Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The stigma of imagination

Jake Seliger has an interesting post about remarks made about fantasy by Patrick Kurp, in which Kurp says:

Fantasy feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children. I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another. Ours feels sufficiently mysterious and wonder-filled, so ghosts, witches, aliens and magic spells come off as kitschy, redundant gimmicks.

I strongly recommend Seliger’s post. He gives an interesting defense of fantasy that is worth reading.

I’m interested not so much in Kurp specifically as in what his remark suggests, because I think it shows an important part of the reason why fantasy and science fiction is so looked down upon, a question that’s been on my mind lately. Calling something childish or the like is, of course, a common attack leveled against fiction that does not take place in the real world as we know it (or its past), as well as a common criticism of people who read such fiction. Why?

I think it largely boils down to this. Children often have vivid imaginations, and so imagination is strongly associated with children in our culture. Children tend to have all sorts of traits that are not appropriate for adults. People often have a need to prove themselves grown up, to others and perhaps to themselves. Thus, use of imagination beyond imagining fairly mundane real-world events is disreputable. As a result, it’s often not enough to simply say, “SF doesn’t interest me,” or even to say that SF is all aesthetically bad; some psychological or moral fault must be ascribed to SF and/or its readers.

It’s worth noting that the small number of speculative works that have gained respectability are usually social/political commentaries, satires, or allegories, e.g. 1984 and Brave New World. (Or the new Battlestar Galactica, for that matter.) Imagination is more excusable when the imaginative elements of a work are only a stand-in for something about the present-day world, merely sugar to help the medicine go down. Some SF fans themselves seem to implicitly accept this, arguing that SF should be respected because of its potential for metaphor or allegory.

Things are likely aggravated by the fact that most modern fantasy, like science fiction, is heavily based on system-building and logical extrapolation: if X were the case (X being “magic is real” or “time-travel is possible” or whatever), what would happen? Logic and systematizing, as I’ve said before, are disfavored personality traits; having a strong interest in them is considered to be mostly the preserve of nerds, weirdoes, and losers. Fantasy is (obviously) not connected to science in the way science fiction is, but it often shares science fiction’s rational approach to a great extent.

That might explain why magical realism is usually considered legit literature: it has imaginative elements, which is iffy, but it doesn’t compound the sin by thinking about the imaginative elements rationally. Weird stuff just happens, and people and the world in general don’t respond realistically. (I’m not saying this as a criticism; different forms of literature engage different aspects of the human mind to different degrees, and that’s perfectly legitimate.)

Similarly, while mystery is often highly rational in orientation, it does not usually imagine things that could not happen today (or in the real past, for historicals.) Mystery is Genre rather than Real Literature, but it is still far more respectable than science fiction or fantasy.

Respectability for fantasy or science fiction is most likely a hopeless cause, at least in the current cultural climate. It has the stigma of childishness and Nerd Cooties at the same time. A genre might be able to get away with one; you won’t get away with both.

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