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Author Topic: How low brow is fantasy?  (Read 18354 times)

Offline AJDalton

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How low brow is fantasy?
« on: September 29, 2013, 10:35:08 AM »
The UK's highest award for literature is the Man-Booker Prize. It considers literary fiction only, but not fantasy fiction. It considers fantasy to be 'low brow' genre fiction and generally not worthy. This is despite the fact that a number of Booker Prize winners have conspicuously 'borrowed' their themes and motifs from fantasy over the years. Nothing Tolkien ever wrote could be entered for the Booker Prize, no matter his contribution to literature and the UK's cultural identity. More than that, fantasy isn't considered by the Nobel Prize for Literature either! When the BBC made a one-hour special called 'The Books People Really Read' a few years back, they included plenty of crime genre fiction and romance, but there wasn't a single mention of either JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett. What gives?
  Why is there this denial of fantasy in certain quarters of society? Is fantasy a threat somehow? I suspect so. Basically, you can't get a job as a philosopher these days so you have to write fantasy (or scifi) instead. The Brits consider it a bit 'poncy' to talk about philosophy openly, too, so they end up reading fantasy in private instead. Fantasy is perhaps all too real for certain sections of our society, sections that are insecure and inadequate, sections that like to speak in terms of 'high' and 'low brow', sections who are at the 'top' of society and want to quash the power of the rest. Fantasy is therefore revolutionary and has the potential power to change the real world so that it is a better place for all of us. My series with Gollancz, 'Empire of the Saviours', only gets two types of review - praise from the usual fantasy magazines, but utter condemnation from the wider press and media. They say the book is 'warped' and 'twisted'. I reckon it's the wider press and media who 'warp' and 'twist' things. But I could be wrong. Am I? Any other authors or readers of fantasy out there who have suffered any prejudice (overt or otherwise) for their interest/passion/dreams?
fantasy reader, writer, dreamer, screamer - Empire of the Saviours

Offline joshfishkins

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #1 on: September 29, 2013, 07:18:41 PM »
Its, y'know, for kids... ;)

Offline Arry

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Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #2 on: September 29, 2013, 07:44:31 PM »
The UK's highest award for literature is the Man-Booker Prize. It considers literary fiction only, but not fantasy fiction. It considers fantasy to be 'low brow' genre fiction and generally not worthy.

OK, I could be wrong here, but I would imagine that most fiction, regardless of genre, would not be eligible. That most books published, they would consider "low brow". I looked at past winners, and there are some that have fantasy elements, so I don't think that it is against the genre, just that there are so few novels in general that would meet their criteria for the award. Personally, I don't think there is anything wrong with that. It's their award, they can use what ever they want to determine which books to make their long/short lists.

As to how fantasy is perceived ... I really wouldn't know. Maybe someone else will have an opinion. The only place I talk books at all is online, in fact most people I know probably don't even realize I read, much less what I read. And for reviews, well, anytime someone reads something out of their personal preference, a review is going to be harsher. It's hard to praise a book that is fundamentally nothing you want to read. Hand me Nicholas Sparks, and I'll hand back one hell of a harsh review. But that doesn't mean that people that look for that sort of thing wouldn't enjoy it. Just worry about the people who enjoy SFF, anything beyond that seems pointless.
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Offline AnneLyle

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2013, 09:28:49 AM »
I recommend reading Ursula K LeGuin's essay "Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?", if you can get hold of it (it's in her non-fiction collection The Language of the Night, now sadly out of print). Things have changed little in the last 30-40 years, alas - some people are just plain afraid of the fantastic because they're afraid of their inner child - and as we know, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate...

:D
Elizabethan fantasy trilogy The Alchemist of SoulsThe Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies out now from Angry Robot Books!

Offline EricaDakin

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2013, 09:46:38 PM »
I remember a class discussion I had back at university to practice our Russian conversation skills, and we were asked to talk about our favourite book. I talked about The Lord of the Rings for a bit, and then one of the other students said she never read fantasy because 'it isn't real and it's nothing but escapism'.

