Friday, July 29, 2011

Can Good Fantasy Be Good Literature?

On blog tour promoting the August 1st release of The Pride of Blood & Empire, the third book in The Ossian Chronicles, fantasy author W. Brondt Kamffer graces Her Ladyship's Quest with his presence.
Can Good Fantasy Be Good Literature?

by guest blogger W. Brondt Kamffer

An Experiment in the Classroom

Two years ago, in an introductory literature course, I offered my students a choice of seven books from which to pick one to read and write a report. The seven books were: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Othello, Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, Death of a Salesman, and The Children of Hurin.

Now, it may or may not surprise you that at the stipulation of no more than five students per book not one student chose to read Tolkien's novel. Rather, students flocked to Sir Gawain and Othello, arguably the two most difficult of the above seven. What is the point of this little story? Well, it demonstrates, for one, the state of the fantasy genre in academia. Now, these were mostly freshmen and sophomores, but they were clearly being governed by a thought process that said to them, "The Children of Hurin? You can't be serious." Yet I know for a fact that many in the class regularly read some form of fantasy in their free time.

If you take a look at that list of seven books, you may think that Tolkien's novel stands out, but I would argue that not one of those is entirely unrelated to the others. Clearly, anyone who has read all of them will be able to see that they are very similar. Can it be denied that Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and Animal Farm are as fantastical as The Children of Hurin? Othello and Death of a Salesmen are tragedies, as is The Children of Hurin. The Old Man and the Sea is very like Beowulf in its way, and not dissimilar to The Children of Hurin in its depiction of a man struggling against himself.

Against the Ivory Tower

So, what is the point, I ask again? It has long been observed that genre fiction is often scorned in academia, yet clearly fantasy can be written that is no different to the so-called high literature prized by academics and critics. This is not news to anyone, I should think, but it does demonstrate a divide in ways of thinking, and how that divide affects us all. These students were, as I said, your average first- or second-year American university students. I doubt that one of them will go on to study English at the graduate level. Their aspirations lie elsewhere.

No, my students illustrate a simple point: That which we deem worthwhile in our everyday lives is not what we are told is worthwhile by the men and women staffing the Ivory Tower. I have no doubt that more people are inspired daily by reading genre fiction than are by reading high literature. As a realist in all things (and a former Barnes and Noble employee), I can honestly say I've never seen anyone purchase a copy of Shakespeare or Steinbeck who did not do so purely because it was required reading for a class. Yet many of these people made weekly purchases of fantasy, science-fiction, romance, mystery, thriller, etc. There are those who enjoy high literature outside of study (as I do), but they are rare.

Escapism and Capitalism

Part of this is, no doubt, down to our opinons of escapism in the West. Tolkien spoke very highly of escapism, something that contrasts rather starkly with the attitude of most academics to the same. He used the analogy of a man in a prison, saying that we would forgive that man for dreaming of open fields as opposed to high walls and wire fences.

And to the average human being, life is a series of prisons. We need not see that entirely as a bad thing--in which case it may be better to say that life is a series of walls. We are bound by responsibility, by family and jobs and culture and so forth, and about the only way most of us can get away from those regularly is to escape into imagination. But as a culture, a culture inherited from the Puritanical pilgrims, we view such escape as a guilty pleasure at best, though more commonly as a waste of time. It runs counter to our capitalistic foundation, that something only has value if you can sell it, if it is practical, or if it reinforces our cultural morals and ethics.

Fantasy--or escape, as we are including all genre fiction here--does not necessarily do this. It has no value except in the fact that a book is a commodity to sell. It is not practical except in the fact that humans have to rest to recharge for more work. It has no moral or ethical value unless a clumsy author has made his fable into a parable intended to teach some lesson--in which case he defies the laws of the culture, for such things are the purview of accepted institutions (government, university, church) and not of our artists.

These are all preconceptions tied to our culture, and academia has a vested interest in perpetuating these. The books that are accepted into the canon are all the same. (And despite all the bleating that there is no such thing as a canon any more, my earlier illustration of the seven books clearly demonstrates students are being taught otherwise.) They all reaffirm the world that is. They show us ourselves as we are, not as we could be. They suffocate hope and remind us of our failures rather than inspiring us and showing us our good qualities.

Gritty Realism Will Prevail

It used to be that most really popular fantasy literature was inspirational. I am not going to argue one way or another here. Personally, I like less the gritty realism of Martin and Abercrombie and prefer the inspirational heroism of Sanderson and Goodkind. And yet neither of these latter authors is unrealistic. They show us something of what the world is like, its cruelty, ugliness, wickedness, what have you, but they also suggest that such things can be overcome. And that is encouraging, even if it is somewhat delusional.

It is for this reason that I predict Martin's books will be canonized and studied seriously far quicker than Tolkien's have been (if indeed we can say his works have even reached that point). Martin reaffirms a 21st-century, post-modern nihilism and evolutionary brutality. Tolkien dares to dream of a world in which men are better, able to rise above our dark natures.

And if that is not worth valuing in the modern world, then I might as well pack it in right now and go home.

Thank you Brondt for contributing to Her Ladyship's Quest. I encourage my readers to subscribe to Brondt's Gods and Men podcast and learn more about his novels at the following websites.

Gods and Men


Barnes & Noble