Can "Contemporary Fantasy" also be "Epic Fantasy"?

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Can "Contemporary Fantasy" also be "Epic Fantasy"?

1LShelby
Dez 9, 2021, 7:07 pm

So I ran into a descriptor in another thread of "epic contemporary fantasy".

I frequently see "Epic Fantasy" used as a term indicating a subgenre of fantasy that is closely paired with "High Fantasy" and most decidedly not contemporary.

But to be honest, that usage always sort of bugged me a little, because to me, "epic" is a broader term. As long as a story has a high enough wordcount and a broad enough scope, and some kind of heroic characters vs the forces of evilness feel, I'm good describing it as epic, even if it's set in the modern day.

So I'm wondering what other people think. To use "epic" to describe fantasy, woud you require a more historical "swords and armor" feel?

Have you run into any contemporary fantasy stories you would feel comfortable describing as Epic Contemporary Fantasy? Which ones? What, to you, gave it that "epic" feel?

For the authors, have you written any contemporary fantasy? If so, how "epic" was it?

2paradoxosalpha
Editado: Dez 9, 2021, 10:11 pm

Well, if "contemporary" just means "by a contemporary author," it's certainly possible to have "epic contemporary fantasy."

If "contemporary" means something like "urban fantasy," i.e. supernatural fantasy with a contemporary setting (as contrasted with portal fantasy, pre/historical fantasy, sword & sorcery, etc.) then it's usually not very "epic."

But I wouldn't argue against someone who wanted to call Little, Big an epic, and it's "contemporary" enough. It's just not what's usually meant by "epic fantasy." No swords & armor, as you say.

The Dark Is Rising did an interesting fusion of epic (Arthurian!) and contemporary fantasy elements.

My sole fantasy (so far) doesn't really qualify as contemporary or epic, in my opinion.

3Mark_Harbinger
Editado: Dez 10, 2021, 7:56 pm

My own taxonomy goes something like/begins with:

√ "Contemporary" = what used to be called "Urban", or "Low" Fantasy. Defined as taking place in a realistic, recognizable, present-day earth, where magic isn't generally accepted.
which is in contrast to:
√ "High" Fantasy. Different world, entirely.
√ "Historical" Fantasy. Same world, but not present-day.
√ "Magical Realism" same as "Low/Contemporary/Urban", except that everyone takes magic as commonplace.

Other descriptors that I think could apply to any of the above, depending on the story, include:
√ "High-Concept" = dealing with questions of good and evil, usually at both a metaphorical, external sense and in an internal sense. In the best stories, of course, it will incorporate both.
√ "Epic" = large scope of story, dealing with the fates of entire civilizations, beyond just the main characters.
√ "Dystopian" = presenting a future civilization (ironically, a book that started out as historical fantasy but carried forward into the future could, theoretically, be both Historical and Dystopian. But, it would sure confuse audiences to call it that up front, lol).

There are others ("YA", "Dark") that, IMO, are really just marketing gimmicks and have lost all independent meaning. And there are more that could be listed, too.

But I'll stop there because that's all I need to describe my intro novel, "The Be(k)nighted", which I like to refer to as *an epic, high-concept, contemporary fantasy*.
;-)

Best,
_Mark

4LShelby
Dez 18, 2021, 4:53 pm

>2 paradoxosalpha:
"The Dark Is Rising did an interesting fusion of epic (Arthurian!) and contemporary fantasy elements. "

This is a good example. When I was reading Over Sea and Under Stone, I wouldn't have said that I was reading anything "epic". The Arthurian elements were there, but it was more "this is a story that makes references to epic materials" rather than "this is an epic". That book by itself was too small-scaled for me to think of it in that way, since like Mark_Harbinger I tend to define epic or not based on the scope. But that book doesn't stand alone, and by the time I had gotten through all five books, the story really did feel "epic" to me.

"My sole fantasy (so far) doesn't really qualify as contemporary or epic, in my opinion."

That might be an accomplishment. :)

It's common for a contemporary fantasy to not be epic, because it's set in a world that is for the most part very familiar to the reader. But the further one gets away from the world the reader knows, the more effort is put into presenting the world itself, the more likely it seems to be to have it involving a wide scope and the fate of civilizations and so forth.

I think keeping a story scope smaller and on a more intimate scale, while facing the challenge of presenting an unfamiliar world might actually be harder to do. At the very least it seems to take a rare kind of restraint.

5LShelby
Dez 18, 2021, 5:25 pm

>3 Mark_Harbinger: "my intro novel, "The Be(k)nighted", which I like to refer to as *an epic, high-concept, contemporary fantasy".

So which civilizations are at stake in it? All of them?

