Why realism does not equate to adult (or even good) fantasy
That foul smell in the air? There’s something rotten in the realm of fantasy fiction, and its name is realism.
Two of the blogs I frequent and another one I’ve recently stumbled across have all recently commented on (and lamented about) a new trend gripping fantasy these days: Realism, and the corresponding claim that it somehow makes fantasy more adult and serious.
Lagomorph Rex of Dweomera Lagomorpha says that the new trend leaves him cold: It’s no secret that I dislike the current trend in Fantasy. It’s almost as if every author has decided they will up the misery and muck quotient and see who can make the nastiest world in which to force their characters to try and survive in.
Michal Wojcik of One Last Sketch claims that realism has always been a part of the genre, albeit perhaps not as graphically and in your face, and that the new trend offers more crude style than literary substance: However, my problem with these “new takes” on the genre is that they don’t, actually, do anything new. Strip away the swears and the sex and you’re left with works not much different from their predecessors. Yes, there may be moral ambiguity, but Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith also wrote amoral worlds.
Meanwhile, Al Harron over at The Blog that Time Forgot says that supposedly “childlike” fantasy like The Lord of the Rings is getting a bad rap from critics by association, especially as adherents of realism seek to distance themselves from fantasy altogether: As for “humanity at its worst,” how can one forget the incredible pathos of Denethor, the poor deceived Southrons, the treacherous Saruman, and the unforgettable Gollum? Really, there aren’t many less magic, fantastical creatures or non-human races in Westeros than there are in the already magic-deprived Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age.
As Wojcik points out, grim and gritty realistic fantasy is not entirely new under the sun, although I don’t think we’ve previously seen the likes of George R.R. Martin’s incredibly brutal A Song of Ice and Fire. I happen to like Martin’s series very much (or I did; it’s been so long since the last book I’ve forgotten not only the details, but entire plotlines and characters). But I don’t like it because it’s “realistic” (which it is, but only if you choose to overlook elements like the undead Others, and dragons), but rather, because it’s well-written. There is nothing wrong with realism in fantasy, but grim realism does not equal good, and it is certainly not inherently better than fantasy that doesn’t include graphic depictions of sex or violence. For example, take Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains. It’s the first book of a planned trilogy (I believe) but it’s no revolution, nor does it say anything new. With its rampant drug use and prostitution and biting poverty, Morgan’s fantastic city of Trelayne feels like Detroit, except with fewer murders per capita. The Steel Remains teaches us that life is mostly dirty and horrible. War is hell and men are weak and piggish, too. But it drives the same points home, again and again, over 400 dark, cynical, iconoclastic pages. Even A Song of Ice and Fire suffers from this malady, but it at least is blessed with superior plotting, characters, and unpredictability.
Contrast these works with a book like The Once and Future King. T.H. White’s novel faithfully portrays much of medieval life, from its accurate depictions of royal feasts to the squalid conditions of peasant life. Yet on a sliding scale of “realism” it registers far to the left of the ultra-realism of the historical fiction of a Bernard Cornwell. But is Cornwell’s The Grail Quest trilogy or his terrific Warlord Trilogy more adult and serious because they’re bloody as hell, and feature realistic depictions of Crecy and Camlann? Hell no. The Once and Future King engages the reader in philosophic meditations on subjects that range from aging, to the nature of conflict, earthly passions, and religion, and man’s inability to ever enter a state of grace. The Lord of the Rings confronts issues like the problem of power, free will vs. predestination, and the nature of evil. Ursula LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore confronts mortality head-on. These are very much adult, realistic issues, wreathed in the cloak of (not so realistic) fantasy.
In short, death and suffering and terribly flawed characters behaving badly have no inherent appeal. If I want real pain and misery and awful behavior—and sometimes it’s worth examining these qualities and conditions, and under which circumstances they occur—William Shirer’s The Rise of the Fall of the Third Reich fits the bill. Real history is rife with suffering. I don’t necessarily need a steady diet of it in my fantasy.
