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23 October 2012 @ 12:27 pm
Through a portal darkly  

There’s been some interesting discussion of portal fantasies, or fantasy stories where someone from our world (usually) crosses over into another world and has adventures there.

Rachel Manija Brown talks about hearing several agents discuss about how/why they haven’t bought any portal fantasies.

Marie Brennan responds to some of the arguments against portal fantasies.

At Making Light Teresa Nielsen Hayden argues that portal fantasies aren’t gone, but are so basic a part of the fantasy-building toolkit that we don’t notice them anymore unless they’re the only/main thing going on–in which case that’s the problem. (With a side trip into the life cycle of book trends.)

Reading these posts, I’ve been thinking many thinky portal-fantasy thoughts.

* * *

I think portal fantasy may in a way be like rhymed picture books: bad rhymed picture books are so common and at their worst can be so truly awful that editors and agents often simply say they don’t want rhymed picture books at all (because one can only read so many works by authors who think they sound “just like Doctor Seuss” without thinking dark thoughts), when in fact an awesome one really off isn’t completely off the table. But maybe an average one is off the table, where an average unrhymed picture book wouldn’t be. But maybe if you’re writing portal fantasy, awesome is less optional than it is with other genres. But, of course, awesome is subjective, too. And no one ever says, “I’m just going to skip being awesome when I write my book.”

In general saying “I don’t want X” with an unvoiced “unless it’s awesome” at the end is both understandable and problematic to varying degrees depending on the specific details of each situation, and that could probably be the subject of a whole other discussion. It’s at its most problematic when X = an underrepresented group, directly or undirectly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with either portal fantasies or rhymed picture books, which seem to reflect the diversity problems of other genres and also seem no better equipped than any other genre to address them.

* * *

The problem of whether the stakes are high enough in a portal fantasy has come up a lot. I think it’s a legitimate concern, because depending on the structure of a portal fantasy, the protagonist gets home afterwards, and leave all he has and hasn’t done behind, which isn’t true in either a contemporary fantasy or an entirely otherworld fantasy, where consequences have to be lived with.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter: we care about Narnia enough that we don’t stop caring when the Pevensies go home, any more than they themselves do. Though the last Narnia book is actually all about the connections between our world and Narnia–but the last Narnia book is also the most problematic Narnia book in the series.

Sometimes it does matter. Mostly, it’s an issue worth keeping in mind, how Home and Elsewhere are or aren’t tied together. Even in the Harry Potter books, the wizarding world’s struggles ultimately do pose a danger to the muggles, for all that the muggles aren’t allowed to join in its battles. Which is problematic in a different way.

* * *

I’m fascinated by all the books that have been brought up as portal fantasies that I hadn’t been thinking of as portal fantasies, such as Harry Potter and Spirited Away. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of books about a character finding their way to Elsewhere on shelves. What there seems to be a shortage of is books about someone finding their way to Elsewhere Narnia-style. This is interesting to me.

I’m now wondering what other portal fantasies, recent and older, I haven’t been thinking of as such. Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters series? A Wrinkle in Time? What makes me instinctively define something as a portal fantasy or not? Does it have to do with how much else is going on outside of the portal elements, or is it something deeper and more structural?

* * *

And now I’m also thinking about my own unsold portal fantasy, which I wrote a decade or so back and eventually stopped marketing because of the nagging sense that something was wrong with it, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what.

One of the comments I received, from one of the few people who saw it, was about the clichedness of how my protagonist got to the fantasy world, which she did by stepping through a magical door/window. I responded by rewriting those scenes so my character stepped through a magical Something Else instead, and thought the problem solved.

I think now I was missing the larger point: that it wasn’t the physical details of how my character traveled to another world that was problematic, but the larger portal fantasy structure that the method of transport fit into. For my particular story, I now think that structure was problematic. It’s not untrue that portal fantasies can be hard to do well, especially when the portal is in some sense a starting place for the writer.

Which makes me think a question that may be worth asking is: Is one’s basic story concept simply “protagonist goes to another world”? Or is it something else, something more that along the way requires that protagonist go to the other world as a natural consequence of whatever that something is?

Possibly the latter makes a stronger story. Or at least more often makes one, nothing about writing being absolute and all that.

Mirrored from Desert Dispatches: Wordpress Edition.

Karenklwilliams on October 23rd, 2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite portal fantasies is, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit, a Star Trek fan fiction novel, called "One Way Mirror." It turns out that the "Mirror, Mirror" universe is the real one, and is real, and Gene Roddenberry was an escapee from the Star Trek section of our universe. The main character ends up in the Star Trek section. It was very well done, with no sign of Mary Sue and lots of real emotional issues about leaving home, realizing your fantasies aren't reality and that reality really sucks, and coming to terms with all of it.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
Nothing to be embarrased about! That sounds fun and even a little bit more than fun. :-)
alyxplanetalyx on October 23rd, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
In the trio I'm writing now, the protagonist initially travels to the other world because that's where her birth parents come from. Plus, of course, portal accident.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:42 pm (UTC)
Gotta look for watch out for those portal accidents.

