Are we really writing fantasy?

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Gary Wassner, Feb 13, 2006.

  1. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    Sometimes I think that genre distinctions get in the way of an author's intention. Not always, but sometimes. Yesterday was one of those 'sometimes' for me. I read mostly out of the genre and I'm curious how others feel about the passage I'm posting below. The sentiments are so provocative and so moving. Change a few words and references here and there and it could be a poem in anyone's fantasy.

    "Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
    Frisch weht der Wind
    Der Heimat zu
    Mein Irisch Kind,
    Wo weilest du?
    'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
    'They called me the hyaccinth girl.'
    -Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth
    garden,
    Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
    Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
    Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
    Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
    Oed' und leer das Meer.

    (Translation of the German: The wind blows fresh toward my home. Where are you waiting, my Irish child?

    Oed' und leer das Meer - Waste and empty is the Sea)
     
  2. Prunephoenix

    Prunephoenix Registered User

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    "Sometimes I think that genre distinctions get in the way of an author's intention."

    I'm not sure what you mean.

    Do you mean "gets between author and reader" or "author and his own work"?

    Either way, I would then ask "how so?"
     
  3. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    I think many people come to expect certain things from fantasy authors and no more. They limit their expectations. And yet so many authors I know today are trying to use the genre because they love it, but transform it into a more literary one, a more thoughtful and provocative one. And yet the genre expectations get in the way. Still, when I read out of the genre, I see so much of the same emotional content and philosophical interest and it is taken far more seriously. It's not the reader. It's certainly not the reader. It's the long history of built up expectations, the training of the mind to think that this is what you get, no more and no less, from fantasy.
     
  4. Prunephoenix

    Prunephoenix Registered User

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    So your main point is: so many authors I know today are trying to use the genre because they love it, but transform it into a more literary one, a more thoughtful and provocative one. And yet the genre expectations get in the way.I think I agree.

    I would guess this is due in large part to the intended audience - many people want more of the same, with a few tweaks here and there to make it "new". I have a friend like this - he reads a lot of fantasy, and I think he starts squirming in his seat if the fantastical isn't presenting itself to him very quickly (certainly by the end of the first chapter).

    when I read out of the genre, I see so much of the same emotional content and philosophical interest and it is taken far more seriously.
    Writing involves balancing many factors - desire for popularity, authors particular ideas and skills, and so on. Adding both a literary quality and a fantastical element (with the additional consequence of butting into pre-established expectations) adds so much more to the mix.

    Do you think the problem is worse than, say, with sci -fi or westerns?

    Do you think fantasy is more conducive to this sort of thing than other genres?

    Is the problem the difficulty invovled in balancing the escapism of fantasy novels with something more substantial? Or just that substantial novels are in the minority to being with?

    I don't know, but I think these are intersting questions.
     
  5. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    They are interesting questions. I think that fantasy is particularly suitable for discussing philosophical issues. The world has to be created, so every author requires a metaphysic and an ontology in order to do that. That's not true with any other genre except perhaps Sci/fi. But even there, we take the present and extrapolate on it based upon scientific possibility or speculation.

    My main point is that I don't see fantasy as escapist. I see it as intense. I see it as a medium for talking about incredibly important issues - not necessarily political, but social, ethical and ontological issues. That's really what I meant when I began this thread. The fantasy setting can be enjoyable, magical, mystical, extraordinary, and also stimulating and provocative. Many of the same issues that motivate all kinds of literature, like those latent in the passage I quoted above from The Wasteland, motivate many of us writing fantasy today. But readers rarely expect it when they read fantasy nor do they look for it.
     
  6. proudfoot

    proudfoot Feet on the Ground

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    The Waste Land has been attractive to SFF writers before: Iain (M.) Banks named Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward from Eliot's poem. Eliot also explored notions of time as non-linear in Four Quartets, which could be regarded now as a genre-ish thing to do:

    I agree that the genre expectations get in the way of a full experience of some literature. If I had my way there would be no categorisation within the fiction shelves of bookstores: fantasy, crime, sci-fi, it would all be lumped together with popular and literary fiction and could fight it out on its own merits. People might be surprised by what they found, that they wouldn't have looked at before: and I mean both those who wouldn't normally venture into the genre shelves and those who wouldn't normally venture outside them.

