Yesterday there was a fascinating discussion of portal fantasy, in which a character from our world is transported to another world. The classic example of this is Narnia. I can’t link to the post, because it was filtered (the “portal fantasy” discussion was in the comments) but I offered to make a public post on the subject. I invite the participants to copy their comments to it.

There was a Sirens panel in which five agents, who were discussing their slush piles, mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total fantasy submissions.

I said, "This intrigues me, because I haven't seen a single one in the last ten years. Is it that editors aren't buying them? Did you pick any up?"

The agents replied that none of them had even requested a full manuscript for a single portal fantasy.

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn't fall through the portal, there would be no story.

Of course, this is the key quality that makes a portal fantasy a portal fantasy. England was not at stake in the Narnia series, Narnia was. If the kids hadn't gone through the wardrobe, there would indeed be no story. Nor was Narnia tightly connected to England: the kids were from England and that was important, but the story was all about Narnia.

The agents added that nothing is absolutely impossible to sell, and one said that she had a middle-grade fantasy which had portal elements. But overall, they were not enthused.

In the filtered discussion, several people confirmed that it isn’t just that agents won’t even take a look at portal fantasy manuscripts; almost no editors are willing to buy them, either. Presumably, this is why agents don’t even want to read them.

Agents and editors: Is this correct? If so, why? The obvious answer is that they don’t sell to readers… but normally, you know that because they consistently fail to sell. In this case, there seem to be none published at all.

This puzzles me. It is rare for a genre or subgenre to become absolute anathema, as opposed to merely unpopular and comparatively rare. Usually, it takes a string of spectacular and well-publicized failures for that to occur, and I’m not aware of that happening with portal fantasy.

The fact that agents are getting a large number of submissions suggests to me that there might be a market. After all, writers are interested in portal fantasy enough to write it. It’s possible that only writers, and no other readers, are interested. But that seems a bit unlikely. This isn’t some extremely metafictional or otherwise of-interest-only-to-writers form, but a subgenre to which a number of classic, in-print fantasies belong, and one which was reasonably popular up until about fifteen years ago.

However, it’s impossible to tell if it’s really anathema among readers, because there’s almost none that’s new for them to read. (Curiously, the most recent exception I can think of, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, is quite successful. It is, however, like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, middle grade. The only other recent one I can think of is Hiromi Goto’s Half World,, which may also be middle grade.)

As I said, I am puzzled. I can understand “unpopular.” I am bewildered by “absolutely not.” Urban fantasy is huge now, and high fantasy is doing well in adult fiction and is at least acceptable in YA. Books about magical creatures already in our world are desirable. Books about magical creatures traveling to our world are fine. Books about humans who are native to a magical world are okay. But books about humans traveling to a magical world are verboten. Why are portals into our world fine, but portals out bad? Is it because leaving our world might be considered escapism?

As another commenter noted, there is little YA which involves space travel or takes place on other planets, either. The closer the setting is to our world, the better. Dystopias are our world, but worse; ditto most post-apocalyptic novels. Urban fantasy is our world, with added magical creatures or powers. Maybe the lack of portal fantasy is a metaphor for the belief that modern teenagers don’t want to travel to strange new worlds, even in their reading.

There are also arguments that the subgenre is inherently bad or flawed. I won’t get into too much detail on these, because someone is going to make a case for that in comments. Instead, I will make a brief “pro” case:

1. The Secret Country, by Pamela Dean and Coraline by Neil Gaiman, in which the fantasy world is a twisted reflection of the protagonists’ real or imagined worlds – a story that can only be told by them traveling to the other world. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones. (Only $4.99 on Kindle –fabulous book, and one which could only be written as a portal fantasy. No portal, no story.) The Silent Tower (The Windrose Chronicles) and The Time of the Dark (The Darwath Series) by Barbara Hambly – neither bestsellers nor classics, but books which I love very much. The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 1), by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials.

Also, The Matrix is not only a take on portal fantasy, but riffs on a classic portal fantasy, Alice in Wonderland.

