The following is an essay I wrote in May 2009. This is the first time I have published it.
Fantasy and realism, it would seem, are two of the most fundamental modes of art, the one expressing the inner vision of imagination and the other representing the observable world around us. We might assume that each mode has a history stretching back into the dim human past, and that any given work of narrative or visual art humankind has ever produced can be placed somewhere on the spectrum between the most accurate, sober realism and the wildest flights of fancy.
However, in one sense, both fantasy and realism are recent inventions, at least as we tend to conceive of them today. The modern narrative genre of “fantasy” has only existed for two centuries at the outside, and the same might be said of the narrative genre of “realism”. Prior to the nineteenth century, and particularly before the advent of the realist novel in the middle of that century, no strong or significant distinction seems to have been made between the “fantastic” and the “realistic” in literature. Take classic epics like the Odyssey, for instance, or Beowulf. Both stories are rife with monsters and take the form of heroic, romantic adventures (two qualities which a modern “realistic” temperament tends to associate with the unreal escapism of popular fiction or blockbuster movies), yet both works are deemed to be of the greatest literary quality and cultural importance. The reason for this assessment, it seems clear, is that both the Odyssey and Beowulf deal with larger human concerns and are written in well-wrought and elevated poetic language. In other words, the tales of Odysseus and Beowulf are not mere escapist potboilers, but rather are works of both great style and rich substance. These epics, and many others like them, are serious, profound works of human expression, expressed in beautiful and sublime ways.
As one who has maintained a lifelong love of science fiction and other fantastical narrative genres, I am the first to criticize the uncritical dismissal of fantasy by those high-minded audiences who view it all as pulp trash or childish make-believe. But at the same time I readily acknowledge that much of contemporary genre fiction falls well short of achieving the quality of classic literature. Of course, most authors writing genre fantasy and science fiction are not even attempting to produce works that could proudly take their place on the shelf beside those of Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. They are, more often than not, simply creating stories to entertain their readers, and in this respect many of them greatly succeed.
So while I can see that the vast majority of published fantastic fiction does not aspire to the level of “high” literature and is therefore of minimal interest to many literary connoisseurs, I also believe that novels or films within these genres receive unnecessarily short shrift from those who deem anything fantastical as insubstantial, irrelevant, or--get this--unrealistic.
Is this bias against the fantastic only a case of unfounded generalization, a form of artistic “profiling” or blindly prejudiced stereotyping? Probably. (“It's because I'm sci-fi, isn't it?”) For every fantasy novel that the hardheaded realist can point to as an example of unserious, untruthful pabulum, I can throw back two or three outwardly “realistic” novels that answer to the charge. The issue isn't whether a story is outwardly fantastic or realistic, as this is only skin deep. What counts is what's on the inside, that is, the inherent substance and style of the work. The high esteem given by critics to such enduring classics as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Frankenstein, as well as the aforementioned epics, demonstrates that consistent surface realism is not a requisite for the production of great literature. Somehow, Shakespeare and Shelley got away with putting fairies and monsters in their High Art.
The realist novel, which is to say the self-consciously “realistic” novel, came into vogue in the Victorian era and reflected a certain soberly scientific outlook of its time. The Enlightenment had already cleared the air of fairies and, with its high-beam rationality, demonstrated to its own satisfaction that the night was free of ghosts and monsters. Notwithstanding the Romantics' spirited (shall we say) defense of all things marvelous and strange, the clear-eyed, clear-headed views of the Age of Reason gained a foothold in the realm of storytelling. Now we were to have edifying tales about real people in the real world… no more letting our imaginations get carried away. A story, to be really good, must be not about adventures and wonders, but about real estate deals and marital strife. In other words, literature, to be truly serious, must be about things as they really are.
