Yesterday, I wrote about why I write fantasy, or fiction that is at least tinged with the fantastic. I wanted to write about that again today, because there were a couple of things I wanted to make clear. First, I don’t think of fantasy as a genre. Fantasy is one pole of literature; the other pole is realism. Fantasy imagines, realism represents. All stories can be ranged somewhere along the continuum between these poles: they are more or less fantastic or realistic. Horror may be a genre, science fiction may be a genre, but fantasy is not. It’s a way of writing, a way of thinking. Both horror and science fiction may be more or less fantastical.
Yesterday, I quoted from a blog post by Lev Grossman in which he argues that our interest in fantasy has to do with our desire for a more authentic connection to the world, which we see in many fantasy novels. And I think that’s part of it. But there’s another component to fantasy as well – it’s the fantasy that we find in Kafka, Borges, in much of magic realism. It’s the fantasy that represents how we actually live in the world, how the world itself breaks with the rules we associate with realism. So for example, in the real world, people aren’t supposed to just disappear, but under certain regimes they do – that inexplicability is almost magical. It’s as though a Dark Lord waved his hand and suddenly people go missing. And even parts of what we commonly accept as reality are magical. I’ve talked about our technology, but there is also, of course, our economic life: I would argue that much of what happens in the stock market is the product of magical thinking. (Invisible hand, anyone?)
Today I want to quote from a blog post by Michael Cisco about why he believes the realist novel is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Michal connects the realist novel to the rise and importance of the middle class:
“We know that the Western novel (as distinct from long prose narratives in general, and so not including The Tale of Genji or The Golden Ass) develops in parallel with the Western middle class, and that this parallelism is not a coincidence. The middle class strives to vindicate itself socially alongside the aristocracy by demonstrating a moral superiority predicated on the cultivation of an elaborate personality or interior life. The novel is the model of this kind of interior life and the obsessively general, all-surveying point of view it takes on the world and its society. Any people anywhere in the world, irrespective of class, may have elaborate Freudian inner lives; my point is that the middle class have turned the elaborate inner life into a fetish which serves as one of the fundamental components of class identity. In principle, every middle class person lives a novel. Middle class life is a novel. Not every novel is a middle class life.”
But, he argues, the middle class is disappearing:
“The middle class has less clout in American society now than ever. Given current conditions, the status of the solid bourgeois citizen of two generations ago has disappeared. The US is now a society with two classes only: the filthy rich and the rest.”
So the realist novel becomes less and less important, while the genre novel (in which he includes fantasy) retains its vitality. Why? He gives different answers for horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Here is his answer for fantasy:
“Fantasy fiction: because it reflects a desire for a connection between individuals in a greater scheme of things, particularly to fictionalized traditions, histories, and societies. Adopting, if only in fancy, a substitute history, which blocks out the reality. Trying to validate middle class values in the same way that aristocratic values are validated. Tolkien is replete with this: the hobbits are English 19th century middle class values incarnate. However, the appeal of fantasy is hard to understand without realizing that middle class life feels hollow, divorced in practice from the values it espouses in theory. This is especially true of its meritocratic rhetoric; in fantasy, individuals really do make a difference. In many cases, the fictional history is appealing not because it blocks the view of an uncomfortable true history, but because that true history is blocked out in any event, and this in turn creates a yearning for a history, even if it makes all history look like fiction. Fantasy also reflects a frequently fanciful nostalgia for a less alienated life, lived closer to the land and the tribe. For values that are not well realized or really meaningful in a middle class capitalist milieu, like compassion, wisdom, kindness, selflessness, courage, blessings and curses, justice.”
This is very much what Grossman was saying, and again I would extend the definition of fantasy further, to include writers that Cisco might discuss under other categories. But what strikes me about both of their posts is that they discuss fantasy as a way to create alternatives. Fantasy is about imagining ways of being that do not currently exist – alternatives to the world we live in. Realism explores and seeks to understand the world we live in – or think we live in. Fantasy tells us several things: (a) that world may not in fact be real, (b) there may be a better, even realer, world, and (c) we can make it come into being.
Fantasy is dangerous because it is inherently subversive. To depart from reality is to question it as reality – to imagine alternatives. And that’s why I write it. Because it seems to me that much of what passes for reality is in fact an illusion, which often functions to maintain certain hierarchies and structures of power. I don’t think of these things when I write a story. Then, all I think about is story. But the underlying ideas and motives are there.
(Just one final note. Cisco says, “the hobbits are English 19th century middle class values incarnate.” This is certainly true, and it has been pointed out before to argue for a fundamental conservatism in Tolkien. Cisco isn’t making that argument – nevertheless, I want to point out that the hobbits are living an illusion. They are living in a world that is larger and more dangerous than they will ever understand. So in that respect, Tolkien is saying something about 19th century middle class values that is not particularly conservative – and it is not those values that save Middle Earth, but values the hobbits don’t understand or live by.)