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Once More in Defense of Fantasy: A Response to Joanna Trollope

10/10/2013 12:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2013

Just when I think the literary establishment can become no more obliviously dismissive of SFF as a genre, along comes Joanna Trollope to complain that fantasy novels, while "a lovely escape," fail to provide a strong enough sense of moral guidance for children:

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Trollope said she wanted to see novels by 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot taught more widely in schools to counter the "enormous amount of fantasy in children's bestseller lists"...

I feel children are missing out on an enormous amount," said Trollope, who admitted her 12-year-old grandson is engrossed in The Hunger Games. "The consolation to be found in the classics is absolutely infinite and greater than fantasy novels. Fantasy doesn't really relate to the real world.

"Although fantasy is a lovely escape, I am not sure it's much help. Because it is a parallel world, it's not the one you are wrestling with. The classics, by contrast, can comfort children and give them guidance."

She admitted some children would find the language of the classics difficult, but argued that modern reworkings of the texts could lure them into tackling the originals if teachers were encouraging...

Trollope, who is related to the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, said Sense and Sensibility tackled "love, money and class" and had messages about social divisions and snobbery that were still relevant today. Austen's lesson to young women, that they should temper their heart's impulses with common sense when it came to choosing a man, is as sharp now as in Austen's time.

Sadly, this sort of cognitive dissonance is all too commonly evident in the arguments of those who pit SFF against classic and mainstream literature. On the one hand, Trollope has blithely condemned fantasy as irrelevant simply because the settings and events don't resemble those of the real world; yet at the same time, she happily overlooks the everyday irrelevance of books set a century or more in the past in favour of focusing on their themes, ideas and people. The idea that fantasy might similarly derive its relevance, not from the presence of dystopian wargames or supernatural creatures, but from its human elements -- characterization, philosophy, politics, culture, motive -- seems never to have occurred to her. Indeed, given that many established literary classics are themselves works of fantasy or science fiction -- from seminal works like Frankenstein,  Dracula and The Lord of the Rings through to modern classics like The Handmaid's Tale, Slaughterhouse 5 and A Wizard of Earthsea -- it's hard not to wonder at what point, exactly, their status as classics would cease to protect them from Trollope's scorn and start to count against them.

Perhaps it's a question of language; that popular fantasies like The Hunger Games and Twilight, which (tellingly) are the only two such novels cited, fail to meet some specific aesthetic or moral criteria that Trollope deems essential. Specifically, one uncharitably suspects, that they were neither written by Jane Austen nor informed by a cultural context of unsubverted patriarchal modesty; whatever lessons young girls might take from Austen about choosing their partners wisely -- and I'll grant that these exist -- the default assumption of Austen's era, and therefore of the books themselves, is still that women ought to marry, preferably while young, in order to negate their lack of options otherwise. (The idea that the teenage women of today might not have designs, as Trollope has it, on "choosing a man" on account of being gay, asexual or otherwise lacking interest in exclusive or long-term relationships with men -- either by preference or because they're teenagers -- is another glaring anachronism.) If this is the sort of moral guidance Trollope thinks today's women need, then I would politely suggest her opinions are far less relevant than she realizes -- but charitably in this respect, it's not hard to see her pointed remarks about girls' choices as a not-so-veiled reference to the relationship dynamics in Twilight. Even so -- and as much has been said both to decry and in defense of that series; I myself am not a fan -- the idea that the problems of a single popular franchise merits a casual dismissal of the entire genre is as laughable as if I were to argue that Rob Schneider's career is proof positive that cinematic comedy is a fundamentally worthless medium.

Neither does it seem insignificant that Trollope has, without any apparent irony, elected to argue that books written for adults some two centuries ago are of greater relevance to modern teenagers than stories written in the present day specifically for them. Both The Hunger Games and Twilight are young adult novels featuring teenage protagonists, but while Marianne Dashwood is 16 when she first comes to the attention of the 35-year-old Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility -- which novel Trollope has recently rewritten for a modern audience -- this hardly seems to be the same thing. Though given Trollope's objection to Twilight, in which the 107-year-old Edward Cullen pursues the 16-year-old Bella Swann, one wonders if this isn't a different sort of hypocrisy. At least Bella was fully cognizant of having the option not to marry an older man, and ended up with some superpowers into the bargain afterwards; Marianne, by contrast, is pressured to marry Brandon even when she has no interest in him, and appears to do so at the finale only out of a sense of duty. To quote the closing pages of Sense and Sensibility (my emphasis):

Mrs Dashwood was acting on motives of policy as well as pleasure in the frequency of her visits to Delaford; for her wish of bringing Marianne and Colonel Brandon together was hardly less earnest, though rather more liberal than what John had expressed. It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his [Brandon's] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.

A stirring and endlessly applicable sentiment for today's teenage girls, to be sure! But compare it, then, to the harrowing epilogue of Mockingjay, the third and final volume of The Hunger Games, in which a now-adult Katniss, permanently scarred by her time in the Games, thinks back on the circumstances of her own marriage and motherhood (my emphasis again):

They play in the Meadow. The dancing girl with the dark hair and blue eyes. The boy with blond curls and grey eyes, struggling to keep up with her on his chubby toddler legs. It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt old as life itself...

How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death? My children, who take the words of the song for granted... My children, who don't know they play on a graveyard.

It is, of course, a matter of personal opinion, but given the choice between a novel whose conclusion results in the pressured marriage of a teenage girl to an older man in a context which suggests this is a wonderful thing, and one whose heroine waits until she's ready, who admits to struggling with motherhood and the question of how to explain the horrors of war and human imperfection to her children, I know which one I'd prefer to hand to any teenager.

But this is only one example of the relevance of fantasy to the modern world -- and how strange I should find myself defending the importance of stories about dystopias and the evils of power gone wrong at a time when the American government has shut down over the question of whether or not, in essence, the poor deserve to have access to affordable healthcare. But SFF, as a genre, is full of lyricism, wisdom and power -- full of words that build whole worlds inside of you, the better to understand this one. And as this is something Joanna Trollope seems either completely unaware of or unable to appreciate, rather than simply pointing out her biases, I'll end this piece instead with 10 of my favourite YA fantasy quotes. See for yourself what these stories have to say -- and then try to tell me they're irrelevant.

1.  "We all live inside the terrible engine of authority, and it grinds and shrieks and burns so that no one will say: lines on maps are silly." - The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

2. "To love light, you have to love dark. I'm not trying to be profound, I know you'll understand. I don't mean that you have to hate to love, or that you have to die to live. I mean that sometimes, you turn out the lights just to turn them back on." - The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

3. "The easiest lies to tell are the ones you want to be true." - White Cat, by Holly Black

4. "The world is inviolable: it has no beginning and no end. Those who seek to change it will be changed." - Huntress, by Malinda Lo

5. "I should have learned this, she thought. I wanted to learn fire, and pain, but I should have learned people." - I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

6. "As hard as it is to win by fighting, it's impossible to win by doing nothing." - For the Win, by Cory Doctorow

7. "You are born with the yearning arrow, my Glynna, though you are not yet fully aware of it. It is not a happy thing to possess, for nothing on earth -- no goal, no person how ever beloved -- will answer it. It points to the sky and to the heavens and the stars and when it cannot reach them, it must fall back to pierce your heart." - Darkfall, by Isobelle Carmody

8.  "Though I knew I shouldn't have cared, the words still hurt like pinches, and pinches can be very painful when done in the same place many times in a row." - Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor

9.  "Threats are the last resort of a man with no vocabulary." - Lady Knight, by Tamora Pierce

10. "What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?" - Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor