Trigger and Content Warnings: This post will delve into my past so contains references to trauma/domestic abuse/childhood abuse. Also contains gaslighting/verbal abuse from a domestic partner. Very brief reference to potential infertility struggles (one sentence, vague reference).
Author’s Note: This is sort of a companion piece to This One where I talk about expanding the options available to readers of Adult SFF but focuses more on the YA/Adult Fantasy differences, why Adult Fairytale Retellings and Romantasy are perfect for a certain target market, and why we should not exclude these from Fantasy shelves.
Disclaimer: I am writing this post at 1:15 a.m. after not having slept more than 2-3 hours a night for 12 consecutive days. I will edit it prior to posting; however, please understand that any references to “Millennials” should not be construed as an attempt to encompass the entirety of this huge and diverse group of people but is being anecdotally genericized for purposes of this post based on trends I’ve noticed, things I’ve watched over the years, being part of this group myself, and having many conversations on this topic with other Millennials. Similarly, the “Target Market” has been roughly defined but is not meant to contain every member of the group stated or exclude any group not specifically stated. Where there are references to fairytale retellings or mythos, I have attempted to acknowledge and honor non-western mythos and tales as well as western mythos, but the reader should understand I write western fairytale retellings from a western lens (even that word, “western” is loaded because it really means American and European, doesn’t it? A specific kind of European, even). There are nuances that go into all kinds of ways of storytelling that cannot be encapsulated well here, but which are all valid, and I believe deserve recognition and seats at the table. Finally, I have attempted to be sensitive of the current discourse regarding this conversation and want to acknowledge the ace and aro perspectives. I have done my best to avoid aro/ace erasure in this regard but acknowledge I am not perfect and welcome input if anyone feels erased or harmed by this post.
Once upon a time, there lived a lonely little girl. She lived a lonely little life in a small house made smaller by violence and noise. With no brothers or sisters to play with, and parents who declared loudly they did not want her and beat her when they saw her (if they could be bothered to stop beating one another), she spent most of her days hidden away with nothing but books and animals for friends.
The little girl grew up, as little girls so often do. Her house got bigger. Her world did not. Violence and noise followed her wherever she went. Like moths to a flame, people like her parents were drawn to her. She let them in. One by one by one. They came, they destroyed, they abandoned. Until she was a ghost of a thing.
Always, though, she had her books.
Among her favorites were fairytales. Not because they had happily ever afters, because many do not, but because they had rules. They followed a pattern. At the end was a lesson explaining what was right and what was wrong. If you trust blindly, you will be eaten. If you open that door you’re told you shouldn’t, you’ll be murdered. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you abuse your children, your eyes will be pecked out (all right, maybe she liked that one for its ending).
Justice. Order. Black and white. Right and wrong. In all the chaos, fairytales soothed something inside her. They gave her peace and fortitude. The strength to continue to flit and flirt and smile and laugh while the moths gathered and ate up her insides chunk by chunk.
Until one day, one of the moths who she loved more than all the others said he was done with her, too. It was a pattern she should have recognized, because she was so very good at recognizing patterns. But she wasn’t ready to let go. So she did something she hardly ever did. She fought. With words and tears and fisted hands, she screamed and raged and begged like a wild thing caged. The world was big around her but inside her head it was so very small. She thrashed against it. Begging to be freed.
The moth looked upon her with disgust, this caged creature he only now realized was more beast than girl, and he said, “That’s the problem with you. You think life is a fucking fairytale. It’s not. Grow up.” He flickered away.
That day, the girl who was a beast became a woman.
She stopped believing in fairytales.
Now you know my origin story. You know my anecdote and perhaps one reason why I believe there is true power behind fairytales. But there are practical reasons I write fairytales beyond spiting that asshole who told me life isn’t one (which, obviously). Specific reasons I write Adult Fairytale Retellings despite that being the harder path for an author who writes both Young Adult Fantasy (where fairytale retellings exist and are popular) and Adult Fantasy (where they are not). Why do I choose to make things so much harder for myself? Well, I’m so glad you asked.
But First! An Announcement!
