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A fairy story: Random thoughts on literary fantasy

A couple of weeks ago, Agnes Meszaros posted a lovely blog on how she defines literary fantasy [1]. She approached the question in terms of where emphasis lies within the text; highlighting the relative importance of plot, prose, characterisation, themes and the human condition. In the spirit of amicable academic debate, I offer an alternative take. I think what Agnes successfully identified were common symptoms of literary fiction, but not their underlying cause. For me, the literary distinction is a very simple one:

• Non-literary fiction seeks to tell stories. • Literary fiction seeks to use stories to illlustrate ideas.

An obvious objection to this distinction is that little of what is accepted as literary fiction is didactic or even overtly intellectual. If anything, much of what is lauded as literary fiction appears to the non-fan to be meandering or even aimless. That’s why I think it’s important to understand that in this context what constitutes an “idea” is very broad. An idea can be as meta as the virtue of a particular prose style , or as aesthetic as an attempt to describe the feeling of winter. Literary-ness does not confine itself to the political or philosophical, attempting to answer, refute or simply highlight the existence of a profound question or argument. It doesn’t have to make a claim.

All that matters is that the ideas are precise, and that the purpose of the story is to inspect them.

The lives of ordinary men are as heroic as that of ancient warriors. Modern capitalism is like psychopathy in the way it treats humans like objects. Sentences should be brief and macho. These are examples of literary concerns.

A tale of great sacrifice in the face of inevitable death to defend a castle against an endless foe may have perfect characterisation and prose and be dripping with themes, but unless the text uses the story to inspect and illuminate them in some way - If they’re just things that happen in the story - then sorry, that isn’t literary, that’s just well-written.

This definition of literary as being about an idea leads to a secondary question of “doesn’t that make all speculative fiction literary?” on the basis that speculative fiction asks “what if?” questions. The answer is “sadly no”, but only because so little of speculative fiction genuinely devotes itself to inspecting the questions which it asks. The difference between writing a novel about some cool stuff that could happen in a world where dragons were real is a fundamentally different exercise to writing a novel that seeks to inspect as deeply as possible the implications of dragons existing – that uses scenes and characters in order to explore what scaly, winged fire breathing raptors would mean.

*** This essay borrows its title from the epigram of George Orwell’s Animal Farm - at surface level a fantasy in which intelligent animals take over their farm. Animal Farm is written in a very approachable style, has a clear plot, tons of memorable characters, but it’s not about anthopomorphised pigs – it’s about the practicalities of revolutionary change when dealing with the reality of human behavoir. It was written i as an allegory of the totalitarian regimes of the time, but it’s timeless because what it’s really doing is using fantasy to illustrate a very specific set of opinions on the nexus of human nature and utopian politics.

To use an example closer to genre home, The Lord of the Rings is at the surface level, a quest adventure, but it's about language, death and the nature of evil (Tolkien’s interests were born out of his Catholoicsm and his interest in philology). The story presents, side-by-side unambiguous and ambiguous versions of evil (with the even more ambiguous ring at the centre of it all acting as a direct reference Plato’s orginal moral question about whether a man with a ring which could turn him invisible would do good or evil) and uses near idential characters who make exactly the opposite decision in response to the same moral situation (Gandalf/Saruman, Frodo/Smeagol, Denenthor/Theoden, Aragorn/Faramir etc) to examine moral choices. Tolkien gradually shifts the idiom of speech from Edwardian English to Medieval as the book and the characters progress deeper towards the mythic, and asks whether the possibility of heroism is intrinsic to language, and thus whether as language becomes modern, heroism becomes impossible.

You can read and enjoy The Lord of the Rings (or Animal Farm) completely oblivious to all of these ideas and still enjoy them as great stories, which is why they are classics. But they are literary classics because they are use story for a specific purpose in a methodical manner. Virtually everything that happens in them is not included because it is cool or exciting or original (although they are also that). They are included to illustrate a point.


Despite the fact that most of the “big” works of western literature have been fantasies, running in a straight line from Homer and Ovid, through Dante and Milton and Marlowe and Shakespeare and onto Wells, Lewis Carrol, Orwell and C.S. Lewis Tolkien et al, it is odd to find ourselves living in a world where both the literary establishment and the fantasy fanbase seem to struggle with the literary tag. I think that’s because in contemporary commercial fantasy there are two distinct strands, and those strands are divergent and sometimes oppossed. The first strand uses fantasy to provide escapism and wish-fulfiilment. It provides a release from the mundane by using fantasy to offer glimpses into worlds and lives more obviously interesting than the ones we ourselves live. It appeals to the imagination and the emotions. It is by far the more commerically successful. The second strand uses fantasy to dislocate their reader by injecting them into an environment in which a speculative idea can be tested. By presenting a world in which we cannot reasonably apply our own real world experience, the author strips us bear of our prejudices and assumptions and makes us less resistant to looking at things in a different way. This strand of fantasy is deliberately confusing and challenging. It appeals more to the intellect and can require more effort on the part of the reader. Accordingly, it doesn’t sell (at least not unless very well disguised).

It’s easy to understand why the literary establishment mostly hates fantasy. The first strand dominates in the bookstores and on TV, and any fiction seen as seeking to makes its readers think less about the real world, is likely to be seen as inherently anti-literary. To an extent, if the purpose of a story really is limited to entertaining and providing an escape, I guess they’re right that it is anti-literary. Not that that should matter. That would be like arguing that beach holidays are bad. The problem for literary fantasy is that the literary establishment, being made up of human beings, is inherently lazy, and thus all too willing to dismiss all commercial fantasy as strand A.

Fantasy fans seem sometimes to have a harder time grappling with the issues. Despite having triumphed against the literary types in the battle for the world’s culture (we won, yay!) to the extent that we are now dancing on their crumbling bones, a culture of defensive fandom groupthink pervades. Fantasy fandom still acts vulnerable, as if we are on the brink of being pushed back to the margins, and often kicks back hard against self criticism, or indeed any behavoir seen as elitist, critical or gatekeeping. I believe that we are well past the stage, and the time for groups like The Literary Snobs of Fantasy is overdue.

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