Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth...Choose your future. Choose life...
It is entirely possible that no other subject has been the beneficiary of as much spilled blog-ink as our genre's collective Rodney Dangerfield impersonation: we can't get no respect. Our authors only win Pulitzers when they ditch the kingmaking cycles and pen tomes of urban angst, professors stare down their noses at us, and yet by some arcane calculus, some writers of speculative fiction are allowed to rest tidily in the Literature section, judged by publicist-Goldilocks as not too magical.
I've been thinking about this for awhile, being a fantasy writer myself, and thus subject to Dangerfield syndrome. However, I am also an academic, and I can't quite accept that what I write is just silly while the literature of miscarriages and adultery is, as the internet says, serious business. I think there's a reason that SFF is not respected by the philosophical powers that be, and to fight their battles, you have to use their language, so hold on to your hats.
It all goes back to Homer. See, in The Odyssey, Odysseus hooks up with this nymph Calypso, and after nine years of snuggling, she offers to make him immortal and ever-young, a god in his own right--and Odysseus refuses. It's a key moment in Western literature, and one that sets up an essential choice that informs almost every human decision (yes, even what books to read). Odysseus praises the real world, the small beauties of his wife (which didn't keep him from a decade of adultery, naturally), the honor and pride of working the land of Ithaca, the joy of his son. He chooses life over apotheosis. For him, godhood is a kind of death, the death of his reputation as a warrior among men, the death of his marriage, the death of his personal excellence, and perhaps most importantly to him, the death of time and the ability to perform heroic deeds. When a god commits a wonderful act, it isn't heroism, it's a hurricane, a drought, a mysterious birth. Without the threat of death, nothing can be heroic--and Odysseus is a hero precisely because he chooses this world. That choice reinforces the reader's own reality, tells him comfortingly that this is certainly the best of all possible worlds, and that even divinity cannot outshine it. It's a powerful, even intoxicating message. The life you, humble reader, life, is greater than that of an immortal and all-powerful god.
And so goeth Western protagonists, all of whom long to go home, escape the strange realms in which they find themselves, be they Dante or Dorothy. Their longing for home is a chief virtue, their rejection of the fantastic in favor of Kansas or Italy a valiant stance in the face of the forces of the Other, the false world, the shadows in the Platonic cave. Mimesis, or mimicry, representations of the real which are not themselves real, are demons in the divine machine. To reject them and all their works in order to embrace wife, home, land, children--this is an essential human act that we must all perform in order to go on living in this, the real world. You must choose this world. Those who do not are beyond redemption.
But it is more than that. In some sense, to read and write fantasy literature is to commit suicide. The Freudian life-instinct can be summed up by the choice of Odysseus (or Ewan McGregor, if you prefer), while the death-instinct is to choose the unreal, the magical, the Othered, the shadows and the mimics. To turn one's back on the world is to leave it, and that is a manifestation of the death-instinct. How many of us were accused of escapism as children, buried in our favorite unreal worlds? How many literally turn their backs on the world in favor of their internal lives via the internet, parents' basements, shut-ins and antisocial anxieties? The choice plays out in every corner of our lives, and it is not at all surprising that it is very much alive in the literary world, whether or not any critic calls it by its name.
The cult of realism thrives on this deep-rooted division of the world--and if you don't think the world is divided thus, turn on your television and listen to a certain young woman slice up the country into real and unreal segments. This goes much farther than books--those who do not choose the dominant culture, sexuality, family structure, political mode, they are just as unredeemable, and their fiction is more often than not the fiction of the fantastic, where it is safe to show themselves. No matter how sad or ugly or dim or boring the day after day of a family on Maple Street might be, it is morally superior to a family of fey (of either definition) struggling to survive on Avalon. The former will be lauded as unflinching and astonishingly honest, where the latter may hope to be described as charming, vivid, and touching. It flinches, see? It chooses the Other. It chooses the death of the real, and according to the dominant paradigm of the West, that can never be more affecting than a pleasant dream. You cannot choose the other world--that's not how it works in Puritan land. You can't just kill yourself to get to Heaven faster--you have to suffer here to earn it. Fantastic fiction allows us to escape this world, and that is a mortal sin.
Which brings us to the great hierarchy, which isn't all that hard to parse once you know the Platonic-Freudian code--primary world fiction comes in first, because it ignores that there is any choice at all between the world of the self and the world of the imagination, between inner and outer realities. Next comes primary world fantasy (I'm including science fiction in the term fantasy), which includes magical realism. It, at least, is still rooted in the real, the honest, the true, and uses the shadows of magic to highlight the virtues of the real. In third place comes allegory--fiction which takes place in the scary territory of alternate reality, but is plainly meant to address issues at play in the real world. Secondary world fantasy comes in dead last, since it also ignores the idea of a choice between inner and outer reality, but in favor of the inner, and thus commits moral suicide by abandonment.
I don't think this is likely to change. It's a pretty deep-down instinct. And that's why I don't stress the Dangerfield effect too much. The fact is, I'm no Odysseus. I'd take a chair on Olympus and a chariot driven by mechanical bronze horses over scrabbling in the rocks in Ithaca every day of the week. I choose the interior world. I choose a quest. I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchcraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends. I choose endless space and alien worlds. I choose complex cultures in a range of species. I choose archaic skillsets and arcane religions. I choose sitting on that couch reading fabulously jeweled books and shoving possibilities into my head. I choose another future. I choose, if pressed, death--but hey, black looks good on everyone.