Jun 23, 2009

On Fantasy and Why I Read It

Agnetea and the Sea King by John Bauer

Today, June 23rd, is Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers’ Day. My original plan was to pay tribute to my favourite genre with a review of Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin, a collection of essay and talks “on how & why fantasy matters.” But sadly I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, so instead I’ll have to tell you why fantasy matters to me.

I love fantasy. This does not mean I automatically like everything that is fantasy—you’d think this would go without saying, but strangely some people do make that assumption. They seem to believe that fantasy readers are undiscerning, and more than that, that if they want their reading choices to be respected, they have to justify the merit of every fantasy novel ever written. This is something that honestly puzzles me. I am drawn to imaginary beings and landscapes, to stories that stretch the limits of the real, to myths, to legends, to folklore and to fairy tales, and so I love fantasy. But this does not mean I will love all of it, just like someone who loves realistic fiction, historical fiction or mysteries will not love them all.

“Escapism” is a term you hear a lot in connection with fantasy, and with speculative fiction in general. This is something I’ve never quite been able to understand. I know how the argument goes: we “escape” into another world to get a break from thinking about the problems afflicting our own. That's fine, but what I don’t understand is how “escaping” into a fantasy world is any different from escaping into another time, another place, or very simply into another life.

Books of any genre allow us to escape our lives in the sense that they allow us to experience different realities, different ways of living, different problems, different sorrows and joys. And while we’re doing that, we momentarily forget our own. But this does not mean we shut our brains off. Quite the opposite—when we read a good story we are fully engaged intellectually and emotionally, and if the book is a very good one, when we return to our own skins we are a little changed.

I’m also puzzled by the assumption that because a story is not realistic, it will automatically be light, cheery, and dominated by simplistic moral absolutes. This is true of some fantasy, of course, just like it’s true of some realistic fiction. It’s not, however, in any way an inherent characteristic of fantasy. I honestly doubt there is much of a difference when it comes to the ratio between “fluff” and “serious books” in fantasy and realistic fiction, however we define those terms.

On a similar note, I’ve been told that fantasy is meaningless because it’s not about real people or real situations. And I ask, what else could it possibly be about? No, Middle-Earth, Narnia, Prydain, Earthsea and Discworld do not exist, but is anything that happens there really unheard of? What are their inhabitants doing, if not dealing with very human situations and dilemmas? War and violence are sadly very familiar. The problems that arise when we dehumanize otherd are unfortunately very familiar. Growing up is familiar, and so is leaving home and going to a new place, or trying to find home, or feeling like a stranger, facing danger, looking for something but not quite knowing what. Responding to our landscape, to the world we live in, to its strangeness, to its beauty, are also familiar.

It honestly surprises me that anyone would say that fantasy is not about human feelings. Of course, the specific details of a fantasy plot—a human turning into an animal or the reverse, the lost key to a hidden kingdom being found, temporarily leaving the world as we know it, travelling in time, and so on—do not correspond to actual situations we experience. But the important thing is that the emotions these experiences cause do. Fantasy stories are not factual, but they still reveal emotional truths.

According to T.S. Eliot, “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”. This is to say, if a work of art is to successfully express an emotion, it must present a situation that is sufficient to justify that emotion. But you know what constantly lacks an “objective correlative”? Real life. How often do we experience emotions that our circumstances alone cannot convincingly justify, not even to ourselves? And this too is why we need fantasy. Fantasy allows us to create images and to explore alternatives, and very often through these we can express emotional realities more accurately than through reality itself. This is something nearly all my favourite fantasies do, and it’s one of the main reasons why I keep returning to fantasy, why I find it so satisfying.

I also resent the notion that fantasy—or genre fiction of whatever kind—is more constrained by conventions and offers fewer possibilities than so-called non-genre fiction does. Yes, genre conventions do exist, but the Genre Police does not go after authors who break them. In fact, some of my favourite books are exactly ones that play with these conventions, books in which the authors used their knowledge of the expectations readers would have to take the story further. I could also write at length about how realistic fiction, or “literary fiction” (a term I try to avoid), has its own set of conventions, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day.

Recently I read a post by David Williams in which he “called bullshit” on Ursula Le Guin for responding to those who, when writer J.G. Ballard passed away, wrote the usual of-course-what-he-wrote-wasn’t-really-science-fiction diatribes – the kind of thing you hear about books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and more recently The Road. They are Works of Quality (and for the record, they’re all books I loved), they’re Respectable, and therefore they Cannot Possibly Be Science Fiction. I could give you fantasy examples involving names like Borges, Rushdie, Byatt or Angela Carter, but I’m sure you get the point.

Some of Williams’ points, like the fact that subservience is not a good strategy, are certainly valid ones, and I’m all for ignoring “the close-minded guardians of a dying culture” in the sense of not letting them tell me what to read, or what to take seriously, or what to be ashamed of reading. But I don’t think that’s what this is about. I don’t think that’s why Ursula Le Guin decided to take a stance, to argue back, to present clear arguments that expose the prejudice and close-mindedness behind statements of that kind.

It’s not about subordination. It’s not about insecurity. It’s not about craving “their” approval. The point of speaking out is, first of all, that someone might actually listen. And secondly, there’s the fact that prejudice and ignorance don’t really seem to go away on their own. History shows us that “Oh yeah? Well, who cares what you think anyway” unfortunately doesn’t take us very far.

