Picture by Tom Woodward
If you are into fantasy books then you have a big problem. The genre is huge and has a lot of different sub genres and all of these harbour a lot of different styles of writing.
One thing, one underlying theme that just stuck out to me in fantasy is whether the author is writing fantasy in a self-aware way or not. It's really kind of hard to define but generally you have authors saying stuff like "Oh, it wasn't a conscious decision to write in this genre, I just want to tell a story! I write because I need to tell this story." or they don't say that.
It's usually people who are writing a kind of self-unaware fantasy who claim that they just want to tell you a story. That's not a bad thing at all. I'd put J. K. Rowling into that category of self-unaware fantasy writers and George R. R. Martin, too. Their stories are amazing and they can be amazing metaphors for what is going on in the real world, but they aren't consciously written as fantasy stories because they use the genre as a part of their construction, they are just written as fantasy stories because that's what the story is like. They are good stories and I especially like Harry Potter but I just find there is something fundamentally different about self-aware fantasy.
Self-aware fantasy would be stuff like The Lord of The Rings, obviously. J. R. R. Tolkien was not just a fantasy writer, he was a scholar and researched linguistics just as much as Anglo-Saxon culture. His Lord of the Rings can be seen as very awarely constructed work, just as you might look at the Middle English poem The Pearl. Some amazingly constructed piece of work like that, whose form alone is so extremely complex and yet perfectly corresponds to the content can only be the work of somebody who exactly understands what he is doing and what traditions he is drawing on when he is completing his work. Alright, The Lord of the Rings doesn't rhyme or have a certain number of lines or stanzas as far as I am aware of but it's a huge piece of work and draws on not one but many writing traditions. Tolkien incorporates elements from Anglo-Saxon culture just as he uses motives from World War I literature to create a critique of militarism and within that industrialism. The usage of that pastiche of elements and traditions is a commentary in and of itself. To create something like that, you have to have more than a "simple story" as a starting point. You must be aware of the writing traditions that you are drawing from, of the motives that you are using and what you are creating in the end is not a "simple story" but it is also a commentary on the genre itself.
It's hard to find somebody to liken to Tolkien and say: "Self-aware fantasy as it is written by Tolkien and..." yeah, by whom? Who else can we say writes fantasy in a way that is aware of the construction of the genre itself, its legacy and its potential? I might say that we could count Sir Terry Pratchett among these people. He doesn't strike you as somebody who just wants to tell you a story. I think he is very aware of the traditions of the genre and breaks them quite a lot. What I look for most in his books are his "moments" as I have come to call them. In every book, at least once, there will be a moment where the funny fantasy story in front of you just vanishes and it turns into a social commentary on our world. Those moments are why I read his books. And he doesn't do it in a lazy or obvious way either. When you read his works you realise that there is something behind it and that the author just has to be aware of it. It's like you are stepping behind a curtain and there you find the author, standing with you together and him saying: Oh yeah, I know. I am here, too. That's why I wrote it the way I did.
This idea of self-aware and self-unaware fantasy has been in my head for quite a while and I have never really found a way to exactly put it in a satisfying way. Even now I can't really make up a definition that always fits. In a way, a lot of it depends on what you think the author had in mind when they wrote something and this is something you will never be able to tell for sure, so I haven't decided how much merit this categorisation does have right now. It's important to stress though, that you can't tell the two apart by asking yourself whether the story can be an allegory for real life or not. Harry Potter is an allegory for a lot of things, among them J. K. Rowling deals with the terrors of the Third Reich in a very thoughtful way, but allegory and metaphor is not the same as self-aware fantasy. The author has to be aware of fantasy as a genre and specifically use that in their writing. The starting point isn't necessarily the story but the genre itself.
Also, self-aware fantasy doesn't necessarily have to be better than self-unaware fantasy or the other way around- Not at all. A skilled writer tells you an amazing story, whether they deconstruct the entire fantasy genre in the process or not. But let's just say, I don't think Stephenie Meyer was very aware about the genre and its traditions when she wrote her series.