This post is about traditional publishing. Specifically, Big Five traditional publishing (and their imprints). I can’t encompass the whole of everything going on in fantasy, this is already too long, but it is important to note that what is trending in the self-publishing space and the indie publishing space (i.e. smaller, independent presses producing primarily digital only or digital first editions of books) is not always the same as what is trending in Big Five traditional publishing. I would argue that is the case in fantasy right now. With the rise of BookTok, this nuance seems to have been lost. For readers who perhaps don’t know or care where their books are coming from (which is awesome, I am highly supportive of self-publishing and indie presses getting more attention), the distinction might not seem to matter, but for authors it does. This disconnect should not be ignored.
Are my posts long? Yes. But this is precisely why. There is so much nuance it’s impossible to capture it all even in a blog, let alone a Twitter thread. Still, when we speak let us try to be clear. When I speak, I will do my best to be so. Self-publishing and indie publishing are not the same as Big Five traditional publishing. What is trending on BookTok does not necessarily represent the whole of traditional publishing (it might not even be traditionally published). For example, Adult Fantasy Romance is killing it in the self-published space right now (thanks in good part to BookTok) and has been for several years. In traditional publishing this is not the case. Do readers know that when they expect certain things from traditionally published adult fantasy authors who are facing different struggles in their markets (which are not Romance, by the way, a point I’ll talk about in a minute)? Perhaps not. Should they care? Also maybe not. But the authors certainly do, and I am about to argue that traditional publishers (specifically the Big Five presses and imprints thereof) should, too.
All right, back to fairytales, and why I tell them for adults…
I Write Adult Fantasy for Millennials
For my Adult Fantasy, my target market is primarily adult women aged 27-42 (aka today’s Millennials). Birth years for this age group range from about 1981-1996. This will be important for the timeline I’m about to set up.
Millennials and Young Adult Literature – A Brief History Source of some of the below, some gathered from life experience
While young adult literature has arguably existed since S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), most of the popular young adult literature of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s was contemporary, with the first “Golden Age of YA” occurring in the 1970s ushered in by books such as Go Ask Alice, Beatrice Sparks; The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier; Forever, Judy Blume; and Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews.
In the early 2000s, (when our Millennial age group was aged between 4-19) YA experienced the second Golden Age of YA. This new resurgence in popularity of young adult titles was led by speculative fiction. Since then, fantasy has largely dominated young adult fiction with only recent shifts toward contemporary preferences. Meaning that for a majority of Millennial readers, speculative fiction was the Thing to Read during their formative years with such titles as Harry Potter, JK Rowling (technically shelved as Middle Grade in some instances but crossover as it ages up); Twilight, Stephanie Meyer; City of Bones, Cassandra Clare; and The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins appearing in the 2000s (and their subsequent books coming out far beyond).
Continuing this trend, in the next decade (when our Millennial age group was aged between 14-29) came the YA powerhouses most of us will know best today: A Court of Thorn and Roses, Sarah J. Maas; Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo; Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir; The Young Elites, Marie Lu; Scythe, Neal Schusterman; Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi; The Cruel Prince, Holly Black; The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater; and many, many more.
Less than halfway through this decade, however, by 2014 in fact, our Millennials had “aged out” of YA if you use the technical definition of YA as being for readers between the ages of 12-18.
It was time for them to move upward and onward into greener pastures.
Adult Fantasy, here we…
Adult Fantasy v. Young Adult Fantasy
Until recently (within the last couple years), I would argue that Adult Fantasy made no meaningful attempts to appeal to a big chunk of Millennials. That chunk being primarily women and marginalized voices. By “Adult Fantasy” I mean traditional publishers, not authors. There were for sure people trying to get things published. But gatekeepers going to gatekeep.
Meanwhile, YA Fantasy continued to offer things that appealed to those people. Like what? Well, like this list I’m about to caveat. Caveat: this list is not intended to be exhaustive, or to represent every point of view from every marginalized group (clearly), nor is it intended to absolve YA of anything that hasn’t happened, hasn’t happened fast enough, or got messy along the way.
