Cynicism, Realism, Sensationalism — and Where DID I Misplace that Sense of Wonder?
(This article first appeared in my forum several years ago. I post it now — slightly revised — because I believe the subject is more relevant than ever. It is not intended to single out any one author, but to address a general trend.)
Is Fantasy Becoming More Realistic or Simply More Cynical?
After using The Lord of the Rings as a convenient reference point in earlier entries, I’m going to begin this one by allowing the author to speak for himself.
Fantasy, said Tolkien, “certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of scientific verity. On the contrary, the keener and clearer is the reason, the better Fantasy it will make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not know or could not perceive truth (fact or evidence) then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.
“[Recovery] is a regaining — regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ — as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows, so that things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity — from possessiveness. Of all faces, those of our familiares are the ones most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult to really see with fresh attention.
“We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep and dogs and horses — and wolves … By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed, by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory … and actually, fairy-stories deal largely or (the better ones) mainly, with simple fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.”
What is the use of Fantasy? Ursula K. LeGuin posed the question and then answered it herself: the use of it is to give us “pleasure and delight.” She went on to say:
“Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend the rest of their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians … A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.
“Now I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed … I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth, they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human and humane of these faculties is the power of the imagination.”
With all this in mind, the first question I would like to ask is: Do we, who are now reading and writing fantasy, agree with Tolkien that this power of recovery is one of the principle aims of fantastic literature? And if we do agree, then the next question follows naturally: Are those of us writing in that genre today coming even close to providing that kind of experience for our readers? Is the fantasy we write, in LeGuin’s words, deeply humane? (And I do include my own writing in this question, because even though I’m generally regarded as an optimistic writer, I can see very well that my present work is darker and more violent than anything I wrote fifteen years ago.)
Do the books being written today encourage us to look at the world with fresh eyes — or do they merely present, over and over, the same cynical and dreary worldview? Are we so locked-in to a single interpretation of the past, present, and future as endless repetitions of the brutal, remorseless, and futile that we are now unable to imagine anything better? And if we, readers and writers of speculative fiction, the literature of the imagination, are no longer able to conceive of any other possibilities — then who will, who can?
I know there are those who regard optimism as a refuge of the weak, of people too cowardly or too lazy to step out of their “comfort zone.” But in my own experience optimism takes effort and an applied concentration of will. Like so many other things of value — love, loyalty, forgiveness, integrity — it’s not for the faint (or hard) of heart. Idealism demands much of us; it acknowledges that we can be more than we are, and challenges us to become so. Cynicism, on the other hand, is hardly an exhausting exercise. In fact, it seems to be the refuge of the already exhausted. And it is comfortable — for all its pretended discomfort — because it desensitizes us to future pain and asks of us exactly nothing. It is simply surrender.
Now I am not proposing that we should eliminate all battle, pain, and heartache from our stories (in fact, it would be nice if more characters had hearts capable of aching). But what seems to be disappearing is fantasy that gives a more balanced view, that shows us, along with all the characters who are sooo romantically broken, a few that are actually whole. My friend Katharine Kerr, an excellent writer, once said something to the effect that great deeds shine brighter in a dark world, and I believe this is true. But are we creating imaginary worlds where there are no bright deeds, no great-hearted people, where there is nothing but pettiness, cruelty, compromise, and self-interest? Do we place our characters in settings so harsh, situations so convoluted (and sometimes so psychologically improbable), that the individual is relieved of all responsibility for his own actions. Are we simply revisiting our political nightmares, over and over and over?
We seem, as a community of readers and writers to be deeply mired in a collective depression. (This would also explain a lot of missed deadlines, padded series, and bloated, repetitive writing, because even though creative people seem to be particularly susceptible, depression can do a very good job of stifling creative impulses.) And depression — whether that of an individual, a community, or an entire society — does not lend itself toward obtaining or maintaining a clear and accurate view of life.
How could it, when those in a state of depression are unable to experience life as fully as they did before? Depression doesn’t clear the windows of our perceptions, it only adds further smudges, smears, and obtructions, so that our view of the world grows steadily narrower. I would hate to think that this boxing-in, this fatigue of the mental faculties, is a communicable disease, and that I had any part in spreading it to others. Worse still, that I might be tempted to simulate this condition in my future writing merely as an artistic affectation or for marketing purposes.
