01 September 2004

Escape from Reality!

It's opening paragraphs of reviews like this one that give me dental problems:
Life in England must be hell on earth. How else to explain the huge number of fantasy authors who hail from its shores? While America has produced sci-fi authors focused on the application of technology for the betterment (or detriment) of humanity, many British authors seem to value nothing more than a headlong flight from this world into another. J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman have all made themselves rich and famous by running away. Joining this exodus from reality is Susanna Clarke and her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is being billed as a Harry Potter for adults.
I have not read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, nor do I expect to have time to in the near future, but it isn't anything about that particular book that bothered me in the paragraph; it is, instead, the assumption that fantasy equals escape from "the real world", as if reading fantasy is a wimpy alternative to using LSD.

Of course, some -- many -- maybe even most -- novels marketed as "fantasy" are, indeed, escapist, in that the writer's desire is merely to create something entertaining and the reader's desire is merely to be entertained, to pass some time.

But there can be, and these days more and more often there is, something more going on. As storytellers from the dawn of human history have known, fantasy is a powerful way to make an audience think about their own world and lives while at the same time being entertained. Some people might even suggest that that is the primary accomplishment of most great literature that has survived through the ages. (Other people might accuse such people of reductionary thinking, but so it goes. [Some people might say "reductionary" is a high-falutin', nasty bit o' jargon that belongs only in dumpsters and academies. So there.])

I expect the reviewer was trying to be kind of funny by starting out the review with a dig at those depressing, eccentric Brits. However, the assumptions underneath the sentences are annoying, and they are insulting to the writers mentioned. I know I shouldn't be so sensitive when there are truly offensive things in the world, but is it too much to ask that a reviewer for a major newspaper not assume that slice-of-life fiction is the only way to write seriously and for adults?

No comments:

Post a Comment