Growing Up On Fantasy

“I freely admit that many of the fantasy novels published these days are not great literature, and I’ve been known to mock them for it. That said, I can still get considerable pleasure from reading them (unless they’re really awful). Have I imprinted myself with my childhood reading? I think that’s quite possible, though ultimately completely harmless.”

I happen to feel that a lot of the modern fantasy that’s considered ‘literature’ isn’t either. Discuss…

0 thoughts on “Growing Up On Fantasy”

  1. Well, I grew up on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as so many others. Later branched out to other fantasy writers, initially looking for more of the same. From memory I started in the 90s with Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. I gave up on the latter after the sixth or seventh in the series, just started to drag on too much. Recently read Raymond E. Feist’s Talon of the Silver Hawk: enjoyable, but rather generic. I was actually waiting for Jack of Ravens to arrive, which in my admittedly somewhat biased opinion is far superior, albeit not to everyone’s taste. I know it’s been said before, but I feel that the whole Age of Misrule, Dark Age (and now Kingdom of the Serpent) series were a breath of fresh air in the fantasy world. I’m not so interested in branding particular fantasy books or authors ‘literature’, but these days I’m more interested in originality, plus an author who has something interesting to say.

  2. I touched upon this myself in my Blog entry today, Mark! In order to make a pertinent response, some sort of workable agreement about what literature is has to be arrived at first!

    When it comes to genre, an understanding of what has gone before, what is now, in order to spin some sort of refreshing variation upon it, or do what’s being done as well as anyone else if not better, has to be grasped. That also goes for anything approaching ‘literature’ – an understanding of the technical aspects of writing a story, thematic, structural, symbolic, stylistic, historic etc. I would argue this has to be learned in order to unlearn it, refresh or subvert it – if that’s your thing.

    I do not hold with the notion that you can do that – as a writer, anyway – without the reference point of understanding those things provides. In order to believe that you don’t need the reference point of understanding, you have to buy into relativism, and I won’t. A five-minute, untutored abstract scrawl is simply not on the same level as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as a technical and artistic achievement. It isn’t all relative. You might like the scrawl more, but that’s something else entirely. If we accept that it isn’t all relative, then some sort of consensus has to be attained as to what is understood by ‘literature’. Trouble is, I’m not quite sure it can be!

    When all that’s done, there’s also the small matter of just telling a good story!

    As for fantasy that’s not very well written but enjoyable, nevertheless: it often follows that we’ll forgive it and buy into it, if it satisfies certain expectations (including the thwarting of some, plot-wise, without being a cop-out) or, for all its flaws, just takes us out of the crappy, everyday mundanity of weekly life and employer’s demands made on us in order for us to earn a crust. There are many films I’ll watch over that perform that function for me, as well.

    ‘I happen to feel that a lot of the modern fantasy that’s considered ‘literature’ isn’t either. Discuss…’

    Ah! do you mean The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome! Wonder who you have in mind!!!??

    For myself, I don’t think, for example, that simply having the phrase M*****f***** in a fantasy novel is a radical departure of anything in the genre. Nor is prose so dense and idiosyncratic in imagery necessarily evidence of the philosophically profound. Any bloody fool with a pen can be idiosyncratic, anachronistic and obscure. If people think that either is enough to be a radical departure, then commentary on the genre is even less rigorous that I had thought.

    Or are you saying – playing Devils’ Advocate to the effect that – fantasy and ‘literature’ (with heavily pronounced curled R’s) are mutually exclusive!?

    I can’t believe that, if it were true, everything I aspire to in my meagre efforts at fiction are stillborn and then life becomes even more of an unearable, mundane drudge towards the grave for me!

    We may not have a god, this we cannot know, not even if you are Stephen Dawkins! – but thank -um – something, that we at least have art.

    There is no reason why a fantasy novel cannot be art/literature and fun to read, too. I admire the consummate skill of any fantasy author that can pull that one off. It isn’t all relative, because it’s bloody hard!

  3. Very interesting. I certainly don’t believe fantasy and literature are mutually exclusive. But for me, literature has to have sub-text…meaning…to be art, and too much genre is purely story for the sake of reproducing sensation. Nothing wrong in that, of course.

