Fantasy Is Not Safe

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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.

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32 comments to Fantasy Is Not Safe

  • Thanks, Misty – awesome post!

    I just felt the need to say: I would much rather read a book about dragons and hobbits and magic and wish those things were “normal” then I would a book about a woman’s husband abusing her for 20 years and coming to think THAT kind of thing is “normal”!

    And I would much rather my two young nieces grow up thinking that way, too.

  • Among my various reactions to that ‘review’ was “Thank *God* I am not that woman’s daughter.”

  • Reviewers and other snobs like this make me the worst possible combination of furious and sick to my stomach. The nausea stems from all the adrenaline surging through my system as my body desires to pummel these people, but then my brain forces my fists to sit still and behave. They don’t want to.

  • wookiee

    The radio people probably need to try something other than Twilight books.

    The bad writing they bemoan exists in every genre. Did they give examples of books they loved?

  • This debate has been raging in the blogosphere for years. It makes me mad, but I try not to waste emotional energy on it anymore. As Misty said, these folks won’t change their minds and neither will I. Of course that woman is writing for the literati and the audience that wants to be made to feel superior to other folks. It is interesting to me though just how intellectual “fantasy” is. I mean at MW there are at least two PhDs and who knows how many advanced degrees. And that is not counting the folks who comment! I also think the women in fantasy (and forgive me while I have a small feminist moment) are often better role models than standard fiction. Though fantasy has its problems too. ( I’m not a fan of the “stalking means he loves you” plot device that shows up in fantasy and fantasy YA.) I simply don’t belive in the distinction between “real” or “high” literature and “genre” or “popular” lit. There is well written and poorly written. Period. Don’t get me wrong. There is some stuff I read that i know isn’t objectively good (and i do believe one can make objecive arguments about good), but it is not the genre that makes it so.

  • Misty, lovely post. Unlike you, and Pea Emily, and most of the other commenters, I am not so grown up. I am firmly in Edmund’s court and I want to blow raspberries at the snob-reviewers. And then take refuge in my my inner geeky child, the one who the BGOC (big girls on campus) scared and scarred with cruelty while I was growing up. Fortunately there is Con Carolinas, and then Dragon Con coming up where I will be able to party with 40,000 like minded geeks and freaks. *That* is my revenge. Fun. Pure fun. While they cry in the their latte’s over the victim of abuse, who would have done a heck of a lot better to shoot the abuser in the testicles and be done with it. So said the writer whose female characters have always fought back, damn it.
    Rant over.

  • My husband laughed at the negative review. Everywhere else, it’s received nothing but stellar praise.

    I was that geek girl, too. And I never quite *stopped* being a geek. In grade five I was mocked for reading Douglas Adams. In my college writing class, I was marked down for submitting genre fiction.

    I’m past the anger phase. I spent a large portion of my early twenties angry at literary fiction and its supposed superiority … until someone pointed out that it’s a genre, too.

    Society is becoming more geek overall. When I wrote a fourth-year paper in university on Webcomics as an expression of geek culture (early 2004), I felt that I was making a statement. But these days, it’s a way of life. The geek shall inherit the earth. 😉

  • Monique

    As a young woman I visited a very rich uncle who made his living as a corporate raider. He was one of those sharks who made millions by buying companies and laying people off. At one point, in an attempt to find some measure of common ground, I asked his what his favorite Stephen King novel was — who doesn’t have a favorite King, right?

    He replied, “I don’t read children’s books.”

    It changed my life, really. I was twenty-something, trying to figure out who I was, and he was a rich, “successful”, powerful man. He had meant to intimidate me; the effect was the opposite. I saw his entire life in a flash — there was money, yes, but no joy. I understood, immediately, viscerally, that I was different from him on a fundamental level.

    Fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction are sometimes formulaic, but that’s the failing of the author, not the genre. Genre fiction allows us to tell stories with bigger, deeper metaphors. For the majority of history, myth was not a side dish… and it still isn’t. Not really. Stories about magic are stories about our inner power. Stories about werewolves are stories about mastering our baser nature, and learning to shape-shift, which is something we all do, many times over our lives. These lessons and a myriad of others — these are not trivial issues. Certainly I read genre fiction because it’s fun. But I also read it because I think myth is not only important, but also vital to my experience as a human being.

    I’m sorry the NYT reviewers don’t read “children’s books”. But my ability to enjoy fantasy doesn’t mean I’m possessed of a weaker or lesser viewpoint. That I can see archetypes dancing in genre and beauty in fantasy isn’t a character flaw — it’s a gift.

  • I face this constantly in the town in which we live, which happens to be home to a world famous literary journal, and a much renowned writing conference that specializes in mainstream literature. I’m reasonably certain that I have published and sold more books than anyone in town, and yet I have never been asked to be involved with the conference in any capacity. They do invite me each year to readings and lectures by “real” authors, perhaps thinking that their taste and skill will rub off on me and deliver me from the netherworld of genre writing, but that hasn’t happened yet. I get ticked off about it occasionally, but I figure the best revenge is writing and selling more books.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    A couple days ago Lynn Flewelling posted this sort of awesome review of that aweful review (and one other): http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/feature/2011/04/16/game_of_thrones_review_of_reviewers/index.html
    The author himself has his own review of the series (which is much more useful to those who might want to watch it).