Gary Babb, who pops by here occasionally -- usually to point out that the group is not as active as he thinks it ought to be, wrote a book that has Greek Gods and the fate of the entire planet, but it read like a quick light read, and I normally think of 'epic' stories as having a higher word count, and a bit more gravitas.

Do you think wordcount matters when it comes to "epic-ness"?

On the whole, I seem to be getting along fairly well with your taxonomy conceptually just reading through it, but then when I try apply it to unusual cases, I end up a bit stymied.

I may need an expanded version?

My debut trilogy, for example, takes place on another world, but I can't really imagine labeling anything as "High Fantasy", when it doesn't have *magic*, or at the very least fantastic creatures. Also, it takes place in a setting that isn't quite recent enough to feel contemporary, but is far too recent to feel like it belongs in the same category as the Lord of the Rings -- not with steamships and early automobiles and so forth.

Likewise my other two books, Cantata and Pavane also take place on another world, and they even have magic and a more ancient feel, but when I think High Fantasy I don't think "almost the entire book takes place in a single building".

It's like I seem to think all High Fantasy is by default epic, and therefore I need to put in a modifier to explain that I've done something different, "Non-Epic High Fantasy" or something like that. :)

The aspect that might be confusing me the most, however, is the "High-Concept" one. What exactly does "dealing with questions of good and evil" mean? Are we supposed to be questioning which is which? (I remember someone, reading_fox, I think it was, listing something of the sort in the "Why do we like the books we like?" thread. And I was having trouble with it there too. I just seem to be obtuse on this topic.)

And the last thing I'm curious about...
Why is "Dark" a meaningless marketing gimmick?
Isn't it a description of general mood?

6Mark_Harbinger
Editado: Dez 19, 2021, 10:37 am

>5 LShelby:
"Gary Babb, who pops by here occasionally -- usually to point out that the group is not as active as he thinks it ought to be, wrote a book that has Greek Gods and the fate of the entire planet, but it read like a quick light read, and I normally think of 'epic' stories as having a higher word count, and a bit more gravitas.

Do you think wordcount matters when it comes to "epic-ness"?"

........Hi L, Well, I wouldn't know what to think of a story about the fate of an entire planet which didn't also have gravitas (no pun intended).

Word count, for me, doesn't enter into it, unless you use 'epic' as a synonym for 'large'. I am reminded of Gaiman's definition of art, which is anything "large enough to stun a burglar".
~~

"but when I think High Fantasy I don't think 'almost the entire book takes place in a single building'."

........Of course I cannot comment on something I haven't read. Even then, readers have various takes on what author's do. I recall a book a friend of mine wrote and one of my comments was 'I love how you had the antagonist win...that's really hard to do well' and she looked at me like she'd never considered for a second that that character was the antagonist—Whoops! LOL.

But, I encourage everyone to look up a short essay about this topic from the woman whom I consider to be the GOAT Science-Fiction/Fantasy writer, Ursula K. LeGuin. It is called "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie". It really gets at what I think you and Para talking about. She focuses on the style of writing more so than the setting, characters, etc.
~~

"The aspect that might be confusing me the most, however, is the 'High-Concept' one."

........Well, technically, I guess High-concept means "plot-driven" (as opposed to character-driven...personally I dislike that supposed dichotomy). This is strongly associated with something that wears its theme on its sleeve (eg, "Snakes on a Plane") or having an idea-focus (referring to Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient).

I like to dig a little deeper with my definition. Just like I once heard a pastor define a sermon as 'any talk whose ultimate topic is death'...I believe when you scratch the surface of any of those definitions of high-concept, what you are really getting into is morality plays, and the ultimate topic is 'good versus evil'. But that is truly just my personal take on it. I've also been known to be completely full of stuff 'n bizness.
~~

........Finally, WRT Dark Fantasy, I simply have never heard a coherent definition that didn't carry the seeds of its own refutation.

Even yours ("a description of general mood") is precisely how something like how the subgenre "Grimdark" is defined. So, what's the distinction? Can Dark Fantasy not have a happy ending? Does the entire work have to produce that mood does it need only include a few quite disturbingly dark scenes? Does it require a certain level of violence?

Classic children's fairy tales are among the 'darkest' works you'll find. They are truly Grim (and Grimm(!)). But, you'd be hard pressed to describe them as Dark Fantasy.

That is, unless you thought you could sell more books that way.

Nor do people use the label in even remotely similar ways. Two books I saw labeled as "Dark Fantasy" (I was writing a blog piece) included both King of Shards (Kressel) and Under Heaven (Kay). Neither of which has a particularly dark mood, in my opinion.

