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Fantasy as Literature?

I’ve had a long rough day putting in fiberglass insulation, some of which involved slithering on my back over ceiling joists, where it is too tight to fit any other way, and pulling the stuff over my body to get it flush with the frames. Second day of this process, so I am glad to say it is done. I have a little more in the middle to do, but I can kneel or crouch for that… a big improvement. Everything is relative, including relatives. Tomorrow will see that job done forever (until I build something else that needs rock-wool).

So I am cheating and quoting from an interview with one of my favorite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett.

The entire interview is transcribed here, and my thanks go to Patrick Rothfuss for doing this and putting it on his site.

O: You’re quite a writer. You’ve a gift for language, you’re a deft hand at plotting, and your books seem to have an enormous amount of attention to detail put into them. You’re so good you could write anything. Why write fantasy?

Pratchett: I had a decent lunch, and I’m feeling quite amiable. That’s why you’re still alive. I think you’d have to explain to me why you’ve asked that question.

O: It’s a rather ghettoized genre.

P: This is true. I cannot speak for the US, where I merely sort of sell okay. But in the UK I think every book— I think I’ve done twenty in the series— since the fourth book, every one has been one the top ten national bestsellers, either as hardcover or paperback, and quite often as both. Twelve or thirteen have been number one. I’ve done six juveniles, all of those have nevertheless crossed over to the adult bestseller list. On one occasion I had the adult best seller, the paperback best-seller in a different title, and a third book on the juvenile bestseller list. Now tell me again that this is a ghettoized genre.

O: It’s certainly regarded as less than serious fiction.

P:  (Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy. Guys sitting around the campfire— Was it you who wrote the review? I thought I recognized it— Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now— a big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections— That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.

Now I don’t know what you’d consider the national literature of America, but if the words Moby Dick are inching their way towards this conversation, whatever else it was, it was also a work of fantasy. Fantasy is kind of a plasma in which other things can be carried. I don’t think this is a ghetto. This is, fantasy is, almost a sea in which other genres swim. Now it may be that there has developed in the last couple of hundred years a subset of fantasy which merely uses a different icongraphy, and that is, if you like, the serious literature, the Booker Prize contender. Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.

(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.

The downside, of course, is that while I agree with his argument… I LIKE writing something the literati despise.  If they started approving of my work I would be sure I was doing something very wrong. The last thing on earth I need is their approval. Anyway, one man’s ‘Serious literature’ is another man’s schlock. I read catholically… and I am a little smarter than average monkey (on a good day), and I tell you frankly there is often as much of value to be thought about in a good entertaining piece of fiction than there is in ‘modern literature’.  And it’s fun to read and has several orders of magnitude more readers.  

Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay

41 Comments
  1. The supercilious attitude of “mainstream” and “literary” types — writers and critics alike — toward the speculative genres reflects only their shallow acquaintance with those categories. Any story that’s about people facing serious problems and being compelled to change or grow in response to them is a worthy story. The speculative genres’ contribution is to enlarge the domains of problems and responses available. Apart from that, the good stuff is about people changing, and the poor stuff is not. All other considerations are irrelevant.

    March 2, 2020
    • Mary #

      Nah, some of them admit it’s all right as long as it’s really a metaphor or an allegory for contemporary stuff.

      That is, seriousness is indicated by the extent to which it’s about THEM.

      March 3, 2020
  2. TRX #

    > why write fantasy

    If your goal is “and then I get paid”, a look at the earnings of top fantasy authors vs. top SF authors would be enlightening.

    You have to go pretty far down most lists of total sales or earnings rankings before you even find any SF authors, while the fantasy genre is is right up there.

    March 2, 2020
    • SciFi did get infected with a lot of gray goo earlier than fantasy– it’s more respectable, y’see, so they went after it first.

      See also, how YA use to have decent stories without the Mandatory Sex, but once it got popular they had to turn it into the jailbait special.

      March 2, 2020
    • Dorothy Grant #

      Authors… but I call your attention to the movies and television, where for much longer, the science fiction remained fantastic, the heroes heroic, the villains villainous…

      And ask: how much impact has Star Wars & Star Trek had on the culture? Blade Runner? 2001? E.T.? Jurassic Park? The Matrix?

      They also made a pretty penny or two.
      If I could but find a way, a book, to reach out to the percentage of the audience that’s open for another such story…How many millions of sales would that be?

      March 2, 2020
      • *Channeling Carl Sagan* Beeelions and beelions.

        March 2, 2020
      • +1

        March 2, 2020
  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Fantasy & Science Fiction are sometimes called escapism so I post the following (from a conversation between Tolkien & C. S Lewis).

    Question: Who is most concerned about escapees?

    Answer: Jailers.

    March 2, 2020
    • Celia Hayes #

      *snicker* Good one!

      March 2, 2020
  4. Draven #

    well, he was right…

    March 2, 2020
  5. I LIKE writing something the literati despise. If they started approving of my work I would be sure I was doing something very wrong.

