For too many years, genre fiction has been the red-headed step child of the literary world. We’ve been cut out of awards, organizations, withheld due recognition and called every name in the book aside from anything that would give the impression that we are true artists.
Growing up, when I first began my love affair with literature, I didn’t know the difference. I knew of course that some books had shiny gold stickers on them, stating that they’d won one award or another. I knew we studied certain stories in school over others, because someone somewhere (distantly) declared that this work had something to say—something important enough to be shared with generation after generation of the growing populace.
We tell our children that imagination and ingenuity will help them achieve anything their hearts desire. We tell them that the sky is the limit and we encourage creativity, freedom of expression and thought. We teach them a great number of truths while they are young using imaginary places and fantastic creatures, but once they’re old enough to know that none of the magic is real, then we only allow a certain kind of fiction—a specific range of imaginary things, plausible things, limited things. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they only apply when the truth being told, when the lesson being taught, is so horrible that to teach it in its true form would be too much for younger readers (Animal Farm) or if the work itself is so ancient that to disrespect it by saying it was invalid would be sacrosanct (Beowulf).
But here’s the question—are the truths taught through a fictional, alternate world any less real than that of our own, desolate, often depressive reality? And what’s worse, when do we need the beauty of an utterly fantastic world more? As children, or once we’ve figured out that life isn’t what we’d all been told—that we can’t be whatever we want, that we won’t have limitless opportunities, that not everyone shares, or likes us, or will let us cut in line? When do we need help re-learning the fundamental stuff? My answer? As adults, we need more help than ever to step outside of our daily life and see from the eyes of someone who’s never lived in our shoes. Consider this, back when Beowulf, and tales like it, were told, they didn’t have what we’d consider now “literary” fiction—they didn’t need artistic reminders of how dark our world had become. They lived it. They didn’t hide at home in their houses, watching TiVo reruns of reality television. What they did do, was share wonderful, adventurous stories of what could be. They passed these stories from one generation to the next and each time the story was passed, more details were added, more layers were laid and the once simple fables became legend and shaped whole cultures.
How is this any different from what you’ll find in the fantasy/science fiction section of the bookstore in your neighborhood? The real answer is that is isn’t. The same is true with art and film. Are the lessons learned from watching “The Village” any less important or vital than those gathered from watching “Doubt”? Some would tell you yes—but what I want to know, is what are they so afraid of? What part of that person died when they grew up that no longer allows for suspension of disbelief? And why are those of us who held on to that part of ourselves being punished for their loss? If you don’t understand what I’m talking about then go and find me a child, anywhere in this world, who doesn’t like fantasy. They will explain it to you.
Is it that you see in us what you long for in yourselves? Is that it? Are you afraid that by admitting that there is more to our created worlds than merely fun and frivolity, that you’ll somehow have to come to terms with that part of yourself again? Perhaps our childhoods have grown so tormented that our reaction to fantasy is either all or nothing. We either lean on it for protection or we hate it for not protecting us enough. Maybe that’s the truth of it—a culture’s response to fantasy could very well hold the key to how long it will survive.
No matter what the answer is—this much is undeniable: Just because you aren’t willing to give anything of yourself to a written work, doesn’t mean it isn’t willing to give any less of itself, or its truths, to you.