An interesting piece by Amanda Craig has appeared on the Telegraph website. The article, centered around the HBO television series of George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novels, joins the vast pile of opinion pieces addressing the debate ‘can fantasy fiction ever be any good’. Which is to say, should authors use their imagination or confine themselves to looking out the window and typing?
These opinion pieces begin by stating the default premise, that fantasy fiction is beneath the consideration of the likely reader of the article. There is an implicit flattery – we’re too smart for this and we know it. Craig, however, is playing devil’s advocate, ‘How can yet another fantasy involving men with swords and bad hair, soft-porn style sex scenes and dragons possibly be acceptable to anyone over 14?’ (yet another? – the TV channels aren’t exactly flooded).
Such articles go on to laud a new (or new to the writer) example of fantasy, or horror, or science fiction that isn’t terrible. The author always writes as if finding a good example of genre fiction is an astonishing surprise, even though these articles are themselves part of a prolific chattering class subgenre – a continually required corrective to years of pride and prejudice.
As Craig says, having outlined a few plot elements of A Game of Thrones, ‘It may sound like Jacobean drama – and in fact, the scheming brother is played by Harry Lloyd, currently starring as the brother of the Duchess of Malfi in the Old Vic – but this is not what is generally understood as high culture.’
But…she continues… ‘over the past six months, HBO’s serialisation of Game of Thrones has become the literary world’s guilty secret.’
Describing A Game of Thrones as the literary world’s guilty secret is very revealing. The implication is, it’s good, but how can we admit it? We no longer discriminate by sex or race or religion. Today we keep our prejudices to the type of fiction we read and watch.
Craig continues, ‘I got onto it after John Lanchester, the distinguished novelist, told me he’d just finished watching it for the second time, and was feeling “bereft”, adding, “I think George R Martin is a seriously good writer who doesn’t get his literary due, entirely because he writes fantasy, which is somehow, to people who don’t read it, inherently ridiculous.”’
Here is the heart of the matter, ‘It takes real intellectual confidence to admit that fantasy at its best can be an art, because for much of the past century, it has been associated with escapist drivel. Hostility to The Lord of the Rings has been the default setting for generations of Oxford English graduates, still obliged to this day to study Beowulf thanks to Professor Tolkien.’
Does it take real intellectual confidence to stand up to a the pride and prejudices of a gang of intellectual bullies? Or does it take honesty; the honesty not to deny that which one knows is good? To ignore the bullies (default settings are meant to be changed) who run the literary establishment, the out-of-touch clique who have decided what is fit and proper to read, what should be scorned. The same bullies who sometimes laud writers for standing up to tyranny, for satirising and exposing the cruelties of power, then abuse their own power by attacking other writers for penning the wrong type of fiction. Bullies, bluff called, roll over and leave their victims alone. Sometimes, frightened children at heart, they overcome their fears and grow-up.
All fiction is ‘made up’. It is ‘imagined’. All fiction is fantasy. Once that is accepted then all forms of fiction have to be considered as sub-genres of fantasy. Literary fiction, the only sort of fiction allowed recognition by Craig’s Oxford English graduate Mafia, becomes one subgenre among many. It is the subgenre the rule of which is that fiction should strive to produce a facsimile of the real world. That’s all. Literary fiction doesn’t have a preordained, God-given right to consider itself superior to other genres which follow different precepts. There is not one genre to rule them all.
The prejudice against genre fiction makes it easy for academics and critics to dismiss whole swathes of writing without ever having to consider it. A useful escape in a world filled with far more fiction than anyone could read. It meanwhile permits acceptance of anything literary taste-makers may like – it’s not really fantasy (or science fiction, or horror, or crime or romance), it can’t be, it’s good. This intellectual bigotry makes it possible to have it both ways. It justifies remaining lazily ignorant of vast areas of literature and art, while cherry-picking individual titles and boasting of discovering a pearls crafted for swine.
Craig, who is not one of these bigots, writes, ‘I myself enjoy good fantasy literature and film, but my husband and daughter find it intellectually repulsive: yet over the Easter Bank Holiday, we all became equally desperate to find out what happens next.’
As her husband and daughter may have learnt, the truth is not; ‘literary fiction good, genre fiction bad’, but that all fiction is fantasy, some good, some bad, some great, some execrable.
And that is a challenge to cast aside literary pride and prejudice and read a wider range of fiction. Great fiction. Whatever the genre.