Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Language of the Night - what is good fantasy?

In my attempt to get to 56 books this month, I have picked up some books that I left undone earlier this year. One of them is Ursula K Le Guin's The Language of the Night. I didn't put it down because I was bored with it; on the contrary, I had to think about what I had read already, before I could go on. The Language of the Night has so many essays about why fantasy is good to read! Every essay I read, I find myself thinking through, nodding my head, agreeing! It's like having a course of study on fantasy and what makes it work, and why we need it. This is such an invaluable book, not the least because Le Guin herself (as most of us know) writes fantasy and science fiction, so she lives and breathes what she is telling us. She has thought a great deal about fantasy, and science fiction, and her essays are clear and direct - she doesn't hesitate to say why a book doesn't work, or that many writers write for money or to the marketplace, and not for the dream one has in one's head.

The essay I read today, 'From Elfland to Poughkeepsie', is one that every reader of fantasy should read. This essay explains why fantasy can be brilliant, and why there is so much drivel in the fantasy world, and what the difference is.

One point to keep in mind is that Elfland is a true fantasy world; Poughkeepsie is a place that exists in the real world, and stands for safe fantasy. This is not to say that all elves are true fantasy, and no fantasy can be set in the modern world! Far from it. What Le Guin means is that Elfland is fully imagined by Lord Dunsany; when we read his books, we know the world in the story exists, even if it is only in his mind. Poughkeepsie, unless one writes about it in a powerful way, remains the same in the story as it is for you and me to see in the real world. We don't see anything differently, in ordinary fantasy - in fantasy written to make money, to tell a story, with anything but true imagination.

Think about that for a moment. Think about some of our greatest writers, and what they created - Shakespeare, Milton, Tolkien, Hemingway, Austen, (put in the name of a writer you love, here). We see the world through their eyes, through their imagination. We know the world a little more clearly because they wrote. We understand ourselves better, and the world. They wrote, each of them, in their own voices, and by doing that, they somehow give us the world back. Le Guin is saying this applies to fantasy, and to science fiction, but particularly to fantasy because it's base is archetypes.

"Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe." Doesn't that give you a little chill? Because it's true.

"Real fantasy writing 'is exact, clear, powerful.....Nothing in it is fake or blurred; it is all seen, heard, felt."

Now, can you think of any examples of fantasy books that you can pick up, read, and then instantly forget in a few week's time? Can you remember the characters' names, what happens, a month after reading the book? Did the characters come alive, so that later, you find stray thoughts of them occurring long after the book is done? I have to say that reading this essay made what I like and don't like about fantasy make sense to me. I think she's right. Real fantasy is clear, it can be seen, felt, tasted, experienced. That is what makes it so dangerous. It's real, and yet it's not. How many of us have wanted, desperately at one time or another, for Middle Earth to be real? A place we could go to! I know I did!!

Good fantasy is written in a style that is the author's own. I would argue that this applies to all acts of writing, painting, dancing, anything that involves creating. When we have learned to let what is inside of us out, we are changed, and so is the world. Le Guin says: "We learn to hear and speak, as children, primarily by imitation. The artist is merely the one who goes on learning after he grows up. If he is a good learner, he will finally learn the hardest thing: how to see his own world, how to speak in his own words." The best fantasy books are like any work of art: they are created from the artist, and not a copy of what someone else has done before.

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." Yes, those are her italics! I love this quote. Why will fantasy change us? Because we meet the dragon, and the dragon is us. Because we encounter what lies beneath, the shadows and shapes that linger and lurk, the archetypes that we all respond to, and the author - if it's good fantasy - shows us a new way to understand the archetype, what we have to do to survive an encounter with an archetype. Not all fiction has this gift; this is what fantasy has to offer.

So what do you think, Gentle Reader? Is there a fantasy world you particularly love, that you wish was real? Is there a fantasy author, or fantasy books, that have particularly moved you, that resonated with you? What do you think good fantasy is? Do you like it?

I have always wanted to go to Middle-Earth. The spirit world of Charles de Lint is fascinating. And Alice in Wonderland always scared me and I could hardly wait for Alice to get home again! It's late, I'll think up a list of fantasy authors that I think are worth considering as good, who are a little bit dangerous to read. Angela Carter, anyone?


Table Talk said...

Hi Susan, just to let you know that I'm back on the blogging block, although I've had to change platforms. The link should take you through.

This book is sitting on my shelf looking at me. Clearly, I'm going to have to find time to get acquainted with it.

Rhinoa said...

Nymeth recently posted about a different book by Le Guin that collects some more of her essays on fantasy and what it is.

I would love to experience Middle Earth and meet the hobbits etc. Narnia also sounds like an interesting place and I would love to talk to the animals and hear their thoughts on a bunch of mundane matters!

It was interesting what you said about fantasy worlds. I read a lot of urban fantasy which is often set in real cities and towns with supernatural twists. I really enjoy the genre and I like that it makes mundane places magical.

Kailana said...

I actually read this a few weeks ago. I have to say, I liked some essays in the book better than others. I think maybe I found a couple others a bit dated. It was interesting, though. I came across it because you mentioned it earlier this year, actually, so thanks!

Jeane said...

Oo, I read one Angela Carter and it gave me the shivers, it was such a vivid (and frightening) world! This sounds so lovely, I do want to get my hands on a copy to read. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors, and it sounds like she has a lot of great stuff to say about writing.

Leslie said...

