Monday, August 27, 2012

Some thoughts on the purpose of fantasy fiction

The author of another blog I discovered recently, Everything is Nice, recently chose to describe a quote by George R.R. Martin as representative of everything wrong with commercial fantasy fiction. I happen to like the quote quite a bit (you can find Martin reading it aloud in its entirety here), and asked why he felt that way.

Martin (who happens to be the author of the blog, not the actual George RR Martin) responded that:

It plays into the artificial and embarrassing Us versus Them divide that is sadly all too common within the genre community. Beyond the stupidity of jamming his thumb on the scales and simply assigning high status words to the thing Martin likes, however, is the amusing contradiction that those high status words have to come from reality. As Sam says, you certainly couldn't get a bloody steak in reality, could you? At the most basic level, if Martin can't write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I'm certainly prepared to believe he can't) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.

To which I replied:

I understand what you mean, Martin. Fantasy can certainly be applicable to reality, as Tolkien once wrote. But I guess I would differ with you that Martin’s quote represents everything wrong with commercial fantasy.

What if the “them” in your “us vs. them” comparison is our world, not some particular piece of it? Martin is creating through his imagination another world that never was and never could be, but I would argue that this exercise is nevertheless of worth as it demonstrates our ability as humans to dream and to create. Imagination is something we as humans do, and its fruits (even the otherworldly ones) are thus part of the “real” human condition.

Do you think there is ever a place for other worlds, or must all fiction, even heroic fantasy, engage with our own world? Much of reality does suck, unfortunately; are we ever allowed even brief escape in the pages of a book?

I think Martin’s quote highlights something fantasy can do and strives to do, even if much of it is pedestrian and falls short in the attempt.

Just as a sidenote, I think it’s rather ironic that Martin of all fantasy writers would have chosen this quote, given that by far and away his most popular creation, A Song of Ice and Fire, is quite grim and dark and shares much more common with gritty historical reality (the bloody War of the Roses) than fantasy.

I'm hoping that there will be more debate to come, but what do you think? What function does fantasy serve,  if it isn't set in or applicable to our own world?


Ted Cross said...

I'm sick to death of our real world. I didn't ask to be born; I was given no choice. There are scant moments of beauty here, but mostly Martin is right--it's a dreary world. As individuals many people are decent, but taken as a whole the human race is a selfish, greedy lot. I don't usually enjoy reading books set in our own world, unless they are historical or horror. Fantasy allows me to get away from this place to someplace that has more moments of beauty. Make it too alien and the beauty won't resonate, which is why it needs to be grounded in the familiar. It also often touches on elements that feel as if they were already there buried in our subconscious. It's like the very first time as a child that you hear the story of Robin Hood or King Arthur--there's something magical about it, as if your brain already knew the stories and they just needed to be let out. There is nothing for me more wondrous than a great fantasy story. I'll never understand the people who think otherwise.

ps. I hate the word verification. I can never read it, so I have to do it over and over again before I can finally get one right! I'm on my seventh attempt right now.

Pericles said...

Totally agree about word verification. And there are other sites where it's even worse!

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Ted, I agree with you. Jesse Willis of weighed in on this piece and he also doesn't view fantasy as escapism, but I disagreed, writing:

Phillip Dick and the Twilight Zone–and I’d throw in Harlan Ellison for good measure–are all wonderful examples of how the genre is so much more than just Shannara or Krynn.

However, I do view fantasy literature as a form of escapism. I don’t think this is its primary characteristic, but I do think it is one of its functions, among others. I enjoy being able to walk the woods of Lothlorien where there is no stain, or Lankhmar where everything (and everyone) is quite stained, and just get lost for a while.

Regarding word verification, I'll disable it, but if the spammers come back I'll have to put it back on. I had one spammer leave me 15 messages on a single post a couple years back.

Barad the Gnome said...

I disagree with almost everyone on this.
First - folks are throwing around terms like 'everything' that is wrong with commercial fantasy fiction. I don't know how you can have an intelligent discourse without specifying what is wrong with the genre.
Second - there is nothing wrong with the genre. Sure, there is a lot of junk getting published, but there is in other genres as well. If you don't like the genre, don't read it. Not liking the genre does not make all of it garbage. (just a lot of it whether you like the genre or not). Essentially, poorly written stories are poorly written stories regardless of genre.
Third - Authors write what they know and love. If you love strip malls and know them inside and out, there is no reason you couldn't write compelling stories about them in any genre. If you don't have a passion for a topic, genre, time period, etc, you won't write compelling works.
Fourth - I agree and disagree with George RR Martin's discourse. There are things you can do in fantasy which you cannot do in 'reality', however, if you have never stopped to smell the roses as it were, in real life, you have missed incredible blue skies, stunning fragrances from spring flowers, the memorizing sounds of a mountain stream, the infectious laughter of a child.... Reality has plenty of its mundane moments, but you must want to look for the special moments among the mundane.

I probably left topic here somewhat.... sorry about that.

Brian Murphy said...

Good comments, Barad. One of the things that irked me about the linked post was the fact that he seemed to condemn all fantasy with a broad brush (isn't everything that's published and not sitting at home on someone's PC technically "commercial," after all?)

I also happen to agree that fantasy is probably no better or worse in quality than any other genre. There's some very good stuff, some awful stuff, and a lot of mediocre in the middle. Exactly like "literary fiction" or mysteries, SF, you name it.

I agree that reality has a lot to offer. As a father of two children I'm reminded of that, exquisitely, every day of my life. Unfortunately it also has inexplicable tragedies, and it all ends the same way.

Martin said...

I don't think "commercial fantasy" is a particularly mysterious term. It refers to the best-selling, most heavily commoditised portion of fantasy literature - not exactly the same as epic fantasy or series fantasy but it is along those lines.

As a recently published counter-example, you would never mistake Boneland by Alan Garner for commercial fantasy even though it is published by a company that wants to make money from the book.

Barad the Gnome said...

Those terms are not resonating with me. I can somewhat understand epic & series fantasy - but I don't see how those are differentiated from commercial fantasy. For example, it would seem to me series fantasy, but its nature would be striving to be commercial fantasy.

Shouldn't the labels be able to be applied prior to the work hitting the market? So does one have to be a best seller to be commercial fantasy? I would think there are many wannabes writing for commercial success.

Lastly - in a related thought, here is one authors view of the difference between commercial and literary fiction.

Brian Murphy said...

Word verification is back on... thank the spammers!