Opening up the Shelf: Adult SFF

Author’s Note: Today, I am going to talk about my #PitchWars book ALL HER WISHES specifically, but only as a way to address some swirling thoughts I’ve had about adult fantasy in general. For those who don’t know, my 2021 #PitchWars book ALL HER WISHES is a dual-POV, adult fairytale retelling told from the POVs of a selfish fairy godmother who hates her job but is trying to be good at it in order to save her best friend’s Destiny, and the villain (who happens to be the MC’s ex) who is trying to sabotage all that for, well, vengeance, obviously. It is an enemies-to-lovers, second chance love story set within a fractured fairytale world.

When I submitted to Pitch Wars in 2021, I entered All Her Wishes as a Romance (with a capital R). At the time, I had no idea what it actually was. What I did know was I’d never read anything quite like it in Adult Fantasy, though plenty of things like it exist within Young Adult Fantasy. I figured it would never “make it” if I endeavored to set it on a Fantasy shelf beside Tolkien and George R.R. Martin and All the Characters Who Stab. There are no swords, no graphic violence, no wars, no epic quests. There’s no need for a map (I can’t read them and neither can my main character), no invented languages or species, no explanations of geography or the genealogy of my characters going back 700 generations.

I didn’t love the idea of submitting it as a Romance, because somehow, it felt like cheating. But I had sent a few queries prior to Pitch Wars and the only feedback I’d received was “Sounds adorable! I’ve checked with some people, and no one knows who or how to market it.” So, somehow it seemed like because Wishes didn’t have all the above things meant it was “lacking” and therefore not Fantasy and maybe? a? Romance? Which, also felt gross. Because Romance, for the record, is not lacking in shit. Seriously, stop saying, believing, perpetuating any stereotype that Romance is anything but the badass queen of the publishing castle. Facts: Romance is the highest grossing genre in publishing (at $1.44 billion in revenue last year, take that to the bank and suck it). Romance authors are kings and queens of their art, and they deserve so much credit for what they do. The fact they don’t get it is a whole other blog post for another day. Also, Wishes’ love story does not make it less of a Fantasy.

A white woman with auburn hair in a green gown leans back against a tree, pointing her wand downward while a white man with dark hair wearing a dark jacket leans toward her, holding his hand to her foot.
Am I going to take this opportunity to drop this beautiful artwork for the book despite the fact it is everywhere on this website? Absolutely. Image © Jaria Rambaran  

Good news, my mentor also didn’t love that I’d submitted it as a Romance. Primarily because it hit NONE of the Romance beats and to make it do so was going to be a Herculean task that might have destroyed the structure of the actual story. We spoke at great lengths about my feelings on whether it was primarily a Romance or a Fantasy, and though I said to her I didn’t have strong feelings either way and in private said to my friends I would make it whatever the hell she wanted if it got me into Pitch Wars, the more I started to think on it, the more I realized I did have strong feelings about where Wishes ended up on the shelf.

ALL HER WISHES is Fantasy, capital F. It’s a story about magic, about friendship, about villains and heroes and the mistakes they make and the prices they pay. There are princes and princesses, fairy godmothers and evil queens, multiverses, and magic systems. There is world building and palace intrigue, and yes, there’s a whole lot of kissing, and because it’s adult, sex too. There’s love, but when did Fantasy stop becoming Fantasy because there was love?

Would Neil Gaiman’s Stardust find itself on a Romance shelf because it’s primarily the story of a boy out to win the heart of a girl and in so doing falls in love with another? What about one of the most quintessential epic fantasies of all time, the Wheel of Time series where the main character, Rand Al’Thor, is involved in a polyamorous relationship with three women? Do we discount the romance in that series because there’s enough words around it to ignore it? What about a more recent example in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight? Mia Corvere, that series’ main character is about as ensconced in romance as she is in blood. Or do these authors get a pass because they’re *AHEM* white men? It’s fine, y’all, they’re writing MANLY love stories. Which is totes fine. Manly man’s masculinity is not threatened as long as the love story is also written by a man, am I right? Okay, I should sit down before I refuse to get off this here soap box. WHOOPS.

Drawing of a white girl in a blue dress with a purple bow standing on a soap box washing on a wash board over a large basin of water.
Oh look, it’s me getting back into the time period I’m expected to be in. I kid, I kid.

As I worked on my revisions of Wishes throughout Pitch Wars, these thoughts continued to poke at my brain. Where did my book go on the shelf, and why was I so afraid to say with these others?


Yep. There it was. I was afraid. Because there exists in Adult SFF a sort of elitism not unlike what I remember from my undergraduate days at UNC spent arguing Chekhov and Hemingway and preparing for an MFA at Iowa. Because obviously you go to Iowa. That is the only option for a Serious Writer. In Adult SFF there is a similar feel to this lit fic like discourse that’s more akin to: Obviously you write epic fantasy of a political nature, heavy on the world building, light on the romance, or you are not a Serious Fantasy Writer.

It feels a little… Gamergate to me, truth be told. And after I got done being afraid, I got irritated. If you couldn’t tell.

The thing is, I believe all genres should be for everyone, which means we have to tell lots of different kinds of stories within our genres to welcome lots of different kinds of people into not only our genres, but reading in general. That’s how we cultivate growth, and learning, and a body of literature that expands our experiences beyond what we know which is literally one of the main points of all reading but especially freaking fantasy!

So it’s time to open up the shelf to new stories that go beyond the old elitist thoughts of what Adult Fantasy should look like. Stories that include subgenres like urban fantasy, and contemporary fantasy, and yes, fairytale retellings, and stories from non-western mythos, and romantasy. And stories written from different perspectives than we’re used to seeing. Stories from women, and POC, and LGBTQ folks, and ND people, and disabled people. I want to see stories about Black grandmas riding dragons, 20-somethings in wheelchairs shooting flames from their spokes and owning their sexuality, and stories about brown women trying to juggle being the badass court sorceress while being pregnant and having a baby. It’s time for a new canon of fantasy that is relevant to the readers who fell in love with fantasy during the YA fantasy boom brought on 20 years ago.

Because guess what? We aren’t teenagers anymore, but we still like fantasy. And sure, some of us do like politically epic fantasy with sprawling worlds and all that other stuff (although I can bet you based on my anecdotal research a fair few more of them are reading R.F. Kuang than they are Robert Jordan these days). But loads of us want a fresh array of new stuff. Short stuff. Different stuff. Weird and wacky stuff. Stuff that is relevant to our lives and our world and yes, that’s important even if it’s a fantasy.

Book cover: The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher by E.M. Anderson. A red cover with a dragon flying over a city skyline.
I would be remiss not to mention my agent sib has just such a book coming out soon. Which you can preorder HERE.

So here’s my plea to not only publishing but the readers who love my genre as much as I do: Support new voices in Adult SFF. Writers and readers alike. Don’t push them out because they’re different or you think the books they write or the books they like aren’t “serious” or otherwise “enough” of something for you. If they haven’t read all of the Lord of the Rings books, they can still love Fantasy. If they don’t know with perfect precision the specs of every species from a series they say they love, they can still love that series. If they don’t know which superhero fits into DC or Marvel, they should still be welcome. There should be no criteria to liking fantasy books other than, well, liking fantasy books.

Welcome them! Open up the shelf! You never know, they could be the author who writes your next favorite book!