Myth: Fantasy Genre Isn’t Real Writing…

So, I’ve been getting search engine hits based on the phrase “Fantasy genre isn’t real writing”.  Which means, someone typed this phrase into a search engine, hit “search”, and then clicked on one of the hits which happened to lead to my blog.  Go ahead and try that yourself.  In Google, my blog comes up as the third hit for that phrase.  The reason is a comment I made on my blog post “Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia“.  I intend to revisit the topic of mythopoeia on my blog at some future point, but I was somewhat disturbed by the idea that someone would type the phrase “Fantasy genre isn’t real writing” into a search engine not just once but multiple times!  And so, I thought I would play a little “Mythbusters” game and set the record straight, with regards to the relative merits of writing in the Fantasy genre.  Ergo:

MYTH: Stories and novels written in the Fantasy Genre are not real writing

Let’s explore this myth, shall we?  My first stop is to understand where this idea is coming from.  In my comment on the above-linked post, I make reference to a story a friend of mine posted on my Facebook in response to my posting of the Mythopoeia post.  The friend tells of a time when a college adviser of hers (I understand her to have been an English major) encouraged her to abandon writing in the fantasy genre.  In her words, her advisor “warned me that fantasy was (not his exact words) not real writing.”

My friend went on to say that she asked about Tolkien and Lewis, and Frankenstein and Dracula.  The unspoken assertion was that certainly the adviser would not consider these works and these writers to “not be real writing” or “not real writers”.  To suggest that would be thought ludicrous and absurd.  But this point of view is entrenched, and people who are entrenched often have rejoinders prepared for just such a challenge, and such was the case this time.  My friend’s adviser dismissed her claim by assuring her that these examples were classics.  Again, the unspoken assertion is that classics are not subject to the arbitrary genre classifications we impose on writing today, nor are they subject to the arbitrary, subjective qualitative critiques either of academia nor of the literary community.  Finally, in that same post on my facebook, my friend concluded with this thought:

I mean I’m sure that someone will eventually call Twilight and the Harry Potter books classics. Do works have to be initially hated for them to eventually mean something?

In my comment on that blogpost, I explore this idea, but I want to do so here in greater detail.  But first, to return to my first question: where is this idea that “fantasy” writing is not “real” writing coming from?  Certainly, it appears to be coming, at least on some instances, from within the vaunted halls of ivory tower academia.  But I am not here to be dismissive of academia.  I believe firmly in the value of advanced education (I’m pursuing a post-graduate degree as we speak).  But individuals within academia may at times have misguided ideals.

It also appears to me, based on a general reading of the zeitgeist, that this in idea that pervades the writers and critics of “literary” fiction.  At least, there seems to be a pervasive sense within the fantasy and science fiction fan community of an “us versus them” mentality whereby fans of speculative fiction fancy themselves an oppressed minority beset by elitist “literary” types who deny them legitimacy.  I’ve no evidence that this is a real phenomenon, not even anecdotally, except to say that I’ve detected that note in things I’ve read on the internet (and you know well the value of what you read on the internet, which I say while noting that what you are reading this minute is, in fact, on the internet).

But let’s say, for a moment, that there is an individual or individuals, either in academia or in literary criticism, who is propagating the idea that “fantasy writing is not real writing” and who is denigrating the writers thereof?  Why would they say such a thing?

One presupposes that, at least in part, that they believe what they are saying, or else why would they say it?  Let’s further presuppose that those who would say such things are not ignorant of the considerable body of fantastic and speculative fiction that exists in the classical body of literature.  When they criticize fantasy literature, therefore, do they criticize this entire body of classical fantasy literature?  In asking this question, I am emboldened to broaden my horizons from a strict analysis of “fantasy” literature to include “speculative fiction” of all stripes: science fiction, horror, and other less easily classified works.  Would the critics of fantasy literature extend their criticisms to all of these speculative works?

