Friday, June 1, 2012

What Good Is Fantasy, Anyway?

Exactly one year ago today, Fantasy Matters celebrated its official launch with a guest post from fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss.  Today, we celebrate our one-year anniversary with another guest post from Pat, this time a repost of something he wrote for his own blog, back in 2007.  In it, he answers a question from a fan that is one of the main motivations for publishing this site: What good is fantasy, anyway?

Hello folks. I’ve been elsewhere lately. Things have been busy with writing and getting ready for my trip out to New York for the Quill Awards.

But just yesterday I got the following message from someone asking me to help her settle a debate between her and a friend:

Patrick,

[...] Anyway, her stance is that Literature (her cap) is about enlightenment and improving the human condition, while fantasy is just escapist crap. I know she’s wrong, but I’m not a good debater. I’m not good with words. Can you help me out?

Thanks,

Sami

Sami, your question reminded me of a forum I got drawn into a while back. Normally I resist being pulled into online discussions, but this one struck home with me. The person who started the thread was asking, effectively, if fantasy really mattered in any sort of profound way.

This is the from-the-hip response I made on that forum a while back. If you’re looking for some argumentative ammo, there might be a few things in here. At any rate, it does a pretty good job of summing up how I feel about the issue.

“Can a Fantasy book/author really change anything?”

[First post: July 10th 5:15 AM]

Years ago I was watching a documentary on the Beatles. There was a video clip where a journalist was interviewing John Lennon. He was protesting the war, doing ridiculous things to get press attention so that he could spread the word about his message. He spent his honeymoon in bed with his wife and invited the press. When the press showed up hoping for something racy, John and Yoko used the opportunity to spread their message about peace.

One of the journalists got exasperated with him at one point and said, “You dear boy, you don’t think that you’ve saved a single life with this nonsense, have you?”

I remember watching that and thinking that I couldn’t decide which one of them was being foolish. Lennon for thinking he could change things, or the reporter for being so cynical.

Ultimately, I want to believe Lennon. I want to think that a person can make a change in the way people think.

I think that can be done with a protest. Or a song. Or an interview. Or a fantasy novel.

Hah! I actually found the video clip on youtube. If you watch it for about 40 seconds you’ll get to the part where the reporter says her line…. [Fantasy Matters editor: We apologize, but the YouTube clip that Pat mentions here is no longer available.]

However, I don’t think that political activism is the only type of change a novel can create. I think a novel can change they way you think about the world. It can expose you to new thoughts or make you reconsider old ones.

Hell, a fantasy novel can teach you things. Any time you learn something it changes your life.

Lastly, but not leastly, we shouldn’t overlook pure entertainment. Back when I was in Grad school my life was a hell. It sucked really, really bad and I was stressed out beyond belief. That’s when I read the Harry Potter books. They were great. They helped me relax and not freak out. They didn’t heal my crippled limbs or stop me from being racist or fix global warming, but they improved the quality of my life. In doing so they hey changed my life in a little way. A good way.

[Second post: July 12th 11:18 AM]

I like what you said about escapism being productive. I think Robert Frost made a point along those lines in Birches.

“It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.”

That is one of the things that fantasy does best.

And laughter is not to be underestimated either. I write a satirical humor column for the local school paper. I write it because I like to make people laugh and it gives me a vent for my humor when my other writing needs to be serious.

After the most recent presidential election I was… distraught. Profoundly distraught and depressed. But my deadline was still there. I had to go in and be funny when I was in no mood. So I wrote about the elections. I made fun of the American populace, and the president, and both parties and myself most of all.

And the column pissed people off. They started a media event about it, got people riled up, and in the end, I almost lost my job because of it.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why do I do this? Why do I work 4-6 hours every week to write a column I don’t get paid for? A column that offends people (as all good satire must) and costs me what small shred of respect I have among the other faculty at the university. A column that at best, gives people a cheap laugh?”

Weeks later I was grousing about the whole experience to someone in the University Center. A student walking past overheard and stopped.

“You’re that guy that writes the College Survival Guide?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. Inwardly I was cringing against another attack. The media coverage had not been kind to me, satirical humor quoted out of context looks really, really damning, and as a result I’d been having I got a lot of unpleasant attention. Everything pales in comparison to a death threat, or the promise of a beating, but even tongue-lashings get you down after a while…. “Yeah.” I said. “That’s me.”

“I read it all the time,” he said. “After the election I wanted to kill myself. But when I read your column I laughed. I really needed a laugh right then. A lot of us really needed a laugh right then.”

It was like a great weight got lifted off me when I heard that. I remember thinking. Oh yeah. *this* is why I write. If we don’t laugh sometimes we’ll cry. I want to help out with that.

This conversation made me think of a piece of fan mail I got a couple days ago. I’m going to contact the person who wrote it and see if she’s okay with me re-printing it here. If she agrees I think it will be a nice addition to this thread…

You can find the conclusion to this post over on Pat's blog.  Thanks to Pat Rothfuss for letting us reprint the first part here!

Copyright 2007 Patrick Rothfuss.  All rights reserved. 

1 comment:

  1. You are beyond a great writer Patrick Rothfuss, you are a most excellent human being. Thanks for your voice on Fantasy Matters.

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