Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fantasy versus Realistic Fiction

I am cursed with a split mind - the child in me, the same one who wrote a document almost 300 pages in length, wants to write fantasy. He wants to live and breath fantasy. He wants to sit down for hours and hours and hours on end writing about dragons, quests, good and evil, things lurking in forest lakes, castles, kings, sieges, and magic. But... it's all so cliche - so overdone. So juvenile. Isn't it?

Tolkein is dead and Rowling was (is) a freak accident - she couldn't have come up with a better plot to appeal to an audience under the age of 16. Twilight doesn't even deserve to be acknowledged - it's not fantasy, it's a subdued form of bestiality. Other than these others (and CS Lewis, and, I'm sure, there are several others) the "known" authors of fantasy are known only to select readers. I don't want to write a book only 800 people will read only because it's going to be thrown into a category with those other paperbacks with sword-wielding vixens not wearing appropriate clothing stamped on the cover.

It's not like that. Good fantasy isn't as... "cheap" as all that. Good fantasy (you might even call many of Orwell's writings "fantasy" or Brave New World fantasy) is a dialogue with reality. This is incredibly difficult to write - impossible. Because, while it should be a "dialogue with reality" (whatever I mean by that!) it must not seem like it's trying too hard. I can't have terrorists wasting castles with kings running after them in a wasted war-effort. For, while a reflection of reality in a work of fiction adds to the story if well done, it subtracts if done poorly. It becomes nagging. The reader just wants the good guy and the bad guy to fight, when instead their locked in debate about healthcare (this is an exaggeration... god I hope this is an exaggeration.)

This is not the goal of fantasy - nor should this be the goal of any writing at the outset. To reiterate, writing, when I'm sitting down at my computer, is first and foremost a means of entertainment. Yes, there are some things that bother me in the "real world." But that doesn't mean I have to have the bad-guy in my fantasy be some money grabbing, loose with women, fat white man. Entertain. This is the first goal of all writing. People who write textbooks must forget this - while educating is an important part of their kind of writing, who the hell wants to read about Louis the XVI if the writing is overtly pedagogical and smarmy.

Entertain first. Goal of all writing. I don't care if you're writing an instruction manual for wall-clocks. Short of a bullet pointed lists, a writer should avoid dullness at all costs.

What else should a writer avoid? Cliche! Enter fantasy's greatest adversary. There are no new ideas - I think Aristotle said that (one of those goddamned Greeks.) While I don't agree with this completely, he is making a good point. There are thousands of fantasy novels out there with basically the same plot as one or another.

A: Little puny weak something-or-other (whether it be Hobbit, Human, or Rabbit, it doesn't matter) is for some reason driven to leave home (compelled by unforeseen circumstances).

B: Goes on quest. Makes friends. Confronts partially unseen / incredibly intimidating adversary who wants to (1) dominate the world (2) obtain power (3) kill everything (4) become immortal.

C: Little puny whatever has (surprise surprise) grown up, become powerful, defeats enemy.

I've actually read very little fantasy. Lord of the Rings (of course) Harry Potter (not all of them, I was tired of them not doing any real educating at that damned school of theirs) and those books by Christopher Paolini (but only the first one.) Why have a read very little? I can feel them all being exactly the same. I want something different. I want a non-cliche piece of fantasy! Sure, if anyone who is an avid reader of the genre looks at my splendid blog (what the hell am I doing with my life anyways) they'll yell at me, tell me I don't know, and, perhaps, suggest a book. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong.

But this isn't the only problem I face when I allow that childish fantasy writer in me loose on the page. I get the feeling no one takes the genre particularly seriously. That little editor in my head who is constantly nagging in my ear keeps telling me to write "realistic fiction" because, if you do that well, people will acknowledge you as a great writer. As if it's harder to write within reality than to invent reality then write within it... I don't know which is harder - I think both have their own trials. The trial of fantasy is rather like the trial of the main character in fantasy.

Enter: unrecognized work of fantasy that (if it were any other genre) might be highly regarded by everyone, not just those devoted fantasy readers who sat down and read 700 pages without stopping. What's the big evil enemy? Realistic fiction. The genre that is more legitimate and takes up the spotlight except for some glaring exceptions already mentioned. How do we, as writers of a unappreciated genre surpass this? Write extraordinarily. I mean it. If you want a piece of fantasy to be read by everyone, you have to write so well, so flawlessly, with such poise, grace, cadence, and power than even staunch advocates of realistic fiction must acknowledge your "writing skills." A beautiful piece of writing is a beautiful piece of writing, no matter what the genre.