I have often heard that certain authors are expanding the boundaries of the genre, because their books are somehow “different” — but when I read these books I see only another variation on the familiar faux-medieval setting, and the much-vaunted difference seems only to consist of a darker worldview and more sensational plot lines. The Victorian “sensation novel” is alive and well in the twenty-first century, though we think ourselves so modern. In discussions where readers express their distaste for scenes of particularly graphic violence, others usually dismiss such concerns with a glib, “but that’s the way the world is.” Indeed, it all too often is that way, but every day there are also acts of heroism, kindness, generosity, and stories of personal triumph over adversity. Why, then, in the name of realism, must we focus so much of our attention on the darker aspects of human nature? Do such stories cause us to look at our world and the people around us with “fresh attention,” or do we merely nod our heads wisely and say, “Yes, it’s all just as I thought it was. I’ll sit here and do nothing, because nothing can be done.”
Now I don’t believe that any one work of fiction, all by itself, ever did or ever would drastically alter the way that readers think. What I do believe is that a book can reinforce and encourage ideas that we already have or already feel inclined to adopt. When somebody reads a book, they are most likely to take away something very similar to what they brought with them.
But do we read fantasy to confirm what we think we already know? Or is the best fantasy transformative, showing us more than one way of seeing the world, and in that way broadening our perspectives? Should fantasy not only show us the human experience, in all its variety, but also what could be, what might be?
No book, no series, no writer, will radically change the way we see our world, but many books by many writers, all saying essentially the same thing, may in time shape our thinking, either by appealing to what is strong and whole in us, or to what is weak and broken. I believe that we can already see this at work, as more and more people equate “reality” solely with what is ugly, hopeless, and cruel.
I am reminded of something else Tolkien said, which was that he found it very strange that anyone regarded factories as more “real” than horses. Yet even today, the creature is not quite mythical — and I have known many people of undeniable veracity who attest to the existence of horses. Could somebody please explain to me how things that do exist, that are done, that have been experienced, could possibly be less real than others? We don’t read about rape, torture, and graphic violence because they are realistic. (I mean, seriously, do we pick up a fantasy novel the size of a brick, in order to better acquaint ourselves with reality?) We read about these things because they are thrilling, because we may be briefly shocked or saddened, but it’s all at a safe remove and our comfort, or discomfort, with the real world remains unimpaired. Let us at least be honest about that. If we want reality, there are newspapers and works of nonfiction readily available We can read the biographies of people who have lived through horrific experiences, books that describe those experiences honestly and accurately in minute detail. But an honest and accurate account rarely produces the same thrill … and can be decidedly uncomfortable.
Yes, human history is a long record of war and hardship — but how could we have survived so long as a species if that were all there ever was, if there were no people helping each other, standing by their principles, or making such sacrifices that they left behind something of worth that endured? How could we have survived without poets, novelists, painters, and musicians capable of seeing and communicating their own poignant and heart-lifting perceptions of beauty? Wouldn’t any genuinely realistic depiction of the human experience tell of these things, too?
And what about that sense of wonder we used to hear so much about? In reading the latest fantasy novel have you seen the world painted in fresher colors? When was the last time you picked up a book and walked right into a “luminous setting?” Because I tell you quite frankly that such experiences are becoming less and less frequent for me. Have we replaced our taste for the fabulous, the extraordinary, with one for mere sensationalism, which more often than not leaves us afterward with a sense that the world is an even duller place than it was before? Are we seeding our imaginary gardens solely with weeds,and already forgetting the taste of strawberries, the brilliance of sunflowers, the fragrance of orange blossom?
If writers like Tolkien and LeGuin could tell stories of pain and loss, and still write passages that make our hearts soar, then why can’t we? Are our minds so closed, our hearts squeezed down so small, that we are no longer capable of receiving fresh impressions, or imagining wider perspectives?
Above all, are we forgetting how to grow into true adults, at the same time we are losing our childhood curiosity and capacity for wonder? Are we stuck in a perpetual sullen adolescence, meeting all the ills of the world with, “It’s not fair.” “It’s too hard.” “It’s not my fault.”
I sincerely hope not.
Teresa Edgerton is a writer and freelance developmental editor.
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