Fantasy Through Colored Lenses
Well, I’m experiencing insomnia right now, so I thought I’d get an early post in today. So, if I don’t make much sense, I apologize in advance.
This post is a bit of a response to Matthew David Surridge’s recent post on Black Gate’s website entitled “The Enjoyment of Fantasy: Open Letters to Adam Gopnik, Mur Lafferty, and John C. Wright.” Now, I’m not going to discuss his letters to Gopnik and Lafferty. What interested me is Surridge’s response to John C. Wright and by extension Daniel Polansky and David Brin. My object is to discuss the three modes of reading fantasy and give my own take.
In my comment to the post, I mentioned that Surridge expressed some of my own issues with Polansky’s essay “The Slums of the Shire.” But I also have a number of issues with the characterization of Polansky and Brin’s position. The two see fantasy as “real.” That means that creating a fantasy world is geared towards versions of reality. Examples would be the genocide of the elves (from Polansky) or palantirs in every home (Brin). Surridge himself doesn’t hold much stock with this interpretation. For him, Polansky is creating a vision of a fantasy reality every bit as compromised by his own interests as Wright is. Why then his obsession with dime bags and slums? Surridge further critiques Brin for not understanding Tolkien’s point- the magic is restricted and potentially dangerous, like any form of progress. Mind you, I got the impression that Brin was speaking by way of example. Tolkien is likely the fantasy author most readers are familiar with, so it is reasonable to assume he is the default example. What Brin is actually describing are forms of fantasy called dungeonpunk and magictek. The two genres posit that magic steps in for technology. Instead of a steam engine powering a train, a fire elemental does the job (courtesy of TV Tropes). Look at Bas-Lag and Fairy Tail for good examples.
John C. Wright’s position is similar to that of Leo Grin from earlier this year. For this point of view, a fantasy world is constructed to house a sense of nostalgia, a sense of reclaimed glories. Much of this form of fantasy reaches back to a “golden age” of Christian theology. Many of the adherents to this view of fantasy also hunger for a stronger religious (Christian or a Christian stand in) presence. Personally, I don’t have much I disagree with Surridge on this type of reader view.
Finally, there is Surridge’s own view. This I would call a symbolic or literary point of view. Surridge mentions several times that he reads as much for the language as the story. He recommends this approach to Mur Lafferty to help her reconcile with the science fiction classics she is having trouble reading. Instead of reading for the story, read for the words themselves.
Given that this is Surridge’s own mode of reading fantasy, it gets a privileged position. He compares and contrasts it with both the “real” and the “nostalgic” views, and he finds his own superior to the others. But there are problems with that view as well. I think that the literary view is related to the literary theories that dominated the Anglo-American critical tradition in the early and middle twentieth century. But this view, I think neglects the succeeding critical traditions like structuralism, deconstruction, and culture studies.
Another issue I have with this approach is that it divorces the narrative from the language and focuses too much on the usage of language. Even a bad novel can be read if the language is the star, rather than the actual story.
Personally, I stand with Brin and Polansky. My issue with Polansky is that I don’t share his rather dystopic point of view. I recognize that my position has issues. Every mode of reading, every critical tradition is riddled with problems. When I read a fantasy, I’m more interested in trying to figure out how the magic works, what the unseen world is like, what the politics are like, etc.
There is nothing wrong with being interested in any of these modes of reading, or any others. The key thing, is, I think, to enjoy fantasy. Period.
Now, maybe, I can go to bed.