As a reader, I've always been a bit fickle about genre. If a book comes with a strong recommendation or an interesting hook, there are few things I won't read. So when I wrote The Gathering Dark, I didn't give much thought to its genre beyond "fantasy." When the book was finished and I began looking for a literary agent, I was in for quite an education. I soon learned that agents were very specific about the sub-genres they wanted to see: paranormal, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, steampunk, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and so on. The one thing most of them didn't want was high fantasy. It just wasn't a "hot" genre.
I do think high fantasy demands a bit more of its readers. They have fewer familiar footholds and they have to trust the author to establish a sense of order and place. That's not an entirely comfortable thing. And, while genre is by definition generic, I think some people felt that high fantasy tropes had begun to atrophy.
But there was a broader bias against high fantasy that came out in the way that cultural critics and reviewers initially approached HBO's decision to adapt George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones. Martin himself admitted that he'd written A Song of Ice and Fire to be "unadaptable." Dense with characters and expensive locations, there was no question that it represented an expensive risk for HBO. Still, critics and commentators seemed less interested in discussing the series itself, than in taking opportunities to snicker at fantasy fans and wax snide about the limitations of the genre.
If these reviews and articles (which still crop up with alarming frequency) are to be believed, the only people who read or watch fantasy are horny teenage boys who spend their lonely hours playing Assassin's Creed in the basement. It's an old stereotype, but one that gets trotted out whenever genre fiction is on the table. As a fantasy fan with ladyparts and an active social life, I find this irritating. Also, having actually spent time with Martin's crazily diverse fan club (old, young, gay, straight, white, black, Latino, Asian, white collar, blue collar, male, and yes, female), I find it totally baffling.
As soon as I saw the billboards cropping up all over town, I knew Game of Thrones would be the proving ground. Despite the books' success, it wasn't a series with broad-based name recognition like Lord of the Rings, and it certainly hadn't had the same cross-generation, epic lead-up. But it had brilliant narrative, insane production values, over the top promotion. If the show failed, it would be proof that the snickerers were right: genre trumps story. High fantasy belongs in the genre ghetto and we should all just pack our broadswords and go home.
That didn't happen. In fact, that didn't happen in spectacular fashion, and now everyone knows that winter is coming.
What does this mean for high fantasy in YA? I'm not sure, but I can tell you I've already seen more than one book described as "Game of Thrones for kids." (I'm assuming this means less incest and fewer horse hearts, but who can say.) I think Game of Thrones-- both the power of its content and the success of the series-- opened a lot of minds to the potential of the genre and to the work being done in it. As an author, I hope it changed ideas about how high fantasy fits into the mainstream. As a fan, I'm just glad to be out of the basement.