11 March 2013

Defending and Defining the Genre: Fantasy

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My genre is predominantly fantasy, but I write horror, too, and then  had the realization that I actually write dark fantasy, which combines both the horrific and fantastic.

There are many stereotypes and perceptions regarding people who write and read horror. I've seen it come up in many articles and blog posts by horror writers--people think because someone writes or enjoys horror, that they are cracked in the head and highly disturbed...and potentially dangerous!

Fantasy really isn't that different. While people may assume horror writers are sadistic, psychotic, or any other number of things, people assume writers of fantasy also have a detachment from reality, and are therefore detached from normalcy or society. People who write fantasy are assumed to be delusional, juvenile, antisocial, and even evil ("How dare they write about magic! Magic is the occult! The occult is THE DEVIL!"). Seems like we just can't win.

 Fairies aren't just for children. 
Of that laundry-list of bad names for fantasy writers, I'd like to focus on what I think the universal assumption is about fantasy: FANTASY IS JUVENILE. FANTASY IS ONLY FOR CHILDREN. IMAGINATION IS ONLY ENCOURAGED DURING CHILDHOOD...THEREFORE, FANTASY WILL NEVER BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

Even though fantasy has resurged in popularity thanks to everything from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, popularity waxes and wanes. What's stayed exactly the same are the negative stereotypes perpetuated about fantasy authors and the fantasy genre itself.

Just like horror, which has existed forever, fantasy has also existed forever. Fairy tales, myths, and legends...all of these stories began as tales for grown-ups before they were bowdlerized and censored for children's nursery time. The great historical epics were bloody and heroic, and all the stories concerned God and Man, Our World and Other Worlds, Life and Death, Possibility and Impossibility. At its core, fantasy is a speculative genre, and speculation is the promotion of questioning, critical thought. Like sci-fi and horror, fantasy asks "What if?" Sci-fi and horror tend to (but certainly not always) lean toward things that could happen, while fantasy leads towards what could never happen...fantasy lives in the realm of the impossible.
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All that said, the key is to focus on fantasy's core (speculation!). In a learning environment, we want to set up the opportunity for cognitive dissonance, which in turn promotes critical thinking. Fantasy will always ask questions, so we can pounce on that. We need to "play assumptions against each other"--this is cognitive dissonance at work.

What assumptions could we counter? The very ones made every day that do not accurately portray the genre or the author.

Fantasy is juvenile--let's counter that idea:. It's  important to recognize that fantasy indeed goes beyond what we deem the realm of childhood. We can examine many works of fantasy by and for adults, but more importantly, we can look at the questions fantasy itself asks; often these concern life and death, heroism and cowardice. Fantasy is notorious for looking at everything in themes and archetypes, but that is also its strength...these are symbols and motifs that have endured for thousands of years because they are embedded in truth. We look for truths in fiction, and fantasy can provide.

Imagination is only encouraged during childhood-
-let's subvert this. We are teachers, we are writers, we are readers...and we will always ask questions. And questions promote imagination: we imagine a problem, then imagine its outcome(s). Fantasy removes a lot of the boundaries, therefore allowing us to come up with many, many, more outcomes than we can even realize.

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Fantasy will never be taken seriously--let's subvert this. We can do this by elevating the genre by demonstrating its appeal across age, time, and demographics, and show that it is universally appealing because it focuses on universal ideas.

Even more importantly, in order to ensure we are taken seriously, we have to employ the standards set by the literary world. These are universal standards--we have to get plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, audience, etc, right. We can't mess this up. These are the building blocks of fiction, inherent in both literature and genre. If these are done right, it puts us on equal footing. We have to focus on the writing craft itself...true, we have to understand the genre and its identifiers, but we also have to "adopt aesthetic and critical distance from the work [...]" . We have to "dare [writers] to self-edit and sharpen their awareness of the audience". If we do this, we will be advocates for our genre because we demonstrate that quality, universal appeal, relevance (and therefore timelessness) exists in our work.

In other words, if we want people to take our genre seriously, we have to take it seriously, by not putting out anything less than great work. 

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Sources

Arnzen, Michael. "Grossing Out Teacher: A Horror Writer in the Writing Classroom." Broad Universe 25 May 2005: 1-6. The Broadsheet. Web. 31 Mar. 2010. <http://www.broaduniverse.org/broadsheet/archive/0505ma.html>. 

Arnzen, Michael. "Horror and the Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator." Dissections Horror EZine 27 May 2009: 1-5. Simigen.com. Web. 05 June 2009. <http://www.simegen.com/writers/dissections/May%202009/dissections_page_03.html>. 

Note: This appeared online at Seton Hill's University intranet for the Teaching Writing & Popular Fiction course, posted April 2012. The assignment was to take Michael Arnzen's horror essays sourced above and apply the same themes to our own genre.

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