Ha! Gotcha, didn’t I? Bet you thought this post was going to be about using profanity in your fiction. Sorry, not this time. There have already been a couple of memorable posts on profanity here on WU. Although I do have an amusing anecdote about the F-bomb and WU, having to do with how WU founder and editor Therese Walsh and I first came in contact. It was a good indication that we would become fast friends. But I’ll save it for another day.
This post is about another F-word. It’s an F-word that I’ve been nearly as uncomfortable using in mixed company as the expletive. The word? Fantasy. You might be asking yourself how such an innocuous term could’ve caused me such discomfort. Allow me to explain.
F is for Fringe
I admit I didn’t think too much about genre during the composing of my first story. I knew it would be set during the decline of the Roman Empire, and that my characters were Goths, but I always sensed it wasn’t straight historical fiction. Not that fantasy wasn’t a part of my mindset. It was. But I considered the work more of a study of the origins of a few of the tropes of European-based epic fantasy than an actual fantasy story.
It seemed to me that so many epic fantasies were set after “things fell into darkness” (fall of empire), and I thought it would be fun to look at what led to the fall of empire. There were also tropes I was less interested in. The most obvious being the incorporation of magic or sentient non-human characters. So pretty much the most “fantastic” of the typical elements are the ones I left out. Which left my stories nearly bereft of fantastical elements.
Because of this lack, for years I was unsure what to call my work. And yet I knew I was out on the fringes of “serious literature.” I also knew I was striving to capture the “legendary feel” that the best epic fantasy delivers. Maybe legendary alt-history? Whatever it was, I remained reticent to naming it, even to myself.
F is for Fearful
There’s a story I’ve occasionally told about one of the first times I let the F-word slip in mixed company. I was at a dinner party with mostly new acquaintances. A friend mentioned I was a writer, and someone asked what I wrote. Caught off guard, I blurted the F-word. A seemingly well-meaning woman asked, “So do you think you’ll ever write something real?” I must’ve made a face, because she quickly amended, “I mean about the real world?”
I’ll never forget how I felt. It was revealing. I could’ve smiled and told her that, of course my work is “about the real world.” But I didn’t. I simply shrugged and said, “Maybe someday.”
Truth be told, I was reticent to fly my fantasy freak flag long before I started writing. I suppose a lifetime of everything from humoring smiles to outright disdain over my reading choices taught me caution. Let’s face it, some people consider fantasy to be childish escapism. Or worse, frivolous.
But that’s their opinion. I’m sure there are also people who’d consider my love of the Detroit Lions an utter waste of time (it’s been a really long time since they’ve won a title), and I’ve never let that bother me.
Why should I care how others feel about fantasy? There’s really only one explanation: fear. When I dig through my fantasy baggage, I see that I’ve been afraid of being judged. And not just judged to have poor taste or misplaced loyalty, but to be judged as intellectually lacking.
Isn’t it funny how we writers always run headlong into our fears at every turn? Go figure.
F is for Freeing
In the interest of getting beyond my fears, I decided to make an honest assessment of the genre I’ve struggled to call my own. Not just what I love about it, but how I think others perceive it. One aspect that seems to arise often regarding writing fantasy is how freeing it must be. As in, “You just make stuff up, right?” And I now see that I’ve always suspected that labeling it as freeing implies an easiness (again, my baggage).
And in many ways it is! (Freeing, not easy.) But I’m inclined to believe the freedom offered might actually increase the difficulty. More on that in a minute.
I was considering all of this when I read a recent post here on WU by my friend and fellow contributor Sarah Callender. The essay deals with how fraught it can be to use real world events in our stories—particularly recent events that horrify us, such as terrorism or war. In it, Sarah discusses a realization: “I was not required to set my story against the backdrop of a real war. I could create a fictional war in a time where countries waged wars over water rights, where battles were fought in Madrid, Sao Paulo and Montreal. This eliminated the possibility that readers could be distracted by their personal feelings about post-September 11th wars. The characters and their conflicts would not, at least in theory, be dwarfed by the presence of a real-life, messy, controversial series of conflict-heavy wars.”
Aha! Freeing indeed. Since fantasy is a less precise version of reality, even if the version is exaggerated, it offers a cushion of sorts—the space to invite fresh perspective. It provides an unburdened opportunity for readers to weigh story against personal experience. I’m often challenged to a more thorough exploration of my own feelings about, say, politics or religion by fantasies set in invented worlds than I am by fictional realism. With the latter I feel compelled to sort through the potential force-feeding of perspective or sermonizing that can occur (even unintentionally) in stories with a political or religious bent.
