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Wiscon Panel report: How To Do Good Work in High Fantasy

How To Do Good Work in High Fantasy
The Craft And Business of Writing SF&F track
Sunday, 4:00-5:15 p.m.

How do writers work within the genre expectations of traditional high fantasy? What limitations do they face, and how do they challenge and stretch those limits? It's possible to write good fiction without churning out yet another young-man-in-a-remote-village-discovers-his-hidden-destiny plot, isn't it? Let's explore inspirations and ideas for this popular but critically suspect genre.
M: Delia Sherman, Patricia Bray, Kelly D. Link, Sarah Monette

I wasn't expecting a lot out of this panel (which mirrors my attitude about high fantasy in general - but I tend to write it at times and I would like to have a more positive attitude toward the possibilities) and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of discussion (which was almost entirely among the panelists).

Following are some of the interesting things that were said.

Q: How is high fantasy defined?
Answers:
By marketing.
Fantasy that owes allegiance to Tolkien
Fantasy set in a secondary world that isn't urban fantasy
Fantasy that involves medieval systems, dragons, elves, swords & sorcery
Ursula K. Le Guin says that tone and behavior define it.
Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Some thoughts on how to write good high fantasy:
OK to imitate the core themes of Tolkien ("the individual's confrontation with evil") and his worldbuilding, but less worthwhile to imitate the specifics of a quest, elves, and so on.

Panelists talked about Jo Walton's concept of "extruded fantasy product" - fantasy that uses the rules of Dungeons & Dragons and has tidy systems of magic and no particular depth. This can be satisfying to some readers but it's better to satisfy on multiple levels. ETA: Jo did not create this concept or term, although she spread it outside its origin in the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written. See comments for more.

Techniques that panelists use to approach high fantasy:
Kelly Link (who doesn't write high fantasy but reviews it for an anthology) focuses on alternative writing techniques. Traditional SF&F prefers writing styles that are transparent or that use elevated language or create distance between the reader and the text. She prefers more experimental techniques and a writing style that itself conveys information about the world. Some techniques include epistolary stories, stories with multiple narrators, unreliable narrators. She likes it when a writer argues with herself, as Le Guin does in her Earthsea series [the later works have a very different viewpoint from the earlier works].

Sarah Monette looks at a fantasy convention and asks why it's there and what happens if it's changed? She applies realism to the story - for example, travelers get blisters and go hungry, women menstruate.

Patricia Bray is a contrarian. She takes the conventions and spins them and then spins them again. In one of her works the quest isn't for something external, it's for self-identity - "what am I?"

Kelly Link talked about current trends in fantasy: erotic fantasy. fantasy with strong good vs. evil focus that has evil priest castes and dark gods (she theorizes these mirror current anxieties about the state of the world). She considers it very important for a character to be organically part of the world the author has created and for the world itself to be vivid (Laurie Marks does both of these well).

Books Stories mentioned:
Andy Duncan, "Senator Bilbo," in the Starlight 3 anthology
Tags: wiscon
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