Neverwhere and Harry Potter merge urban and portal fantasy, as does the Percy Jackson series.

These are all good books in which the portal is essential to the story. In many cases, the story depends entirely on the protagonists not being from the fantasy world, in a way for which merely being from a different part of the fantasy world would not compensate. Many of these are books which are in print, read, and enjoyed to this day. Why shouldn’t there be more of them?

2. Many arguments against portal fantasies sum up to “they can/often are done badly.” This is true of every genre.

For instance, they can be wish-fulfillment. But in what way is every “A girl learns that she has special powers and must choose between two hot boys” urban fantasy not wish-fulfillment? And since when has wish-fulfillment been banned from fantasy? Just because something is wish-fulfillment doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable, is badly written, or shouldn’t exist. Also, they are not always wish-fulfillment. They can be, and that can be part of the charm. But many are more complicated, and in some, the other world is outright horrible.

Similarly, they can be pro-colonialist metaphors in which a kind foreigner must save the helpless native people. But they don’t have to be. That is especially unlikely to be the case in stories in which the stakes are smaller and more personal than “save the world.”

One could argue that the concept has been so over-done that all subsequent books have nothing of interest to offer. But the same could be said of stories about vampires, werewolves, fairies, dystopias, apocalypses, teens with psychic powers, teens with magic powers, ghosts, superheroes, dragons, princesses, destined loves, angels, and every other staple of the market.

3. Or perhaps they’re fine for children’s books, but anathema for YA. Harry Potter, Coraline, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, and The Golden Compass are OK because they’re middle grade, but YA portal fantasy is unsaleable. This baffles me. Why?

4. I enjoy them. Writers are still writing them. At least some readers still want to read them. Why not publish a few, and see if some catch on?

I’m frustrated with the lack of faith in teenagers, the lack of belief that they might try something a bit different from the latest dystopia/vampire novel/werewolf novel. Just because something is unusual or out of the received wisdom of what readers are interested in doesn't mean it won't sell. Sometimes it sells like Krispy Kremes.

I'm concerned that fixed ideas of what does and doesn’t sell have overridden other questions, like, "Is this a well-written book? Is this a fun book? Did I enjoy reading this book?"

If you ask that set of questions, you buy Harry Potter. If you ask, "Is this a disguised portal fantasy? Do American kids care about British boarding school stories?" you will pass it by.
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londonkds: (critical)

From: [personal profile] londonkds


Interesting that of the three most recent to make a name: "Coraline", "Un Lun Dun" and "Fairyland", the first two were by big name authors whose publishers probably didn't want to risk pissing off by rejecting a book, and the third was initially self-published by someone who had enough online cred to succeed with that.

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londonkds: (Default)

From: [personal profile] londonkds


I'm not sure "Coraline" is quite the same subgenre as most portal fantasies: the otherworld is so claustrophobic and so based on the protagonist's life that it's more psychodrama than secondary world.

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From: [personal profile] staranise - Date: 2012-10-16 08:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
dandelion_salad: (Default)

From: [personal profile] dandelion_salad


I don't get the criticism that it's not connected enough to the real world, but a story set in a fictional world where the protagonist didn't go through a portal to get there is? Is it because if the protagonist can come straight home at any time, there is no dramatic tension? But it seems like in most portal fantasies the door is only open intermittently and much of the story is about getting back and how the adventure changes the person. This seems like a pretty big trope to rule out, one that brought us The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz. And A Wrinkle in Time too, right? Swiftly Tilting Planet? I guess they're middle grade books, but they are SO beloved...

