Writing Fantasy and other Childishness

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I was at an academic conference some years ago, hanging out at the bar with a bunch of colleagues and editors, when I mentioned that I wrote creative as well as scholarly material. There was some mild interest, though most of it evaporated when I said that I wrote genre fiction, and by the time I had revealed that I wasn’t actually published, there was an embarrassment in the air like an unfortunate smell. Having been published since has altered things some, but it’s amazing how often my colleagues respond to discovering that I publish fiction as if they’ve found out I pose for soft-core magazines or compete regularly at gopher juggling: cautious interest, even admiration, tempered with an impulse to back away smiling and looking for the nearest exit. And I still get the overt sneer from time to time.

Not too long ago a friend and colleague casually remarked to me that in addition to my scholarship I wrote “crap.” He used the term casually, without malice, as if I would readily agree, and he did so not because he thought my fiction was bad (he’s never read it or anything like it) but because to him genre fiction is automatically “crap.”

It’s doubly infuriating to get this from literary academics, but only because I think they should know better (and most do, I think), but it’s maddening from anybody, and though I can shrug it off (mostly) these days without too much thought, I remember how depressing it was to feel thus belittled when I hadn’t been published yet. Because that sneer says all kinds of things, but at the heart of most of them is that cruelest and least easily deflected taunt:

Oh, grow up.

That’s what I hear anyway. What are you, twelve years old, making up stories to tell your stuffed animals? Get real. Get a job. Get a REAL job.

The poison of such jibes, of course, stems from that little voice in some dark recess of my head that thinks they’re right, that there’s something juvenile about imagination, even about verbal expression (gendered, this, I suspect), and that telling stories is absurdly childish.

These arguments founder a little if you are making pots of money off said stories, or winning prestigious literary awards which imply your Mastery of Serious Things, but only a little. As a culture, I think, we value hard, real things: money, numbers, material products, things which go fast, or make us more efficient. (And the reason I get less disdain now, absurdly, is because I now make money off my stories). We enjoy being entertained, but for all those who fetishize the entertainers there are two who think they are charletans, out of touch with the Real World the rest of us live in, delusional creatures who can’t separate the fictions in which they perform from life. And all this is far worse if what you peddle is—guilty even in the name by which it identifies itself—fantasy.

Because there’s Reality, and then there’s Fantasy. Reality might include mystery especially (or so we’re led to believe) the police procedural type of mystery, and if its gritty enough, thrillers (medical, romantic or whatever.) Literary fiction is automatically considered (often wrongly, in my view) to be grappling with reality and there’s a soft area around kids and YA books where fantasy is sort of tolerated because it’s for children (i.e. people who haven’t actually grasped reality yet). The problem area is fantasy for adults.

Of course, if you are an adult who reads fantasy, there’s no problem at all, but when you’re introducing yourself at a cocktail party those people seem curiously thin on the ground. After a while it can start to feel like some nightmare AA meeting:
“Hi, my name is A.J. and I write fantasy.”
To which the room responds (in unison),
“You might want to keep that to yourself, man.”

Am I projecting my own self-doubt and cynicism onto those around me? Probably. But, as I said, the problem is less about other people than the voice in my head (Northern British, working class, male: yes, they’re all relevant) that thinks those people are right. Fantasy? What’s that all about? I mean, it’s not real is it?

And this is where I have to step up and say yes, of course it’s real. I don’t mean I believe in dwarves, vampires, and magic swords or that I long to wear ring mail or space suits. I mean that stories of all kinds are both real and unreal, real in that they are grounded in what we know: language, emotion, character, the drama and struggle of everyday life, unreal in that they are tweaked, ordered, given form and purpose in ways reality rarely has. Writing genre fiction is like sport where the stuff of life—the stamina, the aspiration, the conflict of the quotidian—is focused, regulated and measured within its own logical structures. Genre fiction, like baseball or soccer, contains life in the sense both of holding it inside and restricting it, giving it shape and meaning so its themes are manageable.

Our culture may no longer believe that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world and many may assume that art (yes, art) which they treat as frivolous is necessarily constructed out of frivolity, without purpose or seriousness, but they are wrong. There are few higher callings than those which stimulate the imagination. There are few forms of entertainment that stimulate the mind and heart like a good book, few which do it unobtrusively—where it feels less like work—than a genre novel. Writers perform a public service, but they have to delve into their souls to do it and it’s bloody hard work. We can be proud of what we do, and if it requires us to be child-like—not childish—in our creative process, so much the better. After all, most of what people think of as being grown up (or real) is delusory bollocks.

