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Critical Reading: Finding Fantasy in Fiction

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Once again, I have the privilege of bringing you words of wisdom from another writer I highly respect. Melissa Doll is a former critique partner and fellow alumna of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction master’s program.

Finding Fantasy in Fiction
by Melissa Doll

When Kaye asked me to cook up a blog on critical reading, I thought, “Sure. I can do that. I’ve earned my Master’s Degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. No problem.”

Yeah. That was five hours and two headaches ago. Even though I’d written a critical analysis paper—which was quite scholarly, I might add—I found myself scratching my (rapidly graying) head with the stress of this new assignment.
Critical reading. Hmmmm.

According to Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, “critical” means, “Discerning, based on thorough knowledge.” Good thing tonight’s Bible study dealt with discernment, which is “perceiving with the mind,” or I might have had to look that word up, too! So, armed with those definitions, I concluded that “critical reading” means analyzing written text based on knowledge.

In the case of genre literature, critical reading rests upon knowledge of key conventions; and in the romance genre, I believe the following conventions are foundational to successful writing: 1) a convincing fantasy, 2) coded language, 3) a core story, and 4) a satisfying ending.

In this blog, I’ve only got space to write about the first convention, fantasy. “Fantasy” in the romance genre refers to the themes and locales that carry us away from our day-to-day drudgeries and transport us to exciting new people and interesting/ exotic places. Not all fantasies are positive, which explains the popularity of Stephen King (though he’s certainly not a “romance” writer!).

In her essay, “Judge Me by the Joy I Bring,” Kathleen Gilles Seidel states, “I believe—and this is a very Romantic view of romance writing—that you are more or less doomed to write certain kinds of books. You can only write your fantasies (168).” She continues, “Absolute sincerity about your fantasies is like yeast. If there is none in the kitchen, forget about making a recipe that calls for it. It is the one thing for which there are no substitutions.” Seidel maintains that an author’s fantasies determine how successful he or she will be in the popular fiction market, first by how many people share the writer’s particular fantasies and second by how well the writer conveys these fantasies. (emphasis mine)

Jayne Ann Krentz, editor of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, the book containing Seidel’s essay, agrees. “In romance the success of an individual author is not based on how well she writes by conventional standards, but on how compellingly she can write her fantasy and on how many readers discover they can step into it with her for a couple of hours (4),” (emphasis mine).

So what fantasies do I most enjoy reading, and what fantasies do I “tap” in my own writing? My first novel, My Forest Home, includes the following:
• Parents who favor one sibling over another and experience conflict
• Persons who do not “fit” in their societal roles
• Sibling rivalry
• Friendship turned to love
• Persons torn between two lovers
• Emotional abandonment and neglect
• Betrayal

When I read critically, I determine authorial “success” based on the author’s ability to transport me into worlds containing conniving antagonists, competitive women, and strong heroes with flaws. And in my own writing, success depends upon the degree to which I can make these items real to readers.

A second key in fantasy is setting. Seidel writes, “The first function of the setting of a romance novel is to be Other, to transport the reader to somewhere else (165).” She maintains, “Particular settings are associated with particular fantasies.” I love pre-1900 history, and I love American themes from earliest settlement to the westward expansion, thus the 1855 Iowa setting for my first novel.

Seidel says, “Frontier romances are full of fantasies about resourcefulness and daring (166).” Certainly those elements exist in My Forest Home. Books written about the American West will not necessarily appeal to readers who enjoy Regency romance, though both work for me. I also love tales with Middle Eastern and European locales from ancient times through the mid-1800s. It is no wonder, then, that I reach for romance covers sporting heroines bedecked in lavish ball gowns or prairie bonnets. Because of my wide personal interests, I have many setting fantasies to explore in the coming years.

Seidel further states, “Historical romance is more likely to depict poverty, violence, and rape than are romances set in the present. The reason is simple. The historical setting makes the dramatization of such perils more remote and therefore less threatening (166).”

And the heroine has to win to make the fantasy complete!

According to Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz in their essay, “Beneath the Surface,” the following is true about a successful fantasy:

(There must be) a quintessentially female kind of victory, one in which neither side loses, one which produces a whole that is stronger than either of its parts. It requires that the hero acknowledge the heroine’s heroic qualities in both masculine and feminine terms. He must recognize and admire her sense of honor, courage, and determination as well as her traditionally female qualities of gentleness and compassion. (20)

Because humans are so diverse, reading critically to determine if a writer has created a successful “fantasy” becomes a subjective exercise. What works for me may not work for you. And the degree of success may have nothing to do with skill and everything to do with the themes and/or locales involved in the story. Though I’m new to the agent/publishing process, I suspect that the fantasy preferences for individual agents/editors factors into the equation when selecting materials to represent or publish.

Hey, anyone share my pioneer period fantasies? If so, I can hook you up with a great historical romance!

Reading critically. When we recognize conventions key to our genres, we can effectively evaluate our peers, efficiently select passages for our reading pleasure, and purposefully infuse elements (like fantasy) into our own creations.
Happy cooking!

  1. Thursday, December 6, 2007 10:04 am

    Love Melissa. Thanks for sharing. PS: Love your Holiday Boarder/Title/Image/Header (whatever you call it 😀 – Banner!


  2. Thursday, December 6, 2007 10:28 am

    Thanks! You know, I figured since I’ve never gotten around to putting up my tree and lights at home, the least I could do would be to “decorate” my blog! 🙂


  3. Thursday, December 6, 2007 12:53 pm

    Love the picture/header too!

    And I love this article. It is a timely reminder that my inner world is necessary to creating stories anyone will want to read.


  4. Thursday, December 6, 2007 3:36 pm

    Love the holiday border! And the thoughts on author fantasies. Very interesting.



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