If it's popular on TV, I would think there's a market for it in books. What is the Tardis if not a portal to another world? I've been reading all the time travel I can get my hands on - I'm not a young adult reader anymore but I have always loved the idea of stepping from one world into another. And there's a mini-series I loved called Lost in Austen where the protagonist steps through a door into the book Pride and Prejudice and gets stuck there watching her presence change the story. Gosh, I think all of fiction is stepping through a portal - either the protagonist does it or the reader does. Must be one of those fashion trends like when casting directors get tired of hearing a particular song and put it on a DO NOT SING list.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Ohghod, I totally missed Doctor Who is portal fantasy, but it totally is. And that's a really good point about all fiction being a portal, in and of itself, too.
Edited Date: 2012-10-19 09:08 am (UTC)

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


....wow, the LJ comments for this post sort of got dragged really off-topic. That's a shame.

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recessional: a line drawing of a small yellow chick with a tea-bag with the words "No Tea, No Work" (personal; look it's really quite simple)

From: [personal profile] recessional


One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn't fall through the portal, there would be no story.

I do not get this, as an objection. It seems nonsensical. Of course if the protag didn't fall thru the portal there'd be no story. And if Bilbo hadn't picked up the Ring, there'd've been no story. If Mr Bingley hadn't moved to Pemberly there'd've been no story. If the snake hadn't convinced Eve she wanted an apple there'd've been no story.

That just seems so . . . duh?
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)

From: [personal profile] cofax7


I know! That just... doesn't compute. Basic failure of logic there.

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Also someone mentioned over on the LJ post sf portals as opposed to fantasy portals -- would Avatar count? Hmmmm.
gehayi: (storyteller (yuki_onna))

From: [personal profile] gehayi


One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn't fall through the portal, there would be no story.

I think that the agents are tacitly saying that kids can't possibly relate to the problems of people who don't exist in the real world. Which...way to quash both the fantasy and the science fiction genre, twatwaffles. Kids and adults don't seem to have any problems relating to people from fictional worlds...and why WOULD they?

Obviously, I would never make a good agent. My first questions about a book would be, "Does it tell a good and compelling story? Is it well written? Will people buy it?"
movingfinger: (Default)

From: [personal profile] movingfinger


We should start a betting pool on when someone's going to self-publish (as an ebook, of course) a classic portal fantasy, using well-established tropes with just enough creativity and crack to be potent à la Harry Potter, that goes big-time virally and catches all these agents (and marketers, if that's really part of this) with their pants down. Bonus for guessing how many rejections the author will have collected before going to DIY.
misstwist: (Default)

From: [personal profile] misstwist


Ugh. This is disheartening because portal fantasy is one of my favorite genres along with alt history. It started with "The Wizard of Oz" for me and it's been a life long love affair.

EDIT: Those Terry Brooks "MAGIC KINGDOM" books were popular, right? I remember reading them as a teen along with some of Pratchett's Discworld novels.
Edited Date: 2012-10-17 03:53 am (UTC)

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kore: (lumina book - Bram Stoker's Dracula)

From: [personal profile] kore


Also, plug for a favourite forgotten book: Steven Millhauser, way before he got semi-famous, wrote a lovely portal fantasy called From the Realm of Morpheus, in 1986. http://www.amazon.com/From-Realm-Morpheus-Steven-Millhauser/dp/0688065015 I snapped up a copy in the mid-eighties and sadly it still seems to be hard to find -- hasn't even been rereleased as an ebook. It was definitely adult, not YA.

Didn't Borges write at least a couple of library-as-portal stories?

From: [identity profile] fmanalyst.livejournal.com


Something that strikes me is how popular they are (or have been) in manga and anime. Escaflowne and Inu-Yasha come immediately to mind, as well as older stories. But are there newer ones, or it is the genre outdated in anime and manga as well?

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Good question. I haven't been keeping up with recent anime and manga. There's Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden, but that's a sequel to the older Fushigi Yuugi.

Bleach continued to be popular when it went, fairly early on, from urban fantasy to portal fantasy. (Soul Society.)

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From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_profiterole_/


I am baffled. I just can't see why they wouldn't want portal stories. What comes to mind right now is the 6-book series The Last Rune by Mark Anthony. Admittedly, I found it a bit slow, but there was some nice m/m in it. You already mentioned His Dark Materials.

