On Writing as a Fantasist

On Writing as a Fantasist

By Dave Wolverton

This article was written for Tangent #18, Spring 1997 .

I recently read in Tangent #17 James Gunn’s response to a question by Cynthia Ward, who asked about the dichotomy between mainstream literary standards and those of science fiction and fantasy, and asked someone to “Name names.”

I respect Gunn’s work a great deal, but I disagreed with his response, partly because I began my writing career in the literary mainstream, made my first money in that field, and eventually came to recognize that fundamentally I disagreed with much of what was being done. There are differences between my approach to writing as a modern fantasist (who makes no apologies for being a commercial writer) and the approach taken by literary mainstream writers. The issues aren’t trivial.

Cynthia asked what the earmarks are of a mainstream story, and Gunn responded by saying that its “distinguishing characteristic is that it has no distinguishing genre characteristic.”

This is of course what my professors taught me in English Lit 101. And it is somewhat true. The Western genre is defined by its setting. The Romance and Mystery genres are defined by the types of conflict the tales will deal with. Speculative fiction may be defined by the fact that we as authors and fans typically agree that nothing like the story that we tell has ever happened—though one could well argue that speculative fiction isn’t a “genre” in the classical sense anyway.

But I contend that over the past 120 years, and particularly in the last 20 years, the literary mainstream has evolved into a genre with its own earmarks. It is just as rigid in its strictures and just as narrow in its accepted treatment of characters, conflicts and themes as any other genre.

The postmodern literary establishment grew out of the philosophies of William Dean Howells (1837-1920), the “Father of Modern Realism,” who was an editor for The Atlantic Monthly from 1866-1876.

He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings—places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds.

Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.

Is it so? Can no “good” literature be written outside the scope of these dictates? More on that later.

Regardless of the lack of reasoning behind his dictates, Howells’s dictums form the nucleus of what is being taught as “good” literature in mainstream college literature courses. These dictums also provide the framework for nearly all of what is published in the largest of the mainstream literary magazines—the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and in the smaller literary journals.

Now, the realists have been so hide-bound in their views about what constitutes great literature that the work of fantasists has generally been overlooked, if not actively rejected, for well over a hundred years.

For decades no novel of science fiction, fantasy, or horror was allowed to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list, regardless of how many copies such a novel actually sold. Thus in the early 1970s a work by Stephen King that sold a million copies in a month wouldn’t even hit the list, while a book that sold fifty thousand copies held the number one position. Why? Because in New York, the work of fantasists wasn’t considered literature. (The same can be said for other genres. Romance, Westerns, mysteries—all forms of “genre” literature were considered beneath mention.) The same holds true to a lesser extent today. No Star Wars novelization has hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller list despite the fact that such books often outsell three-to-one those novels that are listed as number one. I suspect that romances generally sell much better than the list-makers would like to admit.

For the same reason, the works of fantasists have been consistently passed over for literary awards and publication in the mainstream magazines. Regardless of how original the piece is, how moving, how insightful, how enervating, or how beautiful, fantastic literature is considered incapable of being the equal of mainstream literature.

For this reason, it’s difficult to find a university in the United States that teaches any kind of courses at all in fantastic literature (or any other genre), yet students must study realism for hundreds and thousands of hours. And in many—if not most—college writing classes across the country, students are forbidden to write fantastic literature at all.

But Howells’s limiting dictates don’t describe the worst aspects of the realist movement, which served as a precursor for our own postmodern mainstream.

The realist movement quickly developed a trend toward elitism, gaining a certain snob appeal, that I find very distasteful.

Under the influence of Ezra Pound, the imagists began writing in the early 1900s. Taking his cue from ancient Chinese monarchs, Pound sought to capture the essence of a story in one or two concise, overpowering images. Thus we end up with poems like this one by William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain beside
the white chickens.

Now, for those of you who have never heard that poem before, I beg you, what does it mean? Please tell me. “So much depends upon” it. . . .

Of course you can’t figure it out by studying the text. The clues aren’t there. This poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story (Williams was a doctor, and he wrote the poem one morning after having treated a child who was near death. The red wheelbarrow was her toy.)

