The “real” Thing

Writer Russell Banks gave an interview to the New York Times.

In it, this gem:

And how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of?

Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here. In his brief introduction to Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.

Repeat after me, Mr. Banks.

ALL FICTION IS FANTASY.

By. Freaking. Definition.

It is lies. ALL of it. From your beloved”literary” novels right up to your despised space opera “the Martians are coming” stuff. Or are you really telling me that the exaggerated soap opera world of a Downton Abbey is in some way more “real” to you than Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party under the Party Tree at Bag End?

Why?

You’ve actually “lived” the Downton life, have you? Personally? You don’t identify more with a Ring-damaged old Hobbit who is likely to occasionally yell an ornery “gerroff my lawn” than you do with an etiolated upper crust reigning over a dungeon of servants scurrying to attend to their every need. (For that matter, who do you identify with in Downton Abbey? I am prepared to bet you anything it isn’t a footman or even the ex-chauffeur-made-good who ran off with the Earl’s daughter. Would I be right in assuming that you’d see “reality” as yourself being somebody who might belong in Lord Grantham’s dining room wearing evening dress and being waited on by footmen…?)

In one of the oddest twists of my writing oeuvre, my mother, who doesn’t like “fantasy” fantasy (the elves/dwarves/dragons kind) staunchly maintains that her favorite of all my books is the “Changer of Days” duology… which is the highest of high fantasy. It is pure secondary world, it involves deposed heiresses to a royal throne, it involves magical gifts of Sight, it involves oracles, it involves voyages in the deep mystical desert, it involves Gods and death and resurrection… trust me, Mr. Banks, death is NOT absent in these books…and yet she speaks of these books about being about “real” people.

I repeat – all fiction is fantasy. ALL people are “real” people – any character worth his or her salt, no matter whether that character is some damaged angsty critter fumbling his/her way through a rarefied “literary” story without beginning or end but only a vast and marshy everlasting middle, or a strange alien creature who evolved on a desert world and knows how to survive a sandstorm the likes of which would leave YOU scoured to a clean white skeleton buried under the dunes. A good character in a good story is and remains just that – and it is Mr Banks’s loss if he refuses to believe this.

Literary snobs lose out on so much treasure by hanging onto one and only one Holy Writ of genre. The truth is, of course, that “literary” fiction is just another genre, no more and no less. It’s like insisting that there is no other fruit but grapes, despite all evidence to the contrary, and thus never tasting a peach, a pear, an orange, or a slice of watermelon. It’s all “real”. It’s all “lies”. IT’S ALL STORY.

Trust me, Mr. Banks, ‘fantasy’ characters don’t just die, they sometimes die *horribly*, if death is what you are after. Read some of my own books if you don’t believe me. I don’t spare lives if their loss is meaningful to my story. But before they die they live full and rich lives, as full and as rich – and as goddamned REAL – as any of your literary heroes. If not more so.

I don’t suppose you’ll ever read this particular response to your interview, sir, but I’d like to offer you a copy of one of my own historical fantasies. Think of it as a belated Christmas present. And then you can tell me all about how much I don’t know about death, and about real lives of real people. If you decide to take me up on the challenge, I’m easy to find.

Climb off the high horse, Mr. Banks, and walk even a short mile in someone else’s moccasins. You might actually find you ENJOY that other aspect of reality.

 

(Read the rest of the interview, if so moved, here)

 

 

 

 

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  1. 1. Mary

    Indeed, fantasy oftentimes casually racks up a death-toll that would look monstrous in any other genre. All that fighting.

  2. 2. Kevin S.

    Apparently, Mr. Banks has never heard of George R.R. Martin, to name one obvious example of fantasy with a body count. He should get [his head] out [of his posterior] more often.

  3. 3. 'nother Mike

    I wanted to see just what Pynchon had to say, since this seems to be the basis for the argument… quote:

    “At the heart of the story, most crucial and worrisome, is the defective way in which my narrator, almost but not quite me, deals with the subject of death. When we speak of “seriousness” in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death – how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn’t so immediate. Everybody knows this, but the subject is hardly ever brought up with younger writers, possibly because given to anyone at the apprentice age, such advice is widely felt to be effort wasted. (I suspect one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction appeal so much to younger readers is that, when the space and time have been altered to allow characters to travel easily anywhere through the continuum and thus escape physical dangers and timepiece inevitabilities, mortality is so seldom an issue.)” Thomas Pynchon

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/143135555/Thomas-Pynchon-Slow-Learner

    Wow? This comment about his first published story became the basis for a claim that serious writing is that where Death (capitalized) is present? To me, that doesn’t seem to be what Pynchon is talking about at all. Instead, he is talking about how the story, characters, and all deal with death.

    It is bad enough to make an appeal to authority the basis for an argument, but when the authority is misconstrued, it rather diminishes the claim.

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.

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