This Wardrobe Closed Until Further Notice

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


My fellow SF Novelist Rachel Manija Brown posted today about portal fantasies, and why nobody’s buying them. (Quick definition of a portal fantasy: Narnia. Person from our world is transported to another one, has adventures there.)

The inciting incident for this is a panel at the Sirens Conference, in which five agents discussed the state of YA fantasy. Apparently they get a lot of queries for portal fantasies — two of them said it made up as much as a quarter of their fantasy slushpile! — but they never follow up on the queries. And indeed, there’s virtually no YA (or adult) portal fantasy being published nowadays.

The thing we’re all chewing on, over in Rachel’s post, is why. It would be one thing if portal fantasies really were a dead sub-genre, with nobody wanting to write or read them. But apparently people do want to write them, which calls into question the assumption that nobody wants to read them. What’s going on here? Why is this type of story anathema in publishing right now?

I’d like to distill here some of the proposed answers that are coming up in the discussion over on Rachel’s site, with commentary, and see what the commentariat here thinks.

Portal fantasies are pointless because there are no stakes for the real world. I’m putting this one first because it’s what one of the agents said. What happens in the fantasy world doesn’t affect this one, and nobody cares what happens in the fantasy world.

As explanations go, this one boggles me. It’s so antithetical to the entire genre of fantasy — and, to my eye, antithetical to fiction in general. None of these stakes are “real;” the author always has to convince the reader to care about the characters and their situation. And logically, this argument would make secondary-world fantasy (think Lord of the Rings, where the whole thing takes place in an imaginary setting) even more irrelevant than portals. While it’s true that’s less popular in YA than urban fantasy is, it isn’t less popular than portal fantasy, not by a long shot. So I find it hard to buy “there’s no reason to care unless it’s connected to the real world” as the explanation.

Portal fantasies are bad and clichéd. Person falls through into a fantasy world and then has to save it, yawn. Person then comes back to our world older and wiser than they were, yawn. Etc.

Is it true that these stories are often clichéd? Sure. But so are vampire romances, cheap dystopias, and a lot of other things that are selling like hotcakes. So this doesn’t suffice to explain publisher disinterest, either.

Portal fantasies are obvious wish-fulfillment. They’re set up to give the reader the vicarious experience of imagining him- or herself escaping this mundane and boring world, going somewhere full of magic and doing awesome things there.

. . . yeah, I don’t think that covers it, either. While this puts off some readers, a lot more actively enjoy that kind of wish-fulfillment — as seen in the popularity of other types of story.

There’s no room to do anything new in a portal fantasy. So many of them have been written, the entire sub-genre has been mined to death.

I say, bull. For starters, so many of them still operate on the model where of course the protagonist comes back home at the end and this is the right decision, we have plenty of room to explore staying in the fantasy world, and that being a good decision, or a bad one, or the decision not having to be made at all, etc. And what about protagonists who aren’t privileged white middle-class Westerners? Or protagonists from other time periods? (Somebody, somewhere, is writing a steampunk portal fantasy right now.) I don’t think “there’s nothing new left” is any more true here than in other kinds of fiction.

Portal fantasies are seen as childish.

Here, at last, I think we may be on to something. Many of the portal fantasy examples people are citing on Rachel’s blog, both classic and recent, are more middle-grade than young adult (let alone adult). Also, as one commenter pointed out, portal fantasies are frequently among the first stories a writer produces, when they’re twelve or fourteen or whatever. (Probably, as I added, with a Mary Sue authorial insert character as the protagonist. I’m guilty of that myself.)

I think it’s very possible that this is indeed the brush being used to tar the sub-genre, whether the agents and editors acting as gatekeepers consciously see it that way or not. Escaping our world to have adventures somewhere else . . . it’s the sort of thing you want to do when you’re eight or ten or twelve. And, as Ursula le Guin pointed out in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”, this isn’t an impulse we approve of in adults.

But that doesn’t mean we necessarily grow out of it. Arguably it’s the impulse behind the vast majority of fiction: the desire to leave behind your tedious and familiar existence, and to step for a time into somebody else’s shoes. Somebody braver and smarter and cooler and more important than you, in a world where the impossible becomes possible.

Me, I would read the hell out of a good portal fantasy (and have a couple I may someday try to write). But — looking back to the arguments listed above, and the comments on Rachel’s blog — I want it to be fresh, to pick up the narrative opportunities most examples leave by the wayside, and to do things that can’t be done without the juxtaposition of a character from one world wandering around another. I want protagonists who aren’t privileged white middle-class Westerners. I want stories that problematize the colonial implications of an outsider needing to come save the natives from their problems, or write about different plots entirely. I want fantasy worlds that don’t welcome the main character as a hero. I want contrasts between our world and theirs that call into question our values and those of the standard fantasy genres. I want a character from one secondary world falling into a totally different secondary world. I want a character from a fantasy realm falling through a portal into our world.

(I want the book a friend and I thought up once, where King Arthur was the Prophecied Hero from another world, come to save us from our enemies before returning to his own land. And the whole “he will come back in our hour of need” thing comes true, only it turns into this problematic fascist thing where he and his people use their magic to basically take over our world for our own good. I’m never going to write that novel, but if somebody else wants to, I’ll be first in line to buy it.)

Of course, I’m spitting into the wind, here. Agents aren’t repping portal fantasies, and publishers aren’t buying them, which means that even if you write the awesomest portal fantasy ever committed to paper or pixel, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to get it recognized. But I reject the notion that the form is inherently childish and therefore not worth doing for anybody over the age of ten. And I reject the notion that because they’ve been done badly, they’re not worth doing well. Clearly a lot of people still want to write them, and I believe that means a decent number of people want to read them, too.

The sub-genre of portal fantasy isn’t dead. It’s just pining for the fjords waiting for its chance.