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ParaParaYukiko's avatar

Can fantasy novels be taken as seriously as regular fiction?

Asked by ParaParaYukiko (6103 points ) December 4th, 2009

I have enjoyed writing as a hobby for pretty much my entire life, and lately I have been working on a new writing project with an imaginary world based on a lot of fantasy-oriented books, movies and video games I’ve read/watched/played. But as I write, I’ve grown tentative about adding the fantasy element, for fear that people won’t take it seriously.

I suppose it depends on the culture, but as far as the way I grew up, fantasy has always been considered juvenile literature. Seldom to I hear of fantasy novels (in the traditional sense of the world, like The Lord of the Rings) being elevated to the status of “high” or “classic” fiction, such as Dickens and Twain. Similarly, those who enjoy reading fantasy seem often to be labelled as nerds.

Yes, there are plenty of amazing works of fiction that have fantastical elements, like The Time Traveller’s Wife and works by Toni Morrison, but books that are more “fantasy” than “reality” tend to get lumped in with the juvenile fiction.

For example, my mother and I read the book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I quite enjoyed the book, but my mother said it would have been better if it was more “realistic,” without all the magic and witchcraft. It was still a best-seller, but not quite on the same scale as more typical, realistic fiction.

So, what do you guys think? Can fantasy ever be put at the same level as regular fiction, to the point where they would teach books like the LotR series in schools? On that note, did any of you studied fantasy literature in high school, or was it all Shakespeare and Dickens?

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29 Answers

CMaz's avatar

Is there really a difference?

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@ChazMaz I guess the main difference would be whether a vindictive husband was killing people or a band of rogue unicorns.

gemiwing's avatar

High School is usually spent on ‘classics’ while college lets you roam a bit more freely. I’ve always said that we’re forced to read books for school that we wouldn’t choose on our own, so to me, that speaks volumes on what the ‘good’ literature is.

The rules of what is considered ‘high’ literature depends on what group is doing the choosing. There are no hard and fast rules- and the old ones are quickly becomming blurred.

I think, in time, more works of science fiction, fantasy and yes even romance will be considered equal. Just remember there is a whole culture developed around the idea that ‘those’ works of fiction aren’t as good as the ‘proper’ ones.

Sidenote, I’d rather read Pratchett anyday over Dickens.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@gemiwing I agree with you on the whole, but I was interested in this comment:

Just remember there is a whole culture developed around the idea that ‘those’ works of fiction aren’t as good as the ‘proper’ ones.

I suppose so, but why? Beowulf is full of monsters and dragons and is considered classic enough to be taught in my AP English Literature class back in high school. Perhaps that’s just because it it one of the earliest existing works of literature? In my opinion, many fantasy novels have just as much metaphor and meaning as “proper” fiction. But many people don’t feel that way, because fairies and dragons are too far-fetched for people to take seriously enough to recognize said meaning.

Of course, millions of people take a book with impossible phenomenon and 200-year-old people as truth, but that’s a different story…

CMaz's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko – Ok got ya. :-)

evegrimm's avatar

Although I’m not a Twilight fan, I have noticed that “Fantasy” is becoming much more mainstream than it was about 10 years ago, in part due to that book’s popularity. (Harry Potter has also contributed to this.)

As such, I do not believe that fantasy can, as of yet, be taken as seriously as regular fiction (I would love it if it was, though!), but wait for the next fantasy novel to transform the world of adult fiction (again), and it will become as mainstream and accepted as, um, oh I don’t know, Jodi Picoult or James Patterson.

Also, it depends on how you incorporate your fantasy elements. Audiences tend to appreciate urban fantasies more than high fantasies, because there are fewer rules to explain, and because it is at least moderately familiar ground. And authors like Neil Gaiman might offer some ideas for how to write a fantasy novel that is more “acceptable”. I hope some of that is helpful…I’m tired!

gemiwing's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko Great point. The problem is, like most, layered. What is considered acceptable to read can be traced back to the Middle Ages when a few people held immense power over what was allowed to be printed. Sprinkle in some ethnocentric judgement, power plays over ‘proper’ behavior, money to be made from rankings/selling to education and you have the answer.

