I don’t know why I’m still chewing over this. Probably because of (avoiding) work on the novel, and any time I hear people deriding fantasy as being “only escapism,” it makes me feel like what I’m doing is nice, but not particularly relevant. Not like REAL science fiction, which is “about the characters,” and is about science and our relationship to it and to technology, and not that stupid shit with elves and magic wands.
I’m just riffing here, for a little bit, so don’t mind me too much.
I’ve said before that I think that horror is not just a valid genre, but actually an important one, that takes its roots from Greek tragedy–all this despite the innumerable poor examples of horror in modern cinema. This is probably best understood as breathing example of Sturgeon’s Law: of course 90% of horror is shit. The question is “is the genre implicitly shit, just because 90% of its products are shit?” Hopefully not, because that would mean that Sturgeon’s logical extension is that EVERYTHING is shit, and there’s no point in doing anything but cashing out and sleeping on a pile of money surrounded by hookers.
So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that fantasy is *not* shit–that Tolkien is not, as China Mieville described him, the “festering boil on the ass of literature.” This is hugely unfair to Tolkien, anyway, as Mieville’s problems with Tolkien seem to stem directly from Tolkien’s imitators, not the Lord of the Rings series itself.
It’s important to remember that Fantasy is actually the first genre of literature–before anyone bothered writing stories about spaceships, or who Lizzie Bennet was going to marry, or the miraculous mimetic powers of lime tea, they were writing insane stories about giants and snake-men and gods and magic spells. Sure, a lot of them believed in those things, which makes it debatably not Fantasy at all, but by the time we’re looking at the ancient Greeks, their myths and epics were generally acknowledged as being “stories”–not true, but useful.
Plato, incidentally, was one of the earliest critics of fantasy, arguing that because myths presented things that were false, they could only deceive people from contemplation of the true forms. Obviously, rigorous analysis of the situation reveals that this is nonsense: stories aren’t “false”–they’re as real as anything else in the natural world, and therefore as useful for leading to the contemplation of reality.
Certainly, in Old Timey days, “escapism” was hugely useful. If my life was spent breaking my spine grinding bread with some huge fucking rock, then yeah, I’d cherish even five minutes of not having to have to think about that shit. But literature is also the moral grounding of a society–in fact, it’s not been until the last, what, two hundred years(?) that it’s been required of or even acceptable for art to challenge the social mores of its producing culture. For milennia beforehand, people were learning how they were supposed to behave, where they came from, what they were meant to aspire to, not from history books, but from monster stories.
In fact, there’s presently a whole generation (myself included) that learned its moral code from Stan Lee. I mean, they can tell you stuff in church, I guess, but gauraunteed that most boys my age spent more time reading Spider-Man than they did Acts of the Apostles. (Carl may be an exception. A weird, freaky exception.)
Rudy Rucker once wrote an essay demanding the creation of a new genre of literature, in which the elements of science fiction and fantasy “represented” elements of importance in the human psyche, rather than the literal denotative action of the element itself. That is, flying, in a fantasy novel, might represent the character’s freedom or desire to escape from a stifling world, or an altered state of consciousness.
The idea is actually so laughably stupid that I wonder how he was able to write the essay in the first place. There’s a reason that some people can fly in some fantasy novels, rather than, I don’t know, have the power to set things on fire with their urine. The fact that these elements exist in the novels in the first place is because they are, whether the author realizes it or not, semiotics that are connected to the deep and abiding movements of the human psyche. The advice of famous writers aside, we ALWAYS write what we know–how could we do otherwise?–even when we’re writing about dragons or laser-squids from Neptune.
That Rucker wants novels to indulge in this idea a little more thoroughly is slightly more reasonable, but still silly. Can you really demand a new genre be created to distinguish good novels from bad ones? Everything has meaning, and the densely meaningful text of the novel is grievously under-utilized when things only mean what they look like. It is no wrong choice to measure a novel’s quality according to its semiotic density.
But let’s leave all that aside.
What is escapism? What is fantasy?
We certainly can’t say for certain that fantasy and escapism are the same–history has shown us that, for thousands of years, fantasy has served at least two roles: distraction and moral instruction. It follows that you could write fantasy that was devoid of distraction and “more real” (I guess?); moreover there is no novel in any genre that is perfectly real–all novels, as Gene Wolfe once pointed out, are fantasy. Some are just more honest about it than others.
Hm. Still not a hundred percent sure where I’m going, here. All right. All of the products of the human psyche, no matter how closely or distantly they resemble the real world, are still products of the human psyche. It is therefore not possible to write a novel that is not an exploration of human consciousness, no matter how hard we try.
Genre distinction, therefore, must remain primarily a tool for bookstore clerks.