When I first applied for a job at the bookstore where I work, I wrote on the section of my application that asks for reading preferences that I like fantasy and poetry. This was not terribly descriptive–at least, I didn’t get the job until submitting my next application, on which I listed many specific authors–but it does give some picture of my tastes.
The literature I am steeped in is fantasy. About 60% of it, possibly, is children’s fantasy. I know what I like and what I don’t. I’m conversant in its tropes and meanings. I think I have, within the confines of the genre, good if rather limited taste. (I have little interest in political intrigue and excitement for its own sake, only some interest in unemotional thought experiments, but a great interest in the sublime in all its forms–as well as a rather embarrassing love of certain staple plot devices, such as the Cinderella story, many incarnations of Mary Sue, and scenes in which people prove how right they were and how stupid their opponents were.)
All this, of course, in prose. In college I made the strange discovery that I liked poetry. Of Great Works, I much preferred most of the poetry to most of the prose (not all of it; I would have A Scarlet Letter over John Donne’s poetry easily–but then, A Scarlet Letter feels more like fantasy, from my perspective). I had not enjoyed poetry up until that point, and it is not nearly as strong a passion in me as my passion for fantasy, but I think it springs from the same source.
What brings me to fantasy is twofold, if you leave out the stupid parts–Mary Sue, etc. (Perhaps I shouldn’t leave those out. After all, they can play a large role in making a book compulsively readable. But they are pleasures not only of prose but of nonliterary prose, on the whole.) On the one hand, there’s the semi-religious, sometimes demoniac, romantic, Romantic, delight in the great and inscrutable. And on the other, there is the opportunity to explore beliefs, philosophies, and worldviews foreign to one in a spirit of serious play–neither with weighty and depressing certainty nor with total irony and detachment. Often these explorations of distant intellectual worlds are done allegorically or otherwise through the subtext, and putting them together (or failing to) gives me both kinds of pleasure at once.
Both of these things I think I find to a greater degree in the poetry that’s part of the accepted literary canon than in the prose (as a general rule. I shamelessly heart Kafka, Melville, and Hawthorne.). And in fact, many great poets capture more truly than some of today’s best fantasy the reason I came to fantasy in the first place.
As for today’s best fantasy… Take, say, Brandon Sanderson, who to me epitomizes high achievement in what the boring and literal reviewers I like to call the Writing Police seem to think is the only good kind of writing. That is to say, he writes logical, fast-moving, surprising yet satisfying plots populated by likable, relatable, three-dimensional characters in transparent, unfussy language. I admire Brandon Sanderson’s work immensely, and I quite enjoy what I’ve read of it. But I haven’t read that much of it, and I think that’s at least partly because the fundamental limitations on that kind of work make it boring to me (part of it is that I’ve been spending more time writing than reading over the past few years, and I do want to come back to his different series).
On the other side, much of the highbrow fantasy of today attracts me even less: as it moves into the slipstream, much of it seems to have jettisoned, along with the insistence on logical, fast-moving, etc. plots, any interest in the seriousness and emotional resonance of the rich store of images fantasy makes available to the writer. Familiar motifs occur only as glib, winking references–primarily as a form of humor, honestly–and newly-coined images tend to deliberately sidestep or undercut the sublime. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this kind of writing. It simply doesn’t resonate with me at all, and I feel a certain personal resentment toward it on that account.
More thoughts on this to follow in later posts.