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In which I apparently have more power than I originally thought

October 23, 2012

Two weeks ago, some fellow agents and I gave a panel at the awesome Sirens conference in Portland. We had all kept track of our queries for two months–well, four of us had–and we broke down a lot of what we were seeing, in what we hoped was a nonjudgmental way. At some point during the Q&A one of us said that what we see a lot of is portal fantasy- i.e. Narnia, i.e. going somewhere else from here and then coming back.

In a nutshell, this is what our thoughts on portal fantasy boil down to:

1. It is a great form, and has been used to wonderful effect in many books

2. It is also a fairly straightforward form, which makes it more attractive to first-time writers

3. It is also a form that can be a bit facile, which means that when we see it in our query inboxes it’s usually not on the level of good portal fantasy

Which is why the resulting drizzle-in-a-teacup has been, for me, a bit frustrating. All the discussion around this topic has been great, as far as internet discussions go- no one has called us assholes for giving the panel, or for giving our opinions. I do feel that what we said has been mischaracterized.

Rachel Manija Brown, who was in attendance (and spoke on an AWESOME panel later that day) asked a question about publishers’ reluctance to take on portal fantasies, which she elaborated on in a blog post that has now been picked up by PW and io9.

Now, people in the comments to that post brought up a lot of examples of really well-done portal fantasy. And I just want to be clear: When we said that we were seeing a lot of portal fantasy but not requesting it, the only thing that means, really, is that the portal fantasy we were seeing was not very good, or that it didn’t mesh with our tastes.  It doesn’t mean that we hate it all the time everywhere, or that there is no place for portal fantasy in the publishing marketplace. All it means is that an easy form gets overwritten and we see a ton of it.

I can’t help but feel a bit petulant about all this- “But that’s not what we MEANT!”- and having say that “the whole publishing industry” hates portal fantasy is frustrating. (If I’m the whole publishing industry why aren’t I being paid all the monies?)

Portal fantasy, like any other subgenre, can be done very well, and it can be done very badly, and that’s all we meant by it. Now where’s my Publishing Industry Overlord Decoder Ring?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2012 8:10 pm

    Interesting. Personally, I’ve never been much impressed with the idea of portal fantasy, because on a very basic level is tends a bit too much to the meta and is subsequently not handled well in that regard. Meaning, a book is already a portal, so to put a portal within a portal tends to either be recursive as an experience, too clever for its own weight, or a cheat. (A cheat because, ultimately, everyone comes home, safe and sound. As an example of something done better, Once Upon A Time is handling the whole idea of portals quite well, in that more often than not, once you step through, it’s a one-way ticket—which applies to the choices the characters make as well as the physical consequences of magic.) Sounds like a panel I would have enjoyed.

  2. October 24, 2012 3:50 am

    To be fair, I think a lot of us have been hearing the same message from a lot of separate quarters, so hearing it laid out this way only manages to confirm our worst (paranoid) suspicions. “I KNEW it!” The writers are chiming in chorus. “I KNEW they hate portals!”

    I think you’re absolutely right that a lot of people do portals very badly, which is overall cheapening the subgenre. A story needs more than “I go away somewhere and have adventures which do not impact my life” in order to survive. Unless the place on the opposite side of the portal is in some way reflecting or affecting the character’s real life, the portal is just a cheap trick.

    To save space in this comment, I went ahead and blogged about more of my thoughts here, for anybody interested in hearing me blather on:

  3. Victoria permalink
    December 12, 2012 1:49 pm

    Thank you for clarifying. It must be frustrating to have your words twisted on this topic or to have writers completely miss your point. It also must be irritating to receive a stack of badly written queries that all revolve around portals. I can see how they might all sound like weird travelogues with no character development. It was a surprise to me that the portal query is so common. What wasn’t clear to me from the internet discussion is that it is usually poorly done.

    A well-written portal fantasy could be a story that young readers really fall in love with because it would be full of mystery, adventure, and inner character development (a la Narnia). I trust that if someone writes such a book, it would have a chance of getting published.

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