Why do I love fantasy so?

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When I say ‘fantasy’, I don’t mean ‘Fantasy’ with a capital ‘F’, as in the speculative genre. I mean ‘fantasy’ as in the imaginative possibilities that exist outside of reality.

…No, I will not inscribe the word ‘escapism’ to fantasy because I’m not escaping from anything (well, no more than anyone else, anyway).

There are cultural ideologies at work wherever fantasy is present. Dungeons and Dragons transcribe fantasy as ‘role playing’, living the fantasy through imagination, bringing fantasy into reality through narrative, and given depth through the real world factor of ‘chance’. This depiction of fantasy provides a strong argument towards escapism, and perpetuates the cultural stereotype that fantasy is for nerds. Men who aren’t ‘real’ men. Guys who see the world a little differently and are therefore more feminine because of it. And that right there is a signifier of cultural anxiety. Anything that’s different, there’s a need to distinguish it by how abnormal it is. Kids sitting around making up stories about fantasy creatures when they should be out playing sport or something stupid. At the same time I both hate people that think like that and I understand why they do it. It’s the same thing I love fantasy. Comfort.

Reading is for women, and reading fantasy is especially for women, yet nerds aren’t real men, so they read fantasy too. But writing is a profession, and therefore most writers are men. I think a lot of people can take comfort in the world when it translates to the cultural ideologies they have in their heads. Normal is only normal because we bring those ideas forth through our understanding of our culture. Some people find comfort in the idea that, like the kids playing D&D, real life can be constructed and narrated and plotted out to an extent. If they adhere to the narrative of ‘normal’, no one will question them, no one will challenge what they believe in. There’s a security in thinking that you can control the direction of your life, but really, it’s only constructed around cultural ideologies that have since been normalised. And the problem people have with fantasy is that it is not normal, and it is only in the presence of the abnormal that the normal ceases to become invisible. When people start behaving in ways that defy patriarchy or capitalism, that’s when the people that rely on those structures become anxious and vulnerable.

Fantasy, in its very essence, displays a sort of anti-reality. Fantasy, as the non-normal, reflects on the constructedness of ‘reality’ (as a cultural construction), which encourages those living within the dominant culture to reinforce their definition of reality to obscure the fact that they are living according to a set of codes and conventions ascribed to them by their culture. They are hiding from the real reality that is void of all meaning or purpose. We work to earn money to buy food, clothes, housing, commodities, to recieve some sort of material wealth that places us higher in the social ladder. We desire to start a family and perform roles that are culturally assigned to us by patriarchy. In a way, fantasy is more honest about its removal from the real reality than cultural reality because it is not trying to hide its true form as a way of ascribing meaning to our otherwise bleak and meaningless lives. ‘Reality’ is just as much a form of escapism as fantasy.

Now, coming back to this notion of comfort. Cultures always surround dominant ideologies, and will always be met with resistant ideologies. Without patriarchy, we wouldn’t have feminism. Capitalism/communism. Fantasy/reality. It goes without saying that ideology is something that differs from culture to culture, place to place. With the popularity of patriarchy, most family structures that don’t resemble that 1950s postwar America are instantly placed on the fringe, and in their abnormality their meaning comes under threat. The power of the dominant culture is such that it can sometimes bend the abnormal to its will. Because it’s not common that people challenge something that’s been taken for granted for so long. But when things do change, the world can become a very scary place for people trying so desperately to live in that comfort space of normalcy. What do we do now if our lives up until this point has been a lie? The obvious thing to do would be to seek out new comforts, to establish a new normal. I don’t see patriarchy disappearing any time soon, but as feminist ‘waves’ come through, the definition of normal is renegotiated.

But the problem with this, the problem with ALL of this, is that things are never quite so black and white. Back when the industrial revolution came around and people are moving to the city and putting their faith in science they’re seeking completely different comforts to the people before them devoting their lives to religion and keeping up their farms, or whatever. Sure, it’s easy enough to say “I don’t believe in god because there’s no proof” or “I believe in science because there is proof”. If you go with the masses, chances are high that you’ll be safer that way. I think it’s easy enough to think one way or another, to instill some sort of meaning in your life, to believe in something, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be what everyone else believes in, or that it has to be ONLY what everyone else believes in.

