Fantasy is not serious literature.

Apparently.

The conversation went something like this:

“Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?”

“Lots of stuff. I’ve been writing poetry for a while, and I’ve recently published two volumes of a fantasy series. There are several more coming. I’m also half-working on a piece of literary fiction that touches on women’s issues of the first half of the 20th century. It’s somewhat based on Pygmalion, but with a dark twist.”

“Oh, I see. Pumping out the fluff while you work on some serious writing, huh?”

 

Of course, those weren’t the exact words. Or actually, they might have been. It’s hard to hear well when smoke is pouring out of your ears. I swear, if I could reach through a computer screen and flick a moron on the forehead, I would have. Fantasy is not serious writing. Fantasy is fluff. This story I’ve been working on for eight years, in which I have invested countless hours of research and revision, stress and tears, is somehow less serious than my unresearched side project that may or may not ever see completion.

Bollocks.

Literature – all literature – is a vehicle for meaning. That meaning is not lessened by its setting any more than an actor’s skill is diminished by the transition from the big screen to cable. If there is a strong message, deeply considered and skillfully presented, why the hell should it matter that the message is couched in terms of magic? Fantasy is a medium of symbols. The threshold, hospitality, duty, deception, faith… Symbols within words, which are themselves symbols, the most self-conscious of literary genres.

No one calls the Arthur legends “fluff” because they lack the grit of modernity. No one suggests that Mordred’s betrayal could have cut deeper if he hadn’t had the help of spells and trickery. Those stories mean something. They have stayed with us, not because they are light fare anyone can consume, but  because they are deep with layers of meaning, with lessons, and with parallels that continue to touch us. If your wife cheats on you with your best friend, that hurts, and it doesn’t matter she does it clad in samite or cutoff shorts. If the emotion is real, and the reader feels it, the literature is pretty damn serious.

I know that some fantasy writers do write fluff and intend their work to be consumed only as fluff, as something to entertain. I’m good with that. I put entertainment pretty high on my own list of priorities, because I want people to enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them. I also want people to hate reading them as much as I hated writing them, to know these characters like I do, and to hate me for some of the stuff I put them through. I want these stories to make people feel, yes. But I am, at heart, an academic, and I also want these stories to make people think. If I did my job right, everyone will get something concrete out of my books, and everyone will get something different.

And truly, I don’t even mind if people don’t like them. I knew when I decided to write fantasy that I was writing to a niche market, or at least to a market that popular media and culture has been trying to keep in its niche, despite its best attempts at escape. I know that fantasy doesn’t float everyone’s boat. But anyone who gets hung up on vampire fangs and wizard circles and calls it “fluff” based solely on those characteristics does not know how to read.

I didn’t put any less symbol or meaning or allegory into my Books of Lost Knowledge than into my unnamed, half-outlined litfic piece. They are not less serious because they are fantasy, or because I chose to touch on a wide range of issues rather than focusing on one. I did not put less of myself into them. I did not incorporate less of my experience of reality. I did not hold back on pain, or love, or rage, or peace.

My fantasy is serious freaking business.

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7 thoughts on “Fantasy is not serious literature.

  1. I love this post. I completely agree with you. Don’t listen to people who don’t know any better. Fantasy or not, if readers can relate to it on an emotional and intellectual level, then it is literature. I couldn’t have said it any better, and I couldn’t agree more. And Jesus H. Christ your deadpan sense of humor is charmingly disarming. Big fan now. Looking forward to reading more of your posts, Mr. Graham. Cheers! =)

    Francis

  2. Very true. I hope the person who said this to you is reading this post. I’m also pretty sure that Lord of the Rings is not in the “fluff’ section of the book store – it’s filed under ‘Literature’. My response to your explanation of what you write would have been – ‘wow, poetry, fantasy and literary fiction. Cross genre writing takes a lot of hard work and dedication!’

    It’s usually only the snobs who don’t understand the craft who make these kind of ignorant remarks.

  3. I think the easiest response is to point to MacBeth, 1984, Brave New World, and Dracula. All very important works in literature and all some measure of fantasy/science fiction.

    I wouldn’t recommend delving into a lecture on romantic literature, and speculative fiction as subset thereof, due to the point that they’ll hear romantic and think you’re writing for Harlequin.

    On the other hand, if you haven’t picked it up yet, I highly recommend Michael Moorcock’s “Wizardry and Wild Romance”. It’s a great critical essay on the roots and development of fantasy as romantic literature into its more modern forms. I say modern with a slight caveat, as they were modern when the book was written, but it’s a couple decades out, by now.

  4. Pingback: The “Literature” status of children’s literature. | Reading in the Borderlands

  5. Whomever made this comment has no idea what “fluff” is. I have never once considered any of your writing “fluff” and I don’t read “fluff” either. Fantasy is a wonderful way to escape the humdrum of everyday life and reality TV programs (YUCK). I think that Daniel will take umbrage at this offhanded comment. Just my opinion but I know it’s the right one. So write on and forget about this person’s comment – it’s not important at all!

    Judy Nappa

    • ❤ I love you, Judy.
      No, I don't think they did have any idea what "fluff" is. For this individual, "fluff" was roughly synonymous with "genre fiction." They hadn't ever read any of my writing, though, so I can't take as much offense as I would have otherwise, but it was still unpleasant having so much of my work dismissed simply because it incorporates magic. I suppose some people just need to feel superior, by whatever means are available to them.

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