Similar elitist fiction was touted as a higher art by James Joyce, who used voice rather than image to astonish his readers. Practically no one today can even understand, much less appreciate the ravings of Irish bar patrons in Joyce’s tales. One student who complained to Joyce that he had read his works and didn’t understand them was told, “You can only understand my works if you spend your own lifetime studying mine.”

Another type of elitist fiction was put forward by T.S. Eliot, whose astonishingly powerful poems gained much of their strength only if you were well-acquainted with English and Greek literature.

Now, I’m not saying that any of these authors are bad practitioners. To the contrary, every author I’ve mentioned has some truly brilliant works, and it is worth educating yourself so that you can enjoy them.

But the attitudes they engendered are, well . . . dismaying.

Many critics consider a work as being somehow poorly wrought if it doesn’t have a certain opacity. They worry that it’s probably not good fiction if it can easily be understood and enjoyed by, say, a thirteen-year-old.

But the realist movement didn’t restrict itself to the attitudes I’ve mentioned. It has some other dismaying facets.

Another argument began to evolve as early as the 1870s. Social Darwinists began to decry “moralizing” in literature. They expressed the opinion that since there is no god, then it must be true that there is no absolute good or evil. Instead, the terms “good and evil” are mere artifacts, and are only relative terms defined by culture and circumstance.

The Social Darwinists attacked the moral writers of the 1800s. Now, it is true that much of the fiction of the day was written to teach Johnny how to be a good boy, but the reaction against such moralizing was extreme. It came to the point where by the 1970s one was allowed to deal with very few types of moral issues, and woe to the writer who sought to take a traditional Christian stance when doing so.

So, in addition to restricting the characters, setting, and conflicts one dealt with, one also now had to be very careful not to handle the wrong themes. One had to fear the very possibility that somehow, inadvertently, moralizing might have crept into a story, tainting it. (However, it’s important to remember that a politically correct writer who is explicating an important theme—such as the degeneracy of American society—isn’t engaging in moralizing. Such a writer is only disseminating truth, and must therefore be encouraged.)

The realist movement took a further downturn when the existentialists of the 1930s and 1940s put in their two cents. According to the existentialists, life is meaningless. At the same time, stories often seek to discover meanings, to explicate themes, or to show that we can make sense of the world.

To do any of these, the existentialists contended, is dreadfully wrong. The average person goes through his life, and events happen in a totally random and haphazard way. Shit happens. To intellectualize those events, to organize them into a cohesive whole and try to make sense of them, to seek for cause and effect, is in itself a dishonest act. The artist who engages in this act is the worst kind of liar.

And so, about that time, we see the dissolution of form in mainstream literature. The “slice-of-life stories” became popular. Virginia Woolf did some beautiful work in this vein.

Other writers achieved similar effects by truncating stories, removing the beginning or end to achieve a feeling of incompleteness, as Ernest Hemingway did in his truncated story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story, Hemingway cuts off the beginning of his tale, only hinting through tone that his protagonist has just heard bad news (his son was killed in the war). He then also cuts off the ending of the tale (in which the protagonist goes home to hang himself).

So, by the time that the late seventies and eighties rolled around, a writer who wanted to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end found it nearly impossible to break into the mainstream literary markets. Such work depended too much on “formula” for effect.

There were some exceptions to this rule. Older writers who had achieved notoriety before the sixties could still publish stories under some kind of grandfather clause. For example, the New Yorker has a policy of paying annual stipends to some of the more noted authors so that they can exercise a right of first refusal on any short stories written. It would seem rather pointless to pay such a stipend to a writer for thirty years and then not publish the formed stories that got submitted. In the same way, certain foreign writers who were perhaps considered a bit more quaint and naive could still publish formed fiction.

But all in all, you just couldn’t sell a formed story to mainstream American markets.

Eventually, the attitudes and restrictions I’ve discussed all coagulated so that the literary mainstream evolved into a genre all its own. While some pundits still might claim that the literary mainstream “has no distinctive genre elements,” no single type of conflict or setting that must be included in the literature, I contend that one can now easily define the mainstream genre by what it excludes.