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36 comments to Writing Fantasy and other Childishness

  • Excellent and very, very true post! I know folks who thing the “not crap” part of what I do is, well, basically crap. “You teach college. Teaching’s easy, right? And you get summers off…”

    Thankfully a couple people in my department just sold novels (one mystery, one literary) and they aren’t at all negative about writing. My dean likes that I write, but wants me to publish in my field, too. I have colleagues whose situations aren’t as kind.

    Anyway, great post and I agree 100%

  • AJ, I stood and cheered by the time I read your last para. Thank you for saying it well and with so much passion.

    Yes it is hard work. And no, it isn’t just you with that voice in your head; it’s all genre writers. Fantasy? People look at me like I’m crazy when I say I write it.

    And yes we are treated as lesser citizens of the literary world. Fortunately, unlike you, I don’t have to associate with people who automaticaly assume that they are better and worth more than the rest of the people around them.

    I *do* hope you socked the guy who said you write crap. And knocked him arse over tits? Or at least raised a brow and sneered at him with that lovely accent of yours? I’d have just said, “How totally rude! Perhaps you should pull your head out of your own butt and read some genre works.” (Can we shoot him?) And then I’d have smiled as if I’d said his tie was nice and walked away. But then, I’m female and we are permitted to be bitchy.

    And … and yes, my own father still says, “I’m glad you found something you enjoy doing.” As if it’s my little hobby, similar to knitting or embroidery, but with less useble stuff to show for it. 🙂

    Hugs. Print this out and the next time someone gets uppity shove it under his nose.

  • Pea,
    yes, you probably can’t avoid doing both academic and creative writing if youa re to keep your dean happy. That’s not a bad thing, though it does demand a lot of you. I didn’t talk about my creative writing in academic circles (see above for reasons why!) until I got published, but I’ve made a point of including my creative work in my c.v. the moment I had something coming out. My school likes it that I’m publishing as a Shakespearean, but they can’t deny that they like the extra visibility I have as a novelist. When I went up for my last promotion my packet presented me as a particular kind of hybrid scholar/writer and it worked.

    Faith,
    you’re the best! Thanks. Glad this touched a chord. I wasn’t sure if it was too self-evident to say, but I figure that a lot of us go through this in isolation without realizing that we ALL go through it! Unsaid, such things fester and start to smell like truth. From time to time I think it’s good that we join hands and blow the world a big fat raspberry 🙂

    Ed,
    I know, I know. Preaching to the choir… 🙂

  • Great post, AJ. I just picked up Act of Will and you have nothing to feel ashamed about. Wonderful novel.

    Just keep in mind, Mozart was derided as a quaint oddity by his peers.

  • Even Einstein prized imagination.
    “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    Without the imagination to dream there is no advancement. There is no art. There is only stagnation. If it sparks the imagination and the desire to dream beyond our understanding then it can only be good, no matter the genre.

    And to me, literary fiction is just another genre. 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I am interested that the male (versus female) aspect of you voice acts to deride fantasy, though socially it makes sense. My husband says that “women care about their society, men care about their own,” which is why I donate to charity and he doesn’t, but he also says “the mind and the heart must both be consulted in any decision”, which is why it’s strange that in terms of social acceptability men have been handed mind and women heart, but neither openly both (or, especially, the other). But the heart IS so important to our collective well-being, and stories – especially fantasy stories – speak directly to the heart, can educate it and heal it. (sorry to ramble incoherently.)

  • From time to time I think it’s good that we join hands and blow the world a big fat raspberry 🙂

    Suddenly I’m envisioning a YouTube video, the next time all the MW folks are together…

  • Many of us have to deal with this same thing within our own families. Parents, grandparents, cousins, you name it — there’s always somebody who just doesn’t get it. That and there’s always family members who assume if you’re published you must be making Stephen King money. No matter how much reality I try to explain to them, they can’t understand that the majority of authors represented in a bookstore don’t make enough money off of writing to live. I suppose if they ever did understand, it would only reinforce the idea that genre is worthless. Thanks, AJ, for helping my thumb my nose at them all!

  • Thanks, Mark, glad you’re enjoying it. Positive feedback makes all the difference.

    Daniel,
    totally agree. Beautifully put.

    Hep,
    yes, I don’t think that men don’t privately value such things (imagination, heart etc.) but we are cultured to down play such things and be skeptical of their articulation. We respect success, particularly if it suggests power (and in our world money=power) but stray from the real without palpable benefit and I think we fear we’re efeminized somehow. It’s all deeply suspect and sexist, of course, but if you hear such things often enough it can be tough to shake off.

