Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Fantasy

I’ve been trying to understand why I feel indifference and sometimes repugnance for most fantasy literature, whether H.G. Wells, Tolkien, Lovecraft, Rowling, or so-called “magic realism” (Garcia Marquez is insufferable, and not just for his politics). Fantasy feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children. I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another. Ours feels sufficiently mysterious and wonder-filled, so ghosts, witches, aliens and magic spells come off as kitschy, redundant gimmicks. This builds on what I posted Saturday about V.S. Pritchett, who described “the restless mingling of poetry, sharp realism and wit” in the novels of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz. That trio of literary virtues distils up what I look for in fiction and what I find absent in most fantasy.

In the second volume of his memoirs, Midnight Oil, Pritchett writes, “Life — how curious is that habit that makes us think it is not here, but elsewhere.” On one level he’s describing the bottomless human capacity for dissatisfaction and delusion. On another, Pritchett pinpoints the attraction of fantasy for some – its romance with elsewhere. Again, creation is already baffling, and that’s part of it beauty. Fantasy merely seeks to tart up what is already fantastic.

I’m guided here by my taste, where pleasure leads me, not an ideologically rigid sack of theories. Some writers dabble in fantasy, as they dabble in realism, and I’d be a fool not to love their work: Henry James, Kafka, Borges, Bruno Schulz and Cynthia Ozick come to mind. Likewise, realism is supple enough to contain Balzac and Beckett (the ultimate realist), Sterne and Stead. Clearly, Pritchett shares my proclivity for what James Wood calls “comic realism.” “The Five Towns,” his essay on Arnold Bennett (a much-neglected novelist I admire but don’t over-value), begins like this:

“It is a long time now since the earth seemed solid under the feet to our novelists, since caprice, prophecy, brains and vividness meant less than the solid substance of time and place.”

This is an exquisitely balanced sentence, one that sets us up to admire what is best in Bennett without making exaggerated claims for his gifts. We and the novel have moved on, to Joyce and beyond. To honor Bennett, to recognize his accomplishments in The Old Wives’ Tale and Riceyman Steps, there’s no need to repudiate the Modernists -- and vice versa. This is from the conclusion of Pritchett’s Bennett essay:

“…the virtues of Bennett lie in his patient and humane consideration of the normal factors of our lives: money, marriage, illness as we have to deal with them. Life, he seems to say, is an occupation which is forced upon us, not a journey we have chosen, nor a plunge we have taken. Such a view may at times depress us, but it may toughen us. Bennett really wrote out of the congenital tiredness of the lower middle class, as [H.G.] Wells wrote out of its gambling spirit and gift for fantasy…”

10 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

You might find my post A genre-defying blog, which takes a run through the problems fitting a novel into a particular genre, of some interest. One of the subjects discussed is magic realism.

Nige said...

Entirely with you on this too, Patrick - as Frank says, you, he and I should be ruling the world. That Groucho link a real treat too - had forgotten how brilliant and funny he was.

Anonymous said...

It's admirable to express your tastes in fiction and take a stand. But where you lose me is when you become illogical. If you're going to make exceptions for fantastical works by authors not generally known for them, then what you're saying is "as long as fantasy is by somebody I think is okay otherwise, it's fine." Which doesn't make any sense. Which means I don't find you a credible source of information.

Jeff VanderMeer

Art Durkee said...

This does sort of devolve into prejudice without much to support it. It's okay to simply just not like something. But one doesn't need to justify it, necessarily.

Personally, I find a lot more good writing and exciting ideas in SF than in mainstream fiction, which largely seems to have disappeared up its own orifice from pretension.

The genre-blending and -defying novels I've read seem to be among the best at avoiding this.

Anonymous said...

Though Henry James is ever bit as boring as Marquez.

CaptainBB said...

What's so especially repugnant about Marquez' politics? Is he not in favour of poor countries being made up of slave populated banana repulblics for fascist imperialist behemoths?

Lee said...

Your taste is your own, and there's no arguing with it, but I'm very doubtful about the realism vs. fantasy dichotomy. In a sense, all good fiction is realistic in that it seeks some underlying truth about us humans (even if elves, say, or a giant cockroach is present); and in another, all fiction is just that - a fictional construct which works as much upon agreed convention as anything else.

Lee said...

It just occurs to me that you might try Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring - the forest scene near the end - to see how masterful fantasy elements can be.

S.C. Butler said...

Like most critics, you start with your own taste, then argue backwards to justify it. None of which makes much sense, except to other critics with the same taste.

Henry Swanson said...

Substitute Sci-Fi for Fantasy and I'll concur with everything you said here; "Sci-fi feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children." The thing is, it's the only type of writing I can (almost) bare reading, despite my increasing dislike for it's many weaknesses. As for Jeff's wacky phrase "But where you lose me is when you become illogical", you can stick that on a t-shirt any day of the week and I'll wear it, baby.