To some degree, this has been true since the 1870s. But through the process of accretion, the tales have become more and more formulaic.

In the 1800s, Oscar Wilde looked at the fiction that Howells had published and derided it as boring drivel. He called the tales “Teacup Tragedies,” for it seemed that all the stories dealt with families who had to deal with the tragedy of a broken heirloom teacup as it dashed into pieces on the floor.

The mainstream short fiction of the 1980s was no better. Authors tried to incorporate disparate literary standards into a sellable fiction, and so backed themselves into a corner.

By insisting that we write elitist fiction with powerful images, opacity, and a distinctive poetic voice; by insisting that the tales lack form; by limiting the types of characters, conflicts and settings; by favoring political correctness over other types of honest questioning or exploration of themes; and by insisting that tales lean toward existentialism rather than some more affirmative world view; a very restrictive genre emerged.

Unable to explore setting, conflict, characters or themes in their fiction, the mainstreamers wrote more and more eloquently about nothing at all.

Sit down and study three years worth of 1980s fiction from the New Yorker, and you will discover a remarkable number of very similar stories. These were the bread and butter of the literary mainstream, and I’ll call them “Manhattan Angst” stories. They dealt with a person—often a literature professor—who goes to a New Year’s party in a big city and there meets an old fling, a lost love. The height of comedy is attained when some woman enters the party who is not properly dressed for the occasion. On returning home, the meaninglessness of the protagonist’s life is brought home as he watches “dirty brown maple leaves swirling down to lie amongst the bones of leaves.”

Pointless, derivative, vapid, tedious—much of the literature had all the earmarks of every other lesser “genre.” It became the equivalent of literary novocaine, nothing at all like the exciting works of the 1920s.

About now, if you aren’t familiar with literary mainstream works, you really ought to be wondering, “Do such monstrosities as Wolverton describes really exist? Or are they mere phantoms, the literary sasquatches of his imbalanced mind?”

Let me give you a perfect example—or three. Since movies are the most popular medium of storytelling in the twentieth century, I’ll illustrate my point with movies. However, you should also note that every movie I mention here was based on a novel.

So, for my perfect example of this literary sasquatch, let’s consider Il Postino (The Postman), a 1995 Academy Award winning film that was up for best foreign picture. It is billed on its dust jacket as a romance and a comedy. It is neither.

It is existential and serious—literary mainstream genre. Il Postino tells the story of an Italian peasant who lives in a small fishing community. In the first scene, two conflicts are brought up—the town has no drinking water, and the young man gets seasick every time he gets on his father’s boat. Just then, the poet Pablo Neruda, a communist who is exiled from his homeland, comes to live in the protagonist’s village. This means that Neruda will need to have someone deliver mail to him (everyone else in the village is illiterate), so the protagonist takes a job as a part-time mailman, and believes that he has become Neruda’s friend. When the postman falls in love with a fetching woman in the village, he begins to steal Neruda’s love poems and use them to try to win the woman’s heart. The woman’s ugly aunt and the local priest learn of the postman’s attempt at seduction, and try to put a stop to it, but the postman gets the girl to bed and then marries her. At the same time, the water problem persists. The postman adopts Neruda’s communist sensibilities and makes the mistake of publicly criticizing his local government representative. It seems that Neruda and the postman are good friends, but when Neruda is able to return to his homeland, he goes away and quite literally never again thinks about either the postman or the villagers. This is a terrible blow for these people who have attached great significance to Neruda’s friendship. They try, unsuccessfully, to lure Neruda back. Eventually, the postman comes to terms with his loss and writes a poem in honor of Neruda. When he is invited to recite the poem at a communist workers’ rally, he is murdered by the police.

Now, this could have been a tale that was “about” something. It could have been a tale of friendship between two men—but Neruda wanders away. It could have been a romance—but the love interest, Beatrice, as a character is never rounded out enough for us to really love her, and the postman meets, seduces and marries her in thirty minutes. It could have been a comedy, but ultimately it is depressing. It could have been communist propaganda, but no one ever takes communism very seriously, and in the end communism doesn’t ever offer a solution to the city’s water problem, or any of its other economic problems.

