For a long time now, fantasy fiction has gotten a bad rap. Just a few days ago I was listening to two people on the radio who couldn’t have been more contemptuous of fantasy fiction if they’d tried. Fantasy was ridiculous, they said. All those dwarves and unicorns, and no real emotions driving anything along. Plot? Forget it – what fantasy writers considered brilliant was no better than a fifth-grader’s love poetry, without the Yes and No boxes to check. Their disdain oozed from the speakers and honestly, it got on my nerves. Genre fiction was formulaic and predictable, they yawned, and therefore couldn’t possibly be considered good. Much less literature. I was angry about what I’d heard, but I decided that two peoples’ opinions weren’t enough to get myself in a lather over. For one thing, nothing I ranted and screamed about would do a thing to change those peoples’ minds. For another, the bias against genre fiction, and fantasy in particular, has existed for a long, long time.
Genre fiction does have certain qualities that must appear to make it fit the genre. Westerns have to take place on a frontier, and preferably deal with lawlessness and danger. A gunfight is pretty much a given. Mysteries have to begin with a crime (usually murder) and must allow the protagonist to discover clues along the way so the reader has a shot at guessing whodunit, too. Fantasy must have magic. And that’s where you run into trouble. Magic, it seems, is so unbelievable that only certain readers can stomach it. When I was a kid, I learned early not to flaunt my love of Tolkien, Poe and McCaffrey. And God forbid I should ever admit to anyone that I *gasp* played Dungeons and Dragons. That was a sure way to find myself being pelted with paper balls in the hallway and left out of any party invitations.
I read to escape the ordinary problems and concerns that surrounded me, and fantasy gave me a true escape. There were (and are) tons of books about divorce and abuse and alcoholism and infidelity and drug addiction and depression and all the other situations that occur in the normal, everyday world. Why on earth would I want to read what was already all around me, when I could immerse myself in a completely new and glittering world that couldn’t be reached any other way? Sure, maybe there were an awful lot of Tolkien rip-offs that ended up giving fantasy a bit of a black eye. But for every one of those, there was The Anubis Gates and Watership Down and Nine Princes In Amber and The Dark Is Rising. Books that were smart and spoke to the human condition and still wove threads of magic into the tale. Just because there’s magic doesn’t make a book worthless. And millions of people feel the same way I do. It took a while for me to get to this point, where what I choose to read is respected instead of reviled. But the mean kids are still out there, dissing what I like just because they don’t get it.
This week, the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on George R R Martin’s extraordinary Song of Ice and Fire books, premiered. I, like many of our readers, am a huge fan of the books, and I’ve been rereading from the beginning in preparation for the long-awaited new installment, A Dance With Dragons. I haven’t been able to watch the show yet (we no longer have cable, so I have to wait until it streams through Netflix, alas) but I can’t help being excited anyway. Martin has crafted a complicated and beautiful world of magic and political intrigue, with so many narrative pathways it stuns me to even imagine how his outlining must go. So imagine my fury when The New York Times printed a review that, instead of focusing on the television show, instead set about insulting readers of fantasy. She spends a little while complaining that the NYT bestselling scriptwriter, who took on this job because he loves the books so much, is wasting himself on it. I suppose I should have seen the next part coming, but it surprised me nevertheless.
“While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.” No, I imagine she has not met any of those women. One of the most permanent lessons we geek girls learn in high school is how to not draw the attention of the mean girls. And we certainly wouldn’t be in any book club in which those girls are members. But let’s pretend for a moment that we were in such a book club. And for the last six months we’ve been reading Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve. If we’ve stuck around, we’re probably hoping that friendship will blossom enough to allow us to make a suggestion of Ursula LeGuin or Marie Brennan. Trust me, the last thing we’ll do is flounce to our feet, demand it be our way or no way, and stomp out. If the situation doesn’t look as if it’ll change, the geek girl will quietly go find her own people to share books with. Frankly, that’s what we do anyway. Readers of fantasy rarely need a book club to make them read – they’re reading a dozen books a month already.
The reality of the reviewer’s fear becomes clear in her closing sentence. “If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.” A language for which we already have a dictionary. Instead of using this as an opportunity to learn a new language, she wants everyone to throw paper balls at fantasy and chase it into the shadows, where she doesn’t have to look its way. The culture of fantasy is too fearsome for her to contemplate. The whole idea terrifies her, and many people like her. “Magic is not real,” they squeal, shivering with the worry that maybe they aren’t entirely right. “Liking fantasy is dangerous. You read all that weird stuff and pretty soon you’ll be thinking you can cast spells on your friends. Here, read this nice book about a woman who suffers abuse from her husband for twenty years, it’s much safer.” Well, that’s fine, but I’m in this game for the thrill. I don’t need safety in what I read or what I write. I need adventure and chills and a trip to a place no airplane can fly me.