If you don’t read fantasy, read this

The other day, I was sitting talking with a group of friends and I told a story about my childhood. One long time friend then said, “Oh, Glenda – why don’t you write that sort of thing instead of this – this other stuff?” This other stuff being fantasy. Despised pulp, less than literature, childish drivel, or whatever. What on earth can you say in reply to a remark like that?

I was on the Purple Zone this morning (the great online forum over at the website of Harper Collins Voyager Australia) and read what one writer was told when registering with the lecturer of a writing course: ‘Well, there’ll be people writing serious stuff and they may not want to read your work. But don’t worry, there’s always a couple of people writing genre stuff in each class who stick together in the corner!’

This prompted Alma Alexander/Hromic into an excellent reply on her blog.

And I feel a rant coming on, too.

We all start by reading fantasy. Cinderella. Fairy Tales. Mother Hubbard rhymes. Local stories of taking animals. All those delightful kids’ stories that have charmed generations of children, and the modern tales that are just as good. We all have a background in myths and legends from whatever the culture of our upbringing. Religious stories are – almost by definition – full of the fantastic.

Then somewhere along the line, people seem to drop out and start reading what is supposedly “real” (even though it is fiction and not real at all). Unfortunately, many do it under the mistaken belief that fantasy is only for children.

Er, why?

Because only kids have the imagination to appreciate it? Come on.

Or maybe you think fantasy is poorly written. Er, what have you been reading, ever? There is enough top notch fantasy writing out there to keep you reading a book a day for a year and never be disappointed by the quality. If this is what you think, then you are choosing the wrong books. Or is it, dare I suggest, that you actually don’t read fantasy and are just guessing???? Shakespeare wrote fantasy. So did Dante, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Rushdie, Dickens, Isobelle Allende…

Maybe you think that when you’ve read one fantasy book, you’ve read them all? Excuse me while I roll around the floor laughing. That’s like saying I don’t watch TV/go to the movies because it’s all the same. Fantasy can be modern, medieval, ancient, futuristic. It can be in this world or any other. It can be sad, funny, tragic, happy, violent or romantic; it can be about love or war or passion or principles or education or …anything.

Maybe you think fantasy has no relevance to your world. Rubbish. That’s like saying we have nothing to learn from “Animal Farm” because it was all about animals. Of that Tolkien had nothing to say about the human spirit because he wrote about Hobbits and Middle Earth. All modern successful fantasy books are successful because people can relate to the story they tell.

There was a lovely article in The Guardian (Saturday January 21, 2006) where an author, Francesca Simon, (who loves “literature”) and her son (who loves fantasy) challenge one another to read the other’s favourite. Mother heads off to read Robin Hobb’s Assassin trilogy. Son ends up with Trollope.

End of experiment: son is absolutely sure Barchester Towers is not for him. Mother is hooked on Robin Hobb and goes out to buy the next book in the trilogy. It was no contest.

I have nothing to be ashamed of because I write fantasy.

And you – if you have never read it, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you tried once and hated it, then try again. You didn’t give up on mainstream books because you happened to hate one, did you? That’s like giving up on oranges because you had one sour one.

And bear in mind, we fantasy readers and writers do get tired of being scorned by people who don’t even read the genre.


If you don’t read fantasy, read this — 24 Comments

  1. You know, it’s not that I disagree, as such. I think we just, as a community, waste too much emotional energy worrying about what the unwashed ill-informed think. These literati types are, generally speaking, so entrenched in their contempt, and so closed minded, it’s impossible practically for one of ‘us’ to change their outlook. The story you quote is great, but the change came through the persuasion of someone close.

    I think we feed into their need to despise us by appearing to need their approval and kudos. And since popular genre commercial fiction outsells them in truckloads, which burns them to the marrow, they do need it. This is the only revenge they have. Why give it to them? Why allow them to feel they have the power to hurt us, or make us feel anything less than massively proud of what our genre achieves?

    The only way to win the battle is to shrug when they call us names, say we’re sorry they live such limited reading lives, and quietly walk through the world encouraging those we meet to read some fantasy or sf and discover for themselves if they like it.