And it's really interesting that you mentioned Harry Potter because I always wonder how to classify it. It's YA, okay, but beyond that, is it more heroic fantasy (the magical world looks a bit ancient, there are elves...) or urban fantasy (Harry lives in our world, he has powers...)? It doesn't really fit any category.

From: [identity profile] stardustmajick.livejournal.com


I really don't know if I would personally classify Harry Potter as a portal story, especially not going by the guidelines listed above. I guess there's a portal (Platform 9 3/4) but the story would still exist without the portal. The Wizarding World visits Harry numerous times in the Muggle World prior to him going to Hogwarts. And the Muggle World is by no means unaffected by events in the Wizarding World. Even if we take the first book out of context of the remaining 7, Wizarding celebrations are commented upon by Muggles, and in Voldemort's reign Muggles were targeted and killed. The fate of the Wizarding World directly impacts the fate of the Muggle World. I would definitely consider it more urban fantasy.

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From: [identity profile] writingpathways.livejournal.com


Okay, no expert or anything but reading the reasoning you got from others... the main thought that jumped into my head was...

If it's not about Us/Earth/This World it can't count because We are all that matters... make it about this world only: It has to be egocentric about us as humans... how or why that happened, beats me...

I think you can a very human story on a world of cats.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


No wonder I haven't seen any. I loved them as a kid, and would at least look at them if any were published now.

From: [identity profile] blackhanddpants.livejournal.com


Uh, don't Once a Princess and Twice a Prince count? I loved those, they're recent, and they're definitely NOT MG.

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From: [identity profile] aeriedraconia.livejournal.com


I don't like portal stories much and have been glad not to see many of them.
One of my main dislikes about portal stories is that the endings disappoint or flat out suck because:
-They end up with the modern character having to return back home and everything they've accomplished in portal land is rendered pointless because he/she doesn't get to stay part of portal land.
-It all turns out to be a dream.
-Portal stories are an excuse to drop modern slang, attitudes and or science into usually a less advanced fantasy world.
-Modern character can't stay in portal world or the balance of every living thing will be thrown off and both worlds will DIE!!!(This also often involves a destined but doomed couple in twu wuv).
-I just don't like them.

One of the few portal stories I did like happened to be a manga series called From Far Away.

From: [identity profile] mme-hardy.livejournal.com


I think that we have different ideas of what a novel is for. I think that it is a valid novel (and a valid YA novel) if the main character grows and changes but the world is essentially unchanged. Even though you have the trappings of "save the cheerleader, save the world", the quest is as much about who you become while saving the world.

-They end up with the modern character having to return back home and everything they've accomplished in portal land is rendered pointless because he/she doesn't get to stay part of portal land.

I've never seen one of those. I have seen "modern character fixes portal land, then decides to go back home." So the work remains, even if the modern character doesn't see it. I've seen novels I liked where the character said "I have helped fix your problem, but if I stay here I will never mature in my own world, or solve the problems in my culture." I think this has happened in some of Diane Duane's Young Wizards books, but I can't give a cite. It certainly happens in Peter Pan.

In TV, Doctor Who is pretty much the ultimate portal character: he drops in on situations, fixes them, then moves on without a backward glance. Similarly, his companions drop in on his life for awhile, then move on. For those who like the series, this is immensely satisfying; people don't tend to demand "But what happened on that world 100 years down the pike?"

-It all turns out to be a dream.
Agreed on hating those.

-Portal stories are an excuse to drop modern slang, attitudes and or science into usually a less advanced fantasy world.

They sure are, in a bad portal story. But so are a lot of pure fantasies. In particular, the feisty heroine who disobeys all the social rules on women's roles and gets away with it is ubiquitous.

-Modern character can't stay in portal world or the balance of every living thing will be thrown off and both worlds will DIE!!!(This also often involves a destined but doomed couple in twu wuv).

And now we get back to the question about whether it's about the character's journey or the character's goals. A character can successfully do what has to be done in the portal world, but regret leaving it. I don't remember seeing that gimmick where it wasn't a lead-in to a sequel, at least not since Narnia.

