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Speaking Out for Fantasy

I have the privilege of taking Dr. Bell’s Fantasy Writing course this spring. Although the semester just began, the class is proving to be a fantastic and important part of my education. I feel compelled by my past and my future aspirations as a writer to spend some time discussing the genre of fantasy, or rather what I’ve learned about it so far.

So why make a big deal out of fantasy?

Perhaps it’s because fantasy is engrained into our heads at a very young age thanks to Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
Or maybe because the genre is undervalued in literature, and what little fantasy I can find on the bookshelves is slowly turning into a mindless, plotless, meaningless trash heap, which by the way, really doesn’t help fantasy’s case.
Of course, it could be that I’m simply tired of having professors (and students) look down their noses at me when I tell them my favorite authors are people who’ve dedicated their lives to wizards, dragons, and magic.

Excuse my indignant, self-righteous tone, but this course has brought my attention to a lot of thoughts I’d buried in the back of my mind. Since high school, I’ve routinely set aside my preferences for fiction that is regarded as “serious.” Entering college, I thought it was part of the job description that my preference should be serious “realistic” stories. Two weeks into the semester, fantasy writing has opened up doors that I considered closed to me not because I wanted them closed, but because I didn’t want to be “that shallow, uneducated kid” in the English department.

What changed for me?

Dr. Bell introduced our class to an article by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” After reading this article, I decided that my introductory “fun-fact” for every class would be “I’m a Harry Potter fanatic,” because it was by Le Guin’s equally indignant but far more eloquent commentary that my passion was stirred. Her belief is “our scholars and critics for the most part don’t read it [fantasy] and don’t know how to read it.” It is her assertion that “nobody can rightly judge a novel without some knowledge of the standards, expectations, devices, tropes, and history of its genre.” Unfortunately, critics and scholars are dismissing genre fiction completely, resulting in generations of teachers and students shunning genres such as fantasy in the name of “academic professionalism”—and that, my friends, produces a major incompetence in academia as a whole.

My favorite passage in Le Guin’s article reads:

“I feel shame for them. Sometimes I feel rage. I want to say to the literature teacher who remains wilfully, even boastfully ignorant of a major element of contemporary fiction: you are incompetent to teach or judge your subject. Readers and students who do know the field, meanwhile, have every right to challenge your ignorant prejudice. Rise, undergraduates of the English departments! You have nothing to lose but your A on the midterm!”

Although I believe that bit of commentary was an exaggeration and should not be taken literally at any point, there is a grain of truth. Readers of fantasy have every right to challenge the boastful ignorance of critics.


Dr. David J. Bell, author of Never Come Back.

Dr. David J. Bell, author of Never Come Back.

Since this post would not be happening without Dr. Bell’s course, I asked him about his thoughts and experience with fantasy writing. Like many of us, he read fantasy as a child, stepped away from it for a while as he grew older, and has returned to it once more. To him, we are in a “Golden Age of Fantasy.” While the critics remain woefully stubborn, it is becoming mainstream in pop culture. He spoke of fantasy as “a language that a lot of students are speaking right now.” Essentially, “if someone ignores fantasy, they are ignoring a big piece of our culture.”

Dr. Bell knew a lot of people would want to take the course but recognized one of the potential drawbacks of fantasy writing. The genre is comprised of several subgenres whereas most students have only read a fraction of what is actually out there; any attempts to write fantasy could result in narrow and repetitive tales. His goals for the class are to introduce us to new kinds of fantasy as well as broaden our definition of what the genre is.

Both Dr. Bell and Ursula Le Guin voiced this idea that there is a misconception of what fantasy is exactly. I believe misconception is at the heart of the matter. What many critics see as childish, I see as an imaginative genre rooted in real-world problems and emotions. To me, fantasy isn’t an escape hatch to avoid life issues. And since I’ve spoken far too long, I’ll let George RR Martin (author of the Game of Thrones) make a closing statement.


Also, if you’d like to read more Ursula Le Guin, check out the rest of her article “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.”


One Response to “Speaking Out for Fantasy”

  1. Terence Elliott says:

    A useful reflection for English majors on what is worth studying and how much latitude our majors have in choosing what to learn. Also, I love the sense of growing community of writers here in our department and discipline. Last, I want to say how much I think you are writing with just the right sense of righteousness here. Good on ya. I look forward to reading some of your fantasy soon. Now on to that LeGuin article.

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