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Is fantasy escapism?

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  • Doc
    replied
    Originally posted by Heresiologist View Post
    Yeah, Wizardry and Wild Romance is a personal favourite. It's interesting to me that you see MM consciously resisting Tolkien because I always thought the stuff MM complains about probably just leapt out and jolted him right out of the story.

    Since you mentioned W&WR, I've consulted LeGuin's Language of the Night, Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Disch's The Stuff Our Dreams are Made Of. Seems our concerns about escapism are well trod ground. I'd forgotten how down on LeGuin Disch was, though.
    I have no idea how I missed this part of the discussion!

    W&WR is a fantastic resource, as is Disch’s work (I knew I was buying it as soon as I read the title). Reading literary criticism by people whose work has been unpacked for decades is especially interesting.

    Since Mieville was part of the discussion earlier, it is hard for me to separate any of his literary criticism from his academic Marxism. I usually think of Marxist lit crit as an exercise by people who cannot actually write, rather than an exercise of a celebrated author. Another one of my favorites Jeff Vandermeer, has an interesting body of criticism and reviews, and his editorial work reveals some of the things his analysis does (especially as it relates to the new weird and steampunk).

    But enough of my fanboying. With respect to MM and his response to Tolkien, there are about 20 old threads in here where he addresses it directly. Without reviewing all of them, as I recall, at different times he took parts of both your and Sir S’s readings. I think it’s too strong to claim there’s a great deal of active resistance to Tolkien’s approach. I think it was much more about having to compare his work to the giant elephant in the room, which is actually a
    little odd. While Mike can structure a narrative as well as anyone, his worlds come alive because of the characters in them. I always saw Tolkien as the opposite. He was so concerned with the cultures he was building, the characters had to fit that world. Elric is bigger than Melnibone or the Young Kingdoms or even Tanelorn. Aragorn isn’t bigger than Gondor.

    sorry to derail the thread...

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  • Heresiologist
    replied
    Yeah, Wizardry and Wild Romance is a personal favourite. It's interesting to me that you see MM consciously resisting Tolkien because I always thought the stuff MM complains about probably just leapt out and jolted him right out of the story.

    Since you mentioned W&WR, I've consulted LeGuin's Language of the Night, Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Disch's The Stuff Our Dreams are Made Of. Seems our concerns about escapism are well trod ground. I'd forgotten how down on LeGuin Disch was, though.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    I have the feeling that there are both readerly and writerly ways of resisting escapism. An example of a writerly strategy would be Ursula Le Guin's approach in the Earthsea Books, but there are of course many many other examples. On the readerly side, how about Moorcock's political reading of Tolkien in Wizardry and Wild Romance? He seems to consciously resist being caught up in Tolkien's rural, conservative worldview. Here is the quote:

    The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are 'safe' but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are 'dangerous'... Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class... If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the mob -mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence - the worst aspect of modern urban society represented as the whole by the a fearful, backward-yearning class.
    When I was younger I spent most of my time in second-world fantasies. But as I am getting older I find that pure escapism is mostly a lost paradise to me, tainted by ideology and allegory. This has shifted my reading habits in recent years, from SF and fantasy to weird fiction and ghostly tales: Bradbury, Borges, Kafka, Lovecraft, Carter, Du Maurier, Ellison and so on. Moorcock's fiction appeals to me because, in its best moments, it is unrationalized, disturbing and delutional and ... weird! I am reading Gloriana at the present. Just like Peake it is filled with eccentric images and strange behaviour. Which feels very much like our own world.

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  • Heresiologist
    replied
    Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post
    ... Earthsea starts out as escapist fiction but evolves into something closer to anti-escapism, a radically different and down to earth notion of what it might mean in practice.

    Yes I read all of the Earthsea books last year. It's fascinating how she managed to change and expand the story over many years. I'd like to read Delany if I get the chance.
    So, if Earthsea ends up as anti-escapism, do you think that means it has escaped Bakker's net for escapist fantasy?

    At any rate, I'm now thinking I still prefer Ellison's message that the purpose of his writing is to let you know you are not alone. Forgetting the world and the thought that a meaningful world can only be found in certain strains of fantasy sounds like a road leading to solipsism. Though, of course, as EverKing and yourself already pointed out, a little escapism now and then shouldn't be a problem.
    Last edited by Heresiologist; 10-01-2020, 07:26 PM.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    If we are talking about connections and similarities - rather than identities - I think I agree. Probably no book, or genre for that sake, is a closed world. Yes I read all of the Earthsea books last year. It's fascinating how she managed to change and expand the story over many years. I'd like to read Delany if I get the chance.

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  • Heresiologist
    replied
    Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post

    I think I would still argue that genres are qualitatively different. That's basically why it makes sense to have them. Not in the sense that some genres are better than others. They just have different logics. And different ways of subverting those logics. So that even if a story by Flaubert reminds you of Vance it's still something else. Because the field is structured the way it is.