    I once heard that one of the last, higher cognitive functions we acquire as we grow and learn is the ability to ask and answer “what if” questions. To my mind, fantasy and science fiction let us take the game of the “what if” exercise to its limits, allowing us greater mental flexibility, and, I agree with everyone else of course, a lot more fun.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry, that is to say Lynn’s blog linked to this review of the reviews.

  • To add to all the above, what really cracks me up is when a literary author puts out something that has genre elements in it and the reviews a) try to praise how “new” and “innovative” the author is, and b) go to any length to show why this is not genre. If they fail at b) then they simple call it magic realism and walk away. It can certainly piss me off, but I try hard just to shake my head and laugh at their stupidity. The only people they fool are those who want to be fooled — and those people generally don’t get their minds changed. The rest of the public is probably reading a little genre anyway.

  • MarnieBelle

    “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.” WOW — I don’t know what to say to that. I quiet honestly don’t have a clue who the heck is Lorrie Moore – this is coming from a person that has a TBR pile of over 200 print books. As Misty pointed out us “Geek” girls we know when and where and better yet WHO to talk about our love of genre specific books. Review a book , review a story but don’t review the kind of people that read or watch them… that is just being very presumptuous.

  • tiffany

    Intellectual elitism is a mantle few wear well. Intellectual honesty is a trait few exhibit with regularity.

  • You’re the second person I’ve seen who has written a very well thought out response to this review. Thanks for standing up for all of us! I’ve been a geek/nerd all my life and while outsiders make think it’s an indulgent or childish hobby, it gives meaning and joy to my life (same goes for many other fantasy fans, I’m sure).

    Recently I was conversing with a classmate, and it came out that I write fantasy. I’m considering adding a modifier like “urban” or “epic/high” (my WIP is a mix of both), because at first she thought I meant…a different kind of fantasy. As in erotic rather than magic/elves/dwarves etc. I quickly straightened her out. 😉

  • Unicorn

    Quoting Death and yes, he’s supposed to talk in capitals, and his granddaughter Susan, from “Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett (and I admit to paraphrasing since I’m quoting from memory, and leaving bits out because a) I can’t remember them or b) they’re too long, but I’m babbling so here’s the gist of it):
    YOU MUST START OUT BELIEVING THE LITTLE LIES.
    “So we can believe the big ones?”
    YES. DUTY, JUSTICE, MERCY, THAT SORT OF THING. … GRIND DOWN THE UNIVERSE TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE, AND SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY.
    … “All right… so you’re saying humans need fantasy to make life bearable?”
    NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
    Says it all, really. Thanks, Misty.
    Unicorn

  • What really burns me is when a ‘literary’ author writes something speculative, but refuses to recognize it as genre science fiction or fantasy, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Craik and several titles by Norman Mailer.

    All it would take is a few big name literary folks to stick their necks out a bit and admit that genre writing isn’t so bad, and the rest of the literary world might soften up their prejudice a bit.

    -NGd

  • Dusk Rose Dreaming> I’ve had that happen. It led to quite a confusing conversation for a short time! 🙂 Of course fantasy (high, epic, urban) can have “fantasy” *wink wink, nudge nuge* elements in it too.

    Unicorn> One of my favorite passages from Pratchett.

  • Everyone else has said what I want to, so …

    **Sticks tongue out and draws in a big breath …**

    Thbbetthhhbbttththbbbbttttt!

    Success is the best revenge!

  • Cinette

    Awesome post, Misty!
    I am proud to say that I am a hopeless geek. I also had no idea who Lorrie Moore was.
    I also agree that Fantasy requires intellect to write, as well as read. To construct worlds and languages and a whole new set of “rules” that the characters live by requires careful planning and execution in order to make it “believable”. As for the reader, to be able to accept this new reality and pick up on the rules is not a passive pasttime.
    I feel sorry for those who can’t appreciate fantasy. They must have very small worlds, indeed.

  • Fortunately, I don’t think the review fools anyone. Just from the vitriol, it is clearly an uninformed opinion piece. Ginia Bellafonte is just another example of why “official” reviewers are losing more clout every day.

    The truth is that people who are inclined to agree with her opinions will nod their heads. The rest of us will just say “what a dumbass.” I don’t think it’s worth getting riled up about, because to you and me, her opinion means nothing. She doesn’t even make a sensible argument worth refuting.

    Fantasy captured my imagination the first time I rolled a d20 back in 1976. My gaming interest translated into my reading interest. Since then I have engaged with hundreds of characters and stories that were brilliantly written. Some not so brilliant, but I can say the same of every other genre I’ve read.

    There’s no way I’ll let a dip like Ginia rob even a moment of that pleasure. Who reads the New York Times anyway? 😉

  • Ooops. Just re-read my thing. To clarify: “Elsewhere, it’s received nothing but stellar praise” refered to the *show*, not the review. ::oops:: I gotta work on being more specific.

