Guilt by Socialization

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A snob is someone who looks down on his own reflection – and takes a long piss.

Two posts in one day, I know, but that Eco thing was just too rich, and I wanted to get this out while the article in question was still relatively fresh.

Fantasy has garnered quite a bit of attention in the mainstream press lately, thanks to the success of HBO’s A Game of Thrones. Roger recently sent me a link to this article by Lev Grossman in The Wall Street Journal. Rather than dwell on the piece, however, I want to consider two critical comments that were posted in response, simply because they strike me as fairly representative. (With any luck, this will be picked up on the blogosphere: if there was ever a time for a social legitimacy food-fight, now is it).

First, there’s Jason Stuart:

This article has failed in every case to adequately combat the criticisms it mentions. It has, in fact, only served to reinforce any negative stereotypes associated with the genre, but, more importantly, it reinforces the lack of respect held not so much for the overall genre, but for the large mass of cult-like readers of said genre.

The obvious yet almost always ignored example of how “fantasy” can still be “literature” is Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and the rest of the Magical-Realists. But, since they aren’t writing about epic multi-generational global wars (focusing only on the richest, most elite members) that threaten fictional worlds populated mostly with dragons and trolls, they are dismissed outright be the faithful.

The question is not one of adherence to the tropes of “reality” but one of RELEVANCE to reality.

So far, no argument has been made to convince me that the bulk of fantasy pulp is relevant in the least to any average man’s real life.

Escapism, to be precise.

The one thing I like about this response is it’s honesty: Stuart isn’t afraid to acknowledge that the lack of respect for the genre translates into a lack of respect for the audience. This makes it clear that the authority gradient at issue isn’t simply aesthetic but social as well. There’s Respectable readers who read respectable things and there’s Unrespectable readers. As I’ve argued ad nauseum here and elsewhere, you can’t separate the genre from the readers. Impugn the one, and you impugn the other.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez only serves to highlight the degree to which this distinction is social: the reason Magic Realists are not considered fantasy authors is simply that they don’t write for fantasy readers. Instead, they write for the Genre-that-dares-not-speak-its-name, which is to say, they write for so-called ‘literary readers.’ The ‘fantastic’ can either denote a formal commitment or a social one. Since Magic Realists generally buy into the authority gradient that Stuart references, they sure as hell are going to go the formal route: to write for the Unrespectable is to risk losing the respect of the Respectable.

Now simply calling readers Unrespectable smacks of chauvinism, which is why I think Stuart feels compelled to further rationalize his distinction. The problem, he suggests, is one of ‘RELEVANCE.’ He has encountered no argument to convince him that fantasy is relevant to “any average man’s life.”

Unfortunately he fails to provide any argument to convince anyone of the contrary: that it is irrelevant. For people like me, people who think the precise opposite, that so-called literary fiction has become all but culturally irrelevant (in any positive sense), and that genre is pretty much the only socially relevant fictional form available to writers who want to make an actual difference in actual lives, an argument would be nice, because heaven knows I’ve looked for one! Alas, he simply asserts this is the case. But I’ll get back to this issue below.

Perhaps the following commentator, Harry Schwartz, has an argument:

You summed it up perfectly: “The question is not one of adherence to the tropes of “reality” but one of RELEVANCE to reality” Hilarious to claim that Harry Potter isn’t wish-fulfillment fantasy (scrawny orphan boy discovers he has incredible powers and belongs to an elite secret society, where he’s a famous hero), or that fantasy’s focus on pure unadulterated good-vs-evil doesn’t detract from its relevance as literature (Austen and Tolstoy wrote extensively about morality, but they did so via believably complex, flawed, and relatable characters, not larger-than-life heroes and villains. That’s why thinking people have been enjoying their work for over a century). Fantasy is an escapist pulp genre like thrillers or romance novels. Fantasy writers talk about “world-building”, meaning shoveling in tons of detail to make the story’s universe seem huge and sweeping, like a place you could actually escape to (though some people seem to struggle with the fact that they don’t actually live there, as the recent Harry Potter phenomenon has shown). That this world building is often hilariously flawed (frequently depicting a world that’s been stuck at a Medieval level of technology for millennia) may not make it less entertaining, but definitely makes it inferior to true literature. Shakespeare may have used ghosts and witches on occasion, but he never built any worlds. Still, that’s not to say the fantasy genre can’t be executed competently and entertainingly, or that a skillful author doesn’t deserve respect (James Clavell wrote historical fiction pulp extremely well, and he’s one of my favorite authors). But it’s no more a mark of distinction to read it any more than playing video games is, in fact it’s probably a good sign if an adult is hesitant to share their enthusiasm for either one. That’s why they’re called guilty pleasures. Just because it’s more acceptable now for adults to enjoy adolescent entertainments (not a great trend, in my opinion) doesn’t mean those entertainments will ever be taken seriously as artistic achievements. One hopes.

Once again, we find a number of loaded social references, which seem to boil down into the binary, Thinkers against Adolescents. Once again, though, I’m not sure I see any argument. A bunch of assertions, a whole bunch of loaded language begging the same old, we-cool-you-losers authority gradient, but nothing you can really point to in the way of rational justification.

You could say he ends with an argument: Why isn’t reading fantasy not a “mark of distinction”? Because we call them “guilty pleasures.” But this isn’t really an argument so much as a question begging conjunction of assertions.

So we are left with: fantasy isn’t literary because it’s escapist, and it’s escapist because it isn’t relevant to life, and it isn’t relevant to life because… well, we don’t know.

We could be charitable, and construct an argument for them using several value-judgements they make in passing. Secondary worlds are hyperbolic. The characterization is unbelievable. The action is unrealistic.

So we could say that the argument they would make is that fantasy isn’t relevant because it isn’t believable or realistic. In other words, fantasy isn’t relevant because it’s fantastic…

But wait a tick… Hmm.

I guess they don’t have an argument after all.

Let me make a suggestion: the social RELEVANCE of fantasy lies in its audience, the fact that it reaches millions upon millions of people. All you have to do is look at fandom to realize that fantasy moves people far, far more profoundly than so-called ‘literary fiction’ (which, as you all know, I think has devolved into a spectacular in-group exercise, like-minded authors writing for like-minded readers, pretending to challenge all those out-group ‘adolescents’ (who never read them) with books literally designed to alienate readers without any specialized training. Popcorn, in other words, masquerading as salad.)

Make no mistake: the difference between fiction in general and literature is moral. The latter is supposed to be good for you in a way the former isn’t. This means the difference between fiction in general and literature has to do with real world consequences – whether or not it ‘resembles’ what counted as literature in ages gone by is pretty much meaningless once those forms cease to have real literary consequences for real readers.

These guys are simply doing what everybody does: making moral yardsticks out of their aesthetic tastes. They literally think their bookshelves make them less ‘guilty.’