Proof: if Tolkien was a writer of lesser ability, the Lord of the Rings might still be crack exclusively for fantasy junkies, and not such a widely read, world-renowned story. But he wrote it so well, with such skill, and attacked a beautiful plot with powerful language and wrote (from what little I know about the entire spectrum of fantasy) one of the greatest works of any genre of all time.

Thus, a fantasy writer must be an incredibly skilled writer as well as a creative mastermind (it takes a special kind of creativity to invent an entire world.)

Enter my other mind - my other writer. I enjoy writing realistic fiction too! That's right - this isn't just a rant against realistic fiction. In fact, I partially agree with skepticism against the fantasy genre. What does a genre set in a fake world tell us about the real world? But this is a shallow, short sighted question - I won't go into why, I think it's fairly obvious.

Realistic fiction isn't "better," but it is a better way to demonstrate the real world. This is why high-schoolers are reading Catcher in the Rye and not Dune. Sure, there are hosts of other reasons, but I think you get my point. Fantasy doesn't educate as well as realistic fiction does - it doesn't allow you to as easily enter the shoes of another person as easily as realistic fiction. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair couldn't have been written as a fantasy novel.

Realistic fiction is as informative as it is entertaining (in the case of a well written piece.) It introduces the reader to aspects of the real world (it's nice to be able to come out of a story knowing something about reality you didn't know before) he or she wouldn't otherwise understand.

Not even I understand exactly what I am trying to get at right now. What am I trying to say? I know what I mean, but sometimes the words just won't come...

Realistic fiction is like meeting someone in real life. That story about that factory worker  could be real - so, it's almost as though you met a real person. I think that's what I'm trying to say.

Let me go back to fantasy for a while (for some reason I am more equipped to talk about this genre than realistic fiction, even though I write both.)

There is a reason why lots of younger authors want to write in this genre or in science fiction (the difference between the fantasy and sci-fi is fodder for another discussion). Fantasy is an attempt to recapture the magic of the world - rather, recapture the feeling we had as children that there is more out there than just what is right in front of us. A sense of wonder. I've lost that and I would give anything to have it back. I miss the feeling that maybe there really is a Santa, that really there maybe it such a thing as "magic." That not everything in the world can be explained by science or explained by some cockamamy dictum of religious fanaticism. It was almost as though, as children, our imagination wasn't so confined to our heads. It had hands of it's own - it made legos come to life, imbued play-dough with some indefinable qualia.

Qualia... an interesting word I've come across half a dozen times while reading about "consciousness" or the brain. It's a word used in philosophy to describe subjective experience and acknowledging we can't know how another person experiences anything. Thus, by sticking our sticky imagination-fingers into reality the world is no longer an objective space, it is a subjective experience. When we are young there are so many mysteries about the world we don't even have the language to explain. So, what does that five year old do? He explains it subjective experience - he fills the mystery with the magic of his own mind.

Fantasy is an attempt to recapture this sense that maybe... just maybe... there is more out there than newtonian physics (don't get me started on quantum mechanics) and money. But to do so is incredibly challenging. In fact, it is impossible. No 30 year old woman is going to come out of reading Harry Potter and feel gypped because she never got her Hogwarts letter.

However, by creating a world of our (the author's) own subjective experience there is an allowance for the "realistically impossible." Death is no longer final - who wouldn't want to live in a world where maybe, just maybe that person you loved might come back, for a little while? Who wouldn't want to live in a world that has some magic? Some mystery?

Enter one of the most brilliant (if not the most brilliant) fantasy writers of all time. JK Rowling. She made it even better. In addition to creating a world in which there was, quite literally, magic she did what no other author has done as well - it is a world accessible from our own. That's why it was so successful. The Harry Potter series is the best of both worlds (fantasy and realistic fiction that is) - there is magic, but there is reality. Both are possible. By writing about a school she even managed to do one of the most important things a writer needs to do to be successful - she appealed to a familiar experience. As readers of the series, everyone must have gone to school - that's instant association.

God. How brilliant.

I have more to say. But not right now.


  1. So, I'm not going to yell at you, or tell you that you don't know, because well, I agree with you. However if by chance you were looking for some suggestions of fantasy novels that are worth the read, my personal favorites are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. And The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

  2. I've heard of these, and I would be especially interested in reading the Dark Tower series, because, in addition to being a fan of Steven King, I'd like to see someone who is widely considered a "great author" take on fantasy. Unlike CS Lewis, Tolkien, or Rowling he isn't famous for fantasy, but I hear he does it quite well. Thanks for the suggestion.