Fantasy: Politics and Armchair Literary Critics

Is fantasy political? According to M. Harold Page’s “Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (Or Inherently Anything Political)” and Derek Kunsken’s “Is Fantasy Inherently Not Political?,” the answer is no. Both essays, which appeared on Black Gate, argue that fantasy is not inherently political. I fundamentally disagree with them. 

First of all, what does “inherent” mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s, “inherent” means: “involved in the constitution or essential character of something.” So, is fantasy inherently political?

Well, yes, fantasy is political. You see, fantasy is a form of literature, a form of art. And art is political. No matter if that work is the highest grade of literary fiction or your average epic fantasy, the work is political. Why?

Simple. Humans are political animals. When a writer writes a work of fiction, a part of his world view, his politics, is embedded within the text. And readers, no matter who they are, engage in a dialogue with the writer because they interpret the text through their own world view, which has a political dimension. (Matthew Johnson’s comment to Kunsken’s post reflects my own views).

I have to wonder what Page’s intention is when he opened his argument with all of those essays looking at the politics of fantasy. He certainly didn’t use it to bolster his case. Hell, Mieville’s interview (the first link) challenges Page’s formulation of escapism. Bourke’s post on Tor (second link) raises some interesting questions that could (and should have been) looked into. And Moorcock’s seminal “Starship Stormtroopers” seems to have been an outright afterthought. 

And that is what hurts Page’s argument. He doesn’t engage his sources. He uses them as a prop to rage against. Whether or not he is right about politics and fantasy is irrelevant. He doesn’t care. He reads for escapist purposes and reading deeper into the text doesn’t matter.

A deeper literary analysis will reveal the politics inherent in a work of fantasy.

But, you see, his own argument is political. Moorcock’s essay actually exposes the type of apolitical reading Page champions early on. And he himself reveals that he sympathizes with the more conservative elements (Paragraph 10, starting at the image of The Crown Tower). So, I wonder, is fantasy not inherently political?

Now, I will admit that I agree with the argument that fantasy is not inherently conservative. Not even medieval fantasy. Yes, many of the tropes would imply that fantasy has a conservative bent. And many works of fantasy are conservative. Maybe even the majority. But there are many fantasy writers whose works are not conservative. China Mieville and Michael Moorcock’s work come to mind. As does Ursula K. LeGuin and J.K. Rowling. 

(But remember, politics is relative. And a work of literature is interpreted with myriad meanings possible. )

Kunsken’s essay is problematic because he doesn’t prove his case. He essentially declares fantasy inherently apolitical despite the fact that most of his essay leads a reader (at least this reader) to believe that, to the contrary, fantasy is inherently political. Or is the new weird not actually fantasy? 

In my estimation, neither Page nor Kunsken prove their case. Instead, they rely on the knowledge that the comments will be, on the whole, friendly and back them up. In the end, their arguments, to me, ring hollow. 

Reading for pleasure is great. Reading to escape the travails of one’s life is great. But, so too, is reading to edify oneself. Indeed, it is absolutely great to do all three at once. They are not mutually exclusive. 

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Posted on January 13, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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