Let’s explore this in greater depth.  My friend rhetorically asked about “Tolkien and Lewis and Frankenstein and Dracula”.  But I assert that this is but a thin sample of the full body of classical literature that touches on fantastic or speculative themes.  In fact, we can trace the use of fantastic and speculative themes to the very foundations of literature.  Homer’s famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are primal examples of fantastic literature.  But they are at the beginning, not the end, of this ancient tradition.  Homer’s epics drew heavily from an existing body of myth, and although the Greeks of his time may have believed in the literal truth of the various Greek Gods and their foundational myths, just the same the purpose of these epics was without question to entertain, and not to educate.  (A critical analysis of the works themselves would confirm this, as well as the history we are given of the works.  We are told that originally they were recited, much as we might expect the songs and stories of bards to have been recited in medieval courts.)

Telling stories, for the purpose of entertainment, that reach in mythology and the realms of the unseen and unknown has continued unabated to this day.  The ancient epics of Homer’s day eventually gave way to the Medieval epics, including Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied (popularized in Wagner’s opera, the Ring of Nibelung).  These in turn were followed by the Romances, including the Arthurian Romances (from whence the Questing theme of modern Fantasy literature).  These were later followed up with fantastical and allegorical works, such as Edmund Spencer’s epic poem, The Faierie Queene and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  All of these are the precursors of today’s Fantasy Literature, being the source for the themes, motifs, and forms that are most common in fantasy. 

This is a not-insignificant body of literature from the entire history of civilization (and spanning not just our Western culture, but reaching to the East as well).  A significant body to so casually dismiss.

It is then that we come to the macabre tales that we read in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – both books that are fantastical by nature.  As a distinct literary genre (separate from horror or science fiction), fantasy has its roots in the works of George MacDonald (who published Phantastes in 1858), Lord Dunsany (whose invented mythology, The Gods of Pegana was published in 1905 and who wrote numerous other collections of short, fantastical stories during his career, and is cited as an influence for later luminaries such as Tolkien and Lovecraft), Rudyard Kipling (whose fantastic stories often draw from the mythology of India and Africa) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose Tarzan was a prototypical fantastic tale, and whose Barsoom books were adventure tales set on a Mars that never was).

And each of these has inspired successive generations of fantasy writers, and new fans of fantasy literature.  Dunsany gave way to Lovecraft and Tolkien.  Lovecraft and Tolkien have given way to today’s writers, and so the cycle continues.

Where Fantasy earns its black marks against it is with the relatively modern invention, and modern conceit, first that Fantasy as a genre is inherently meant for children and, second, that literature for children is inherently inferior to literature meant for adults.  Both claims are erroneous in their entirety.  Most of the body of literature cited above are quite heavy reading for children of any age.  And even if we buy the supposition that all of fantasy is inherently of primarily juvenile interest, by what standard could we ever say that juvenile fiction is inherently inferior?  By the depth of meaning of work?  All of these have themes and depth beyond what you will find in most mainstream fiction.  By the amount of work required to produce it?  Each of these required extensive and laborious research to complete their composition, and an excruciating eye for detail.  Indeed, on every measure, these works are deeper and more meaningful than the majority of modern, mainstream literature.  When we discuss fantasy, we are really discussing a body and tradition of literature that is as deep as it is wide, and as rooted in the history and mythology of mankind as any.  Indeed, one might argue that fantasy literature has the deepest and longest tradition of any genre of modern literature.

