Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does fantasy fiction have literary merit?

When I attended the Yourword creative writing residency this summer, I met a girl named Kim. She and I became great friends, but a few weeks ago Kim mentioned something, something which got me thinking about the fantasy genre and how it fits within the academic community. She said, "When I first met you, and you said you wrote fantasy, I was worried you were going to be weird and socially awkward. I'm glad you're not!" I can't blame her. There are so many stereotypes surrounding fantasy, it's hard for many people to understand why someone would choose to write genre fiction.

The other day my little sister, who's almost 16, asked her English teacher if she could read The Lord of the Rings as an independent reading book. The teacher responded no, because The Lord of the Rings is fantasy and therefore lacks literary merit. This ticked me off. Just because something's made up, doesn't mean it can't be insightful, philosophical, and deeply rooted in the human experience. I don't write fantasy simply for the pleasure of using strange creatures or magic spells. I write fantasy because it goes back to the beginnings of human civilization, the myths and legends that defined the evolution of culture.

As living creatures, humans are different from other animals. We build cities and have highly organized systems of government. We communicate through language and the written word. But what really separates us, what defines our role as conscious beings, is the ability to create, to contemplate those things we don't fully understand. For me, fantasy is about the exploration of the unknown. I spend all of my life living in the real world. Writing fantasy is a way to answer the questions that don't have concrete answers. It delves into the human imagination, the strange, sometimes twisted workings of the mind, and explores a character's psyche by having them face challenges and tasks which don't exist in our version of reality. By mentally placing myself in such situations, I've gained a deeper understand of myself as a person and the thoughts of my characters. Many of the great fantasy authors use their writing as a catalyst to explore philosophy, religion, and politics. It is a genre of subtle metaphors and moral condundrums. Having read so many wonderful fantasy books, which contain underlying political and social contexts, themes rooted in today's society, and complex, well-developed characters, it is beyond me how an English teacher could condemn an entire genre as being inferior and lacking in terms of literary merit.

Humans don't understand the world. We turn to religion, science, and other explanations in an attempt to ground ourselves, to stave off the panic of not knowing how we came to be or where we'll end up. In a constantly shifting universe, our ability to imagine is the only thing we can be sure of.

Truth is hard to define. But, as humans, I believe fantasy is the closest thing to truth we have.


  1. Amen and Amen!

    While I don't think all fantasy has literary merit (truly some of it can be awful,) I do thing the very best fantasy offers some of the deepest yet clearest commentary on our societies and human experience. Fantasy is often used as a means to remove ourselves from our world so we can view it through a clear and distant lens, much like we can see the Earth from the moon. It's one of the ironies of fantasy. We transport ourselves into made-up worlds to see that which is real.

    Send your post to your sister's English teacher. Then have someone hit him/her over the head with a good thick book. The Lord of the Rings will do.

  2. Three cheers for fantasy! I mainly write YA fantasy, as well, and it's tough dealing with that kind of blind genre-judgment from people.

    And you know, after getting my degree in English, I can definitely say that "literary" fiction is defined by a relative handful of people in the grand scheme of things.

    "Literary" is a loaded word in academia, and you can smell the reek of it from a mile away.

    Which is not to say true literary fiction is bad--some of my absolute favorite books are so-called literary fiction.

    But yeah. There's a huge stigma associated with genre fiction. I had a lot of professors who sniffed at anything that wasn't literary or geared at adults, which cuts out everything. Even literary YA.

    Which is why I'm getting my master's in writing for children and young adults. Two points for Shayda. Oh yeah.

    I'm of the opinion, though, much like you, that any piece of literature that enriches me somehow, that makes me think about myself or humanity or life, is literary.

    Harry Potter? Most literary series I've ever read.

    Also, you should get your sister to ask her teacher how s/he feels about Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Isabelle Allende. Magical realism, anyone? Or Ursula Le Guin--THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS is a fantastic/dystopic short story that's been anthologized in countless literary anthologies. So what's this person talking about? Just some extra ammunition for you!


  3. *Isabel Allende. I hate it when I do that.

  4. Liesl - Exactly! Like any genre, the quality of fantasy varies from book to book, and it's aggravating to meet an English teacher who dismisses as entire subsection of literature as worthless. I wish I could share this blog post with Ms. Stenstrud, but unfortunately she's one of the judges for the English Sterling Scholar award at my school, which I'd love to win, so I don't want to get on her bad side :).

    Shayda - My IB English class actually just finished The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. We also read the Metamorphosis by Kafka, which could be considered fantasy, seeing as the main character turns into a giant bug. I really don't understand why the academic community shuns fantasy, when some of the most philosophical and politically applicable literature contains mythical elements.

  5. Fantasy lacks literary merit? I most heartily object. Senior year of high school, a friend of mine wrote a term paper on Lord of the Rings. It's a classic of fantasy literature and draws strongly on the literary history of epic poetry and Norse oral stories. Of course it has literary merit. Pardon while I go hit my head on a desk and listen to Lord of the Rings 2 on CD.

  6. By the way, there's an award for you on my blog. :)

  7. I'm a new follower and thanks to the award Dominique passed on to you I have found your blog which I adore.

    I write YA fantasy as well and was offended by this persons lack of knowledge. When people don't take the time research the novels they just chalk it up to not having merit. Banned Book Week proved this theory. It's silly how we have to fight to read what we love, defend it, all because people are ignorant.

    I think there is a lot to learn from fantasy novels, I for one learned a lot about love, family and the importance in life while reading Harry Potter, though the entire world is make believe.

  8. Fantasy and sci-fi always have morals and themes that relate to the real world, which is one of the reasons I love the genres more than literary. And the best part is that people actually want to read them. ;) And plenty of sci-fi has won all kinds of awards. The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, is one I'd love to read with a freshman English class (if I taught H.S, of course). Love Allende, too.

    I would have gotten irate at your sister's teacher, as well. And why shoot a kid down when they actually want to read a book? I don't get it.

    Great post!

  9. Dominique - Thanks again for the award! And yes, Lord of the Rings is definitely a classic. Tolkien is unparalleled in terms of world-building.

    Jen - I love your point about Banned Book Week. It makes me so angry to think people are discouraging kids to read simply because the book doesn't appeal to them. One person should not be able to dictate what gets put in libraries!

    Tere - I haven't read House of the Scorpion, but it's been on my list for a while now. I'm thinking I'll have to check it out from the library this week :)

  10. Hopping over from Dominique's..

    What kind of teacher discourages reading of any kind? Sounds like she might be someone who falls into a stereotype herself, if you ask me.

    I write YA fantasy and I get most of my ideas from reality.

  11. Too true, Kate.
    Some of the greatest truths I've ever read have come from a fantasy source or other. Stories help tell us how to live and why. We can learn lessons from the experiences of people who aren't real, and in a why, learn by example when no err actually took place. That's the real magic of the fantasy genre, and it's too bad that some don't get that. Great post, Kate. And you know something? I starting out writing science fiction DURING my English classes. It wasn't until then that I started getting A's.

  12. Ugh. *way. Can't believe I let a typo slip . . .