Over in the Purple Zone, as the message board for Harper Collins Australia Voyager imprint is called, a young writer who is currently attending a writing course writes:
"[I agree that] my teacher may be a literary snob. When she interviewed me for the subject and I told her I liked writing fantasy, she replied with, '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!'. Happily enough, so far no one has had a problem with reading my 'genre' stuff (and I'm not stuck by myself in the corner!)"
Excuse me while I go off into a corner and scream. Loudly.
Fantasy is the step-child in the literature family. Those of us who love it and, God forbid, WRITE it are "writing for kids", or are "making things up as we go along - how hard can that be?" or we're just writing "escapism". I keep on harking back to that comment by Tolkien that the only people who object to escapism are jailors. And it would seem that there are a lot of jailors around these days.
As far as I am concerned, all fiction is reality breathed through a layer of lies - and it depends entirely on how good the layer of lies is, and not on their "genre", as to how good, or believable, any given piece of fiction is. I've definitely read fantasy novels which were an order of magnitude better than their "literary" peers, which only won out because of the snob value. A spoonful of sugar DOES help the medicine go down, and I've seen works of "fantasy" which make bitterly pertinent points to the world we eke out our everyday existence in, and which keep those lessons alive in memory far longer - and far more vividly - than any preachy contemporary novel with an obvious axe to grind and an agenda you cannot help seeing and the author's obvious (because this is the real world and the parameters are the same) and fairly easily perceived slant on things. YES, there are *really* bad fantasies out there, derivative drivel which really ought not to ever have seen the light of day. But there aren't nearly as many as you'd think there ought to be, given the "ease" with which fantasy is supposed to be written. And anyway, let's look at that claim.
A fantasy, by definition, is about things that are not and probably could never (in the world that we know) be real. Fantasies are those books with dragons of the cover, after all - whether or not the actual story has dragons in it (that's another can of worms altogether, though. Suffice it to say that no other genre can be so blatantly hamstrung by its own covers). But think on that one for a moment - you are reading this book, and therefore you are willing to indulge in what we know as suspension of disbelief. This, in a mainstream or a contemporary novel, is fairly easy for a writer to achieve as far as milieu is concerned - write a scene in a city and say that the protagonist is waiting for the light to change so that they can cross an intersection, and very little other desicription is necessary - your readers might all see a different intersection in their mind's eye but it will be a recognisable city intersection with cars and people and traffic lights and buildings and painted road markings and noise and stench and circling city pigeons. It's a given, it's a known, and you as the author are free to use the opporunity to concentrate on your protag's motivation instead (otherwise known as Why DId The Protagonist Cross The ROad). Many are so free to use it in such wise that they freely squander it, and crumple the whole book up into a wad of mismanaged plot and circumstance. But my point is that they have to do less than 50% of the work required of a fantasy novelist in the same quandary.
In a fantasy setting, the crossroads can be *ANYTHING*, that is true... but the other side of that coin is taht if you (a) want those crossroads to be different, and to stick in the memory; (b)want the vision to be internally consistent and believable to the extent that a generic city crossroads is believable to any given non-fantasy reader; (c) imbue the crossign of such crossroads with any kind of plot significance and character development - well - you need to work your butt off describing your scene, creating your world, making sure that your readers feel as though they are part of that world (perhaps more so, if you are good enough, than their own). You can get away with murder in a fantasy, that is true, but getting away with creating circumstances which justify said murder in your readers' eyes is considerably less simple. ANd it is that background that is always conveniently dismissed by those who diss fantasy as a genre. I mean, there's nothing to it, right? You need to stick nine people on a silly quest into a generic thatch-roofed inn drinking ale and eating stew served by a wench whose bosoms are conveniently near-falling out of a peasant blouse (which, in SOME people's heads, is held together by shirring elastic - and screw the anachronisms...) - and there you have it. Fantasy. Stick that in your bookshelf. Easy, eh...?
Actually, the discipline of writing fantasy can be gargantuan, and at least those fantasy writers whom I know on a personal level are consummate professionals in their art. I would bet money on THEIR being able to produce a "lterary" novel, if they chose to, rather than on the "literary" snobs being able to produce any kind of passable fantasy. Is this reverse snobbery? You bet - WE aren't the ghetto, THEY are. COnsider the sales figures of the really high-faluting "literary" novels with high snob value and, well, people like RObin Hobb and Robert Jordan and Geroge R R Martin, or even the (relative) newcomers into the field such as Trudi Canavan and Naomi Novik (go read the latter's blog and see her description of how she WATCHED Amazon run out of her books, and then try and find me an equivalent "literary" moment...) Or maybe we're both in ghettos, of a sort, except that THEIRS are called Gated COmmunities and have those pesky lawns that need mowing five times a week and aren't allowed any variation on their house colour or plant placement and are being guarded jealously by uniformed personnel at the gates - while we have streetparties on every second block, and taverns with secret doors that lead to other worlds, and, well, when was the last time you saw one of those buxom wenches or a tall, dark and handsome hero with a sword on his hip in the manicured acres? (they'd probably be termed undesirables and escorted out by squint-eyed security guards whose hands rested threateningly on holstered guns...)
I read both, you know. Not MUCH of modern literary, but enough. And more than enough fantasy to know my duds from my awesomes.
I honestly think that it is by and large the fantasy that makes this world a better place. Perhaps it's because it calls itself by its true name, and doesn't pretend, like "literary" fiction does, that it is somehow superior by using, I don't know, a better class of lie - because ALL fiction is lies. By definition. Why should those of us who write the fantasy aspect of the craft, in the words of that Australian writing "teacher", go and huddle by ourselves in a corner? WHile it is incontrovertibly true that not every kind of fiction is everyone's cup of tea, I resent the implication that it isn't just this difference in taste that matters here, that it's a question of "you lower caste writers, you go over there so that you don't contaminate us". That just BURNS.
Well, I think I"ll go and do me some ghetto-bustin'. As Mal Reynolds said in "Serenity" - I aim to misbehave.