The Value of Fantasy

My college years were long and eventful. I had many experiences, both good and bad. But one incident stands out in my mind:

I’m standing outside the classroom, conducting a conversation with one of my literature teachers about the book we’re reading in class. I mention that it reminds me of a fantasy novel I know well.

Drawing herself up, she looks down her nose at me. With her English accent conveying almost indescribable contempt, she sneers, “A fantasy novel?”

Sigh.

This is an attitude that is encountered again and again by those of us who have the temerity to admit that we enjoy or—even worse—write fantasy. Even wildly successful authors such as Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and Ursula K. Le Guin have all admitted to ramming into this apparently immovable wall: Fantasy Is Bad. Fantasy Is Childish. Fantasy Is Not Real Literature.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It means that most fantasy will escape the dire fate that awaits a lot of what English teachers would call Real Literature: being force-fed to students in class (much as I love Jane Austen, I have not been able to read her work since having to study it in class). It means that fantasy authors are free to invent, create, and enjoy themselves—without worrying about what the English teachers will think, or whether there’s enough symbolism in this novel.

Still, it’s an irritating attitude, and one that’s expressed in any number of ways: a contemptuous drawl, a backhanded compliment, even an earnest and well-meaning teacher or fellow student telling you that your talent is too great to waste on fantasy and soon you will move on to bigger and better things, such as memoir (because that’s exactly what the world needs, yet another navel-gazing memoir about the horrors of growing up in white upper middle class America). It’s especially prevalent in college students, who are desperate to be taken seriously and seen as real adults and/or writers. When asked why fantasy is so awful, they give the same stony reply: fantasy is not serious. Fantasy is too childish. Fantasy is too cheerful. Fantasy just Isn’t Real.

So what makes fantasy unreal?

First of all, and most obviously, fantasy deals with subjects that are, literally, unreal: ghosts and dragons, wizards and fairies. Somewhere along the line—probably in the late nineteenth century—someone decided that only books that dealt in realistic fiction were in any way real. And this stony idea, which completely ignores imagination, story, and metaphor, became enshrined. Any book that deals in unreal subjects Isn’t Real anymore (oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to apply to Shakespeare, with his many fantasy elements, or Dante’s hallucinogenic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). All fantasy elements got shuffled off into children’s literature, and thus unworthy of adult attention. Any adult who was interested in anything fantastical became, automatically, partly a child, and thus defective.

But there is a much more venomous concept that goes even deeper: readers enjoy fantasy too much. And anything that anyone enjoys becomes, automatically, unworthy of serious attention. It becomes, in fact, contemptible. Only books that are gloomy, hurtful, and tragic are worthy of our respect. In other words, happiness and enjoyment aren’t real. Only misery is meaningful.

This is a truly poisonous idea. I’m not saying that tragic books and stories have no value; on the contrary, they play a very necessary role. It is good to face the darkness, to acknowledge suffering and your own part in perpetuating it. But it can go too far, especially when it becomes a near-religious precept. It’s to tell people that there is only unhappiness, that all efforts to improve your situation are futile, that there is no point in dreaming of a better world. How can this not be destructive?

Those books that are enshrined as Real, Serious Literature have value, true value; they are wonderful books and stories without which the world would be a lesser place. But fantasy has value too. In fantasy, one meets extraordinary people, creatures, and situations—and gives us a template to navigate the extraordinary situations of our own lives. A happy ending—the successful conclusion of the hero’s struggle—teaches us that evil can be defeated; and, perhaps even more important, that it’s worth fighting against in the first place. A fantastical setting—one where the laws of physics are suspended, or radically changed—allows us to look at our own world with fresh eyes, to face injustices and evil for the man-made constructs that they are. Fantasy teaches that the world can be different.

Fantasy lets you dream. Fantasy lets you imagine; and imagination is one of humanity’s greatest assets. It lets you see a different world, perhaps a better world—and, perhaps, lets you imagine what could make this world better. It opens your horizons, and exercises your imagination—and lets you have fun doing it.

Never underestimate the value of fun. A life without fun, without enjoyment, without pleasure of any kind, is a crushing existence. If people have fun doing something, they are much more likely to do it again; and I don’t think even the sternest English teacher would argue against the value of people reading books of their own free will. A reader who enjoys reading is much better equipped to explore literature, to think, to recognize nuance and mull over the concepts encountered. Paradoxically, a reader who enjoys reading, who has grown up on fantasy, on a diet of lies, is probably well prepared to recognize the difference between truth and lies in a much more direct and consequential situation. After all, they’ve explored many other worlds.

So get out there. Read that book. Write that fairy tale. Respect others’ right to read what they want—or, at least, keep your contempt to yourself. After all, the greatest ideas started out as dreams—and fantasy is a roadmap for dreaming.

 

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