  2. Well, I kinda feel that we have to stick up for what we believe in. I don’t care if “they” don’t like fantasy (after all, I am not about to read a western, good or not!) but when someone utters stupidities I feel honour bound to correct them. I don’t go around saying all Westerns are crap. Literati types shouldn’t say that about sff (or westerns or romances or who dunnits or…) and I will protest if they do. If we don’t stand up to be counted, who will do it for us?

    There is a big difference between saying “I don’t like fantasy” and “Fantasy is not worth reading because it is fantasy.”

  3. Hi Glenda, Thought I detected a spoonful of your tropic temper nicely today!
    I wanted to say that reading your blog inspired me to take up reading sci-fic in a new serious way that would allow me to hopefully, cultivate just one more romantic interest to an already multi-layered life. But I had no doubt that it would command exactly the same vein as if I had wanted to read translated Franch literature, Poirot mysteries, go through Dicken all over again or something else. I never saw any one of these fields of fictional thought as being above or below the other – but rather that they were nicely settled in completely different worlds and which world was it particularly that I had wanted to enter would have been my big decision…
    I carry all the fairy-tales inside my spirit – because they continue to keep my childhood happiness alive. And also, I remember once that I read the chunky fantasy Lanark that took me to so many different places in my head – this was roundabout 1990 that today, I don’t remember the story so much as the thrill and exhilaration of such an exciting puzzle that gripped me to the core. It still has the power to send goosepimples up my skin and a shiver down my spine.
    I would think that fantasy more than fiction, had the added talent of challenging the imagination to the hilt. Where without the imagination, there would be no stories of any kind and without these stories there would be no dreams.
    It’s just me now wanting to know how to get re-acquainted with sci-fiction after such a long absence. But no doubt for me who does nothing without passion, the effect would be seriously romantic, to say the least.

  4. Oh, Glenda,
    there’s just a tiny error. I meant to say, go through Dickens and not, Dicken!

  5. What, the Dickens ? 🙂 anyway, I read fantasy, but it seems to me that it’s very commercialized these days, so I don’t read as much. I mean compare “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to any one of today’s dwarf/elf/barbarian fighter stories, and you’ll see what I mean.

  6. Nothing personal, but it is comments like this…

    “I mean compare “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to any one of today’s dwarf/elf/barbarian fighter stories, and you’ll see what I mean.”

    …that strangle my goat the most. I have been reading fantasy for as long as I can remember (yes, my memory only goes back 15 years though I be twice that age) and have read maybe three authors that have elves and dwarves. Feist, Brooks and Tolkien. Love Feist, so so on Brooks and detest Tolkien. So basically, it means I could get through the better half of my life not getting bogged down in the above sterotypical view of fantasy.

    The people who say fantasy is all elves and orcs are those who have a very uninformed, narrow minded view of the genre.

    To see the true variety (and sheer talent) found in fantasy these days, one only needs to look to Australian authors…

    Glenda (take a bow)
    Sean Williams
    Karen Miller
    KJ Bishop
    Trudi Canavan
    Jenny Fallon
    Sara Douglass

    Not to mention the numerous overseas authors who steer clear of fantasy’s bygone era.

    Hope no toes got squashed in the process.

    Cheers, Lisa.

    PS Glenda, love your books. Just starting to get into your blog as well.

  7. Okay, can you name an _international_ author that doesn’t have names that sound like it took them about ten minutes to come up with ? stuff like “Eldar”, “Tyrannid”, “Tyrannia” etc. just pales in comparison to Pellucidar, Cimmeria, Conan, Gandalf, Bilbo etc.

    I haven’t read an Australian author for the very obvious reason that I don’t stay in Australia and they’re not available in a whole lot of other countries. The stuff we get over here just sucks, it’s all commercial. I have not the time to read about names and places that sound like they’re just verbs with stuff tacked on the end.

    “popular genre commercial fiction outsells them in truckloads”.

    Exactly. And yes, I think they have a right to be mad because writing is all about how many copies you can sell these days. I think you’d be mad too if you spent years writing a magnum opus, only to be outsold by some guy who churns out formulaic novels. Wouldn’t you be mad ? wouldn’t you think there’s no justice in this world ?

    I’d be mad. I’d be screaming mad. I’d be shouting “can you not see the beauty in this ?” but what they want, as always, is cheap disposable fiction. There’s not a market for prose as an object of beauty, as a work of art that will stand the test of time. You have paintings that are worth millions, watches that have every little part hand-made, and are worth millions. Sculptures that are lovingly crafted and are worth millions. But a book, never. A book is never a work of art. They talk about paintings, and sculpture, but never prose. Music pretty much suffers the same fate.