    Pea and Dusk Rose – I’ve had that, too.

    NewGuyDave – Here’s an anecdote for you. A few years ago, a certain Canadian science fiction author was named writer of the year by a Canadian organization. When the previous honouree, a certain prominent author of “literary” fiction, presented the award, she included in her speech how wonderful it was that the award for that year was going to a science fiction writer. So the new recipient said, with a smile, how honoured he was to be receiving it from one. Apparently, that didn’t go over well.

  • Thanks, y’all. Even though I know there are eleventy-million of us in the world, it’s still lovely to hear us all chiming in together. One of the wonderful perks of living life with the internet – the geeks aren’t isolated from each other anymore! 😀

    David, a few weeks back, I overheard two people talking about an upcoming local storytelling festival. One of the people was saying that they should have invited me to present, since I’m a local author. The other person said, “Sure, but we wanted real writers.” Grrrr!

  • *wipes a little tear out of her eye* This is the sort of thing that is liable to set me off completely. It requires either a good pummeling or a 10,000 word screed in rebuttal. But you guys have hit every nail on the head already and it makes me more than a little homesick for my tribe of fellow fantasy lovers.

    One reason I don’t touch most so called literary fiction, especially by Americans, is that it is brutally formulaic in its own right, far more so than well written fantasy that is aware of its genre demands and can play with in them. Worse, the formula is one of despair. To be “real” the protagonist must be trapped by life in some way, wallowing or merely floating in passive meaninglessness before a soul killing world in which human virtues are all lies and all attempts at virtue or human connection are hypocrisy and all triumphs are cynical powerplays or escapes into delusion. No thank you.

    As for Lorrie Moore – who? She’ll be a footnote, if that, long after Tolkien and Beagle and Pratchett and Gaiman are household words and required reading on college lists. And writers like Marquez and Rushdie will be recognized as fantasy authors (or speculative fiction writers if you prefer) and brilliant ones at that.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @Sarah
    The funny thing for me here is that I agree with you that it feels like literary fiction is to be avoided for your stated reasons. However, they are also the reasons why I cannot read the A Song of Ice and Fire series. As much as I love George RR Martin’s prose, his amazingly well-realized world, and his ability to capture wonderfully complex, interesting characters, the underlying themes of brutality as reality are simply too much for me. In this way, A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be too “literary” for me to enjoy.

  • @pea faerie: That must have been quite confusing! But yes, the two types of fantasy can certainly work together. For now I tend to let any steamy bits happen offscreen, though. 😉

    @Sarah and Hepseba:
    Oooh, I hate it when stories are like that, in any genre. It simply doesn’t fit with my view of the world. >-< It makes me sad if there's a lot of that going on in literary fiction, since I admire the fact that literary writers seem to have a concern for beautiful as well as compelling prose, which is close to my heart too.

  • I’m in the mob with Edmund, Faith and Widdershins (loved the raspberry, by the way!) on this one. At the same time, though, I feel sorry for this person. I am eclectic in my reading and don’t read exclusively within the genre. I read Grapes of Wrath because I wanted to, and enjoyed it. Mika Waltari is one of my favorite authors. I have books on Philosophy, Mythology, Sociology, Religion, History, World War I and II, Romances, Mysteries. I have classics and not-so classics. Lit Fic, like any other genre (and yes, it IS a genre) can be well – or poorly – written. It can be uplifting or depressing.
    I’ve chosen to write in the SF/F/H genres because I believe they allow for deeper exploration of the human condition. By creating our own worlds, we can push our characters to new limits, test their morality, rewrite history, or investigate cultural differences in a non-threatening and entertaining manner. We can challenge perceptions and biases.
    It saddens me to think of those high-brow literati purists who are incapable of dreaming.

  • Razziecat

    This is the kind of thing that makes me angry, angry, angry. But I will refrain from screaming and simply quote Professor Tolkien:
    “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

  • All I can say is: “Here, here”. Although this just scratches the surface of why I love fantasy and speculative fiction; though in truth you can’t really put that love into words. It’s a feeling and the only way to express that feeling is to read and write and enjoy more fantasy and speculative fiction.

  • Must I say it again? Shakespeare was a popular genre writer. Literary Fiction as something which purports to be extra-generic is a twentieth century invention. Dismissing genre fiction as inherently frivolous is just plain stupid, as is the assumption that books which mirror conventional reality more literally are inately serious. There’s no moral high ground here. There’s no intellectual defense of literary snobbery. It’s still fur coat and no knickers.

  • @AJ: Or perhaps more precisely, it’s the Emporer’s New Clothes. (Don’t they look fabulous? Everyone tells me so.)

  • Any generalization of such magnitude stands to be little more than folly, rise above it, or just simply keep moving as it is already so low. I’m 70,000 words into a fantasy novel, set, in the first-person narrative style, unorthodox (unauthordox) I know. I’ve posted the introduction to my blog. Link is in my profile I believe for any interested in reading it.