Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Monday, April 12, 2010

Who's afraid of witches and dragons?

Sorry about the long gap between posts. I've been on vacation for a week.
I traded 30-degree weather and avalanches for 75 degrees and earthquakes. I sat on the beach and watched waves, smelled salt, read four books and started a fifth. I went to an aquarium and saw sharks and sea-horses. I ran barefoot in the sand. I got wet in sea-water. And now I'm ready to get back to my Utah spring and back to my writing.

Which reminds me of something:
Fantasy-writers can't write, somebody once told me. They don't care about quality. "And, by the way," she said, "Harry Potter's crap."

One guy I know snorted at the suggestion that Lord of the Rings books might be fine literature.

Me: "Have you ever read them?"

Him: "I can't remember."

Me: "Really?"

Him: "Um, probably not."

Another guy: "They're just fantasy. Fantasy is escapism. People should face life, not run off and pretend to fight dragons."

That's the intellectuals.

Personally, I think they're scared.

But poor Harry gets it from the other end, too. Sometimes Rowling's books get burned because they're evil. I didn't believe those rumors until the day some people came to my door, Bible in hand, preaching against fantasy fiction (see my post about it). I'm still shaking my head over that one.This is 21st-century America. Do we still need to burn our witches? Really?

Is everybody afraid of fantasy?

Ursula LeGuin has been fighting the stigma against fantasy for so many years she gets pretty annoyed. She says,
"I think that a great many American men have been taught... to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
Now I doubt that imagination can be suppressed.  ... If it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed.  At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously.  ... Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on television, or reading hack westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography...  It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so.  But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic--after all, sex exists, and there are criminals...and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn't interest most women." (source:

I've noticed that plenty of women are just as scared of imagination flights, too, but it's an interesting point, and true, I think, that if imagination is repressed, it's likely to morph into something less desirable.

LeGuin's own writing is beautiful, and about as hard-core fantasy as you get. Nobody could accuse her of not caring. Her language is artistic,poetic; stunning. And, like all fine literature, realistic or un-, it makes you think:

About who you are and what sort of person you want to be in real life.
About what to do when faced with hard things, enemies, and things that scare you.
About what to do with the ugliness that's sometimes inside your own head and heart.

That's fantasy. And fiction, for that matter. It's a way of learning how to be objective about real-life issues, of stepping back and seeing ourselves completely out of context--in somebody else's story--so we can step back into reality again, ready to face our own set of problems with courage.

Like the soldier that fantasy-author Tracy Hickman said he met at a book-signing, who told of how he'd had been lying face-down on the ground with a shattered back after a surprise enemy attack and suddenly remembered a character in one of Tracy's novels. Inspired by the memory, he managed to get to his feet and save his friends' lives by warning them of the danger.

Mocking fantasy because it's escapism is like mocking vacations.

Or recess.

Or time-outs.

Or sleep.

Everybody needs to escape sometimes. As long as you come back again, escape is a good thing.

As for quality, that's a personal thing. There's plenty of realistic crap floating around out there, too. Myself, I don't enjoy slogging through any book in any genre if the writing's poor, no matter what else it has going for it. 

But I'm not scared of witches or dragons. Are you?


  1. Fantasy is my favorite. I am branching out and reading "realistic" stuff now but I keep returning to fantasy. Mostly because it's generally cleaner, and it's good vs. evil and I would love to talk to a dragon. Do I have fantasies of being a witch and solving world problems, like ignorance and spoiled brats, not to mention hunger and housing issues with a wave of my arm? Oh yes.

    I know I'm a super hero, so as long as I keep doing my super heroics the worlds got to get better, right?

  2. SuperPi: Absolutely. Fantasy is about hope, right? The hope that ordinary, small, weak people can make a difference. I love it. Great comment.

  3. I don't think my comment posted... but I agree, and your trip sounds fun.

  4. Jamie: yes, it was. Except for the way my daughter drove.:) Your comment was probably just waiting for approval. I had problems with a scary spammer so I upped my comment security.

  5. Elena,

    Thank you! I'm about to start graduate school for my creative writing MFA, and you would not believe (well, maybe you would :) ) the number of people who look down on my writing because it's SF. Admittedly, I sometimes wonder if people bash on fantasy because some people make it easy, but wouldn't that be true of any genre? I don't see why a truly literate, self-proclaimed "open-minded" person frowns upon escapism. Nice job defending our genre!

  6. Hi, Rachel! Good to hear from you, and congrats on starting your MFA. You're a talented writer so you can just ignore the condescending voices. Good luck!

  7. I must not be scared since my book has both. I'm a little worried about what my mom will think though. Great post.

  8. This is a phenomenal post, Elena! I hate that stigma that Fantasy books are not real books. I hate that it's belittled and ignored or even hated when at the heart of fantasy is the heart of human existence and the human experiences. Fantasy dares to approach morality. Fantasy dares to explore religion and the meaning of man and God. Fantasy delves into the deepest recesses of the soul and never shies away from the tough stuff. Yes, other forms of fiction do it too (and even do it well) but for ME, fantasy speaks in the language I understand best.

    Glad you're home, Elena! Time for that lunch!

  9. Mary: A disapproving mom can be scarier than witches. I give you my permission to write fantasy, if that's any consolation.

    Laura: I think fantasy speaks best to a lot of people, especially in troubled times. Perhaps that's why it's so popular these days. People can knock it, but we need stories that give a sense of hope and meaning to the things that happen to us.


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