Frankly, fantasy at its best allows us to escape from the bonds of this world. Why else does it feature heroes with swords, monsters, magic, castles, and treasure hordes? Fantasy readers like this stuff. Escape is one of fantasy’s strengths, and a quality of the genre to be embraced, not shunned. I also think that readers who deny fantasy’s escapist element are deluding themselves. We love sword fights, and alien landscapes, and dragons. If we didn’t, wouldn’t we all be reading John Steinbeck or George Eliot novels instead?
In the non-fiction memoir One Who Walked Alone Robert E. Howard explains this appeal in a conversation as relayed by Novalyne Price-Ellis:
I don’t think you’re going to like ol’ Conan. His struggle is big, uncomplicated with civilized standards. The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world with its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life. They want to go back to the origin of the human race. The civilization we live in is a hell of a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it.
Now, I know many fantasy aficionados recoil at the word “escape.” But I would argue that high fantasy, swords and sorcery, and other types of escapist fantasy are not any lighter on ideas or less literary than “realistic” works like A Song of Ice and Fire. Michael Drout’s audio survey of the fantasy genre Rings, Swords, and Monsters posits that escapism is a worthy function of fantasy literature, as it enables us to see our own world in a clearer light. “Fantasy literature takes us further, deeper, and higher, so that when we return, we see the old world in a new way,” Drout says. He argues that fantasy typically focuses on larger and more existential “needs” of characters (survival, defeating forces of evil that threaten to overwhelm worlds, grappling with the reality of death) while realistic fiction focuses on the “wants” of characters (i.e., compromised freedom, broken relationships, lack of respect, etc). Fantasy literature actually wrestles with the bigger issues (death, belief in God, etc.) better than modern, realistic novels by engaging them directly, Drout argues.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien takes critics of fantasy to task for confusing the “Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” The desire for escape is an understandable yearning for freedom by modern readers, sensitive men and women trapped in prisons comprised of cubicles, rush-hour traffic, and the vagaries of the stock market. There’s enough grim reality and pale shades of gray waiting for us at the end of our commutes.
Oh, hah. I was just writing about something similar to this, literally two days ago, I think? Here. You can ignore the first five paragraphs, though.
The problem that I have with these critics (who may be imaginary; this is definitely one of those, “I know people say this about fantasy, I just don’t happen to be able to think of any right now”) is that the idea that fantasy doesn’t matter because it isn’t realistic confuses the terms “realistic” and “real.” The idea that something isn’t meaningful because it doesn’t look like what we can see now, with drugs and horrible urban decay, is absurd.
Though, “poor misguided Southrons” may be giving Tolkien more credit than he’s really due; that could also have just been some straight-up racism.
Brilliant article! And the point is well-made that Martin’s work isn’t fantastic because of the heightened sense of realism it brings to a fantasy world (although that’s a factor), it’s fantastic because the guy is an amazingly good writer–his characters live and breathe, and they are the source of our fascination. Their inhabiting a dangerous, dystopic world instead of an ideal fantasy only increases the sense of jeopardy and the dire straits they find themselves in. And we wouldn’t care about that if they weren’t so concisely and lovingly renders. The true magic of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is Martin’s skill with evoking great characters and making us live through their thoughts.
I, for one, was never a fan of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. It was well written, but the sheer melancholy of the world was driving me to drink! Gritty is fine, but too much is too much. I can’t say that the thing that draws me to fantasy is its slavish devotion to reality.
Hi again! I’ve been largely absent, but reading, working on that project…soon…to unleash…
So, I feel in past remarks I’ve raved about “Political Correctness” and my utter disdain for it, I could draw parallels to this. Some heckler screams “This fantasy is just unrealistic, anyone ever actually hold a sword and wave it around for 3 minutes?” ala Poul Anderson’s famous “Of thud and Blunder” essay. http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/on-thud-and-blunder/ While though at the time he wrote it he had a good point, IMO the push for realism (as much in human behavior, societies, etc. as SCA technicialy) was like “PC maniacs” that openly demanded things, publishers catered to them, but it only serves to alienate the base if anything while the people who scream for PC don’t buy anything.