Funny how that's nearly twenty years ago, and it still pisses me off - the general disdain and the eternal 'escapism' tag with that superior sneer. Well duh! Of course it's escapism! I just never understood why that was seen as a bad thing. Did they think I couldn't distinguish between reality and fantasy-land? I get enough real life in my daily business, I don't need my books to deal with it as well.

I don't believe that general opinion has changed, but I would far rather read Scott Lynch or Melanie Rawn or Robin Hobb or Tolkien than to try again to struggle my way through Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Nor am I going to pretend otherwise in the face of literary disdain.

Um, this turned into a bit of a rant, but ultimately it's just a matter of opinion and maybe a certain level of snobbishness. A few weeks ago I saw this list of 'the 100 greatest opening lines of all times', and I swear that half of them were only in there because they were the opening line of some literary classic. I mean, come on, 'My name is Ishmael' - how is that a great opening line?

Sorry, rant over.
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Offline Mark Lawrence

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #5 on: September 30, 2013, 10:02:34 PM »
I mean, come on, 'My name is Ishmael' - how is that a great opening line?

Sorry, rant over.

Well to be fair that's not the opening line of any book. But the point is taken. Escapism isn't the same as 'not of worth' and important things can be said in a fantasy setting. We (generally) put people into our fantasy and we're just as able to ask the sort of literary questions about the business of living in such books.

Books that are pure entertainment are also not 'not of worth' but they often may be considered low brow. That's not a bad thing. Having a laugh with your mates, drinking a beer, just having fun... these aren't highbrow pursuits but the sure as hell can give life meaning.

There are two different things going on here though. Firstly the idea that lowbrow is an insulting tag - it's not. Secondly that fantasy writing is incapable of ever being highbrow - it isn't.

The majority of fantasy writing won't be suitable for the literary prizes that look for certain types of commentary on the human condition - but then again the majority of any writing won't be. There are some fantasy books that should be considered in those categories and they aren't, and yes, that's prejudice against the genre.

Offline Shadowhand

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #6 on: October 01, 2013, 12:44:55 AM »
All entertainment media is escapism. None of it is real, and we watch/read/listen to escape from our own lives. And there is nothing wrong with that (in moderation, of course). That line is a nothing more than a cop out, and I suggest you call people on it when they next use it.   >:(
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Offline AnneLyle

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #7 on: October 01, 2013, 06:14:48 AM »
The majority of fantasy writing won't be suitable for the literary prizes that look for certain types of commentary on the human condition - but then again the majority of any writing won't be.

Sturgeon's Law, IIRC - 90% of anything is $#!^ :)

There are some fantasy books that should be considered in those categories and they aren't, and yes, that's prejudice against the genre.

I'd like to see any of those critics read The Folding Knife and deny that it's literature with a capital 'L'. OK, so it may lack the usual fantasy tropes, but it gets marketed as fantasy mainly because the mainstream can't cope with fiction set in a secondary world. A few familiar tropes in the familiar "real world", sure (e.g. The Time Traveller's Wife), but take them too far from the here-and-now and they don't seem able to take it seriously.
Elizabethan fantasy trilogy The Alchemist of SoulsThe Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies out now from Angry Robot Books!

Offline CptNemo

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #8 on: October 01, 2013, 06:37:37 AM »
Neal Stephenson addresses this cleft in question two of the following interview. I find his answer quite insightful.
http://slashdot.org/story/04/10/20/1518217/neal-stephenson-responds-with-wit-and-humor

Excerpt:
Spoiler for Hiden:
...Instead I'm going to answer what I think MosesJones is really getting at, which is why SF and other genre and popular writers don't seem to get a lot of respect from the literary world.

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

Offline Elfy

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Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #9 on: October 01, 2013, 07:39:31 AM »
All entertainment media is escapism. None of it is real, and we watch/read/listen to escape from our own lives. And there is nothing wrong with that (in moderation, of course). That line is a nothing more than a cop out, and I suggest you call people on it when they next use it.   >:(
I actually thought that too. The level of escapism may vary, but most of it is exactly that. It's also a case of tarring the entire genre with the same brush and that is always fraught with danger.
I will expand your TBR pile.

