A recent idea I had for a novella to write at some point involves exploring a high concept; what would happen if you could replace a dead loved one that parted with you bad terms?

I'm expressly using fantasy as a vehicle for this; making it so the grieving woman is a mage capable of summoning naive, shapeshifting 'daemons' that will do as she commands. She commands it to transform into her sister, who was in life an aspiring musician whose final words she heard from her living sister were 'You'll never play at a concert, because you're terrible', or words to that effect.

The resulting consequences involve the mage sister swinging between taking hollow comfort in her replacement sister and becoming blameful and angry at the daemon for 'defiling her memory', and ultimately dying alone and bitter because she never naturally allowed for the stages of grief.

I don't know if it's that high concept with regards to literature as a whole, but for fantasy, it's a tad on the artsy side in terms of thematic richness. My question is thus:

Are there some concepts too 'highbrow' or 'literary' for genre fiction such as fantasy? Is the prospect of rescuing fantasy from the low-concept ghetto it's trapped in feasible? Worthwhile? Would any critics buy the attempt, regardless of the content? It is fantasy, after all.

Edit: To clarify, I myself don't consider fantasy deserving of the ghetto, I'm simply noting the trend of fantasy being looked down upon in the critical community, and its effects on a writer trying to get published. Sci-fi writers who attempt more human concepts (as opposed to exploring technologies and the cosmos) often relabel their genre to 'speculative fiction', and fantasy often does the same, rebranding to 'supernatural', 'horror', et cetera.

  • Personally, I find it hard to find modern SF or fantasy that ISN'T overly high-concept, and/or self-consciously literary... Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 22:03
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    No writer should write for the critics. Writers should write for their readers. If that includes critics, then that's a plus. Critics are fickle & unreliable readers. Literary fiction is only luxury branded fiction for readers who want to prove they have more taste & status than ordinary readers. No matter what readership you believe you are writing for your publishers and readers may decide otherwise. Just focus on writing a good story & do your best. Its marketing will be out of your hands. If it's good, it will find readers.
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 1:49

3 Answers 3


Genre is largely a matter of marketing, so the question is really "What audience will your book appeal to?" There's a healthy audience for fantasy, so books are often marketed that way if they can be. If your book crosses over to a mainstream audience, it may be taken off the fantasy shelves, regardless of the content. (Samuel Delany has quite a long discussion of this very topic, in his excellent About Writing.)

I should mention, however, that it's not clear to me at all what about your concept is "too literary" for fantasy. It sounds quite typical for a fantasy book, really. Maybe not a mass-market series paperback, but fantasy goes much further than those. There's quite a lot of mainstream fantasy work that's at least as "literary" as this, if not considerably more so. Murakami's IQ84 and Wind Up Bird Chronicles, Delany's Dhalgren, LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea, Stephenson's Anathem, Beagle's Last Unicorn and Hall's Raw Shark Texts are all unmistakably genre books, all clearly high-concept and literary, and were all quite successful as well. (Or, if you want to go another hundred years or so back, Carroll's Sylvie & Bruno and MacDonald's Lillith show this isn't just a modern phenomenon).

With that in mind, you may want to do some more fantasy reading before you start this project, however. It's a pet peeve of many fantasy readers (and writers) when people who aren't familiar with the genre write things that they think are very original, or groundbreaking but that are instantly recognizable tropes and cliches to anyone who reads frequently in the genre. It's even worse when people who are contemptuous of the genre think they can use writing in the genre as an excuse for bad or lazy writing. There are many beyond-excellent writers in the genre: Compete with them, rather than the bottom feeders.

