Does Fantasy Have a Place in Literature?
20th May 2012 in Writing
This week I am debating: does fantasy have a place in literature?
I aim to write fantasy in the same way that Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter write fantasy. My stories aren’t as intelligent or as finely-wrought as the work of those great authors, but I have a similar aim: using the fantastical to further the story, and not the other way around. I’m usually classed as a literary fiction writer, but I have no qualms whatsoever about being called a fantasy writer. I do write about mermaids, monsters, changelings, selkies and the apocalypse – but I also write real-world stories with not a hint of the fantastical. It might not be true for all authors and all stories, but in my own work I like to use fantasy elements in a more metaphorical sense, rather than them being the whole point of the story. But I want to know what YOU think.
On Thursday the 24th of May at 7pm, I’ll be taking part in the Scottish Writers’ Centre debate on whether science fiction, fantasy and the paranormal have a place in literature. I’ll be joined by novelists Roy Gill, Douglas Thompson and Neil Williamson, comic book author Gordon Robertson, and National Library of Scotland curator John Birch. (Note: I’m the only female, which was a surprise to me: although sci-fi/fantasy is sometimes seen as a boys’ club, in my experience it has plenty of female fans and practitioners.) The debate is FREE, so do come along to the CCA in Glasgow.
And if you can’t make it to the debate, talk to me now! What are your thoughts on the purpose of fantasy in literature? Do you feel that it’s important to draw lines between real-world, literary stories and the more whimsical, unreal world of fantasy? Are there any topics or ideas that you’d like to see explored in this debate?
The possibilities afforded by not limiting oneself to the laws of physics allow a writer to stretch human nature, traits, quandaries, frailties to breaking points that get right to the heart of them. And they give a vocabulary that allows a writer to express a truth about humanity in a way that keeping to “things that are true” may inhibit, so keeping any elements out of literature has to be a bad thing.
Two examples – Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart contains a very famous scene in which th ebook’s central character, the enigmatic Miu, is trapped on a ferris wheel at night, looking in through her own bedroom window where she sees herself engaging in a series of lascivious acts. This bending of the laws of nature is everywhere in Murakami. In this case it provides a brilliant insight both into the moment when Miu acquired her trademark snow white hair and the duality at her core.
The novella Charcoal follows a young man’s obsession with a model who kills herself. Instead of endless introspection and musings on philosophy the author has the young man freely travel back in time endlessly to play out different, and always fruitless, attempts to save her life.
At a banal level, you could say that allowing for alternate worlds is simply a vey extended way of showing not telling a point about the human condition. Pn another level, it’s a way of allowig us to dissect human nature with more profundity and precision.
Dan, I love that idea about stretching human nature by stretching physics. ‘Charcoal’ sounds great, who is it by?
Yes. I think well written stories are what they are; if a story is beautifully crafted, and resonates, people will continue to enjoy it through the ages (irrespective of genre). Some of our oldest and best loved tales involve fantasy elements and have a timeless element; remind us of legends, earlier worlds — a time when oral tradition relied heavily on metaphor and fantastical exaggeration to keep stories memorable, so that spoken story became part ‘other world’, part metaphor, part history. The best fantasy hovers on the edge of our reality, makes us wonder if it’s a tale we already knew, told in a language that our ancestors might have understood.
I completely agree. The stories I grew up with were all fantastical/hyperreal in some way – fairytales, local legends, Bible stories, and even stories about my own family’s history were exaggerated to the point of fantasy! My dad grew up in Nigeria and he used to tell me ‘when-I-was-a-little-boy-in-Africa’ stories, but then he’d also read me the Just So Stories and I couldn’t tell the difference between them. Pretty sure I thought The Elephant’s Child was actually his friend…
I think that integrating fantasy to enhance a story is often (though not always) a great technique, and one I love to explore across writing and film. A brilliant example of this recently was the stunning Another Earth, where the fantastical element of the title was used to shine a light on a much human story.
My biggest problem with fantasy elements (whether in a more classical fantasy story, or in an otherwise ordinary story) is when they’re used as a deus ex machina, undermining the narrative and dramatic tension. Waving away consequences, like death or serious harm, with hitherto unmentioned fantasy or magical properties is the worst thing a writer can do.
Gary, this is an excellent point and one that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been unlucky enough to read such a lazy story! I agree that fantasy should only be present if it’s a vital part of the story; not if it’s just used as a cop-out.
It’s actually the main reason I never read traditional (superhero) comics: anything bad that happens can and will be wished away when it’s plot convenient. Without permanent consequence, they have no meaningful narrative tension.
The inclusion of fantasy is not enough to keep something from being literature. Assuming that you mean literature to be writing of superior artistic merit, then genre is irrelevant. But if you mean literature to be “the stuff that I think is great, because it’s stuff that I like or can believe or can understand to be capital-A Art”, then you’ll probably think you have good reason to disallow fantasy from the world of literature. It’d be a highly personal judgement, but you could make it.
If your main complaint is that there are huge stinking piles of bad fantasy writing, well, yeah? What does that prove? Sure, there are many examples of terrible fantasy writing. There are also many examples of terrible romance, terrible historical fiction, terrible spy novels, terrible biographies, and straight-up terrible literary fiction. The existence of bad writing in a specific genre no way lessens the value of the well written stuff.
What’s more, the inclusion of genre-specific elements isn’t enough to keep a work off the literature list either. Don’t like the idea of a couple of people talking about love suddenly having a sword fight in the middle of a crowded street? Then feel free to discount the works of William Shakespeare from your list of “real literature”. Don’t think a king from ye-olden days should spin pages of love poetry? Fine, discount the Song of Songs and the Christian Bible. Don’t like the protagonist challenging giants to single combat? Good-bye Don Quixote. Deciding that something can’t be literature category because it includes elements of fantasy is almost as illogical as deciding something can’t be literature because it includes imaginary people and made-up events.
The important thing should be how well the writing works. Does it move you? Does it make your brain spark or your heart beat faster? Does it illuminate the world? Does it tell you something about what it means to be a human being? That’s what matters.
Sam, I reckon the difference is that if someone reads a fantasy novel and doesn’t like it they think “what a shitty book”, and if they read a lit fic book and don’t like it they think “I must be stupid for not understanding this”. At least, that’s the way I feel sometimes!
The question is, then: why have genre categories at all?
All literature is fantasy, unless it is drawn from the author’s experiences or contemporary to their time and place… perhaps what is called “zeitgeist”.
I’ve finished the excellent “Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel. It is arguably as much fantasy as George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones”. There is little in the way of evidence of the events surrounding the downfall of Anne Boleyn and most of this is manipulated and unreliable. The past is a different world, history is written by the powerful, and we cannot know the minds of Henry VIII and those others.
So, literature is fantasy, unless it is zeitgeist.