    It's the marketing of books that really requires it, so for that you could blame publishers, booksellers, and many authors who are happy to pursue a money-spinning genre series because they have a mortgage to pay and several ex-wives to support. So the laziness of some writers has to be thrown into the mix, not to say the laziness of some readers. And I don't mean that as a denunciation, because it's understandable: I'm a pretty lazy reader myself, generally sticking to what I know in terms of 20th century classics or modern literary stuff.
     
  7. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    It's interesting though when I think about my own writing. I chose fantasy because I wanted the ability to let my imagination fly freely when I wrote. I didn't want to be restricted by real life constraints with regard to environment, power, ability, prescience etc. But my intention all along was to deal with issues of choice and value. Fantasy was the perfect medium, and it allowed me to make those individual's choices world bending ones. It's almost like taking Kant and imposing his suggestions on the world in real time. The fact that power and choice can resound and affect things on a universal level raises the meaning of the individual action. Much like the Greek tragedies, the characters perils and pains become universal lessons.

    But I suppose that in today's world, when an author invokes elves and magic, the assumption is we are writing trite, escapist books that can't possibly have meaning outside of the context and story. Even if we are literary and philosophical, we are still writing fantasy! But are we? Why not philosophy? is the packaging all that matters or is the content more important?

    I'm back to where I started; Are we really writing fantasy?
     
  8. Prunephoenix

    Prunephoenix Registered User

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    This is a very interesting point. Early in this thread my thinking was "to discuss questions of life, value, etc, you don't need the 'frills' of fantasy, and these can even become a distraction." But your point is that fantasy allows the author to make everything hinge on specific decisions (as opposed to real life where we are never sure why things end up the way they do) and this gives fantasy an edge in dealing with big issues.

    Now that I see the point, in some ways it seems obvious (LOTR) or maybe not (James Bond kind of thrillers could have the same 'everything turns on this' aspect).

    Would it be safe to say that fantasy has an edge in some ways, but not others (for example, fantasy novels don't seem to have an edge when dealing with the subtlties of human relationships do they?)
     
  9. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    No. You are right. Fantasy has a hard time dealing with those subtleties. But today the more gritty and realistic the genre becomes, the more relationships become more realistic as well. I can't say though that this change allows authors to continue to deal with the other issues quite as abstractly. One focus impinges upon the other, I tend to believe, though I haven't come to any conclusions about that yet. If fantasy is a more creative and fertile ground for philosophical discussions, it is so for a reason. We can speculate, postulate, follow the threads to the end and see where they go without having to rely upon a framework of the ordinary or the real. Like Odysseus, we can explore and we don't have to always discover lands that are within the scope of our current imaginations in order for them to be believable and informative. In fact, by virtue of these worlds being out of time in a realm where anything is possible, we have much more freedom to explore.
     
  10. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Oh only today is the genre more gritty and realistic, eh? You better watch it, Gary, or Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Guy Gavriel Kay are going to come pistol-whip you. They may be older now, but they're still feisty.
     
  11. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    But they are still nothing like Erikson and Bakker. They may have been innovative and avant garde 'then' but certainly not now.
     
  12. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Compared to the average serial killer thriller, Erikson and Bakker are decidedly tame. And have you read Kay? Rapes, executions, tortures, and in parts, considerably less talking than we have a lot of today. I like a lot of the new writers, but they are wordy, prone to indulge in philosophical exchanges that, realistically, probably wouldn't occur outside of fiction, and sometimes they are pretty slow or indirect on the action. Then again, a lot of the older writers did the same thing. There are considerable differences between older fantasy and new fantasy. Characterization, for one thing -- new writers go deeper and generally do it better. But a lot of the ones that get touted -- realism, literary style, and the like, are more wishful thinking than reality, in my opinion. The old writers were not so far off in these areas as we like to nostalgically remember them being.

    I've avoided this thread before, because, with all my respect for your passionate enthusiasm and noble desires on the subject, it's a conversation we've had previously, and I get the sense that my views are considered too mundane and not sufficiently esoteric to have much appeal. The question, which gets banted about in various forms, is why doesn't genre fantasy get more respect.

