Books · Reading · Writing

Fantasy isn’t literature.

“People who write fantasy and science fiction, like you [Brandon Sanderson], J. K. Rowling and many others… you aren’t authors; you’re writers. And these books are definitely not literature because they’re not real.”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on the merits of children’s literature and how reading and a sense of curiosity and wonder should always be nurtured. The wonderful Brandon Sanderson – author of the Mistborn series –  was there, and he spoke about his own experience with books and writing, and how – as a kid – he only became a reader when his teacher introduced him to fantasy. When all was said and done, one crusty critic blatantly told Sanderson that he doesn’t consider him or the likes of J. K. Rowling to be proper authors, just writers, and fantasy, science-fiction… that’s not literature, simply because it isn’t real.

A fantasy writer myself and a huge fan of Rowling and Sanderson’s work, I was seething. How dare he? But then Sanderson gave such a gratifying answer that left everyone clapping and the man looking around in defeat. He questioned this obsession with reality, what’s so wrong about things that aren’t real, what’s so wrong about imagining things? After all, there were many things that we currently have that weren’t real at some point, and would never have been if man hadn’t thought about them and imagined to be real. That power, that sense of wonder, is important to hold on to. Of course, he didn’t answer in so few words, but that was the gist of it.

His words really resonated with me. At some point in my life, I allowed people like that critic to make me think that all the fantasy books I read didn’t make me a cultured or well-read person. I felt like I had to read classics and stuffy old novels before I can say, hey, I’m a reader. I felt like I had to write something set in the Victorian era with Jane Austen-like characters before I could call myself an author. I was young. I was impressionable. It took reading Harry Potter to let me know that it’s okay to like what I like. I don’t have to force myself to read any classics (unless I want to). Without J. K. Rowling and her books, I would’ve never thought to consider that one day I would really like to make a career out of writing fantasy books, and for that reason – though there are many others – I will always hold her in high regard. People like that critic remind me of those who go to watch movie and end up talking crap about cinematography and other technical things that shouldn’t really detract from the overall experience of the movie. It’s almost as though they forgot what it’s like to just watch a movie for the fun of it… as though they lost their sense of wonder and have learned to be cynical towards everything.

That said… allow me a moment to describe how much of a fangirl I was during the event. I hung on to Brandon’s every word, I was so excited I was bouncing in my seat and totally red in the face and grinning so widely my lips should’ve cracked. Oh I wanted to ask him stuff, I did, but I was being very squeaky and thought it’d be better to just stick to, “Sign my book please!” Of course, I probably scared him when I returned ten minutes later – after scouring the book fair (which is where the event was) – with another of his books and asking for a second signature, haha. Oh, and the freebies he handed out were pretty cool! 😀

Needless to say, this will become one of my most prized books, haha.
Needless to say, this will become one of my most prized books, haha.

So – how do you feel about feel about fantasy and science fiction? Do you consider them to be literature? How would you have answered Mr. Crusty McCrabson?

44 thoughts on “Fantasy isn’t literature.

  1. As a fantasy writer myself, I’d heartily agree with you and Sanderson. In fact I bristled at the title of this blog! Fiction is the art of storytelling, and no matter how you spin it, no fiction is “real.” That’s why it’s fiction. It’s fictitious! So fantasy is really no less real than the Jane Austen stories that never actually happened. Jay Gatsby never existed. Fantasy is simply a particular kind of imagination coming to life and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    1. Exactly! I think that critic probably meant that worthy fiction is one that doesn’t contain any fantastical elements, but that doesn’t negate the fact that fantasy is a true form of literature. Such a grouch. (Also I’ve never liked Jane Austen >.>)

        1. I’ve only watched one movie based on her books – Persuasion. God that was boring. Which adaptations do you recommend?

        2. The 6-part BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice is divine. Perfect casting and a good story all around. The recent film version is crap. Also Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant is good. My favorite is the 4-part BBC series of Emma, which came out around 2009 or so. Very good storytelling all around.