Fantasy doesn’t need critical attention so that it can be validated or become respectable. But it deserves critical attention because it is, and always has been, worthy of respect. And if attitudes change, who knows, maybe more interesting ideas will be exchanged, maybe new readers will discover the genre, maybe more rewarding books about fantasy will get written—like the one on world-building on whose absence China MiĆ©ville commented recently.

Titania by Arthur Rackman Zenobia by Warwick Goble

What about you? Why (or why not) do you think fantasy matters?

70 comments:

Melissa said...

Beautifully written!! I, too, love fantasy and for many of the reasons you have listed. One simple reason I also think fantasy matters is because there needs to be an outlet for true imagination and creativity--something so different from our own world, yet also relatable. I think it in turn drives our imaginations. I try to picture the lands, beasts, and people of the fantastical worlds of which I'm reading.

By the way, I'd be curious to hear what your top 5 or 10 fantasy recommendations would be. I'm looking for some fantasy books to add to my TBR pile :-) If you'd prefer to email me, please fel free--mlb108[at]gmail.com.

Lenore said...

I've never been a big fantasy reader until recently. I am not a fan of completely made up planets with strange creatures and quests generally, but I love urban fantasy, fairy tales, dystopias, and genre/convention bending stories.

I'd also be interested in a list of your top fantasy recommendations - not so much the well-known ones, but more the hidden gems.

Debi said...

Oh Ana, this was exquisite! Truly, this was an exceptionally beautiful post.

As you know, I'm still pretty new to fantasy. But on my part it was never a judgment call; I was never avoiding it. I just spent many, many years "in a reading rut." One of the many things I'm so very grateful to blogging for (in fact, it probably falls second on the list, after the incredible friends I've made) is how much it has expanded my reading horizons. Of course, it's also through blogging that I've learned that these ridiculous "prejudices" of various types of writing even exist.

For me, fantasy matters in the way that everything else I read matters. I know it's probably not "terribly intellectual" of me (and I also know you won't judge me for it), but when I really think about it, I think there are two reasons why I read anything: to learn and to feel. When I sat here thinking about it, it first popped into my head that I read non-fiction to learn and fiction to feel, but quickly realized that's not true at all. What I learn reading fiction may in some ways be different than reading non-fiction, but the things I learn about the human experience are no less real than are tidy little facts. And a work of non-fiction can be every bit as powerful emotionally as a novel. To be perfectly honest, genre confuses me. I understand that people feel compelled to "classify" things, and I understand that classifying things can be useful. But I think the things that are important to me in a book simply transcend any genre label, and in that way they simply aren't useful.

Thank you, Ana...this was a lovely way to start the day! Both because I absolutely loved this post specifically, but also because it's just so nice to hear from you!!!

Amanda said...

While fantasy isn't my favorite genre - I do read some but not as much as many people - the same words can be applied to almost any genre that people read, and that's what makes this post beautiful. I get so tired of people judging what a genre or group of books *should* be about. I applaud fantasy, because it has gone beyond its own bounds and succeeded that way. And I love that there are so many avenues of fiction out there that you can learn and grow from the fantasy you read, I can learn and grow from my dystopias, someone else can learn and grow from historical fiction or romance or whatever.

Jo said...

Such an amazing post, a really great read! Thank you!

Fantasy matters to me because it got me reading; before I discovered it, I didn't read unless I had to. It was the wonder and the awe and the excitement Fantasy brought me that made me pick up book after book. I do now branch out from Fantasy; I read Romance and some non-Fantasy YA, but I doubt I would have if it wasn't for that first Fantasy novel. And now? Well, I am continually amazed by the worlds people create; the rules, the creatures, the religions, the races, etc, and how it all just fits in those novels, it's incredible. Talent and imagination like that needs an outlet, and Fantasy provides it.

Maree said...

I could not have put it better myself. I have no more words. Well, I do, lots, but they all mean "this post is awesome and true and right and you read my mind, which is spooky". Also it's 2am here, which is why I sound spacy.
It's everything that I think is true about being a reader of fantasy.
Thank you.

Trisha said...

Wonderfully said, Ana! Being a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was very glad to read this. I am a college professor, and my students, and some colleagues for that matter, tend to see my enjoyment of such "low fiction" as a source of amusement. I think many people are woefully undereducated regarding the realm of SSF, tending to see it merely as Star Trek-type novels and readers of the genre being those who dress up and attend conventions (not that I'm saying there is anything wrong with either of those things).

I know that most can't tell you the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Thanks for the post!

Stephanie said...

An excellent post!! I had planned on doing a similar post, but it may be a little late today. Found something else to blog about....and I need some sleep.

Personally, I'm still pretty new to the fantasy genre. I was not one of those kids that got lost in Narnia or Tolkien. I credit Charles de Lint for this new found love. I read The Little Country about 4 or 5 years ago, without having a clue what it was about. And it was beautiful!! I fell head-over-heels in love with it...and fantasy as a genre. Now, between that and YA, it's almost all that I read.

I love the beauty of fantasy. It takes me to worlds I would love to enter and people that I would love to meet. It expands the mind and the imagination...and that can not be a bad thing.

All my kids are deeply centered in fantasy literature. My fault indeed. But it makes them happy. And that is what reading is about, isn't it? Doing something we enjoy!

