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?