  2. Mr. McCrabson needs to take the ******* out of his ***. Of course sci-fi and fantasy are literature. In fact, by dealing directly mythopoesis in a modern context, sci-fi and fantasy are closer to classical literature than many modern, mainstream works. And tell me H. G. Wells, Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood’s works are not literature. Sheesh.

    1. That’s true – so much hard work goes into creating entire mythologies and new worlds, and you can’t brush that aside with, “It’s not real.” As far as every character in the book is concerned, it’s very real. Also, another example of a great author (given by Sanderson) is Shakespeare. Shakespeare had a lot of fantasy in his plays. Now tell me his works are not literature.

  3. They’re not literature because they’re not real? Weird, because by it’s very definition, fiction isn’t real. Though it may take from real life, the story itself is imagined, so I don’t see how fantasy and science-fiction writers aren’t authors, too. What a strange comment for that attendee to make. But it sounds like you had a great time, and how wonderful to get books signed by one of your favorite authors!

    1. It was pretty strange. Everyone was pretty indignant. I was amused when even a religious Saudi writer (who was among the panel) disagreed with him and told him that Rowling is a great author. But despite that I still had a lot of fun! And I cannot stop looking at those books, haha.

  4. An author is by definition a person who writes a book – any book. It sounds like Mr. Crusty McCrabson spewed some sour grapes, and Sanderson turned them into wine.

    How great to attend that panel discussion. I can feel your excitement through your writing. And what a bonus to get two books signed! 🙂

    1. Haha, I like the way you put it. Sour grapes indeed! xD

      Oh my excitement level here is contained. I was so excited even his assistant said, smiling, “Look how excited she is!”

  5. I am wildly envious of your two Sanderson signatures; I haven’t read Mistborn yet, but I was very impressed with his finale to the Wheel of Time series.
    I’m a big fan of fantasy and science fiction as well, not just in literature but in movies and television also. And I agree with what you said about the critic being like people who watch movies for the cinematography and forget the fun of it. That’s why I like movies such as Pacific Rim: it’s not the most artsy or thoughtfully nuanced film in the world, but sometimes it’s just fun to watch a film where humanity builds giant robots in order to fight giant monsters. 😀

    1. You know what I regret though? I didn’t bring all my books! He would’ve been totally cool with signing all of them but I was bashful. 😐 Mistborn is fantastic, but he’s written so much more than that – he’s such a productive writer!

      Haha, yes! As long as a movie keeps me entertained, then I’m game. I mean, it could be fantastic acting, but if the story’s incredibly boring then who’s going to be entertained?

  6. As the others have pointed out, no Fiction book is “real”. That’s the thing about a story–it’s made up! All of them! That poopy critic’s thinking makes zero sense, and I sure would hate to see the world through his eyes. Must be a pretty boring place.

    1. Agreed. It must be so difficult for people like him to find enjoyment in books… and probably most things. Gotta loosen up a little. =/

  7. Crushing so hard on this post right now! That talk sounds wonderful, I’m so happy you got to meet Sanderson! Don’t worry, I would have been crazy red in the face and squeaky too. Meeting authors is discombobulating.

    I’m 100% with you on this one, I get so annoyed when people say fantasy doesn’t count, it’s baffling that some people feel that way. Fantasy books have always been the ones that called to me, partly because it seems difficult to comprehend that one person is capable of weaving that much magic out of their head. In many ways I think fantasy is so much harder to write. Not real authors? Ha! Get a life you silly people.

    If I had grown up on a diet of contemporary, I doubt I would have ever fallen in love with books. 🙂

    1. IT IS. I was so bashful I didn’t even bring all my books, but next time he comes to UAE (which he said will be next March), I’m definitely bringing every single book I own for signing, haha.

      It is so much harder. With contemporary fiction, you can base your stories on some things that happen in “real life”, but with fantasy – you have to invent new worlds, magic systems, creatures, prophecies and political systems and so much more. An author could be stuck building a world for months during which a contemporary book could’ve been written. PLUS it’s fun. I mean, how can you not read Harry Potter for example and not think, “I wish magic was real and that I studied at Hogwarts.” Those people don’t know what they’re missing out on.

