Relevant Fantasy

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?

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Relevant Fantasy: One of the questions I’ve been thinking about recently is how fantasy literature – or, strictl… http://bit.ly/jG7GpN

  2. The power of books has diminished. Once, they could move the world, but I think now an author is doing well if she or he moves a few copies – and manages to penetrate the fug of modern life in their readers’ minds at the same time.

    To tell a good story, to entertain is all very worthy but good books should always do more. They don’t need to preach, but they should engage with greater principles, or at the very least, continue a dialogue that stretches back to (and in the case of fantasy I’d argue, even before) the written word.

    Myth, dream, hopes, fears, the irrational, and the fantastical can all be powerful tools in the hands of a skilled writer. From the Greek dramatists to the likes of Borges and Calvino, the inventive retelling of our story, the human one, is important. What we tell each other even if outwardly just to entertain, tells us in turn much about who we are, who we’ve been, and where we are going. SF doesn’t have a monopoly on the future, just as literary fiction doesn’t hold the rights to telling meaningful stories about the past/present. Good fantasy can blend in elements of all three.

    It can also allow us to play, without the restraints of a rational, understood world limiting those horizons. Play in writing as in life, is important, both as a liberator and a goad to inspire creativity. When well used, it can free us from the self-applied shackles that day to day routines can often forge. Set alongside humour, it can be not just a tool to elevate a story, but a balm for the weary mind.

    All worthwhile things in my opinion.


  3. Hi Eric,

    That’s an interesting point re: the power of books diminishing. I don’t know. Books can still be powerful, but possibly not fiction. Non-fiction, for example, the recent Treasure Islands – on offshore finance – is cooking up a wonderful storm. It possesses some kind of power. As for fiction, I don’t know – things occasionally reach critical mass, but that’s often helped along with publishers spending money (as they would, this is a business after all).

  4. I don’t mean to say they can’t still be important. And that’s a fair point you raise re non-fiction, as I’m mostly speaking here of novels.

    But compare our present age to those antiquated years when few people had any books in their possession, or when a book could break entirely new religious/cultural/philosophical ground, and was often couched as fiction rather than a strict work of didaction for this very reason. I think the age of this sort of impact has passed, or at least diminished, the novel’s previous role in this regard co-opted by other more immediate forms of media. Or perhaps it is simply harder to see, against the huge background of chatter created by an increasingly literate society. This is not a bad thing, just a change. The novel survives, even if its role is harder now to pinpoint.


  5. I have two issues with the idea of “relevant fantasy.” Not that secondary world fantasy can or cannot be relevant (I think it absolutely can) but in how tricky it can be to decide if any given work is or not.

    First, I tend to give writers the benefit of the doubt. That is, I assume a writer has layers of meaning or concepts or themes going in whether foregrounded or backgrounded, unless there’s very good reason — say, a blog post about how “I just write to entertain!” — to think otherwise. It has been my experience that it too easy to not give the benefit of the doubt to some writers, while reserving it for others, based on criteria that sometimes have little to do with the actual content of any given work.

    Second, how are we defining relevant? Who is defining relevance? How or why are they passing judgement, and based on what? There can be a lot of creeping subjectivity that masquerades as objectivity. That’s difficult to pull apart. Reviewer A might write “this incident is a cheap dramatic device” (irrelevant) while Reviewer B might write “the author uses the incident to explore power differentials in society” (relevant).

  6. Hi Kate,

    Re: point two – yeah, that’s something I mentioned, as it’s a bit of a messy area and completely open to interpretation.

    As for giving writers the benefit of the doubt, that’s a good point, and very honourable. I guess some writers are better than others at making those points better realised in their work, perhaps? (Even though their concepts etc. may well be no more in depth than the other.)

  7. I agree that some writers are better than others at realising such points. And overall you know I hope that I’m agreeing with you.

    But for me there’s caution: when “we” say that some writers are better than others at realising such points, the other side of that coin is that some reviewers give the benefit of the doubt more to some writers than to others, or even look for layers in certain works while ignoring or assuming the lack thereof in others. For instance, I still see a lot of sexism in the field, and this is one way it manifests.

  8. “the other side of that coin is that some reviewers give the benefit of the doubt more to some writers than to others, or even look for layers in certain works while ignoring or assuming the lack thereof in others” – yes, absolutely the case. Though you would hope that the more prominent review sites tend to watch out for this. Perhaps.

  9. Stephen R Donaldson says that fantasy is essentially about morality. He doesn’t necessarily mean the epic struggle of Good versus Evil, like Frodo et al versus Sauron, but the struggle within a person of their capacity for goodness and their capacity for evil. Much as I love his stuff, his characters do spend an awful lot of time struggling within themselves.

    I think one key theme of fantasy is power and its use. Magic is power, and characters who use it have all sorts of moral, ethical and practical quandaries to puzzle through. And you could read magic and its use as a metaphor for political and military power in the real world.

    I certainly hope fantasy is relevant to people – as that’s what I both read and write – but it can be difficult to really believe that sometimes. Although sheer escapism also has its value, too.

  10. Hi Sean,

    I guess what Donaldson says an extension of how we interpret mythology or religious texts, perhaps? It certainly seem to fit that bill. That, for me though while useful, is perhaps a little limiting. I’m not that much interested in morals from a textual point of view (though I do often like to set things up for readers to question themselves). I like what you say about power and ethics, but how aware are many fantasy writers of ethics? The genre is deeply conservative, with largely white straight males dominating stories, and women so frequently treated as an afterthought.

    Now I’m just depressed!

  11. In a way, it’s strange that fantasy should be so masculine-focused with so many female writers working in the genre.