A Public Declaration in Favor of Fantasy

I’m Laura Linney, your host for a new season of Masterpiece Classics. Except I’m not really Laura Linney. But don’t change the channel just because I’m not. I felt the post warranted an authoritative air.

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The real Laura Linney

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time (five seconds will do it), you’ll discern that I’m a fantasy fan. I read fantasy. I write fantasy. I read and appreciate other genres and have written other types of fiction. Nonfiction too. But I gravitate to fantasy like a moth gravitates to a light fixture. I’ve written about my need for fairy tales, now it’s time to go on record that the greater genre umbrella—speculative fiction, specifically fantasy—is my genre of choice.

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You might say I already made that abundantly clear when I wrote about fairy tales. I would say I haven’t, because I’ve run across a few who, based on their suggestions about what my next fiction project should be, still hold out hope that I’ll someday snap out of this fantasy obsession and write something else. Sorry. You’re in for a long wait. . . . But feel free to send chocolate just in case.

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I first declared my commitment to fantasy back in my undergrad days. Those were challenging days, since we often had to hide from marauding dinosaurs. Early in the morning I would grab my trusty club and brave the wilds on my way to my writing core classes. Back then, saying you wrote fantasy usually garnered you the type of look Oliver Twist received when he asked for more gruel at the workhouse. Of course that was before even cuneiform writing was discovered. I was ahead of my time.

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A typical day at school . . .

Over the years, I’ve heard people complain about fantasy and cite the unpronounceable names, weird animals, and “fantastic” situations as reasons why they “can’t get into fantasy.” One of my ex-coworkers from years back said, “The stories are too made up.”

28876Last time I checked, all fiction stories are “made up.” Otherwise, they would be nonfiction. But I take the meaning. Fantasy stories are a clarion call to the imagination. A skilled fantasy writer snatches you off to an imaginary world and makes you believe this world is as real as your own. Or perhaps the writer skews our world a little differently by the addition of a fantastic element. (For example, dragons in the Napoleonic era ala Naomi Novik’s series.)

If you read Andra Watkins’s April 18 post on the effects of sustained reading on the brain, you came across this article: “How Reading Lights Up Your Mind” by Christy Matta. The article cites two fantasy realms: C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. If you’ve read these authors’ series, I don’t have to say much to get you to picture in your mind some aspect of these worlds. You’re already there, aren’t you, roaming the roads in search of Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, hobbits, or elves. Perhaps you’re thinking of ways to dodge or defeat orcs. This is the type of mental firing the article discusses.

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C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

If you’re not a fan of fantasy, I get it. You don’t want to be proselytized any more than I want to be told what I should be writing. You don’t care that George R. R. Martin, Catherynne Valente, Brandon Sanderson, N. K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Patricia A. McKillip, and others are critically acclaimed, award-winning fantasy authors. (And let’s not forget a writer named J. K. Rowling. You may have heard of her.) Maybe for you, even science fiction is more palatable because its roots in science point to a semblance of rules and measurable boundaries. Even if the action takes place “in a galaxy far, far away,” a galaxy entirely made up, the story seems believable to you because our solar system is situated in a galaxy (the Milky Way) and men and rovers have traveled to the moon and Mars respectively. Maybe you have a cousin at Cal Tech studying jet propulsion who helps you wrap your head around the possibilities of warp speed.

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I’ve made peace with the fact that if you think fantasy is icky poo, maybe you wouldn’t crack open a book of mine out of fear that you’ll find some unpronounceable name or a weird creature—a justifiable fear, since you will find both. If so, you’ll miss all the fun I’m having, because fantasy writing is mind-blowingly fun. It’s like being a kid watching clouds and imagining that she sees all kinds of things. But beyond the whimsical aspect of writing, there’s also the need to ground the story, to provide frames of reference to help readers understand the world and relate aspects to what they know. That’s the hard part.

So knowing that, maybe our paths will cross someday on the pages once I finish the book and send it out into the world. See? I’m truly a fantasy writer if I believe that maybe someone who dislikes fantasy will look my way. I can dream, can’t I?

A good post on the fantasy genre: http://childliterature.net/childlit/fantasy/

Laura Linney photo from celebs.com. Tolkien photo from the-hobbitmovie.com. Lewis photo from pjcockrell.wordpress.com. N. K. Jemisin photo from opionator.wordpress.com. T-rex from animaltheory.blogspot.com. Chocolate truffles from thefoodsite.net. Fantasy creature from findwallpaper.info.

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37 thoughts on “A Public Declaration in Favor of Fantasy

  1. I have to admit I find high fantasy a struggle, mostly because I have a really poor attention span when it comes to world-building or ensemble casts and so much high fantasy is so very dense. That’s not to say I don’t read any, but it’s unlikely I’ll be reading any Game of Thrones or similar soon. I’ve read some Brandon Sanderson and enjoyed it but I have to be discerning with him. I’m much better with urban fantasy (and things like the Temeraire series, which I loved!) because there’s less I have to remember.

