Fantasy is a genre of literature that tends to polarise people. The oft-repeated logic is that “serious” readers prefer realism while fantasy caters primarily to children or those who view reading as a form of escapism. The assumption is that fantasy is of lesser value than realist writing – which is why it is commonly associated with children and the imagination.
Last year, the top most-read children’s books – at least in the UK – was almost entirely comprised of fantasy novels.
But why is this the case? What exactly does fantasy offer to young readers?
This pitting of fantasy and realist writing against each other corresponded with the development of separate literatures for children and adults in the 18th and 19th centuries: the serious realist novel was for adult male readers, whereas fantasy and romance were relegated to the readership of women and children.
(It’s interesting how this gendered perception of fantasy has gradually changed over time, because fantasy is more often than not associated with young men today – although their youth is evidently the important factor.)
What’s important to point out here is that fantasy writing has come to be perceived as belonging to popular culture, and is therefore generally regarded as being of inferior quality to realism.
This idea was ingrained in me during childhood by my bibliophile mother, who was convinced that fantasy was “rubbish”. (She was always trying to persuade my two brothers to let go of their dog-eared copies of American author David Eddings‘ books and read something “proper”.)
I encountered a similar hostility to fantasy while living in Finland, where I joined a book club of expatriate English-speakers and was cautioned at my first meeting that the club didn’t read “genre” books – which essentially meant that realism was “in”, but everything else – including fantasy - was “out”.
The peculiar thing about this marginalisation of fantasy is that all writing is “fantasy” to some extent. Even realism is a constructed and imagined representation of reality, not reality per se. Fantasy just happens to be a more exaggerated departure from reality.
When it comes to the subject of children, discussions about which books are inherently “better” for them often pivot on the fantasy versus realism debate, causing Professor John Stephens to write that:
one of the more curious sides to the criticism of children’s literature is the urge to polarise fantasy and realism into rival genres, and to assert that children prefer one or the other, or ‘progress’ from fantasy to realism (or vice versa)
A quick survey of the big children’s publishing trends over the first decade of the new millennium confirms that fantasy is as popular as ever in the children’s book scene. From the 450 million copies of Harry Potter books sold over this period, to the more recent “young adult” phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, it would seem that children are as keen on fantasy as ever before – and rather than “progressing” out of fantasy, the domination of dystopian fantasy within the young adult market (with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy leading the charge) would suggest just the opposite.
One of the most obvious benefits of fantasy is that it allows readers to experiment with different ways of seeing the world. It takes a hypothetical situation and invites readers to make connections between this fictive scenario and their own social reality.
Fantasy writing, says Stephens, operates through metaphor – so that the unfamiliar is used to stand in for, or comment upon, the familiar. Metaphors are obviously less precise than other forms of language (they are subject to more complex interpretive processes) and this is perhaps a significant advantage of fantasy over realism.
Fantasy’s use of metaphor makes it more “open” to different readings and meanings. This allows fantasy to explore quite complex social issues in ways that are less confrontational than realism because it takes place in a world that is distanced from social reality (and can also be mediated with humour).
Take M.T. Anderson’s 2002 futuristic fantasy novel Feed as an example. Set in a future win which everyone has an internet feed hardwired into their brain, which constantly bombards their consciousness with advertising, the novel is a sharp satire of both consumer and digital culture.
A key theme is the loss of language that occurs as a result of the speed and ease of digital communication – represented most amusingly through the collapsing of distinctions between adult and adolescent speech. In the opening of the novel the teenage Titus and his friends end up in hospital after their feeds are hacked, prompting this inarticulate reaction from his father:
“This is … Dude”, he said. “Dude, this is some way bad shit” (2003: 67).
Cory Doctorow, who specialises in science fiction, takes an even more direct approach to the idea that fantasy allows readers to play with hypothetical situations. His first young adult novel, Little Brother (2008), provocatively draws on the multiple cases reported in the international media which involved individuals who were imprisoned at places such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp following the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Little Brother uses this historical background, but imaginatively subverts the facts by placing an innocent child, who is also a legitimate US citizen, in the same situation as the “non-citizens” who were detained at Guantanamo Bay. By telling the story from the perspective of this child, Doctorow clearly exposes the brutality and injustice of such imprisonment practices, and makes a compelling case for the argument that once such powers have been exercised in relation to non-citizens, it may not be long before they are also exercised upon actual citizens.
Little Brother is thus highly political – an effective example of how fantasy writing can directly comment upon real-life scenarios. What is also appealing about Doctorow’s writing is that it reads very much as realism: the “fantasy” elements of the novel are technological, although the imagined high-tech surveillance techniques described are only a slight exaggeration of what current technology allows.
Both Anderson and Doctorow work within the genre of futuristic sci-fi, which happens to be immensely popular with teenagers at the moment – perhaps because it offers readers a way to make sense of our times. But fantasy is an extremely broad literary category that encompasses a wide variety of subgenres.
One of the finest writers of children’s fantasy in the world today bucks the current trend for futuristic narratives by looking to the past for inspiration.
Neil Gaiman – who is married to musician Amanda Palmer and friends with Tori Amos (which may just make him the coolest children’s author on the planet) – has produced a number of Victorian-influenced fantasy novels for children, including The Graveyard Book (2008).
This wonderful novel tells the story of Bod, whose parents are murdered when he is a small baby, leaving him to be raised by ghosts in a nearby graveyard. Gaiman borrows heavily from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (in terms of structure and story motifs) but modernises the tale for contemporary readers – so that notions of good and evil are necessarily more complex, and Bod’s final transition from childhood to adulthood is much more joyous than Mowgli’s:
But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.
Fantasy is a genre that has much to offer young readers. One of the most compelling reasons for giving children fantasy is that it comments on social reality through indirections (metaphor, allegory, parable) and can therefore deal with complex moral questions in a more playful and exaggerated manner. Fantasy also prompts young readers to play at seeing the world in different ways and accordingly teaches them to construct meaning by making connections between seemingly unrelated concepts or things.
The other bonus is that, unlike green vegetables, children can often be persuaded to read fantasy without the adults in their lives resorting to bribery.
Kids have already worked out these books are magic in their own right.