  8. Thanks, Lisa! And Susan – that’s the right way to look at reading…

    Hmmm, I think Anon, that you have kinda made my point. Fantasy is not what you are saying it is. It is a HUGE genre, from the beautifully crafted prose of, say, Charles de Lint, set in modern urban society, to the wonderfully inventive chaotic world of Victorian punk in China Mieville, to the stark imagery of Gaiman in modern day America, to the extraordinary everyday 18th-19th Englishness of Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell, to the medieval political machinations of George R.R.Martin…

    Otherwise elves and dwarves and odd naming systems and barbarian fighters are all conspicuously absent or so altered from the stereotype you wouldn’t call them that. I have chosen these writers as examples because they are all internationally acclaimed and popular. And they are fine writers. And yet all very different.

    I assume you chose that example of Tyrannia because you noticed that I have used something similar in my second trilogy. You jump to conclusions. The whole naming system I have used has its roots in the Mediterranean of Roman times – mostly Latin, but also other languages in use at the time. My Tyr comes from the place we now call modern day Tyre. Many fantasy authors take tremendous pains with their naming systems. You asked for some international fantasy authors who don’t use random naming – well, I just did. See above. Not one of them is silly.

    Come to think of it, I don’t regard myself as formulaic either. The Aware was set on a sandspit with one ramshackle town – a fishing port. That’s right. The whole book. No journeys, no quests, no artefacts of power. No kings, elves, fairy folk, horses, wolves, castles, dwarves, sages, mages, talking animals, no woods, no mountains, no dwarf caverns…not a one. I’ll admit there was an inn. And a sword or two. There was also an anthropologist.

    Is my writing a thing of beauty? Maybe not in the sense that you mean. I see myself as a fine story teller, rather than a sculptor of art. Words in the right order can be beautiful – but they will not last, or sell, if you put them in a book of fiction that does not also entertain. If you want just beauty, then write poetry. Not 300 pages of a novel. A novel’s job is to entertain and perhaps, secondarily, educate. If you can write a wonderful tale with beautiful prose from start to finish, then of course we – the reading public – are truly blessed. I aim for it, and doubtless miss by a mile. But please, don’t rubbish me or other fantasy authors because we write good entertaining stories.
    Usually the only definition of literature that holds up to scrutiny is one that says something along the lines of : “Writing that stands the test of time.” Well, “literature”, in my opinion, has to be fine writing that people WANT to read NOW as well as over time. If you write beautiful words that bore readers to tears, then it’s not great literature, and it won’t stand the test of time either.
    Another unhappy fact: publishers aren’t charity organisations, they have to make a living. All books have to sell, or they won’t be published. In other words, all books are commercial. They are a product.

  9. I think I’ve found more philosophical analysis about good and evil in fantasy than anywhere else.
    Add Guy Gavriel Kay to the list.

  10. Oo, yes. How could I have forgotten Kay? Wonderful author, with powerful, evocative prose and naming systems based on real times and places. Who can forget Arbonne, the Provence of his world, or his Byzantine Sarantium?

    Here is what he says about fantasy, much better than I could ever say it: “For me, fantasy has never been in its essence about constructing elaborate magical systems for duelling sorcerers or contriving new versions of an enchanted ring or further variations on the use of hyphens and apostrophes in invented names. Fantasy is — at its best — the purest access to storytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day, and presages the dangers and promises of the future. It is — or so I have argued for years — a genre, a mode of telling, that offers so much more than it is usually permitted to reveal.”

  11. Thanks, Lisa!

    Glenda, I agree that when someone makes blatantly silly statements about the field it’s a good idea to correct them. I too stand up and defend causes I believe in. But so often I see in-house wibbling about how ‘they’ don’t respect us, how ‘they’ won’t take us seriously, what can we do to make ‘them’ include us in their worldview … and too often it smacks of petulance and resentment and complaining. I think we should focus on our energies on winning converts to the cause by our positive energies interacting with the general reading public. Not by tugging at the sleeve of the literati establishment saying why why why won’t you pat me on the head?