  • Very well worded. Sound advice! I actually fall into this myself, not because I think fantasy would be easy, but because I’ve always reader very slowly and don’t think I’m as immersed into the genre as I’d like to be. Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:48
  • I'm far from contemptuous of the genre; I just feared that it's a pipe dream to even try when even writers like Margaret Atwood fear to label their work as 'science fiction' due to the negative connotations of the genre itself. You bring up a good point, though; several fantasy novels cover higher concepts, it's just the vast majority I've seen... don't. I'm essentially asking if it's worth the effort to try to fight the current. I'm glad you think the answer is 'yes'. It's what I was hoping for. Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:55
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    I'm not necessarily accusing you of being contemptuous of the genre, my SE answers are always addressed primarily towards an imagined general audience, rather than the OP. However, the wording of your question suggests that your past reading of fantasy may have been, at the least, a bit narrow. // It's also worth noting that your linked article is a critique of Atwood's attitude, not an endorsement of it. FWIW the entire debate is a bit dated. While fantasy and SF were once seen as cheap pulp, literary speculative fiction is now thoroughly mainstream: Murakami, Atwood, Delany, Stephenson... Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 22:01
  • I'm aware it's a critique of Atwood's attitude, just showing that even the best of writers buy into the genre ghetto. I personally think it's a crying shame. But if you think it's on the crawl out, I'll take your word for it. My favourite fantasies come from Pratchett and his ilk; quirky and high-concept, but not too serious. I thought they were in the minority, but it seems I was wrong. Honestly, that leaves me relieved. Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 22:06
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    Yes, but you're choosing as a reference point an author who's famously conflicted about her genre categorization. I've edited my answer to add a number of exceptional counterexamples to the thesis. Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 0:20

This is a tough one to answer because the question comes with a lot of personal bias towards fantasy.

  1. I think your concept can be executed beautifully and perform really well.

  2. If your ambition is to outshine other fantasy novels out now, it may not be the best motivation, but I certainly encourage you to try.

As an avid fantasy reader and writer, I don’t see the fantasy genre as being bad at the moment. There are certainly many books, especially in the super-natural, demon, and magic space that have muddied and sometimes cheapened the genre, but as a whole, fantasy is pretty strong. I’d encourage you to focus on your work, and the people you want to impact with that work, because the cream will always rise to the top and last for decades. If your work is a part of that, that’s great, and I really look forward to reading your work! Great writers and great work rarely need to put down others to be considered worthwhile though, so maybe reward or rethink your preconceptions.

  • I wasn't intent on putting fantasy down; it's a common critical consensus. You see cases like Margaret Atwood, afraid of referring to Oryx and Crake as sci-fi despite the fact it clearly is, and George RR Martin labelling aSoIaF as fantasy against his publisher's wishes precisely because they feared that he would alienate his intended audience with the 'fantasy' label. It's this phenomenon I intended to explore. Read more here: theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/10/… Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:50
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    I certainly understand the criticism of the genre. Fantasy is hard to be considered a “modern classic” or literary, but I think my goal was more to point out that if the simple goal is to be critically acclaimed, you’re more likely to struggle in succeeding towards that goal. Classics or Literature have a few very specific commonalities. They deal with relevant social or philosophical issues of the time, they are genuine representations of the authors intentions, and they rarely reach their acclaim while the authors is living. Critics just enjoy pretending they can see it before it happens. Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:55
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    'Critics just enjoy pretending they can see it before it happens.' - love this quote. Yeah, perhaps aiming for critical acclaim is the wrong way to go about it. Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:57
  • My encouragement for you to accomplish great feats in fantasy is genuine. I think some of the best writers recognize their own skill and worth before they make their ground breaking work, but often there is “No glory in the process”, so I want to encourage you to focus on finding the art in what you do, rather then proving to others your value, because if your good, your work will silence any critic, despite the genre. Best wishes, truly! Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:58
  • Oh, I'm well aware of the glory-free process. Three-quarters of the way through a full-length epic fantasy novel, this novella is slated to be written only after I'm done with that. It's a slog with no gratification... but if it was for instant gratification, I'd be doing anything but writing a novel, right? Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 21:59

If you don't write what you want to write the way you want to write it your writing will be "sub-optimal" (read terrible). That's the official advice of several of my favourite authors to aspiring writers, don't write for your readers, don't write for your editor, certainly don't write for your critics; write for yourself or don't bother at all.

In terms of the particular story you propose; I've read this story before, you've changed the more usual relationship roles but it's still just a version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice I can think of at least three reasonably modern treatments of it that are either science fiction, fantasy or an interesting mix of both.

More generally speaking no there are no concepts too high to be successfully treated in a fantasy setting; like any treatment, of any concept, in any genre, the key is not to allow the setting to overwhelm the message.

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