Thoughtful Thursday: Fantasy doesn’t pretend

Aside from reading fantasy I also run a restaurant with my wife. Our restaurant is directly across the street from our local library, so we get a lot of readers through our doors and I get a chance to talk with many of them. Inevitably, when discussing books, the fact that I’m a huge fantasy nerd gets mentioned fairly quickly. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Customer: Oh, so you’re a big reader too? Who’s your favorite author? I love Stephen King.
Me: Oh yeah, King is great, but I like Joe Abercrombie…. a lot.
Customer: Who?
Me: Oh, and Jim Butcher… The Dresden Files are my reason to live.
Customer: Jim who?… Dresden Files? Abercrombie?… The clothing company? What do they write?
Me: *mental sigh* Fantasy. They write fantasy.
Customer: Ooooh, like children’s books?

That may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. I’ve had that conversation and similar ones at least a dozen times.  I’ve gotten to the point where I often avoid talking about books with my customers, period. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Lev Grossman says he has the same problem. A new acquaintance, after finding out that Grossman writes fantasy, will say:

Come on… It’s all made up. It’s like playing with dolls! None of it’s real!

Here’s Grossman’s defense:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

I have terrible news for you. It’s all made up. All fiction is fantasy — it’s what my daughter’s kindergarten teacher would call “pretend play.” Madame Bovary is a doll. Stephen Dedalus is a doll. Mrs. Dalloway? Doll. When it comes to novels, fantasy is the rule, not the exception. If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn’t pretend.

Fantasy doesn’t pretend. I love that. Have any of you encountered these Fantasy Poopooers (or, worse, are you related to one?) What did you say to defend our genre? Please share and we’ll pick a random commenter to choose a book from the Fanlit Stacks.

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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  1. I just wrote this big long thing for another site about The Magicians, and then tore to The Magician King in about a day, and I’m now busy working my way through it a second time, and I hate to admit this but I think I may be becoming a Lev Grossman fanboy.

    Don’t tell anyone.

    Specifically answering the question – yeah, I’ve encountered it. I distinctly remember having a colleague make fun of me back in 1997 or something when I was reading A Game of Thrones for the first time, on my lunch break at work, and he thought the little knight person with the big sword on the cover was funny. Haha, Stefan reads books about knights.

    Guess what? That colleague just bought the ASOIAF box set in Costco.


  2. My “favorite” is when I go to look for reviews of a fantasy novel and find one where the reader just Did. Not. Get. It. The review will be one star and say “This is ridiculous! I just can’t believe all this stuff about elves and witches and mumbo jumbo.” *headdesk*

  3. My students know I read science fiction because ideas from SF are often applicable to the study of neuroscience (especially perception, which I teach an entire course on). Occasionally I’ll tell a student that I read fantasy (usually only if I see them reading a fantasy novel) but none of my colleagues knows about my “other life” here at FanLit.

  4. Mine either, Kat–though they do know I’m full of Harry Potter references, and I have one colleague with whom I discuss ASOIAF and who is trying to get me hooked on Rothfuss.

  5. This happened a year ago at the same writers conference I just attended. Last year, a literary agent said she loved the opening of my short story; she thought I had real characters with real problems, great physical description, good dialogue, etc. “But I got confused at the end,” she said, “There’s a whole change in the narrative voice. It’s as if the main character suddenly turns into. . . is it a dog?”

    “A wolf. She turns into a wolf. It’s a werewolf story.”

    “Oh,” she said. “How would I know that?”

    I took a few minutes to point out fantasy in fiction throughout the centuries, (“How did you know that Bottom had an ass’s head in Midsummer Night’s Dream?”) I asked her if she had read any magical realism, and she said she had, so I pointed out the suspension of disbelief required in magical realism.

    There is a happy ending. She is branching out in her literary agency and wants to represent fantasy now, so maybe she got it.

  6. I’ve worked with them. Folks that say they just want to see the sort of things they see every day – nothing out of the ordinary. Because I had to work with this one, I heroically refrained from pointing out she didn’t deal with political intrigue, revelations about parentage, life threatening situations and so on, on a daily basis.

    After all, if you can open the door of suspension of disbelief for the soap operas of most popular fiction, it doesn’t seem that much a stretch to reach for “What if?” or address other situations that are also unlikely (deep space habitat anyone?).

  7. I remember reading a teen paranormal novel a while back, in which I found it easy to suspend disbelief about the supernatural stuff but just could not buy some of the teen social dynamics presented. I was like “Vampires? Sure. But someone from X clique would never date someone from Y crowd. No way!” ;)

  8. Yeah, this stuff is kinda tough for me too. It’s bad enough that I run across so few people that read any genre fiction at all. Finding fellow fantasy readers is even more scarce, at least in the circles I roll in. Even my wife takes a playful jab at me now and then.
    However I’ll never forget what happened to me once:
    Martin’s 2nd book in the ASoIaF had just came out, Clash of Kings. For any who don’t know, that was a big honking hardback with a flashy gold book-cover, sporting King Stannis ,Melisndre and I think it was Devos. Well I’m a whopin’ 5′ 6″ package of maleness and I was toting that monster with me to a diner on my lunchbreak -the book was damn near half my size. A rather large lady working the cash register, saw all that book with its medieval illustration and said, “My, that’s an awfully big book for a little fella.” :)

  9. Sir Read-a-Lot /

    Grossman’s defense reminds me of Magritte’s “Treachery of Images”: Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

    (for those unfamiliar with the piece: Magritte painted a large pipe, and then wrote below it, in French, “This is not a pipe.” The idea being that it was a picture of a pipe, not the real thing.)

  10. Justin, this must be about the eighth time I’ve read you raving about the Dresden Files books, so I picked one up at the library today — Turn Coat. I’m not going to be spoiling anything by starting in the middle of the series, am I?

  11. I would not recommend starting int he middle. Start with Storm Front. Dresden books are very very serial in nature. I imagine they might be very confusing to start with book 11, which is where Turn Coat is.

  12. Thanks! I’ll return this one to the library unread, and order up Storm Front.

  13. SandyG265 /

    I’ve found that peopel who don’t understand why I would want to read fantasy don’t really want to be convinced. i once tried teling a co-worker that all fiction is fantasy because it isn’t real. I just gota blank look.

  14. @ Terry, concerning Dresden Files: The audio versions are also very good, if you like listening to audiobooks.

    I often get the opposite question: Why don’t you read more “real” books? (i.e., stories based in the real world) Answer is, I don’t like reading about people’s sordid lives. I read to escape.

    But people in well-written fantasy novels have heartbreak and sadnesses and physical ailments just as they do in life, so I ask myself, how is it so much an escape? I think it’s the juxtaposition of very real, very believable characters counterposed with these worlds and situations that are so far removed from anything that I could ever experience that allows me to immerse into the story. (Does that make sense?)

    I try occasionally to read a “real” novel, and I just can’t stand it. I put The Bone Setter’s Daughter down half way through, thinking, “I don’t want to know that you’re husband’s cheating on you, and I don’t want you to have to watch your mom die.”

    But WHY are these things OK if they’re in a fantasy novel? I don’t know!

  15. Elizabeth, I completely agree with you — I feel the same way. I also have a problem watching sad or scary movies. I get immersed, I think, and it’s too painful or frightening. But if the setting is unrealistic — a fantasy or SF setting — that offers a measure of protection because I remember that it’s not real, or I can’t relate to it. I’ve always preferred speculative fiction settings in books and movies unless it’s a comedy or a romance, which I can handle. I do read/watch other genres, but if there are lots of negative emotions, I prefer a fantasy setting.

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