  4. ‘But for me, literature has to have sub-text…meaning…to be art, and too much genre is purely story for the sake of reproducing sensation. Nothing wrong in that, of course.’

    Agree 100%. It’s that sub-text, that layered world a work of literature of substance should aspire to be. I usually read two novels at once! One of them will require more effort to enjoy, the other will not! It will be a narrative romp. And, as you say, nothing wrong with that, of course. At the moment it’s ‘Cry of the Newborn’ which has some pertinent contemporary themes in it and, for a brain in second gear fun read, ‘The Halfling’s Gem’. Salvatore is no mean hand at telling a ripping good yarn, which is no mean feat to do, but there’s not much of a sub-text to be played with.

    Next on the list of literate fantasy books with an intriguing sub-text is some book I picked up at the mother of all raffles at the Fcon: ‘Jack of Ravens’, by some bloke or other!

    And he didn’t seem to be around on the Sunday to sign the thing!

  5. Not entirely sure if my muddled brain is up to this high brow discussion, but here’s my 4ps worth. For a book to be ‘Literature’ in my understanding of the term, it has to be a good story that also has a conscience, or at least is able to prick the readers and make them think a bit more about the big picture.

    I think in all genres there is plenty of good ‘Literature’ and plenty of pulp, both have their place. Fantasy is equally well represented on both counts imo.

    What annoys me is when I am told what is or isn’t great piece of ‘Literature’ by the powers that be. I make up my own mind on that score, and I have no doubt that plenty of people read books that prick my conscience in a completely different way from me. I like sub text, I like it alot, because I like thinking, even if no one else gets what I think about :)

  6. I grew up reading both sf/f and the literary mainstream, and I still read both, but as I get older I find myself increasingly unresponsive to a lot of what passes for contemporary mainstream ‘literature’. Sf & f novels, whether they aspire to be more than simple escapism or not, at least tend to retain good old-fashioned virtues like plot, narrative drive and drama (as do those in other genres like crime or thrillers). A lot of non-genre ‘literature’ these days seems to downplay such elements in favour of literary pyrotechnics, development of mood and/or elaboration of ideas. Maybe I’m getting old and lazy, but nowadays I prefer my sub-text to be lurking beneath an energetic and engaging plot, and that particular combination is as likely to be found in the genres as anywhere.

  7. I don’t think much literature gets to qualify as Literature either. Maybe, like Brian just said, one reason I enjoy fantasy so much is that it can explore ideas and have a story at the same time. I would say books like the Mythago Wood sequence that carry an involving story but are also in themselves explorations on the nature of myth and narrative are as literate as anything I have read from either side of the bookshelf.

    I also feel that the boundaries of genre are absolutely arbitrary- where is the boundary between fantasy and magical realism? What if a book is an allegory that uses fantastical elements- from what I recall Salman Rushdie does this from time to time, but he’s rarely shelved beside Feist. Is it the agency of the supernatural, like Cathy returning to Heathcliffe? Are the classics of early gothic literature only literate by nature of their age? I’m fairly sure that Frankenstein and Dracula would be in the scummy genre shelves rather than the university syllabusses if they were less than 30 years old. It’s all nonsense.

    If you wander too far into that ground you are playing the literary critics’ game, and it’s a game they invented where they can change the rules or move the goals at any time. Best to leave them to play where they can make as much noise as they want and hardly anyone else can hear them…

  8. Breakfast wrote:
    If you wander too far into that ground you are playing the literary critics’ game, and it’s a game they invented where they can change the rules or move the goals at any time. Best to leave them to play where they can make as much noise as they want and hardly anyone else can hear them…
    * * * * *

    Hear, hear! As I wrote above, as much as I’m enjoying this discussion:
    I’m not so interested in branding particular fantasy books or authors ‘literature’, but these days I’m more interested in originality, plus an author who has something interesting to say.
    * * * * *

    Has anyone read Tom Shippey’s ‘J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the
    Century’? Shippey certainly has a go at the so-called literati.
    As an aside (in reference to a comment written on this blog back in July), he also admits that The Silmarillion is hard to read, and personally it took me some time to appreciate its merits. I bet the camp would be pretty much divided as to who considers that literature.

  9. I agree with most of the comments in the last few posts. Gawd ‘elp us if we do play the ‘But is it Art Turner Prize-type debate’.