  • We crossed in the ether!

    I’m all for the video, Misty. We could put it on the MW bannerhead 🙂

    Stuart,
    absolutely. People take for granted the creativity required to put books on their shelves, movies on the big screen and shows on the telly. There was a great moment in Aaron Sorkin’s wonderful and flawed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip when some girls at a celebrity party kept asking the head writer of the Saturday Night Live-esque show which was the core of program what he meant by saying he wrote for it: like the actors all just made stuff up on the spot. I wonder how the skeptics out there would respond if the product of all those derided writers (books included) suddenly disappeared…

  • Sarah

    Thank you! And again, THANK YOU. I’m in academia too. The most useless and most condescending writing class I ever took was an MFA class full of people who said things like “I don’t write genre fiction. I write literary fiction.” And the professor backed them up completely until I, in a fit of pique and juvenile self-righteousness, pointed out that A) Salman Rushdie, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other magical realism authors all write what is essentially fantasy, B) that their definition of “literary” and “quality” writing excluded 90% of literature including the Aenied, Shakespeare, all the Arthurian legends, and Melville, and C) that half the people in the room were writing Romance novels and refused to admit it. Of course what really made me popular with the group was point D) that if they really were writing “for the man on the bus” (a favorite phrase in the class) they would be trying to write Harry Potter and the DaVinci Code. The man on the bus, or the woman for that matter has NO interest in reading banal tales of housewifely ennui from Gen Xers who’ve never held a job or paid their own bills, let alone been a housewife.

    None of it made the slightest difference of course. But I still maintain that ultimately it’s not what you write about, it’s how. Good writing is good writing whether we’re writing about dragons and werwolves or bored housewives. I’d rather read about the dragons myself, but a good housewife novel will still get my attention. And a bad dragon novel will irritate me all the more because I know it can be done well, with depth and beauty and meaning.

    The irony is that the fantasy writers I’ve met are often very well read outside their own genre. But the “literary” people who wouldn’t be caught dead with “genre” fiction usually haven’t actually read anything in the genre. They think it must be bad writing because it’s common and popular.

  • Beatriz

    Not too long ago a friend and colleague casually remarked to me that in addition to my scholarship I wrote “crap.”

    /best aggressive-Jersey Girl accent/ Hey, AJ, you want I should tawk to him aboud dis? I can make him unnerstan. Maybe he just needs his head ventilated or sumthin’./accent/

    A good story carries you away from the world for a while. It ignites the imagination and feeds the soul. That is something to be proud of, AJ, regardless of what ANYone tells you, even that voice in your head.

    I could never thank you enough for all the times something you’ve written has made me laugh or entertained me.

  • Sarah,
    that’s perfect. I love your description of the rant and the sheer rightness of it. Not too long ago I recall Stephen King gave an address at some literary awards night where he pointed out the snobbish absurdity of claiming brownie points for claiming not to read what everyone around them is reading (i.e. genre fiction). One of the women who won an award proceeded to remark that she didn’t think “we” needed reading recommendations from the likes of Stephen King. I wish he’d punched her lights out.

    Which is a good seque to…

    Beatriz 🙂 Thanks, for both the pleaseure of having entertained you in the past, and the threat of violence to my detractors. If only all my readers married those two responses so deftly 🙂

  • AJ,

    I had to go through this myself, a time or two. I was marked down in college for writing fantasy because the instructor, a published local author himself, didn’t believe it was acceptable writing. As if if the only way was literary fiction.

    But I have to say that until I got to college, I didn’t encounter that disdain. I was raised by a SF/F reader, so my childhod and teens consisted mostly of reading that genre. That made it even harder when I did encounter the negativity, though.

    And then I had to go through the process all over again when I realized that not only do I like reading romance, but I’d also like to try writing that genre. (And the insults can be even worse, along with the misconception, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s just trash, right?”)

    So I feel your pain. That’s why I love this website. You guys are part of the paradigm shift that is happening right now. There are places online and in the real world where it’s okay like Fantasy and Science Fiction, and where it’s okay to just be your geeky self if you are one. My husband and I are going to PAX in the fall. I can’t wait.

  • Moira,
    we’re part of a paradigm shift? Cool! I’ve always wanted to be in one of those. Is there a T shirt?

    Glad to hear you were spared most of teh disdain early on. And yes, don’t write what you know, write what you read. If that’s romance, go for it.

  • What can I say, AJ. I’ve been watching geek culture change over the years (yay geography degree). Sadly, there don’t seem to be any decent shirts yet.