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Offline pornokitsch

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #10 on: October 01, 2013, 11:59:07 AM »
We (generally) put people into our fantasy and we're just as able to ask the sort of literary questions about the business of living in such books.

Totally agree.

Quote
There are two different things going on here though. Firstly the idea that lowbrow is an insulting tag - it's not. Secondly that fantasy writing is incapable of ever being highbrow - it isn't.

The majority of fantasy writing won't be suitable for the literary prizes that look for certain types of commentary on the human condition - but then again the majority of any writing won't be. There are some fantasy books that should be considered in those categories and they aren't, and yes, that's prejudice against the genre.

Totally agree.

Basically, just agreeing. AGREE!

Offline ladybritches

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #11 on: October 02, 2013, 03:17:31 AM »
The "it's not real" thing always irritates me too. Of course it's not real. That's why we call it fiction.   ;D

I'm pretty sure my mom thinks fantasy books are about sex. I've tried to explain to her that fantasy is not the same thing as erotica. She doesn't believe me. She thinks I've been encouraging her granddaughters to read sex books. She says she likes to read about "real" people. I'm thinking maybe memoir or nonfiction then?

Anyway, I'm lowbrow, so I guess it's just as well my reading material is lowbrow as well.  ::)


Offline Elfy

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Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #12 on: October 02, 2013, 06:58:30 AM »
The "it's not real" thing always irritates me too. Of course it's not real. That's why we call it fiction.   ;D

I'm pretty sure my mom thinks fantasy books are about sex. I've tried to explain to her that fantasy is not the same thing as erotica. She doesn't believe me. She thinks I've been encouraging her granddaughters to read sex books. She says she likes to read about "real" people. I'm thinking maybe memoir or nonfiction then?

Anyway, I'm lowbrow, so I guess it's just as well my reading material is lowbrow as well.  ::)
That's really funny. The fantasy books = sex thing. When I tell people I read fantasy I often get this look that indicates they think I mean sex. I usually explain like Tolkien or Harry Potter, I could probably throw Game of Thrones in there now...oh wait...maybe that's not the best example.
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Offline Fellshot

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #13 on: October 02, 2013, 07:21:20 AM »
That Stephenson reply is hilarious.

"Low brow" is literature. Else The Canterbury Tales and at least half of Shakespeare's plays wouldn't qualify. Or comic opera. Or any number of other things that are read to get pleasure out of them. All lit has some degree of escapism to it as well, else we'd never take the things that those fictional people say so seriously or look for the themes behind fictional stories of any stripe.

I think that the low-brow/ high-brow dichotomy is there more for those who want to appear snobbish about what they have read. They want a measure of exclusivity instead of the accessibility of genre fiction, even though some quarters of genre fiction happily deal in themes and abstract concepts that those who value high-brow monikers would recognize and appreciate.

Offline Francis Knight

Re: How low brow is fantasy?
« Reply #14 on: October 02, 2013, 09:03:54 AM »
Sadly, the dividing line is not just lit v genre.

I was once asked why I read SFF (note; this is by another SFF reader) -- I replied because I like excitement, adventure and really wild things! If it can talk about deeper things too, that's great, but firstly it must entertain -- I don't care how worthy it is, what deep and existential things it talks about, if the story is not entertaining me the point will be lost because I'll have put the book down. The asker, having totally failed to get the reference*, then replied/implied that reading SFF only for escapism would make me stupid, just like only eating McDonald's would make me fat. I should be reading *serious* fantasy. For *serious* reasons. No matter if we were reading the same books, they shouldn't be about mere entertainment.

I think I just laughed and rolled my eyes. There's just as much snobbery within the genre as there is between it and others...

Oh yeah, and try saying to a bunch of SFF fans that you write romance. With, like, feelings in it, and occasional sticky bits.  OMG, in certain quarters you get the epic lip curls, the audible gasp, the edging backwards a step like you have leprosy, the suddenly remembered appointment somewhere else....

SFF fans are not immune from a bit of snobbery.



*Internet brownie for anyone who gets it without looking it up. One suspects the asker never read/watched it, because it sounded too frivolous. lol.
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