“Fantasy”: A Useless Label

I had an interesting discussion with a friend today, and I figured I’d share the basic point of it.

Basically, I have a bugbear when people act like all the things we call “fantasy” are directly comparable. They are not. Saying that all things that use invented settings are similar is, at best, a useless classification. I could easily argue that ALL fiction takes place in an invented setting, because authors are themselves interpreters of the world they see, and the outward expressions of their observations are each unique inventions. If such an ambiguous thing is the defining feature for a set, it’s not a very useful defining feature.

There are many different kinds of stories that are lumped under the term “fantasy.” Some of them are genre stories that could happen in any setting, but because they tap all the fantasy genre boxes, they are called fantasy. Some have completely unique, invented worlds where the author has created a setting that is streamlined toward expressing deep emotional truths about the way they experience reality. Some are basically just normal drama stories, but they have a single werewolf so they’re suddenly “fantasy.”

And in this pile of things which we mark with the basically meaningless label of “fantasy” there is some high art. The most obvious of these is anything by Tolkien (whom I greatly admire/worship). You can argue whether or not your preferred piece of literature is high art if you so desire.

Now, I want to clarify some things. Almost every time I start talking about “high art” or “pop art” or the like, people start thinking that I’m making a value judgement. That is not the case. All art is created with purpose and is intended to be considered, understood, and possibly loved by its audience. The difference between “high art” and others is that with high art, the artwork is intentionally derived from and adds to an existing cultural heritage* and metanarrative.** There are loads of excellent art pieces that don’t do this. Pieces that are created to be experienced as is–to communicate on their own without the need for a deep understanding of the tradition that it sprang from. My personal favorite art pieces can do both at the same time.

So basically, what’s been bugging me is when people compare Tolkien to something like, let’s say, Terry Brooks’ Shannara . Tolkien obviously influenced the ideas in the Shannara stories, but they are created with a completely different purpose, and based on completely different literary traditions. Shannara is rooted more in thrillers and mystery novels than in the myths and fairy stories that inspired Tolkien. Shannara doesn’t make strides in exploring the literary sources from which it sprang. It just tells you the same ideas that existed before in an entertaining and amusing way. The art of Shannara isn’t the art of invention–it uses the inventions of other people. Its art is the art of story telling, the ability to display these ideas in such a way that people will happily spend their time considering them.

Shannara and Tolkien are not the same things. They were created for different reasons, and with different goals. A superficial similarity in that they both include dwarves, elves, and swords is insufficient to say that they are “the same kind of thing.” Comparisons can be made between them, but those comparisons must take into account these inherent differences, and acknowledge the fact that these are wildly different art pieces. The most fascinating thing about comparing them shouldn’t be their similarities, but that we see any similarity at all.

When we stop doing these meaningless groupings, we can start talking about things that actually ARE similar and actually start having some useful discussions. If nothing else, I’ll get better automated book and film recommendations on Amazon and Netflix.


* In much of art, “high art” is relegated to a SPECIFIC heritage and metanarrative that has been selected by boring rich people in order to mark themselves as separate from the “lower class” (aka poor people), but I won’t get into that here.

** That makes me wonder (and I’m very literally just pondering out loud now), what would a new story that explores and advances the tradition that Tolkien spent his life working on look like? I think it would have to experiment with and question the very core ideas of the tradition itself. It would have to experiment with the concept of “secondary worlds,” explore the relationship between mankind and divinity, and ask questions about things like magic and what that word really even means. To qualify as “high art,” these stories would need to intentionally address these ideas (and others, this is not an exhaustive list by any means), and attempt to add to the conversation. Simply repeating the arguments would not be enough.