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Ask the Author #3: What Good Is Fantasy, Anyway?

 
Hello folks. I’ve been elsewhere lately. Things have been busy with writing and getting ready for my trip out to New York for the Quill Awards.

But just yesterday I got the following message from someone asking me to help her settle a debate between her and a friend:

Patrick,

[…] Anyway, her stance is that Literature (her cap) is about enlightenment and improving the human condition, while fantasy is just escapist crap. I know she’s wrong, but I’m not a good debater. I’m not good with words. Can you help me out?

Thanks,

Sami

Sami, your question reminded me of a forum I got drawn into a while back. Normally I resist being pulled into online discussions, but this one struck home with me. The person who started the thread was asking, effectively, if fantasy really mattered in any sort of profound way.

This is the from-the-hip response I made on that forum a while back. If you’re looking for some argumentative ammo, there might be a few things in here. At any rate, it does a pretty good job of summing up how I feel about the issue.

“Can a Fantasy book/author really change anything?”

[First post: July 10th 5:15 AM]

Years ago I was watching a documentary on the Beatles. There was a video clip where a journalist was interviewing John Lennon. He was protesting the war, doing ridiculous things to get press attention so that he could spread the word about his message. He spent his honeymoon in bed with his wife and invited the press. When the press showed up hoping for something racy, John and Yoko used the opportunity to spread their message about peace.

One of the journalists got exasperated with him at one point and said, “You dear boy, you don’t think that you’ve saved a single life with this nonsense, have you?”

I remember watching that and thinking that I couldn’t decide which one of them was being foolish. Lennon for thinking he could change things, or the reporter for being so cynical.

Ultimately, I want to believe Lennon. I want to think that a person can make a change in the way people think.

I think that can be done with a protest. Or a song. Or an interview. Or a fantasy novel.

Hah! I actually found the video clip on youtube. If you watch it for about 40 seconds you’ll get to the part where the reporter says her line….

However, I don’t think that political activism is the only type of change a novel can create. I think a novel can change they way you think about the world. It can expose you to new thoughts or make you reconsider old ones.

Hell, a fantasy novel can teach you things. Any time you learn something it changes your life.

Lastly, but not leastly, we shouldn’t overlook pure entertainment. Back when I was in Grad school my life was a hell. It sucked really, really bad and I was stressed out beyond belief. That’s when I read the Harry Potter books. They were great. They helped me relax and not freak out. They didn’t heal my crippled limbs or stop me from being racist or fix global warming, but they improved the quality of my life. In doing so they hey changed my life in a little way. A good way.

[Second post: July 12th 11:18 AM]

I like what you said about escapism being productive. I think Robert Frost made a point along those lines in Birches.

“It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.”

That is one of the things that fantasy does best.

And laughter is not to be underestimated either. I write a satirical humor column for the local school paper. I write it because I like to make people laugh and it gives me a vent for my humor when my other writing needs to be serious.

After the most recent presidential election I was… distraught. Profoundly distraught and depressed. But my deadline was still there. I had to go in and be funny when I was in no mood. So I wrote about the elections. I made fun of the American populace, and the president, and both parties and myself most of all.

And the column pissed people off. They started a media event about it, got people riled up, and in the end, I almost lost my job because of it.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why do I do this? Why do I work 4-6 hours every week to write a column I don’t get paid for? A column that offends people (as all good satire must) and costs me what small shred of respect I have among the other faculty at the university. A column that at best, gives people a cheap laugh?”

Weeks later I was grousing about the whole experience to someone in the University Center. A student walking past overheard and stopped.

“You’re that guy that writes the College Survival Guide?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. Inwardly I was cringing against another attack. The media coverage had not been kind to me, satirical humor quoted out of context looks really, really damning, and as a result I’d been having I got a lot of unpleasant attention. Everything pales in comparison to a death threat, or the promise of a beating, but even tongue-lashings get you down after a while…. “Yeah.” I said. “That’s me.”

