Undeserved modesty

So I’ve got this friend who, with a few compatriots, is in the beginning throes of a new weblog.  And while the writers may be a bit alarmed if we actually turn our attention to them (those of you at Harvard in April 2001 may remember a certain Matt W. response to “neo-fascist refutations of neo-communist propaganda,” vaguely apropos of the Mass Hall sit-in), I can’t help but be a little out-of-sorts myself at an apology tucked in to the post “The Tour de Bookcases”, by one of my friend’s co-writers.  I’d like to take the opportunity to defend a passion shared, I dare say, by many of us, including the self-deprecating author at Three’s Prime.

Hannah wrote:

Our books describe us: they expose our studies, our interests, our values. They also expose the values we think we should project: there is a reason the religion and philosophy books are in the living room and the fantasy novels in the bedroom. While I am a great believer in the importance of fantasy and fairy-tales, putting those books in the living room would make me feel a need to explain them to all of our guests: “Yes, these are children’s books. They are ‘easy’ to read; they don’t have the weight of tradition. Yes, they are escapist. But is that so wrong?” I love the novels I read, but I am still somewhat embarrassed by them. I don’t read them to discover fundamental truths about the world, but simply for entertainment. The religion and philosophy books, on the other hand, are in the living room to convey, “We are Christians. We are proud of our faith, and want you to know about it. But we are also thinkers. We read and study and learn. Our faith is intellectual, as well as evangelical.”

My instinct is to suspect this lady needs more friends who read—or at least some new sources for ideas about books. Ideas such as C.S. Lewis’s in An Experiment in Criticism, that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written and more in how it is read. I haven’t met Hannah or her bookshelves, so there is the possibility that I would agree with her that her fantasy collection is escapist, childish, flighty. Yet this is unlikely.  And even if it were true, I would nonetheless take umbrage on behalf of the rest of us readers—and writers.

In my comment to Hannah’s post, I mention The Lord of the Rings and Lord of Light as examples of “weighty” fantasy. Tolkien’s masterpieces are properly not novels at all, but romances (which I would expect Hannah, as a self-described literary critic, to appreciate).  Zelazny’s is a far more modern form and yet draws on ancient traditions in a sophisticated way.

What man who has lived for more than a score of years desires justice, warrior? For my part, I find mercy infinitely more attractive. Give me a forgiving deity any day.

Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe …

Forget about the theological discourse. The very grammar of this book isn’t meant for children.  And anyone who mistakes it for a children’s book merely because it deals in the fantastical is missing the point to a potentially dangerous extent.  (See Michael O’Brien’s bizarre characterization of Dune in his literary criticism A Landscape with Dragons: the battle for your child’s mind: “The author’s [Herbert’s] mind is religious in its vision, and he employs a tactic frequently used by Satan in his attempt to influence human affairs. … The people settle for the lesser evil, thinking they have been ‘saved’, when all the while it was the lesser evil that the devil wished to establish in the first place.”)

Do I read fantasy and other speculative fiction to be entertained?  Yes.  Do I read it to discover or cement elemental truths?  Heck, yes! Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis books (also known collectively as Lilith’s Brood) contain, among pages and pages of acute observations on personal relationships and power plays, one of my favorite images for soul-sickness anywhere on this green Earth.  I wish that, like Aaor in Imago, my body began to disintegrate when I felt unloved.  —Okay, so I don’t wish that, literally speaking—it could get kind of messy at times—but the idea of physically expressing my psychic state in such an obvious way is deeply attractive. All literature is metaphorical, and the metaphors in good speculative fiction are gorgeous and subtle and deeply, deeply spiritual.

And I am proud to say those characters and that imagery live in my mind and in my actions.

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