Color Online said...

"Fantasy doesn’t need critical attention so that it can be validated or become respectable. But it deserves critical attention because it is, and always has been, worthy of respect."

Isn't this true of most genres? I won't say all because I can't honestly say I believe that about all but that's not the point. The point is the error is unjustly being critical of genres we know little or nothing about.

I thought I didn't like fantasy but that's because I didn't know enough about it to find what I did like. Like Lenore, I do like urban fantasy. I think fantasy like childrens books and YA, is too easily dismissed when the reality is writing well in each of these genres takes real skill.

I think we'd be better off judging the quality of a genre by the writing itself not the genre label.

Well said, Nymeth. Enjoyed this.

marineko said...

I love this post! I agree with a lot of what you said - I've been trying to write something about why I like Fantasy nothing is coming out like how I actually feel it should, and your post is perfect :D

Masha said...

This is something I often think about. I liked your points, there are many of them that I had never clearly articulated to myself. But I also wrote about this topic a while ago...The Band-Aid of Fantasy

Jason Gignac said...

I'm curious ...

So, your post does it good job of describing why Fantasy doesn't not matter. Why do you think it does matter? I'm sorry, I'm not good at asking questions, so that kind of sounds belligerent, I'm really not - I love some SciFi and Fantasy, and I'm an old sop for fairy tales :D. The frustrating thing to me about fantasy, etc, is that one can't talk about it without entering a culture war - it's always about whether or not you have the right to even discuss it in the same sentence as 'literature', rather than what it is that matters in fantasy.

Personally, I think there must be something peculiarly special about fantasy - after all, the oldest works of literature that we've kept are more or less fantasy (leastways we'd think of them as fantasy now) - the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, the plays of Aeschylus, just for example. So, why do you think Fantasy, etc are good for?

bermudaonion said...

Of course fantasy matters! I haven't read much fantasy and haven't loved what I've read, but that doesn't mean the genre doesn't have value. For one thing, I may not have selected the right books to read and for another, not every genre is for everyone. By the way, my son and my sister love fantasy.

ds said...

Hi, Nymeth! This is my second 'visit' to your blog (the first was to your post on Katha Pollitt, which I loved), and I suppose you can 'blame' Carl or C.B. or any of several others for the fact that I am here. This is a wonderful post! Your fourth paragraph says everything about reading. Period. I, too, am one who never thought of herself as a reader of fantasy until I reflected on my love of Narna, Tolkien, myth, Arthurian legend, Lloyd Alexander, etc. etc (and think how many of those fall into "classics"). Perhaps if we were just to strip fiction of its genre labels entirely, more people would discover more great books--in every direction. Thank you. You have a great blog (though you don't need me to tell you so).

Masha said...

Ds wrote: "Perhaps if we were just to strip fiction of its genre labels entirely, more people would discover more great books--in every direction."

That is so true!

Meghan said...

This is a wonderful post, Nymeth! You have said everything that I feel about fantasy better than I could have said it myself. Genres are somewhat stupid conventions and I do resent the fact that "classics" which happen to involve fantastic elements can't possibly be shelved in fantasy themselves. I do think we hurt ourselves more than we help with genre labels.

And I hear from my dad all the time about how silly fantasy is, as you say, because it's not real, but you're absolutely right about emotional truths. It sparks the imagination, it gets us involved in another world, and it can teach us so much about our own. It can be escapism, but it can also be vastly more.

Jeane said...

Fantastic post, Nymeth. I love what you said about how characters in fantasy are "dealing with very human situations and dilemmas." That's what I love about it. Fantasy stretches my mind, engages my imagination, and yet still teaches me something about being human. It's like the insight a dream will give you, while at the same time being far from reality, it puts a mirror back on how true things are (if that makes any sense).

Terri B. said...

Ahhh ... you've written a post from my own heart. I've always thought that much science fiction and fantasy is about the human condition, even if the "person" looks like a cat, etc.

Lisa said...

Very nicely put. Fantasy is not one of my first choices; however, I do read it some and enjoy much of what I read. I agree with you 100% regarding reading choices and prejudices. I don't like making blanket statements about entire categories of books. There are some great books and some crappy books in every genre. In addition, personal taste, background, etc. also plays a role in what someone will enjoy. To each her own, I say!

Scrap girl said...

Your posts are truly beautiful. You really put your heart and soul into your writing and it would be clear to anyone why you love fantasy. I love fantasy books and feel the world would be such a boring place without it. There are some I don't enjoy and I have always avoided The Lord of the Rings trilogy as I don't think it would be my cup of tea. That probably is a statement that shocks many - how can I read fantasy and not read these. Well, I suppose it is choice and I choose not too. However, there are many that I do read and love.

Shanra said...

I'm going to join the band wagon here and remark on how beautiful this post is, Nymeth. You've answered your own questions at the end far more eloquently and effectively than I ever could.

(I suppose if I tried to sort my thoughts I could come up with a longer response, which your post certainly deserves, but I'm all out of public-brave today. ^-^; )

mjmbecky said...

