Saturday, 9 July 2011

Why Fantasy Will Always Find Its Many Readers

Elf Markwoman by Kathrin "Kitty" Polikeit, taken from Wikimedia Commons
As I was reading a forum thread earlier today, I came across a topic close to my heart, on people feeling ashamed to be reading fantasy.

Oh no, I thought. Not that again!

How can anyone be made to feel ashamed of reading a genre as gorgeous and provocative as fantasy?

But I suppose this is a common enough occurence in every fantasy reader's life:) I've personally been accused of not being mature/grown up, of being overly-escapist, of not appreciating 'real' literature... all that silly stuff that's pretty much myth:), simply because I've chosen to enter worlds of magic and enchantment instead of dry reality.

As I was reading through the thread comments, I was reminded of an old post on my personal blog, written to explain my fascination with fantasy. I'm reproducing the post here (with some tweaking) as it may help those who are dissed for reading fantasy to remember why this is as powerful a genre as it is.

As I write this post, I am reflecting on the dismay/bewilderment of many readerly and writerly friends who can't understand why one of my all-time favourite genres to write in is fantasy. Yup, it's a literary genre that's seen its fair share of disapproving frowns or raised eyebrows. There are those who categorise fantasy as formulaic, cheap, gimmicky or downright absurd.

But - though many don't like this fact - it's a genre that's survived the centuries with no trouble, evolving and recreating itself all the time in one name or another: myth and legend, fairytales, science-fiction (blasphemy to most SF fans, but I do think SF is fantasy at heart, 'else I wouldn't like it so much:D), dystopian fiction, romantic fiction, horror, poetry, paranormal fiction... The list goes on.

Most would recognise The Lord of the Rings (duh) as the archetypal fantasy masterpiece. Many fantasy writers still stick to the tropes that JRR Tolkien established (high fantasy tropes involving quests, heroic battles etc), but many people aren't aware that these tropes were based in turn on elements of existing myth and legend, notably those of Norse and Germanic origin (one of Tolkien's most famous influences was the epic Beowulf btw).

With this rich literary base on which to build, fantasy writers since Tolkien have gone on to create many different types of fantasy works, exploring new ideas and worlds with enthusiasm. Though the essential style remains the same - one of either grandeur of setting or character, sometimes both - high fantasy now has within its home precocious sisters and brothers.
The more notable fantasy categories now include urban fantasy (the City of Bones series by Cassandra Clare for eg, or the famous Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer) ,YA/middle-grade fantasy (the two examples above would qualify, as would JK Rowling's Harry Potter and Christopher Paolini's Eragon), romantic fantasy (Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses stories for eg, or the gorgeous Crown Duel/Court Duel set by Sherwood Smith) and of course faerie tales galore, including their retellings (such as Robin McKinley's Beauty (a take on Beauty and the Beast)).

Many stories that are termed 'literary' also fall under the categories above. Cormac McCarthy's The Road- dystopian fiction. Yann Martel's Life of Pi - urban fantasy/contemporary fantasy. Angela Carter's beautiful collection of short stories that re-tell faerie tales from a gender-interrogative perspective, The Bloody Chamber and other stories, are truly fantastical in the best sense of the word. And who could forget the brilliant, utterly unforgettable The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - that paranormal/fantastical work still gives me delightful little chills.

There are too many pieces of literature to list here, though I'm tempted to give in to the urge to list 'em. Suffice to say, from HG Wells to CS Lewis to George Lucas, fantasy is pretty well-represented as a literary genre that can change the world... for the better:)

Frankly, I think most - if not all - fiction writing is fantasy. It amazes me that so many people sing the praises of so-called literary fiction (most of which bores me to sleep btw) as being distinctly not fantastic when it is merely a variation of writing theme and style, and is in fact no more 'real' than any other fantasy is (in that it is ultimately a creation of the writer's mind).

You'd be surprised (or not!) at how often fantasy readers and writers get charged with being in denial of the world around them, of being escapist in the stories they tell. I'm not going to totally deny some denial and escapism here, but I think it's a fair amount, an amount present in all writers - you have to escape something when you write, even as you embrace a whole lot more than what you're escaping.

On top of all this though, fantasy goes beyond denial or escapism - it's simply a whole different animal.
What is the nature of fantasy, you ask? Why do writers write it?

Well, why do writers write anything?

To escape, yes, lots of times to entertain. But also to make sense of the world.

And what better way to make sense of the world than to include elements of our world in the backdrop of something totally different from it.

That's one of the main reasons I write fantasy. It's liberating. By altering the contexts of my characters' lives from my own, I can push the limits of my understanding of this world by use of another. My perception of a setting on Earth as we know it is so corrupted by those everyday things in life that we're all so used to (exhaustion, frustration and downright boredom come to mind) that I see clearer when my characters are put into an unusual environment/are unusual themselves. Fantasy enables me to explore the workings of philosophies, concepts, personalities etc in situations or environments that cannot be found on Earth. At the same time, my characters, situations etc are somewhat similar - have a connection enough - with our 'normal' lives, to make the story meaningful.

It's for these reasons that the charge often levelled at fantasy writers - that they are trying to escape the world around them - is absurd to me because it's a charge that can be levelled at absolutely any writer, with equally absurd results. The point is, the process of writing allows writers to explore/identify the elements that make up human nature and behaviour. This is an element of writing that remains true regardless of the genre one is writing in. If fantasy writers weren't able to retain bits of humankind in their stories, if they didn't put something recognisable or believable about human nature into any other world they create it would become hard to maintain the illusion of that other world in the reader's mind. A fantasy reader would know in an instant if my fantasy isn't 'real', the same way a reader of supposed literary fiction would know if the story they're reading doesn't ring true to life.
Not everything's about making a philosophical/experimental point of course. I do also write fantasy simply cause it's fun and requires a lot of imagination. Can't deny something as visceral as that, can I?:)
Painting by Russian artist
Elena Konstantinovna Gorokhova (b.1933).
Taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Ultimately though, fantasy's magic lies in its versatile, beautiful nature. It is curious, mysterious, unknowable, never-ending and challenging (it's harder to write a believable fantasy than it is to write a believable anything else, believe you me, because you have to construct the entire internal logic of a fantasy story, its own uniquely fantastical parameters).

Yes, there's some denial, some escapism, but most of all, there's lots of exploration, and for that I'm increasingly thankful.
Thank you, Fantasy, for brightening my mind and broadening its borders. May you do so always and forever.

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Damyanti said...

My husband introduced me to fantasy when I was thirty--LOTR. I haven't looked back since. My only regret is I did not get into the genre sooner.

Isabella Amaris said...

Hi Damyanti, thanks for dropping by:) I love it when people comment on a post!:) LOTR... it is the ultimate fantasy epic, isn't it? I keep wanting to find another LOTR but it'll probably never happen. What I have noticed lately is the rise of women writers in fantasy. Love Sharon Shinn's 'Twelve Houses' series. Kristin Cashore isn't too bad. And am beginning to look at lots of cool YA fantasy that's really pushing boundaries, like Lauren DeStefano's 'Wither'. This is certainly an exciting time for the genre. I'm grateful to be a part of it.