The List of Cool Things YA Fantasy has that appeal to Millennials even though we’re now Certifiably Old:
- Targeted efforts to diversify the stories told (both through movements to push for the publication of more diverse authors and via non-marginalized authors paying more attention to how they depict marginalized people in their works)
- Faster-paced books
- Character-focused fantasy that gets deeper into human interiority
- Shorter books (+ more standalones and duologies as options versus trilogies and beyond)
- SUBGENRES: High Fantasy; Contemporary Fantasy; Urban Fantasy; Fairytale Retellings (from western and non-western origins); Steampunk; Paranormal Romance; Dystopian (which arguably falls under the Sci-Fi umbrella but in YA, fantasy seems to own it); Portal Fantasies; and Romantic Fantasies (aka Romantasies)
- Second world fantasy with lighter, more grounded world building and less complex magic systems
While YA has been doing this, Adult Fantasy has largely stayed sort of exactly the same. It’s still primarily dominated by white, cis, male authors writing massive tomes that are grimdark, epic, and/or sword or sorcery. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Are they hard to find. Fucking yes. And even where the authors themselves are not meeting the classic fantasy author archetype, much of the work still is. Long. Political. Dark. Violent. In short, the age group hasn’t evolved in step with its YA counterpart.
Why This Matters
I’ll be real. I’ve been trying to age myself into Adult Fantasy since YA authors started talking about how creepy it is for grown ass women to be shipping teenage characters. Which I think was the YA Twitter tea of like… 2017. So it’s been a minute.
I’ve tried to embrace Adult Fantasy. I’ve listened to YA readers (who I write for as well) and done my best to remove myself from their space. I hear MG and YA authors (and teachers and librarians and booksellers) now in 2023 begging for YA for younger teens. Wishing for a ramp from MG to YA. Especially for boys. YA Fantasy has become so oversaturated with a particular kind of book (the one appealing to my referenced target market, in fact) that there’s no room for other books actual teens not only want but need. We (authors but also sort of society) are losing readers. This is an actual issue. I hear you. And I agree 100%.
But because there are no books for people like me in Adult Fantasy as it currently exists, we keep reading YA. Because we want to read something. And no, we can’t all just get a BookTok and a Kindle and read self-published authors, nor do we all want to. Plus, many people simply don’t know about BookTok or Kindle Unlimited, because they’re regular people not plugged into the online book communities. They get their books from what’s trending on Amazon, or what they see on the end cap at Barnes & Noble, or what’s recommended by a friend or local bookseller or librarian, and all that marketing force is still dominated primarily by traditional publishing.
So, because publishing is a business that operates on the good old fashioned principles of supply and demand and the facts are that 35 year old women have more buying power than 14 year old boys, publishing keeps feeding the demand. They also keep pushing “YA” further and further up in age. I read a YA book not too long ago that featured characters who were in their early twenties, one of whom was happily married and contentedly pregnant. Listen, I know fantasy is not contemporary, but please point me in the direction of a teen who can relate to the experience of being happily married and contentedly pregnant. I mean I’m sure they exist, there’s an exception to every “rule” of life, but that’s certainly not the teenage norm. Teen pregnancy is absolutely a subject to be covered in YA, but that was not the take I was expecting. Because it’s an adult take gussied up as YA, because YA authors know their real readership is 35 year old ladies who probably are (or perhaps want to be) happily married and contentedly pregnant. (Not this reader, but that’s personal preference).
Basically, for YA Fantasy to be able to grow beyond its current state and embrace even more voices and bring in even more readers, Adult Fantasy has to do the same thing. Which makes sense. Not really sure why it didn’t happen 10 years ago when Millennials were all aging into adult but who am I?
Adult Fairytale Retellings – The Millennial Net
Back to Adult Fairytale Retellings (aka back to me). So, we’ve now learned that my target market is into a Type. The type is short, whimsical, fast-paced, character driven, diverse, with light worldbuilding, and yes, romance (not to be confused with Romance—the genre—which has a set of conventions not at play here, also not to be confused with Fantasy Romance, a subgenre of the Romance genre also not at play).
Adult Fairytale Retellings are perfectly suited for this kind of story for all the reasons I loved them as a child. They’re ordered, meaning there’s something to be reordered. Deconstructed. Genderbent. Twisted. Fractured. Examined from a new perspective. BUT they’re still familiar (if you’re writing from a western lens to a western audience, this can be different if you’re writing from a different mythos, but I would argue that’s still appealing to the target market) so the worldbuilding required isn’t from the ground up. They often don’t require as much exposition or info dumping, which helps the author jump right into the action and the characters’ heads. This quickens pacing and increases interiority (as well as reduces length). Check, check, check. And, they’re very well-suited to romance. But because we’re retelling them, we can make the romance better.