Nice job in expressing the ins and outs of fantasy reading. I have to say that from my own experience with readers (as a teacher), that my fantasy readers tend to be a little brighter and more creative. Other students often joke about their separation from "reality" (whatever that is to a teenager anyway), but I've found my fantasy readers to have much better focus and creativity. :)

C. B. James said...

Very well said. I don't understand why people refuse to read certain genres at all. I like good books. I'm not all that particular about what genre they are. So I read science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, realistic fiction, non-fiction, biography, memoir, westerns, short stories, just about all that you can name. Except romance. Romance is silly. ;-)

I'm off to read the Le Guin article. Thanks for linking to it.

Beth F said...

I'm so late and pretty much everything's been said. Excellent post! Fantasy absolutely explores important issues--from larger political to ethical to personal--that affect each of us in the real world.

Melody said...

This is a great post, Nymeth! I agree with the things you said here, so true!

As to why I read fantasy... they're a great escapism and I feel there're always something we can learn from the stories (as the same applies to other genres). And most of all, I'm in awe of the authors' creativity for weaving out stories that's beyond this world! :D

Amy said...

Beautiful post, Ana! Made me want to read some fantasy. I really the snobbery.

And Jason...I think the paragraph which starts "According to T.S. Eliot..." answers the question.

Jason Gignac said...

Amy...
I would agree, except that, as she obliquely points out, all literature is, in some form or another, an escape from reality into someone else's reality. Jane Eyre isn't fantasy, but it's not 'real life' either. The same could be said of Jane Austen. Or James Joyce, even.

Memory said...

This may be my favourite blog post ever. I think you're absolutely right about emotional truths; so many of my favourite novels are fantasy because I find that fantasy authors are especially willing to delve into their characters' inner lives and figure out what made them tick. I mean, I'm not saying they have a monopoly on it, but I find that most (though certainly not all) fantasy has a much larger emphasis on character and emotional growth than most (though certainly not all) of the general fiction I read.

mee said...

Oh I love fantasy. It can sometimes be more real than the so-called real-world fiction (think soap-opera, any Cinderella theme stories, exaggerated drama, the list goes on..)

Susan said...

Nymeth, what a simply splendid post. You use arguments I haven't seen used before. Now I have to go plot my post, and I think I'll refer people back here. I really think this should become part of the fantasy reading manifesto :-D so when people look askance at us when we say we read fantasy, we can hand them your post. I really liked how you included other writers and opinions too.
If we had a golden key for bloggers, I think you'd get it for this!! :-D

And don't you think it's sad that even now, almost 60 years after Lord of The Rings was published, we still have to defend fantasy as genuine literature?

Eva said...

Here, here! Loved the link to the Tolkien article too. :D

Chris said...

What an absolutely fan frickin tastic post Nymeth!!! Thanks so much for saying so eloquently what all of us fantasy lovers want to say :) I've tried before, but I end up going off on a tirade :p

Teresa said...

Great posts. You make lots of great points. Really, I don't understand why people think that David Copperfield or Hester Prynee or Scout Finch are any more real than Frodo Baggins or Roland Deschain or Meg Murry. In fact, I sometimes think fantasy can be even more illuminating than realistic fiction because it forces us to perceive human dilemmas and struggles with a sort of distance that it harder to achieve when reading about our own world and its real problems. I read plenty of realistic fiction and nonfiction, but my reading diet would be incomplete without fantasy and science fiction.

Rebecca :) said...

I love your post, Ana! It is thoughtful, intelligent, and heartfelt. Amazing.

I am not a huge fan of science fiction or fantasy books, but I certainly have read some. 1984 is one of my favorite books and while it is very political and very dystopian, it is also very much science fiction. I don't see how anyone can make a solid argument against that.

I think Harry Potter is wonderfully clever and that the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be Christian but it is also definitely fantasy and still a great work of literature. (To be honest, I have only seen these movies, but they were brilliant nonetheless.)

I have been guilty many times of labeling genres "escapism", but I would hardly tag SF or fantasy genres 'escapism' because my definition of the term seems to be a bit different than most. I term 'escapism' as books and movies that don't really require you to think, to hypothesize, to look inside of yourself, to philosophize. I have labeled many books 'escapism' (mostly 'chick lit', I admit) but I would find it difficult to lump all of a genre into such a term. Many titles (including in 'chick lit') cannot be lumped into a category like that. It is stereotyping no matter how you look at it. I am reminded of my post from last week on Book Snobbery.

Great post. Good for you for standing up for and intelligently defending your love of these genres.

heidenkind said...

Great post. I love those Dulac illustrations, too.

violetcrush said...

I had never looked down upon fantasy even though I don't read much of it. It's simply for the lack of good books being available here. Fantasy is important because it lets you experience different worlds and lets you escape just like other Genre's do. People who look down upon fantasy have a very narrow imagination.

Great Post Nymeth.

I wanted to ask you something. I recently picked up Powers by Ursula Le Guin without looking at the summary or anything. I was just glad I found something from the author I had heard so much about. When I reached home I realized it was the third book in the series (Gifts, voices, powers). Have you read any of these? Is it necessary to read them in order?

Alice Teh said...

AMEN!! Ana, thank you so much for this post. People have always look at me funny because I read fantasy. They often made comments that imply that I should spend my time more profitably, etc etc. I'll just show them this post. Thank you!!!

Nymeth said...

