In Defense of Fantasy

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Mount Doom
Not a symbol of overcompensation

I believe escapism is enough.

I feel the need to say this up front, to establish it in your mind before anything else, before you even really know what I’m talking about. It’s abrupt, I know; we see each other at a party and move closer to strike up a conversation. “Hi, how are you?” “I believe escapism is enough!” Awkward, yes. Even so.

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I say it up front because before I launch into a full-throated defense of genre fiction, specifically the fantasy genre, I want it to be known that I do believe escapism is enough. Life is hard, and it is okay to come home and read about fighting dragons, just as it is okay to come home and read about hunky, sensitive dudes falling for the girl-next-door, or about end-of-alphabet monsters (vampires/werewolves/zombies) breaking down the door, or whatever else takes your mind off of your troubles and eases your spirit. We can’t always help what moves us, and after eight hours staring at spreadsheets or moving boxes in a warehouse or selling shoes builds our hearts beg to be moved.

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Mount Doom
Not a symbol of overcompensation

On the other hand, we have George Bernard Shaw, who said, “I, as a Socialist, have had to preach, as much as anyone, the enormous power of the environment. We can change it; we must change it; there is absolutely no other sense in life than the task of changing it. What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods.”

Shaw was Shaw, and no one else is obligated to be him; indeed, one of the pleasures of reading is that each book, or play, or short story, is a set of glimmering lights that have passed through the author’s experience, and no two sets of lights are the same. And this is why escapism is enough, because even with escapism as the primary goal, some bit of the author’s soul is going to slip through the cracks of the story and illuminate some part of the human experience. There are lights and lights; I’m not going to try and pretend there isn’t some kind of qualitative difference between the humanism of Dickens and a piece of licensed fantasy novel about a plucky band of adventurers out for fame and fortune. However, neither will I pretend that’s a fair comparison, nor will I demean the impulse that led to the latter’s creation (especially since it’s likely to be commercial, putting this hypothetical straw-author in good company with Dickens, paid, as he was, by installment).

This is rudimentary shit; I won’t pretend otherwise. It’s one of the common tenets of art that anyone serious about making a go of it as a way of life has to get through; that the best art comes out of you, whoever that is. All the misguided young novelists trying to be Hemingway or David Foster Wallace would do better to write as themselves, just as every young actor pining to be Marlon Brando or James Dean would be better off taking a long look in the mirror, and a long listen to their own voice. Hemingway wasn’t great (some will say stop here) because he was trying to be someone else, but because he was the best Hemingway. This lifelong journey towards the pure essence of self, and the artistic expression of same is an individual journey; for novelists especially, but even for those in collaborative art forms (theatre ensembles, orchestras, dance troupes) who depend partly on others to build an artistic vision need to come back to themselves occasionally to reconcile their path.

My point is that this expression of self knows no genre. It can be found anywhere, if it is allowed to flourish, if the artist is willing to truly allow themselves to be an artist. So when I take Gurrm to the woodshed, it’s not because of the tools he’s using (swords, dragons, magic), it’s because he’s using them to build rapehouses.

None of which, of course, actually answers the question, “why fantasy?” Yeah yeah yeah, we get it, a good writer can write a good story in any genre, but why put yourself through the expositional trials and tribulations of getting your world building across when you might just as easily rework your themes into something a little more accessible, like a vampire romance? What does fantasy, specifically, offer us?

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First, a minor distinction between fantasy and sci-fi, for all that they’re conflated in popular culture and in bookstores. Science fiction is generally concerned with the potentially possible; it extrapolates scientific principles, with varying accuracy, and tries to draw some conclusions about how we should live, or how we are living. It would satisfy the needs of parallel construction if fantasy was about looking backward, but I don’t think it’s quite true. True fantasy, I would argue, looks inward. Fantasy’s roots are in our myths and legends; King Arthur, Beowulf, the Greek tragedies. Tolkien drew on English and Scandinavian legends to create his Middle-Earth. Hell, Shakespeare was, at times, a fantasist, as is Tony Kushner. Fantasy ever bends to the mythic and the archetypal, touching those realms in a way that other genres can struggle with. What’s more, it can dramatize issues from our lives that we may not be able to fully contextualize or understand; Guy Gavriel Kay’s afterword to Tigana explores this idea in much more depth.

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Puck - Sandman
Sweet dreams (click to enlarge)

But the best fantasy is also personal, and this is where the soul of the author will shine through. Fantasy’s relevance to our modern life may seem tangential, connected through metaphor and theme in the slightest of ways. A fantasy novel can’t teach you how to budget or how to run an international business meeting or fix a broken furnace. What it can do is make the inconceivable real, and the impossible possible, personifying the obstacles of our daily life, exaggerating them beyond comprehension and then showing how they can be slain. But even beyond that fantasy gives us, not cardboard cut-outs stumbling through a Hero’s Journey Paint-By-Numbers, but real people, with real weaknesses, who face and overcome fear and make the right decision. Sam stays with his friend to the end; Diarmuid defies fate; Vimes puts down the Gonne; Dream saves his realm, the only way he can; Crispin goes up on the scaffold as his world crumbles around him.

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There are hacks everywhere, in every genre, and if you want to escape, which is quite enough, a hack is as good as anything. But to measure any genre by its hacks is like declaring journalism dead because of Fox News. What moves you moves you, but truth is also truth, just as craft is craft, and the measure of a work is not determined by which section of the bookstore it’s found in.

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