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.