Does it make sense, instead, to dismiss modern works of fantasy because they are not these classics, as my friend’s professor did?  One could then be prompted to explore the idea of being a classic work of literature.  Are classics what they are because their authors are deceased?  But any number of writers have passed on – are all the writings of deceased writers therefore classics and worthy of praise?  Or are they classics because their themes continue to resonate years later?  Indeed, most of my friend’s examples were both critical and financial successes, and are especially noteworthy not only because they were popular in their own day, but because they have continued to be popular over the ages since.  And one can sense that many works of modern fantasy will continue to have this same enduring popularity in years to come, with new generations of readers.  It is that durability of theme that is the true hallmark of the classic.  Is it, therefore, some kind of sin to allow the elements, themes, and motifs of such powerful classical works of literature to inform and enrich our modern efforts?  Then every effort hence must stand not on the shoulders of giants but mired in the murky swamps of the uneducated and uninformed, and must therefore be execrable waste or else some pure and unattainable shining paragon of pure literary perfection.  That is not a worthy or useful measure of the worth or meaning of a work of literature.  By what standard must modern literary efforts be held, if it cannot continue in the same thematic direction that the great works of the past have forged?

And so, I return now to those who might suggest that fantasy writing is not real writing.  In my short survey of the history and tradition of fantasy literature, I’ve uncovered a lifetime’s worth of reading and study.  Which leaves one to speculate as to why those in academia or literary criticism would tend to be so dismissive of this voluminous body of literary history.  Is it because of the perception that the genre is meant for juvenile consumption?  A specious stance, at best, given the literary history.  Is it because the genres of speculative fiction, including fantasy, have effectively won the culture wars, and have been embraced by the plebeian mass?  Then this statement is one made of pretension, and is therefore vacuous and meaningless.  Or is it because the halls of academia and literary criticism are a self-selected congregation of largely similar and narrowly-defined tastes and preferences?  Then this diktat is an equally meaningless generalization of the critic’s personal preferences as a substitute for intellectual rigor.

My final question in my analysis of this statement regards the object of the statement: what is “real writing”?  If fantasy writing cannot be “real writing”, what is meant by “real writing”?  What is awarded with this lofty designation?  Is it only the works of a particular genre?  Only works by writers with specific degrees?  Only works that win specific awards and accolades from specific critics?  In any of these cases, the pronouncement that “fantasy writing is not real writing” is a self-fulfilling dictum.  As long as the critic making this statement is also the critic who gets to define what “real writing” is, then of course, if that critic’s tastes do not include a preference for fantasy said critic will leave fantasy out in the stark cold darkness of “not real writing”.

Ultimately, what all of this gets to is this: as an appraisal of the value or quality of works of Fantasy Literature, this statement is irrelevant.  It is no more than a subjective statement of a given critic’s or academic’s personal preferences or tastes in literature.  And it is no black mark to be counted thus.  For no honest writer writes for the benefit of academics nor critics – and never has.  The honest writer has always written, first, for him or herself and, secondly, for his audience, whoever that might be.  And if a writer writes solely for the accolades of critics and academics with a distaste for fantasy, then that writers deserves the critical accolades he or she will earn, and likewise deserves the popular ignominy, irrelevance and obscurity he earns.


Note: A minor clarifying comment is in the comment section below (vis-a-vis non-Fantasy genres).

23 thoughts on “Myth: Fantasy Genre Isn’t Real Writing…

  1. FWIW, it is not my purpose, in writing this essay, to denigrate non-Fantasy genre writing nor, for that matter, to denigrate the academics or critics who may subscribe to the belief that I excoriate in this essay. I certainly believe that many other genres of literature are very worthy (I personally also enjoy science fiction and various cross-over genres, and have enjoyed some very non-fantastical classics and other stories, but I have a very strong personal preference for fantasy). And most of those critics and academics I believe certainly mean well, they’ve just fallen for the falacy that their education and training means that their personal preferences are superior to the personal preferences of those who lack the education or training they have attained, which is logically erroneous. Further, I’m positive that not all such critics or academics actually subscribe to this belief (I’d be willing to bet the real number that do so are in the minority), and this essay does not address those who don’t subscribe to this belief (either being active consumers of fantasy, or being at worst indifferent).

    Basically, I’m just trying to show the absurdity of this claim that fantasy is not a worthy literary genre.

