Saturday, September 03, 2011

Fantasy is not a dirty word...

Image: source
Linking up with Maxabella Loves (via The Beetle Shack) for I'm Grateful For...

As a writer, I'm drawn to writing fantasy. More specifically, I'm drawn to writing urban fantasy. Urban fantasy is fantasy that takes place in an environment familiar to the reader, a place on Earth which is inhabited by humans doing the normal, everyday stuff that we human's get up to. Intertwined with this realistic settings are fantastical elements; portals to other worlds or fantastical creatures.

The novel I wrote for my masters thesis was based on Icelandic folkloric elves (which are more like Tolkien's elves, that Noddy and Big Ears - in fact, they're nothing like Noddy and Big Ears). Icelandic elves look human - they don't have pointy ears. Icelandic elves live parallel lives to humans in homes that are very human like on the inside - furniture, bric-a-brac, etcetera. Icelandic elves can be as rich or as poor as humans. The main difference is that they live inside stones, mountains and hillocks - or they camouflage their homes as such anyway, and they have the ability to disappear and materialise at will. The vast majority of Icelanders will not say the elves don't exist, even if they won't claim they do exist either.

When I proposed writing about the elves, even though they were based in folklore, I sensed a distinct shift in my potential supervisors enthusiasm for my proposal. They were happy for me to write a story about a girl struggling with a sense of identity and belonging, but when they heard she would encounter Icelandic elves in the Australian outback, they baulked.

Nevertheless, they did accept my proposal based on my thesis about introducing Icelandic literary traditions to an Australian context for first and second generation Icelanders. It was a struggle for me though because I sensed that fantasy was not as worthy as other forms of writing.

Last weekend I went to Deakin University for its Open Day to gather some more information about the Doctorate I'm going to apply for (by the end of September!), and it happened again. I said to the advisor, "I'm interested in researching the progression of Icelandic literary traditions in immigrants to Australia, particularly folkloric traditions" She smiled and nodded enthusiastically, so I continued, "I want to write a novel about Icelandic elves-" and then I saw her recoil. I mean, she literally jerked backwards as if I'd just declared an alliance with Satan!

I quickly pressed on with my description, emphasising Icelandic folkloric traditions, and using the word literature several more times than any single sentence can reasonably withstand.

Again, yesterday I read another writer's blog where they were reassuring themselves that at least their writing was about real life and not just another fantasy clone. I know these words were probably referring to the myriad of cheap and nasty fantasy books that flood the market every year, but still stings. Not all fantasy is clone, well, no more than any other writing genre or tradition, anyway - including biographical writing. As I once heard another writer say, "You can't be original, there really are only so many stories, but you will always be unique, because only YOU can write your story your way".

There is a stigma against fantasy fiction and it is hard to comprehend when fantasy is just another form of fiction, like every form of fiction - a story, a fiction. A lot of it is very well written with wonderful explorations into the complexities of relationships (which, let's face it, is what all good writing is about). Fantasy writers use craftsmanship in sculpting words to form intriguing, wondrous, and complex images. Fantasy fiction is amongst the most widely read genre in the world.

This week I'm grateful:

  • to my mum for introducing me to fantasy through J.R.R Tolkien and Hans Christian Anderson.
  • to my mum (again) for introducing me to Icelandic folklore, and appreciation for the ambiguity of fantasy, it's ability to suspend disbelief while reflecting the world and all it's experiences and relationships.
  • to my husband who is able to talk me back from the edge when I feel as if no one in the entire world respects what I want to write (yes, perhaps I should write drama, I do have a flair for the dramatic).
  • for this blog entry at Bothersome Words Editing and Writing Services that suggests perhaps views are finally beginning to change in regard to fantasy fiction.
  • and most especially to the Tuesday Book Club on the ABC for running an episode a few weeks ago dedicated to fantasy where Jennifer Byrne spoke with Jennifer Rowe, Fiona McIntosh, Lev Grossman and Matthew Reilly about fantasy and the unfounded stigma it receives. This episode (which you can read the transcript of here) reminded me that well written fantasy is an art, and has a very important role to play in the education and entertainment of readers!


Kami said...

I am thankful for my Dad reading me The Hobbit when I was a little girl. Set me up for life!

Found you via Maxabella!

Peter Prevos said...

Interesting story and emblematic of the direction academia has been moving.

Positivism, that originated in the natural sciences, has permeated the human sciences. In this way we can never reach understanding, only explain phenomena - there is a difference!

Sif Dal said...

Kamika, The Hobbit was one of thr books mum read to us (with voices and everything!)... So well written!

Peter, I can understand the individual words you wrote, but you'll have to explain how it relates to academic views of fantasy because I'm just not following...

Anonymous said...

I don't mind a bit of fantasy. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment in Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn chronicles. The release date has been pushed back a number of years, but I hope the current date of 31st October sticks.
I'm also a big fan of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both of which have been read many times.
I think there is a much larger market for fantasy novels than your uni realises. Good luck with your doctorate, I do hope you get to go ahead with your icelandic elves.

Sif Dal said...

Georgia, thank you! I agree on the larger market, but I guess it's the habit of universities to eskew popularist fiction. They want 'highbrow' and fantasy is [mistakeningly in my opinon] viewed as low brow because it's popular and therefore it must only be written for the loest common denominator. Well written fantasy actual does what a lot of so-called highbrow literature fails to do - it offers entertainment for those only seeking escapist reading AND it offers deeper, more complex thinking matter for those who prefer to be provoked by what thy read... LOL, off my soapbox!

Penni Russon said...

I have to admit as someone who has read A LOT of unsolicited manuscripts that I have probably been known to flinch at the word fantasy, even though I write it myself. I agree that fantasy as a genre can be rich with possibilities but as someone who has read a lot of unpublished authors as an academic and editor, it seems to be a popular genre for, um, oh I can't think of a nice way to say this. Bad writing.

In the university environment you might want to try using different terminology - slipstream or magic realism probably imply literary aspirations. You could reference an author like Anne Enright or Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Patrick Suskind, the South American magic realists (Marquez, Allende et al), David Mitchell or Mrie Darrieussecq, depending on how you want to incorporate the Icelandic elvin tradition. All of these authors exploit the faultlines between realism and imagination.

I love this quote by the French writer Marie Darrieusseqc
"Fantastic literature is the fear of the dark which is rediscovered by adults. With regards to conjugal, familial, and social scales, what happens silently makes itself heard in one way or another: it is a map of psychoanalysis."

Penni Russon said...

Sorry, typo city. Tired.

HA! Word verification is rests. Universe is trying to tell me something.

Sif Dal said...

Thanks for the tips, Penni! Funny you should mention using the terms "slipstream" or "magic realism" because I did put magic realism in my thesis, and on the first review of it I was told off! Told my writing was not within the definition of "magic realism", though I persisted in arguing it was. In retrospect, it wasn't true magic realism, so I might have to investigate the definition of slipstream!

Yes, I do agree there is a lot of bad writing that tries to filter through as fantasy - have read some terribly cliched writing myself. I guess I was just wanting to say that it's not fair to lump all fantasy in that category.

It's challenging enough to write something that is worth reading without already being written off before anyone reads it, LOL.

Good Job!