Lately I seem to be going through an existential crisis every other week. I’m a man, but I’m not masculine in certain aspects of my life, and in other aspects of my life I act a certain way because I’m desperately seeking approval which is superficial and I’m only doing it because I’m hailed by my culture to do it, and by being aware of it I’m recognising that this superficial me is how I project myself to appear normal, which is different to the me when I’m alone or when I’m actively critiquing culture for being the way it is and essentially reducing people to a reified set of normalised behaviours. What’s the meaning to that? This reality is a joke. And as we’re living in postmodernity, we’re well beyond the point where science is taken for granted and religion in western culture is just about dead. I’ve believed for quite a long time now that my existence isn’t just a test for some divine judgement for god. I’ve believed for a while that there is no point to life other than for my own personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of the people around me. I used to label myself agnostic, but I hated the misconception that I had chosen the label because I wasn’t sure, that I hadn’t made my mind up yet, when really I had already decided that god doesn’t exist in the sense that he is portrayed in the bible and that I should commit my life to this non-entity. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that absolutely no other life exists in this universe and there is absolutely no point in time where other life forms impact this world, past or future. The fact is, there’s no reason to show that any higher being is influencing my life right now. I’ve come to find more comfort in the term ‘atheist’ rather than ‘agnostic’.

But for some strange reason, I find comfort in fantasy, too. I think the comfort stems from ideas that, considering how constructed reality is, fantasy is just another reality, just another construct. However, unlike reality, fantasy can take on any shape or form. It can take on the form of ideologies that I conform to, regardless of whether they’re part of the dominant culture or not. They can take the ideas I like and pitch them against the things I hate about reality. They can access plot, narrative and characters and represent issues and themes relevant to constructed reality, while offering alternatives or resistant readings to culture. I think a lot of things suck, and I like that other things are out there that can transcribe those ideas into narratives and give them meaning (meanings that aren’t so superficial). I find comfort in fantasy because it represents the other, a balance to the real. There is comfort in knowing that when the illusion of reality is shattered and the morbid meaninglessness and purposelessness of life is exposed, fantasy can provide an alternative narrative that gives me purpose and reason to think things over. When I hate myself for following trends that automatically brand me as a bland, unoriginal product of society, and when I reject those ideologies, it’s good to know that I’ve got a more flexible set of beliefs to fall back on.

Literature as a visual medium

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I guess I’ve been gearing steadily towards this idea although I was yet to phrase it as such. I find the easiest books for me to read are usually the most ‘visual’. This is the sort of topic that would be great for an honours project or something, although I haven’t yet looked into the academic field to see if many people have written on this subject. Then there’s the matter of discussing to academic standards (which is as dry and static as they get) about this concept of ‘the visual’.

It’s no secret that I love books. I’m constantly buying them and I’m constantly reading them. I’m constantly trying to write them too. But my reading habits tend to be very erratic. Up until recently, I couldn’t really decipher why. Usually, the length of a book and its content factors heavily on if/when I will finish reading it. What can I say? I have to be ‘in the mood’ to read certain types of books.

I grew up reading a bit of a mixed bag of genres and styles. After the children’s stories, the Roald Dahl type stuff, I read things like John Marsden’s Tomorrow Series and the Harry Potter Series and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A fair amount of fantasy and action. Not a lot of realist fiction. I think there were a couple of realist young adult books, but they were never my favourites.

No, I was always fascinated by books about big dramatic things that stimulate the imagination and provide a spectacle of visual phenomenon. Text that describes so vivid the things that would be visually impressive in film, but without the need for film, without the grandeur of cinematic special effects. Primarily, these things belong in the wider category of ‘speculative’ fiction. Because the act of speculation itself is to think independently of and engage with the text you are consuming. The world of the speculative is not just a representation of a fictional reality, but rather it is its own reality which requires the reader to bring their own understanding to the text. They carve the world out of their own inferences and imagination.

Stuff like the Tomorrow Series, you still get it set in the fictional real world, but it’s a real world that pivots on the hypothetical (what if Australia were invaded and our freedom were under serious threat?) that launches the story into a drastically unfamiliar setting that is somehow the same place but different (the concept of ‘the uncanny’). Here, we are still required to stretch the imagination to paint the mental image of this world of the divided Australia.

