Why I Don’t Like Fantasy, Explained (Part Two)

The other day, I talked about why I don’t like fiction in the fantasy genre. I admitted that I was using a rather specific definition of fantasy, and I went over a specific example of a fantasy story that didn’t work for me.

So what does work for me? I would say that I’m capable of enjoying any successful piece of fiction. Ah… but what is “successful fiction,” and how does one know if one’s creating it?

Writing successful Fiction comes down to the question of “What’s in it for me?” “Me,” in this case, being the reader.

Or so I believe. I wouldn’t trust me, as it’s quite arguable whether or not I’ve ever written a piece of successful fiction.

What is success? It’s a checklist.

  • Did the author enjoy writing the piece? (Some great authors simply don’t enjoy writing, so…)
  • Regardless, was the author proud of the piece when it was complete?
  • Did an editor accept the piece for publication?
  • Did the author get paid?
  • Did the author get paid enough? (Enough to pay this month’s bills, enough to qualify for membership in one of the many guilds with which authors like to fiddle, but which have dubious impact on the ability of authors to make a living at writing.)
  • Did the reader enjoy the story?
  • Did the reader enjoy the story enough? (Enough to read something else by the author, enough to recommend the story to friends, enough to vote for the story in one of the many awards competitions with which readers like to fiddle, but which have dubious impact on the ability of readers to enjoy fiction.)
  • Will the editor, or other editors, buy more pieces for publication?
  • And, most important in 2022: Will Netflix, Apple or HBO want the rights?

I’ve succeeded on a few of those fronts—not Netflix/Apple/HBO, obviously. Maybe it’s just a former librarian’s bias, but I will maintain that, in any year, the most important marker of success is this one: If you read it in front of an audience, will the audience respond in either the way you intended them to, or in surprising ways that are even more wonderful?

There I have succeeded, to my everlasting pride.

So, having demonstrated to you that I think I am an authority, I shall expostulate about that utter creature of fantasy fiction, the reader.

The reader doesn’t give a damn about what I think is successful, or what you think is successful.

(The reader may give a damn about what Delores next door thinks is successful, and thus may read a lot of really inane claptrap; but that reader is so far gone that “enjoyment” is not possible for him. He can only check the box that he read the fashionable book.)

The reader, if he is awake, asks, “What’s in it for me?”

“Are you going to make me laugh? Are you going to turn me on? (Let’s be honest.) Are you going to make me feel young again? Are you going to make me cry or jump in fear, in a way that’s only cool when it’s brought on by a good story?”

Many works have answered yes to at least one of these questions for me. Can’t think of one that’s done all in the same volume, but Robert Heinlein has probably come close, as has Diana Gabaldon. I can read in just about any genre. Cyberpunk hasn’t worked for me, but I’ll get into that some other time. I love classic SF, Horror, mythology, superhero comics, history, political satire, political analysis (which is often funnier), “literary” fiction, young adult adventures… I’ve read the odd mystery and the even odder romance. I’ve enjoyed them all.

So why am I having a go at fantasy, and what is fantasy, anyway?

“Fantasy is a genre of literature that features magical and supernatural elements that do not exist in the real world.” That’s what the MasterClass website says. It adds, “Speculative in nature, fantasy is not tied to reality or scientific fact.”

  • High or Epic – set in a world with its own history and laws, uses magic and the supernatural
  • Low – set in the real world, where magic is encountered as a surprise
  • Magical Realism – a lot like Low Fantasy, but the magic elements are accepted as commonplace
  • Sword and Sorcery – High Fantasy specifically focused on sword-wielding
  • Dark – Blends fantasy with horror
  • Fables – personified animals typically teach a moral lesson
  • Fairy Tales – Magical beings placed in simple children’s stories
  • Superhero – protagonists have non-science-based, superhuman abilities.

Reaching back to last week, I would still call “The Dragon Masters” high fantasy, because the world is so far removed from our own and the story could be told with no science at all. Other common recent examples blend the two. The Harry Potter series starts as low fantasy, because Harry did not know magic was real. Seven books later, it was part of his every day life, and his story had evolved to magical realism. Outlander I would call low fantasy because, even though we come to accept that Claire and her family travel in time, most of the action in the stories is just plain, old interaction between people. Parts of the MCU are low fantasy or superhero fantasy or even magical realism, but Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, Black Widow and the Hulk are all science-based characters.

So, do I still say I don’t like fantasy? I think I don’t care for high fantasy or sword and sorcery.

But why don’t I like those types of fantasy anyway?

I used to think it was maybe the names. “Galfarthia Gringularius Flez of the Nine Chambers Inside the Magical Realms of LeffleMeffleElarium, just around the corner from Taco Bell.”

Or maybe it was all the new words one must learn just to get through Chapter One of your average fantasy novel: the names of the lands, the names of the cities, the names of the gods, the names of the relics of the gods that our heroes must capture/steal/pawn in order to save the city so that the gods will be happy and the land will no longer be barren.

Or could it have been, from the age of 12 on, listening to the damned world-building? Let’s face it, we geeks love us our world-building, and we start doing it the moment we see a set of dice in the shapes of something other than cubes. And if we love anything more than designing new worlds in our heads—what their climate is, what the map looks like, what the system of government was before the evil overlords came—it’s telling our friends about those worlds.

For hours.

On End.

Until somebody dies.  

Or maybe it was just the flashbacks to playing “Dungeons and Dragons” as a 12-year-old, which probably would have been fine, if it hadn’t been such a constant reminder of the fact that I was 12 and I was playing a game that took days to learn and minutes to lose, in a dank room with danker pre-teens, and that was my best option for entertainment?

Yeah, sure, now I can look back and pretend I was Mike Wheeler or Will Byers, and those days around the multi-sided dice led to cool adventures and finding super-power girlfriends eating Eggos in the woods. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure some of us told each other those stories then, under the covers with the lights out.)

But it wasn’t a happy time, and it woulda made a lousy Netflix series.

That’s a lot of maybes. I think it comes down to my wanting to read or watch stories about people with whom I can identify. I hold to my point from last week that many fantasy place magic, supernatural power, talismans and politics ahead of character. So the characters get lost—or never are found—and I cannot identify with them. I think I go looking in fiction for fresh ideas about my stale life situations. Always have. Whereas some people just want to escape their personal realities entirely. My sense of self is too tied to my time, place and history.

And I again invite readers to find me works of fantasy—especially high fantasy or sword and sorcery—that engage the me that lives here and now.

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