Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Like Fantasy

Gazelle by Brom
As much as I enjoy fantasy I often feel I can't admit to it without being understood. Like a forty year-old man who says he 'really likes Miley Cyrus', it's an admission that carries unfortunate implications. It's one thing to be misunderstood by those who don't have a taste for Fantasy: they assume that I am a escapist with negligible taste, when in fact I find escapism terribly dull and have never struggled to defend my preference in books.

Yet it is not the uninitiated I fear: I fear to be misunderstood by those who like fantasy. When our proverbial forty year-old tells the average person of his appreciation for Miley, they think "this man's an unabashed pedophile", but when he shares this with the like-minded, they think "This man's an unabashed pedophile just like me!" It's this misplaced camaraderie which irks me, because I don't simply like fantasy, I have a deep and abiding passion for it. I read it, I try to write it, and I've fallen into the foolish trap of feeling quite seriously about it.

Imagine our forty year-old is the same: his interest has nothing to do with sex, instead he likes Miley because of her vocal timbre (bear with me), her idiomatic performance, and her bevvy of songwriters. He appreciates the way the executives carefully turned her into something polished, and can explain this to you using his knowledge of music theory, the industry, and the history of pop music. Now imagine he meets another grown man who really appreciates Miley. He opens with a commentary on the interesting drum sampling on her latest song, and the other man looks at him for a moment, uncomprehending, before asking if he's seen the .gif of her humping the stage in a vinyl suit.

Clearly, there is a disconnect here.

The Dragon Summoner by DiTerlizzi
Likewise, when I bring up Fantasy books with people who are compulsive readers of the genre, the conversation quickly and awkwardly diverges. I begin to mention the reinvention of the epic tradition--and the monomyth in particular--and the use of the more abstract pagan system of the Fairy Tale—and I get a blank look. Sometimes, the Blank Look.

I'd like to mention here that I do use terms like 'monomyth' and 'epic tradition'; sometimes I even use them unironically. I don't expect everyone to know them, and I'm always happy to talk definitions, but many people seem to find them threatening. Yet specialized terms were not invented to bewilder or belittle people, they were developed to facilitate communication and mutual understanding. Apparently, people got tired of having to say "you know that thing, where there's a Hero, and he gets The Call and seeks out The Mentor and then encounters the First Conflict, &c?" Don't blame the words just because some people use them as a shield or a weapon.

But most people I talk to about fantasy with don't want to talk about words--they'd would rather argue which orphaned loner with a psychic wolf is the most badass, and which magical powers could beat other magic powers. That's their escapism. They want something fun that will take them away from their lives. I want something that will make me more connected to my life and to the world, something that will challenge my mind and inspire me. I tried to escape from life once; it didn't last. What concerns me is that fantasy fans often advocate 'getting lost' in a book, by which they mean turning off your brain and just letting it all in. Not only is such mindlessness rather dull, I but I often worry about the things that might slip into our brains if we just leave them open and unprotected. A lot of fantasy books are full of misogyny, stupidity, bad writing, rape, pointless violence, fetish porn and worse things, like Libertarianism. That's stuff I'd think twice about before dumping it freely into my head.

Rotfang by Brom
A lot of fantasy readers I talk to seem worried about the influence I might have on them. Namely, they are afraid of being disillusioned. I mean, their illusions have worked perfectly fine so far, so why change them? Plus, having them torn away is always painful: it's a trial by fire, but that doesn't make it bad. Every time I saw one of my preconceptions melt away, I felt a sense of wonder--and also like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Every time I stopped liking a fantasy book I used to rave about, it wasn't because I grew too bitter or forgot how to have fun, it was because I read something that was so awesome that it made me see that those other books are just, generic shadows of what fantasy can be. Coming to understand and accept something new takes time, but it is also exciting and fulfilling in a way that escape can never be. It didn't draw me away from the scary world, it brought me closer to a world I no longer had reason to fear.

I certainly have plenty of illusions and blind spots left, and I know I'll always be uncovering new ways that I've been totally stupid for years, but each good book I read makes me stronger, more whole, more understanding. Books are not merely placeholders. Why do something if you come away from it no different than when you stated? But when I rush off and write a review about how "I really learned something about narrative structure from that book", and hear in response "Yeah! I really learned something about the range of a Uranium Dragon's breath weapon!", it's rather nonplussing on both ends, really.

