The OF Blog: Interesting forum discussion about "fantasy," or more specifically, about a certain list of "fantasy"

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interesting forum discussion about "fantasy," or more specifically, about a certain list of "fantasy"

I've been thinking more and more about the investments people put into the lists that they or others create in their mind.  If something is not "right," then another's list will be challenged.  Sometimes, such challenges are valid, other times the result is interesting more for the depth of insights revealed than for anything substantive achieved in such arguments.

So with this questioning about lists in mind, I posted a link to the old 2006 "Big Ass Fantasy List" that Jeff VanderMeer and his wife Ann compiled from reader suggestions (including a few that I suggested in a prior thread when my Blogger ID was Freebird and not my first name) to a reposting of a thread compiled on the old Night Shades messageboard site that had several contributors, each of whom had his/her own definition (or perhaps, semi-defining traits) of what constitutes "fantasy."  When done in such an unsystematic fashion (in fact, I wonder if part of the rationale for compiling such a "big ass" list was to underscore just how cobbled together the entire exercise would be), doubtless there would be repeats, dubious inclusions and even more strange omissions than if there had been some sort of systematic organization following some pre-conceived "definition" of that nebulous "fantasy" that seems to defy easy, pat definitions, perhaps due to the very nature of the "fantasy" concept.

If anything, having a list that included Flannery O'Connor and John Kennedy Toole in with George MacDonald and Kazuo Ishiguro would bound to bring forth questions, sometimes heated in nature, about who the hell composed such a list and whether or not such a thing would even be worth considering as having any merit at all.  So naturally, curious as I am, I decided to post a link to this list over at the nascent Read and Find Out website (itself a remnant of the old wotmania fansite). 

As might be expected, most of the people there rejected the Big Ass Fantasy list almost out of hand.  Several noted that how could Jane Eyre be considered a "fantasy" (although there are elements of the fantastic, including the use of prophetic dreams and other elements of the late 18th century Gothic which served to influence fantasy writings of the 19th century), or how could so many authors' more well-known works be left off.  Yes, there is quite a bit of validity to their points, but I can't help but wonder if something larger is being overlooked in the rush to condemn this particular list.

I suspect a greater problem with lists such as the Big Ass one is that such things just cannot be formulaic.  There are no good, concise definitions of "fantasy" that have anything approaching a consensus.  Doubtless many of the same people who complained about the Big Ass list would howl at seeing some of the stories chosen by Jorge Luis Borges back in the early 1940s for his excellent Book of Fantasy anthology.  G.K. Chesterton as a "fantasy writer"?  Thomas Carlyle?  Guy de Maupassant, surely not!  Edith Wharton, WTF?  And so it would go in such a hypothetical situation with certain hypothetical readers. 

No, there is a great value to lists such as the Big Ass Fantasy List.  It is not because such a thing is systematic (far from it) or that it contains something easy to grasp as being "fantasy" (the opposite holds true).  Rather, it is because such constructions are as much of an "anti-list" (if such things can exist) than they are anything resembling an ordered structure.  Such groupings of disparate elements serve to underscore the sense of artificiality that underlie such constructions.  Take my recent post on "50 Standalones from 2000-2009."  While doubtless many will find some value in such a thing, there is not a real system there.  Note the intermingling of mimetic and speculative fictions.  See how there's a difference in forms, as several are not novels.  And at the core of it, I constructed such a list from walking around the dozen bookcases in my house and noting down books (only about half of my books are shelved at the moment, which adds another layer to this) without any real thought to rhyme or reason, I suppose.  What purpose could it serve to post such a thing?

Well, the only purpose I had in mind was to generate thought.  Yes, I really would recommend each and every one of those books to several people.  But not all of them to all of the people all of the time.  Things change and so do people's needs and tastes.  This should be considered when examining any presented list that purports to give any sort of "ranking" of "quality."  After all, if the terms of engagement are not defined (or unable to be defined, as in the case of delineating what is "fantasy" and what is not), then would it not be up to the readers' prejudices to determine "value"?

So perhaps the next time one of us views a list and attempts to criticize it based on our own pre-conceived criteria, maybe we should just stop for a moment and question what it is that the list is doing to spark such a reaction?  After all, it could be that the list reveals much more about ourselves than about the items being listed.

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