“It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”
-Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble
For a long time, my reading habits resembled a Michael Pollan polemic, if Michael Pollan had been trying to cure the Western diet with genre fiction instead of carrots: Read fantasy. Not much else. Mostly Tolkien.
Two of these injunctions still hold true.
Like many other twentysomethings today, I hit my stride as a reader right around the time the Harry Potter books were dominating bestseller lists and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptations were pancaking box offices. Of the two, the latter made the greater impression on me and touched off seven or eight years of comfortably myopic reading lists: Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Tolkien, Tolkien knockoffs (Christopher Paolini, early Terry Brooks), Tolkien, Tolkien, maybe some Robert Jordan, and Tolkien. Since then, I’ve never really stopped reading fantasy. And while my tastes have changed, and while I’m sure my reading within the genre remains myopic, at least it’s myopic now in more interesting ways. Nowadays, skimming my bookshelves, you’d have a better sense of the genre as this massive, fuzzily defined concept, partially indebted to but not defined by Tolkien—a literary roc, whose massive wings have sheltered hatchlings as diverse as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Taoist-inflected Earthsea series, the fungalpunk world of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels, and the feel-good-sob-fest of Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy.
Narrating my history with the genre has been important to me this past month, as I’ve started prepping for a 100-level course on fantasy that I’ll be teaching this fall. Granted, right now, the lion’s share of my attention is going not to self-searching but to the mundanities of course-planning—to concrete nitty-gritties like assignment sequences and classroom polices. But even as I’ve struggled to jigsaw 600-page novels into a sixteen-week course, in the background, I’ve been grappling with the kinds of big-picture questions that should inevitably inform logistics. What do I think fantasy is? What work does it do? How are my students likely to engage with it?
No small part of my mulling has been prompted by the genre itself, its history, and its fandom. Emerging as a coherent marketing category in the 60 and 70s, fantasy owes a lot to the runaway success of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels in the 50s. It’s hard to overstate this point. Although literature of the fantastic existed long before Frodo Baggins and the Shire, Tolkien-style medievalism had an outsized influence on how the public thinks about fantasy, and thus an outsized influence on the kinds of stories that have, historically, found purchase in the pop cultural mainstream. Take my own approach to fantasy, circa the 2000s. I had no shortage of writers hoeing the row I loved. If an author—say, a Philip Pullman or a Stephen Donaldson—challenged the conventions and rules I’d come to expect, I could just ditch them and find someone else to read. And as for creators with backgrounds radically different from my own? Authors who were women, queer, and/or people of color? Please. Those were about as common in my reading as unicorns in a Hemingway novel.
But narrow definitions of what counts as fantasy affected more than just me. Within the broader fandom, small but vocal communities exist that are dedicated to raging against the supposed incursions of “SJWs” and “PC-politics” on their own sacrosanct ideals of the genre. In 2015, for instance, a band of right-wing trolls successfully gamed one of fantasy’s highest honors, the Hugos, because it felt that Hugo voters were putting politics before art. In 2016, the World Fantasy Convention kicked off a reactionary firestorm when it retired the longstanding design for its annual award: a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, a man whose contributions to the field are as much a part of the public record as his openly racist views. And while I can’t assume that my students are familiar with any of these controversies, I can’t assume the opposite either.
After all, the battle over what fantasy is, and whose it is, is the same battle playing out in many other contexts—from videogames on up to the 2018 midterms.
So where does all this leave us? Where does it leave this course I’m teaching? On the one hand, as a fan who’s come around to the idea that fantasy can do without its sacred cows, I’ve got ethical and aesthetic commitments of my own. Plenty of them. But these commitments won’t necessarily comport with those of my students, whose investment in the class could range from Colbert-like enthusiasm for Tolkien esoterica, to the exasperation of a pre-med student slogging through her gen eds.
And as an instructor?
As an instructor, I’m inclined to see the cultural proxy war surrounding my course material as more asset than detriment. In a way that can be difficult to do in the sterile, de-contextualizing atmosphere of an average English classroom, acknowledging the tensions that plague fantasy and its fandom even today establishes clear stakes for the work that I’m asking students to do. In other words, it provides a reason to conduct literary analysis, to dedicate careful attention to art and to the fact of one’s pleasure or displeasure. Indeed, the question of stakes here is part of the reason I decided to assign a couple of excellent Lovecraft short stories this semester—and why I chose to pair those stories with a similarly excellent novel by Ruthanna Emrys, which draws inspiration from Lovecraft even as it engages critically with his obvious failings. On this view, the course I’m constructing will, I hope, be a place for students to reckon with the ethical consequences of stories and storytelling—or, alternatively, to decide for themselves if entertainment merits moral consideration at all.
Obviously, I think it does. It’s why I became a grad student in the first place. As feminist/environmental critic Donna Haraway puts it, it matters which stories we grant the authority to tell us stories. And: it matters which worlds get to imagine worlds.
Equally, then, it matters which fantasies we let dream up our fantasies.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.