    All around me, I see all these amazing things happening. W00TStock, Penny Arcade Expo, San Diego Comicon. And the people behind them are pretty decent, too. It’s a good feeling. 🙂

  • With others, I say thank you, thank you. As an ACADEMIC just now deciding to go for the creative writing thing seriously instead of the scholarly thing, more thanks for saying what I could not think of saying.

    My colleagues have absolutely no interest in the YA fantasy kind of novel I’ve been talking about for a while and am now actually writing. When I mention it, it’s as if I became a character in a Twilight Zone episode, speaking words that others hear only as what they wanted hear. That I had won some awards for writing in the past meant less than nothing in my tenure or promotion hearings: it was about on par with the fact that I coached youth soccer and could make a good peanut sauce.

    But instead of complaining I want to observe that no matter what my colleagues and deans might appreciate or not, my students care much more about my imaginative writing than my scholarship: I think it puts me back in the realm of their real. where what is possible is more engaging than what already is. So we can take comfort and get back to making stuff up.

  • The reaction that makes me want to throw things is the automatic assumption that fantasy equals erotica, as if the only kind of fantasy adults want to read had better be chock full of heaving bosoms and oily orgiastic romps. I had so many people look at me askance when I admitted that my students wanted to read my book, as if I was singlehandedly corrupting a whole generation. I wonder sometimes what those same folks thought when the book was nominated for the SC Young Adult Book Award last year… 😀

  • Meh – it isn’t just fantasy/SF/whatever:

    “I hear you’re a writer. What do you do for a living?”

  • Wolf,
    yes, the theatrical equivalent is “Oh, you’re an actor. What restaurant do you work at?”

    Misty,
    keep on corruptin’. And you’re right about teh erotica/fantasy link. Because I’ve been writing kids fantasy lately I’ve taken to referring to my other stuff as “adult fantasy.” I can see people picturing the hand cuffs…

    Bill,
    of course our frustration about what generates academic respect is one a lot of academics suffer even if they aren’t creative writers. I’m now in a theatre dept. and there’s constant debate about what constites tenurable product for designers and acting teachers etc. Even in English (where I spent most of my career) faculty always have to demonstrate why journal X is worth something and publisher Y has credibility. The problem in academia is that there’s no money and precious little respect from outside, so scholars have to be the gate keepers of their own symbolic prestige. It’s necessary, but it generates suspicion, paranoia and intellectual conservatism until other (bigg, better institutions) decide your book (or master class, or costume design) is “cutting edge.” After that, you’re golden, but many don’t survive that long. Best of luck with your switch of direction.

  • Ryl

    This’s all painfully familiar, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that I’m in really good company. Back in May I made a similar complaint over similar experiences — http://bit.ly/bcyZWZ — though I’m still far from being published [not even ready for beta readers at this point, much less an agent].

    Why do so many people dis genre fiction? Knowing in advance the genre of the fiction I’m about to read is akin to knowing in advance whether I’m having pizza or steak diane for dinner — my tastebuds are ready and anticipating, which so often enhances the actual meal/reading.

    Aside from sheer escapism and the sensawunda, I’ve chosen fantasy for my genre because its mutable nature is best for exploring and then voicing the ideas and themes that obsess/possess me. And it gives me a legit excuse to research all kinds of really spiffy stuff.

  • Ryl,
    you are indeed in good company. For all it’s occasional frustrations it’s helpful to be a professional Shakespearean because I have a built in cultural truncheon to slap down anyone who thinks they’re too good for my writing. Shakespeare might have been literary but he was also a genre writer. And he made a fortune. That’s a nice way of saying that those pretensious SOBs who think genre writing is beneath their literary sensibilities can bite me.

    Wait, did I say that in public? Hello? Is this thing on?

  • Bite you?
    (laughing) That’s a different genre darlin’!
    (fanning self) My my my.

    Here’a another snarky comment I’ve been saving for the next person who disses fantasy:
    “Well, darlin’, it’s easy to dis something one is incapable of doing oneself… Bless your heart.”

  • The friendly ‘crap’ comment…
    I am fond of using the metaphorical or imaginary Uzi for moments lilke this…
    … One feels so potent cutting down the object of one’s discontent with hardened steel explosive shells. It gives one a smug smile on ones face that confounds the now sliced and diced speaker of thoughtless comments, and allows one time to scrabble around for that zinger riposte that one usually thinks of several hours after the event… and yes this thing is on ALL the time, so say it anyway!

  • Widder-
    How about Dirty Harry .44. Or was it a .45?
    Hmmm. (contemplating very big guns)

  • It was a .44 magnum:)

    Thanks widdershins. My imagination is armed and ready.