    • If it makes you feel any better, Emily, I’m a Fantasy fan and I still can’t read the really dense high fantasy stuff. Can’t get through LOTR, even. It bores me. But there’s a lot out there that I enjoy, and people are writing Fantasy in more modern ways now, without medieval language and 15-page descriptions of feasts. 🙂

      Honestly, I often find fiction without Fantasy elements boring. My eyes glaze over when I try to read a lot of contemporary romances because I don’t see the adventure in them. Now, if there were a dragon or three, or maybe some magic beyond the sparks of lust in some dude’s eyes… I guess it’s all personal preference. I generally just wish we could all respect each other’s tastes instead of belittling what other people read and/or write.

  2. You’re giving me a headache this morning. I ‘grew up’ writing comic books. Loved writers like Douglas Adams and Pratchett. Some of my favourite books blur the fantasy lines – Slaughterhouse Five for instance. But when people say the ‘fantasy’ I shiver a little and imagine myself back in large spaces filled with sweaty teenagers and stunted adults dressed as Klingons, Elves, dwarves, Superheroes etc.
    All good harmless fun – but not for me.
    Rather than dressing up, I imagine myself to be a pirate in real life. A buccaneer at least. I like to do stuff when… I’m not fantasising about it. And therein lies the source of my headache. A kind of tearing of my psyche. The inability, some like my wife would say, to be able to distinguish where real life begins and fantasy ends. It’s gotten me in a lot of trouble.
    But my insanity aside, what are the merits of fantasy writing?
    As I’m no connoisseur I’ll let you answer that (if you please). My own experience of ‘pure’ fantasy was being asked by a New York book packaging house to write a Tolkien Parody. They were shamelessly jumping on the back of the Rings film trilogy, and I shamelessly obliged. All I had to do was push aside the uneasiness I felt about taking the piss out of such a loved author – but hey, who doesn’t love a good stoning? If the Pythons could take on that story and live to tell more tales, what harm could there be in a little Rings ribbing? So, I read The Hobbit. Great. Enjoyed it. Nice and SHORT! (definitely never the material to be made into TWO or THREE films, me thought, with me naive hobbitsy reasoning.) Then I moved onto The LOrd Of The RInGs. By the time I got to the end I had two abiding reactions – “Wow, that was great, like watching an epic war or cowboy film with my dad on a Sunday.” (Black hats vs white hats) And then the secondly, the slightly overwhelming feeling of – “I fucking hate all elves, dwarves, wizards and want to kill them all!”
    I think it was the elven tongue stuff and the songs. Goodness me, the songs.
    So, my parody of the Rings turned into a contemptuous little number called The Roadkill of Middle Earth, where I had Smeagol/Gollum driving through Middle Earth in a sixteen-wheeled truck squashing its inhabitants. In the end, the book was a joke in more ways than one. The artwork, which was meant to be high fantasy style, didn’t turn out that way (But I do love your stuff Tom Sutton) and never quite matched the text, which in the end, I just wrote in verse to make fun of… okay, you get it by now.
    So, thankfully the book disappeared without trace, but paid a few bills. And I never got stoned – with rocks anyway. And my love affair with Tolkien was definitely over. I sat through the films because my autistic son is a fan. And my thoughts and feelings about the master are neither important or relevant to this post.
    But still I have a headache with fantasy per se.
    I adapted The Hitchhikers Guide into comic books for DC comics. Not a problem, except I didn’t get to work with Douglas as promised and so turned out a ‘stock’ interpretation. Another story. But I never had a problem with Adam’s work to begin with. Because he’d ‘punked up’ sic-fi for me, in a way that was brilliantly tongue-in-cheek. It’s incredibly philosophical, imaginative and funny.
    Maybe that’s what gives me the brain ache about some fantasy writing and writers. (don’t get me started about Gaiman!) They all take themselves soooooooooooooooooooooo seriously.
    My friend and fellow Marvel mucker Richard Starkings (who is having his comic book series being rendered into a Hollywood film) have nearly come to blows over what I sense as ‘a massive egotistical need to be taken seriously’ in a genre which is just… er, fantasy.
    Dress up, have fun and learn to speak in as many fictitious tongues as you like – but please don’t think of yourself on the same level as Tolstoy. Their names might both begin with a T and sure, their books are LONG, but that’s about where it ends.
    OMG! I haven’t had my breakfast yet and I’m flippantly comparing authors and genres and using txt language. Forget about the stoning. I should be shot… or beheaded, with a sword made of the finest valyrian.

