What is ‘fantasy’? When you here the word ‘fantasy’, do you think of epic fantasy, high fantasy, new weird, magical realism, horror, science fiction? Are these all part of the same genre to you, or distinct? Does fantasy need to be completely divorced of the real world, its troubles, politics, etc.?
Classification of fantasy seems to fall victim to the human need to carve out a territory - draw a line. The human mind works by categorizing things into bins, which can basically be thought of as drawing lines. There is an innate need to separate things into distinct categories. 'Fantasy' often gets the traditional epic fantasy categorization due to the typical first experience with fantasy - often a Tolkienesque series. Other early experiences with 'fantasy' often have their own labels - horror, fairy tale, sci-fi, daydream, etc.
People simply tend to not move beyond this process of creating bins of distinct categories. While fantasy is a branching spectrum that ranges through many sub-genres and from pulp to incredible literature, people tend to dismiss this and revert to the comfortable categorization.
A reinforcement of this categorization is the motivation of the reader. Many read for pure escapism and don't want the issues they see and deal with every day to be present - they want to escape these into an ideal of some sort. This is very valid motivation, and one I often have. Other readers seek to learn and grow through what they read, and they seek out 'fantasies' that reflect to varying degrees our own world. Reflections can be dim or so like our own 'real' world that they aren't truly reflections at all. And the reality is that most readers fall between the two extremes on either end.
So, with so many people now having their first introduction to ‘fantasy’ with Harry Potter, is the definition of ‘fantasy’ going to shift? Perhaps – and I’d love to see it happen. I will be sticking with the term speculative fiction, since I believe it covers it all – that’s the bin where I file these books away.