Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why Fantasy Novels are Overlooked

This blog post comes from my article "Why Fantasy Novels are Overlooked" posted on
Our waking hours are limited. In the free moments left to us after e-mail and dinner and getting the kids to bed, we do our best to be productive in our leisure. For many, this means skipping the dragons and ignoring the elves in favor of lighter fair – that unread copy of Macbeth, perhaps, or another shot at page twenty of Moby Dick.

To many, fantasy novels are not literature. These readers view fantasy as cheap escapism, simply another way to the forget the boss and ignore the economy – except that there is no chance of Merlin installing a round table in the White House. Thinking that in reading they should “better themselves,” many readers choose books that they believe will directly apply to their lives. They pick up John Grisham and Tom Clancy because certainly those books hold a grain of truth – people get sued every day, and you never know which wars our nation may be fighting outside the view of CNN. Stephen King is a harder sell, but he writes so believably that, for a moment, a reader could imagine those horrible evil things lurking in the shadows under the refrigerator. But fantasy? Dragons that belch flame? A world of dirt roads and enchanted chain mail? Pardon me, but I have work tomorrow.

Unfortunately, this nagging literary discrimination has become quite widespread. It affects many genres – fantasy, science fiction, romance, even Westerns. Part of this ironically results from the high demand for novels in these genres. Readers who love the likes of John Wayne and Captain Kirk will buy many, many books – as a result, genre novels are often not as well written as a New York Times bestseller. Readers unfamiliar with a genre – especially fantasy – see these rows of books at Barnes and Noble and don’t know what to look for. They get swamped by the cover illustrations of damsels and unicorns and knights in heavy armor. They might spend a few minutes reading the back covers before giving up and heading for the bestseller racks. If they’re brave and happen to buy a book, they’re often disappointed. It’s hard to make sense of a good fantasy without at least some familiarity with the standards of the genre. But a poorly-written fantasy novel? Our realist reader might put down the book at chapter one and never go back.

As these mainstream readers face their own poor experiences with fantasy, they spread the word. Instead of “oh, I didn’t like this book by author X,” it becomes “I tried reading a fantasy once – it just didn’t make sense to me.” These views, unfortunately, are still further reinforced by the popularity of the genre. As “typical readers” go about their daily lives, they run across people who love fantasy novels and are very vocal about this love. Renaissance Fairs coupled with Dungeons and Dragons players dressing up for their weekly game leave mainstream readers thinking that fantasy novels are more of a subculture than simply another form of literature. Like Brahmin avoiding Untouchables, these readers avoid “that guy” at the office who spent his weekend dressed in a tunic while turning a pig at a spit – chances are he still smells like boiled grease. Never mind that pig-turning-tunic-guy has always been a little nutty – the fact that he talks about warlocks and magic amulets makes it seem as if it was the books that made him this way. No one really considers the cute secretary down the hall who adores Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and R. A. Salvatore – she never talks about books because she doesn’t want to get lumped in with greasy weirdo dude or (worse yet) encourage him to talk to her.

As this pattern continues, most readers become turned-off to the idea of fantasy novels. They might pick up a copy of Harry Potter because everyone says it’s good, but they’ll never browse the fantasy section looking for it. It’s unfortunate that this happens – these readers miss a very entertaining and insightful genre. Well-written fantasy novels provide more than a magical setting. They develop a metaphorical world for readers to explore, a world that is different from our own but always close to home. But the only way to visit these worlds is to first find a book – a good book – and dodge the ever-watchful eyes of the literary purists.


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