DISCLAIMER: These are certainly not the only reason, and I am certainly aware that this is not news to anyone. It’s just something I’m thinking about.
Firstly, I love an underdog
Romance and SF/F literature are some of the most widely read and widely criticized kind of books around.
And I love sticking up for them (both of them actually, but I read more SF/F, so that’s what I’m talking about today.)
If you only knew how often I have seen perfectly good grown-up SF/F books put in the Young Adult Section. And I’m not talking about books that *might* be seen both ways, like Terry Pratchett. I mean “Anansi Boys”.
Because of course Grown Ups couldn’t possibly be interested in that. Smart adults don’t read Heinlein. Or Scalzi. Or anything with elves or broadswords. No, no. Intelligent adults read … well, Intelligent Adult Books. Which, in my experience consist largely of People Having Problems, Getting Divorced and Being Sad, and sitting at the Thanksgiving Table Not Telling Their Dad How They REALLY Feel. For 300+ pages these people do this. They wear blue jeans and drive cars and talk on cell phones and look for parking. These are all things I can see every day looking out the window of the bus. Not what I want to see when I’m reading.
I need not Not Be Here when I read. I want to NOT see my own fat ass handed back to me in a mirror. I want to see something else, something Other. This is how I connect to the world.
This is why Genre Matters. It matters because
Another reason why I love it – and this one is personal – is that I’m not supposed to. Not as someone with an MFA in Fiction Writing and Literature. Not someone who was brought up as a writer in the Culture of Workshop. I remember, with great shame, how twenty years ago I was really nice about the guy who brought in a chapter of his epic fantasy novel to workshop. I know of several Creative Writing Professors who say in their syllabus that they will accept “No genre fiction of any kind” to their workshop. This is powerful hoodoo to overcome. So the under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight aspect of SF/F novels lasted longer than it should have.
So my love for it is tinged in the relief I feel at being able to let it loose, after holding my breath about it for so long. It is the love of the long-term convent girl for clove cigarettes and rock and roll. This may account for my occasional bouts of Evangelicism. I’m sure Gentle Reader will forgive.
But what matters, especially about SF/F, is this: I truly believe that a story set in a built world can say more about our own world than a Realistic Story.
There’s this thing I always remembered from a Film Studies Class about black and white movies. You see, in a color movie, you see someone having a drink at the bar and your mind registers: Scotch. Vodka. You see the color. You identify the drink, whether consciously or not. The drink the character is holding becomes a specific drink (Gin and tonic, whiskey sour, Appletini), all of which have specific connotations (especially the Appletini). But when characters in a black and white movie have a drink at the bar, because it can never get specific, it remains forever a kind of “Ideal Cocktail” with all those Platonic Connotations, instead of the specific ones.
Stay with me.
If I read a contemporary novel that addresses, say the problems of intimacy and commitment between men and women, it’s very…specific. We see them have problems, and we those problems resolved, or left unresolved depending on what kind of novel we’re reading. On the other hand, we have Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Series, and the Plight of the Confessors. In this world, Confessors – women charged with keeping law and justice, who can at will, and with physical touch, turn you into their slave – are doomed never to marry, as their sexual encounters cause the men in question to be “Confessed” or turned into a mindless slave. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more pointed example of problems of intimacy and connection between genders. I’ll quote my (long suffering) Husband on this one. “Yup! That’s it. That’s what we’re really afraid of. That one night in the sack with the right girl? We lose fucking minds.”
This only happens in Fantasy, in built worlds. Okay, maybe not only in Fantasy, but it sure is efficient. And elegant. And it is genre fiction, the fantasy and the horror and the worlds beyond the all-too-often dreadful one that I inhabit every day that calls to the Monster in me.
Jonathan Franzen does not call to the outsider in me. (Yes the suburbs are a nightmare. Sorry your life is a disappointment. Can you please grow some wings or pick up a battleaxe or turn into a flying monkey or something so I can identify with you?)
Maybe it’s that these alterna-world fiction call to the outsider in all of us. I know it calls to the monster in me.
It can be seen as a kind of weakness, like I’m too scared to look things in the eye. (But anyone who thinks that should read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Look into the eye of that dystopia, asshole and then tell me who’s weak?) But I think it’s different. I don’t just want to escape. I want to transcend. And I think, at its best, this is what good fiction – Fantasy or Not – can do for us. There is a moment, I believe, where escapism becomes transcendence.