Fantasy, Escapism

Posted: August 24, 2009 in Braak, poetics
Tags: ,

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.

  1. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    Yeah, I love that one, as if novels in general are somehow relevant to the real world in the way that bricks are. Other than the two or three novels in the last two hundred years that have caused actual social or political change, even the most symbolically powerful and relevant novel does little more than give the mind new elements to toss around. But if human beings are more than just beasts struggling to survive against a hostile environment, if there’s anything really to treasure about our 12,000 years of civilization, then sure it’s the magnificent heights to which we’ve brought the art of just sitting around and thinking about wonderful things.

    A slight but relevant side note: humanity has spent most of its civilized history chemically intoxicated in some way. Most of the people who criticize fantasy as being escapism do in fact drink/smoke/try to have sex whenever they can, all of which are much more straightforward and intellectually devoid forms of escapism than even the fluffiest of fantasy.

    Since it’s always so much easier to criticize things than it is to find wonder in them, it gets to the point where the only options you have in writing a novel are to be enormously pretentious or to write meaningless popcorn escapism. Somehow, that seems to be missing the point.

    To make a long story short, I agree with you.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    There’s something thrilling about reading work from a fantasy or horror writer that seems genuinely inspired by the very strangeness of our existence—a sort of special talent or ability to step “out of body” (yes, Braak, not actually) and look at their humanity—and the configuration of matter that defines it—as a very, very strange thing, indeed. Reminder: we’re energized clumps of matter with holes with which to consume and expel; wearing a type of mask called “person” that allows us to connect and communicate with one another from “inside the shell”. We have these things we’ve defined (wow, we “define” stuff!) as limbs and features; we live our lives submerged in a gaseous potion—a soup that’s secured by a permeable boundary, surrounding a “floating”, spinning orb—and some people are convinced there should be strict definitions on how fantastical fantasy can get away with being, in order to be considered legit? “Science fiction” is also fantasy—or we’d have already defined it within our measly abilities and quaint establishments as “scientific fact”. Righto–it’s all “made-up”. Everything ever defined by humans. There are plenty of fantasy elements that could exist within our collective “reality” if some, slight change in the authority of a scientific boundary were to occur. It’s the same deal with sci-fi; it’s scientifically legitimate, up to a point. Fantasy is scientifically legitimate up to a point, too. Glowing, green mice have brought us one step closer to “The Smurfs”.

    I’ve never written something from the perspective of a hamster; simply, my own perception of a hamster’s perspective (Notice: Example only). And anyhow, I’d imagine science isn’t very sentimental about its science-ness. This reminds me of some adage about dressing up something as something else and it still being the original something, except, all dressed-up…sci-fi is that original something (fantasy) except, all dressed- up in beakers and space-suits…

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Point: My body is one scientifically fundamental change away from doing some of the cool stuff people imagine (“imagination” being an outcome confined to the capabilities of processing within a human brain) in both sci-fi and fantasy. But it isn’t there, yet. Those functions are still within the realm of “fantasy’ until it’s realized or reasonably possible, theoretically. Based on the general weirdness of some findings, fairy realms are just as close to legitimacy-by-reality as floating monoliths…

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Like mentioned, anything a human can imagine is prompted by something of significance to a human brain. Once something of fantasy has been defined as something of reality by agreed-upon standards (scientific), it’s no longer in the realm of fantasy (if humans are going to be picky about the usefulness of classifications). Sci-fi is fantasy because it’s not “reality”–no matter how skillfully it pretends to be.

  5. braak says:

    I think the point here is that regular novels are like this, too. The idea that there are two broad cultural realms of “fantasy” and “scientific fact” isn’t really true. Instead, this is true only at an individual level: there are things that you know are true, and things that you do not know are true.

    But if all of your knowledge of 19th century England comes from Pride and Prejudice, then it’s just as much of a fantasy as Beowulf is. It may seem more true, because it reminds of you things that you know are true, but you have no way of knowing the actual literal historical truth of the book. And, more importantly, you don’t need to know that the setting is real in order to appreciate it–it is required to be “true” and “consistent” and “real” only within its own context.

    The point is that NONE of it is reality. And, rather, that all of it is reality. No novel is relevant because of the accuracy of its narrative, but it is as thoroughly real as everything else as a real artifact of the psyche that produced it.

    If that’s the case, then the difference between one narrative and the next is one of vocabulary and similarity, not of comparative valuations of “real”ness.

  6. Chris Warren says:

    All goes to further my argument for scrapping the tag of ‘fantasy’ in favour of one called ‘extended reality’. But I’m not sure about how setting fire to things with your urine would fit in there – although I do find the idea quite fascinating, if only because I wonder how to do it without burning your willie!

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

  7. Moff says:

    Interesting side note! Plato was very likely not so much a critic of fantasy as he was of television.

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I choose Moff’s “reality”.

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