Worse than that is that the discussion almost immediately lapses into a which books we like, which is dangerous ground. There's only one thing an escapists hates worse than hearing you didn't like his pet book, and that's hearing precisely why you didn't like it in concrete terms, as compared to other books you've read with similar qualities.They find especially frustrating when, despite their overwhelming passion for the book, they can't think of any arguments for why it's good. The best they can muster is usually 'I thought the characters were interesting and well-written'--and if they do say that, don't ask them 'why?'

Elysium by DiTerlizzi
For them, it's not about the why, it's about their personal experience; but if science has taught me anything, it's that only misguided egotists believe in their own personal experiences. If I can't explain my opinion, then I have waived the right to reasonably hold it. Unfortunately, that expectation feels rather unfair when I have a reason handy and my fellow conversant doesn't. It's a mean trick, really.

Likewise, it's hardly fair for me to include Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Storia Vera, The Thousand and One Nights, Orlando Furioso, and Paradise Lost in my discussions of fantasy. I mean, they are so long, and their language is complex and specialized. Some even take umbrage at my references to The Worm Ouroboros and The King of Elfland's Daughter. I'm sure people would feel the same about my inclusion of Mervyn Peake, if anyone knew who he was.

And here is the crux of why saying "I like fantasy" really fails to get my point across, because my idea of fantasy never seems to match with anyone else's idea: I include way too many books, and I like them for the wrong reasons, and I can explain those reasons (and I will, if threatened). I tried saying "I like Cultural Epics" a few times, but that was clearly a mistake.

So I stick with 'fantasy'.

"Yeah, I like fantasy."
"Me too! Have you read all of the Wheel of Time books?"
"Just the first one."
"Did you like it?"
"It was too long" (always a safe critique: they can just assume you are an illiterate idiot)
"Oh, I didn't think so. You should try again! What books do you like?"
"Oh, what's that about?"
"It's based on a manga about a magical girl and her pet bunny who's a demon."
"Oh, that sounds cool!"
"It is."

Isn't that better? Now everyone's smiling.

But only one of us knows why.


  1. Reading your dialogue I laughed out loud. I'm also very happy to see intelligent (imo) fantasy book recommendations. So now you've nearly doubled your number of subscribers!

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. If people are following me, I'll have to make sure to keep posting.

  2. Your review of WOT helped me finally give in to my own misgivings about the book despite pressure from people who do like it and whose taste I genuinely respect in spite of it.

    After finding the Gormenghast trilogy for fifty cents at a library sale, I experienced the singular pleasure of reading something both completely different and thoroughly outstanding. The first paragraph taught me to take it bit by bit, in small portions, like a glass of sherry before bed.

    Thank you for your reviews and thank you for expressing your opinions about the genre in a rational, thoughtful manner. Keep it up.

    1. Yeah, I've had a similar issue with WOT and Game of Thrones, knowing a lot of smart, interesting people who enjoyed them. But when I ask them about it, they usually say it was just a fun romp and they understand why it didn't work for me.

      Congratulations on getting a cheap copy of Gormenghast, nice find. But yeah, I agree, it's something best taken in and digested in small pieces.

      Thanks for the comment. I've been working on some fiction and getting together with some people for a collective book review blog, so I've been a little busy, but there are still a lot of posts I want to write here. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Oh, WOT and GoT are two epic series that I love to hate. The system of magic may have been interesting in WOT at first and GoT has a good pacing and story (just my opinion!), but the first is not very original and the second is so unpleasant for so many reasons I hate myself everytime I read one.


    Great blog!

    1. Glad you're enjoying the blog. I personally have trouble getting into the 'love to hate' mood. If I pick up a book, I want it to be good, and it's just so disappointing to read one epic fantasy book after another and have them all fall so short of the mark. Hopefully someday I'll find a good one. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I started to write a comment on this, but it got extremely long, so I put it on my own blog instead:

    More importantly, where do I subscribe? You seem to be missing the button.

