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Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace?

Books: old
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 YA 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.

ETA: Interesting comment from an agent here, explaining the situation in rather Catch-22 terms: http://rachelmanija.livejournal.com/1081331.html?thread=14053363#t14053363

ETA II: Sorry to appear coy about the panel in question. I didn't realize this post would get a large influx of readers who don't read my journal and aren't familiar with Sirens. It is a very small con, and had only one panel by agents:

Fantasy by the Numbers: Decoding the Writer Hive Mind
Jennifer Udden, Amy Boggs, Emily Gref, Rachel Kory, Bridget Smith
Five young agents from four leading literary agencies want to know: what is going on in the writer hive mind? To this end, they played detective in May and June of 2012, taking a look at their slush piles with an eye for data. Who is writing what? What does the slush pile have to say about race, gender, and theme, especially as concerns fantasy? And how does this play out in publishing writ large?

Several of the agents have been chatting on Twitter about this post, if you want to look up what they have to say. Sorry, I can't figure out how to directly link Twitter conversations.

The agents themselves didn't comment in any locked post that I've seen; what I meant was that a discussion of portal fantasy, prompted by the Sirens panel, took place as a tangent in the comment section of a locked post, and was so interesting that it inspired me to make a public post just on portal fantasy.

ETA II: I have been forced to restrict comments on this post to logged-in people due to a truly ridiculous amount of spam. If you want to comment but have no LJ, you can email me and I'll post for you under any pseudonym you please. I will not reveal your identity unless you want me to.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1076141.html. Comment here or there.

Comments

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fmanalyst
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
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?
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:28 pm (UTC)
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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_profiterole_
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
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.
stardustmajick
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
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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writingpathways
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
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.
sartorias
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
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.
blackhanddpants
Oct. 19th, 2012 05:49 pm (UTC)
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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aeriedraconia
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
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.
mme_hardy
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
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 - ext_1796833 - May. 11th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Portal fantasies - rachelmanija - May. 11th, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
juushika
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:47 pm (UTC)
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.
dichroic
Oct. 17th, 2012 06:14 am (UTC)
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.
fadethecat
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
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.
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:02 pm (UTC)
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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shana
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:02 pm (UTC)
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.
jmridenhour
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC)
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.
londonkds
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:41 pm (UTC)
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.
auriaephiala
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC)
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.
mme_hardy
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:40 pm (UTC)
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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auriaephiala
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:09 pm (UTC)
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.
Rick Lipman
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:13 pm (UTC)
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 at 2012-10-16 06:13 pm (UTC)
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ambyr
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
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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sprat
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)
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.
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
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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(Anonymous)
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
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.
cafenowhere
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
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.
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:29 pm (UTC)
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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bondgwendabond
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)
I've heard this same conventional wisdom and have been struggling to think of recentish YAs that are portal fantasies. I'm not that familiar with the Alice in Wonderland retellings, but there have been several in YA and those might qualify. Other than that, I'm not coming up with much. It'll be interesting to see what happens with the Miss Peregrine's sequel; the ending of the first one leaves room for things to go that way (don't want to be more specific to avoid spoilers).

On the adult side, Lev Grossman's books have many elements of the portal fantasy, though like Harry Potter they also spend a fair amount of time in our world.
telophase
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to think of them, too. I have just now recalled one that I read part of a while back, in which a girl is in a house, and is pulled through a crack or a hole or something like that into a nightmarish world vaguely reminiscent of Halloweentown. I don't think I finished it, and can't remember anything more. But it may have been middle-grade instead of YA.

Hm...I think I vaguely remember another one, too, but I can't remember if it's a portal fantasy or not: all I have in my head is a snippet of memory involving traveling on a train-like conveyance that might have flown, and something about a cat or cat-like creature being important. It may have been MG also.
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nihilistic_kid
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:48 pm (UTC)
Worldwide economic crisis + industry in decline = allegiance to conservative decision-making unto death.

Almost all the big stuff that really shakes up New York comes from outside of New York, and that includes Valente's originally self-published Girl Who...Fairyland series.
tnh
Oct. 17th, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
I propose as a general rule that almost all the big stuff that shakes up [place A] will come from outside of [place A].

Big stuff arises in many places. No single place has a monopoly on it.

We know stuff is big because it affects places beyond the place where it arose. By definition, the number of places big stuff affects will be greater than one.

The number of places that are not [place A] is also greater than one.

===

Cat Valente writes good books, and she's good at marketing them, but I haven't noticed them shaking up New York publishing. She's broken no models. Few self-published books are as good as hers, and fewer self-published writers have her knack for selling them.

Edited at 2012-10-17 01:58 pm (UTC)
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naomikritzer
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
One semi-analogue to portal stories that I ALSO don't see a ton of anymore are time travel stories.

I loved both portal fantasy and time travel fantasy when I was a kid and there was piles of time travel, much of it in those cheap ".95 cents from Scholastic Book Club" editions -- I think it was seen as an easy way to do historical fiction that was easy to read because you had a modern person interpreting everything for you.

