In defense of fantasy.

When the fine folks at Red Room were kind enough to list me as their Rising Star for the week, I tried to think of something intelligent, witty and wise to post in support of the claim.

And then, er, I got walloped by a cold. A bad one.

The downside of a bad cold, of course, is that you really don’t feel like doing anything when you have one except hanging out on the couch, eating chicken soup and feeling sorry for yourself while watching reruns on TV. But there is an upside too: while going through boxes of tissues, you have time to think. So I pulled out my laptop and headed over to the front page of Red Room again. There was the link to my Red Room page, just as before, but this time I noticed the tag line next to the picture: “A professor shifts from academic writing to fantasy fiction.”

And, cold-walloped as I was, I started thinking.

Of course the statement is technically accurate, though I’m still doing academic writing as well; I have been focusing more on my creative work, and that seems likely to continue. But still, something deep down stirred uncomfortably at the notion of the “fantasy fiction” part. I’ve always had a kind of visceral fear of being typecast–I’m not just a writer/musician/professor/husband/father/etc., I’m also this/that/and the other thing!–and there’s a part of me that still feels a bit nervous about the idea of being branded as a fantasy author. It’s so genre-ist, you know.

But as I dropped an Airborne tablet into my glass of water, I wondered what the big deal was. What’s the issue with fantasy (and even though I don’t write this, I’m talking about science fiction too), anyway? On the one hand, the title of this post might seem pretty pretentious–when Sidney used something similar (“Defense of Poesie” sounds so much more elegant, by the way), poetry was under attack either as a lightweight and useless exercise or, more seriously, a dangerous challenge to order and virtue (Plato would not have been amused). Fantasy, on the other hand, has in some ways never been more popular; the Harry Potter phenomenon has gotten an entire generation interested in reading again (anything which gets kids waiting to get into a bookstore at midnight can’t possibly be a bad thing, right?), and a whole slew of fantasy-oriented movies indicates that Hollywood has picked up on the trend. And all you have to do is throw an angst-ridden vampire in a leather outfit if you want some serious selling potential these days. Commercially, fantasy seems to be a growth industry.

But the issue isn’t sales; it’s that curiously fluid concept of respect. Literary fiction doesn’t “sell,” usually, but it gets some big time street cred in the academic world…you could argue, in fact, that the less commercial it is the more artistically valid it appears to a pretty big segment of academia. Fantasy, on the other hand? Not so much. I’m fortunate to have a lot of support from my institution in my writing career, but I’m not convinced that my novels–as important a part of my output as I view them to be–have anywhere near the value my academic articles and book on the court masque do as far as tenure and promotion is concerned, and I think there’s two reasons for that: one, there’s a sense that “commercial” automatically equals “sellout,” and two, fantasy seems so, well, fantastic. It’s not concerned with the real world, where uncertain forty-somethings sit in coffee shops sipping their grande skim no-water chais of despair as they look out onto the dark nothingness of 42nd Street. The weirder the creatures, the more magical the world, the less you’re dealing with the concepts of true artistic weight.

And considering all this, blowing my nose for the thirtieth time, my considered and careful reaction is: What crap!

Okay, perhaps I should rephrase that in the interest of artistic weight: how inartful a conclusion! Because the truth is that there is very little more relevant to who we are, and what we do, than the world of fantasy. I started reading fantasy, as most of us do, because I loved the idea of these brave new worlds, where animals talked and magic was an everyday part of existence, and there’s no doubt that escapism was a big part of the equation. I didn’t feel like getting picked on when I could have the Uber-Magic Staff of Destruction instead, thanks. (Tell the truth: how many of you wanted your own luck dragon from The Neverending Story after you saw the ending?) But escapism is hardly confined to fantasy or any kind of genre fiction, unless you truly expect yourself to be fighting in the Civil War or on the deck of a whaling ship any time soon. We read, in part, to go elsewhere, and it’s largely for that reason that you still see that old relic of the past, the book, on subway trains, in airports, and in the doctor’s office.

But it’s well beyond escapism too. I also read, and write, fantasy because it functions on an imaginative landscape upon which we can play out very real scenarios in different contexts. It’s hardly child’s play when modern cancer-fighting techniques come straight out of Star Trek episodes, or spiritual lessons out of Dante’s Inferno. It’s not lightweight kid stuff when existentialism and humanism are debated in Gardner’s Grendel (perhaps the most underrated book of the second half of the twentieth century–and that’s not hyperbole), or the line between sinner and saint is defined in The Faerie Queene, or the fall of angel and man is retold in Paradise Lost. Looking for something less esoteric? How about the role of man in an increasingly soulless society (see: Neuromancer, I, Robot, countless others)? Or the lure of impossibly powerful and irredeemably evil weapons (Lord of the Rings, Elric of Melibone)? Or the potential collapse of our environment (James Patrick Kelly’s Burn)? I’d argue, in fact, that fantasy is the only field that can handle all of these things, and more, both because it’s different enough that people aren’t put off by an actual position (“oh, look, honey, it’s got talking animals, this should be great for the kids!”) and because it can imagine the world, to quote a current politician, as it should (or could) be rather than as it is. Fantasy is the last best refuge of the collective imagination.

In other words: fantasy is worthy of the same respect every other literary genre receives, and I’m proud to write it. A lot of people already agree, but if you haven’t been one of them up to now, consider this your invitation to try! C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Pat Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, and hundreds of others are waiting to start your tour.

And, if you’re so inclined, I’m happy to offer up my own worlds too. You can’t catch a cold via books or cyberspace, so you’ve got nothing to worry about from me.