Failing at Figuring Out Fantasy

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago a friend of mine had finally worked up the courage to submit her newest piece.

“So what do we have for us today, Eleanor?” I remember our teaching asking.

“It’s a fantasy epic, about twin sisters learning how to harness their innate auras.”

Our teacher let out a long audible sigh. “Well,” he said, “At least it isn’t zombies.”

As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to conquer my literary biases. Most of the time it’s a simple matter of finding an author that speaks to the styles and themes that interest you. Even though I found most science fiction to be the equivalent of wading through countless metric tons of techno-babble, there is the rare author that can make me appreciate the inherent advantages that science fiction can give.

But the one egg I haven’t been able to crack is Fantasy. I’ve done my homework – I’ve read Lord of The Rings, dabbled in Harry Potter, even gave Game of Thrones a go. But even in the best of circumstances my response is always an abstract thought rather than a raw emotion. Scenes that have made my friends weep in Harry Potter leave me thinking “Well, that was competently written.” We are apparently on different wavelengths.

And that would be fine, except I like to give rational reasons for the way I feel. I recognize that a memoir is usually a solipsistic journey into the fraught world of internal conflict. Crime fiction appeals to so many of us because it usually posits a way to confront and deconstruct random chaos. Poetry is meant to hang around your mind for weeks on end, its meaning only revealing itself once your subconscious has wrestled it into submission.

But fantasy? I’m still left cold. I can objectively speak to questions of craft, of dramatic stakes, of giving thematic weight to fictonal landscapes. But subjectively? I am completely at a loss.

In discussing this with another writing friend, he noted that his reason for disliking fantasy (and most genre work) is that the trappings often become more important than the characters. Bad writing runs rampant in amateur workshops because people get hung up on the details instead of realizing that, say, there’s no dramatic conflict for the first twenty pages. And I’m willing to buy part of that argument, but even before I started showing up to workshops I had an innate dislike for the world of fantasy. Bad writing or not, my personal feelings towards the genre have very little to do with the fantasy writing (some good, some bad, and some excellent) I’ve seen in workshops.

So let’s try broadening out the question. For those who like to read fantasy, what part of it appeals to you?

Is it the focus on adolescent/teen empowerment? I fucking devour teen fiction (including the horrible stuff), but the second you give Johhny the ability to flick fireballs from his fingers my emotional reader just switches off.

Is it the ability to explore a world and society alien to ours? I somehow managed to make it through 1984’s longwinded historical section (if you’ve read it, you’ll know it) but found Lord of the Rings to be one of the most excruciating reads of my life. No, I do not care who this characters father, mother, and best friend were. Just get on with it, for chrissakes.

Or is it just about the inherent coolness in getting to shoot fireballs out of your fingertips? Is a love for fantasy tied to our childhood? Did I miss out because my mother used to hand me threadbare copies of Nancy Drew mysteries instead of  Pratchett’s Discworld?

One last note to further muddy the waters. This inability to connect with the fantasy genre extends to multiple mediums. Whether its Willingham’s Fables, NBC’s Grimm, orBethesda’s Skyrim my response mirrors the sigh my instructor once gave.

Rich, Alex, I know that this is your guy’s home turf. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you write fantasy – what drew you towards it in the first place and what’s made you return to it again and again?

Oh, and I should probably mention – Not much a fan of zombies either, cultural zeitgeist be damned.

Steve Timberman

Homeland Prologue

 

A Defence of Television as Great Art

 

Every September, television networks begin their public ritual of throwing dozens of new shows on the air and seeing which ones, if any, manage to hang on. Last year was a particularly rough year for scripted television; no network walked away with anything that could be called a smash hit. NBC’s American Idol knock-off, The Voice, was the best pickings in a very shoddy harvest. Out of five “on the bubble” (shows whose renewal is uncertain until the very last minute) shows, FOX declined to renew a single one. And on cable networks, things haven’t exactly been much better – ask any avid television watcher to tell you about FX’s Terriers for that story.

 

So every September, I have my own ritual. Until a new show is picked up for an entire season, I won’t watch a single episode. This ends up meaning that I’m a bit like the guy who always shows up two hours into a good party. I’m never there when the hosts are vacuuming up the floor, when the cheese poofs are still in the pantry and the beer cans haven’t yet been thrown into the QuickThaw freezer. The good news is that I avoid getting attached to shows that I objectively know won’t be around this time next year. With its lavish sets, frothy romance, and swinging sixties backdrop. I avoided Pan Am like a man avoiding the score to last night’s match. Last week ABC announced that Pan Am had been pulled from the schedule. I avoided another heartbreaker.

 

The trade-off with my “No New Shows for You!” declaration is that I’m perpetually playing catch up with fan communities. In ye olden times when there were only a few major networks, you were left with two options – tune in to find out if Ross and Rachel were back together, or hear about it the next day from your coworkers. Because the internet moves so fast, even showing up a year late to discuss great television is a lost opportunity. In 2006 I waited until late April to tune in to CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, despite it featuring actors I had enjoyed in other projects (Jason Segel) and an immediately appealing premise (A male version of Sex and The City). Hopping online, ranting and raving about how great and funny and insightful this little gem of a show was, I suddenly felt regret. Like when I first listened to Bob Dylan at 16, I wondered why I hadn’t listened to Bob Dylan at 15.

 

While living in England I’ve heard a few Brits disparage the American model of television, citing the endless ream of shows that have stayed on the air far past their prime. (Welcome to the party, U.S. The Office!) Why can’t anyone realize that every aspect of the show has degraded, that the whole product whiffs of tired setups and re-heated plotting? Because it goes beyond innovation or raw objective measurings of quality. It even goes beyond our affection for a particular character or location. It is about maintaining a relationship, a facet of our lives that is as ritualized as kneeling in the pews on Sunday or grabbing a whole wheat bagel on Wednesday.

 

As 24 used to announce in its opening, events occur in real time. Television thrives on dependability, on knowing that every week you’ll get to spend a little more time with the same group of people. Whether they’re fictional doctors, cops, lawyers or criminals, their purpose in our own lives is closer to a support group. And you can’t start forming that relationship unless you’re taking part in it week after week.

 

Originally, this post was meant to be about why I broke my self-impposed rule to watch Showtime’s Homeland from the series premire. I was going to talk about the way it expertly creates nuanced characters, instantly sets up dramatic stakes with a few short scenes, its ambiguous and enigmatic portrayal of The War on Terror. And I will write about all those things in time. But before I did that, I wanted to write about Taking the Leap.

 

All of this probably reads like hyperbole, trying to conflate a commercial product with a living, breathing relationship. But for any of us who have called their parents two time zones away to tell them who got voted out of the tribe, who have spent nights curled up on a couch with a lover while Gil Grissom catches another killer, who have held weekly viewing parties for multiple season of Top Chef – we understand that this is what culture is meant to do. It is the glue that binds us together, that taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that we are not alone. Isn’t that what great art is meant to do?

 

Next Week: Why Showtime’s Homeland is Worth Investing In.

 

 

Steve Timberman

 

 

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