Melissa, you make a very good point. There's something so satisfying in itself in just letting your imagination run free, in ignoring reality's rules. That too is part of the joys of fantasy. And hmm... this list might change if you asked me another day, but today I'll say:

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A.S. Byatt
The Annals of the Western Shore (Gifts/Voices/Powers) by Ursula Le Guin
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (a recent addition, but no list of favourites of mine can leave it out from now on :P)

Lenore: I'm actually not too big a fan of most epic fantasy either, with the exception of LoTR. Fairy tale retellings and dystopias are probably my favourite subgenres of speculative fiction, though :) Hmm, hidden gems... I think anything by Kij Johnson deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Same goes for The Good Fairies of New York and Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar. He does have a following, but it seems to be more of a cult one, which is unfair. And Philip Pullman is known for HDM, but it seems that no one ever mentions I Was a Rat - a lovely and very original fairy tale retelling.

Debi, I'm so glad you enjoyed it :) And I don't see anything not intellectual about reading to learn and to feel. In fact, I really can't think of better purposes. I don't like genre labels either. Michael Chabon has said that the perfect bookstore would have books organized alphabetically, period. I love that idea.

Amanda: You're right, it goes for any genre. Yet some people seem determined to go around enforcing rules that only exist in their heads.

Jo: Thank you for the kind words! I agree that fantasy has an ability to hook readers, especially when we're young, that other genres don't always have.

Maree: Thank you too! We are of one mind about so many things that I'm not surprised we agree on this also :)

Trisha: It truly makes me happy to know there are professors like you out there making a difference, fighting against those attitudes even if in a small way. It's true, most of those who dismiss fantasy are terribly ignorant of it, and the most puzzling thing of all is how proud they are of their ignorance. Yet if someone decided they all classics were a waste of time without ever having read one, they'd never hear the end of it.

Stephanie, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic! I actually only discovered fantasy in my late teens, via The Hobbit. But I was always in love with myths and fairy tales, so it was only a matter of time :) I love the fact that your kids love fantasy too! Definitely a good thing to be "blamed" for.

Susan: I think it is, yes. Dismissing whole groups of books that probably have little in common beyond their genre label is always a dangerous mistake.

Marineko: You should write about it also! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Masha, thank you again for the link to your post. I really enjoyed reading it.

Nymeth said...

Jason: First of all, don't worry, you didn't sound belligerent! And you're right that I wrote about strengths that are not unique to fantasy, rather than what sets it apart. There are two reasons for that: first, because like you said, fantasy is always being put down and separated from "real" literature, and I want to bridge the gap. Secondly, it's because of the way I read: what I look for in fantasy isn't ultimately very different from what I look for in other kinds of fiction. Having said that, I do agree that there are things that are unique to fantasy. First, it allows us to ask questions that would be difficult to ask if we stuck to realism. This goes for sci-fi also, of course. What would happen if society were organized like this or that? If there was no gender? If nobody ever died? How would people feel? Secondly, it creates imagines that are better that illustrating certain feelings than reality does. And finally, doing away with any kind of limits - be it time, mortality, the laws of physics, what we think of as possible or not, you name it, just has a unique sort of power, a very strong grip on us. It creates a feeling of awe that I rarely feel when reading realistic fiction. I could probably come up with other reasons after giving this some more thought...maybe a part II of this post is called for? :P

Bermudaonion: I agree that not every fantasy is for everyone, yes. And I suspect there might be a perfect fantasy book out there for you :) The genre is really diverse, much more so than people tend to think.

ds: Thank you so much for the kind words! And yes, doing away with genre labels altogether is an idea that I find very, very appealing.

Meghan: I resent that a lot myself. Like Jason was saying above, what is The Odyssey if not fantasy? People seem to forget that no piece of fiction is ever real, regardless of whether or not it obeys the rules of what could be real. And every kind of fiction has the possibility of just being escapism or something more. It's what you do with it.

Jeane: "It teaches me something about being human" - I really like how you worded that. It's so true.

Terri B: Maybe it's a limitation of the human imagination, but we can't see to ever leave ourselves behind completely. No matter what we're writing about, of course we're going to bring our insight into it.

Lisa: You'd think that people would know better than to make sweeping generalizations about whole genres, but no :/ To each her own, definitely!

Scrap Girl: Thank you so much! You're right, the world would be a lot more boring without fantasy, without our imagination. And it's totally okay to love fantasy but not LOTR! I do love it, but it's actually one of the few epic fantasies that work for me.

Shanra: Long or short, your responses are always very much appreciated :) I'm very glad you enjoyed the post!

Becky: Like I was telling Tricia, I love that there are teachers that don't discourage their students from reading fantasy. I mean, of course that many, many teachers are wiser than that, but I see the "other" kind so often that I almost forget.

C.B. James: lol! Yeah, down with romance ;) There are a few genres that I haven't explored properly yet, but I'm sure there are books I enjoy in them all. How could there not be, if you consider how many books get written and how diverse they are? Ursula Le Guin's article is short, but she makes all her points and she makes them well.

Beth: Thank you! And yes, so true.

Melody: We all read for different purposes, and I completely respect the readers who do seek escapism in fantasy - nothing wrong with it! I'm completely with you on the feeling of awe it creates, though. I love that :)

Nymeth said...

Amy: Down with snobbery of any kind! And I guess a lot of what I said about fantasy goes for other genres as well, but I think the emotional satisfaction some of the images we find in fantasy literature give us really is unique.