Things as they really are... One item that is surprisingly rare in discussions of fantasy literature is the question of how we know, or who says, what is “realistic” and therefore what is “fantastic”. This, of course, is a metaphysical question. If fairy stories are labeled as fantasy, it is because we assume that fairies are not in fact real. But this real-unreal distinction strikes me as a far too simplistic, and misleading, way to distinguish between fantasy and realism. It is not enough, and not really to the point, to say that fantasy stories are deliberately fanciful and that realistic stories are conscientiously devoted to depicting life as it really is. Or rather, the very terms “fantasy” and “realism” are inadequate in conveying the important distinctions between these two modes of narrative art.
The fantasy-realism dichotomy implies that we live in a thoroughly materialistic universe, and that any story dealing with the supernatural is “fantastic”, which basically means unreal. While this may seem unproblematic to a committed materialist, it is hardly satisfying to anyone who believes in at least the possibility of a supernatural dimension to reality. For that matter, calling any story that posits the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations or creatures “fantastic” suggests that even stories grounded in scientifically plausible physical and biological principles may fall short of realism if they dare to imagine possibilities currently unknown to us.
Of course, it is useful to distinguish between the known and the unknown, between storytelling based on experience and that based on imagination, even if the imagined thing is perfectly possible. This is at least a more accurate, and less controversial, way to distinguish the realistic and the fantastic than to take the terms too literally. But it is still not enough, for there is no firm line between the literature of experience and the literature of imagination. Indeed, any story you care to name is based on both imagination and experience. This is of course true of all art, which combines, to varying degrees, what we have experienced of the world with what we can imagine about it.
So if it is not the real and the unreal that constitute the most significant distinction between realistic and fantastic art, and if it is not even the known and the unknown, then what is it? I would venture that the relevant difference is that between the mimetic and the symbolic. Of course, both of these traits exist to varying degrees in any work of art, as do reality and fantasy. My claim is simply that an examination of any given work's place on the mimesis-symbolism spectrum is more useful in understanding its nature than is merely considering it as either realistic or fantastic in the most literal sense.
The mimetic and the symbolic are two complementary modes of art-making that emphasize different ways of interpreting reality. The mimetic seeks to imitate what it sees, in order to see it more fully. The symbolic, on the other hand, seeks to represent the inward perceptions of the mind, whether these be the most rarefied philosophical abstractions or highly concrete visions filled with sensuous detail. Any given work of art can be said to function in both of these modes simultaneously, though it may emphasize one mode over the other.
I believe it is more useful and less misleading to think of “fantastic” narratives as symbolic ones, rather than as unrealistic ones. To say they are unrealistic is to do them, and audiences, a disservice, because it implies that such stories tell us nothing about reality, perhaps even that they tell us lies about reality. But ostensibly “realistic” narratives are just as capable of falsifying reality as are the most fantastic tales. So it is not a question of truthfulness. It is only a question of interpreting truth by way of literalism or metaphor, science or myth, history or poetry.
It is a curious malady of the modern mind that it gives such esteem to prosaic literalism and has such little regard for poetic symbolism. Even much of contemporary religion emphasizes the literality of sacred writings while ignoring the rich metaphor that is the only vehicle for expressing profound spiritual truths. Myths are true in a way that science is not, and poetry can give us knowledge that factual history can never provide. Our civilization currently prizes the factual, literal, small truths of scientific and historical discourse at the same time it disregards the larger, deeper truths that have been traditionally embodied in our religions and our art. These larger, deeper truths can only be approached through imagination and intuition, not by way of verifiable scientific observations or statistics-laden reports. Information does not equal knowledge, let alone wisdom.
Modern fantastic narratives are perhaps the last refuge, in our blindingly literal society, of the mythopoeic faculties that were wielded to such tremendous and enduring effect by the poets of old. It is true that the vast majority of fantastic narratives being produced today, whether in the medium of prose or film, might be considered subliterary, trivial, and ephemeral; but the same is true of the vast majority of realistic narratives. In evaluating the profundity, the relevance, and the beauty of any given story, we might do well to look past its superficial resemblance to the world we know and to consider what it tells us about that world.