It could have been many things, but in trying to avoid being about any one thing, the film ends up being about nothing. Ultimately the message of the movie is, “Life sucks, then the cops beat you to death, but if you’re lucky you get to screw a beautiful woman and write a poem no one will ever read.”

The tale follows all of Howells’s dictates. It limits the protagonist to being a simple man, the conflicts to being minor (almost all of them handled successfully within the film, each in a matter of moments), and the milieu to being local (for Italy, of course).

The tale is elitist, with heightened language (the scenes with Neruda’s spontaneous outbursts of poetry are electrifying), gorgeous imagistic scenery, and a plethora of literary allusions.

The tale skirts moral issues. Indeed, the only two people concerned with morality are Beatrice’s aunt and the priest. These two caricatures—for we really can’t classify such shallow beings as characters–are presented as ugly (the aunt has a homely exterior, the priest an ugly interior), simple-minded, and laughable.

The tale is existentialist in nature, pointing out that, ultimately, our protagonist’s life was meaningless. He dies for having written a poem that no one ever hears.

Now, I know that one Italian film does not a genre make. So let me give you the American version of the same tale: Sophie’s Choice. Writer screws a beautiful woman who kills herself. Or how about Bridges of Madison County. Writer screws beautiful woman and dies. Or how about Out of Africa. Which proves that the writer can be a woman who screws a handsome man who then dies (and also proves that some writers had modern literary sensibilities well before the whole charade got tedious in the 1980s).

I could go on ad nauseam, but I think you get the picture. In Hollywood, everyone knows that no one will go to watch a “Manhattan Angst” picture, so the whole literary movement has been refined into what might better be called the “Dead Lovers in Picturesque Settings” movement.

By following all of the mainstream writing proscriptions, you get gorgeous cookie-cutter movies that are sure to be contenders for all of the top awards.

Now, the realist and the postmodern movements had their good points, and if the movements were merely boring, I’d have no quarrel with them. But my real problem with the whole realist literary movement and its resulting postmodern spinoffs is that it was founded on lies.

William Dean Howells claimed to have been “tired” of reading fantastic literature. But how did he formulate the proscriptions that led him to define what “good” literature should be? Did he look at the best of existing literature and derive his proscriptions from that? Or through some vivid and overwhelming insight did he envision a more fertile literary landscape?

No. He did neither.

The truth is that Howells was a socialist, and he was trying to encourage–nay, dare I say bribe—other authors into writing propaganda for him. He wanted American writers to tackle economic issues, much as he did in his own fine work, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and it is significant that Howells’s literary field attained full fruition in the works of the great socialist writer John Steinbeck.

Now, I don’t have a bone to pick with the socialists. They deserve to have their own literature, just like anyone else. But Howells never did bother to put forward an objective argument when he attacked the fantastic in literature. He said that he valued literature that was true and honest, yet he himself was being dishonest.

Any nitwit can point out that literature does not have to show the world as it is in order to be true. Metaphor suffices. I believe that Howells never presented an objective argument because he knew that he was lying and that the finest literature the world has ever known has almost always been fantastic literature:

Shakespeare’s best worksThe Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth–feature exaggerated characters from poorly researched histories and are set in faraway lands. They feature ghosts and monsters and witches. They feature powerful characters in life-and-death conflicts. They feature everything that Howells decried.

Were they by any standard of Howells’s day, or ours, bad? Boring? Weak? Inferior? What of Milton or Homer or Sophocles? Was their work in any way inferior to that of other writers of their day?

On what grounds?

What rational basis did Howells have for trying to limit the scope of our stories?

Why should we follow the fool now?

Howells didn’t seek to understand how literature really worked; he tried instead to make it serve his political agenda.

The elitists–Pound, Eliot, and Joyce—all made interesting discoveries, but they practiced their art at a great price. Why should a fiction that is so convoluted as to appeal to only two or three people be considered “superior” to a fiction that appeals to millions? Those who attack “moralizing” in fiction never seek to stop moralizing, only to supplant it with their own propaganda.