  5. First, a question: what it *THE* Blank Stare? I've received many a blank stare in my life -- mostly vocabulary-induced, but maybe not *THE* Blank Stare.
    Anyhow, I can understand the frustration of both sides of those conversations. Much like when someone criticizes or praises something I've written, when talking about why someone enjoyed/didn't enjoy something I like... no, I NEED specifics. I, too, feel the need to back up an opinion with supportive evidence.
    And yet, I can understand the deer-in-headlights reaction of having that support demanded of you. For example:
    "You [liked/disliked] [insert film/book/movie/show, etc.]? Why did you [like/dislike] that aspect of it?"
    "Well..." And there ARE examples whizzing through my head, and yet none feel exemplary enough of why I harbor such a fondness for something, or lack thereof. The subjectivity of it all makes examples a bit sticky, besides; one man's trash and all that.

    1. "what it *THE* Blank Stare?"

      Well, it's not just 'a blank stare', we get those all the time from friends, family, &c.--it's that much deeper look you get when you realize that you're talking to someone who may as well be an alien, because your perspectives on life are just so radically different. It's a gap between two people that can't really be bridged without years of thought and discussion--and maybe not even then.

      "there ARE examples whizzing through my head, and yet none feel exemplary enough of why I harbor such a fondness for something, or lack thereof."

      Yeah, and that's one of those feelings that's anathema to me--it's like I've suddenly realized that there is a glitch or short circuit in my brain that's sending out bad data. I mean, if I can't explain my opinion, then how did I end up holding it in the first place?

    2. Among my close friends I'm usually less put off by my own lack of an immediate explanation; our normal conversations are like a book with footnotes, anyway, so I feel comfortable descending into a rambling panegyric until I finally land on the concise, clear defense of my opinion that I really should have come up with in the first place. It takes far more than my own short circuiting to shake my stance on something. usually it takes a few years of retrospective as well as regular spoonfuls of reasonable counterargument. That's how I realized that Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, much as I still respect the youthful earnestness of the first volume, wasn't as fantastic as I thought it was in fifth grade.

    3. Ah, sure--it is nice to be able to have people you can explore ideas with, especially when they have ideas of their own. For me, recognizing the short circuit is usually enough to get me to start rethinking things.

  6. I kinda understand that thing you've experienced since me too have taking something so seriously while normally doesn't. It's like we're talking a whole different language even though we love the same thing. But again, there is a big difference between people who love pizza because how good the spice and ingridients combination was to people who just love to order it via home delivery at midnight for watching a sports match. Now I understand it why was every intelectual or academic character in Chekhov short stories easily find peoplem around are so dull and why was The Student is Chekhov personal favorite.

    Well, I have a question myself regarding fantasy: what make a work qualified as fantasy? I write some short stories myself and have constructed world where most of my stories take place. That alone, fictitious constructed universe, is enough to classified it as "fantasy". But the more I read and understand my own on work, it doesn't feels like fantasy at all beside the setting since most of my short stories are influence by either Chekhov or Gogol in which I told a slice of life story.

    1. Well, fantasy is defined by fantastical events--by impossible, magical things happening. This can occur in an adventure story, in a realist, psychological story, a historical drama, a romance, or any other genre. After all, there are authors like Borges and Calvino who have written fantastical works in literary genres.

      A constructed world isn't necessarily fantasy, either. I mean, if someone made a constructed world that was in every way normal, with no fantastical elements, then it wouldn't be a fantasy. I mean, Faulkner created his fictional Yoknapatawpha county, where many of his stories take place, but just because it isn't real doesn't make his work fantasy.

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  8. Nicely stated. It seems like a lot of the fantasy fandom (for lack of a better word) is a sort of childish one-upmanship game of who likes this, who doesn't like this. The object and degree of liking and disliking matters more than the why.

    I'm curious, do you hypothesize a historical reason for this, some movement or byproduct of our culture that somehow developed? I think you said at one point that fantasy was once a respected genre.

    1. …now that I think of it, I remember you did discuss Tolkien's influence and LotR spawning several poor imitators which nevertheless very marketable. On a wider level though I can't understand how Tolkien alone could have such a huge reach, over both the fantasy written and the prevailing attitudes towards fantasy...

    2. Actually yes, I do have some ideas about why fandom arose, and why it has mostly become a game of memorizing and repeating little facts as a way of 'beating' other fans. I talk about it more in my three-part series on the idea of 'worldbuilding', which I think is at the core of why fantasy came to be what it is today--and which is largely due to Tolkien's influence.