I would recommend calling your local library and talking to a librarian about their opinion on the matter as well as getting some more in-depth information. It’s a complicated issue that is still hotly debated in literary circles. The NY Times still refuses to review romances, despite the fact they are the number one seller in the country because they are ‘throw away’ books. Just another example.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@gemiwing Great point about the power over what could be printed. I imagine (though I have nothing to base this upon) that certain people may have refused to print some more fantasy-esque writing because it was considered blasphemous. This gives me much to look into – Thanks!

Luckily, I work at an independent bookstore during the summer with lots of interesting and intelligent people who will probably have something to say on the matter. :)

Qingu's avatar

The Road is SF, not fantasy, but it’s certainly taken pretty seriously.

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is pretty serious business.

Foolaholic's avatar

It may all just be an age problem. As children, we are drawn to the strange and the wonderful, and so natural we gravitate towards everything that fantasy offers us. Writers, at the same time, know this, and so in many cases they write to their audience, maybe to improve their reputation or make money. Case and point: Twilight. Stephanie Meyer found combined romanticism and vampires, and stumbled upon a major audience. The question is, did she write books that just happened to become seen as young adult because of the audience, or was she pandering directly to the 13–16 female population? I would say its the latter, but that’s just my opinion.

I guess what I’m getting at is that most people see fantasy and sci-fi and immature because a lot of it is. Not all of it, but a pretty significant chunk.

Now my favorite authors by far are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, both British, fantasy writers. Both have works for all ages, and both write with a sense of presence and delivery that I seldom see anywhere else. Pratchett is better known for the comedy of his works; a semi-highbrow sarcasm that only improves as you get older. Gaiman, by comparison, is an advocate not necessarily for the fantastic, but the dark, the unknown, and the misunderstood. They both write fantasy, but they also both include elements of storytelling that appeal to more adult tastes. I would say that they are both concrete proof that fantasy can be taken seriously.

There’s just no accounting for taste :P

@Qingu lurve for mentioning G.R.R. Martin. I wept when I realized that he died with the series unfinished…

zephyr826's avatar

I think good fantasy (meaning well-written, cohesive literature) should be taken as seriously as “traditional” fiction, but I have also noticed how fantasy gets a bad rap. I’m not sure what it will take to make the jump, but I hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Ria777's avatar

But as I write, I’ve grown tentative about adding the fantasy element, for fear that people won’t take it seriously.

firstly, who cares what other people think? secondly, a lot of fantasy or sf won’t get labelled as fantasy anyway. crossover works will find a place in the mainstream section of the bookstore.

The Time Traveler’s Wife which you mentioned didn’t end up in the sf section of bookstores, did it?

Ria777's avatar

@Qingu: you mixed up too different meanings of serious, there. serious as respectable to the literary establishment and serious as in no smiles. intentional?

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@Foolaholic Good point. But I would venture to say that a lot of sci fi and fantasy is immature because people are taught that it’s not supposed to be grouped in with regular fiction. I guess it’s a which-came-first situation.

So Gaiman and Pratchett (both great, I agree) were English, and so was Tolkien… Egads! Can only British people become great fantasy writers? I’m screwed then… :P

EDIT: Oh yeah, forgot Tolkien was born in South Africa. But Wikipedia lists him as English… so does that count?

MacBean's avatar

Can fantasy novels be taken seriously? No, of course not. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, T.H. White, Mervyn Peake, J.M. Barrie, Hans Christian Anderson, Peter S. Beagle, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Richard Adams, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Frank Herbert, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells… All complete dreck.

As for that silly crap like Harry Potter, Discworld, A Song of Ice and Fire, His Dark Materials, &c, I’m sure they’ll just fade into obscurity after another year or two. Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, too. Totally on their way out.