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Portal fantasies

From: [identity profile] ext-1796833.livejournal.com - Date: 2013-05-11 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand

Re: Portal fantasies

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ext_17983: Photo of an orange tabby curled up and half asleep (Writing)

From: [identity profile] juushika.livejournal.com


The Wildwood Chronicles is a Neverwhere-esque urban/portal fantasy mix; also middle grade. Is Un Lun Dun also middle grade? I think so.

I can't think of a modern single YA example, either—and while it's not something I'd realized before this post, and while it's a genre I can find problematic (mostly for the anti-Fairyland need of every portal fantasy protagonist to spend their entire journey trying to get home), I can't think of any established and successful genre that I would want to see blacklisted.

From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com


And come to think of it, both Neverwhere and Stardust are portal fantasies where the character does get to choose to stay in the alternate world.

From: [identity profile] fadethecat.livejournal.com


Huh. Now I'm wondering if the effective ban is on two-way portal stories (Go to magical land, have grand adventures, go home) or on one-way portal stories as well (Go to magical land, have grand adventures, which are significant because you are never coming home). I can see a lot of ways in which portal fantasies can easily fail, but none of them are inevitable.

But. Huh. Okay, so. Working in slush for a magazine, there are certain types of stories that could be done well, but I've seen so often done wretchedly in the slush that I am pretty turned off by the entire type of story the instant it appears. (Hapless artist encounters actual embodied muse. Wicked man is wicked at length, comes to ironic end. Preteen boy in post-apocalyptic setting confronts the monster all the adults warn him against.) They have a lot of easy failure points because of their nature, and SO MANY hit those points...any time I see one, I am on edge immediately, waiting for the inevitable fall into one of those damn flaws.

So. If agents are getting deluged with portal fantasy of which the vast majority is failing in the same easy ways (colonialist apologism! no reason for the protagonist to care about any of this! predictable cheap chosen-one setup!), maybe it's the same burn out. They always see portal fantasy failing in the exact same way, and so any portal fantasy that comes up that is maybe just weak in one of those areas hits the "Oh god, not again" buttons immediately.

...but then, agents get lots of terrible submissions for every subgenre. So I'm not sure if that explains it. But after reading slush for a while, and seeing how I cringe at every "This is clearly a D&D setting" or "God, another hapless artist, I bet his muse is just around the corner" setup, maybe they are flinching in the same way at every "Oh god, another lonely kid who falls through a portal and is suddenly Special" setup they see. I dunno.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Now I'm wondering if the effective ban is on two-way portal stories (Go to magical land, have grand adventures, go home) or on one-way portal stories as well (Go to magical land, have grand adventures, which are significant because you are never coming home).

Since I have not seen any YA examples of either in years and years, I'm assuming it applies to both.

Yeah, there are some obvious ways portal fantasies can be terrible. I just don't see them as being inherently more terrible than than the bazillion terrible iterations of "my supernatural boyfriend," "naive white girl in one-note dystopia," "I just discovered that I have magic/psychic powers," etc.

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From: [identity profile] slrose.livejournal.com


Ryk Spoor's Phoenix Rising (ebook available now, official print date 11/6) is a secondary world fantasy, but there is a secondary character that is from Earth, so you get to see natives reacting to a portal fantasy character.

From: [identity profile] jamieson ridenhour (from livejournal.com)


I don't think it's accurate to say (as the agents you cite did) that portal fantasies have no connection to the real world--at the metaphorical level they almost always do. Coraline's fantasy world works as a trap because of what's going on in her own life. The smog-thing antagonist in Un Lun Dun is a reflection of environmental issues in London. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's frame story is the evacuation of London during the blitz--no way a story about a green and rich land being held in wintery thrall by a totalitarian usurper isn't connected to that, never mind the heavy-handed Christian allegory.