  • I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are impressed that I have written a book, and not judge the value of what I write. Of course, I also surround myself with writers who are happy to tell me how to improve the quality of my work.

    Don’t care what people think when they put down genre writing. I heard someone say that Literary writers win awards, genre writers make money. We are all lucky to be able to write our stories.

    Happy writing

  • Thanks Perryw. We can talk about the “making money” part, but that’s material for a different post, I think, with its own vexations and frustrations!

  • Wow, what a great post, with such a fun comment thread!
    Faith- way to go! I like you.

    Now, for those quill-up-their-nose better-than-genre people…

    First, I love what Faith mentioned that Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks, and the Arthurian legends all are fantasy literature. Moreover, those are just highlights int he stream. MOST literature was fantasy, until the turn of last century.

    And that leans me to my Second, “Modern American Realism and Naturalism” is what these idiots prize and it was one of the stupidest literary movements in the history of the letter A! The entire concept is let’s all escape to a world just exactly like the one we’re in, but a little more miserable and less hopeful. Brilliant. And then, for some cock-eyed reason, Academia, in it’s learned wisdom, embraced that stupid genre or writing and keeps shoving it down our throats. Yes, just want I want to feed these young, inner-city adolescents with no hope: a genre of literature that teaches that they have no control of their future and will one day be crushed under the machines of Nature, Fate, or Big Business. Thanks so much, you snobby, ink-stained, professorial….. *bites tongue*

    Sorry, you kind of touched a chord with this one. Let’s just calmly say I agree with you. We fantasy writers should hold our heads up proudly to be standing among the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Virgil, Dante, Jules Verne, Alduous Huxley, George Orwell, H.G. Wells… do we really need to go on?

  • Great stuff, David. I think you nailed the fact that literary academia has committed to a notion of writing which has a particular realist slant because mainstream criticism has moved steadily away from the emotional and aesthetic, latching onto an analytical form which is driven by politics, economics and social issues. I actually sympathize with much of this and use it in in my own work, but there’s no question that it’s driven by a desire to promulgate a certain view of the world than it is to escape that world through literature. Some of those literary academics who dismiss genre fiction as ‘crap’ read astonishingly little outside their professional focus.

    Anyway. Having ranted enough for one subject, I’ll say no more. Glad you found the idea resonant!

  • I understand completely: I have had the same reactions from my colleagues, sometimes when they’re not even deliberately smirking at me, i.e. snickering about a students who writes exceptionally well, but chooses to write fantasy, which they equated with “unicorns and fairies.”

    I get irked, but it’s mitigated somewhat by the fact that I out-publish the entire department put together with just my academic work and my fiction (in fact, quite possibly just the former) without even considering my two romance noms de plume. I feel a bit sorry for them that they can’t enjoy imaginative works beyond simple mimesis (as if that were somehow “real”); how small their worlds.

    So I made sure to proudly hang a great big color Xerox of my latest novel’s cover in the foyer of the department office this week. It looks great!

    On the other hand, I was on a panel a couple of years ago at a local con on how academia is “destroying” SF/F. All kinds of prejudices out there. Narrow minds are always depressing.

  • “My father believes tales of romance cause the brain fever that killed my mother.”

    My husband is watching Sleepy Hollow, and this line just caught my attention. Sure the movie is set two hundred years ago, when people had lots of equally wacky notions, but it hit a little close to home. Even these days plenty of folks seem to honestly fear fantasy literature. Like all the people who were so deadset against the Harry Potter novels. They claimed they were protecting the children, as if merely reading the words would somehow cause physical harm. That’s the reaction that throws me hardest, I think.

    If you’ll excuse me now, I have to go take my brain fever medicaments… 😀

  • @Wolf Lahti — brilliant! I just gave a workshop yesterday on how to keep writing when it’s not your full time job. Too many people have the impression that all writers do it full time.

    I should add as well that, as a medievalist, I’m accustomed to my colleagues having no idea what it is I do (and no interest in finding out), so it’s not unusual to see people’s eyes glaze over when I talk about my work. Then again, I am guilty of doing my best to make my colleague’s feel intimidated by reciting Old or Middle English at the drop of a hat, or listing all the languages I needed to know for my dissertation. Hee. And it works. 🙂

  • I can’t believe I just added an extraneous apostrophe: I blame reading too much student writing.

  • Just reviewed ya, AJ. Loved Act of Will. Can’t wait for the next one now!

    http://danielrdavis.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/book-review-act-of-will/