I think the issue (FOR ME, mind you) is any definition that relies on subjective reader states of mind (eg, "horror is anything that horrifies me. thrillers thrill me" etc) becomes more of a marketing hope than an objective descriptor for the work of art.

Taking this into movies, for example, I was exposed (poor parenting) to so many horror movies as a child that I simply cannot be scared by a movie. Does that mean horror movies don't exist for me? Clearly not. I can see the difference. So, having my hand forced, I like to focus on identifying the actual, objective traits of the movie that make it that. And I try to do the same with books.
~~

Thank you for this topic.
........MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!!

7paradoxosalpha
Dez 19, 2021, 11:00 am

>6 Mark_Harbinger: That is, unless you thought you could sell more books that way.

See, this is really what most contemporary discussions of genre tend to hinge on, I fear. While there are real applications of genre in theory and criticism (e.g. using the distinctions outlined in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism), most attributions of genre for current works are performed by authors and publishers in search of specialized markets for their products. The latter motive does not square very well with the former, and most fantasy sub-genres are very much the latter.

It would be possible to create a system of fantasy sub-genres for critical use. "Portal fantasy" is one originally intended as such, I think. But it would require some ruthless regression to first principles and willingness to totally throw overboard many promotional-type genre labels. The process would tend to sidestep questions like the ones from >1 LShelby:, ruling them out of bounds on a sort of a priori basis.

8Mark_Harbinger
Dez 19, 2021, 11:06 am

>7 paradoxosalpha:
I agree. :-)

9paradoxosalpha
Editado: Dez 19, 2021, 11:28 am

For myself, I do distinguish between a largely British-written "high/epic fantasy" (for which Dunsany's Pegana and Tolkien's Middle Earth are the paragons) and the US pulp-germinated "sword & sorcery" (epitomized by Howard's Conan, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories of Fritz Leiber, and C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry). These distinctions have become somewhat obsolete since about the 1970s, at which point the transatlantic cross-pollination resulted in a more generic hybrid, although I appreciate seeing a certain "return to form" in one direction or the other.

I suspect that most "urban/contemporary" fantasy has more in common on a genre level with supernatural horror stories, and I'm sufficiently partial to the "occult thrillers" of the early and middle 20th century (e.g. books by Charles Williams and Dennis Wheatley in England, and H.P. Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn in the US) that I'm rarely tempted by their latter-day successors.

10Mark_Harbinger
Dez 19, 2021, 12:53 pm

>9 paradoxosalpha:
I like that analysis/history lesson. :-)

I also have a taxonomy for horror v. thriller v. mystery v. suspense...but, like you said, it all dissipates in the face of the gale force winds of industry marketing.

11LShelby
Dez 22, 2021, 11:38 am

>6 Mark_Harbinger: "Hi L, Well, I wouldn't know what to think of a story about the fate of an entire planet which didn't also have gravitas (no pun intended)."
You've never read anything where because of the tone, or the way the material is approached, even though the fate of the world, galaxy, or universe is supposedly at stake you can't really take it too seriously?

"She focuses on the style of writing more so than the setting, characters, etc."
I think that if the setting and the characters are strange and different, then the wilderness will be dangerous even if the style is plain and straightforward. The reverse is also true. I have in own of my music playlists a spoken piece called, IIRC, the Creature in the Crib, in which in a style reminiscent of Lovecraft a perfectly normal (if not entirely pleasant) event is being described. Using that style gives a superficial impression of danger, but once the mind cuts through that surface and recognizes what is actually taking place, the result is ludicrous. It's a comedy piece, and I keep it in my playlist because it amuses me.

But we can't say that the style doesn't matter at all. Although a Lovecraftian treatment can't turn Poughkeepsie into the Greater Abyss, if the piece hadn't been given that style, it wouldn't be funny.

Likewise, if the team responsible for saving the world had spent more time and effort in the saving of it, (and less time putting together their black leather outfits) I might have considered the story to have more gravitas.

But I would probably enjoyed it less. :)

I guess my take is that wordage isn't just wordage, its the accumulation of story. If a story just claims to have scope, but then doesn't actually spend many words demonstrating that scope, then the scope is just window dressing. Its not what the story is about, and it shouldn't be a major criteria in classifying that story.

At least, I think that is what I'm thinking. Did I manage to make sense?