    • John, I’m always glad when you comment. Well, the good thing about speculative fiction is that it is the umbrella over everything: fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism. And many books, as you said, blur the lines. I see the genre as constantly evolving. You have books like Phantastes by George MacDonald–a portal fantasy. You also have Keeping It Real by Justina Robson, a book about a cyborg and an elf–a blend of fantasy and science fiction.

      I’m not trying to compare anyone to anything–to say which is better than the other. As for Tolkien and Tolstoy, their works are very different. I admire both writers.

      While the quality of a work has some measurable components, it also has subjective aspects as well. I’ve heard many people complain about Tolkien’s books and dismiss them as bad. Yet he had the skill to come up with the many different languages (including dialects) in his books. I can’t think of many people who can do the same.

      I wouldn’t dare try to convert someone to a love of fantasy. It truly is an acquired taste. I simply don’t want anyone to tell me I could do “better” by writing something else. I have written (and published) other books–especially nonfiction. I can’t say those books are “better.”

      • I think you’re right – write what you love. There’s a lot of ‘serious’ writing that I find pretentious, self-righteous and snobby. But hey, it takes all types. Good writing is good writing.

      • You know, I started off writing parodies like Terry Pratchett did. But at the challenge of one of my advisors who felt I wasn’t taking writing seriously enough, I put that novel aside and started writing this one. She wanted to see what I could write beyond the parody. I let it languish while I wrote a lighter book, which was almost a parody. Now that I’m revising the novel she challenged me to write, I’m finding that writing is very hard work. I know. I should have known that already! But the works of others was easier for me to mock, because I wasn’t doing the work myself to craft a good book. My advisor saw through that.

  3. Every time I open a book I step into another world, although sometimes that world may appear more familiar than others. Outside of that context though, all the usual human emotions and stories and dramas are involved. Even if humans aren’t !
    I do like that quote:’The stories are too made up’ 🙂

    • And that’s the beauty of reading, Andy. No matter what we read (Dickens; Yeats; To Kill a Mockingbird) we are transported somewhere else. I appreciate those journeys!

  4. Funny how often people try to talk fantasy authors out of writing their favorite genre. I get ‘redirected’ to romance and Earth-based fiction all the time. You’re probably right that it deals with a deeper call to the imagination than other genres. Even science-fiction has some kind of basis in reality even if Earth isn’t in the picture. Odd how people can go along with bizarrely named aliens, but various Elven races will throw them off.

    Could it be that adults spent so much time getting kids to grow up that they removed their imagination? They might even have an instinctual fear that indulging in fantasy reading might make them lose some of their ‘adult’ reputation. I hear people say that fantasy is for children all the time. So I do feel like we live in a culture where many things are considered childish frivolities even if they’re not. Look at any debate on Anime Vs American Cartoons or Comic Books Vs Manga. Fantasy certainly falls into that category for many people. God knows I’m tired of hearing ‘I don’t read fantasy, so do you think you can write a *insert crime-based genre here*’

    • You raise some great points. I recall an essay Tolkien wrote on fairy tales and how they’ve been relegated to the nursery. Yet the unexpurgated tales of the Arabian Nights is definitely for adults.

      It’s sad that people think that you need to grow up and put aside imaginative stories. Yet they flock to superhero movies which are imaginative stories. Someone had to sit down and come up with these characters in order to show them on the screen.

      This also brings to mind the prejudice some have concerning graphic novels and the thought that they’re only for kids (and therefore frivolous) because of the heavy emphasis on art. I wouldn’t hand a kid Watchmen.

      • A lot of fairy tales aren’t solely for kids, but it seems magic gets put in the ‘child’ category. Strange thing about superhero movies is that not everyone is behind the actual books. They’re still seen as a nerd culture and get bashed while the movies are praised.

        I actually saw a parent buy a copy of ‘Fables’ for their elementary-aged kid. So wrong and the cashier kept trying to explain it. Oh well. People have to learn the hard way.

  5. I say, “Hear, hear!” I raise my sword in salute to your unashamed stance on being a fellow fantasy writer! And let’s be honest Tolkien and Lewis were geniuses. GENIUSES!! And to write fantasy is to take on one of the harder aspects of writing, in my opinion, because not only do fantasy writers have to create characters and conflict and suspense and all that other jazz as other categories of fiction, but they do it in a completely made up world whose rules and foundations have to be invented and fleshed out for the whole story to be in any fashion believable. Other genre writers don’t have this added obstacle (read adventure) to tackle. So, as I said three hurrahs for you! And we who are about to write (fantasy) salute you!