“I read it all the time,” he said. “After the election I wanted to kill myself. But when I read your column I laughed. I really needed a laugh right then. A lot of us really needed a laugh right then.”

It was like a great weight got lifted off me when I heard that. I remember thinking. Oh yeah. *this* is why I write. If we don’t laugh sometimes we’ll cry. I want to help out with that.

This conversation made me think of a piece of fan mail I got a couple days ago. I’m going to contact the person who wrote it and see if she’s okay with me re-printing it here. If she agrees I think it will be a nice addition to this thread…

[The final post: July 12th 12:12 PM]

She said I could share her letter so long as I removed her full last name. I wanted to share this because when this e-mail came in just a couple nights ago, I thought about this thread.

Even if I never get another e-mail like this again I’ll feel like I’ve done something worthwhile with my life….

Mr. Rothfuss

I read a lot of books. That’s not to brag, it’s just a fact. I read a lot of books, sometimes once, sometimes twenty times, and I’m glad that there’s a lot of books out there because I’m more a little afraid that I’m going to run out one day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is really a thank you letter, so I should start there.

I want to thank you for your book, but I want to do it right. I read a lot of books, and it’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt as passionately about a book as I do about yours. I don’t know how to describe this feeling, really – I hope you know what I mean so I don’t sound like a complete babbling idiot. It’s like what I felt when I finished the Tolkien trilogy for the first time. It’s the same thing I felt when I read my first LeGuin, it’s the first time I read Ender’s Game. It’s being eight and fascinated by orcs and elves, and fifteen and shocked by the names of shadows that move inside of you, even if the shadow’s name is your own name. It’s finding love and pain and hope and a piece of yourself in the words on a page that were written far away by someone you have never met.

For the first time in a long time, I had a book that I couldn’t bear to leave: your book. I bought it on a whim at five minutes to closing in a bookstore that I had never been to before, on a street that I have been on a hundred times. I started it at 11:45 on Monday night with a cup of grapefruit juice and a little seed of hope. I think you may know this hope, I think everyone has had it in one form or another. It’s more than the, “gee I hope this is going to be a good trip” kind of hope.

Let me elaborate. (This is, by the way, kind of a personal letter. I hope you don’t mind. You don’t have to write back, it’s okay, since this is really just a thank you.) I’m 19, just finished my first year of college, and living alone for the first time. I’m scared out of my wits, but not about finding a job or making it through school. I’m afraid that now that I’m an adult, there’s no such thing as magic anymore. I don’t want to be jaded any cynical and worldly. I like the crisp newness that varnishes the world. If I have to start paying bills and finding an apartment and paying rent, will I lose that shock, that joy, that awe that I felt when I saw things for the first time? (I had my first snowfall this winter. My first winter up north. It was everything I had dreamed it would be and it was utterly miserable. Who knew cold could be so, well, cold?) I am arrogant, I know, but I have to say it: have I read every good book? I wish I hadn’t squandered so many good first reads in my childhood, when everything was new, when I didn’t know how precious that first read is. That first bite of a taut red apple.

I started reading your book at 11:45pm and stopped at 8:30am when I realized that I probably still needed to show up for work. The first thing I did when I came home was pick it up again, and when I stopped I sat and stared at the wall and cried. Just because some things are over doesn’t mean everything is. There are still people out there who can make magic, who know magic, there is still magic, I can still see magic. Closing the back cover was defeating; everything ends, and really there’s nothing you can do about it. But it was exciting too. I was excited for another read, excited for the sequels, excited for the future.

I am going to go read it again now, and even though it won’t be the first time, it will still be exciting. Thank you for your book. It is beautiful, and bright, and full of magic. Thank you for letting me write you this letter, even if you never read it. Thank you for the hope.

Monica Q.

Hope that answers your question Sami. Everyone else, hope you weren’t bored by the horribly long post.