Jason: You both have a point :P Now I'll be thinking about this and writing a part II in my head all day :P

Memory, thank you so much! I agree with you - some if not most of my absolute favourite characters are fantasy characters. And yet you hear people go on and on about how most characters in fantasy are nothing more than types. That's true of myths and fairy tales and there's nothing wrong with it, but it's definitely not to of most of the fantasy I love.

Mee: Some fantasy stories are definitely a lot more real than realistic stories!

Susan, thank you! I really look forward to reading your post! You've written some wonderful posts on fantasy yourself, you know. So we can hand people some of yours as well :P And yes...I think it's very, very sad.

Eva: I really loved it as well! Made me like China Mieville even more :)

Chris: Well, nothing wrong with tirades! Especially when written by you :P

Teresa: Exactly! That distance allows the stories to ask questions that really couldn't be explored otherwise.

Rebecca: That's actually how I tend to define "escapism" myself, which is why I dislike the term so much. If you see it as stepping into the skin of another, then that's fine. But if you define it as not having to think at all (as so many people seem to when talking about fantasy) then no, the fantasy I read is definitely not escapism. I'm sure there's some mindless fantasy out there, but that's not the kind I like.

Heidenkind: Thank you! I included the names of the artists as alt text, but I forgot that not all browsers show it. The first is by John Bauer, the second by Arthur Rackman and the third by Warwick Goble. I can see why they made you think of Dulac, though, whom I also love :)

Violet: I have read them, yes, and I think they're brilliant! I'm so glad you picked it up. I think you'll be fine reading it without having read Gifts or Voices, yes. The three books have completely separate plots and different protagonists. They're just set in the same world. The only thing is that the protagonists of the first two books make an appearance at the end of Powers, but you don't need to know who they are for the story to make sense. It's perhaps more moving if you do, but you can always read the book again after reading Gifts and Voices :)

Alice, thank *you* for the kind words! Reading fantasy is one of my favourite things to do with my time. I guess my life is a huge waste in the eyes of some people :P

DesLily said...

simply said: to me, if one cannot imagine the impossible, then the possibilities of reality are very limited.

Debi said...

"Michael Chabon has said that the perfect bookstore would have books organized alphabetically, period. I love that idea."

That is one of the smartest ideas I've ever heard!!!! Now how can we make bookstores do it? I'm tired of feeling stupid because I can't figure out what genre a book "belongs" to. Ooooh, I can only imagine what unique-to-me treasures I might find that way, too...

Jason Gignac said...

I'm not sure I agree with the 'let's just lump all books together.' A bookstore where all the books were just on one shelf alphabetically would actually be terrible, in my mind - you can't really browse it, and while it's wonderful that there is so much written in this world, at any given point in any given person's life, 95% of books that exist are the wrong book, altogether. Books, like people, should avoid bigotry while developing affinities. Now, whether the genre system currently used is the best way to order by affinity is certainly arguable (though it makes more sense in, say, non-fiction, where I may want a book on World War II, or a memoir, or whatever). I would argue more, oddly enough, that the perfect organization of books is more like Amazon (thoguh Amazon is imperfect) - a system in which books are linked together by a ccomplex web of reader recommendations and hash-tags. Of course, that's impossible in a bricks and mortar store...

Nymeth said...

Deslily: Maybe simply, but also perfectly!

Devi: I'm glad I'm not the only one crazy enough to like the idea :P That's what I think would happen: we'd stumble across things we'd never discover otherwise. Maybe some or even most would be bad, but there would be some gems in there as well.

Jason: It'd be a bad idea to organize ALL bookstores and libraries like that, of course, simply because categories do help us a lot if we're looking for something specific, which we are a lot of the time. Like you said, we develop affinities as readers and there's nothing wrong with that. And we do need a guiding system, or else we'd get lost in the universe of everything that has been published. But having one bookstore like that would be a lot of fun, I think. It'd be a unique browsing experience, and also an interesting mental exercise: it would force us to put aside our preconceptions and just take each book at face value. Of course, we might have to include dust jackets into the bargain, as the notion of genre is very often conveyed as much by the cover art as by bookstore placement. Anyway, I think I'd have fun browsing a bookstore like that. And I agree: Amazon's if-you-like-this-you-might-also-like system is a very good one. Too bad it only works online.

Violet said...

Thanks Nymeth. I think I'll try and find the first 2 books. Powers can wait, it's not like I have a shortage of books to read :)

carolsnotebook said...

What a wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing. I enjoy reading fantasy novels, but could not have put it as well as you did.

claire said...

Beautiful post! And thank you, because I love fantasy so very very much, too.

Staci said...

Love your writing so much!!! I love almost every genre and am willing to step outside of my comfort zone for a good read. I never paid attention to fantasy until about 14 years ago a co-worker let me borrow an Anne McCaffrey book about Pern...I was hooked and I've never looked back!!

Terri B. said...

I didn't read through all of the comments nor all of your responses (so forgive me if I reiterating something someone already said!), but your response to Jason caught my eye when you said:

"First, it allows us to ask questions that would be difficult to ask if we stuck to realism. This goes for sci-fi also, of course. What would happen if society were organized like this or that? ..."

This took me back a couple of decades to the label of "speculative fiction." I still remember having my terminology corrected by a science fiction fan. The point, of course, was just what you stated ... the "what if" factor. It was to draw focus to the speculative (and sometimes fantastical) nature of the literature rather than simply the science aspects of it, which was off putting to those not necessarily interested in "science."