    Harsh? Maybe. But as I’ve said, I don’t care for the notion of surrendering our power to a bunch of people who, for the most part, wouldn’t recognise narrative drive if it left tyre tracks on their ankles.


  12. I’m so with Karen on this one.

    And I feel I should let the anonymous poster know that all but one of the Australian authors Lisa listed has books available outside Australia – and the one exception hasn’t because she’s simply too new on the scene.

  13. As Ursula LeGuin says, “Fantasy is the natural language for telling the spiritual journey and the struggle for good and evil in the soul”. I would go so far as to reverse her premise and say that all good story telling does this, and all good story-telling is fantasy. Heck, isn’t Shakespeare the greatest of the masters? And what did he write? Fantasy, man, fantasy. Long may it thrive.

  14. “In other words, all books are commercial. They are a product.”

    That’s exactly it. I think they have a right to be mad at how prose has evolved from an art to a product. Not to say anyone needs their approval, but they’re more than right to complain that books are no longer labors of love (yeah go ahead, argue with me, would you be writing if no one paid you a cent, honestly ? 🙂 ) people write for money these days when they used to write for the sheer love of writing. It’s a product, a commodity, like soap. You write, you sell, you get paid, you write more, life goes on. It’s a commodity now, but it doesn’t mean anyone HAS to like the way things are now.

    It’s not random names I’m talking about, it’s names that have an old-world “feel” about them, but are not taken or copied from anywhere. Like you said, your Tyr comes from someplace that already exists, you just removed an “e”. Places like Rohan and Pellucidar, where were they taken from ? nowhere you can guess. That’s the difference. I’m just not into books where I can guess where the names come from. I think a fantasy novel should not remind readers of the real world. It’s just how my mind works. I mean, here you an in this great fantasy world, and all of a sudden it’s called Tyr, which reminds you of Sidon, which reminds you of the Bible, and all of a sudden you’re back in the real world. See that’s the problem, the words trigger associations to the real world. “Cimmeria” doesn’t trigger any associations, so you can imagine how it’s like w/o your mind going off on a tangent and ruining things. So that’s why I don’t like names which are based on real-world names.

    It’s not that anyone “despises” this, it’s just that.. it’s sad that books have become a commodity, so they’ve chosen to react in this manner because they feel that you’re the “enemy”, they’re fighting for what _they_ believe in. Quixotic maybe, but who denies them that right ? it’s just sad. Cold and harsh and brutal and realistic, but sad nevertheless. We’ll probably never see another book written the way books were written in the early days.

    See that’s what they’re mad about. It used to be that people wrote for love, now they write for money. And they don’t like it. Of course they’re mad at you, they see you as destroying their way of life, “selling out”. In time they’ll pass on, and “belles lettres” will just be a dim and distant memory. But for now, they’re fighting for what they believe in.

  15. Anon: I fell of my chair laughing when you said people don’t write for love any more. Believe me, very, very few of us write fiction for money. Any kind of fiction. My remark about money was concerning the publishing of books, not the writing of them. Hasve you any idea of what the average author gets paid for the hours of work it takes to write a book? I’d earn more flipping burgers in Macdonalds.

    In fact, of all my fiction-writing friends, I think I can safely say every single one of them would continue writing till their dying day, even if they were never paid another penny.

    I started writing fiction while still at elementary school. I received my first payment for it when I was fifty plus. Much of what I wrote I never showed anyone. It was done for love, for joy, for the satisfaction of a creative urge. What prompted me to push for publication was a need to share, not the money I thought I would get.

    I still write for love. I turn down better paying work to give myself more time to write, and given my precarious financial situation at the moment, that is a sacrifice! It is nice now to receive some remuneration, but it is nicer still to share a world with other people, to have them lose themselves in my stories for a while, to have their imaginations soar because of something I wrote.

    You seem to think that is something sells in today’s world, it must be somehow rubbish. If people write fine literature that resonates, it sells. I bet Banville’s “The Sea” (winner of the last Booker-Man) has sold a ton more copies than any book of mine. I know I bought it and loved it and will reread it from time to time. It is a truly beautiful piece of work. If people aren’t selling, then maybe they should not blame those who don’t buy, and not blame authors who do sell well, but look closer at their own product.

