Academic Snobbery, Fantasy Literature, and the Way We Talk About Our Books

If you’re a fan of fantasy, sci-fi, or other forms of speculative literature, you’ve probably seen this video making its rounds again and again. In it, Pat Rothfuss makes two distinct and classic arguments about the relationship between literary fiction and fantasy.

1. Don’t essentialize genres, because we’re all more than the idiosyncratic trappings dangling from and around our stories.

2. Fantasy has existed for a long time, and many of the narratives that make up the bedrock of the literary canon are in fact fantasy.

I can totally get behind one of these arguments. As someone both trained in literary criticism and raised on a steady diet of speculative fiction, I love seeing a prominent writer of any genre talking about how we can’t put one another in these stupid, stereotypical boxes. In particular, Pat’s point that all of these different categories are genres, even literary fiction, is spot on. Whatever ‘literary’ means, it isn’t an indicator of intrinsic, hierarchical value in the same way that fantasy or sci-fi or horror or romance aren’t indicators of intrinsic value. If anything, these genre markers have to be nothing more than vague descriptors of what might be present in this story, and we have to be willing to abandon them wholesale when they become limiting, prescriptive, or fraught with any sort of assumed, relative value.

But then Pat makes this argument that there’s some truly excellent fantasy out there, and I’m all “Yeah!” And he says it’s stuff like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Odyssey, and The Old Testament, and I’m all “:-(”  Because here’s the thing(s): these pieces of writing are all amazing and wonderful and magical in their own ways, but they just aren’t fantasy, not fantasy as we think of it today. Pat just got done saying that we shouldn’t essentialize genres based on their trappings, but he’s quick to say that Hamlet is a fantasy because it has a ghost, and Macbeth is a fantasy because it has a ghost and witches, which seems to be making an argument based 100% on essentializing these works and the fantasy genre. If we could get away from this ridiculous exclusivity among genres, we could point at these works and say they represent some of the roots of the modern fantasy genre, but to call them fantasy is to misunderstand and mischaracterize both modern fantasy and these classical texts. At no point in Macbeth do the witches talk about their magic system, and at no point in Midsummer do Puck or Titania spend time joying in the sheer geekery of worldbuilding. And this doesn’t mean these works aren’t great or powerful or moving or even magical, but it does mean that they have hugely different concerns, audiences, and contexts than modern fantasy. I mean, yes, both Brandon Sanderson’s books (or at least some) and a few of Shakespeare’s plays have magic in them, but the magic seems to be presented in such different ways that I hesitate to elide them like Rothfuss is doing. One of the things I see in the fantasy of today is that it treats magic or the fantastical as valuable in and of itself; we joy in it in a way you just don’t see in classical stuff. We talk about magic systems and hard/soft fantasy and hard/soft sci-fi and worldbuilding. In other words, we talk about the fantastical elements as valuable and interesting pieces of the story in and of themselves. When Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene, he was writing an allegory, not a fun romp with cool supernatural creatures. The goals of these two time periods are so different that homogenizing them risks misunderstanding both. All I’m left with at the end of Pat’s argument is what seems to be an attempt to stick it to those literary fiction people and say, “Hey, you thought this was yours, but actually it’s ours, suckers!”

We have to get away from this combativeness in genre, partially because I think it’s hugely destructive and distracting for would-be productive conversations about books we like and find powerful, but I think also because it’s largely not a real thing. I work at a university and have spent a lot of my time in them, and yeah, there are those faculty members who are arrogant, condescending assbags about the literary vs. genre thing, but they aren’t the majority (at least in my experience). Most faculty I’ve met either don’t have thoughts about speculative stuff because they’re too wrapped up in their super specific area or they read speculative stuff themselves when they’re not working on discovering plants in the rainforest or theorizing Poe’s thoughts on alterity or whatever. I think we, as readers of speculative stuff, tend to walk around prepared to take offense because there’s a history of having our stuff looked down on. But I’m just not sure it’s as big a thing as it used to be. Sure, there’s always going to be the loud idiots desperately clinging to some sort of literary tradition that apparently excludes anything even remotely magical or fantastical or futuristic. But those people are going the way of the dinosaurs, and having these really dichotomous, divisive conversations about speculative literature in these really homogenizing, essentalizing ways is the only way they’re going to stay around.

Genre boundaries are porous and most writing is indiscriminate-it moves between genre camps with such fluidity and ease that it makes me wonder how much value the different categories actually have. The more we entrench these boundaries in our discussions and the more we homogenize and mischaracterize the genre categories, the more we prevent this freewheeling and indiscriminate movement in literature, the more we cut off its ability to be itself and speak the way it would speak.


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