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).