  8. I got to take a creative writing lecture series class taught by Brandon Sanderson this semester at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. It was a great class, and great to hear insight from a successful author. He is a relaxed, approachable, and realistic person. I’m glad you had a chance to do a panel with him. He’s great about sharing what he’s learned to others.

    1. Ahhhh I’m so very envious. I bet it was a great class. I got to listen to him talk for 15 minutes and felt like I couldn’t get enough. I wish I’d talked to him more, but words were completely failing me. xD

  9. Fantasy is my favorite genre, and I agree with everything you’ve just said! I remember there was a time when I thought I wasn’t a well-read person because my favorite was fantasy and this other person I was talking to loved existentialism books, and I was thinking, this person must be really smart. And I didn’t want to tell this person about my love for fantasy books because, I don’t know, I just thought it was embarrassing, ha! I also agree with what you said about some moviegoers! I loved this post!

    1. Haha, I’ve been in the exact same situation! I see those people talking about this great works of literature and philosophical books and things with a “deeper meaning” and I’m like, “Oh my god I cannot tell them I love Harry Potter.” Glad those days are behind me now. 🙂

  10. My inclination is to say fantasy is not literature nor is science fiction nor is cheesy romance. But then came Harry Potter and well…the rest is history. In don’t think it’s the genre anymore, rather how well something is written. And I still carry a flame for Professor Snape. How cheesy am I?

    1. You’re not cheesy at all. I will happily read any Harry Potter list or fanfic I come across, and from time to time I will sit and binge-watch some of my favourite clips on YouTube, or even the bloopers… or my personal favourite – the last day on set when Daniel Radcliffe stands on a chair and thanks everyone.

      So when that critic said J. K. Rowling is not an author, I turned to my friend and asked her if she has something I can hit him with. xD

  11. Not sure how I feel about this. I’m a fantasy author myself and I can say that writing a fantasy can be very challenging. In some ways, it can be even more difficult than non-ficton when creating an entire new world or universe. I understand the point of view, I just don’t know how I really feel about it. Interesting though. Made me think outside my norm. Good post!! : )

    1. It /is/ extremely challenging, especially when you have to make something up but try to make it sound sensible at the same time. And then that guy dares insult it like that. =/

      Thank you for your comment! 🙂

  12. What a maddening comment Crabby made. As others have pointed out, all fiction is made up, therefore, not real. Literature may have varying levels, but books of any style are literature, period.

    Sounds like he is one of those writers who couldn’t get anywhere with his work, and so now he’s insulting those who are successful, just out of spite.

    I’m pleased that Mr. Sanderson handled him with class. I’m not sure I could have been quite as polite! 🙂

    1. You know, now you’ve made me curious! I wonder if that guy has any books of his own. I will have to investigate this.

      And he handled it with extreme class! Meanwhile I was discussing with my friend how to trip him when he passes by me, haha.

  13. What is real and what is fantasy huh? and who says that WE are real? Anyway, getting a bit philosophical but I wholeheartedly agree with you and Mr.
    Sanderson ; everything that exists today was once a thought or fantasy in someone’s mind. The power of imagination should not be underestimated and when it comes to books whatever the genre, it’s literature.

    1. I don’t mind a bit of philosophy! Actually, Mr. Sanderson’s answer was a touch philosophical too, because really – as you said – who gets to decide what’s real? 🙂

  14. Oh, man. That movie comment you made! Of course it goes that way for books as well.

    Whenever people tear something apart just for the heck of it, I want to smack them around. The worst is when they say that something wasn’t believable. And then I kid you not, they are the same people that watch bad television.

    Because that’s real. Right…

    1. Haha, you know I understand when someone says a reaction by some character isn’t believable, but when you’re talking about an entire work of fantasy and you pick at some fictional creature and say it’s not believable… well, I have no hope for you. =x

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