Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Defense of Fantasy

(Quick note: I started this post back in April, then got sidetracked by reading the rest of the George RR Martin series and working on my own novel, as well as some family stuff that needed to get done, the start of summer vacation, and plans for the arrival of a new puppy. Since I started this post, I have finished the series and am now almost done with my second read-through of it (there were some things I wanted to investigate and figure out a little more while they were still fresh in my mind) in anticipation of the release of the fifth book in the series on July 12th.)

For the past week, I’ve been indulging an ancient passion of mine: reading fantasy. I picked up A Game of Thrones after watching the first episode of the HBO miniseries last Sunday night, and was completely in thrall to the book from the first chapter to the last. It’s one of the few books I’ve read in the past several years that I have devoured, pretty much bringing all other work to a halt so I could swallow it in one gulp (I even took my car in for service just so I could read for two hours without feeling guilty that I wasn’t getting anything done – the car needed the work, but still…). It’s a pretty big book to take in that way, more than 600 pages long, and Thrones is just the first of a series. It took me two and a half days. I finished this morning and have already started in on Book Two: Clash of Kings. Yeah. It’s that good. Sweeping. Epic. Told from multiple points of view with a cast of thousands. And the action never stops from page one onward. I can’t even imagine the mind that could conceive of a plot this elaborate and intricate and able to keep everything straight. And the writing is beautiful.

Which brings me to the real point of my post. Give me a moment while I climb up on my soapbox. Okay. Here it goes:

I don’t understand the bias against fantasy (or any genre, for that matter) in most creative writing programs. Many of you, if you’re regular readers of my blog, will remember the letter I wrote to Neil Gaiman that he posted on his blog about my experiences in creative writing programs and their response to genre writing. The bias is that serious writers don’t write fantasy because fantasy can’t explore the depth of the human condition as deeply or as truthfully as realistic (ie; literary) fiction can. Any fantasy writer is, by virtue of writing fantasy, not a good writer.

Which, I think, is a load of hogswallop.

I was twelve when I discovered my dad’s collection of classic science fiction/fantasy – Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clark, Le Guinn – all the biggies were there, and I read most of them. The first book I read, after I was done with fairy tales, horse stories and a brief, though thoroughly embarrassing, stint with romance novels (though, in my own defense, I probably learned a LOT about how to write a good sex scene from those novels, good enough to get one of my grad professors to write ‘Hot!’ in the margin of my novel)…but what I consider to be my first REAL book was Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s dystopic book burning classic. I went on to read Stranger in a Strange Land (and learn the meaning of ‘grokking’ something), 2001, I Robot and the Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Andromeda Strain, just about anything I could get my hands on. I listened to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so much I developed an English accent (my dad, thank you so much! decided to tape the BBC radio play when it was first broadcast on NPR back in 198?, ’81, I think) and I have first edition copies of all the books in the series except the first one (darn!).

At one point, I wanted to be write fantasy, but I gave it up because I realized my ideas just weren’t good enough. Yes. You heard that right. I turned to literary fiction because I couldn’t write fantasy. There’s my deep, dark little secret. I am a failed fantasy writer.

While I think the true source of the bias lies in the fact that fantasy writers have an easier time making money from their writing than literary writers, I’ll set that aside for the moment in order to comment on why I think the quality argument is a bogus one and how the genre of fantasy is a more legitimate descendant of western literature than literary writing, and one with far deeper roots.

One of the reasons I think fantasy is seen as a facile is that it is closely aligned with fairy tales, myths, the fantastical stories we read as children. Just as the stuffed rabbit we couldn’t go to sleep without embarrasses us as adults, so to, the literature we adored as children does not seem to be the stuff serious adults who want to be taken as serious intellectuals should be reading.

