Editorial | On Fantasy

I ready an article recently in which noted British novelist Kazud Ishigurd expressed surprise at the backlash he received from his existing fans for writing a fantasy novel.  Ishigurd had previously written a muggle novel called The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker prize in 1989, and a science fiction novel called Never Let Me Go in 2005 that received massive acclaim.

Now he has written his seventh book, The Buried Giant, a book about a quest to kill a dragon, set in a Briton that never quite existed, and his fans are flummoxed.  There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over why an author who is well respected for his plain prose and his appeal to the futuristic as social commentary would need to stoop to writing fantasy.  He addresses those concerns in his guest appearance on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast:

“When we’re teenagers we’re very prone to this, you know, ‘If you like that band you’re not cool, if you wear those sneakers you’re cool,’ but with reading we should grow out of that, and for some reason books with dragons in them arouse some sort of fear on the part of a certain kind of insecure reader.”

I have felt this type of prejudice myself.  As a child, I was not subjected to the whims of popularity and status, so I was very confident in all of my own choices, because there was really no one to challenge them.  I loved fantasy novels more than any other types of entertainment because they were far larger on the inside than they were on the outside.  Some introduced me to tight, exquisitely concise description, some to witty repartee, and some to creatures I would never have imagined on my own.  However, as I got a little older, it became very apparent that my choice of reading material was not particularly well received by other kids my own age, and certainly not by adults.  I quickly learned to hide my books in a backpack, or under my pillow when my friends came around.

This week I picked up a copy of Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, and have been enjoying it so much.  The plot twisted in ways I did not expect, which is always intriguing.  However, the nearly 700 page tome attracts a lot of attention, and yesterday I had to explain the book to fellow beachgoers.  A twinge of familiar shame twisted in my gut as I answered inquiries, “It’s a fantasy book…”  Faces changed, ever so slightly.  “Oh… sure,” was the response, almost too brightly–at least it seemed that way to me.

So that brings me to the question, why are fantasy novels placed a little lower in the hierarchy than science fiction or historical novels?  Where exactly in that hierarchy do they fall?  Is it above or below romance novels?

I personally believe that the genre contains just as wide a range of writing styles and reading levels as any other.  Perhaps that is why it gets less respect than, say, science fiction, which caters to a more mature audience, as a rule.  In any case, when it comes to Ishigurd’s decision to follow his other literary successes with an Arthurian legend, I have to agree with the letter of this quote from James Wood, of The New Yorker, in his review of The Buried Giant, if not the snarky spirit in which it was said:

“You can’t help admiring a writer who so courageously pleases himself, who writes so eccentrically against the norms.”

I have hope that with brilliant contemporary fantasy authors such as Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brent Weeks writing intelligent, witty material, the fantasy genre will finally emerge as respectable.  Until then, I will continue to read my fantasy novels, and perhaps with time the guilty twinges will finally fade completely.


Filed under Editorial, Tracy Gronewold

3 responses to “Editorial | On Fantasy

  1. I took an English class in which we discussed this very concept. In some cases, I think that people see the “Fantasy” label on a book and perhaps take it a little too literally – that the Fantasy genre is just a form of wish-fulfillment for writers and readers and can’t accomplish anything greater. While sci-fi also receives this stigma, perhaps Fantasy receives more of it because the premises of science-fiction may be seen as more plausible – sci-fi works may extend the possibilities of what we can do if our technology were more advanced, while Fantasy works may not necessarily make explanations for the plausibility of its premise. These are huge overgeneralizations of course, and plenty of works in both sci-fi and fantasy don’t fit into this mold. Or perhaps people who aren’t really into Fantasy are only familiar with the pulpy Fantasy novels that exist for entertainment alone and aren’t familiar with the more experimental/serious works that exist within the genre. Whatever the case, as a lifelong lover/writer of Fantasy, I couldn’t agree more with your statement about the range of writing and reading styles in the genre.

  2. Romance is at the bottom of the barrel… But so is SFF. They’re all just at the bottom of different barrels.

  3. It’s funny how people who insist fantasy and science fiction are inferior to “real literature” will adjust their definitions to make sure the books THEY approve of are always on the “real literature” list and the ones they don’t approve of are not. I’ve encountered some oppressively “muggle” works of fiction (good term, BTW) that were clearly just wish-fulfillment for the author. Somehow, those are still considered “real literature.”

    I never worried much about whether the books I read were acceptable, because I was NEVER going to be “cool” or part of the “in crowd” anyway. The first actual novel I read was The Hobbit, followed immediately by all of The Chronicles of Narnia. (I didn’t get into science fiction until I was 9 years old, when I discovered A Wrinkle in Time.) I learned to hide what I was reading in order to avoid getting beat up at school (and to avoid the wrath of the pseudo-parents), not because I was ashamed to be reading it.

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