For the “Realism” part I’ll use Larry Niven’s “Bolognium”. Too many fantastic elements and a “Flesh to Stone” spell is every bit as reality bending as a “Warp Drive” and the fantasy becomes excessively overblown “High Fantasy” that needs some other element to justify it, most notably humor. Too few, the story is more difficult to pull off.
However, something to stress is that the “Bolognium” has NOTHING to do with what is actually “Real” and EVERYTHING to do with what the public will accept.
“Star Wars” is ridiculous as far as any hard “Science Fiction” goes. It’d have to be a “Level 4” technology pretending to be a “Level 3”. It’s so far out the “Lightsaber” is actually the most realistic part of it. I won’t waste time repeating countless essays on it, the important thing is that George Lucas got the public to swallow it with excellent mythic/storytelling appeal so therefore any future sci-fi writer can use tons of ultratech elements, they are even expected, with no worry of explaining them.
Likewise, the flood of “High Fantasy” stuff like Harry Potter, Masters of the Universe, Lord of the Rings, etc. opened a lot of doors for what a fantasy author can get away with. But, for gawdz sake, has anyone out there dabbled in REAL “Magick”!? Utter stupid waste of time and then when you start tossing out the sh-t you bought and played with…stuff starts happening… It’s truly amazing how something the “Fantasy Fan” would scoff at in RL can be truly shattering to witness. “Haw! Harry potter wanna-be is scared when that shadow moves…!” The “Real” stuff is fascinating in it’s own right, but any “Modern Fantasy” fictions based around it cater to the can’t get enough Neil Gaiman crowd, though thanks to the big “White Wolf” games appeal there is a market for it.
It’s “The Story” that is and always has and always will be most important. Remember the classic 80s tv show “Amazing stories” where the intro started and begun with the shaman sitting at the fire telling tales?
This is a great post. And I think you’re touching here on something that extends beyond just fantasy. Certainly in superhero comics there’ve been some … odd … storytelling decisions made in the name of “realism”. Since at least 1986 there’s been a vogue for “grim and gritty” stories (a term I’ve lately seen being applied to some fantasy fiction), and it seems that’s developed into a frequently-depressing style that turns away from exuberance and imagination in favour of a concentration on tragedy and disaster.
But let’s step back further: there’s been a tendency for new literary movements to proclaim themselves more “realistic”, and therefore supposedly better, than their predecessors since at least the time of Don Quixote. The Romantics said they were doing away with the archaic techniques of the neo-classicists, the modernists said they were clearing away wrongheaded Victorian ideology, and so on. Time passes, and it becomes clear that the new movement isn’t much more realistic at all, but only distorts reality in a slightly different way.
Ultimately, I think there’s frequently an odd, and slightly paradoxical, desire to a) pit realism against “escapism”, and b) proclaim realism superior. But I’m not sure escapism has ever been convincingly defined — if it has a purpose, is it really escapism? If not, what does the word mean? If we’re talking about a fiction, which by definition is an unreal thing, what is realism in that context and what is its value? It’s something I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about, but I’ve had difficulty figuring out where to start. The audio survey you mention looks like an intriguing start. Thanks!
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Braak: Take a look at the second link I’ve provided for a couple critics (fantasy authors, actually), who actually posit that realism–and as someone else added on my blog, moral relativism–are what makes fantasy “adult.” Heroes are a dying breed, it seems.
Matthew: That’s a good point regarding escapism: Technially any fiction, realist or no, that suspends our disbelief and immerses us in a secondary world (however real) is in some sense escapist. But for a starting point of exploration, I would recommend either Drout’s audiobook, or better yet (and Drout, a Tolkien scholar, would agree, I think), “Tree and Leaf” by Tolkien. A few small samples:
I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the “escape” of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves but knights and kings and priests. For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit or at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products.
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.
Wow, Brian, you’re putting up some of my favorite posts here at the BG-library o’fun! There is so much to think upon here, so much I agree with. Mostly I wish to say ‘Thank you’ for relaying the fabulous JRRT concept of the “Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” that I had never heard of before.
