BookTuber Tuesday – V.E. Schwab: ‘In Search of Doors,’ Pembroke Tolkien Lecture 2018

Which is why it’s disheartening, if I’m being generous, and maddening, if I’m being honest, to see so many new stories conforming to such old conceits. To see so many contemporary fantasy authors subscribing to antiquated models, either because of nostalgia, or the ease of well-worn roads, or, more likely, because they still feel adequately represented by them.

What a waste. The most beautiful part of writing fantasy is the freedom, not from rules—because we all know that good stories need good worlds, and good worlds, whether they’re rooted in fantasy, sci-fi, or realism, require solid scaffolding—no, not from rules, but from the exact details of the present we inhabit.

We have the opportunity to subvert the established tropes, to redefine power, to conceive of social landscapes and climates perpendicular to the ones in which we live. Fantasy allows us to explore the strengths and weaknesses of our own world through the lens of another. To draw a concept from its natural framework, its classic, well-worn context, and examine the underbelly of the idea. To restructure, and re-center. Fantasy affords the luxury of close examination—of the self, and of society—laid within a framework of escapism. It can be a commentary, a conversation, and it can simply be a refuge.

Good Fantasy operates within this seeming paradox.

It allows the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world.

But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as pure Fantasy.

Fantasy, like all stories, has its roots in reality—it grows from that soil. Stories are born from “what if…”, and that is a question that will always be rooted in the known. “What if…” by its nature is a distillation of “What if things were different?” And that question depends on a foundation of what we want them to be different from. In that sense, all fantasy is in conversation with a reality we recognize. It is a contrast, a counterpoint, and in my opinion the best fantasies are those which acknowledge and engage with that reality in some way.

Perhaps that means we see the world we are leaving—we board the train to Hogwarts, we step through the wardrobe—or perhaps we simply acknowledge the foundations on which our story is born and from which we are departing.

I’m not advocating for fantasy as an overt metaphor. The questions and counterpoints need not be the driving force of the narrative—as with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness—but that question, “what if…?”, is strongest when it challenges the world we already know, and finds a way to pivot from it. To ask more interesting questions. To tell new stories.”

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’ By Arundhati Roy

“Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.

“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

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ARC Giveaways for Vol. 2 Coming Soon

Laurie Penny on the Monomyth:

“The original Star Wars was famously based on Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey,’ the ‘monomyth’ that was supposed to run through every important legend from the beginning of time. But it turned out that women had no place in that monomyth, which has formed the basis of lazy storytelling for two or three generations: Campbell reportedly told his students that ‘women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.’

Which is narratologist for ‘get back to the kitchen’ and arrant bullshit besides. It’s no enough to be a destination, a prop in someone else’s story. Now women and other cultural outsiders are kicking back and demanding a multiplicity of myths. Stories in which there are new heroes making new journeys. This isn’t just good news for steely eyed social justice warriors like me. It also means that the easily bored among us might not have to sit through the same dull story structure as imagined by some dude in the 1970s until we die.”

From Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults. 

On Dystopias and Utopias:

“Fredric Jameson observed, ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ — and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Just because dystopia is easy doesn’t mean it’s useless. There is value in pointing out oppression. A great way of shutting down dissent is to insist that it’s not enough to be against things without also deciding what it is that you are for. From the anti-war movement to Occupy Wall Street to the reimagined Corbynite Labour party, everyone on the left is used to hearing this — that we cannot point out whats wrong with politics without instantly suggesting an alternative.”

Laurie Penny, Bitch Doctrine.