In short, the Adult Fairytale Retelling is the perfect ramp for adults who want to move from YA to Adult Fantasy. BONUS, there are loads of points of views in even western fairytales not yet explored because they are “older” characters not suitable to YA. Which gives fun, fresh, and relevant to the Millennial life stories to tell.
Romantasy – Yes, it is Fantasy
Similar to Adult Fairytale Retellings (and sometimes one in the same), Romantasy (Romantic Fantasy) is another fantastic way to ensnare the target market and lure them away from YA Fantasy and into Adult Fantasy.
To clarify, Fantasy Romance is different. It’s a subgenre of Romance. The central plot of a Fantasy Romance is the romance. A Fantasy Romance follows the genre conventions of Romance (from the meet cute to the dark moment to the happily ever after). I’m not talking about Fantasy Romance. Not because it doesn’t matter or isn’t great or I don’t have Thoughts (because DO I EVER DON’T GET ME STARTED ON THE POLITICS BEHIND EMOTIONAL WOUNDS), but because it isn’t the same natural pathway from YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy because it is, again, shelved under Romance not Fantasy.
Romantasy or Romantic Fantasy is what most people mean when they say “there’s a ton of romance in YA Fantasy these days” (or some less polite variation). The primary plot is the external fantasy conflict (curse, heist, palace intrigue, revenge, overthrow the government, save the world, whatever), and the secondary (but often very similarly weighted) plot is the romance. You can extract the romance from a Romantasy and still have a story structure. It might be less meaty with less conflict and not as interesting, but a story would still exist. You cannot extract the romance from a Fantasy Romance and still have a story structure (in theory, I’m sure there are some who would love to argue that with me).
OMG are you still talking? If yes, please tell me why people can’t just read Fantasy Romance and leave Adult Fantasy alone?
The devil is in the details, I suppose. First of all, Fantasy Romance is also sorely lacking in material in traditional publishing. Most of what is available is digital only through indie presses and self-published authors. Not that these aren’t viable options, they’re just not always the easiest to find for the reasons I mentioned above. Or screen. Especially where self-publishing is concerned. There is some… problematic stuff out there and going back to that target market I’m harping on, problematic content isn’t going to hit right with many marginalized groups for somewhat obvious reasons. Does that mean traditional publishing doesn’t also publish problematic content? Nope. But you sure as shit hear about it if you’re plugged in. Versus self-published works there’s so much of it, flagging problematic content is much more challenging. As a person with multiple marginalizations who self-published NA Romantic Fantasy and is hugely supportive of self-published authors and has read a lot of Fantasy Romance, I can assure you I have been burned enough times now I read only trusted self-published recommendations or traditionally published works. It’s just too much to be hit with otherwise.
Further, many people who grew up reading YA Fantasy in the Second Golden Age of YA, while they might want romance, don’t necessarily want only romance. They still love fantasy. They want Katniss to overthrow the Capitol (and fall in love with Peeta), and Kaz Brekker and company to pull off that impossible heist (while falling all over each other along the way), and Laia to save her brother from the clutches of the Empire (while Elias tries to save her from the Commandant). It seems a silly distinction, perhaps, but it is an important one that Fantasy Romance does not often meet.
A Love Story has a right to exist in Fantasy – and in fact makes a statement by doing so
I’ve touched on this before and this post is already massive, so I won’t do it again. The TL;DR version is that despite what it might seem, there’s not actually a lot of Romantasy on Adult Fantasy shelves in Barnes & Noble right now, and excluding a book from the fantasy shelf because it has romance in it is elitist at best, misogynistic at worst.
Fantasy is a genre about imagination being pushed to its fullest potential. Why wouldn’t its arms be opened to the full gambit of potential human experience? Why would anything be excluded?
Opening the shelf to these books not only gives room BACK to YA Fantasy to create more readers while also satisfying a known market demand in Adult Fantasy (so is therefore good business), but it makes a statement about Adult Fantasy and where it wants to go. Which is hopefully forward.