"technically, I guess High-concept means "plot-driven" (as opposed to character-driven...personally I dislike that supposed dichotomy)"
It never made much sense to me either. My characters drive my plots, and I mostly just sit back and watch. :)

"Just like I once heard a pastor define a sermon as 'any talk whose ultimate topic is death'"
Totally an aside here, but my impression of my own church is that all the talks are ultimately about living forever -- but then, we don't tend to call them "sermons" either. so... ::shrug::

"I believe when you scratch the surface of any of those definitions of high-concept, what you are really getting into is morality plays, and the ultimate topic is 'good versus evil'."
"Character driven" means good versus evil, and "plot driven" doesn't?
Oh, dear. I think I'm more lost than before. I thought the vast majority of so-called 'plot driven' books were also about good versus evil: they just spend less time on figuring out the good and the evil and much more time on being versus.

"Even yours ("a description of general mood") is precisely how something like how the subgenre "Grimdark" is defined. So, what's the distinction?"
Between Grimdark and Dark Fantasy? I didn't know there was one.

"Classic children's fairy tales are among the 'darkest' works you'll find. ... But, you'd be hard pressed to describe them as Dark Fantasy."
Er...
Firstly, classic fairytales were created for the entire community, not just for children.
Secondly, I wouldn't classify them as Dark Fantasy because they are already classified as Classic Fairytales.
Thirdly, retold fairytales that retain the darker mood of the originals are exactly the sort of books I would be most likely to describe as "Dark Fantasy".

And, alas I'm not familiar with either of your blogger's examples of Dark Fantasy, so I remain confused as to what exactly Dark Fantasy is or isn't supposed to be.

But I can say that I've read a book that claimed that drawing lines and forming conceptual containers with them isn't really how the human brain naturally classifies things. Instead of deciding genres being a yes-no process, it's a really, deep down under the hood, about the degree of similarity. Most people who think they know what a genre is about will have one to a mere handful of "ur" books in mind, and they will rate how much a book belongs in that genre by seeing how closely it resembles those ur examples.

If that is so, then I think for me The Lord of the Rings is my ur book for both Epic fantasy and High Fantasy. But I don't seem to have an ur book for Dark Fantasy (or Grimdark).

...For the record, I didn't watch horror movies much as a kid, but the first one I ever remember seeing --Halloween?-- I thought was boring. Stuff that seems to be trying to scare me continues to bore me, and also occasionally disgusts me, so I generally avoid it unless it is also doing something I really like, such as adventure, romance or comedy.

But it seems really egocentric to classify a piece on what emotion it engenders in me. Surely it is the intention of the author that should count the most, and his success should be measured by how many people he succeeded with, and not just whether or not he succeeded with me?

But I don't see any harm in using subjective criteria to classify literature, because isn't that what fiction is all about? None of it is real, so what is the objective point? If it wasn't creating a subjective experience, then isn't it just a waste of time?

12Mark_Harbinger
Dez 22, 2021, 5:42 pm

>11 LShelby:
"You've never read anything where because of the tone, or the way the material is approached, even though the fate of the world, galaxy, or universe is supposedly at stake you can't really take it too seriously?"

Not off the top of my head, unless it is due to a lack of skill on the writer's part. I won't name names.

But, why would an author want that? Even "The Hitchhikers' Guide..." (as effective a comedy, ie 'not serious', a tale as you can fine) has gravitas. It seems like failing to instill gravitas under those circumstances would entail an, um, "epic fail." (Pun, once again, intended. tee hee)

I appreciate the topic and discussion! Again: Happy (and Safe) Holidays!

Best,
_Mark

13NickDuberley
Mar 17, 2022, 6:18 am

I'm more annoyed by the use of contemporary to mean modern. It is the confusion of the original meaning of a useful word so that it no longer is understood. Rather, along the lines of the present debasement of "literally".

A quick Google threw up plenty of examples of "contemporary" being used correctly, for example :-
"...the poet, literary critic and historian, Samuel Daniel is now overshadowed by his contemporary, William Shakespeare."

I realise I am fighting a losing battle, but the loss of meaning when words are misused saddens me.

PS Epic for me means a long tale of adventure and dramatic action. Modernity is irrelevant to this definition. Homer had his own contemporaries, for whom his version of traditional stories were modern reworkings.

14paradoxosalpha
Mar 17, 2022, 9:52 am

>13 NickDuberley:

That battle was lost a while ago, I think. Since some consider "modernity" to have been superseded in the last century, it is perhaps even useful to have "contemporary" mean "adjustably nowadays." I don't think it's nearly as awful as the complete reversal of "literally" to mean "figuratively" (and thus nothing at all, since usage falls almost equally on either side) or the gradual effacement of objective-case pronouns.

15NickDuberley
Mar 17, 2022, 5:56 pm

Perhaps we can choose to use modern to mean something else as it is now no longer needed since contemporary is to be used instead. I suggest anything between 20 and40 years old is now called modern.