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.
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.