    Since one of the things they select for is that it wouldn’t sell even if folks were out of toilet paper, that is not a bad thing. ^.^

    March 2, 2020
  6. Synova #

    I wonder if we lost a bit of something when reading anything at all that wasn’t the Bible was seen as rather questionable. At that point reading fiction was just a little rebellious, a reward for figuring out a way to skip out on your chores.

    When reading fiction became virtuous, the whole enterprise got taken over by people who’s main desire was to be virtuous.

    March 2, 2020
    • So . . . we need Outlaw Fiction like we have/ had Outlaw Country Music? Hmmmmm . . .

      March 2, 2020
      • Synova #

        Oh, dear. There’s a lot of that on my play-list.

        I suddenly have a lot to think about.

        The answer might be “yes.”

        March 2, 2020
      • Mary #

        Old slogan: “Let’s get SF back in the gutter where it belongs!”

        March 3, 2020
        • TRX #

          In the 1960s there was considerable angst about the literary merits of SF. James Blish even wrote a book whining about it, and how SF wasn’t literary or respectable.

          There were some attempts at “literary SF” by various publishers, who apparently hired “literary authors” to write what they thought SF ought to be. They bombed so hard I’d have to spend a while looking up the titles.

          Courtesy of the Pulp Fiction Archive at archive.org, I’ve read a *bunch* of the SF magazines from just after WWII to 1970 or so. And they’re full of crap, right enough. But what the ivory tower crowd never quite understood was, people who read SF will read even crap SF before they’ll read “literary” stories. And if they can’t even get crap, they were prone to roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter and start making their own.

          March 3, 2020
  7. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    Sir Terry Pratchett is deeply missed. He left words of wisdom for us, though. Please enjoy.

    March 2, 2020
  8. Getting a bit misty-eyed here thinking of how that brilliant mind was taken from us. For all its faults, the internet will continue to make his wisdom available to us. Thank you for posting this, Dave. I’m reblogging it to my site.

    March 2, 2020
  9. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    national literature of America…Moby Dick

    I still mean to get around to reading D.H. Lawrence, and the works he cites in his analysis.

    That one quote is just too cool not to try to track down, and find the context for.

    March 2, 2020
  10. The problem is that the litewaty came into our playground and tried to make it “worthy” thinking that by being literary they’d wow us.
    We now have to take it back.

    March 2, 2020
    • They wow me all the time. I commonly pick up a book off the shelf at the bookstore, read the blurb and remark: “Wow, I can’t believe they printed this.” Then shudder and put it back.

      March 2, 2020
      • “Wow, someone wasted several minutes of their lives constructing this alleged sentence!”

        March 2, 2020
        • “Wow, some moron at [Publisher] thought I’d buy a book about slavery and child murder if they called it science fiction.”

          March 2, 2020
  11. “O: It’s certainly regarded as less than serious fiction.”

    I’m surprised Pratchet didn’t smack him.

    From my observations, the view from the Literati is that if a book doesn’t leave you wanting to slash your wrists after you hake a bath in full-strength Clorox bleach (to get the slime off) then it isn’t “serious.”

    This to me is indicative of small minds that don’t notice things if they aren’t written in letters of fire 10 miles high.

    It is a lot harder to be funny than it is to be disgusting, if you ask me. No surprise that so few of the literati types manage it.

    March 2, 2020
    • Synova #

      What I read sounded like a smack to me.

      March 2, 2020
      • A very Garak style one, yes.
        Ah, but I got off several cutting remarks which no doubt did serious damage to their egos!

        March 2, 2020
    • Mary #

      The Ivory Tower is just another ghetto, as I told someone telling some SF and fantasy writers to get acceptable to the literati.

      March 3, 2020
      • and it’s one of the more unpleasant ghettos one will find

        March 3, 2020
  12. Joe in PNG #

    It’s not like the literati actually READ their pretentious swill. Most of the time they’re cribbing the portentous nonsense about ‘themes’ and ‘message’ and other yammer from other writers, who likewise are stealing from someone else, and so on.
    They just want to be seen peering intently into the hardcover at all the right places, plus the modern habit of posting a nicely arranged photo of the book with the right accoutrements on one’s social media.

    March 2, 2020
    • Like everyone in the Right Places in government, business, and academia a few years back who were careful to be seen with Piketty’s book on economics. In hardback.

      March 2, 2020
  13. I’ll admit to being one of the heretics who doesn’t care for Discworld, but Pratchett certainly had a way with words.

    March 2, 2020
    • TRX #

      No problem, the Pratchettites will just smile and bid you welcome should you eventually come to the fold, while the Tolkeinists will simply burn you at the stake.

      March 3, 2020
  14. Btw, Kindle Unlimited has Red November, a history book about all that supa-secret submarine stuff.

    Holy crud! Talk about truth stranger than fiction! Every time I thought it could not get stranger, it got stranger.