    My answer is as it has been -- there seems to be a deep need to separate and classify things into high and low cultures, a rigid class system, even if such distinctions are artificial, inaccurate, hotly debated and usually pretty boring. Genre sff is often placed in low culture for a number of reasons. Chiefly, that it developed from a history linked with such things as pulp and skin magazines, comic books, role playing games and low budget t.v. and movies; that it is largely a paperback market and dependent on paperback sales; that it had until recently an insular and seemingly quirky fan base; and most of all, that it's audience is still mainly young males, who are considered very important as consumers, but whose interests are always classified as low culture.

    None of those have much to do with the fantasy elements that might be in a story. It is instead simple ageism. There are plenty of fantasy stories published outside of the genre that are well received, literarily acclaimed, winning mainstream awards and studied in universities. They have young and older fans, but are not written specifically for a select young audience. Genre sff has also been studied in universities for the last thirty years, ever since the young people of that time insisted their professors look into it. But nothing a 25 year old likes is going to do too well with the establishment, at least at first. (Opera used to be considered a corrupt new fad.)

    On the bright side, it can do very well in terms of sales. And because sff now has old and young fan generations, and increasing success, it's getting very hard for culture pundits to dismiss us, though they keep trying.

    There are many ways to deal with this undeserved prejudice. One is to accept the class system but circumvent it. You can publish outside the genre and take the "high" road. You can even, at this point, then go back and market to the genre fans and still potentially keep some of your high culture status, as Susannah Clarke has done. Established genre writers can be dressed up in tuxedos -- published outside the genre and their genre roots downplayed, giving the impression that they have "transcended" their low culture past, as has been done with Gaiman and Pratchett recently.

    There is a third way, which is what sff authors started out doing, and that's to ignore the high/low culture idea as irrelevant and unworthy of notice. And it's paid off for them fairly well. It's the concept of genre sff (along with horror, comics and related fields,) as a vibrant, valuable cultural movement with a rich history and a strong future, and those who don't get it are hopeless dinosaurs. (The young always know better, after all.) It this attitude that gets us Michael Chabon writing a comic book, Stephen King receiving literary awards and Matthew Stover having a mainstream bestselling tie-in novel.

    For it to really work, though, means minimizing the urge to bring the high/low culture system into the genre, a system that has very little to do with what the authors are doing and a lot to do with old prejudices. There's always been a bit of one, unfortunately, and the Net seems to exacerbate the demand for it. If we could get people to accept Dragonlance novels and fans who like them as equals, embrace the cheesy covers and the pulp stories of the past, and not have the word "escapist" even enter into the conversation, we might get where we're heading faster than we've been managing so far.

    But that's just my opinion and I've come to recognize that I'm in the minority. But I do think that if you look at it as telling people they need to climb onto your train or be left behind -- rather than complaining that they won't let you on their train -- that it comes out better.
     
  13. alison

    alison Books of Pellinor

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    I guess I'm coming from somewhere else - a "serious" literary writer who moved into fantasy. So the question of legitimacy doesn't really bother me: if it did, I wouldn't have started writing fantasy, I guess, in case it besmirched my pure literary reputation. I take my fantasy as seriously as anything else I do, it's informed by the same ideas as informs my poetry or my criticism. Some people recognise that, some don't; privately I use it to sort the sheep from the goats. Some of my most avant garde poet friends, people whom I might have expected to start in horror at the thought of my writing "pulp" fiction and called me a sell out, have been incredibly supportive or even outed themselves as closet SFF fans. The people who, say, cut the fantasy novels out of my literary bios (it has happened) or are snobby about it tend to be rather mediocre thinkers.

    I'm kind of with KatG on this one - the rigid divisions tend to exist in marketing and so on. I'm not at all sure they count for much for many readers or for many artists.
     
  14. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    You know KatG, you speak as if this really bothers me and as if I am complaining about the public's perception. You misunderstand me. I am talking about it, not complaining. It surprises me simply because I come from a philosophical background. I think it's ironic that when you take an idea and wrap it in a cloak of fantastical fiction, that same idea that an academic may deal with in the classroom becomes something else. Perception. Perspective. Expectation.

    The perception is that for something to be intelligent and potentially profound it must be presented in a traditional format.