    That doesn't mean you have to agree with how the field is operating. To give an example from the world of art, you can choose to read a painting as if it were a photograph. Or a video work as if it were a sculpture. You can also read Flaubert as if he were a fantasy author - and I think the example with Salammbo illustrates how sometimes it actually makes perfect sense to do so. But it still doesn't make him a fantasy author, objectively. At least not until enough people start to read him the same way as you.

    When it comes to authors like Borges or Le Guin, who consciously deconstruct genre conventions and expectations, this line of thinking obviously fails. Bad luck for me :) Earthsea starts out as escapist fiction but evolves into something closer to anti-escapism, a radically different and down to earth notion of what it might mean in practice.
    Fair enough. Though I should note that I don't approach Flaubert as a fantasy author, nor do I consider him one. It's more that I see connections and similarities, even commonalities. It's probably something to do with how, first and foremost, they are all storytellers to me. Plus, I'm often under the influence of authors like Ian McEwan and MM, to name a couple, who tend to want to breakdown or mix genre categories, if not dispense with them altogether.

    I'll also note that Delany should be added to the conscientious genre subverters/deconstructors/reconstructors/reconfigurators camp. I think his Neveryona stories are largely about doing that sort of thing.

    Have you read all of the Earthsea books? I quite liked Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind.
    Last edited by Heresiologist; 09-29-2020, 08:33 PM.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    Originally posted by Heresiologist View Post
    No fantasy writer's work feels like Kafka or Flaubert for you? I think that might be a bad sign for the fantasy genre. What about Calvino or Borges? Le Guin? Holdstock? Or, coming from the opposite direction, doesn't some of Hardy's work ever seem reminiscent of fantasy with mythic aspirations?
    I think I would still argue that genres are qualitatively different. That's basically why it makes sense to have them. Not in the sense that some genres are better than others. They just have different logics. And different ways of subverting those logics. So that even if a story by Flaubert reminds you of Vance it's still something else. Because the field is structured the way it is.

    That doesn't mean you have to agree with how the field is operating. To give an example from the world of art, you can choose to read a painting as if it were a photograph. Or a video work as if it were a sculpture. You can also read Flaubert as if he were a fantasy author - and I think the example with Salammbo illustrates how sometimes it actually makes perfect sense to do so. But it still doesn't make him a fantasy author, objectively. At least not until enough people start to read him the same way as you.

    When it comes to authors like Borges or Le Guin, who consciously deconstruct genre conventions and expectations, this line of thinking obviously fails. Bad luck for me :) Earthsea starts out as escapist fiction but evolves into something closer to anti-escapism, a radically different and down to earth notion of what it might mean in practice.
    Last edited by Sir Sorcerer; 09-29-2020, 05:36 AM.

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  • Heresiologist
    replied
    Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post
    How we read is probably subjective in the end and hard to generalize. In my personal experience reading a fantasy novel feels very different from reading Flaubert or Kafka for instance. I suppose it has something to do with how conventions are being used and/or re-invented differently in either case.
    No fantasy writer's work feels like Kafka or Flaubert for you? I think that might be a bad sign for the fantasy genre. What about Calvino or Borges? Le Guin? Holdstock? Or, coming from the opposite direction, doesn't some of Hardy's work ever seem reminiscent of fantasy with mythic aspirations?

    Then there's Dineson. At the moment, I can't think of any fantasy genre work that came close to "re-enchanting the world" the way some of her stories do. Especially, Babette's Feast. Not sure how that factors in, though. Maybe as a counter example.

    Also, it's been a while, so maybe I'm not remembering it correctly, but your remark about Flaubert immediately reminded me of how reading Salammbo seemed close to some of the more historically oriented sword and sorcery.

    The way I understand Bakker's line of argument, almost any kind of fiction can be used to escape the real world. In fantasy it happens by replacing science with magic and positing magic as a kind of lost meaningfulness and value. I am being reductive here but I think that's the gist of it.
    Except that I think he's ascribing some kind of special escapist power to fantasy, that seems about right to me. When it comes to fantasy providing meaningfulness and value, I think I've read a lot of fantasy that wasn't all that concerned with those things. Maybe he's coming from a narrower definition of fantasy, though.

    What to me is the weakest link in his defence of fantasy is that it tends to turn the genre into some kind of ersatz religion. I feel that magic is much more wild, ecstatic, and opaque than belief.
    Yeah, I also had thoughts along the ersatz religion line. So, uh, good point! I'd also add that I have vague memories about religions that don't work quite like he posits. Because there are always more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your fantasies...

    The existence of Science Fantasy seems like another weak link. 😉
    Last edited by Heresiologist; 09-28-2020, 09:47 PM.