I really think that much of the best literature of the 60s and 70s was in the SF "category/genre."

Great post and conversation here :o)

Jason Gignac said...

One of the other things I find interesting about fantasy - good fantasy partiularly (and scifi, too) - is the mythopoeic quality of some of it - I think your like to Tolkien recently discussed that too. There is something (at least to me) very stimulating about the feel of an entire well-considered world to enter. It gives you the feeling that there are a thousand stories hidden inside the other stories. I've just started reading William Blake, recently, and his poems are a lot like that as well, and then the Brontes Verreopolis writing too. I guess I'm not smart enough to know WHY that's valuable, but it feels valuable, intuitively

Fyrefly said...

A lovely post! I hear a lot of people say "Oh, I don't read fantasy" (or sci-fi), but at the same time, I see a lot of fantasy elements creeping into non-genre fiction. I mean, I get that giant epic sword-and-sorcery tomes are not everybody's cup of tea, but The Time Traveler's Wife is technically just as much science fiction as if it'd had space ships. As George R. R. Martin has said, stories are stories, and the only the furniture determines whether it's historical, fantasy, sci-fi, western, etc.

Zibilee said...

Great post! You express yourself very eloquently on this topic and give me much food for thought. I have to admit, I am not much f a fantasy reader, but I think that is partially because I have had some negative assumptions about the genre, and partially because I am lost when it comes to discerning the good fantasy from the bad. I have, however, found many great recommendations on your site and look forward to reading a few of the book you've mentioned. Maybe in a few months time I will be able to say that I've found a new genre to love.

Aarti said...

What a wonderful post! I am a fantasy lover as well, and I hate the way people look at you as though you are not quite rooted in reality when you let loose this fact. Fantasy is just as real as fiction is. And I agree- authors such as Rushdie and Garcia-Marquez and so many other wonderful ones (usually not western) really grey the area, to the betterment and enjoyment of a lot of people!

valentina said...

"Fantasy allows us to create images and to explore alternatives, and very often through these we can express emotional realities more accurately than through reality itself"
Perfectly said!
This was a beautiful post, I love how you defend your literary passions with well-exposed arguments and conclusions which would be hard to deny. I'm going to show this post to a friend of mine who says he doesn't have time for fantasy because it doesn't speak about real life, and thus he can't relate to it. Maybe you can change his mind?;)

Daphne said...

Did I not comment on this already? I totally meant to. What a beautifully written post. It made me think about how sometimes, the best way to describe something is through metaphor. Fantasy can sometimes work as metaphor and can more readily access the deeper parts of our hearts and minds. Also, I think that pure imagination and fantasy are devalued in our society and that fantasy plays an important role in sustaining pure imagination and creativity. I especially love Charles de Lint's work for this reason -- although his books are every bit as 'real' as 'literary fiction', the elements of fantasy which he employs illustrate what's happening with the main characters so eloquently.

I know that my own daydreams and night dreams are richer because of the fantasy works I've read, and my daily experiences are placed in a new perspective when I read fantasy.

naida said...

nice post!
'Books of any genre allow us to escape our lives in the sense that they allow us to experience different realities, different ways of living, different problems, different sorrows and joys. And while we’re doing that, we momentarily forget our own'
well said!
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Nymeth said...

Violet: Yep, same here :P

Carol and Claire, thank you so much!

Staci, you're too kind! And can you believe I've yet to read Pern? A huge gap in my fantasy reading, I know!

Terri B: I absolutely love the "what if" factor, and I think that to some extent it drives all storytelling. Speculative fiction just happens to take it further.

Jason: Yes! Just a few days ago I was writing my thoughts on Tolkine's The Children of Hurin and I mentioned exactly that. I'm not smart enough to explain it either, but I know I love it. Have you read Tolkien's On Fairy Stories? Despite the title it's not really about fairy tales, it's a long essay about fantasy in general, and he writes about that in some detail.

Fyrefly: You're absolutely right. And yet for some reason those books are pulled out of the "ghetto" while others aren't.

Zibilee: I think it's human nature to have some negative assumptions about some things. I'm guilty of the same regarding other genres, I know. But I hope you do have fantasy a chance some day :)

Aarti: lol, I know that look so well. And also the look people give me if I call Rushdie or Marquez's work fantasy :P

Valentina: It would make me very happy if he did change his mind :D Also, I love your new avatar!

Daphne, thank you so much! That China Mieville article about Tolkien I linked to at the very end of the post talks a bit about metaphor and how it works. I love that about fantasy as well.

Naida: That's the only way in which I can understand the term escapism, and in that sense I don't object to it, but it's really the least of it for me.

Jason Gignac said...

I haven't read it, but I've heard of it, I'll have to put it on my list.

Literary Feline said...

I really have nothing to add to what you and others have said. This is a brilliant post, Nymeth. And oh so true! Thank you.

Trish said...

I have to laugh at Wendy's comment because I'm thinking--comment #60, does it even matter what I say? :) You know what I mean.