That always seemed to me the point of portal fantasy. The characters return to their own world stronger, more capable, better able to grasp/handle their old lives. Surely that's useful/important.

From: [identity profile] londonkds.livejournal.com


The other interesting thing about Un Lun Dun is its explicit rejection of the "one trip to the otherworld per lifetime" thing as small-minded and reactionary.

From: [identity profile] auriaephiala.livejournal.com


I loved portal books, and I wish there were more good new ones published.

One of my favourites was Andre Norton's Witch World series. In that one, the hero left this world for good, burning all his bridges, and saw the new world as a haven where he had to fit in and contribute in order to survive. And he was there for good, rather than losing everything he did at the end of the book.

I think they can be written in an interesting way, using the familiar viewpoint to explain the strange, and I don't see why they should be anathema.

From: [identity profile] mme-hardy.livejournal.com


I have seen really good work done with "Okay, you like the portal world, but are you ready to commit?" Whichever decision the character makes, if the books are well written, there are real stakes, and real losses on both sides. Lev Grossman's Magician books are addressing this; admittedly, they are adult novels and quite intentionally meta-novels, examining the tropes of the boarding-school book and the alternate world.

I note that Dorothy eventually moved to Oz, taking her uncle and aunt with her.

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From: [identity profile] auriaephiala.livejournal.com


One similar genre is the time travel historical: think Diana Gabaldon. Is there any chance that that genre has turned off the publishing industry?

I'm not a big fan of it: I enjoy Gabaldon's Lord John books, which stick to one timeline, but can't get through her timetravelling books.
And I still remember my acute disappointment at R. Garcia y Robertson's Lady Robyn books. Also time-travel romances, they were quite dire -- a real change from his excellent previous fantasies.

From: [identity profile] rick lipman (from livejournal.com)


At least in YA, there are quite a good number of time travel books being published right now, so: I doubt it's turned off anyone in publishing.
Edited Date: 2012-10-16 06:13 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile] rick lipman (from livejournal.com)


Rachel asked me yesterday to repost my previous comments when this post came up, and I am doing so, slightly abridged, at her request.

On Maybe Why There Is No Safe Place For Portal Fantasy to Hide

It strikes me as quite likely that agents have tried in the last 20 years with portal fantasy and found not an inch of give.

Such things become conventional wisdom, and tend to so very quickly.

Granted, there's also an argument to be made about this feeding into agent/editor 'burnout' faster than the general reading public (which we have previously discussed! :D) but my own biases against PF come on both a personal and professional level, so I doubt I can divorce them well enough to speak objectively.

Of course, the elephant in the comment box right now is not writers, agents, or editors: It's the marketing department.

But Writers Seem To Like Them A Lot

While there are certainly a LOT of writers out there - enough that when I hear the sheer numbers of queries some agents get in a year it gives me heart palpitations on their behalf - I think we tend to get an inflated sense of our own community and numbers. I'm reasonably certain we make up a fractional amount of what's considered the active reading public. (And an even smaller percentage of what I think the real prize is, as far as marketing departments are concerned, and that's breakout success among people who are not usually active readers, ala 50 Shades.)

Why I Think Portal Fantasy Fails As A Genre

My bias toward portal fantasy is that I can't see any justification for a story to exist as portal fantasy, honestly. It has a long and storied history, and it's been done brilliantly (I love Lewis as much as the next guy), but I think both that publishing has evolved from that point and that by its nature, portal fantasy is a genre that becomes stale quickly.

There's very little room for variation - Character is transported from World A to World B. If character doesn't end up saving World B, I'll eat my hat. It doesn't really matter, to me, if they get there via wardrobe, swimming pool, or malfunctioning toilet. The one biggest thing that varies story-to-story is the secondary world, in which case: Why not write secondary-world fantasy?

The other thing that varies is POV character, and I think the answer to the previous question is often laziness as embodied here. There are certainly important things that can be explored and unpacked by taking someone from our world and sending them elsewhere - but it's more easily (and more often) a shorthand way to explain all your worldbuilding in infodumps to your character, write a character who can be Just Like You in terms of history and background and culture and language, and then they get to save the world.

