I write fiction.
I write Fantasy Fiction.
Why? Because I enjoy it? Because it offers me a rush to present something new—to grab just the right turn of phrase and ride it to beauty? Because the words blare their song in my mind, demanding to be written?
Sure. I love writing. Hours can slip by, and I don’t even realize they have passed—so engrossed am I in the story. But why write? Why has Brandon Sanderson created the Mist Born books or the world of Roshar? (By the way, if you haven’t read Sanderson you need to.) For that matter why do George RR Martin, Brent Weeks, Patrick Rothfuss, Holly Lisle, and thousands of other authors pick up the pen or fire up their laptops?
The money then. Well, I guess money helps with things like living inside, eating every day, and keeping the lights on, but if an author’s sole goal is to make money, their writing (even if they’re gifted) will represent the dregs of what the creative world can produce.
Then we are left with something else—something more. Authors write because we enjoy it, because we feel the desire—the need. But, we also write because we want to offer something to the world.
Can you hear the critics sharpening their pencils and sense their noses rising? “Of course you want to offer something,” they say. “You offer escape—cheap, formulaic, entertainment not befitting true literature.”
I could argue, and I suppose I will in a way. But, I will also agree in part. Fiction and in particular Fantasy Fiction offers an escape. When I use the word, however, it doesn’t drip with sarcasm or derision.
Homer told epic stories in order to pass along ideals and understandings. Christ spoke in parables, which are, after all, stories with a point, so that he could teach his followers with examples that carried as far in images as they did in words. It would seem apparent then, that stories can have a purpose beyond entertainment (cheap or otherwise), and that purpose would be of a rhetorical means—to instruct or simply to offer up a certain point of view.
In the words of Reading Rainbow, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”
J.R.R. Tolkien actually discusses the very issue of “escapism” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” where he wrote, “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all.” Tolkien goes on to explain that critics have confused escape with the flight of a deserter. Leaving what is normal or what surrounds someone is not a crime; rather it should be encouraged for much can be learned that wouldn’t have been if that someone had remained in normality.
Similarly, we can turn to another grandmaster of the art. In an essay entitled, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” C.S. Lewis wrote, “The Fantastic or Mythical…if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader…has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experiences, and to throw off irrelevancies.”
According to Lewis fantasy offers a lot more than a simple escape. He does, however, comment on the idea. He wrote, “But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it.” Lewis understands that “leaving” the world that surrounds us is part of fantasy fiction. But he doesn’t look down on it, or consider escapism to be a weakness. Rather, offering a different world is a strength, and grants readers a fresh view point from which to see the world around us as well as a lot of imagination that would not be possible without such an escape.
The “escape” blows the doors of a reader’s imagination wide open. The rule book of what’s possible gets trashed and ideas that one might have refused outright if put bluntly are able to come to light.
I plan on talking about this more in my next post and share a few more of my thoughts on the strength of fiction and of fantasy. In the mean time, give us your thoughts. What does Fantasy and fiction in general offer the world?
Ryan J. Doughan