Saturday, September 29, 2007

So you don't like Fantasy?


Some people just don't.

In my experience, most people who don't care for Fantasy (poor benighted souls, like Miss Snark), generally lump the genre into one of two categories.

Either they say 'But it isn't real', by which they usually mean it does not conform to their worldview, or they say 'But it's just escapist', by which they mean it tries to avoid their worldview.

Liberals may attack Fantasy because they find it too 'traditional', while books like Harry Potter come under fire from Conservatives because it contains 'witchcraft'. Both groups fear that Fantasy may influence the reader's imagination adversely - a tacit admission of the power of Fantasy, by the way.

So how can we tell if Fantasy is 'good' or 'bad' (apart from the writing style)? Fantasy, after all, is produced by the writer's imagination, and imagination is a good thing, as I said here.

The 'Realist' style of writers like Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, or Emile Zola is firmly rooted in the naturalistic, materialistic worldview that arose around the turn of the last century: the world of Darwin and Marx (Karl, not Groucho), limited to descriptions and treatments of that which may be seen with physical eyes. But if we deal only with that which is real according to this definition, we perforce leave out much which is unseen, but which many people find gives Meaning to Life - like love, or God, or absolute truth, or a clear conscience. The above-mentioned writers produced works, incidentally (or consequently...), that were full of what most people would call the 'seamy' side of life, consciously amoral and devoid of 'sentimentality'. Their writing reflected their worldview. One can, of course, write 'realistically' without accepting this worldview. Read Dostoevsky.

But was it real?

Or was it a self-conscious attempt on their part to portray what they thought was reality? Those who make assumptions about what is 'real' will always be accused of Begging the Question, or at least get asked The Impertinent Question, i.e. 'Sez Who?'

Secondly, every work of fiction is by definition a work of imagination. The Writer projects not what is or has been, but what he or she thinks would, should, or could be, or woulda/shoulda/coulda been.

So my answer to those who say Fantasy is 'not real' is two-fold: Who Sez your 'realism' is really real? And, even your 'realism' is partly fantasy.

There are two ways also to answer the charge that Fantasy is 'escapist'.

The first is to say, with Bradbury, that Fantasy is not an escape from Reality, but a kind of back-door to it, Perseus looking into the golden shield to slay the Medusa. Those who write 'traditional' Fantasy know that one of the best ways to explore the invisible world, the moral and spiritual universe, is through the judicious use of symbolism. I talked about this briefly here.
Fantasy is not reality, it is a 'profitable invention', to quote Sydney, because it deals with Ideas, with Truth, and Good vs. Evil.

Or we can ask, with Tolkien, The Apathetic Question, i.e, 'So What?'

Who would, Tolkien asks, take issue with a prisoner who tries to escape, or failing to succeed at that, find something else to discuss or meditate on than bars and turnkeys? Yes, one may use Fantasy as an escape from responsibility, and this would count as bad Fantasy, but good Fantasy quickens the imagination, and creates longing for heroes, courage and beauty.

In a Zeitgeist that is naturalistic, materialistic, and amoral, Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Lord of The Rings has re-kindled a generation's longing for something more than the dreary depressing doldrums offered by Charlie and Karl.

So how do I tell good Fantasy from bad?

By the effect it has on the reader.

Does it make vice attractive, scoff at heroes, encourage a vapid existentialism, and teach the reader to ignore the transcendent? Then it's Bad Fantasy, no matter how well written. Sorry, Robert.

Does it inculcate a revulsion against evil, root for protagonists that are virtuous (or become so), foster a delight in beauty, and fertilize the imagination with pregnant symbols of transcendent truth? Then it's Good Fantasy, no matter how badly written. Take heart, Terry.

To those who still don't like Fantasy, I wish you the best. I'll just pick up my pearls and go home.


SK said...

Excellent post, and I agree whole-heartedly. I read fantasy for many of the reasons that you illustrate, and people who seek to make fantasy "more realistic," or impose upon me their worthless, nihilistic, soulless fictional world-view can go fu---

Well, they can go do something with or to themselves. Enjoyed the post :)


everlastingscribe said...

I agree with the points that you made, but working in a book store I can tell you that some people just don't like dragons and knights and callow youth and quests and magic and so on and so forth. Some people just don't like detective fiction either, or military fiction. I think that for those, not liking the genre is fine, just a personal preference. However the ones that attack fantasy as being less than the others are indeed wrong.

Fantasy has crossed over into classics too, like "Fahrenheit 451" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and I would use those to remind people that Fantasy throughout history has run before science and also stopped and made people think. Fantasy has all ways been the 'back door' to the mind of the reader where the writer can address topics of the day by putting them in a 'land far far away' Call it what you will, genre, bully pulpit, back-door to the mind, fantasy is a powerful and dangerous thing and it is here to stay.

Zonk said...

Thanks sk :D

Don't get all worked up now, lol.

I know,everlastingscribe (great name!), of course some folks won't ever like Fantasy, but if you go back and read my posts, the folks I'm really twitting here are those that have the attitude you mentioned in the ultimate sentence of your first graf.


Roheryn said...

That's a brilliant way to put it!
Although one thing that bugs me, ish those who seem to think that all fantasy ish the same. I've gotten people who ask me how I'm not bored of it yet, because they are all so similiar.

gdtownshende said...

Great post, Zonk!

Re: the statement you noted at the beginning, 'But it isn't real'...

When Tolkien first sought to have THE HOBBIT published, he went to a German publisher, and the response he got was... 'But Hobbits aren't real' or 'But Hobbits don't exist' or something along those lines. He mentioned this in some front-matter somewhere, and I can't find it at the moment.

Since we're talking fantasy, did you know that the Robert Jordan died recently? Middle of last month, as I recall.

Zonk said...

GT!!! *bows*

I've heard or read that story about Tolkien somewhere before, I think. Sounds German to me :P.

Heard about Jordan, too. Some wag on AW said that the Wheel of Time series has to end now, O.o (obviously not a Jordan fan...).

Sad. Jordan has done for a younger generation what Tolkien did years ago (not that I think he is as good as J.R.R. - who is?), that is, create and sustain a believable world and memorable characters over the course of a long series. Staggering feat.

Good to hear from you, my friend!


gdtownshende said...

Yeah, I was never much of a Jordan fan, either. I read the first book, and that was all I could take of it. It stuck me as too much of a Tolkien rip-off, and all I could think as I was reading it was, "Tolkien did it better." Nevertheless, I do think that Jordan did a lot to help keep readers interested in the genre.

As to his Wheel of Time series, I've read that he had intended it to last for only twelve books, and he was at work on the last volume when he died. The article on him at Wikipedia indicated that he's written enough of the last volume, and has enough notes on what he intended to do with it that it can (and probably will) be finished for him posthumously.

gdtownshende said...

I was just rereading your last comment and it made me wonder...

Did I misunderstand you regarding being a fan of Jordan? :/

Zonk said...

Don't think you really misunderstood me, GT: I respect what Jordan was able to do, but I wasn't able to finish the series (I mean, if I have to read about that girl pulling her braid one more time...:S).

Still, there are lots of (especially younger) readers out there for whom Jordan is their Tolkien, and you have to be thankful that at least he brought them into the fold :P.

Roheryn said...

September 16th to be exact.
To be exacter, at 2:45 PM approx.

The latest news ish that his wife and head of the publishing house will finish A Memory of Light, based on the notes, and audio recoredings that Jordan left.

Ih, I'm a fan... not to say that I'm not a fan of Tolkien, I like thme both. But I couldn't tell ya who I like better. I'm not fond of comparing worlds.

Deanna said...

You write very well.