    The perspective is that fantasy is wierd, unusual, out there.

    The expectation is that fantasy will entertain and nothing more.

    I think we all need to go back to those experimental days when the barriers that kept the mind from appreciating and seeing things based upon their intrinsic value as opposed to our expectations and prejudices were more likely to be breached. We are so often prisoners of our perspectives, perceptions and expectations. We are always prisoners in fact. So maybe we can never transend them. But we can try. I find it sad that the spirit that encouraged us to find value in alternative styles seems to have faded, that's all. I'm sad, not angry.

    Does anyone read Hermann Hesse any longer? His efforts at making philosophical issues palatable to the general public were commendable. His stories were fantastical, but not fantasy. Kafka? Fantasy? Camus? It's all about expectations. Genius does not reside in the genre, and it's not the result of a genre. I don't want to bore anyone by blowing the same horn all the time, but have you read Scott Bakker?
     
  15. alison

    alison Books of Pellinor

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    Somebody's currently making a musical out of Siddharta, Gary (surely one of the worst ideas I've ever heard), so yes, somebody is reading Hesse...
     
  16. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    That's almost criminal. Siddhartha was quite a good book. I read him at a time in my life when his ideas were particularly appealing. I have not reread him since them and I should. I've been rereading much of what I remember so fondly from a long time ago, and now I read it so differently. But I do think of him as the layman's philosopher, and not at all in a derogatory way. His books were full of Nietzschean influences as well as Dostoyevsky, Spengler and Jung with a very westernized buddhist leaning. Demian, Steppenwolf, Narcissus und Goldmund were all fascinating books. The Glass Bead Game was more intricate and more esoteric, and a great read. That was his last novel I believe.

    I'm surprised he's not being read much any longer. Is it the ideas that have fallen out of favor? Or is there just no interest any longer in that kind of personal exploration?

    What I appreciated so much about him is that he did write interesting stories with fascinating characters, while still offering an intelligent and thoughtful, provocative, philosophical debate.

    Any genre is capable of incorporating this kind of debate and yet most people don't expect it from Fantasy nor do they go to Fantasy to find it. The real question is do they resent it when it does raise its head? I don't think so, as the interest in Scott's books seems to demonstrate. I think that if this were the 60's Scott would probably be a cult classic by now much in the same way that Hesse was. I just wonder what the reader is looking for today with all these self-help books and how-to books dominating the charts. I know KatG that you will probably have all the stats to demonstrate that is not the case, but isn't it true that non-fiction is selling much more than fiction today? Is this something new or has it always been the case?
     
  17. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Well sometimes your not complaining sounds like complaining. :)

    Again, fantasy elements are not the problem. Many of our most cherished classic works are fantasy, numerous non-genre fantasy novels abound and often meet with literary acclaim. It's genre fantasy that is given the low culture label, and again, that's not because it has elves but because of its lowly origins, pop culture associations, largely young audience, and cheap paperback formats for the masses. Within the genre, there's further high/low culture claptrap. Forgotten Realms books and other tie-ins are considered low culture genre and the rest are high culture genre, with contemporary post-industrial fantasy being slightly higher than epic pre-industrial fantasy.

    Which is why HarperCollins packaged Pratchett and Gaiman the way they did, indicating that their fans may be a lot of genre hooligans, but the authors themselves were not genre, that they are closer to Salman Rushdie than R.A. Salvatore. I'm torn between being proud of that and being very depressed by it as a marketing strategy.

    I've been reading Douglas Adams' writings, as I mentioned, and one quote he had -- the idea of art kills creativity -- struck home. That mediums that are starting out and considered junk are where things get most creative. Maybe it's necessary for there to be the artificial high/low culture system in order for creative people (and youth,) to rebel against the establishment. Certainly, in history we see lots of those works we hold most dear originally being thought of as flash in the pan trash. SFF has had a long run as junk and as outcasts, thanks to its young audience, and that may have helped it, especially sf.

