Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inferior Fantasy: A Reply

[This was written as a response to The Speculative Scotsman's recent post on the worth of genre. I'm reposting it here in case anyone here is interested in reading it, not that I think any of my readers really believe that there's no worth in genre. I should point out that this is not a specific attack against Niall; his post was merely an excuse to let out some steam that has been building for a while.]

Genre is inherently inferior?

Bull. Shit.

First of all, this all depends on your definition of genre. Are we limiting ourselves to epic fantasy, second world fiction, or what? Hell, I've read quite a few things from the Literature section of my Barnes and Noble that were most certainly genre in all but public perception. How, exactly, was the talking cat with a gun in Master and Margarita a realistic concept? Or, for that matter, Satan's literal appearance in that very book? Why is one book about a psychic team in world war two considered the highest of Literature (Gravity's Rainbow), while you've got so many others clogging up that same tired vein that it's considered cliche when anyone else does it? Why, again, is it not fantasy when Gulliver meets an entire kingdom of miniature people?

Now, the answer to all of the above is obvious: quality. If a book meets a certain standard (especially if it has time on its side) it is not viewed as fantasy. To paraphrase Steven Erikson, fantasy books are never viewed as good by the mainstream, they are merely made "extraordinary" and removed from the genre entirely. So, if you are seeking to say that fantasy itself is inferior, I'd like to see a cadre of writers who can put Gravity's Rainbow to shame. While you're at it, please also discount The Road, Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel, 1984, Brave New World, etc.

But we don't even need to leave the boundaries of traditionally accepted fantasy to find great works. No, I would not hold your average fantasy novel up as an excellent artistic work - but neither would I hold up your average nongenre work as such, either. You are, perhaps, right in saying that there are numerically more superlative literary works, but that's merely time at work, and to deny the existence of genre greats is ludicrous. You give me Crime and Punishment (a book whose brilliance I will most certainly not deny), and I will give you City of Saints and Madmen, The City and The City, and American Gods. Hyperion, Watchmen, and Titus Groan. The Book of the New Sun, A Shadow Out of Time, and The Masque of the Red Death. Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and The Dying Earth. Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Malazan, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Etc.

And no, that last title was not a mistake. I'm not saying that GRRM's work was as successful as, say, Tolstoy in the understanding of what drives man on both an individual and a societal scale. However, Martin, and countless other authors (genre and non genre) show individual lives with such finesse that I think we do learn something from seeing them, even if it's not a tangible something that we can ever put into words or properly sum up in a theme. Reading about real characters, reading the absolute masters of characterization, provides, I believe, its own lessons and insights, regardless of whether you are discussing a popularly acclaimed author or Robin Hobb. Just because a work is entertainment does not also mean that it is worthless.

[I cleaned up my language in a few places from the comments, but left the ideas unchanged.]

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