    My naming of places is very deliberate (as was Tolkien’s – Anghara is probably the best person to talk about where his names came from; he didn’t pull them out of a hat but looked more at where European names might have come from) and you are exactly right. I want to remind the reader of something that I don’t want to say outright. The biblical reference is important and I want them to have that in the back of their mind as they read – but I don’t want to stop the narrative and say (as 19th century writers did all the time) : look, dear reader, what I mean is actually this.
    For me, the story is the thing.

    One reason I use fantasy as a medium is because it offers me a way to write a two-level tale – a story about people in a mythical place, yet firmly anchored in today’s world. Some readers miss this second level altogether (I know this from reading my fanmail)and that’s fine. Others see it and revel in it, and that’s even better.

    Another reason I write fantasy is because it enables me to say things that would upset a great many people if I placed them in today’s world. If you live where I do, you will know what I mean.

    The third reason I write fantasy is because I love a good story that gives wings to the imangination.

    I don’t write fantasy because it sells better than “literary” fiction. I don’t write it for money. I certainly don’t see it as “selling out”, or writing something that is innately crap simply because it is fantasy (which is surely circular illogic), I certainly don’t see it as something that is read by the semi-illiterate masses who wouldn’t know good writing if they tripped over it in broad daylight.

    Try reading some of the authors suggested. I think you’ll be astonished at the qulity of writing that is out there.

  16. Glenda and Karen, absolutely my pleasure. Your books are some of the best reasons to read, period.

    A lot of the dicussion here reminds me of something that was told to me back in the early days of my writing (I won’t say career…) life. For a story to work on the most basic level (and I don’t mean be monetarily or critically successful) it has to be able to exist outside of the genre. Can you transplant your characters and their conflicts from fantasy to suspense or action or, dare I say it, literary? If this works, then your story can transcend genre and become simply what you wrote it as, a story.

    As a writer, I hate classification of any sort. Fiction or non-fiction is about as far as I go. I follow authors, not genres.

    Cheers, Lisa.

  17. Anon, looks like you gave yourself away and suddenly, it’s very easy to see that you’re not any kind of author (published or aspiring), are you? Otherwise, you would know how such a life works. You have to have lived my life in any case and to have breathed my soul and to have figured out my thoughts & if you still assumed that all writers write for money and lumped us together in a gunny sack, to me that has to be the biggest joke of all time.
    You judge all writers to be simply by the views you choose to hold – just one person. I have no idea what I’ll see in my lifetime. How can anyone predict anything these days? And for the first time knowing that as a writer and passionate reader of books – I think nothing at all like you – am I glad to say, “To each his own.” And I’ll happily raise my glass of champagne bought from article-writing money, to that!
    P.S. Oh by the way, I’ve spent a few years writing a complete novel manuscript while no one paid me a cent and I still don’t have a clue if anyone is going to pay me for it. And that’s alright too. Because at the end of the day, I love what I do. And there’s never any simple logic to that.

  18. Very well said. I discovered I write fantasy because I have no idea where my characters are going to take me, so the process is a double bonus—I get stories and I get entertained simultaneously.

  19. An interesting discussion all around. Thanks for everyone’s contribution! John, you had better watch those guys…you dunno what they might be up to next.

  20. Oh no.. I typed in this long comment and it never got posted. Oh well huh. Anyways :

    “I fell of my chair laughing”.

    Thanks for the compliment. I was trying out satire for a bit, seems quite fun, but very draining.

    (2) You’re not poor if you can afford to turn down anything.

    (3) “semi-illiterate masses who wouldn’t know good writing if they tripped over it in broad daylight” is probably what the highbrow literature types call fantasy readers 🙂

  21. And yes, Tolkien’s is deliberate, but it’s not linked to any real-world names. It’s largely based on several languages that he invented. He invented several languages for a book series, can you imagine that ? it’s crazy.

    Anyway, like you said, your names are deliberately based on real-world places, and I’d rather not be reminded of the real world in any way, because fantasy, to me, is an escape from reality.

  22. Anon,
    your solution is to stop reading altogether since everything is just product you know and I bet, you’ll stay happy, healthy and wise! You sound like you don’t like books anyway. And all this confusion with fantasy and reality. I agree books could do your head in. I suggest you join a tree conservation programme. At least, you’ll help save paper and stay ROOTED in REALITY proper. Ha-Ha! Big Kiss… Muah!

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