At a launch event in London some years ago, where my publisher was featuring several new releases, one of them mine, I first heard the term ‘consolatory fantasy.’ How jarring and condescending it sounded, even though the much-respected speaker was possibly not referring to my work but making a general comment about the genre. By nature an introvert and then relatively new to such public events, I remember wishing I could retreat to a warm burrow and sleep until the launch was over. The term has stayed in my mind for a long, long while. So what is consolatory fantasy, or indeed consolatory fiction in any genre? Isn’t consolation a good thing? Don’t we generally want to feel better after reading fiction?
I hope I’m wiser now. I’ve built a solid career as a writer of historical fantasy. Made my mistakes, learned my lessons. Criticism still stings, but I’ve become better at weathering it – something we all need to do to survive in this business. The fantasy genre comes in many shapes and forms, and I celebrate its breadth and diversity. Fantasy is built around the ancient bones of storytelling: the myth, the fable, the fairy tale, the ghost story, the quirky scrap of folkloric wisdom. They are the raw ingredients that go into our cook pot or cauldron or baking dish, but each of us blends them differently, and each of us adds our own secret herbs and spices. Every dish is different. Every dish has some of the old and some of the new. Some of grandmother’s wisdom, some of the crazy world around us, perhaps a pinch of what we see in our children and our grandchildren. We may choose to set our stories in an uncanny version of the here and how, and see them called urban fantasy. We may set them in imagined worlds or in alternative history, or perhaps in a more magical, mythical version of real history. Or in the future. Label them as you will.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines consolation as “the alleviation of sorrow or mental distress.” These days I know from experience that reading fantasy – and reading in general – can indeed alleviate sorrow and improve mental health, and I delight in that. I’ve often blogged about the wisdom contained in those bare bones I mentioned above: folklore, fairy tale, myth and so on. Such stories were told and re-told for a reason: entertainment, sure, but also to pass on a message, something that would help people cope with the challenges of everyday life, large and small. Yes, those tales were full of unlikely, strange and magical things – the fiery dragon, the people who could fly, the mushroom circle that was an opening to a different world. Those fantastic elements grasped the listeners’ attention and kept them enthralled. But the stories also held something far deeper and more important – wisdom from the forebears on how to live your life safely and well. How to be brave. How to look and listen before making judgments. All manner of useful advice.
Now, those bare bones can be used by today’s writer in as many different ways as there are fish in the sea, folks. Are they all consolatory? Or are some quite the opposite?
Ask the girl whose stepmother was made to dance in red-hot iron shoes, or the maid who was rolled down a hill in a barrel studded with nails, or that other girl who accidentally cut off her little brother’s head, then balanced it back on the body, tied a scarf around his neck, and told her family everything was just fine, thanks. Some of the old stories provide ingredients akin to poison toadstools or deadly nightshade. So easily fantasy becomes horror. The starkly horrifying elements of folklore and fairy tale creep into other genres, too: thriller, mystery, crime fiction and more. Consolatory? Well, usually at least some of the characters survive to soldier on, and maybe they learn something on the journey. But happy endings all around? No way. Even in a sweet fairy tale there are winners and losers, as in real life.
A novel that provided consolation and nothing more, one in which our main characters were always happy, would be so boring the reader would give up after a couple of chapters. Consolation is not a matter of a pat on the head and someone saying everything will get better. It comes from learning we are not alone in our sorrow, our grief, our confusion. It comes from sharing the protagonist’s trials and challenges; from walking the difficult path with that character, and watching as they are changed by the journey. Seeing them learn something – about themselves, about others, about the world – until they reach the end renewed. Maybe they will stuff up then get things right. Maybe they will lose and then win. Maybe they’ll be lonely and then find a friend, a lover, a loyal dog. As we read, we share their experiences and relive our own. Ah, I recognise that! Oh, yes, that’s just how I felt when … We see them win through, find courage, become wiser, and we know we can do the same. We are not only consoled, but ready for the next chapter of our own story.
What do you read when you’re in a dark place? Writers, does your work provide consolation for readers, and if so how?
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