So, I just did a signing at the BYU Bookstore. I like signing there, if only because the staff is so nice. Education week is a crazy time. It’s a big conference that the school holds between the end of summer semester and the beginning of fall semester, so there are tons of people there taking seminars and the like, very few of whom are actual students of the school. Anyway, the bookstore gets a lot of traffic, and so it’s generally a good time to sign.
Even with all of that, though, I felt a little bit like the odd man out. Most of everyone else who was there signing had been published by small local presses—and in Utah, the big small presses (can I say that?) are generally religious themed. I sat between someone who was selling historical LDS fiction from the World War One era and someone who was selling a scholarly book about the lost ten tribes of Israel. Then, there was me—Mr. Fantasy.
The woman with the historical fiction books was quite nice, and was very professional. Made me want to read her books simply because she had such a great attitude. However, my story relates to the man on my right. He was an older man, something of a ‘dazed professor’ type. I don’t know if he was actually a professor, but he had quite the inflated opinion of himself. At one point, he actually told someone pausing by the table that his book—about Israel—was the only one at the table worth reading.
How does someone even justify to themselves saying something like that? One of my friends talked to him, and got into a slight argument about the worth of fiction. (Mr. Israel had the opinion that fiction, particularly fantasy, was worthless.) We always complain about people who think like that, but it’s still very odd to me to have someone be so blatant about it. Usually, at least, they have the decorum to put on a cordial face when they’re sitting next to a fantasy writer at a signing.
This brings up an old hobby horse of mine—that of arguing for fantasy, and popular fiction itself, as an art form. If you’re tired of me harping on this topic, then I’m sorry. It’s just something that interests, and bothers me, at the same time. It seems to me that those of us in genre fiction use the wrong tools when we try to argue for the literary or scholarly value of our works. A common argument we make is to point toward works that ARE more scholarly, such as books by Ursula Le Guin or even Grandpa Tolkien, and say “Look, fantasy can be of literary value too!”
The problem with that is that most of us aren’t Le Guin or Tolkien, nor are we trying to be. What does that say about us? If literary works like those written by Gene Wolfe are the highest form of our art, are the rest of us simply hacks? That argument may prove that there is literary value to some fantasy and sf, but it doesn’t really do anything for the genre as a whole. I have the same problem with the argument that points toward literary fiction, published by important authors outside genre fiction, which have fantastical elements. This argument says “Look, Beloved has ghosts! It’s really fantasy! What do you think of that?” This argument simply says that fantastical elements to not trash make, but does little to prove that we—as fantasy writers—are doing anything of value.
One final argument tries to take literary or scholarly conventions and apply them to our own works, striving to gain scholarly credibility by talking about genre fiction in a literary way. People who make this argument generally subscribe to the “90% of everything is crap” fallacy, but their own favorite books always end up in the 10% that isn’t. (I’ll talk about this problem in another rant.) Even those who don’t pass judgment upon most of what’s out there are, in my opinion, participating in a method of argument that simply doesn’t do us any good as a genre.
You can’t use their rules to define what makes good literature, folks. They—the literary scholars—created those rules to describe a certain kind of writing, and we ain’t it! Trying to prove that popular fantasy books have literary value by using the establishment’s arguments is like trying to prove that the Jews are a wonderful and charitable people by using Mien Kamph!
Genre fiction does something different from literary fiction. Scholarly writing—whether it be a thick book about the lost tribes of Israel, or whether it be the new densely-prosed, New Yorker-style work of fiction—seeks primarily to engage the mind. In my opinion, that’s not what I’m doing as a writer. Yes, I like clever plots and interesting magic systems. Popular fiction, however, at its core is about emotion.
Fiction like I write is not about teaching you something, or about making a ‘distiguished contribution to American Letters.’ (See also: National Book Awards.) It’s about writing something that makes my readers feel what it’s like to be someone else. It’s about dreaming, about imagination, and about making you—for a short time—be someone else and experience their world.
Why is this important? Not for the scholarly reasons—not because of the prose, or because of the importance of the themes. Let’s look at my story—not one of the ones I’ve written, but one of the ones I experienced. When I was 14 I got into fantasy for the first time by reading Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. This is a story about a woman trying to decide between her career—magic—and her family. It also has dragons, adventure, and romance. When I got done with that book I was surprised to feel that I understood what it was like to be a middle-aged woman having to choose between her career and her family, something that I know my mother struggled with a lot during those years. I thought that maybe I could see things from her eyes a little better.
Barbara Hambly did this for me, all the while entertaining me and making me dream at the same time. This is what popular fiction does. It doesn’t ‘teach,’ not really. It lets us feel life through someone else’s eyes, and lets us have an absolute blast while we’re doing it. We aren’t scared of letting something be fun, nor do we feel the need to weight our books down with ponderous themes or bulky, overly-rich prose. Instead, we let people feel what it is to be someone else.
Maybe those who read our books will be a little more kind and understanding to those they meet who are from different segments of the population. Fantasy preaches against racism, prejudice, hatred, and selfishness. Not overtly, by trying to pound in a message. We do this through the simple method of making our readers live lives as people far different from themselves. In my opinion, what we do is more important than a deep and scholarly book about something boring.
You sir, my have the only book at the table worth reading. But I’ve got a story that is worth feeling.
Note—I haven’t proofread this yet! I will do that in subsequent edits. Sorry for the roughness of the writing!