Core Collections in Genre Studies: Fantasy Fiction 101

Article excerpt

The second edition of the Reading List, RUSAs juried selection of the best genre books in eight different categories, was announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting this past January. The winning titles showcased the rich pleasures that genre books offer readers. To celebrate the creation of the Reading List and to highlight the importance of genre fiction in library collections, I instituted an "Alert Collector" occasional series on genre fiction. The first column in the series focused on romance fiction. This second entry focuses on fantasy fiction.

Fantasy fiction is, like much of genre fiction, at the center of a storm. Motifs, approaches, and styles that were once its sole domain have spread out and entered other genres. Today it is often difficult to decide if a book is a fantasy or a horror or a romance title. To the dismay of some purists, sometimes it is even hard to tell fantasy from science fiction. Forms are changing, genre lines are blurring, and new spin-off genres are appearing. The richness of this genre world offers readers great new frontiers to explore, but it can be a bit of a headache for librarians trying to build collections, work with readers, or even shelve titles in the most useful manner.

To help us get our bearings in this fabulously rich stew of books, I asked the Adult Services staff at Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) to look at the genre and map it out for readers and librarians alike. I thought of WRL because several of the staff there are known in readers' advisory circles for their knowledge of fantasy fiction and their appreciation of genres in general. Charlotte Burcher, who wrote the "Historical Fantasy" section, reads broadly in adult and young adult fantasy She is a member of WREs Looking for a Good Book team and a regular blogger on fantasy titles at Blogging for a Good Book. Neil Hollands, who wrote the "Literary Fantasy" section, is the author of Read On ... Fantasy Fiction (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) and coordinates WRI's Looking for a Good Book service. He writes for Booklist Online's Book Group Buzz blog and reviews fantasy titles for Library Journal. Andrew Smith, who wrote the "Realistic Fantasy" section, is readers' services librarian at WRL, where he implemented the library's Gab Bags collection for book discussion groups and coordinates the library book groups and author visits. He is a contributor to the NoveList readalikes collection and develops reading lists as part of the WRL Looking for a Good Book team. WRL Adult Services Director Barry Trott, who wrote the "Epic Fantasy" section, is series editor for Libraries Unlimited's Read On series and author of Read On ... Crime Fiction (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). He also writes for NoveList and edits the "Readers' Advisory" column in RUSQ. Jessica Zellers, who wrote the "Paranormal/ Urban/Contemporary Fantasy" section, is electronic resources librarian at WRL. She is completing her first book on women's nonfiction for Libraries Unlimited and is a regular contributor of readalikes and articles to NoveList.--Editor

Fantasy is one of fiction's largest and fastest growing genres. While there are many definitions, a generous approach to the genre includes any work that contains magic or other elements that cannot be understood by the rules of reality It also includes largely realistic works set in imagined variations on certain historical periods--the medieval era in particular.

Although fantasy does have escape value and is enjoyed by many readers for exactly this reason, it is a mistake to think of this as the genre's only appeal. The best fantasy fiction features a wonderful blend of action, strong characters, and detailed, atmospheric settings. Classical themes such as honor, love, war, revenge, responsibility, otherness, obsession, and loyalty are explored in fantasy tales. Subjects such as bigotry, greed, religious extremism, politics, abuse, and addiction can be examined in fantasy contexts without offending cultural sensitivities. …