  2. God help us if Twilight ever becomes a classic! I read it a year or two back, because since both my day jobs involved interacting with teenagers I figured I ought to have a look. I’ve very seldom wanted my money back when buying a book: this was one of those times.
    When it comes to genres in the end it all comes down to taste. Personally I dislike romance greatly. I have good reasons for this but I won’t bore you with them. But I know this is to do with personal taste and wouldn’t automatically declare that romance was not “real writing” (I might think it at times but have enough self awareness to realise this is simply prejudice)
    Keep writing what makes you feel good about it. Simple as that.

    • I can’t comment on the quality or future prospects of classic-hood for Twilight, neither to condemn nor to praise, as I haven’t read it. Dear Wife did (and enjoyed it quite a lot), but it does seem to me to be a category of Romance (that we might call Supernatural Romance or Fantasy Romance), and I’m also not a particular fan of Romance.

      But you exactly reach my point in this post. My tastes are not authoritative declarations of quality. Nor can they be, no matter what level of education I attain to.

      But it has been my uncorroborated experience that, apparently, there are those who do mistake their personal tastes for objective declarations of quality, which they are not.

    • I should also point out that in some measure this post is really more for the benefit of those poor souls who end are ending up on my blog having googled the phrase “fantasy genre isn’t real writing” or “fantasy writing isn’t real writing”. I hope to disabbuse them of this incorrect notion. For myself, I’m self-assured enough not to worry myself over what some minority of critics or academics think about my chosen genre, but I think it would be a travesty for some future naive young undergrad to be bullied out of a writing career in a satisfying and historically rich genre because of the misguided opinions of some English-lit prof. (For the record, my English-lit profs, what few I’ve had since my major required few English classes, were great!)

  3. When someone asks me what I’m writing about I usually have a hard time. When I say that my novel is fantasy, the usual response is generally a, “So you’re writing about dragons, knights, and wizards?”

    To which I have to answer, “Actually no. None of those are in the story.” “Then what are you writing? I don’t get it.”

    These days, I just say, “When it’s done you can read it.”

    There are many misconceptions about the genre out there. I think that may be part of the reason why it doesn’t get the respect that it should.

    Also the debate about whether “commercial” products are also “art” has been going on for ages. Most genre writing gets dumped into the commercial category, but I do not believe that just because something is popular it should necessarily exclude it from being art, or in this case, literature worthy of study.

    • You’re right that there are a lot of misconceptions about the genre. There’s a lot of space in the field of what’s considered fantasy.

      In general, I guess I reject the fundamental argument between “commercialism” and “art”. If art can only be defined as something which is unpopular (or commercially unviable) then by definition art is necessarily irrelevant, because it cannot engage the public in any meaningful way and therefore cannot meaningfully advance any dialogue. And if art cannot engage the public nor advance a meaningful dialogue, it ceases to be art because it ceases to have purpose. It has simply become the aesthetic of the elite. Art, by its nature, must be engaging. And if this is so, then commercial art must be art, because it is commercial art that is best able to engage.

      So, it’s not really an argument worth having, and those who are making the argument are either missing the bigger picture, don’t understand their own position, or are being intentionally disingenuous. FWIW, IMHO, and all that, etc.

  4. Those who don’t read genre fiction have no idea what kind of writing exists within those genres. Just like “literary” fiction, there are examples of amazing prose and schlock. The best part is, it’s all real. Writing is writing. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it gets put into some “other” pile. I’ve not read Twilight (nor do I plan to) but Stephanie Meyer wrote something there that appeals to a whole bunch of people. She’s a real writer as much as Steinbeck or King or Austen.

