boring, unmarketable piece of writing that surely wouldn’t have spawned a multi-billion pound empire. Even big “fantasy” writers like George R.R. Martin adapt history, intrigue, mystery, to come up with something else entirely.

No, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a glossy “Steampunk” section pop up at Barnes and Noble any time soon. But I don’t think compartmentalization is the right way to approach any emerging writing. When Tolkien published his Rings books, many people simply didn’t know what to do with them. But he wasn’t the first! In fact, William Morris was at it half a century before (if you’re really intrigued, you can read the whole text of The Well at the End of the World online), writing “fantasy” worlds. It just didn’t catch on in his time.

I guess I’m just cautiously optimistic about where steampunk is going to go in the next few years. Will it go the way of Tolkien? Or a less-traveled? As an internet phenomenon, and already at the brink of the digital text age, it’s an intriguing question. Already, magazines like Steampunk Magazine are available completely in digital format.

So, I wonder: what do you think?