As a reader, my reaction happens on two levels: Mechanically, it strikes me as a way to avoid the nuance and labor required to build this world from the ground-up without having a convenient foreigner to explain it to, and emotionally, it reads like pure wish fulfillment. (This is plenty of people's cup of tea. It's not mine.)

When I see as the shortcomings of the genre combined with the ancestors of the genre that're considered successful and classics, it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for fresh blood. And I think the reason for that is that these days, there are better, more nuanced ways to explore the themes and topics that are at the heart of portal fantasy without relying on the convenience of the genre to do so.

For instance: If you want to explore the identity clash, learning curve, and sense of alienation as experience by an outsider... write a character who is an immigrant! In a fantasy world! (Actually, don't do that, because I'm currently doing that.)

I guess typing this all out has helped me condense it in a way that I wouldn't have been able to before, and that's this: The genre strikes me as painfully un-subtle by design.

Combine with the fact that I'm pretty sure the first book everybody writes when they are 14 is portal fantasy, and I think you get the current publishing feedback loop.

From: [identity profile] ambyr.livejournal.com


Why not write secondary-world fantasy?

As someone who enjoys (some) portal fantasies, I can think of two reasons:

1) One of my favorite things to read about is characters plunged into a foreign culture where they're completely out of their depth and have to struggle to understand the rules via trial and error. This can obviously be done in pure secondary-world fantasy, but portal fantasy has the advantage of not requiring explanation of why Main Character is completely oblivious to the culture of Neighboring Country. Too often, when I read secondary-world fantasy that I think will scratch this itch, the explanation is just "Well, they weren't that curious before." I like inquisitive protagonists, so that doesn't work for me.

2) I love reading stories that use mirrors and parallels to make thematic points. Portal fantasies that bounce back and forth between the two worlds are great for this. (Portal fantasies that don't include substantial sections set in the real-world are less interesting to me.)

I would like to see more portal fantasies where characters from one secondary world end up in another secondary world, but I realize that's a lot of worldbuilding to ask for.

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From: [identity profile] sprat.livejournal.com


I loved portal fantasies as a kid, I think precisely because the here-and-now world wasn't at stake. I liked that the kids could be heroic and have adventures without having to worry about their families back at home. It was just dangerous enough for a kid like me. I needed safe reading to retreat to.

Even after I grew into the YA age range, I returned to those kinds of stories when I was craving escape and comfort reading, and really appreciated being able to find some with protagonists my own age. It's really sad that there aren't as many being published now. I'm sure their absence has left a gap. I wonder what kids are reading instead.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


It's interesting that the agents suggested that the way to make a portal fantasy acceptable nowadays was to remove the exact aspect that drew you to it as a kid: the fact that the protagonist's own world was not at stake.

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From: (Anonymous)


Thanks to you, I now have a subgenre name for a novel I wrote, albeit a negative one. Except my heroine does save our world, and this manuscript is the one that agents and editors most request to see of all the novels I have written. I would not say they are against portal fantasy so much as wanting to be in love with a particular manuscript to buy it.

Perhaps they see portal fantasy as peculiarly immature and appealing only to kids, but considering the YA explosion, that's not a viable explanation either. I'm going with: The writing was not good enough to carry the agent or editor past suspension of disbelief or dislike of subject matter.

From: [identity profile] cafenowhere.livejournal.com


Data point-- Sarah Prineas's WINTERLING came out from HarperCollins this year in hardcover and is a MG portal fantasy in which a girl passes in and out of the faerie realm to right a wrong that is destroying the otherworld and has disastrous environmental implications for our world. Perhaps it matters that this is a new series from an author with a previous successful series for Harper.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Interesting! That passes the agents' test of "the worlds must be closely connected, and both worlds must be at risk."

Also, middle-grade. Perhaps the "perceived as an inherently childish subgenre" theories are on the money.

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