And who cares anymore about Gilgamesh or One Thousand and One Nights or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

[Insert huge ~ in bold text.]

Foolaholic's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko Poppycock; George R. R. Martin is American, and he was amazing. As to the whole came-first situation, it’s a tragedy of trends. Like I said, lots of fantasy writer produce for younger audiences because they are safer bets, which then turns older audiences off to the genre because it was seems so childish, making the youth audience that much more ‘logical’, at least for a profit. But who in this world really cares about money?

@MacBean lurve for ecessive sarcasm.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@MacBean Excellent examples of great fantasy/sci-fi and sarcasm. However, I do recall that the majority of those are generally shelved quite separately from regular fiction in bookstores. Many of them (Dahl, L’Engle, Carroll, etc) are specifically put in juvenile fiction.

Not to say that I think they’re not worth taking seriously, just making my point.

MacBean's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko: Which brings up my opinion that children’s literature should be taken just as seriously as “regular” and/or “adult” fiction.

wundayatta's avatar

Fantasy and fantastic tropes are all metaphor for real world analogues, and if anyone can’t see that, I’d like to sell them this bridge I own, real cheap. There’s bad fantasy (I just started one for my son last night), and there’s fantastic literature. Fantasy occurs all the time in mainstream literature. Science Fiction is a subcategory of fantasy (although most people think it’s the other way around—but look, all sf is fantasy—in the sense that it’s not about the current world—but not all fantasy is sf).

Writers use literary devices to allow them to achieve all kinds of goals. Fantastic tropes are but one set of tools (although one could argue that fantasy is actually the largest genre of fiction). However, not all people are familiar with these tropes, and thus they tend to dismiss them as not being serious. Apparently your mother needs more “reality” in order to understand what a book is about. When you think about it, all fiction is fantasy, unless it’s personal history masquerading as fiction, and even then there are always elements of a story that are made up, because we can’t remember everything exactly as it happened. Hell. We can’t even perceive everything even as it is happening.

But these ideas are the stuff of academics and people who spend their lives teasing out meaning from a rock. It’s fantasy, godammit! Read it and enjoy! Or don’t read it.

absalom's avatar

Many people take fantasy fiction seriously. I know academics who’ve written theses and taught courses on Lord of the Rings.

Though I’m a lit major I like to support genre fiction and non-literary fiction. A lot of the names mentioned here are great, except Stephanie Meyer (if Twilight isn’t taken seriously in an academic setting it’s not because it’s fantastical, it’s because it’s terrible).

Magical realism shows up often in literary fiction, anyway. Look at Garcia Marquez, and Borges, and Rushdie, and even Pynchon (esp. in Against the Day: it’s friggin’ steampunk) and Murakami. Hell, look at The Tempest (and AMND as someone said) if you want to go back. The fantastic has always been a part of fiction. Some authors just like to focus on the fantasy and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There will be jerks like Tom Wolfe who think that fiction becomes less relevant as it moves away from the real, but as we all know (and as @daloon‘s just said) that simply isn’t the case.

Ria777's avatar

@daloon: Fantasy and fantastic tropes are all metaphor for real world analogues, and if anyone can’t see that, I’d like to sell them this bridge I own, real cheap.

reductionist, IMO.

in theory you can take any one thing and make it a metaphor for any other thing. good fantasy has tropes you can apply to many things, the way a crystal refracts light. whereas bad fantasy has little to no metaphorical content it all. it all recursively relates back to previous works of fantasy.

Ria777's avatar

@absalom: literary fiction satisfies the requirement of a genre. it has its own conventions, its own tropes, its own audience, its own kind of marketing… (not an original observation to me, BTW.)

wundayatta's avatar

@Ria777 Sure, the genre can be self-referencing, or so-called writers can use the tropes without having a clue as to what they are doing. However, if a writer is going to write something enlightening, it seems to me they need to know what they are talking about. I don’l mean “know” as in understand; I mean “know” in the sense that knowledge comes from experience (which includes second-hand experiences).