Later,

pat

This entry was posted in Ask the Author, fanmail, Fanmail Q + ABy Pat9 Responses

8 Comments

  1. draphsor
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:56 AM | Permalink

    Some years after it came out (how did I miss this?!? fortunately my friends finally came through for me), I've now read it for the first time. Thanks for sharing that eloquent thank-you note, as it spares me from attempting (and failing) to capture the same feeling in words. Your writing touched me, and virtually meeting you through your blog is a great joy. Best of luck with everything, and thanks you for the book. I look forward to many more, and hope the universe conspires to make it possible for you.

  2. Elisabeth
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 4:06 PM | Permalink

    A few lines from Jim Butcher's "Dead Beat" literally changed my life.

    [note: I'm paraphrasing so as not to add a spoiler about the dinosaur, and because I lent my copy to a friend and don't think I'm getting it back]

    "Wow, that must have been difficult to do."
    "It wasn't hard, but it was a lot of work."
    "Isn't that the same thing?"
    "No. Lifting an engine block out of a car would be very simple, but it would take a lot of effort."

    And thusly, my entire view of life and adulthood was changed.

  3. Martha D
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 3:25 PM | Permalink

    I could not have said it better. There’s nothing better in the world than a good book. NOTHING.
    Yours is one of the best.
    Thank you for being and writing.
    Thank you.

  4. zvanic
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 8:47 PM | Permalink

    Thank you Monica for summing that up perfectly.

  5. Gorewolf
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 1:09 PM | Permalink

    Couldnt put it better. Damn Straight.

  6. glamrockgirl23
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 6:39 PM | Permalink

    I’m so happy that you shared this letter with us. Like others have stated, it saves me from a lengthy and clumsy fawning fan letter. I too read a lot of books. A lot of good books, a lot of not so good books, (equally enjoyable) and a very few fantastic, captivating, -good enough to share with friends whether or not they want it -books. Yours fall into the latter category, and a thank you is in order. It’s been many many years since I’ve been this excited about an author or book. Your books make me happy all the way to my toes. That’s a lot of happy!

  7. adamsson
    Posted July 6, 2013 at 6:52 PM | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else mention this explicitly, so – I’ve noticed that a story communicates through its structures and patterns of events, circumstances, and characters, not just through its obvious dialogues and descriptions. The metaphor-speaking part of the mind recognizes these patterns tacitly, and they can teach and help in ways that would be hard to accomplish through direct instruction. That might even be part of what’s behind some of the comments. For instance, instead of the ceaseless talk we hear about our times in terms of battle and fighting, why not use different frames. How about building something? Or going somewhere? A pattern-change like that can give hope and open up better ways forward. I love your stories partly because they communicate that way. They disdain well-rutted tracks, enticing us along paths we’d missed, into vantage points where the world looks new and possibilities beckon. And giving us so much fun along the way!

  8. Happpiii
    Posted January 5, 2016 at 8:18 PM | Permalink

    A late night confession: It’s 3.10 am, and I’ve been sitting up since about 1am reading this blog due to …well, being unable to sleep for some reason.
    As some of the other comments above, I wholeheartedly agree that I could not put my thanks in words better than Monica Q.
    My eyes brimmed with tears, and despite my best efforts, they rolled down my cheeks, because she was so truly RIGHT. I realise that I feel exactly what she felt about the book, about being uncertain of the magicness of the world, and the first time of doing *something*…
    I even created an account, just to say this, realizing all the while that no one will probably read this. But still. I weep for the lost magic of my childhood, almost forgotten in the stress of getting a Bachelor degree, having pets, boyfriend, apartment… real adult stuff. This post just reminded me to step back from all that a little, just once in a while, and rejoice in the magic of newness, or even re-meeting old stuff, like book characters, or “Hey it’s snowing outside!”.
    Well.. certainly didn’t want to ramble this much but still; Thank you Pat, thank you for your blog, and especially for your books, but most of all, thank you for reminding me that magic can still be found.

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