    The point about the broadsheet and Sunday Supplement critics moving the goalposts is a good one. It makes Clive Barker’s GOH speech at the FCon even more relevant, when he called for the ‘death of genre’ and pointed out that the world’s beginnings with literature were in literature of the fantastic.

    But I will argue that you can define what is literature, you can come to a common sense consensus of what literature is.

    To seemingly placate the relativists, everyone has a book in them, this is true, but – and this is well worn but true – 99.9% of them will be s***!

    I would argue that it is possible to ascertain what a writer was aiming for when he or she wrote a given book. There may be occasions when the distance of time is necessary. Many a masterpiece has been misunderstood and overlooked in its time. But you can judge its merits as literature whether or not he or she had a masterful enough grasp of the craft to achieve that avowed aim. Now, if the only aim is ‘an entertaining read’, although that is by no means easy to pull off, there will be little sub-text, there will be either a straightforward plot or a flash-in-the-pan seemingly clever one (many authors start at the end and work back and can look like a geniuses when it comes to plot!), characters will be well-loved and hardly deviate from their characteristics over time, stylistically the writing will draw no attention to itself. It will reflect little of any depth that hasn’t already been well-worn about life; thematically and symbolically it will operate on a very rudimentary or virtually non-existent level; artistically it will have one, possibly a glimpse of a second dimension, but not the mutli-dimensional skill a truly masterly author will display.

    When an author pulls all these things together and the skills he or she employs are masterly and pooled to achieve the aim of the book, beyond simply entertaining (it must do that, though – do that and all the other stuff; now that IS is a feat operating at another level of mastery altogether) and adds to the canon – and ‘our’ Western Canon is being added to and embracing the World Canon, which can only be good, and only being lost in the Sea of Translation hampers the embrace – then you may call it literature.

    It is possible to admire the achievement of a work of literature or art in general (and nearly all of them, if not all of them have established themselves and lasted for good reason, because talent will eventually out) but you might not like the content. (I don’t like Jane Austen’s works but it is obvious to me as a student of English Literature that she was a writer of genius). Developing the critical faculty to admire the achievement, recognise it – a skill in itself – even though you might not like it or are not entertained by it, avoids relativism.

    I would argue – not here as there isn’t the space – that although it is flawed, The Lord of the Rings is more than the sum of its parts and on the level of literary synthesis it is a masterpiece, achieving the author’s avoid aim with bells on.

    Someone will argue with my summation of it. Okay, good, let’s have a nice discussion about that over a beer or some wine.

    I would not argue the same for the Silmarillion, even given that it is unfinished.

    Now, you might not like Jane Austen or Tolkien, but you cannot simply say a book is good because you like it! Then there is no criticical faculty operating, everything is relative and Michelangelo and his apprentices’ achievement in the Sistine Chapel is no greater than any of the spray can art you see on the walls entering a London mainline station.

    You might like the latter more, but artistically it doesn’t even come close to the other as an artistic acheivement and it is simple common sense to see that.

    This is also true of Conrad’s Lord Jim when compared with R.A. Salvatore. I enjoy reading the latter, great fun, fun that enahnces my life wading through the mundane, but artistically, it doens’t even get close to Conrad’s literary achievement. it’s simply staring-you-in-the-face common sense to see why.

    And to go down the road of: yes, but given the disadvataged background the spray painter had, his stuff is comparable to Michelangelo when you take that it account, is a nonsense.

    I argue all this vehemently because without that sort of rigor you will get unmoderated c**p being published month in and month out, forever. And some fantasy is the worst culrpit in that respect in terms of prolific authors. It’s a small mercy that the so-called ‘serious contemporary fiction’ literary set are not as prolific individually.

    Most of all, if the author doesn’t have that sort of rigor, then standards of fiction, in any form or would-be genre are going to be very, very poor.

    There may be an art to churning that stuff out, but it isn’t art, it isn’t literature and if it is any sort of literature, it’s two-dimensional at best. I read it sometimes, I watch its like sometimes, as well. I enjoy it. But life is too short for me to exist in only two artisitic and intellectual dimensions at best for the majority of my time.

    If that makes me sound like I have the proverbial poker up me proverbial, then so be it!

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