Forget why fantasy matters. Why does realism matter?

Last week, as part of their month-long celebration of Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea, Manhattan's Center for Fiction gathered four fantasists, including Naomi Novik and Lev Grossman, to explain why fantasy matters.

Despite the panel's name, none of the speakers Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Naomi Novik (the Temeraire series), Kelly Link (Pretty Monsters), and Felix Gilman (The Half-Made World) — at the Center for Fiction's "Why Fantasy Matters" really seemed to feel the genre needed a defense. Instead, the conversation evolved into something more interesting: An examination of the ways fantasy can explore what realism can't.

To get things started, moderator Laura Miller ( author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia), tackling the panel's subject matter from a different angle, asked why fantasy might not matter. Lev Grossman cited the resistance he sometimes faced as Time's book critic, as he tried to incorporate more fantasy into the magazine: People often charged that these works are escapism, merely a way for people to avoid reality. His response to that attitude:

"In fact, the fantastical worlds that are depicted in these books are not fantasies in a psychological sense, where you can have whatever you want. These are worlds where the problems are very real and you're encountering problems that are recognizable from the real world in a transfigured form." He added that Westeros, for example, is not a place you'd want to escape into. Here Naomi Novik jumped in to add that, "They can be used to give you distance from where you actually are, from the topic that you want to slip in there for your readers." That distance, Grossman concluded, can give you "traction on real issues and real problems."

As the panel's resident surrealist, Kelly Link pointed to not just the symbolic possibilities, but how the tension between reality and fantasy can create a text that's richer than something that's more straightforward:

"One of the things about working with fantasy or surreal or even satirical or super-real material is you are creating a narrative in which there is never just a single reading. There's always another level moving around below the surface. You have these two levels, which are there also in realistic fiction but are not quite as fluid. It's more possible to get a number of different readings into a work in which there are things which may be stand-ins for whatever the reader or the author wants to put in there."

In fact, she values the bewilderment that fantasy offers: "I don't like work where I understand everything that's going on, where I think, ‘Yes, this is right, this all maps onto my experience.' I actually want something that makes me think about things in a different way."

Grossman chimed in:

"When you're writing fantasy this wonderful thing happens, which is [that] everybody knows about reality. We all know what would really happen. Then you're playing with reality. You're breaking its rules. So there's this wonderful sense in which you are harmonizing with reality. Everybody knows the reality and then you're doing a kind of melody line above reality."

A conversation about world-building turned into a lively discussion of how the meanings of fantasy tropes have shifted over time. Grossman said:

"I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics."

Novik, on the other hand, had an immediate counter-point, which is that what we now consider mere folklore was, at the time, taken as literal truth: "At the time, though, they believed witches were real. Right? So you could say Shakespeare was trying to write realistically."

Grossman conceded she was right — but added perhaps the most interesting remark of the whole talk, which is that he finds himself asking, "Why does realism matter?"

Felix Gilman offered another take:

"There's something satisfying and emotionally valuable about something which is deliberately not rational, not fully understood. Which doesn't necessarily have to fit into the tropes of the fantasy genre, but the fantasy genre is a form of sticking a finger up at completely rational view of the world."

Ultimately, Novik brought the panel full circle, explaining why she reads almost exclusively fantasy at this point and suggesting that fantasy's not-realness makes, quite simply, for a more engaging story:

"The key for me is a sense of wonder, a sense something that I don't expect might happen at any moment, a sense that I haven't been told all the rules of the universe that I'm in and I'm getting to discover them and that allows me to engage with the text."

Image: Mavamaramis/Flickr

This article originally misstated the panel's moderator as Joan Walsh. It has been corrected.