Man, was I watching out for portal accidents as a kid and teen. Sadly fortunately I remained safe.
(no subject) - planetalyx on October 24th, 2012 12:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 24th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - planetalyx on October 24th, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 24th, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on October 23rd, 2012 09:45 pm (UTC)
I tend to think that that is an adult problem, the WHY did protagonist go through the portal. As a kid, I remember intently that it was enough for the kid to be able to escape--the sense of wonder was automatically there. I think the adult wants the zing of why, because there isn't much sensawunda left in merely stepping through the portal.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:32 pm (UTC)
Although I've seen enough teens roll their eyes at various tropes in their reading and complain, "I've seen that before" that if there's enough MG portal fiction, I could see someone by the teen years being weary of it, maybe.

Which maybe is why there seem to be so many more MG examples? Because for pre-teens the escape is enough, as it was for us? (And some teens too, of course, kids and teens being no more a monolith than adults and all.)
(no subject) - sartorias on October 23rd, 2012 10:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 24th, 2012 05:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on October 24th, 2012 05:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
- janni on October 24th, 2012 08:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Johndjonn on October 23rd, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
Without having read all of the source discussions:

Parts of the series beginning with L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time are certainly portal fantasy, arguably including Wrinkle itself; the tesseract in the first book serves as a portal-equivalent, and what else is Many Waters but a Biblical portal fantasy? Portals, interlinked worlds, and the consequences of bleed-through are a notable element in Seanan McGuire's "Toby Daye" novels -- in some installments, the portal elements are more explicit than others, but it's definitely a core component of the setting and the series. And Diane Duane's Young Wizards series is chock full of portals; indeed, the side-series about the feline guardians of Grand Central Station is definitionally about portals. (See also her Stealing the Elf-King's Roses.)

But the difference between the McGuire and Duane books and -- for example -- most of the Narnia novels and a great many of the "Famous Forty" Oz books -- is that in the latter, the portal element is a framing device for a story that happens mostly or entirely in the target world. That framing technique can work, but it works better when there is at least some consequence or character arc that operates on both sides of the framing material.

Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
Oh, right, Many Waters! That one seems a straight up portal fantasy. (It was also the least interesting of the series to me, but I know other readers who've felt very differently.)

Good meeting in person in Portland, btw!
Emma Bull: Cat in Specscoffeeem on October 23rd, 2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
So, that argument that readers don't care about what happens to the world beyond the portal, because it's not theirs?

My goodness. Does anyone really believe that readers think--and feel--like the worst of American neo-conservatives, smug in their I've-got-mine attitudes and dismissive of the fates of anyone they don't know? That readers have no interest in putting themselves in someone else's shoes, and no compassion or sympathy for others? If so, there's no hope for this world.

I believe in the power of fantasy, and fiction, to change lives exactly because I believe readers care about made-up people and places, and understand that those people could be them, those places could be their neighborhood. I believe that argument is false and narrow-minded. If publishing's gatekeepers believe that readers don't care about other worlds and other lives, they're accelerating the heat death of the universe.

Seriously, that idea makes me a little sick.

Edited at 2012-10-23 10:27 pm (UTC)
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:39 pm (UTC)
I personally feel like it's not that so much as whether the writer earns making us care about the portal world ... which C.S. Lewis very much does, from the moment we meet Mr. Tumnus.

How he does is another question, because I know I don't care about all portal worlds equally passionately. Part of the question may be whether the portal world looms as large as our own? I don't know.

Maybe it's more what the other world means to the protag? So if they care passionately about it, and don't think they're just on a fantasy summer vacation, the reader will too? That is, the our-world character needs to not have the attitudes you talk about above for it to work?

I think when the portal is the point, maybe the other world isn't.

I'm also still thinking.
(no subject) - rhinemouse on October 24th, 2012 12:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 24th, 2012 07:50 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - coffeeem on October 24th, 2012 03:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 24th, 2012 08:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - coffeeem on October 24th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on October 25th, 2012 03:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 26th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 26th, 2012 09:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on October 27th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 28th, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on October 29th, 2012 12:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
houseboatonstyxhouseboatonstyx on October 25th, 2012 03:41 am (UTC)
It makes me rather -- queasy too. And enough commentators on the various other forums expressed it, to make it well worth disagreeing with, imo.
.rhinemouse on October 23rd, 2012 10:32 pm (UTC)
I've been watching this discussion with interest, because I love portal fantasy with a pure and shameless love, so much that it's hard for me to fathom the objections to it.