I’ve read a lot of the western canon’s foundational work – Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Inferno, and I read a lot more classic work than I do contemporary fiction (there, another deep dark admission). Dostoyevsky, Austen, Elliot, Kafka, Woolf, etc. My favorite time period is fiction written between the two world wars. Most classical work, at least until the industrial era, has some kind of fantastical element to it. In fact, I think a lot more work that has stood the test of time has fantastical elements than doesn’t.

Now, I haven’t done any research on this, and it’s a developing theory of mine, but I think the insistence on a strictly literary genre (and yes, it is a genre) of fiction has come about with the rise of the middle class, especially the educated middle class. The middle class is extremely concerned with manners and the correct way of doing things. Think about Austen and the concern about marrying correctly – who do you think she was writing for? So the rise of literary writing seems to me, to have come about with the rise of an educated middle class, concerned with seeming to be smart, savvy, ahead of the curve, and vitally concerned that others recognize these qualities in them. Hence the need to denigrate the things that might have been enjoyed as children, like fairy tales. Sophisticated people do not listen to ghost stories or believe in knights in shining armor. Horrors if a dragon should show up! Or a robot!

But the insistence that literary fiction somehow has the corner on a true reflection of culture or is somehow deeper or more meaningful because it shows us as we truly are drives me nuts. I love Andre Aicman. His Call Me By Your Name is one of the most amazing works of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a long time. However, when I read his latest novel, Eight White Nights, I found myself wondering who on Earth actually acts like this? Who thinks like this? Yes, it’s rendered in excruciatingly accurate and realistic details, but really, I know very few people who imagine standing on the street gazing up at the lighted window of a woman they’ve just broken up with within hours of meeting said woman, or who are so enamored with the future past tense of their lives that they forget to live the present moment. Is it a valid point? Sure. I’m positive there are actually people who think like this, but, you know what? They’re not very interesting to read about for several hundred pages.

Another problem contemporary writing has is an inability to deal with the present moment. In a Paris Review interview, Ray Bradbury said that mainstream writing ignores the major ideas of our time. “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen or twenty years late,” he said. You can see this played out in the tendency for literary fiction to place stories in the near past, at a time when computers, cell phones and the internet were non-existent. Ask any writer about the “cell phone” problem and, most likely, you’ll get a list of ploys that writer has used to get around the ways in which ready access to a phone would solve a necessary plot complication. The phone is lost. Cell service is spotty. The phone simply isn’t turned on. The battery is low. The phone’s gotten dropped in a toilet and is no longer working.

Seriously, wouldn’t it be simply easier to put your characters on another planet?

But really, what those who denigrate fantasy miss is that the best fantasy writing is allegory. It treats the issues of our day in a way that we can hold them in our hands and examine them up close. Genocide? War? Tyranny? Evil? The just use of political power? These are all issues that exist in our contemporary world, but they are difficult to transform into realistic novels without becoming preachy or pedantic or, worse, boring and issue-driven. But fantasy can deal with them in ways that are interesting and draw direct comparisons to our real world. One of the things I admire about the George RR Martin series is how he shows war from all sides – one side’s murder is another’s self-defense. Wars (and political careers) turn on a decision made in the heat of the moment. The series is an extensive contemplation of what justice means. And it’s fun to read. And it has dragons.

And it is the legitimate descendant of the foundations of western literature in a way literary fiction is not. I am reading The Inferno right now. At every turn, there is a monster or a mythical creature or some character out of legend. It is tied into our ancestral memory of sitting by the fire, listening to the stories of heroes. It taps deep into our subconscious to reveal a deeper truth about ourselves and who we are. Which is probably why, after more than 700 years, it is still being read.

We abandon these myths and folktales at our peril. We impoverish our literature by insisting that the only true literature, the only legitimate form of expression, is that which renders our world in realistic detail. Because it denies the essential fact of writing – writing, by its very act, transforms our world into symbols. It isn’t realistic no matter what we do. No matter how realistically a writer renders a world, there is still the fantastical, alchemical process of taking these words you are reading and transforming them into pictures in your mind.

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