The existentialists may believe that life is meaningless. Indeed, if you believe that your life is meaningless, it probably will be. But does that mean that art must also be meaningless?

As a writer of science fiction, I find it difficult to conceive why anyone would want to obscure the fact that there are cause-and-effect relationships in our lives. Eat too much, and you’ll get fat. Breathe vacuum, and you die.

The existentialists who shout “Stop making sense!” do so at a terrible price. The fact is that we can make some sense of the world.

Literature allows us to share experience, to communicate, and to grow not just as individuals, but as societies. Literature allows us to evolve. Literature makes sense.

Realists said that their goal was to “communicate their experience,” to “show life as it is.” So what? How does that goal differ from the goal of the journalist or the biographer? Even when you do try to show life as it is in fiction, it can’t be done. The realist agenda is futile. Every story is so much smaller than life, so much a simplification, that no single writer can ever capture the whole of life in all of his works combined, much less in a single story.

As for the argument against form—

It so happened that just about the time that artists began attacking formalism in short stories, they also did the same with poetry.

Robert Frost responded by writing poems that were so artfully formed that the form itself disappeared. He said that “Writing unrhymed poetry is like playing tennis without a net.” His point was that the artist who shuns form gives himself permission to become lazy and, eventually, inept. More importantly, he discards a valuable writing tool.

Unfortunately, we had no similar champion for formalism in the literary mainstream, but I submit that the same principles apply to writing formed stories. One can do it oafishly and end up writing literary doggerel. Or one can write beautifully, seamlessly, so that no one ever even notices whether form lends power to your tale.

I recall after one class in modern American literature, our professor took a survey of the class, trying to find out which of the tales we responded to most positively. She had taken the same survey for years. Far and away, the artfully formed stories were the most well received (though no one else in my class seemed to recognize the trend, and thought instead that perhaps Eudora Welty was a more gifted author than the others).

As a fantasist, I reject realism as a literary movement. I’m offended by the postmodern proscriptions that some of my writing professors crammed down my throat in college. Their whole approach to writing was based on blind acceptance of values that served as “defaults” for creating good literature in the absence of any other, more rational, approach.

I insist that my literary tools come from honest observation of what works in storytelling, rather than being derived from someone else’s political agenda.

When I pick up a story, I don’t particularly care if it is formed or unformed, written to a wide audience or a narrow. I look for certain qualities. Keeping in mind that any of my standards can successfully be violated, here is how I value a story:

A story that fascinates is better than one that bores. A story that is eloquent is better than the babboon howlings of the verbally damned. A story that is profound, that transmits valuable insight, is better than one that is pedestrian or that is opaque. A story that speaks to many is better than one that speaks to few. A story that is beautiful in form is better than one that is inelegant, rambling or clumsy. A story that transports me to another world or that transmits experience is better than a story that leaves me sitting alone and troubled in my reading chair. A story that artfully moves me emotionally or intellectually is better than one that leaves me emotionally or intellectually anesthetized.

If we are to have great art, it is important to recognize what makes great art.

The hodge-podge of literary “rules” that you learn in college will destroy your writing if you make them your master and not your servant. As writers, I believe we should study the mainstream. Learn the works of the best practitioners of our arts, study their craft. Seek to improve.

I agree with Gunn that there aren’t any editors in speculative fiction who hold with all the tenets of the postmodern realists. At the same time, there are those who hold with certain attitudes. More and more, I see authors and editors trying to establish themselves as members of some cadre of literary elite. Their work is increasingly enamored of postmodern techniques and values, and therefore becomes correspondingly mundane.

Everyone deserves good literature—the old, the young, the fantasists, the realists, the Republicans, the Communists, the Christians, the Wiccan—men, women, and people of every nationality and color.

To define any one literature as the only possible “good” to the exclusion of all others seems about as preposterous as trying to establish one flavor of ice cream as “good” to the exclusion of all others.

I’m offended by anyone who says that art “Must be done my way.”

The art of Steinbeck is great. The art of Shakespeare is great. One is a realist. One is a fantasist. Maybe it’s just a question of taste. But I think it’s more than that.

I like Shakespeare best.

Copyright © 1997 by Dave Wolverton