Fantasy, Escapism and Truth

It seems that after the nihilism in fantasy debate, we are now having the truth in fantasy debate, for Mark Charan Newton offers this post on fantasy, escapism and truth in response to the Guardian article by Damien G. Walter. On both posts, the comments are as interesting, if not more so, than the posts themselves.

This whole discussion strikes me as a bit odd. First of all, it mixes up two completely different subjects, the question in truth in fiction and the question of escapism. Because it is perfectly possible for escapist fiction to be truthful. And it is perfectly possible to escape into works that are true. For example, I’d argue that a lot of people use nonfiction – particularly certain kinds of nonfiction such as travel writing, memoirs, blow by blow accounts of World War II battles, etc… – as a means of escapism. In fact, subgenres such as the celebrity biography or the misery memoir seem to thrive on the escapist urges of its readers, though in the case of the misery memoir, the readers seem to prefer to escape via reading about other people living lives of unimaginable and excessive squalor and misery.

This leaves us with the issue of truth in fantasy or truth in fiction in general. The question, “Can fiction or can fantasy offer truth?” is easily answered and the answer is, “Yes, of course it can.” If a work of fiction tells us something about the world or the human condition than it does indeed contain truth. So far, so easy.

The next big question is, “What is truth?” And this is where the positions differ, because truth can be very subjective. What is more, there are many different truths, e.g. political truth, economic truth, factual truth, scientific truth, historical truth, physical truth, emotional truth, etc… Speculative fiction often does pretty well in the realms of scientific truth (at least in the subset that is SF) or political truth, but many works don’t do all that well in the realm of emotional truth. Whereas a Harlequin Presents category romance with a silly title such as The Greek Tycoon’s Pregnant Virgin Mistress (apologies if this is an actual title) and a highly contrived plot can still contain more emotional truth than “Gritty and depressing fantasy that is a thinly veiled Iraq war analogy”. However, it probably won’t score very high in the realm of economic truth (many of those romance billionaires have no discernible source of income and never seem to work either).

This is also the point where Damien Walter’s article falls down IMO, because while he lists a number of books, he does not really explain why he feels that those particular books are more truthful than others and how he defines truth in general. It doesn’t help that the books he lists have nothing in common except that they are all fantasy (though the China Mieville novel might be SF going by the description alone) and that none of them are what could be called commercial mainstream fantasy.

Come to think of it, this latest “truth in fantasy” debate is related to the recent “nihilism in fantasy” debate after all. Because the gist of the “nihilism in fantasy” debate was, “The type of fantasy I prefer is good and beautiful and true, while that other type of fantasy is either nihilistic and decadent and a clear symptom of the downfall of Western civilization and the impending apocalypse or silly Pollyana-ish escapism for people who can’t handle the grim realities of the world and the reason why fantasy still is not taken seriously as a genre”. Which of course brings us back to the questions of truth and escapism.

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