  5. Thanks for the history. Being one of the many who hasn’t read that many classics, not even of fantasy (yes, I write fantasy and no, I didn’t read LOTR. My first approach was with The Sword of Shannara, then David Eddings and Jennifer Robertson. No idea of how the “classics” are written), I don’t really care about the diatribe. I think classics are boring, when you’re forced to read them. I’m lucky that I’m not an English native speaker, so even in school, I didn’t have to read all those classics (got a couple of very boring Italians, though…). Having done the French schools up to 13, I guess I’m more familiar with Verne’s “fantasy” – isn’t that fantasy too? Isn’t that a classic?
    And I must also say I’m VERY proud NOT to write literary fiction! 😀
    Keep writing!

    • I don’t think I’m advocating a forced reading of the classics of fantasy, here (or any other kind of classics, for that matter). What someone decides to read is largely a personal issue. What I’m doing is showing how the long and deep and continued tradition of fantasy literature really puts the hypocrisy into whatever academic or critic is trying to sound authoritative in suggesting that fantasy literature isn’t worthwhile to write. These are the sorts of people who tend to revere the “classics” as paragons of literature, but somehow refuse to follow the road these classics have forged to their natural and worthy destination: modern fantasy literature, in all its varied and multi-hued glory.

    • Ouch. My apologies if I came of a bit snobbish, considering my point is to illuminate the pointlessness of a certain brand of snobbery… I’m really a pretty easy-going fellow, and I’m content to let others enjoy their preferences in most cases, as long as it does not interfere with my own, which is predominantly fantasy (and to a degree science fiction and other speculative fiction) literature.

  6. Oh my goodness Stephen I didn’t mean you!!!
    So sorry for the confusion and any distress. I was meaning the people who turn up their noses at fantasy based on a kind of faux reasoning that it isn’t proper writing.
    I am so mortified now that you thought I was getting at you…
    *shoves head in bucket of water to show contrition*

    • No worries. Frankly, I haven’t been blogging very long (started in December 09), so I have a heightened sense of self-consciousness as I try to make sure I project the voice and tenor that I’m aiming for… So, I’m apt to look for criticism to help me calibrate my aim.

  7. You make some valid points. There’s definately some preconceptions around fantasy. When I tell people I write fantasy they either wrinkle up there nose and ask “what, like elves and dragons?” or look at me in more pitty than horror, “please not vampires!” it’s sad that as fantasy writers many of us feel like we need to justify our genre as “worthwhile”.

    • What’s particularly bizarre about the whole exercise (that of “defending our genre”) is that we’ve really reached a point that the genre is self-defending, but people are caught up in semantics. People think “fantasy” means “elves and dragons” (and there’s nothing wrong with that, for sure!). That’s a semantic idea.

      But let’s look at one measure of pop-culture power: the box office. Of the top 25 highest-grossing-of-all-time movies, you have 3 straight Science Fiction movies, 4 Sci-Fantasies (the kissing cousin of Fantasy, consisting of Star Wars movies and other similar types), 2 family-oriented animated movies, and 3 Comic-book adaptations (which are basically Fantasies). The remainder? TWELVE pure-bred Fantasy movies and ONE “mainstream” movie (Titanic, for your reference, a movie by a director who’s oevre consists largely of science fiction films, ironically). No matter how you slice it, Fantasy has dominated the pop-culture environment.

      You’ll find similar trends in many other media formats (with the odd exception of music, where fantasy-themed music seems to be below the popular radar), with Fantasy, Science Fiction, and their related genres largely dominating the popular consciousness. Frankly, we won the culture war. So why do we always end up acting so defensive? And who are these critics and so-called “mainstream” folks that somehow missed that boat?

  8. Maybe we act defensive because TV shows portray people who read/watch sci-fi and fantasy as geeks and losers. Society tells us we should be a little bit embarrassed by it even though the popularity of fantasy has never been higher. Everyone thought van gogh was a weirdo when he was alive. It comes with the territory I guess.

  9. Pingback: The Conquest of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction « The Undiscovered Author

  10. Pingback: Writing Quote: The Classics « The Undiscovered Author

  11. Pingback: The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction « The Undiscovered Author

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