A critical issue in fantasy?

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I have been dancing around the idea of reflexive authorship in the fantasy genre, calling for conscious, empathic work. This rarely happens in isolation, and I would argue that strong critical voices are vital, perhaps necessary, to fostering that reflexivity in the genre.

If fantasy is to maintain any sort of standing as a subversive literature, there must be critical foundations to build and break. We must demand, as readers and writers, for critical voices, to foster our own reflexivity, and advance the conversation. There is no point becoming involved in a circular conversation—the best you can do is recite the known lines in unison. You must shift the conversation, intercept it, subvert it.

We are faced with a situation where educational systems are forcing the humanities underground*, and devaluing art forms as social and cultural currency, and so then criticism, viewed often as an adjunct to literature itself, becomes further suffocated, especially in systems that claim to champion ‘critical thinking’, but in reality stifle it—the same sort of lipservice that plays out in politics and the media, where snippets and soundbites, acknowledgment of an issue, is enough to quell dissent and take it from public consciousness.

So, never has the need been greater for strong criticism. Alas, never has it been harder—with decreased demand and the echo chamber effect of online life and centralised control of media. So with that need comes a greater challenge, and thus greater responsibility. After all, if there are few critical voices to be heard, it is likely an indication that there is a great need for them, as unintuitive as that seems.

I would argue that criticism is as important as the form itself, if the form is to have any meaning at all. It is necessary for reflexivity, for holding the artists—even him or herself—to account. If we all agree, if we think the same thing, we become fish in a bowl—antiquary, circular, falsified and amnesic—never dreaming of that ocean.

A passage from the conclusion of Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy:

“The dismissal of the fantastic to the margins of literary culture is in itself an ideologically significant gesture, one which is not dissimilar to culture’s silencing of unreason. As an ‘art’ of unreason, and of desire, fantasy has persistently been silenced, or re-written, in transcendental rather than transgressive terms. Its threatened un-doing, or dissolution, of dominant structures, has been re-made, re-covered into moral allegory and magical romance. As Foucault writes of unreason, ‘Any transgression in life becomes a social crime, condemned and punished…imprisoned in a moral world [for offending] bourgeois society.’ …. It is either rejected altogether, or polemically refuted, or assimilated into ‘meaningful’ narrative structure, re-written or written out as romance or as fable. Otherness is transmuted into idealism by romance writers and is muted, made silent and invisible by ‘realistic’ works, only to return in strange, expressive forms in many texts.

Fantasy’s acceptance into mainstream creates wonderful opportunities, but it also threatens a caricaturing of the genre, taking away its liveliness and potential as future works attempt to mould themselves to a few standout features, themes, and tropes. We must keep transgressing with the genre, keeping pushing it beyond the boundaries, even as those boundaries shift to accommodate it.

As I have asked previously, what is the point of fantasy (infinite possibility!) if it merely reflects? Similarly, why journalism if it is just repeating the government lines, or why freedom of choice when we are all homogenised and lust after the same dreams, the same objects?

Why fantasy at all if it doesn’t break things? If it doesn’t get used and toyed with and experimented with?

And so for criticism: what use staid forms, when they in no way reflect the imagination and infinity of the genre? The forms and possibility of a form of criticism should be at least as creative as the object itself. That is why evolution of art is the best reflexive criticism of art. So what is happening in genre? For a start, there is no demand for sterile term-paper like critiques, academic journals—that is just a different form of uncritical recital. Criticism should draw on the strengths of the genre—the very creative power, the openness, its infinite potential. Its very subversive nature. To play with ideas, theme, structure and form, to be reflexive and dialogical. Criticism is perhaps even less bound than the genre itself.

I’m not saying these forms of criticism aren’t happening somewhere, but I want it to be at the forefront. That I am not aware of it means it is not strong enough. We as readers, as critics, as writers, should demand it. If it is genuinely creative and interesting, then it demands to be read.

We need a healthy, creative criticism for the genre to advance. We need that sounding board. We need revolutionaries pitching trash cans through the windows of our dull reflection. We must hold dreams to account. And it should not be seen as applying limitations, merely a lens. It shouldn’t proscribe boundaries, and similarly shouldn’t be bound by them. It should shatter them and see where the water spills through.

* Literally underground. I have watched over the past few years a university library I used systematically strip away a huge proportion of its books, placing them in below-ground storage, to make room for couches and workstations where, presumably, students will not read books.


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