  9. "Likewise, when I bring up Fantasy books with people who are compulsive readers of the genre, the conversation quickly and awkwardly diverges. I begin to mention the reinvention of the epic tradition--and the monomyth in particular--and the use of the more abstract pagan system of the Fairy Tale"

    Hi Mr. Keely, do you have any essays that discuss the history of fantasy? I know about the Monomyth and fairy tale pagan system in general, and would love to know more about fantasy and its evolution.


    1. Well, I haven't written up a history of fantasy, though I probably should. You could check out the wikipedia articles on the history of fantasy and the sources of fantasy.

  10. Michael Moorcock have written numerous essays on fantasy, and they are being compiled in Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. The essays are insightful for me, and personally I would called it as a must read for anyone who want to have serious take on fantasy. Though as far as I can remember, it don't have any essay that discuss history specifically especially the pagan stories.

  11. This rings especially true to me when it comes to fantasy games. I adore Planescape Torment (which I seem to remember you commenting on in a GR review) in particular for the richness of its narrative and the various ideas it explores. Naturally when I mentioned my interest in fantasy games to a friend, he encouraged me to look into the Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights series during a sale. I picked them up and was almost immediately repulsed by their lack of any of the wonder that I associated with the genre and all the philosophical and intellectual stimulation of a dishtowel. I understand that there is apparently an expansion for one of the games that is supposedly on par with Torment, but it's going to be a while before I can get the taste of tacky power fantasy out of my mouth and approach the game again.

    1. Yeah, I found IWD and both NWN games uninteresting, and never finished them. I do like the Baldur's Gate series, but it's really the second game that has strong enough characters and story to be interesting. It's still no Torment, but then nothing is.

    2. See, I couldn't even get interested in BG2. While I appreciated the fact that the party members had actual character as opposed to being speechless combat units, the game had this nasty case of sidetracking syndrome. I need to raise money to save my sister, so I go out and meet someone who can pay me for a job. So far so good. On the way there, someone begs me to help them defend their home outside the city with time being of the urgence. Ok, I'm down with putting off the original client, he'll keep. No sooner do we set outside the city then we find someone who has been poisoned and needs to be transported back to the city. No sooner do we get in the area to drop off the poisoned man, than one of the party mentions he needs to make good with the local thieve's guild. The thieve's guild has us infiltrate a rival guild, and while doing that, the moment we get near our objective we get tasked with investigating a cult. No sooner do we start asking around about the cult, then a church official asks us to talk to a local painter regarding some religious art. No sooner do we get to the painter's house then aliens beam down and tell us about how their world has been enslaved and that they need our help.

      Ok, I made up that last one, but still. The daisy chain of people asking me, unprompted, to do various unrelated and sometimes inconsequential things was so long that by the time I got the song and dance about the painter, I had forgotten why I was trying to raise money. I could have skipped out on most of the stuff I was being pestered to do, but in my experience sidequests are optional in theory but mandatory in practice, as they are the way the player obtains the means to survive, thus allowing them to proceed in the narrative.

      It probably also didn't help that BG2 would dabble with the mythology of the Planes in insulting ways. Torment used the Planes as a setting in the way that it should be, as a way to explore various abstract ideas and themes. This game, on the other hand, treated the Planes like a teenager who has just read the book of Revelations and taken nothing more away than "oooh, dragons!". Any time the game took us to the Planes, the game threw Planar monsters at us, to the point that I became convinced that the creators had little interest in the Planes beyond a source of tough fights and loot; it was the exact type of use of the setting which the writers for the original setting material cautioned against in the first few pages. Seeing such a high concept set of ideas used so poorly was like watching a lesser superhero series cross over with American Gods so that the capes could have a go at fighting gods to feel awesome.

    3. I did eventually read a Let's Play of the game on the Something Awful forums, and while the rest of the game seemed like it might have promise, I couldn't get past the tedious first act and the way the game mishandled its use of Planescape. Who knows, maybe if I went and tried the game again and persevered, I might be able to discover and appreciate some finer points in the game, but again, I'm still washing the taste out of my mouth.

  12. This is less why I like fantasy and more why I dislike fantasy reader strawmen.

  13. I'm curious to know which books you once loved but no longer do.