I’ve always struggled with sci-fi or fantasy novels that were ridiculously long. Even an average long novel becomes challenging. Books have become like films to me. Best consumed in a short time frame to maintain a maximum impact from the visual spectacle of the book. Sure, the visual can function in a variety of ways, as with the Lord of the Rings representing an immaculately crafted fantasy world that is rich in culture and history. It is far more detailed than most films need to be. It is an image to be consumed over a considerable amount of time, and I just haven’t had the patience for it. I want to be dropped right in the middle of the action and I want to be entertained.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of bizarro fiction, which usually doesn’t push past 250-300 pages, as well as a lot of graphic novels and manga. Well, my initial response to literature is a visual one, then it would appear graphic novels and manga are obvious choices. It’s the sort of mid-way point between novel and film. A storyboard that’s supposed to be consumed ‘as is’. And by all means, I love it. It’s presented as static images, yet at the height of the action, there is a remarkable amount of movement. The combination of dialogue and artwork bring a visual immediacy to literature which is almost inaccessible to the standard novel. But on the counter-argument, having the visual right there means that there is less for the reader to imagine and to reconstruct in their own mind, which I think also forms a large part of the pleasure of reading fiction.

Why I’ve been thinking about this lately is that I’ve been watching a lot of films and TV shows and thinking “ok, how can I capture that in text? How can I write something so that they’ll read it and see that?” So as a writer, it becomes an issue of trying to get the reader to see in their head what I see in mine. And of course, how it is with the speculative, subjectivity, and the death of the author, no one is ever going to see my writing as I see it. It’s just not possible.

I’ve been looking at various genres at play, and how the aesthetics mould the world, both in literature and film, and how they project the setting as a space for the visual to occur, for the action and entertainment. Stuff like Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, they’ve got that strong sense of visual stimulation, that you don’t need to see it, you can just read it and form those images from films, images, other texts that inform your own knowledge of those genres.

Last year I wrote a story about ice-popsicle creatures living on a giant’s back. Now, I’m going back to it, and I visualised it like this. It changes my approach entirely. Being able to visualise it means that it’s easier to describe it, which means it’s easier to plot it out and write the damned thing. It also means that (theoretically) it should be easier to read. Well, for people like me, it should be easier to read.

Now, it’s easy to get wrapped up in genre and the visual components of literature, but I’m saying all of this in addition to a writer’s ability to formulate attractive prose. Good writing, good visual storytelling, and there’s a good chance I’ll be really into it. If it’s good visually, but kind of mediocre writing, I’m usually pretty cool with it. Even good writing with so-so visuals can sometimes hold up. But when stuff becomes entirely hinged upon the writing, with no regard for conceptualising it, I struggle. Just like a film that’s all special effects with no substance. It just feels hollow. That’s my problem with academic writing in a nutshell. It’s hardly ever engaging and visually stimulating, which makes theories harder to conceptualise. It’s been difficult with stuff like literary and cultural studies, especially since it’s so broad and often quite vague, to grasp theories and latch onto the ideas of specific theorists, without first having a text or case study to anchor it to, which is the case most of the time with ‘old school’ theorists writing in the field of semiotics or postmodernism or stuff like that. So I can only do the whole conceptual/visualisation thing of the theories in practice after I’ve read all their long-winded essays.

It’s kind of like those epic science fiction/fantasy novels that take ages to build momentum. It usually takes me a few tries to get through them, but when I do it’s usually pretty rewarding. I just wish sometimes I could read longer books as easily as I do shorter ones (as in, not having month long gaps between starting and finishing. My third year at uni and the cultural theory is slowly starting to sink in. If only academia were more visually stimulating.

Oh well, I guess this can be taken as a long winded, visually lacking (unless you consider my narrator-as-character persona to be particularly visual) rant on how I only have the attention span for short, entertaining, fast-paced books.

Kissing Damp Jealousies

Poetry

A flying remote control flies past the window
I forget that cats come from eggs
I am sad, then I am mad, then I am happy.
But only a little.

I go to kissing class
and practice kissing damp jealousies
and I have a sixty-two percent
success rate.
The clay bowl
has an eighty-eight percent
success rate.

I laugh at something funny but I forget what it is.
I touch my nose
and look out the window
Flying remote controls fly past,
and they are all kissing damp jealousies
with a one-hundred percent success rate.
I am a little sad, then a little mad, then a little happy.
I am just a bit confused.