All stories have some level of social agenda, (even if that agenda is merely to cater to the latest fad in the hope of making the author rich.) From Gilgamesh to Twilight, the stories we tell and the stories we love to hear tell us about who we are, how we want the world to be, and what we believe to be true. But what we believe to be true is often only the merest sliver of the truth that the world really holds.
So-called realistic fiction is bound hand and foot by the “you couldn’t put it in a book” phenomenon. Let a story stretch even an inch beyond the critics’ current narrow definition of what’s realistic and it will be condemned. (That those conventions are not as “true” as we assume while we’re in the midst of them can be shown by the way the fashions of such conventions shift over time. That would be a fascinating topic for a thesis that I don’t intend to write. If you happen to be looking for a thesis idea, be my guest – and send me a copy when you’re done!)
I first ran up against this when I was a kid and Judy Blume books were all the rage. Judy Blume’s books were, I was assured, realistic. They explored the issues that were, I was assured, vital to me as a child and a young adult, reflecting what I cared about in my school and my family, telling me what a “normal” child experiences… There was just one problem. I didn’t relate to Judy Blume’s characters, I wasn’t particularly concerned with her issues, I didn’t find her scenarios reflective of my life, and to the extent that they were, I didn’t care. So, how realistic were those books to me, really?
(I had to smile when I saw the phenomenon all over again last year. My daughter T was in first grade and addicted to Rainbow Magic books. My daughter’s teacher said in our conference that she was trying to encourage T to read more realistic books that had more to do with her own life – books, Ms. S. said, like Junie B. Jones. Now, Rainbow Magic books, let me say right away, are not great literature, nor do they add anything to any discussion of morality. They are merely harmless fluff. But they are truly no less realistic than Junie B. Jones, with her kindergarten love affairs and her exaggerated misunderstandings, her thoughts and actions that are at least as foreign to my daughter’s six-year-old life as the idea of trying to help rainbow fairies in trouble.)
Perhaps you loved Judy Blume, and that’s fine. Her enduring popularity attests to the fact that clearly plenty of kids are finding something there that I did not. My point, however, is that so-called realistic books can be constrained by the necessity of fitting a conventional view of likely scenarios and “hot” issues. This is where Fantasy swoops in to save the day. Fantasy (and I include under this umbrella some sci-fi and other related speculative genres) has an extremely powerful and subversive ability to slip behind our defenses while we are willingly suspending our disbelief. Because readers of fantasy are less likely to object, “But that could never happen!” fantasy can show us visions not only of nifty things like fairies, dragons, and magic, but also visions of individuals and societies functioning in ways that we would otherwise reject as impossible.
An obvious example here is that it was the original Star Trek that was able to show the first interracial kiss on TV, albeit a grudging kiss both from the point of view of the characters in the plot and the point of view of the network. Still, it broke a barrier. Perhaps Star Trek was a more important agent for social change simply by modelling a future in which men and women, Russians and United Statesians, worked together with respect and cooperation. Totally unrealistic! (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit here that I never particularly liked Star Trek. I am only a partial geek at best, but I am married to one, so a certain amount of osmosis inevitably takes place.) Another example of a vision of justice in fantasy is the basic fact that in fairy tales virtue lives happily ever after and wicked stepmothers are punished. Nowadays happy endings are considered unrealistic and are practically banned from serious realistic fiction, but in juvenile fantasy we are still allowed to hold up an image of justice without being condemned as unrealistically saccharine. Only in fantasy are we permitted to imagine what might happen, instead of following mindlessly the pre-laid tracks of what convention agrees does happen.
So, fantasy, particularly juvenile fantasy, is a genre uniquely positioned to explore important social issues, and to me that makes it one of the most interesting genres both to read and to write. Take the Harry Potter series, with its messages about making choices, about the strength and limits of loyalty, about good and evil and imperfection. These are profoundly moral books. Or take Terry Pratchett’s handling of huge issues including prejudice, freedom, and war, all while being so silly that we never raise our defenses against being lectured. It’s this ability that fantasy has to hold up new ways of thinking before us – in a way we’re actually willing to stop and consider – that just might save the Earth.
Of course, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility, and the idea that the messages of, say, Twilight, are also slipping in under the defenses of large numbers of the female population is pretty scary. And some other time perhaps I’ll share my rant about why Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is one of the worst things I’ve ever read - but even these negative examples only serve to prove the power that fantasy has.
As a reader, those arching themes of love and courage and morality are far more interesting than the angst about parties, drugs, shopping, and weight loss that are supposedly a realistic portrayal of my life and the issues I’m supposed to relate to. As a writer I try not to hit anybody over the head with a moral, and I hope I’m not overly pedantic, but all the same, I believe that I wouldn’t be writing the truth if I didn’t use fantasy to show my vision of what a world – any world, even our world – might actually be like if people made different choices. What might really happen if people faced conflict by trying to reach understanding instead of hitting first and wondering afterwards why everyone’s always fighting? What might really happen if people tried to live thoughtfully and creatively and kindly even in the face of brutal injustice? Is that pure fantasy? Perhaps. Is it True? I think so. And that’s my social agenda. I hope it slips under a few defenses and helps to save the Earth!
[Pictures: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003;
Holy Mountain, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]