One of the questions I’ve been thinking about recently is how fantasy literature – or, strictly speaking secondary world fantasy novels – can be relevant to people. Much of this came about from seeing some of the fine coverage from the British Library Science Fiction exhibition, where there has been much discussion of the history of the genre and what that strand of literature aims or does not aim to do. Fascinating stuff, in and of itself. And there was a lot of talk of relevance. I know there’s a lot of talk of relevance to what or to whom, but to keep things simple, I’m speaking in terms of a cultural value outside of escapism – that there is additional commentary, there are more things to be deciphered, pored over, above and beyond the base layer of a good yarn.
Being a fantasy writer, I questioned the value and relevance of fantasy literature today. It’s something, as a writer, I want to always keep in mind. Sure, write a good story – absolutely nothing wrong with that whatsoever; I value the non-cerebral literature just as much as the heavy stuff – but from a creative perspective I get bored of writing for long periods if I’m not playing with certain concepts or themes, even though they might go unnoticed by the reader.
I see a couple of ways fantasy literature can be directly relevant. One is, like many great works of SF, to take a load of current concepts and write about them with exotics – H.G. Wells, Jonathan Swift and Imperialism etc. That’s the approach I sometimes prefer to take – most explicitly in The Book of Transformations, for example, when I was getting frustrated at the media’s portrayal of anarchism and what it meant. This examination of current concepts is actually a useful tool for a writer to deal with the stuff in their heads, and to get a subtle message across without being over-the-top about things.
Then there is symbolism, the Gene Wolfe approach, to layer stories with so much meaning and so many symbols, that you can spend most of your life trying blissfully to discover them. It’s the sort of thing that is, for example, linked to religious or mythological imagery, speaking of other great works and offering a reinvention or different interpretation. (I don’t find I have as much time to explore this as much as I’d like to.) Then there is a work that is intensely character-focussed, an effort to write a deeply moving and conflicted character that can stir something in people (though is this more in the hands of the reader than the author?).
So, what else? How can secondary world fantasies become more significant, culturally speaking? (And don’t say when it sells a bucket-load or gets its own TV series!) Or do you think these things are outside of our control?