The Beauty Within: Reclaiming the Fantasy Genre From Those Who Reject, Mock, and Abuse It

A recent video featuring Mal Peet (may he rest in peace) who discusses his newest book The Murdstone Trilogy has been circulating among my literary circles. In it, Mal Peet speaks of how he came to write a fantasy novel and quickly declares his complete dislike for the genre. He admits to a Tolkein-esque phobia declaring that Tolkein is "such a humanist old trouser coff of a writer." He sees writings like Tolkein as "ponderous, teacherly, old rubbish". He's not alone, of course. Gary Schmidt has admitted, in person (I was there), that he doesn't understand sci-fi and fantasy and wrote his book What Came From the Stars on a bit of a dare. After reading it, I don't think that he has come to understand the genre yet, although it has a decent enough rating on Goodreads. When Michael Chabon began writing fantasy, critics said that he had sold out, writing in an inferior genre and thus creating inferior writing. Ursula le Guin wrote an essay about it. There is of course her most recent response to Kazuo Ishiguro (author or Never Let Me Go and A Pale View of Hills) who was concerned that his new fantasy novel will be perceived as fantasy. "Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?" is her response. (her addendum to this point is here)

As a writer and passionate reader of both fantasy and sci-fi, I find the interview with Mal Peet to be rather offensive, inflammatory, and rude. Even more of an offense is the eye roll you get if you take issue with it. "Oh, you fantasy people. Always getting your knickers in a twist if someone doesn't love your beloved Tolkein." Never mind that they will (and have been) greatly upset when someone dares make fun of adult urban fiction, children's literature as a whole, or whatever genre they are into.

This attitude toward fantasy is nothing new. When I was in grad school they had visiting editors and agents come and do lectures. "Send me anything," the agent/editor would declare as we scribbled down their contact info, "except fantasy:" The shoulders of all the fantasy writers would droop just a bit and our hands would stop writing. While searching for an agent I ran again and again into phrases like, "no high fantasy" or "looking for urban fantasy only". Urban fantasy seems to be a catch-all phrase for fantasy that is barely fantasy. After all, we can agree that, to a certain extent, all fiction is fantasy, but in the case of "urban fantasy" we only want a tiny bit of magic in our real world scenarios. If I found an agent who looked interesting (a.k.a. said they liked fantasy) I would then search through their interviews for hints as to whether they truly liked the genre or were just looking for the next Harry Potter. 

More interesting still is that fantasy is nothing new. Some of our oldest written stories are fantasies. Beowulf and Grendel, The Odyssey and The Iliad. Myths and fairy tales are staples in our literary curricula and can found in some form or another in many homes. Parents teach fantasy to their children with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It's part of our nightmares and our dreams. Some of the most dedicated fandoms exist because of fantasy. My co-workers can't stop talking about Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time

For those who aren't so gung ho about my favorite genres, they think comments like Mal Peet's are brilliant, adding sidebars concerning their own dislike. Here is the thing, disliking a particular genre or kind of book is fine. We all have our things. For example: I dislike books with talking animals or animals as a main character. Even as a child, I did not enjoy things like Black Beauty or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or Fantastic Mr. Fox. I was a vivacious reader so I did, in fact read all of those books, but I didn't like them. However, I also understand why people might like these types of books. If you were a child obsessed with horses, it makes perfect sense to me that you would gobble up every horse book you could find. Black Beauty is a wonderful book that has earned its classic status. As someone who doesn't like surprises, mysteries can be insufferable, but I don't dislike the entire genre and I definitely wouldn't poke fun or show disgust for something that I know many people read and love. It isn't for me, but thank goodness there are plenty of books that are. I have been known to turn my nose up to romance, particularly love triangles, but I wouldn't dream of making fun of someone or their reading/writing choices if they do like it.

For me, fantasy and sci-fi have always been a part of my life. My engineering minded dad used to read us Lord of the Rings when he tucked us in at night. I have fond memories of sitting in the doorway of my brothers' bedroom while my dad told us stories. Typical conversations over dinner would include discussions over the symbolism of spice in Dune or trying to remember all the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit. Watching Star Wars for the first time awoke a fire in me that would never be quenched for the entire Star Wars universe and all the books within. My mom read the entire Dragonsong series by Anne McCaffrey to me when I was ten. Things like The Chronicles of Narnia had me looking in every closet and cupboard for a hidden world. I used to dream that Peter Pan would one day come and take me away so I wouldn't have to grow up. I bonded with my dad over Lost in Space, The Muensters, Addams Family, Doctor Who and Star Trek. My favorite heroine existed in the form of Alanna, Tamora Pierce's plucky girl who would do anything to become a knight. 

When I grew older, I also fell in love with the idea that fantasy and sc-fi both ask the question, 'What If?' and then seek to answer that question.  

What if...our obsession with safety went too far? (Rash by Pete Hautman)
What if...a nanny arrived on the wind who was rather unexpected? (Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers)
What if...there was kingdom that was so regimented that to escape was nigh impossible? (Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake)
What if...there was a strange little boy who lived on a tiny planet? (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

humanist old trouser coff writers". If you don't like the genre or certain author's within, that is fine, but for an individual or group to denounce the entire thing, scoffing at the people who create it, is just plain rude and close-minded.