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There’s No Escaping The Power of Fantasy Fiction

dragon kizette's Flickr
Don’t judge a book by its mythical creatures or magic spells! (Image from kizette’s Flickr)

The Telegraph recently published an interview with novelist Joanna Trollope in which she stated that children should read more classics rather than fantasy novels since while “fantasy is a lovely escape, I am not sure it’s much help.”  She feels that fantasy novels often do not relate to the real world and these stories can offer their readers little guidance or comfort.

Such statements were bound to fire up fantasy fans–and Hub bloggers Kelly Dickinson & Chelsea Condren were no exception.  

So why did you feel so compelled to respond to this article?

KD: Well,  I’ve been an avid fantasy fiction since early childhood.  My gut reactions run the gamut from instinctual outrage to resigned frustration.  The idea that fantasy is “unhelpful” or unconnected to the real world is one that I’ve heard often—from non-fantasy fiction fans—and it frustrates me to no end!

CC: I wanted to respond to this piece for very similar reasons. Also, there are so many fantasy novels that I personally think of as life-altering and some of these novels are classics in their own right. I’m thinking specifically of Madeleine L’Engle, J.K. Rowling, or Terry Pratchett.

How do you counter Trollope’s statement that “classics” offer a “stronger sense of guidance” while fantasy is purely escapist?

KD: Well, my snarky response would be that the classics she mentions are set in 19th century Britain, a world fairly different from the realities facing kids today– at least on the surface.  But to be less flippant, I understand her love of Jane Austen & George Eliot–it’s a love I share!  There are concepts in those books that bridge the changes since their publication–they can still be very meaningful to readers  today.  However, I don’t think that fantasy fiction is any different in that regard. 

CC: I think what is fundamentally lacking in Trollope’s assertion about real world guidance is her misunderstanding of how fiction actually provides guidance. Children aren’t nearly as literal as adults, for one thing. Both children & teens have a much higher capacity for imagination and fantasy but they are also generally able to separate fantasy from reality, despite what adults may think.

KD:  Definitely–children & teens frequently are much more willing to suspend disbelief, especially in the contest of a good story!  Readers can recognize that even though Hogwarts might not exist outside a book, Harry Potter’s longing to belong and his search for a home and family are experiences that very much exist in the ‘real’ world.

CC: Yes! The way that we receive guidance from books is not a literal process. We are influenced by something much deeper in literature, which is the connections we share as humans and the ways in which some experiences are unique, and some are universal.

KD: In fact, books that force guidance upon the readers or explain their own meanings too thoroughly feel clumsy and repulsive–especially to children & teens.

CC:  Definitely–I think children and teens known when an author is being disingenuous. There has always been an effort to use literature to teach lessons, but if a story wraps up too neatly it won’t teach anybody anything because it won’t feel real.

So, how does fantasy fiction relate to the real world?  

left hand of darknessCC: Fantasy isn’t necessarily an escape from the “real” world, it’s a way to express emotions and ideas that are sometimes hard to put down in a literal sense.  As a teen, I read Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, about a society where inhabitants change gender at will, and I was able to think really deeply about gender in a way I had never done before, and certainly wouldn’t have done with a standard feminist-leaning teen novel.

KD:  I completely agree!   Tamora Piece’s Song of the Lioness quartet was my alannafirst experience reading  about a heroine who didn’t end up with her first love but instead had a series of relationships as she grew up.  As a shy, romantic teen, this narrative made me think about relationships & adulthood–and gendered expectations about romance & sexuality in our society–in ways that no other narrative had.

harry potter and the sorcerer's stone coverCC:  Harry Potter has shaped my ideas about about relationships–I think because the books allowed us to watch the characters grow up and their relationships change as part of that. Additionally, Diana Wynne Jones’ work had a profound impact on me. I remember her characters never got exactly what they wanted or their expectations of what they wanted always changed–they really compromised without compromising their character, and I think that type of realism is hard to find in any novel, fantasy or otherwise.

KD: There are so many other examples I could give! From Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials  trilogy to Kristin Cashore’s recently published books, I’ve found fantasy books to be some of the most complex, thought-provoking, and relatable stories out there. 

CC:  Also, I think Trollope’s assumption about what teens relate to is dangerous, because it assumes a pretty narrow, monolithic point of view. Who am I to say that The Hunger Games isn’t realistic for some teens? Maybe none of them are fighting to the death in a reality competition, but they are certainly experiencing poverty and governmental cruelty. For some readers, these types of scenarios hit far closer to home than classics like, say, Little House on the Prairie.

KD: Yes! And sometimes, the seemingly ‘escapist’ aspects of fantasy can be an advantage for such readers.  It might be easier to read about a young person dealing with such issues when the novel is distanced from your daily experiences.

CC: In the end,  literature, particularly fantasy and science fiction, is so much richer and more complicated than we sometime realize, and that complexity affects our response to it–no matter our age.

So, readers, what do you think about Joanna Trollope’s statements about fantasy fiction? What fantasy titles have been influential in your life? 

-Kelly Dickinson & Chelsea Condren