I write fantasy. I make stuff up. I use my imagination to invent strange new worlds where extraordinary things happen.
Sometimes, I can’t help feeling like that leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage.
When I poke my nose into the world of literature, whether that’s perusing new releases or taking in critical reviews or (shock horror) actually reading a book, I can’t avoid a niggling sense that this fantastical approach to storytelling is somehow seen as inferior.
The books that get the really good reviews, and win the grand prizes seem (with a few exceptions of course) to be both highly serious and also highly grounded in reality. Because clearly that’s the purpose of literature. To reflect the world that we live in. To offer a serious and sobering window into the real conditions of our environment. Anything else – anything funny or fantastical, anything that imagines new and magical worlds, is clearly just lightweight and escapist.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with reflecting seriously on the world. It strikes me as extremely important that we are in touch with the conditions within which we exist. This form of literature is clearly very worthwhile and virtuous.
But it also strikes me that if all we do is reflect on our reality, we’ll end up getting kind of stuck. If we’re so busy wallowing in what is, we won’t have any time to think about what could be. And how do we make our world better if we don’t have some sense of what a better world is like?
Because that’s what fantasy does. It imagines worlds that could be. And isn’t that a huge part of what being human is all about? Hoping for and working towards a better world.
I often think about a point made by the late Terry Pratchett (who to be honest I’m not a super big fan of – but I understand his appeal). He defends the way we invent ‘lies’ to tell our children, like Santa or the tooth fairy, by saying something along the lines of ‘if we can’t believe little lies when we’re kids, how can we believe big lies, like justice and equality, when we’re adults.’
I feel like there’s something profound in there. And it helps to provide an incentive to keep inventing my fantastical worlds. Because when I make up a fanciful story, I’m not just drawing my readers out of the realities of their world. I’m helping them to conceive of what their world could be. And I can’t think of anything more virtuous and worthwhile than that.
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