Thursday, November 1, 2012

Curmudgeon's Corner: Portal fantasies vs. dystopias

The Chronicles of Narnia

I read a very interesting post on Rachel Manija Brown's blog recently where she talks about portal fantasies. These are the kinds of fantasies where the protagonist steps through a portal into another world -- you know, like the Narnia books, where the Pevensie children step into Narnia. 

Apparently YA agents/editors really dislike this type of fantasy. And in fact now that I think about it, I can think of very few YA portal fantasies I've read recently. (There are older ones, like Pamela Dean'sSecret Country trilogy, that I like very much; even Pullman's Subtle Knife I quite like.) The only one I can think of that I've read recently, actually, is Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which isn't quite a portal fantasy in the sense that she doesn't step through the portal until the end of the book (although we get to know more about the world before that). (I've also read Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, but those are hardly YA, being if anything a satire of the portal fantasy.)

The argument seems to be that portal fantasies aren't connected enough to our world, that there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world. Which sort of boggles me? Because I cared very much what happened to Narnia or the Secret Country -- because the characters did; and I've read dystopias where I didn't care about whether our very own world self-destructed or not, because the characters weren't constructed sufficiently well to make me see why they cared.

Another argument (in the comments to the livejournal crosspost) boils down to "portal fantasies are really easy to do badly and hard to do well." Which I guess I can see -- I can definitely see how people would rather read a mediocre dystopia than a mediocre portal fantasy, if they had to choose, because setting it in our world gives it some resonance where you can fill out some of the details in your head more easily than in a fantasy world. (Me, I'd probably prefer the mediocre fantasy, because shoddy SF worldbuilding annoys me far more than shoddy fantasy worldbuilding, but that's a subject for another rant!)

What are your favorite portal fantasies? Do you agree or disagree with the logic of why there aren't more YA portal fantasies being published these days? Do you prefer dystopias to portal fantasies or vice versa, and why?

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  1. Can't think of any portal fantasies off the top of my head (although I love Narnia!) but I think I'd prefer a mediocre fantasy rather than a mediocre dystopia too-of course there are so many mediocre dystopias out there right now.

    1. Yay, someone else who prefers mediocre fantasy to mediocre dystopia! Yeah, I'm a little burned out on them right now...

  2. Though not YA, S.M. Stirling has written both tyoes. His Dies The Fire series is definitely dystopian, and his stand-alone books Conquistador is a portal fantasy.

    jochibi AT yahoo DOT com

    1. Stirling is one of those authors I keep meaning to try and that I just haven't gotten around to yet. Maybe this will be the impetus for me to finally get around to it!

  3. This post is very 'near the mark' for me! I wont say why but just hint that it has something to do with my own writing. I was facinated to read the reasons why publishers and editors are not in favor of Portal fantasies, and i do understand as to how the connection with out 'believable' world may be stronger than that of another world.
    I must say though that i find the entire concept of a portal really facinating, and which is present in much great literature. For example, in Harry Potter by JK Rowling we have the portkey, in CS Lewis' Narnia we have the wardrobe, in Alice in Wonderland we have the looking glass ect.

    I do still think that if written correctly, with enough intensity so that the other world is beliveable, realistic and not too far-fetched, that portals are still a good concept to have in fiction.

    1. I agree, portals are pretty awesome, and there are so many books I love that can be characterized that way! I hope they continue to be written as well.

  4. I guess it is kind of true that if it's set in another world, it'll be harder for the reader to relate to it, but that doesn't mean that the book will be a failure! :) Like you said, Narnia was a good book and the Subtle Knife was just mind-blowing! The ending was amazing and it wouldn't have been possible WITHOUT the portal. So sometimes, for certain stories, portals are necessary. :)

    1. Yes, I totally think some stories really need the portal! And that a good author can bring us to care about whatever world s/he is writing about.

  5. In my mind a book is a portal for me because I am reading it to transport myself to another "world". I do not think that a "portal" fantasy takes away from the feelings and involvement of a reader in a story...but like you said there are not many "portal" fantasy out there.

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  13. if i have to choose between fantasy or dystopian i will definetely choose dystopian....especially the one with the zombie thing...
    i love story about human race survival :)

  14. I find it kind of hilarious that they think readers wouldn't care about a world that doesn't really exist - I mean, does Hogwarts exist? And clearly, that is one example of a giant success. I know that's not considered a portal fantasy per se, but it's the same idea. I have read plenty of books that didn't interest me therefore I didn't care what happened to the country I actually live in.