I have really really really really always wanted either:

A) Harry Potter or
B) Newford from Charles de Lint's books

to be real. Confession: Sometimes I get this really sad ache in my chest when I realize that this is it. I know that sounds silly, but they're just so magical - danger and all - that I feel like I have to see them at some point, or I haven't lived all the way! I guess it just means I'll have to read and reread the books :)

Memory said...

I NEED to read some of Le Guin's criticism. I often find her prose difficult, but the quotes you've posted convince me she's worth the effort.

As far as worlds and authors go, Guy Gavriel Kay rarely fails to resonate with me. TIGANA and LORD OF EMPERORS are by far my favourites among his novels; I get chills just thinking about them. Ditto for the four books in Sarah Monette's DOCTRINE OF LABYRINTHS series. And Lloyd Alexander still kicks my soul up a notch sixteen years after I first discovered him. I would visit Prydain in a heartbeat.

Hazra said...

If you consider a completely true fantasy world, I would love to go to Middle Earth, as would everybody else, I'm sure. But a parallel world, like the Harry Potter universe is really fascinating to me as well, because it involves the intermingling of fantasy and reality. And I would like to be on Discworld, for only a short time though, to experience the mayhem that comes across in Pratchett's writing.

Susan said...

Table Talk: Ann! You're back! I'll come find you! *happy dance*

Rhinoa: I think that is the most recent book by Le Guin, that Nymeth posted about. I'll have to go read it - I'm so far behind in visiting blogs this month! and you know Nymeth's review will make me want to run out and buy it right away! lol

Middle Earth, Narnia....both worlds are ones I'd love to visit!there are so many worlds - I think that is what is part of what I like so much about reading, and fantasy, is the variety and wonder that is imagined. It's breathtaking.

I enjoy urban fantasy for the very same reasons! :-D

Kailana: I know, some of the essays are dated. What is really shocking though, is how some of the concerns she has about women sci fi writers (there are more now, but still only a small percentage of sci fi writers are women) and how the bestseller still rules over thought-provoking original works. Yet, I think, original works will last, because of their nature.

I'm glad I could find you a book you hadn't read yet! lol (you read so much more quickly and faster than I do...)

Jeane: I'm sure you've read Nymeth's post about Le Guin's latest book of essays. I have to go read both Nymeth and the book - I haven't found it here yet - there is so much to think about, interesting questions Le Guin raises about this field we love so much. I hope you can find a copy!

Lezlie: when I was a child, sometimes I would cry because I wanted to go so badly, too! and I couldn' I understand you! and I completely agree with your choices, I'd LOVE to go to Harry Potter's world - well, find the magic that 'our' world has there. and Newford - fabulous. a little bit frightening, but oh so cool to live there. Good choices!

Memory: her essays are easy to read, because she's interested in discussing ideas about science fiction. She's not pretentious, although she tackles difficult subjects - sexism, culturalism, reimagining creatively, artistically, exploring what it means to be human, which she says is the writer's job and gift, and science fiction lets us go forwards and backwards, and imagine it differently. I hope you can find a copy of the book, too!

I like/am terrified of the world Kay sends his characters too in the Fionavar Tapestry. Also his Sarantium series, which was really, really good writing. another good choice, Memory!

Hazra: I haven't read any Terry Pratchett since I was in my 20's. I have to pick some up again, I know everyone enjoys him, but I wasn't in the mood for puns etc when I was younger. Now I'm older and need to laugh, so it's time!! lol I do agree with you about Harry Potter, I always wished this world had magic like in the Potter books (well, without Death eaters, and Lord Voldemort....)

Chris said...

Your article about fantasy is excellent and I agree with all you say. It struck me as I was reading it that much of the reason why some people 'don't read fantasy' is for no other reason than it is called 'fantasy'. Your article makes we wonder whether fantasy is, in fact, a huge misnomer, which does the genre a great disservice. We we not be better giving it a label of 'extended reality'? That's how I perceive my 'fantasy' writing.

Chris Warren
Author and Freelance Writer
Randolph's Challenge, Book One - The Pendulum Swings

Susan said...

Chris: I think you're right! I've seen people turn away from Fantasy just because of the name. I'm not sure changing the name will help...maybe not having any categories would help, but I think the publishers would blow up if we did that! I worked in bookstores for many years, and categorizing them helped them to know where to put books or how to sell them (the market). Us book-lovers, on the other hand, want usually to know if it's good, first, though I do know many people (especially when i worked in those bookstores) who read only romances or mysteries or fiction or sf. It's an interesting conundrum, isn't it?

I'll keep an eye out for your book. It's title seems familiar, so I think I've seen it reviewed, possibly in Locus....

i'll have to think if I like fantasy as 'extended reality'. That reminds me of quantum physics more than fantasy!

Book pusher said...

I have been meaning to come back and comment on this post, which is a great post by the way and I really must get a copy of Le Guin's essays. It really sums why some books are so powerfully realised and others are not, why some books and characters take up permanent residence in your imagination. For me one of the most powerful fantasies has been Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series, tragic that he was not able to complete it. Neil Gaiman is another author who creates powerfully realised landscapes. Great post.

Book pusher said...

Oops wanted to add while fantasy does not often get taken seriously, in recent years we have seen some seriously major works of literature emerge from fantasy, I am thinking of Philip Pullman's Dark materials triliogy, while controversial it is also one of the most important books to emerge from children's and young adult literature in a long time and again it represents the creation of a world and characters that are so vividly realised they are impossible to forget.