High Fantasy, High Art – an Edge-Lit Panel

Judging the book by its author, I expect to be very entertained by this.
Judging the book by its author, I expect great things.

What happens when fantasy fiction and literary fiction meet?

I recently went to Edge-Lit, an annual fantasy, science fiction and horror convention in Derby. It was an excellent event, with interesting panels including….

High Fantasy, High Art: Is Fantasy Fiction Growing More Literary?

Even after attending just a few sf+f conventions, I’ve realised that the subjects of panels get repetitive. Certain issues remain relevant, people want to talk about them, and that’s fine. It means that for a regular con attendee, what makes a good panel isn’t the subject so much as the panelists.

This panel had great panelists. Marc Turner was the perfect chair, asking interesting and relevant questions and getting everyone involved, rather than using his position to keep voicing his own views. The other panelists – Cherry Potts, Edward Cox, Peter Newman and Jen Williams – were all charming and insightful. Newman was particularly excellent, meaning that his book The Vagrant went straight onto my to-read list. Everyone was entertaining and worth listening to – not always the case when writers talk.

So what were my take aways from this?

Attitudes Towards Genre

The panelists generally approached literary fiction from the same angle I do – discussing its flaws while recognising that everything is somebody’s cup of tea. As Peter Newman said, we’re all cheerleading from our own corner, supporting the literature that struck a chord with us early in life. I think that’s very valuable in understanding our own attitudes to fiction, and our limitations. Those early experiences can create attachments that close our minds to alternatives. That’s not always bad, as we find things we love, but it’s worth being aware of.

There was much discussion of the tendency for literary fiction, at its most extreme, to leave out entertainment in favour of literary style. Jen Williams said that, as  a former bookseller, she found that “the interesting stuff goes upstairs, in genre”.

It’s a reminder that geeky interests are pushed out to the periphery physically as well as in the discussion of literature. Games stores end up outside the centre of town, fantasy fiction on the top floor of Waterstones. And again, being aware of it can stop us letting that assumption colour our view of the world.

Perhaps the telling insight came from Cherry Potts. As she pointed out, the phrase “literary fiction” assumes that everything else isn’t literary, implicitly putting down everything from fantasy to romance.

Addressing the Big Issues

Marc Turner raised the question of whether fantasy is a good medium for exploring social and political issues. Like me, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog, the panelists agreed that it is, giving plenty of examples to show that it was as good for this as any genre.

Then came the point I really liked, again from Peter Newman. He argued that using fantasy is often better than talking about issues in the real world. It can be hard to hear someone’s viewpoint if they’re disagreeing with you on real world things you care about. By placing the ideas into a fantasy world, we can make it easier for people to take them in. Fantasy becomes a way of opening minds.

How’s that for a defence of the genre?

Write What You Know?

Finally a comment from Edward Cox, which I thought was useful even outside of this topic. He suggested that the old concept of “write what you know” might now be obsolete. The internet makes research so much easier that anyone can get to know about anything.

“Write what you know” is certainly an awkward concept, and one that can be more restrictive than useful if applied badly. I’m still mulling it over, but I think I might agree with Cox on this.

Far more was discussed in the panel than what I’ve covered above. If you ever have a chance to see any of these panelists talk then I heartily recommend it. And if you can make it Derby, there’ll be another Edge-Lit event just before Christmas. It’ll be well worth your time.

Who are you calling unadventurous?

Fantasy literature is often accused of having a regressive or conservative tone as a genre. There’s an attitude among some commentators that it’s a way of retreating from real world issues, of romanticising aspects of the past without considering its dark truths. It’s an argument that’s extended to steampunk in this interesting but not entirely convincing piece I found via For Whom The Gear Turns.

I can see where people are coming from on this. A lot of fantasy and steampunk does romanticise certain aspects of the past, and of society in general. To generalise broadly about a hugely diverse genre, we tend to look at the nicer bits more than the really wretched ones, and to repeat a lot of the same features others look at. I’d love to read more steampunk that explores Victorian social and political trends like mass protest, social division, colonialism, the emergence of Marxism, or any of a hundred other things. I sometimes try to balance that in my writing. But it’s a small part of the published picture.

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can't be fun?
Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can’t be fun?

However, to criticise fantasy or steampunk for under-representing these subjects is to miss an important point. What are we comparing the genre with? If it’s reality then yes, fair cop, things look whitewashed. But if it’s compared with other literature? Then I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.

Consider historical fiction. Does that address the whole range of historical experience in a balanced way? Certainly not. There are dozens of books in which the likes of Richard Sharpe fight the dastardly French, and almost none in which they steal people’s countries and subjugate their populations. Or how about the dark side of Victorian England? Sharpe’s Peterloo Massacre anyone?

How about literary fiction? Yes, some of it deals with problems of race and society, but an awful lot of it is navel gazing from a middle class, middle aged perspective. The experience of Britain’s disengaged modern underclass, while not absent, receives literary attention that’s nowhere near in proportion to the real balance of our country.

If fantasy or steampunk is, on average, quite unadventurous then that’s only because it’s like the rest of our culture. And if it weren’t for the more adventurous writers, carving out new niches on our bookshelves, then these genres would never exist in the first place. Yes, we should be more daring. But that’s not about fantasy or steampunk. That’s about people.


Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons

Reading makes you empathetic – science fact (ish)

Research has shown that reading novels that make you think, that stretch your mind and challenge you to get inside the heads of others, increases your empathy. It may not take much empathy on your part to work out that I’m not surprised.

Literature, along with the other arts, is often treated as a nice thing to have, a way to escape from our ordinary lives. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a way to transform the way we think, to get into the mental space of other people, to help us relate to our fellow human beings.

The study, by the New School for Social Research in New York, also found that reading books off the Amazon bestseller list didn’t have the same benefit. Having read two whole Dan Brown novels, I’m not surprised, though I wonder how much that’s about the texts themselves rather than how we approach them. And the idea of dividing literature into dumb bestsellers and smart literary fiction is a whole other problem I won’t get into today.

I’m off to read a book – a stinking headache is making me hate the world this morning, and I could do with the empathy. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any thoughts on this, or any books that have really helped you to understand other people, leave a note below.