*image via Goodreads*
The Guardian published an article yesterday on Anthony Doerr’s recent Pulitzer win for All the Light We Cannot See. A few observations made by the article were of particular interest to me, as I found that they illuminate the sentiments found in the ongoing discussion of fantasy literature currently taking place in the literary sphere. These things I’ve noticed only involve the story of All the Light We Cannot See on a vague level- they do not concern the text or attest to how good the story may be. I haven’t read the book yet but would like to.
Firstly, a brief mediation- this book took Doerr ten years to write. Ten years. Ten years ago I was twelve. A book that might take me ten years to write would eclipse author after author, as each year someone new, someone an entire age different, an entire life-stage different, would be writing the words on the page. There would be movements throughout the work – “ah here is the gothic phase of writing, probably when she was discovering Poe, and here the Bradbury phase, and here she tries a voice of her own, which is faltering now until chapter thirty, where a more mature voice takes over, and there is a child, perhaps she became a mother here, a few typos, lack of sleep, oh and now the child grows, a death occurs…” But perhaps time-slowing and brewing the same words in the same mind-cauldron for years are the keys to writing a Pulitzer.
The other key is not having an ounce of fantasy. Or let me rephrase: the key is to not admit that there is an ounce of fantasy in your book.
Historically the Pulitzer is given to an American author whose text preferably depicts some aspect of American life. Though this award might not be geared toward science fiction and fantasy, there are not many major ‘mainstream’ awards that like to award science fiction and fantasy authors, outside of say the Hugo’s and Nebula’s, which are specialized for the genres. Pulitzer aside, here’s what I wish to discuss: Science Fiction and Fantasy have never been revered as being all that literary. Of course, I don’t find this to be true. Would Oxford find this to be true, after housing three of the most prolific fantasy authors of our time (Tolkien, Pullman, Lewis)? What I want to talk about is how the attitude of viewing fantasy texts as non-literary has infected some contemporary authors. Non-traditional fantasy authors are afraid to admit when their works receive their genome from the splendors of fantasy world-building.
When Doerr discusses his use of fable in his award-winning work, he says it’s a way to allow readers to enter the story. This seems fair, and many authors weave fables into their works, situated in frame stories, to illuminate something larger about the overarching tale. But the use of fables is a slippery slope; fables may bring you to the brinks of fantasy, and entering those faerie-guarded gates is to venture into the glittering abyss of non-literary works. Michelle Dean, Doerr’s interviewer, tells how their conversation leads them into discussing Karen Russell’s and Kelly Link’s use of magical elements in their respective works. Dean writes that Doerr “talks about admiring Link, who he says, unlike himself, is confident, convinced that the inclusion of such elements ‘doesn’t make her writing any less serious.'”
Is Doerr afraid to use elements of fantasy because he fears his work will not be taken seriously? It seems the answer is yes. If only he had the confidence to use them, maybe he would. His work certainly lends itself to being enhanced by at least magical realism. In a recent review by Janet Maslin of the New York Times, she describes Doerr’s work as possessing a sort of coincidental magic: “The light in its title is, among other things, a topic that Werner hears discussed on a late-1930s radio broadcast about the brain’s power to create light in darkness. It’s an idea that reverberates ever more strongly as the book progresses. That the professor speaking on the radio turns out to be Marie-Laure’s grandfather just adds to the elements of felicity and coincidence that enrich this narrative.”
This sentiment of fantasy working to make serious writing less serious has been a common one lately, ribboned through the conversations regarding Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant. His latest work has received stark criticism from Ursula K Le Guin, in part due to Ishiguro’s attitude toward his ‘foray’ into fantasy, if it really is a foray. In February, The New York Times asked Ishiguro how he felt his new book would be received- would his readers disapprove of fantastical tropes encroaching upon his traditional literary work?
“Will readers follow me into this?” he mused. “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Well, they might. And what then?
The title of the article I’m referencing is called
“For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure”
I can’t help but notice that the word ”departure” hangs off a purposefully vague cliff. It feels naked. A ”departure” from what? Into what? Fantasy, of course. The word Fantasy is mentioned a few times in the body of the text of the article but is undercut by the less harmful “fantastical,” which is not as strong of a signifier of genre as ”fantasy.” This word choice leaves the impression that a full-out fantasy has not been breached by Ishiguro’s latest work, and thus, there is hope.
“The novel,” says Alexandra Alter, author of the article, “is a mythic tale set roughly 1,500 years ago in a wild, fantastical England populated by ogres, pixies, knights and dragons, was unlike anything he’d ever written. He worried that the setting and the dialogue might seem stilted or silly.” “Fantastical” is situated beside “wild” to further denote its lack of seriousness as a setting for the novel, as Alter says that to use an imaginary version of England that departs from the contemporary or historically accurate one would be a “stilted” or “silly” endeavor. I wonder if she’s read Nevermore, which takes an unassuming, average Brit named Richard and plunges him into the rat-ruled (like actually- there’s a king of the rats) empire of London Below.
There are two Londons- didn’t you know?
All fiction is made up. So who’s to to say that an unreal person in Great Britain drinking a pint at a pub is less silly than a hobbit drinking a pint in the Shire? Both are equally fictional; both are equally removed from reality. And perhaps the hobbit reveals more about the human experience than the fellow at the pub- but perhaps the fellow at the pub has more clout, because it is more plausible that he has a chance at existing. I believe that both have the same odds: zero. They both belong to fiction, and that is a world separate from our own.
David Mitchell, another author who straddles the line of fantasy and literary fiction, also offers his thoughts on The Buried Giant in the same New York Times piece. He believes that the novel might help to “de-stigmatize” fantasy, which he further articulates by saying, “Bending the laws of what we call reality in a novel doesn’t necessarily lead to elves saying ‘Make haste! These woods will be swarming with orcs by nightfall.’” I find his statement to be flippant and reductive- he poorly paraphrases the language of the biggest canonical fantasy text of our time, perhaps of all time, to say that it can be done better (i.e. with less elements of high fantasy). Mitchell says fantasy needs to be “de-stigmatized,” revealing that something needs to be taken out of fantasy to make it more palatable; to make it less fantasy and more fantastical; to allow for a brief thought of fantasy but never letting that thought quite fully develop, so as not to scare off the literary readers.
Why is there this stigma of fantasy? Are authors so stiff that they cannot exist between and in-between genres simultaneously? Must they write strictly in one form for their entire careers, never dipping into other ink wells to make their texts more colorful? It is like saying that I can only write in the first person forever, never the third, or else I’d be departing into some wild, stigmatizing, off-kilter technique that could surely ruin my career.
Fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction are all our popular with today’s readers. Readers love fantasy. Why are authors such as Doerr so hesitant to shy away from fantasy, especially when he admires authors who use such modes of writing to enhance their work? Why are authors such as Ishiguro reticent to admit that their text is filled with the highly imaginative mode of writing called fantasy? Are critical reception and literary reputations the two administrative facets holding them back? If their own audience is the culprit, they seem much too afraid of their own readers.