“You scream too loud. You know it.” – M. Senechal
“An important aspect of the modern search for identity has been the mapping to the limits and structures of human consciousness and experience by the humanities and the sciences. This exploration employs a modernist metaphysics, which posits a fundamental duality of the real and the fantastic. According to this metaphysics, to identify an entity as fantastic – a character in a fictional story, a monster in a nightmare – is to give it a special relationship to reality. For modernism, the fantastic belongs to the realm of the non-real, to which non-belief is the appropriate response. This exclusion of the fantastic (the dream, the fiction, the lie) from reality makes modernist truth possible. This metaphysics establishes an authority in terms of which proper critical discourse can occur.” – George Aichele, Jr.
This past week was a pretty distressing one for the realms of the fantastic, as it sustained multiple indignities from mainstream media and responded sometimes too harshly to the assaults. The first was a (mostly implicit) judgment rendered against fantastic literature by two BBC World Book Night shows. The more surprising ambushes came from writers at the New York Times and Slate; both critics launched scathing critiques of “fantasy” and those who love it under the guise of reviewing the new HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. In all of these cases the target was less a specific text or production than it was assumptions about the genre and its adherents; in each instance “mainstream” observers derided or disdained “fantasy” in some manner under the pretext of some other task (showcasing books people “really” read or reviewing a television show).
So much digital ink has been spilled responding to these attacks and omissions that there is little that I can add to the specific counters to the critics’ judgments. What I find more compelling to examine is the fact that a caricature of “fantasy” was subjected to this treatment, and that there was such a mighty response in each case (particularly from female fans to the NYT review). In each instance, there was an explicit and/or implicit slight, but all of them were made from a standpoint of privilege supported by an idea of the metaphysical assumption that Dr. Aichele discusses above. The BBC shows and the two TV critics were firmly lodged on the illusory solid ground of the mainstream; all use as their foundation a notion that “fantasy” is aberrant and has no genuine place in the wider media discourse.
The question that arises for me is: why was so much thought and symbolic exchange engaged in over these incidents? In the case of the BBC kerfuffle, a wide array of genre authors responded collectively to the omission of fantastic literature: as Stephen Hunt put it, they were responding to a “sneering tone that was leveled towards commercial fiction” and the perception that “the failure to feature a single work [of fantastika] was a disgrace.” In the case of the two TV reviews, the authors actively and with apparent relish savaged “fantasy” and those who enjoy it. Both used the term “quasi-medieval” to describe the milieu of Game of Thrones, and both quickly established a clean break between “fantasy” and their notion of the real world. In all of these situations, those fans and authors felt a contemptuous snub was perpetrated. And to a large extent, that feeling seems appropriate.
Contrasting an implicit, unquestioned idea of normalcy as inherently more rational and worthy of consideration with a notion of the fantastic as somehow more limited and worthy of scorn is quite an invidious distinction. In her NYT review Ms. Bellafante based her position on the notion that normal females would have no interest in such “boy fiction.” She went on to exaggerate and essentialize its fantastical qualities (far beyond what was actually presented in the episode, according to a number of viewers) and simultaneously portrayed it as a base entertainment that relied on sex to gain attention and a snarl of complexities in the story so great that only a genius could keep track of them. The disjuncture here, especially given its limited basis in the actual show, is dizzying, and is allied more with the author’s contempt for fantasy than the effects of viewing the show itself.
Troy Patterson at Slate took a different tack, combining ironic hipster narrativity with direct insults, such as his explanation for calling the show “quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap. That’s not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type.” His evidence is his reliance on relating each aspect of the show (which he appears to have watched a bit more carefully than Ms. Bellafante) to some schmaltzy or camp trend of the past, or to generalized hype. He admits his “anti-weakness for that general sensibility [of fantasy]” and merrily trashes the production and any who might enjoy it with aplomb.
Despite their different approaches, these two reviewers base their analysis (such as it is) on the presumption that their perspectives are not just supported by their individual opinions, but by a, dare I say, magical notion that their views are more conventional and preferred than those of the deluded souls who love this escapist, fur-swathed burlesque.
That “fundamental duality” that Dr. Aichele describes undergirds both of their discussions. And they accomplish it by essentializing the fantastic, condensing it into a very specific sort of object that they can contrast with their unexplicated normalcy, that can be excluded from the everyday and the real. Which seems a bit of stretch when they use, respectively, Sex and the City and a dating snub to buttress their positions.
With those sorts of invocations, the process of separating “fantasy” is conducted with a combination of eviscerating humor and literary enervation. Both of these reviewers labor mightily to unrelentingly vilify and disempower the fantastic, strengthening their own stance as conventional observers (a bit elite, perhaps, but not marginal or outrageous like the fantasy they revile). Both work to accomplish what the BBC shows appear to do with no extra effort; render “fantasy” as not a part of the everyday, something deviant and of doubtful value. The BBC responded by stating that it was “committed to delivering a broad range of books programmes across radio and TV,” although there was little substance in their response except to note that show on “science fiction” would be coming in May. But here again we see that separation of the fantastic from the mainstream.
My point is not that the noble fantastic has been shoved aside by the pushy, nervous mainstream. Neither has some claim to inherent superiority; the productions of both validate Sturgeon’s Law. What is noteworthy here is the need to keep “fantasy” separate from the implied realism of the mainstream. This idea that fantasy is essentially unintellectual, boorish, and appealing only to a very small subset of individuals is deployed primarily to overdetermine the value of the poorly-defined “mainstream.” It’s clearly a case of media observers deciding to discount and misrepresent fantasy to increase the ascendancy of mainstream literatures as deserving of the default position of undifferentiated standard against which all else is measured.
Clearly, it is a position which requires copious amounts of maintenance to cultivate. If fantasy is so peripheral and stupid, why does it need to be so frequently attacked and denigrated, and why does it have to be visibly separated and ignored? What is so polluting and dangerous about it that mainstream folks need to keep it in its stereotyped place, especially when there is ample evidence that fantasy is everywhere? And why do those who produce or love the fantastic feel the need to respond so forcefully and sometimes stridently to mainstream opinions, especially when the “fantasy” is clearly not what most of them admire or experience?
This returns us to the social aspects of fantastika. The relatively marginal position of the fantastic (as delineated in distinction to “the real) and its frequent appropriation for entertainment, fables, and other cultural tasks creates unease in those with social/cultural investment in it. Combined with the often intense personalization of experience and the sense of belonging that extends into one’s imagination, those who love the fantastic often feel very protective of it. And yet, within that social milieu there are divisions. As Sam Sykes has pointed out in response to the petition against the BBC, there are constituencies within the readership of the literary genre as well. Some devotees exalt rarefied notions of art over entertainment, while others champion escape over reflection. These divisions mirror those in the “mainstream” to some extent, and perhaps for a similar reason: to preserve boundaries. And yet, there is a longing for a dissolution of that metaphysical separation, for literary fiction (whatever the heck that is) and the mainstream to acknowledge its ties to, and inescapable similarities to, the fantastic. Maybe this is why we respond so strongly to these situations: we are advocating not just for some separate-but-equal respect, but for a reconciliation, an elimination of that modernist conceit that still keeps “fantasy” in its place.