F is for Fun
From the freeing aspect I went on to consider another angle: that fantasy is just for fun. And making stuff up does sound like fun. If you can dream it, you can write it, right? And if you get stuck, you can insert magic to get unstuck. What fun!
Just as I’ve internally surmised that the label “freeing” implies “easy,” I’ve subconsciously interpreted “fun” to imply a lack of seriousness. Shame on me, because writing fantasy really can be fun.
So I took a look at my shoulder and asked, why the chip? Here’s what I came up with. If it’s easy to do (it’s freeing!), and lacks seriousness (it’s fun!), how can it be significant?
F is for Feisty
In the interest of purging my fear, let’s take a look inside my defensiveness. First let’s check out the “easiness” angle. Here’s my beef: even fantasy faces limitations. As with any story, suspension of disbelief still reigns supreme. No matter how wondrous the elements, they can’t seem impossible to the reader. Hence, the fantasist must work all the harder to make the wondrous seem plausible. If a fantasy world is nonsensical or inexplicable, the writer by definition cannot convey the pathway in, let alone show why the events of a story there should matter. Even fantastic story elements must be grounded in common comprehension between writer and reader.
So yeah, it’s fun to make stuff up. When it comes to ideas, the sky’s the limit. The fantasist can, and should, soar free. But the burden’s on them to bring those sky-high ideas back to common ground, then serve them in palatable form. For me, not so easy.
Okay, now for the issue of lacking significance. If we go back to my well-meaning acquaintance, she seemed to question the applicability of fantasy. Which has always had me reaching for my shoulder, chip in hand. I suppose it’s because I’ve always found my favorite fantasy authors to be among the most fearless in taking on the big stuff. Maybe it’s courage born of the aforementioned “cushion.” My favorite fantasists tackle not just war and peace, and love and hate, but what it means to be alive and living among other humans. On the pages of fantasy I find characters grappling with politics and religion; race, gender, and sexuality. And of course, life and death.
Reading fantasy expands more than my imagination. It expands my understanding, and enhances my humanity. (Is that chip still there?)
As I said, I was too timid to flaunt my love of the F-word long before I started writing. Since I started, I spent years hiding—first what I was reading, then that I was writing at all, and finally that what I wrote was fantasy. When asked, I used to fumble and mumble.
Even my pointing out that I have no magic or sentient non-humans is a symptom of my fear of judgement. Which is sillier of me than it is for some folks to think fantasy is silly. At least they’re being honest. And if I’m being truthful, I have to say I’ve read dozens of stellar books that include intricate systems of magic—magic that has deepened the applicability of the story. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve loved elves and wizards. And dragons.
“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.” ~Ursula Le Guin
I may not have written one (yet), but I’ve gained a great appreciation for dragon stories. Both Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin have used them to symbolize ultimate weapons—seductive and cunning, fearsome and unreliable, a danger even for the wielder—sort of a fantasy world metaphoric a-bomb. These dragons are anything but childish.
So I’m opting for F-word honesty. There will always be nay-sayers and eye-rollers. But if Le Guin is right, theirs is the fear to avoid. In any case, I’m done hiding. It’s hard to break old habits, but I’m making a concerted effort. It just happened over the weekend. I was introduced as a writer, was asked what I write, and I did it—no hesitation, no mumbling and fumbling. I just let the F-word fly, loud and proud.
F is for Freedom
“We read fantasy to find the colors again. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to our deepest selves. It speaks to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt in the forest of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever.” ~George R.R. Martin
In spite of my own fears and struggles, I honestly understand that times are bright for fantasy. From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones and beyond, fantasy fervor is at an all-time high! And I fully appreciate that other genres unfairly suffer the humoring smirks of the raised highbrow.
Hopefully we can all step out into the light, and roll the chips from our tense shoulders. We should remember what brought us to the page. We should seek our colors, strive to share something old and true, that speaks to our deepest selves. We should revel in that freedom. After all, if we don’t pour our deepest love into our work, how can we expect anyone to give a…F?
Anyone else want to admit to feelings of genre shame? Join me in rolling those chips and kinks from our shoulders? Or do you even have an F-word to give?