    But if genre sff may still be seen as junk in many quarters, it's getting very hard for it to hold on to its outcast status. SFF is studied extensively in universities, it frequently pops up in high school curriculums, elementary school kids are saturated with kids fantasy. The commercial success of some authors, the film successes and renewed Hollywood interest. The explosion of kids fantasy, which since it is for kids and embraced by schools, is harder for pundits to label as low culture, has filed off some stigma. Literary writers are interested in fantasy and genre audiences and the literary jet set has taken up comics and genre sff as their culture of choice. So it will be interesting to see what the slow sea change has on the genre. So far, it's been a little scary.
     
  18. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Sorry to double post.

    I don't, actually, have bevvies of stats on me, but yes, of course non-fiction has always sold more than fiction. NF is all about information, in all its forms except maybe humor, whereas fiction is all about subjective taste. Thus, different fiction titles only appeal to a much more narrow slice. And people always like to search for the magic key that will make their life perfect. That book I mentioned to you -- "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999" by Michael Korda -- can show you that back in the 1920's and whatnot, the same sort of self-help, diet, political book, memoir spread that we have today existed as bestsellers.

    Actually, self-help had an interesting cycle. It was huge in the late 1970's and 1980's, and then had a big drop in sales overall in the 1990's. Now it's back up again, but there don't seem to be as many titles around. The market's moved more into memoirs and journalism/politics, though Mr. Frey may have stopped that in its tracks all by himself. Science history and pop science are big now too, which happens in cycles. They were also big in the early nineties. And don't rule out the self-help books for philosophy. Most of them are based on psychiatric techniques, which then took much of their material from various philosophical writings.

    "Sidhartha" is still plenty around and studied in universities, etc. But the hippies are old now, Gary. :) What was beloved in our youth doesn't necessarily stay beloved. The next batch of people find their own groovy fiction touchstones. Doesn't mean that society is devolving. (Frankly, I found most of the book pretty boring, but I was forced to read it in school when I was fifteen.) Shakespeare is doing pretty well, but then he always seems to rebound.

    We've got more people literate, getting some form of education and going to college than ever before. Not that they are all phenomenally bright or interested in literature, but in terms of mass numbers, more people have read classic works of fiction than probably ever in history. But that doesn't mean they have to celebrate every one of them. And they're still going to be interested in the latest diet book. At least, until we all die of plague and the planet gives out its last gasp of Artic ice vapor.
     
  19. whitesilkbreeze

    whitesilkbreeze Registered User

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    (Sorry for butting in. I find these forums increasingly interesting as I wander from place to place.)

    Well. Do you think you are? Because I don't think it really matters what other people think or expect as long as you know what you expect.

    The books in my closest bookstore are classed by age range rather than by genre. The most it goes up to is fiction, and non-fiction; within the fiction you have children's books, YA and adult. Books are categorized alphabetically by authors' names, which means all genres are placed together. There is not much emphasis or expectation of particular genres as far as I know. (The things that end up on the "SFF" shelf are particularly out-of-place.) You just read.

    Fantasies take place in a made-up world, as far as I'm concerned. A book asks questions and deals with human issues. It seems to me the genre doesn't matter as long as what you've written is a book and touched on something real.

    I did start reading YA fantasy because I wanted to escape from the 'real world'. (Well, also because I was incredulous that people could make up a whole new world out of their heads.) But then I discovered the setting was the only difference. Even people in fantasy worlds had problems they couldn't always solve, but they dealt with them as best as they could, and that was the most important thing for me, I think. I would have liked the books less if the characters hadn't been as human as they were. 'Cause even though it's an imaginary world, it's the characters the reader gets attached to.
     
  20. alison

    alison Books of Pellinor

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    Great art always has a vulgar base; that's where its energy comes from. Artists know that, even if critics don't necessarily; where would Beckett be, say, without music hall and variety? Dostoevsky wrote basically serial novels for popular newspapers. Shakespeare was (and in fact, still is) a popular writer, who wrote for the hoi polloi chucking orange pips in he pit as much as the aristocracy... And so on and so on. The divisions between high and popular art are never as clear as they are made to seem.

    I must say, KatG, that one of the things that attracted me to writing SFF -apart from the fact that it's been a life long love - was its embarrassing status. It seemed a freer place to imagine. Detective novels, which have never been my bag anyway, are straight out respectable these days, postmodern icons. But as you say, sff is getting a respectable sheen. It will be interesting to see what happens.