    • Three hurrahs for you too, Justin! Let’s keep the fantasy torch burning. 🙂
      Good fantasy is hard to write–no question about that. And I have longed to be Lewis or Tolkien–so accomplished. I’m giving it my best shot though! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. I have to admit, Linda, I don’t read a lot of fantasty and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I’ve haven’t gotten my hands on one that really sucked me in. What I do know is, anything you write, I will read. I can’t wait until you send your book out into the world!
    Enjoy the rest of your week!

    • And I understand, Jill. Fantasy is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s like black licorice–you either have a taste for it or you don’t. (I don’t.) But I hope someday you’ll find just the right book to reel you in. 🙂
      Enjoy your week as well.

  7. You have to write what you love to read. Otherwise, your heart won’t be in it. That’s what I hate about our trend-chasing culture. That said, I’ve developed an appreciation of fantasy and its world-building aspects, because it gives me a different and helpful perspective as a writer of historical fiction.

    • And that’s the issue, isn’t it, Lyn? With publishing dollars so precious, we tend to chase trends. But I’ve tried that route and the story sucked. So I’m trying to go with what I love. I’m so glad you always do that too.

  8. I’m glad that fantasy seems to be gaining more fans (or at least more open fans) lately. I admit I sometimes find high fantasy a little hard to get into, but overall I’ve had so much fun reading more and more fantasy novels lately and trying to write a fantasy novel of my own. Great post!

  9. In my opinion, good fiction incorporates some form of fantasy, no matter how small it might be. I just can’t abide by the mundane when it comes to my reading time. I’m glad you’re writing what you love, Linda! I always liked the advice of writing a book for a single reader. If you’re trying to write for everyone, no one is happy.

    • That’s why I’m writing for myself first and foremost, Phillip. 😉 I need to please me first.
      And you’re right. We dream up characters and write about their lives. These characters aren’t real, but they feel real. That’s the ultimate fantasy.

  10. I’ll read whatever you write, Linda.

    And I agree with Phillip. Any good story is, to some degree, fantasy, the fantasy that happened in the mind of the writer. I know you mean fantasy: the genre, but I AM SICK of talking about genres. The genrefuckcation of reading is destroying the experience of reading for those of us who just freaking love to read. (And, yes, I spelled that word that way on purpose.) I’ll read any good story. I don’t care what genre it is. Because, to me, books should be categorized as ‘good books’ and ‘dreck.’ Those are really the only two genres we need.

    And you have to write the books YOU must write to read. If YOU want to read them, others will, too. I firmly believe that, enough to take no small risk to put my own unclassifiable book out there.

    • Hee hee! I’m glad you took that risk. 🙂 And I agree with what you said about the categories (good and dreck). I wholeheartedly agree that a reader can sense an author’s passion. I sensed yours when I read your book and your blog and the long-walk you took, following Meriwether Lewis’s trail.

  11. I do love fantasy. And that’s what I’m writing now too–urban fantasy anyway. I have actually been surprised at how many people who have read my first book have told me they don’t normally read fantasy, but they loved my book. (Not trying to toot my own horn here–I’ve just been surprised.) Anyway, I think finding that first reason to step outside your normal genre (like reading something a friend or family member or friend of a friend or whatever wrote) may be all it takes to make you go, “Huh. Maybe I do like this.”

  12. I loved this post, so had to wait till there was time to sit at the computer and type out a reply. Typing it out on the iphone just doesn’t work (damn that auto-correct).

    I LOVE Fantasy (and I mean the wide umbrella encapsulating all sub genres, Sci Fi, Steampunk, Epic Fantasy, etc.) I don’t get why it has such a bad rep. It’s getting better now, but still there are still a lot of rolling eyes and raised eyebrows. We’re not supposed to want to write it, and if we like it, it should be a guilty pleasure. And yet most of the big book and film series are Fantasy (again, I mean the wider definition), so clearly most people love it.

    To me, it seems that Fantasy touches people in a way few other genres do. In fact few other genres have the kind of dedicated fans that Fantasy does (is there any other genre that has that kind of following?). It’s not just the discovery of other worlds, I think the power of Fantasy is the ability to take the mundane and turn it into something magical, whilst preserving the human element, the emotional content.

    Harry Potter is the best example of that. J.K. Rowling took something as universal (and mundane) as going back to school, and made it magical in a way that made us all (adults and children) simultaneously understand the emotions Harry was going through and yet be dazzled by all the wonders we discovered within the books.

    • Thank you!! And I totally agree. Fantasy books remind us of the richness of imagination. Perhaps the criticisms stem from a belief that anyone can write a fantasy book. All you have to do is throw in some imaginary creatures, a few humans, and some magic. Then you make up a bunch of words and call it “language.” Rowling and other fantasy writers showed that creating a believable world involves a ton of hard work. My hat is off to anyone who can pull off a 256,000-word book!

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