Guest Post | How ‘Low-Brow’ is Fantasy? – A.J. Dalton

About the Author

“A J Dalton (the ‘A’ is for Adam) has been an English language teacher as far afield as Egypt, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Slovakia, Poland and Manchester University. He has lived in Manchester since 2003, but has a conspicuous Cockney accent, as he was born in Croydon on a dark night, when strange stars were seen in the sky.

He published his first fantasy trilogy, consisting of Necromancer’s Gambit (2008), Necromancer’s Betrayal (2009) and Necromancer’s Fall (2010), to great acclaim. He is currently published by Gollancz, with whom he has put out the best-selling titles Empire of the Saviours (2012) and Gateway of the Saviours (2013). He maintains the Metaphysical Fantasy website (, where there is plenty to interest fantasy fans and there is advice for aspiring authors.”

You can find out more about the author on his website.

The UK’s highest award for literature is the Man-Booker Prize. It considers literary fiction only, but not fantasy fiction. It considers fantasy to be ‘low brow’ genre fiction and generally not worthy. This is despite the fact that a number of Booker Prize winners have conspicuously ‘borrowed’ their themes and motifs from fantasy over the years. Nothing Tolkien ever wrote could be entered for the Booker Prize, no matter his contribution to literature and the UK’s cultural identity. More than that, fantasy isn’t considered by the Nobel Prize for Literature either! When the BBC made a one-hour special called ‘The Books People Really Read’ a few years back, they included plenty of crime genre fiction and romance, but there wasn’t a single mention of either JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett. What gives?

Why is there this denial of fantasy in certain quarters of society? Is fantasy a threat somehow? I suspect so. Basically, you can’t get a job as a philosopher these days so you have to write fantasy (or scifi) instead. The Brits consider it a bit ‘poncy’ to talk about philosophy openly, too, so they end up reading fantasy in private instead. Fantasy is perhaps all too real for certain sections of our society, sections that are insecure and inadequate, sections that like to speak in terms of ‘high’ and ‘low brow’, sections who are at the ‘top’ of society and want to quash the power of the rest. Fantasy is therefore revolutionary and has the potential power to change the real world so that it is a better place for all of us. My series with Gollancz, Empire of the Saviours, only gets two types of review – praise from the usual fantasy magazines, but utter condemnation from the wider press and media. They say the book is ‘warped’ and ‘twisted’. I reckon it’s the wider press and media who ‘warp’ and ‘twist’ things. But I could be wrong. Am I? Any other authors or readers of fantasy out there who have suffered any prejudice (overt or otherwise) for their interest/passion/dreams?

3 Responses

  • I think a lot of people consider fantasy to be kids’ stuff and don’t bother looking further than that. Fantasy = dragons, magic, unicorns, grand adventures = stuff that people should have grown out of when they hit their teens. And if they didn’t, well, they’re just overgrown manbabies who need to get a life and start reading “real” books. And I suspect that most people don’t even think this stuff consciously, either. It’s that little voice in the back of their brains that tells them this in feelings, nothing more.

    I can get fantasy not being to a person’s tastes, but I don’t understand why there seems to be a real bent against fantasy in most literary discussions. Most genre fans, even seem to view fantasy as second-rate to science-fiction. Again, not even that fantasy just isn’t to their taste, but that it’s, in general, worse and less worthy of being read as sci-fi.

    I usually don’t tell people what I read unless they ask. They see me reading, and I’ll usually tell them the title if they’re curious, but I don’t bother telling them the genre unless they’ve already demonstrated an interest in it, or else ask specifically. I don’t open that can of worms anymore, because it’s intimidating to see eyes glaze over and for the conversation to just stifle like that.

  • This is not exactly a controversial opinion. There is a perception in academia and literary criticism that science fiction and fantasy are not literature.

    Except when they decide an author’s work really isn’t SF or Literature at all. Even if it is clearly genre.

    I sometimes think the Pre Joycean Fellowship authors hit the nail on the head in figuring this out.

  • Certainly not a controversial opinion at all, although I would have preferred the author to go into a bit more detail. To go sideways a little bit, the snark that accompanies mainstream SFF in academia circles is reflected down into the snark that accompanies tie-in SFF in mainstream SFF circles. Its something I’ve noticed a lot in the last two years, ever since I’ve become a reviewer. To the best of my knowledge, the industry doesn’t have any kind of awards that recognize tie-in fiction, aside from the dubiousness of the New York Times Bestseller List.

    But yeah, I agree with the author that the so-called literary critics often look down on SFF in general and that they consider literary fiction to be “high-brow” stuff, something that is worthy of being read and discussed and so on and so forth.

    Hopefully, Agents of SHIELD and Game of Thrones are going to change that perception 🙂

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