Time travel DOES still exist in Romance, according to my friend who reads a lot more of it than I do, because there's apparently a huge appeal in the idea of a modern woman getting to hook up with a Manly Man of Yesteryear. She also says that no real explanation for the time travel is required: someone can just fall down a hole and be back in time, ta-da!!! I have not heard of Romance portal fantasy for adults, though. Alas.
badnoodles
Oct. 16th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
Much to my everlasting shame, I actually read some portal romance rather recently, though it was Ellora's Cave erotica rather than a traditional romance. The portal in question was a tapestry, with some dubious "and this is why you wound up in the happy land of Screwtopia" handwaving."
Rick Lipman
Oct. 16th, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
Data point:

Not recent, but Katherine Applegate's and Michael Grant's EVERWORLD series is an example of portal YA (of a sorts), and one that worked for me. It knocks the genre conventions on their behind, and by necessity of the premise the characters spend competitive, if not entirely equal, amounts of time both in our world and Everworld.
corinneduyvis
Oct. 16th, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
I LOVE THAT SERIES, and it also immediately came to mind when I read this post. I suppose it's fairly old by now, though.

My YA that recently sold, OTHERBOUND, could actually be classified as portal fantasy. At least one CP referred to it as such, albeit with disclaimers.

It's got someone from our world traveling to a secondary fantasy world, yes, but it differs in that a) only his mind travels there, not his body; b) half the book takes place in our world, c) there are two narrators, and the other narrator is from the secondary world.

So I'm not sure if it counts as portal fantasy. If it does, though, I guess it's one of the few recent examples of one selling to NY. Some people compared OTHERBOUND to THE MARBURY LENS based on its pitch. I haven't picked up that book yet, but it looks like it might also qualify as portal fantasy.

I can't say much about OTHERBOUND at this time because of spoilers, but I'll say that there was absolutely zero possibility of writing it as straight-up secondary-world fantasy.

I don't have much else to contribute, but I'm following this discussion with interest. I was wondering about the lack of portal fantasy myself, as well, and people are bringing up a lot of really intriguing reasons for what might be the reason behind that.
megfuzzle
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
I feel like 100 cupboards falls into that category. I thought it was 'meh' but liked the idea.

I am writing a book right now that at first glance looks like a portal book, but isn't. At least I can prepare myself for eternal rejection letters......
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:05 pm (UTC)
It's middle-grade. (Points upward to comment on middle-grade vs. YA.)
naomikritzer
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
I went to see what I'd said on the prior post and it was mostly that I love portal fantasy. I'd love to see some grownup portal fantasy. (I actually thought about writing some grownup portal fantasy, but was discouraged from doing it by my agent at the time. I may still write it because a friend I talked to about the project has been hounding me ever since because SHE for one would like to read it.)

On reflection, though, I will note that there was a time when I would have said I loved dystopic YA. I loved dystopic SF as a kid (anyone else remember "This Time of Darkness" by H.M. Hoover? Or, say, anything else by H.M. Hoover. I adored books) for a complex set of reasons including that I think I found them optimistic (because instead of everyone dying in a nuclear war, the human race survives so at least there is hope of a better future). Anyway, I loved the Westerfield "Uglies" series and I loved "The Hunger Games," but I've read some of the YA cranked out in the last few years and much of it is so lame and stupid it makes me want to scream.

So if we started getting portal fantasy again and it was successful, the publishers would start cranking it out like that hamburger that's made from the bits they scrape off the floor and before long it would all suck. AND THAT IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.
coffeeandink
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:50 pm (UTC)
Tangent
I just retrieved a bunch of my H.M. Hoover books from storage and am delighted to see someone else remembers them, too. Both the Morrow books and This Time of Darkness seemed very optimistic compared to the typical post-disaster book I was reading at the time, which were typified by On the Beach and Z for Zachariah. Another Heaven, Another Earth, which I found incredibly depressing, was by contrast planetary exploration sf, which was and is one of my favorite subgenres.
mrissa
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
One of the things that's confusing me about responses I see here is that some people are conflating "I do not enjoy this type of book" with "I am glad few of them are being published." Why is this? If you don't like portal fantasies, why wouldn't it be enough to...just not read them?
swan_tower
Oct. 16th, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
Because then we'd have less room on the shelves for Yet Another Vampire Romance Love Triangle! <g>
donaithnen
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:27 pm (UTC)
I haven't had a chance to read through all the comments yet, so maybe this has already been brought up, but it's bizarre that portal science fiction is still popular enough to get published if portal fantasy is so anathema. Does it really make that big a difference if you're sent to an alternate history to fight evolved dinosaurs vs sent to an alternate world to fight magical creatures?
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Can you think of any recent (last 10 years) examples, though? Especially, any in YA?
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coffeeandink
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:31 pm (UTC)
Recent portal fantasy
It looks like Andrew Smith's Marbury series is a recent YA portal fantasy, but it also (a) seems more like portal horror than portal fantasy; (b) contains significant dystopian elements; (c) may all be a delusion anyway.
rachelmanija
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Recent portal fantasy
Wasn't that first published in the UK? I think it's less rare over there.
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londonkds
Oct. 16th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
Bit of a tasteless comment: it seems to me that the difference between YA and "middle-grade" in the recent novels we're describing is that YA has overt sexual desire in it if not graphic consummation. Maybe one of the issues for YA is that given the "one trip per lifetime" convention any romance/sex element in portal fantasy is going to be either tragic or the kind of casual-ish sex that YA shies away from?
houseboatonstyx
Oct. 16th, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC)
Well, that's accident, not essence, on both counts. Protagonists can go back, and someone could emigrate, and unrelated protagonists can go through the portal together and come back together.

I suspect the essential reason is Rowling's: "You don't have sex too close to unicorns." (Again, WFI, quoting from memory.)
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