In Defense of the Fantastic

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy of Literature (the organization that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature), gave an interview in which he said, “Europe is still the center of the literary world;” not the United States. He said American writers are “too isolated, too insular . . . too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture . . . (we) don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue in literature.” There are probably other reasons American writers are somewhat underrepresented (because we are so overrepresented in everything else), but looking at the writers who have won in recent years (especially Tomas Tranströmer, whose poems often veered toward surrealism, and Mo Yan, whose work has been described as hallucinatory realism) there seems to be truth in Engdahl’s suggestion that it is in large part because Americans tend to stick to the conventions of narrative realism and shy away from the devices of myth, fable, and allegory.

For a long time, literary fiction in the U.S. has been synonymous with realism (Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger). Stories that take flight from observed reality are most often cast out into the margins of Science Fiction or Fantasy. Over the years a few strays have made it in the club, writers like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison. Maybe it's not so surprising, in light of Engdahl's comment, that Morrison was the last American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Things are changing though, a bit, but for the most part I still think American writers (along with their editors) are afraid they won’t be taken seriously if they take flight into the fantastic. And if they feel so inclined, they are steered toward writing the book as YA. When you do get a literary novelist using fantastical elements in their fiction it’s criticized as “gimmicky” or they spend a lot of time defending their “genre bending” ways. (I’m thinking of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.) But, things do seem to be changing, and I think it has something to do with the growing popularity of YA.

Over the last fifteen years, YA has been lifting fantasy out of the margins. It was like the desire for the fantastic was there, and then suddenly, it was “okay” to like it. Sure, everybody was a little shy at first, apologizing for their indulgence in “light reading”, but I think YA fulfilled a desire for something that was missing in a lot of fiction — imagination.

Reading should be fun. It should be pleasurable. It should be hard too. It should challenge us and make us work. But is shouldn’t feel like drudgery. We should want to get back to a story, not feel like we should. I read 100 pages of The Goldfinch just waiting for it to take flight. Would the old man be part of some secret society? Was there magic in the painting, something hidden inside? Finally, I gave up. Personally, I experience enough realism every day. I go to fiction for something else — an intensification of experience, an envoy from the unconscious, representations of interior worlds. Fantasy gives you that; it opens up a space where strange and unexpected things might happen, it wakes up sleeping parts of you, and there is pleasure it that kind of surprise. There's pleasure, too, in seeing a writer give him/herself the kind of imaginative freedom to follow this more creative impulse. It’s like watching a writer at play. (It’s not always about pleasure, though, and fun and flights of fancy. When well written, fantastic tales actually demand a lot from us; they're more open to interpretation; and they're quite often very unsettling.) 

I should say, I’m not a diehard fantasy reader. I’ve never read Piers Anthony or Terry Brooks, and I’m still working through A Song of Ice and Fire. High fantasy doesn’t interest me so much. I love to read good fiction that takes detours in to the fantastic, or that uses the devices of myth, folklore, or allegory. I like to see observed reality mix with imagined reality. I like encounters with big unknowns, characters confronted with the supernatural, with things beyond their understanding — magic, ghosts, doppelgangers, portals, circuses that never were, folkloric women who can snip and mend time as if it were a quilt. I like to be wonderstruck when a character suddenly floats away into the sky. It’s so much more affecting than describing the literal ways people leave us.

I like stories like this because I think they are sometimes a more accurate representation of experience. Sometimes what it feels like to be truly haunted by a person or an experience is best expressed in a ghost story. Sometimes irrational fears are best portrayed as demons and monsters. Sometimes hope feels like attainment of a magical object and coming of age feels like the discovery of a portal into another world. Sometimes those we fall in love with are so beautiful to us we see them as something other than human.  

I'm not trying to say that one form of storytelling is better than another. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal taste. But our definitions of what constitutes good literature need some updating for sure. Louis Rosenblatt says of literature, “always we seek some close contact with a mind uttering its sense of life.” Reality is a half-real, half-imagined construct. We have public and private selves, conscious and unconscious thoughts. There is more strangeness and mystery in all this than gets represented. I guess I’d just like to see more good writers take a swing at "fantasy" without having to dumb down their writing to fit the perceived limits of the genre, whether it be YA or Fantasy or Dystopic Fiction or Sci Fi. 

When you look at the millennia- old tradition of storytelling — myth, legend, parable, allegory, fable, romance, folktale, epic — realism is but a blip in the history of the narrative form. Imagine a cave man doing kitchen sink realism. He would have been bludgeoned. Or a bard singing his memoir. He would have starved. What's The Odyssey without the Cyclops or Dante's Inferno without the walking through Hell part? The oldest, most long-lasting stories are ones that have fantastical elements. This kind of storytelling has been out of fashion for a while, but I feel safe in saying, it will return.