Here's my thought on definition. It's true a lot of fantasies boil down to "hero enters magic realm, has adventures." And a lot of fantasies have characters traveling between worlds. I think it's useful to call these portal fantasies. But IMHO the diff between them and a classic Narnia-style portal fantasy is that in a classic portal fantasy, the protagonist is in the same relation to the fantasy world as the reader. The fantasy world is not on a hidden aspect of our world, it's not known to exist, it is something the character who finds it would consider fiction. Until he/she walks into it, and then has to deal with story stuff being real. To me, that makes portal fantasies fascinating and numinous. But I think a lot of people find that aspect kind of cheesy.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 23rd, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
in a classic portal fantasy, the protagonist is in the same relation to the fantasy world as the reader. The fantasy world is not on a hidden aspect of our world, it's not known to exist, it is something the character who finds it would consider fiction

That is another possible/useful way to look at it.

By which definition Harry Potter isn't portal fantasy. And neither is, say, Many Waters.
.rhinemouse on October 24th, 2012 12:16 am (UTC)
I actually came up with that definition by asking myself why stories like Harry Potter and Many Waters didn't satisfy my portal fantasy yearning. Which does make it a rather personal definition... but I do think that's an important aspect of the genre.
beth_bernobichbeth_bernobich on October 23rd, 2012 11:04 pm (UTC)
What a great discussion!

Predictably, my very first reaction to this is, "Now I want to write one!"

Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 24th, 2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
I have been thinking thoughts along the lines of "If I write one again, next time I'll ..."

Or even if I rewrite the one I already have trunked. It would be a deeper rewrite than the one I did a decade ago when I was trying to "fix" it, I think.
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on October 23rd, 2012 11:15 pm (UTC)
*mentions Barbara Hambly's The Time of the Dark series and The Silent Tower & sequels, because, y'know...*

Actually, I think all her books are "interconnected" via portalness -- her mages have very similar abilities, and the Dog Wizard series (especially including the short stories) is pretty explicit about non-human mages slipping through to other worlds and getting into trouble there.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 24th, 2012 08:27 pm (UTC)
I wonder at what point multiple portals change a book from being a portal fantasy to a many-worlds fantasy.

Is The Golden Compass a portal fantasy?
(no subject) - archangelbeth on October 25th, 2012 12:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 26th, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - archangelbeth on October 28th, 2012 02:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on October 28th, 2012 06:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on October 28th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Danny Adamsmadwriter on October 23rd, 2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Some of these arguments strike me as quite odd, because you really could apply them to fantasy books in general.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 24th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
Some of them, yeah. Though more and more as I'm thinking about this I do feel like portal fantasies have unique issues, too. In much the way that the arguments against rhyming picture books can be applied to other picture books, yet they have their own issues, too.

One thing that's hard to tease out is whether portal fantasies really do tend, on average, to attract more poorly written books, or if they're just out of fashion, or if it's some mix of the two.

Because in theory most of the skills you need to write a rhyming picture book well you need to write picture books in general. (Aside from, yanno, the rhyming well part.) And yet, it seems that a disproportionate number of still-learning writers start out trying to write rhymed picture books, so there are more bad ones anyway. (Or at least, that's the impression I get! I don't have any actual publishing stats there.)
Danny Adamsmadwriter on October 24th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking about this too. This may be completely wrong, but it occurs to me that one thing portal fantasies do that other fantasies don't is compare and contrast our world with the fantasy world directly. Of course a reader is going to compare and contrast any fantasy world naturally, but that's a more subtle mental process, as opposed to the author (possibly clumsily, too baldly, or too whatever) drawing out and setting to text the similarities and differences.

Though why this would be more of a problem with YA specifically, I don't know. Maybe this is a point where it comes back to newer writers choosing portal fantasies for their YA.
(no subject) - janni on October 26th, 2012 09:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
houseboatonstyxhouseboatonstyx on October 28th, 2012 06:11 am (UTC)
Well, we could argue that young writers make worse stories, and most young writers start by writing portal stories, because they're imitating their favorite books.
(no subject) - janni on October 28th, 2012 08:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Steven desJardinsstevendj on October 24th, 2012 06:02 am (UTC)
I think it’s a legitimate concern, because depending on the structure of a portal fantasy, the protagonist gets home afterwards, and leave all he has and hasn’t done behind, which isn’t true in either a contemporary fantasy or an entirely otherworld fantasy, where consequences have to be lived with.

There's a Spider-Man/Fantastic Four story where they're exploring another dimension, and rescue a travelling couple from some raiders. Some years later they check out a message from that dimension, and find out what they did set off a civil war ... so now they have a responsibility to fix it.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on October 24th, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
I like that!

Interfering with other cultures is hard. The things that make sense to us, and seem like obvious choices, often look very different to members of that culture.

Really, it's remarkable that most portal fantasy encounters go anywhere near as well as they do.
houseboatonstyxhouseboatonstyx on October 27th, 2012 08:08 pm (UTC)
Well, classic portals seem pretty selective about who they let in, and when. ;-)