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  • EverKing
    replied
    Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post

    It might be argued that what is bad about escapism is that our whole society is based on it! Like your idea of fantasy as a kind of tactical - partial - withdrawal.
    Haha! That was a bit of my point. Like with other escapes--holidays, alcohol, etc.--the danger lies not in the escape itself but the extent of the escape. Coming home from a hard week of work and tossing a few back to put it all behind may not be the healthiest coping mechanism, of course, but it is only really a problem when it becomes your habitual and sole coping mechanism. Heading to Bora Bora to unwind and reward yourself after completing a major project would normally be considered a healthy escape--emptying the bank accounts every few days to go on yet another holiday to avoid work or family, on the other hand, is pretty self destructive. I contend that the same principles hold true with fiction (regardless of genre): breezing through some clap-trap novel may not expand your consciousness but it gives your brain a little down time; ignoring reality to completely disappear into some fiction or other is pretty self destructive.

    As you said, Sir, the bad thing is when society is built on it (or even just one's own life).

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    China Miéville on escapism and politics in fantastic fiction:
    http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.../newsinger.htm

    The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can't escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren't about the real world they therefore 'escape' is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That's why some fantasies (like Swift's Gulliver's Travels) are so directly allegorical--but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can't help but reverberate around the reader's awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.
    Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the 'escape' that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it's precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it's not nearly fantastic enough. It's escapist, but it can't escape.
    Edit:
    I agree with many of the things he says. Especially about fantasy's critical and subversive potential. But to be honest I read Miéville because of his imagination, not his politics. Reading fantasy works because of the politics they embed seems too much like homework.
    Last edited by Sir Sorcerer; 09-28-2020, 11:13 AM.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    Originally posted by EverKing View Post
    To continue that line of thought I have been wondering, what's so bad about a little escapism, anyway?
    It might be argued that what is bad about escapism is that our whole society is based on it! Like your idea of fantasy as a kind of tactical - partial - withdrawal.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    Originally posted by Heresiologist View Post
    Thing is, I don't notice a qualitative difference between an enthralling fantasy read and that of any other genre. So, I'm not convinced reading fantasy is as special as he's trying to make it out to be.[/URL].
    How we read is probably subjective in the end and hard to generalize. In my personal experience reading a fantasy novel feels very different from reading Flaubert or Kafka for instance. I suppose it has something to do with how conventions are being used and/or re-invented differently in either case.

    The way I understand Bakker's line of argument, almost any kind of fiction can be used to escape the real world. In fantasy it happens by replacing science with magic and positing magic as a kind of lost meaningfulness and value. I am being reductive here but I think that's the gist of it.

    So I think when he is arguing against technology he is arguing from inside a fantasy logic. I don't think he would actually disagree with your view of a more complex or even irrational science.

    What to me is the weakest link in his defence of fantasy is that it tends to turn the genre into some kind of ersatz religion. I feel that magic is much more wild, ecstatic, and opaque than belief.

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  • EverKing
    replied
    To continue that line of thought I have been wondering, what's so bad about a little escapism, anyway? We use the term as some sort of detraction from reading but in the end is there any real damage caused from the occasional pursuit of escape? Certainly there can be a psychological argument against living as an escapist but as with most things a short holiday from the stresses and disasters of the real world could actually provide some benefit to facing it all. I know it has certainly helped me "reset" is troubled times.

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  • Heresiologist
    replied
    Originally posted by Sir Sorcerer View Post
    Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one’s life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture that life is meaningless.
    Thing is, I don't notice a qualitative difference between an enthralling fantasy read and that of any other genre. So, I'm not convinced reading fantasy is as special as he's trying to make it out to be. Then again, I think the genre has long suffered from a streak of small dog syndrome and suspect Bakker's rather grandiose claims are an example of it.

    I also don't think science is necessarily the foe he's trying to make it out to be. For one thing, I've met, read and watched a number of scientists who have a well nigh mystical appreciation for nature and/or the cosmos. For another, somewhere in this dense jungle of posts I seem to remember MM saying something along the lines of the meaningless universe being all the more reason for us all to be good to one another.

    Anyway, perhaps this escapism/not-escapism binary is holding us back: Let’s Stop with the Realism Versus Science Fiction and Fantasy Debate.

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  • Sir Sorcerer
    replied
    A short essay by R. Scott Bakker on the necessity of escapism today:
    https://www.sffworld.com/2000/06/why...-and-why-now/?

    Quotes:

    Fantasy is the celebration of what we no longer are: individuals certain of our meaningfulness in a meaningful world. The wish-fulfillment that distinguishes fantasy from other genres is not to be the all-conquering hero, but to live in a meaningful world. The fact that such worlds are enchanted worlds, worlds steeped in magic, simply demonstrates the severity of our contemporary crisis.
    Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one’s life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture that life is meaningless.

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