But fantasy allows you to approach issues that you may not want to approach in realistic fiction for any number of reasons. Fantasy allows you to put whatever distance is necessary between you and your subject, while still being able to write about your topic with enough honesty and detail to make it worth writing about.

Of course, this could all be bullshit. I’ve never written fantasy. Which, oddly enough, makes this comment a fantasy, thus disproving my assertion. Oh well.

Although that raises yet another question. If you write out your wishes, and those wishes actually could happen but haven’t yet, have you written fantasy?

Ria777's avatar

@daloon: it often helps the writing to not know “what you mean”. anyway, I don’t like thinking of writing just simply in terms of function any more than you rate food on its nutritional value.

in the last paragraph (and earlier in your reply, too) you have done that thing where you mix up different meanings of the same word (in this case “fantasy”) as if they mean the same thing, when they don’t mean the same thing. (I actually meant to ask on Fluther about the technical name for this.)

wundayatta's avatar

@Ria777 Seems to me that one function of writing often is to find out what you mean. It’s why I’m on fluther, anyway. My subject is usually my own experience. I certainly know about my experience, but I generally can’t say I know my experience until I’ve processed it somehow.

I’m not sure I understood your last point. All fiction is fantasy, to one degree or another. It is made up. A fantasy. But not all fiction fits in the Fantasy genre. What I was asking is whether it is possible for fantasies based on real life and explained in terms of real life could ever be considered part of the Fantasy genre.

I guess it’s like asking whether all Fantasy must contain a fantastical element—i.e., something that can’t happen in the real world. Or, is there a way for a story that contains no fantastical elements to fit in the genre?

Ria777's avatar

rephrase: you have mixed up definition 1 (“all fiction is fantasy”) with definition 10 (“the Fantasy genre”).

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fantasy

mattbrowne's avatar

Fantasy is serious fiction. It gets problematic, if people apply true magic to their real lives, like being afraid of Friday the 13th. Science fiction however can turn into science over time.

NerfMyWorld's avatar

Homer’s Illiad and The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Beowulf, El Cid – there are many, many classical works of fantasy that are taken seriously. All of these are taught in high school, and mythology of various cultures is generally taught in junior high and elementary school.

This is actually a debate that has been going on for a very long time – well over 50 years, in fact.

When I was in high school more than 30 years ago, I took courses in Fantasy and Science Fiction in my senior year (2 separate classes, no less!). I also did a term paper in my junior year regarding whether science fiction could be considered a valid literary form. My teachers didn’t think I would be able to find enough resources to actually write a paper that was a minimum of 7 pages long. While it wasn’t the best piece of literature in and of itself, I found well over 100 sources of information on exactly the same topic, and my final paper was 14 pages long, having thrown out at least half of my notes.

The real question lies in whether science fiction and fantasy are being accepted in the mainstream as an accepted form of literature. With more and more sci-fi and fantasy authors being taken seriously, and children who were raised on these stories growing into adulthood and entering the professional world, and as the readers become more critical of what they read thereby forcing authors to become better writers, these literary forms can’t help but to become recognized as a valid and accepted literary art form.

Zaku's avatar

Fantasy gets taken less seriously, but not entirely panned by everyone. Some critics and scholars and others are prejudiced. Some with intelligent reasons, and some with unintelligent reasons.

Some consider that humans are what are most interesting, and fantasy tends to distract and become about the fantasy instead. Others note that many characters in such books are very one-dimensional or uninteresting. Although I am quite interested and entertained by fantasy and science fiction, I tend to find that those are all intelligent reasons and things I tend to be disappointed with too. But I also think it’s okay for a story’s point to be about interesting and fun SF situations, though bad characterization can undermine my interest in those, even if I’m only or mainly reading them for the SF. There are of course some that are actually good or insightful in their human themes and characters, too.

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