    One of the funniest moments is when divers are in Soviet territory, doing a dangerous mission, and on their way to the U.S. sub they see some crabs on the ocean floor; so they bring them back for everybody, as good eatin’. It was so Jules Verne!

    March 2, 2020
  15. Jamie #

    I got to see Pratchett when he came to the State Street Borders in Chicago. I was in college at the time, and I told my classmates in my science fiction writing class that he was going to be there. We made going to see him into our own self-assigned homework. Which has to be the most fun homework I ever did, because Pratchett turned out to be so funny in person.

    He touched on the topic of fantasy & sci-fi as a ghetto during his talk. He specifically mentioned the way bookstores contributed to that status. I memorialized what he said in an essay for class:

    “Bookstores treat science fiction like the literary equivalent of an STD: no one wants to admit to having one,” Pratchett lamented.

    In England, as elsewhere, it’s common for bookstores to have a section reserved for the newest bestsellers. Jolly good. So, his agent expected that he would find Terry there. After all, Terry’s books tend to spend weeks on the bestseller lists. But despite this, the bookstores would have his books in the science fiction section—frequently in the basement or the back, back of the store. One day, Terry chanced to confront a store manager about this practice.

    “Excuse me, how come I’m not in the bestseller section?”

    “Because you’re science fiction,” the officious manager told him.

    “Yes, but I have been on the lists,” Terry reminded him.

    “But you write science fiction,” the manager said patiently.

    Terry persisted, “I’m on the lists. Why aren’t I in the bestseller section?”

    Terry imitates the manager’s reaction: He tilts his head, narrows his eyes and twists his mouth. He leans in close and lowers his voice, and at this point his voice goes prissy in the telling.

    “Well, you’re not really bestseller material,” the manager confides, as if this settles everything.

    Now that Pratchett is gone, I’m wondering if he’ll end up in a similar situation as Arthur Conan Doyle. On a school trip, a bookstore clerk in Toronto explained to my classmate where she was going wrong in looking for Sherlock Holmes. We thought to find him in the mystery section, you see. But he wasn’t there. Silly us, as it turned out, he was in the literature section. I guess if the author is dead long enough, they become de-genred, and appropriated into literature? So rather than finding Pratchett in the back, back of the store with the science fiction, he’ll be placed in the hoity-toity literature section? I wonder what he’d say about that.

    March 2, 2020
    • Joe in PNG #

      Wouldn’t be surprising. After all, Shakespeare in his day was seen as just a popular fiction hack who also wrote… :shudder: fantasy.

      March 2, 2020
    • There are humor and irony in that effect. It calls to mind a line from “Chinatown:”

      “Of course I’m respectable! I’m old.Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

      And it is so.

      March 3, 2020
    • TRX #

      In junior high I had a teacher drop my book report in the trash “because it wasn’t about a real book.”

      It was SF, though I no longer remember what specific book it was. I let it go, but I never turned in another book report again, taking “incompletes” and Fs as they doled them out. What were they going to do, throw me out of school? I didn’t want to be there in the first place.

      March 3, 2020
  16. But fantasy broadly defined is perfectly capable of receiving literary analysis. See for example my review of R.W. Watkins “View from the Cellar — a Literary Analysis of Laird Koenig’s novel The Little Girl Who lives Down the Lane” volume in the September 2019 issue of The N3F Review of Books n3f.org/n3freview201909/. The volume is a horror mystery turned into a film (lead actress Jodie Foster, who at 13 carries the entire film on her thespian shoulders), in which the heroine protects her privacy by leaving a trail of bodies behind her. Watkins extracts the extensive Jewish, holocaust, and Christian symbolism in the book, and the anagrammatical source of Rynn’s name; I review Watkins’ literary criticism.

    March 2, 2020
  17. Mary #

    Fundamentally, the issue is “You’re all just jealous of my jetpack.”

    Or dragon, depending on genre.

    (I’d post the link but then you’d never see it.)

    March 3, 2020
  18. Synova #

    Re: literature.

    I don’t like it because it often makes me feel bad. “Good” literature, of course, engages the emotions. And literature that makes you feel bad engages the emotions. Does that make it “good?”

    At a con panel ages ago one of the (not yet) authors of the Expanse was talking about horror writing (which I gather he’d had some success selling) and realizing one day (or being told, perhaps, I think I might remember who told him so but I’m not sure) that evoking the bad emotions is much easier than evoking good ones. And perhaps, just maybe, writing horror was being lazy.

    And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, literature is the same. It’s easy to make someone feel bad about themselves. We know that in real life, too. People *receive* bad emotions far more easily and more strongly than they receive positive or uplifting emotions.

    That doesn’t mean that “happy” books are better books. In fact, it might mean that they’re more likely NOT to be very good because it’s simply harder to do well, to get a true emotional pay off of happiness and satisfaction.

    I don’t know. It’s worth thinking about.

    March 4, 2020

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