A Problem with Portals?

Late last week, a blog post by Rachel M. Brown about publishing trends regarding portal fantasies kicked up quite a bit of internet discussion. What is a portal fantasy? The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is an excellent example…the story begins when Lucy discovers the wardrobe that acts as a “portal” to Narnia. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz also qualifies and the more recent The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Brown’s post was inspired by a panel she attended at a small genre convention called “Sirens.” The panel included five agents who all reported receiving lots of portal fantasies in their slush piles — sometimes enough to constitute 25% of their total submissions. When Brown asked how many of these types of stories agents had acquired, the answer was surprising: none.

From Brown’s post:

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they’re not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn’t fall through the portal, there would be no story.

I suggest reading Brown’s full post to really get a sense of the objections to portal fantasies. Her own blog is based on a “filtered” discussion related to the conference and it has been reblogged and discussed on i09 (no link, down from Sandy!) and other genre news sites. Commenters seem split on the issue. Some people voice the question: “How can editors and agents know that readers don’t want portal fantasies, especially if so many people are writing them?” Others have offered possible suggestions for why portal fantasies no longer resonate. One justification that stuck out to me was the idea that portals have become a much more tangible and perhaps less magical experience in the Information Age. The i09 post suggested that portals no longer provide the distance and sense of wonder that they once did and pointed to the rise of alternate histories and apocalyptic novels as a new way of recasting the existing world.

Which is interesting — and troubling — to me. In the absence of portals, are we required to obliterate either history or the future to tell stories that happen alongside, outside, or around our own most immediate experience?

Just a few days later, a blog post from agent Kristin Nelson seemed to confirm the way that agents respond to portals. I include a quote from it here since the original discussion from Sirens is not  publicly available. Additionally, Nelson provides a rationale for why portals don’t work that I think provides a bit more context for the issue of “stakes” in regard to portals. She is describing her decision to pass on requesting sample pages from author queries:

[I passed on] a multicultural middle grade novel (which I always like to see!) but had a plot where four characters inexplicably find themselves in another world. Actually there were several MG novels with portals. This only works if the portals actually mean something to the story. They aren’t solely a door to another world. In other words, it can’t just be a vehicle that starts the novel–not original enough.

The discussion of portals being problematic and “not original enough” recalled for me the frequent refrain that Hollywood has run out of ideas because it keeps circling back to sequels. The articles linked to in the previous sentence all claim that Hollywood isn’t doing anything new. They even seem to suggest, along with some of the chatter on portals, that there is nothing new or unknown.

I can’t help but wonder* if the inability of portals to grab agents and editors — and the dismal perspective on sequels — reflects a related cultural trend that I explore in my dissertation. Specifically, I wonder if the problem with portals is that they require a concept of the unconscious, a concept that has become attenuated in regard to literary and scientific knowledge production.

Because portals do have stakes. Many literary portals mark the movement between the known world and the unknown world, not only within the environment of the story, but within the minds and memories of the characters. Lucy doesn’t simply fall into Narnia, she transitions from her life as a refugee from war into a place where dreams, desires, and archetypes (even Santa!) are tangible and accessible, albeit with constraints. Wardrobe also provides a counterpoint to the claim that portals in stories generally fail to affect the known world or the portal world consistently. This is part of why the portals matter. Portal stories are the story of how we live in worlds we cannot entirely change. Some portals confront Freud’s “ordinary unhappiness” and step sideways.  And none of the Pevensie children return from the wardrobe unchanged. The loss of Narnia follows them into the next book as they attempt to lead lives burdened in different ways by the memory of when they were Kings and Queen at Cair Paravel. Calling the portal incidental misses the point. The portal is not tossed into the story to provide a convenient plot device. The portal is in the story because it is in the fabric of the characters; the possibility of moving between worlds that happens in the mind is made material in the portal.

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, another portal story, the idea that the magical world of the Never, Never Land represents the human mind is made explicit:

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind

[ . . . ] There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and there are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of color

[ . . . ] Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal

[ . . .] Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more (74, emphasis added).

The world the children arrive in is the unconscious world of their minds that their mother “tidies up.” And at stake in the book is the loss of this portal, the shift in the unconscious that comes with growing up.

While some fictional accounts of portals are probably crafted more effectively than others, I would argue that many of them are dealing with this very high stakes conflict about the way in which we move between spaces where things are known and spaces where things are hidden, unknown, and remade. Sometimes it might make sense for the portals to seem without stakes, and it certainly makes sense for them to return characters from their journey physically unchanged. If the portals are incidental, so are high schools incidental to contemporary YA. I think it’s more the case that there are some stories told as portals because the author doesn’t know where to go, and that gives the genre a bad reputation. There are other portal stories whose authors must know that it is the only place to go, the only way in, the story they have to tell. I think the idea that portals basically never work only holds up if editors and agents focus on the example of portal stories that don’t resonate. I am sure the editors and agents who are wary of portals have shepherded wonderful books into existence that grapple with issues of similar weight (I’ve read and enjoyed many of them!) I am also sure that authors today still have the capacity to write new portal stories, perhaps ones that grapple with the very issue of how portals are becoming increasingly inaccessible and unimaginable.

A disclaimer: I have often described my own fiction, viewed as a whole, as attempting to investigate problems of other worlds. I’ve said the same about my dissertation (Case in point: It’s called From Mars to Oprah.) There is certainly some defensiveness to my reaction to portal stories being dismissed. And I’ve also taken it as a challenge to make the stakes of my portals ever more complex and tangible. Also, considering all of this info on portal stories makes me wonder if part of the issue with portals is their materiality — the objects and experiences that are used to allow movement between worlds. I doubt that computers and other technological portals made our need for portal stories go away. But I do think it may have made portals more strange and inaccessible, might have set them into shapes we never expected. Few people complain about Harry Potter or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians as failed portal stories (although plenty of people have complained to me about the ending of the latter.) If you found this blog looking for a quick fix for your own portal story, perhaps you, like me, might consider changing the shape of your portal rather than excising it entirely to make your work marketable. I can’t imagine fiction — especially children’s fiction — without portal stories, and while I love the classics, I hope that this renewed discussion of portals on the internet will lead to editors, agents, and readers having access both to new portal stories and to the theories of mind to which they speak.

Image, top: “Secret Passage” CC-licensed by Flickr user dmourati

Image, bottom: “Secret Garden” CC-licensed by Flickr user dbrooker1

*Carrie cryptomnesia?
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2 thoughts on “A Problem with Portals?”

  1. I deal in alternate worlds that never even touch on the existence of the real world, but I immensely enjoyed this discussion of portal stories. It’s a type of story I can’t say I’ve ever thought about much, but your perspective makes me more interested in reading such stories in the future!

    1. Thanks! There is definitely a lot going on for author and reader in entirely constructed worlds, too. Your comment makes me want to think more about how the role of the unconscious in the character’s lives plays out in entirely constructed worlds. I have considered at times just getting rid of the portal in one story of mine and writing in the magic world, but it only made me realize how much the portal is tied to the story.

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