That is simply astounding to one who has always taken umbrage at the concept of ‘escapism’ — be it applied by ignorants to my fantasy, my reading, my entertainment, to anything they do not understand nor find desirable — for I am one who staunchly believes that ALL distraction from MY REAL DAILY LIFE is escapism. Yet I neither am seeking to escape nor refusing to return – I am simply enjoying being entertained for a bit of time. Distraction from life through entertainment is escapism – be it a movie, a video or board game, a painting class, a hike, a book of any sort – the biography of Jeremiah Smith to the latest Betty Crocker cookbook to a Steven Erikson novella. We’re all enthralled by something we find entertaining. And so this “Escape of the Prisoner” versus the “Flight of the Deserter” is so fitting it is my epiphany for today.
Keep up the great posts Brian!
Consider also that as science fiction has grown grittier and more realistic, its audience has grown grayer and less numerous.
I don’t think it’s so much about being “adult” as opposed to, I suppose, childish, as it is about gender. The fetishization of the grim and the gritty looks to me mostly like a defense against accusations of girl cooties (about which consult Connie Willis’s classic essay). Nobody can mistake you for a writer of rainbows and unicorns if your magic city is as rough as Detroit, and nobody can call your fairy tales girly if your fae are sadists and fascists, right? Right?
I like a fantasy with enough granules of grit so that it feels vivid, but I don’t much like to have a truckload of sand upended over me. I’d rather have grim and lyrical than grim and gritty.
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Nice one Brian, and you brought up Song of Ice and Fire, which is the holy grail of getting me pissed off fast. Perhaps all this ‘realism’ is why I continue to go back to pulp, it just feels ‘better’ to me as real life tries daily to put me in an early grave. Anyway, fantastic post!
Thanks for the kind words, Jason and Scott.
Sarah, I very much agree with grim and lyrical, which I suppose is why the likes of Poul Anderson and JRR Tolkien call to me far more than Martin or Morgan.
If you’re intersted, I posted some further thoughts on my own blog, here:
[…] can thank Brian Murphey’s “Why Realism Does not Equate Adult (Or Even Good) Fantasy” post over at Black Gate for finally eclipsing One Last Sketch’s chief reputation as “that […]
Brian: yeah, though I’m not sure it’s right, in a discussion like this, to put authors in the same category as critics. Authors are always looking at very personal, particular ideas about the form they’re working in — Sarah Douglass or Richard Morgan says, “Fantasy needs to grow up from Tolkien,” it’s not the same thing as a critic saying it; I think it’s fair to say that when an author says something like that, they’re more likely talking about “MY fantasy needs to grow up from how I understood Tolkien.”
But even if not, we’re still only talking about a couple of people who I don’t know should be considered representative and, frankly, Moorcock has been complaining about simplistic fantasy for, what, forty years?
Also, I’m not altogether sure we’re talking about “moral relativism” in things like A Song of Fire and Ice. There is some, I guess, in the sense that we’re expected to overlook the fact that Sansa is only 14 when she gets married, because that’s just how people rolled back in the old days.
But most of this stuff, with characters who are as bad as they are good are morally ambiguous; it’s not only always clear what is and isn’t right, but ambiguity rests pretty strongly on the reader have a clear moral code in order to appreciate it.
Hi Braak, thanks for the comment.
I am on record as enjoying A Song of Ice and Fire and I intend to finish it. I found it an amazing work through A Storm for Swords, though I was rather disappointed in A Feast for Crows.
My problem with overly “realistic” fantasy is that, in its desire to replicate “what is” (or perhaps more accurately, “what was” in medieval Europe), enchantment suffers. When fantastic elements are introduced in these books–like the duenda in The Steel Remains, for instance–they feel unconvincing and rather tacked on. To me anyway. These works share more in common with historical fiction than fantasy. I like both genres (see my recent post on Bernard Cornwell) and they share some common ground, but I think they serve different purposes.
Also, the main point of my post was not that realistic fantasy is flawed or a lesser form of art, but rather its not more adult than a work like The Lord of the Rings, as Morgan claimed.