Really, what I wanted to tell you was that this post is absolutely beautiful. Your passion is incredible and I admire how you beat down the stereotypes and false notions of the genre. I'll admit that I'm new to fantasy and I can't say it is my favorite, but I'm enjoying my ride and I'm appreciating the new worlds more and more. And I have you to thank, just a little bit, for your encouragement and excitement and influence, etc etc. I don't need to go on and on about how great I thought this post was, so I'll end by saying--just keep doing what you're doing. We're all listening and learning.

Lisa said...

I just wanted to comment on what a lovely post this is. I don't read a lot of what *I* consider to be traditional fantasy- I do read Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris and that type of urban fantasy. It does remind me of the argument that somehow romance writers are less of a writer than someone who writes mystery or literary fiction- it's all someone's hard work and time.

(This isn't very well thought out, my comment that is. Sorry.)

Rhinoa said...

I love fantasy and it does bother me the amount of prejudice against it in literary circles. Like you say any reading is escapism and just because a book or series is set in an alternative world or any setting does not make it less appealing, relevant or interesting. Has no one heard of metaphor these days?!? Animal Farm is essentially a fantasy novel (talking animals, come on), but gets a lot of respect so why not the rest of fantasy? I love looking at the human condition and fantasy is a great way to do that.

Nymeth said...

Wendy, thank you so much for the kind words!

Trish: Don't say that! Of course it matters - none of the previous comments were by YOU! Thank you for your words - I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear I made a difference, even if a small one :)

Lisa: It's true, there's a lot of prejudice surrounding romance as well. I've been guilty of it myself, but in recent years I always make an effort to remember how I feel when someone dismisses fantasy, and I try to be more open-minded.

Rhinoa: You're absolutely right! Animal Farm is fantasy and no mistake. And 1984 is sci-fi, so Orwell was a genre writer, oh noes!!111 People are silly, and thanks to their prejudice they're missing out. I'm glad we're not, though :P

Jason Gignac said...

Sorry, to poke an old thread, but I finally (kind of) figured out what was gnawing at me about this topic. Since you're a lot smarter about science fiction/fantasy than I am, I'm throwing the idea out there, to see what you think.
So, the world has gotten to a place, where people don't really have a home. People, especially in the West, no longer really live in tight communities, with identity, tradition, and a world view. Different people deal with this differently - evangelical religion, the whole urban 'tribe' idea, net communities like Post Secret, these all seem like the work of people looking for a new way to define what it means to live in a culture. I wonder if Sci-Fi and Fantasy are another way - if there's things so big missing from us that we need to look at very large canvasses to grasp at it. And what canvas is bigger than a world? It's funny, because a lot of things that are popular even outside of Sci-fi/Fantasy have a similar broad canvas, mythopoeic feel (Les Miserables as a muscial, for instance). Anyway, sort of muddled at it today in my Weekly Geek posting, and was curious if you see any of that? My idea of home is kind of skewed, so if this seems totally off base, it probably is :).

Nymeth said...

Jason: No need to apologize for commenting again! I'm the one who's sorry that it took me a while to get back to you, but at least it gave me time to think :P I agree with some of what you say, but for example, I think it's not really possible not to have an identity or worldview. You might have one that differs from your community's and thus feel disconnected and isolated - and as an atheist who grew up in a very Catholic town, I know what that's like - but the thing is, there are new forms of communities these days. Like you said, the internet plays a large role here, and I could go on about this for ages. Also, like we were discussing over at 5-Squared, I think cities do have traditions. They're not the same as rural traditions, granted, but rural traditions also changed over time.

Another thing is that fantasy isn't new - the oldest literature in the world is all fantasy. Because we as a species have always had this longing for imaginary worlds, I hesitate to use social phenomena from our time to explain it.

Anyway...the bit that I definitely agree with is that fantasy can give us something that's missing. The fact that it offers a whole world of possibilities makes it different, and potentially more rewarding in that sense than realistic fiction. I've been thinking about all of this too, and tomorrow I plan to finally post my thoughts on Cheek by Jowl by Ursula Le Guin. She says something about fantasy and our relationship with nature and wilderness that I hadn't considered before, but which makes a lot of sense to me, and which has to do with what you suggested here. I'm saving it for tomorrow - not to keep you in suspense, but because if I begin explaining I'll just start paraphrasing the post here :P

Jason Gignac said...

I can see the power of your counterargument, and look forward to your post tomorrow. Watch out, soon your comment section on all your posts will just become the place I needle you about fantasy ;).

Jason Gignac said...

I can see the power of your counterargument, and look forward to your post tomorrow. Watch out, soon your comment section on all your posts will just become the place I needle you about fantasy ;).

Heather J. said...

Wow, I can't believe I missed this when you first posted it! (Wait, yes I can, because I was in Disney World.)

I couldn't agree more with your sentiments here. And I love that you point out that just b/c I am a Fantasy fan, that does not mean I like ALL Fantasy. It is amazing the way there are such double standards applied to "realistic fictions" reader and genre readers.

Great post!

Amy said...

hi, found you via stumbleupon. This is a really great post and I appreciate it even more since I'm an aspiring fantasy writer.

Do you mind if I link you on my blogroll?

I'm on blogger http://salymanderspeaks.blogspot.com/ and wordpress http://salymander.wordpress.com/

Nymeth said...

Heather, I'm glad you liked the post :D It's so ridiculous that fantasy and we, its readers, are stereotyped like that.

Amy: Thank you for stopping by! I don't mind at all :D