The fantasy genre falls prey to some harsh criticism. Sometimes the criticism is so harsh and mean-spirited that many fantasy fans have developed a strong resentment toward the “literary snobs” that look down their noses at us.
Sometimes we have more personal reasons for our resentment. The sentiment that fantasy is worthless is so prevalent and deeply ingrained in people that sometimes the criticisms aren’t even criticisms, but are instead personal insults intended to belittle and demean. My negative encounters with anti-fantasy zealots have been thankfully brief and easily dismissed as the mindless nattering of small-minded bullies. There was the fellow student who spitefully snapped “aren’t you too old for that crap” when they caught a glimpse of the book I was reading. There was the English teacher who haughtily and condescendingly informed me that my choice of reading material was a waste of my time because fantasy is nonsense. The irony that her favorite unit to teach was mythology was completely lost on her. I’m sure many fantasy fans have had experiences similar to (or even much worse) than my own. We’ve been primed from an early age to hiss and raise our hackles whenever someone says something derogatory about a genre that we love.
Much of the negative criticism of the fantasy genre can be written off as being overly generalized. Their attempts to discredit the genre’s entire field of work clearly indicate an unreasonable bias or an attempt to codify and justify their purely subjective preferences. Their claims that the fantasy genre produces nothing but inferior product betray an ignorance of the genre’s broad and varied offerings, or at the very least a view of the genre that’s far too narrow and specific. Not that attacks on fantasy are completely warrantless. Any fantasy fan who is remotely honest will admit that the genre is full of problematic material. Of course, this is a problem that plagues literature as a whole, so I’m not sure why some critics single out fantasy. I guess we all just have our pet peeves.
The criticism I encounter the most often is that fantasy (or any genre fiction, for that matter) is “escapism.” This is an attack on fantasy that actually carries a lot of weight, because “escapism” is undeniably why many fans read fantasy, as many fans will be happy to attest. It’s a criticism that I love because, on the face of it, it’s so damningly accurate, but at the same time it manages to miss the heart of its intended target.
While I’ve encountered compelling arguments for why reading purely for escapism is not ideal, I’ve never encountered a convincing argument for why escapism is inherently a bad thing. The anti-fantasy zealots have accurately identified a trait of fantasy and fantasy readers, but have never been able to successfully color that trait as negative.
Escapism is one of the reasons why anyone, even “literary snobs,” read fiction. To vicariously experience other time periods, locations, cultures, genders, mindsets, and ideas is one of the reasons why we read, and it’s all a form of escapism. When the anti-fantasy zealots attack fantasy for being escapist, they’re attacking much of the literature that they elevate above fantasy.
Escapism is only one of the reasons why most of us read fantasy. While it’s true that I’ve encountered the rare, fluffy-minded fantasy fan who reads fantasy solely for its romanticized, sanitized fairy tale simplicity where the story always has an uplifting, happy ending, there is far, far too much fantasy in existence that does not fit the needs of such fans. Perhaps some of you have witnessed the wrath of the “they lived happily ever after fan” upon reaching the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Like most of their criticisms, the anti-fantasy zealot’s accusation of escapism is too narrow and generalized. If we read fantasy in order to escape the harshness of reality, why do we choose to vicariously explore so many fantastical worlds that embrace the harsh grittiness of reality?
Too often, when some actor or writer or director is asked to explain what makes science fiction special, the same pat answer is given. (Yes, I know that science fiction and fantasy are different genres, but they are related, despite how vehemently this is denied by some genre fans, so I hope I can be forgiven the faux pas in my effort to make some kind of point.) What makes science fiction special, they’ll respond, is that it allows the writer and the audience to safely explore sensitive issues by being comfortingly removed from the issue by protective layers of metaphor and symbolism. In other words, you can talk about something like racism without actually discussing racism. I call bullshit.
When science fiction gets topical and starts dealing with issues, what makes it special and powerful is that it can strip away some of the excess baggage of our societal norms, our expectations, our everyday experiences, our preconceptions, and our prejudices that obscure and cloud our view of an issue’s core truth. Science fiction doesn’t put up an obscuring mirror or window through which we peer at an issue from a distance. It strips away such obstacles and shoves our faces straight into an issue’s smelly guts.
The escapism that many of us fans find so appealing about fantasy is much the same. Fantasy, when it’s at its best, doesn’t try to distract us from reality with its colorful descriptions and stories of mystical creatures and magical worlds. It rather uses such fantastical elements to highlight and magnify its perceived truths about humanity and reality.
The fantasy genre does not exist to put up a soft, stained glass window in front of our reality that we can wistfully gaze through as we ponder how nice it would be to escape to a world that was actually colored by such blurry tints of warm rose. It exists to open and shatter such windows so that we can see to the heart of our reality all the more clearly.
Escape can be both to and from and back again. Fantasy simply opens some of the many doors that allow such escape to be possible.