Fantasy Friday: Imaginative Is Not Weird

Grendel, the monster Beowulf faced

Over and over I’ve heard the description: speculative fiction is that weird niche of fiction that appeals to a small group of people who see things differently from almost everyone else. Some notable people working with Christian speculative fiction promote that perspective.

I’m calling a halt to this line of thinking. Weird does not describe good speculative literature — either that, or the whole world is weird.

Exhibit A — Harry Potter. Not only did millions buy the seven hefty tomes, millions more have been flocking to see the movies.

Exhibit B — The Lord of the Rings. Not only did the movies earn renown, they also brought a resurgence to the popularity of the books, which had already won over a generation in the mid-twentieth century.

Exhibit C — Speculative movies. The titles featuring speculative elements dominate the list of highest grossing movies. Of the top thirty, only Titanic is without some form of speculative elements. If you look at the numbers adjusted for inflation, nineteen of the top thirty are still speculative (and that’s if you count The Ten Commandments as not speculative).

Exhibit D — Television. From Topper in the 50s, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in the 60s to Star Trek, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Lost, V, and the flood of speculative shows out today, clearly the fascination with the speculative is part of the culture at large.

"Double, double toil and trouble" - Macbeth

Exhibit E — Classic literature. Starting with works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and moving to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Edgar Allen Poe’s various short stories and even poetry, and many others, speculative elements are a part of the fabric of the stories that literature students continue to study.

What’s my point? Imagination carries all of us beyond the confines of contemporary reality. It is not weird to imagine. Those who write imaginative fiction are not weird. Those who read or watch imaginative stories are not weird. Speculative fiction that is done well has a broad appeal and has had that appeal since the beginning of literature.

Why some today think they are doing the genre a service to call it weird and to define it as a narrow niche that only a few not-normals will like, is beyond me.

Certainly some speculative fiction is more “hard core” than others. The harder the core, I suppose, the smaller the audience.

And yet books like The Hunger Games and movies like The Matrix which some might consider hard core were widely popular.

I believe we can account for the popularity of speculative fiction simply because it is imaginative. God made us with an imagination. As a result readers and viewers love to be transported to new places they’ve never seen. Stories of a place or time that is different from the here and now create wonder and intrigue and spark a sense of adventure.

Is speculative fiction a “‘weird’ kind of fiction” as one professional says? Are writers and readers of speculative fiction “not normal” as a speculative writer says? I counter that the evidence shows speculative fiction is in the mainstream and has been for a very, very long time.

The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans. Rather than settling for a niche market of hard core speculative readers who will devour anything in the genre regardless of quality, I think we should commit ourselves to learning what makes imaginative stories work. And stop calling what we do and what we like weird!

7 Comments

  1. Who are you citing in this? You mentioned “one professional” and christian mainstream opinion, but I don’t think I’ve ever really heard much in the way of what you’re describing. Certainly people who go to fantasy conventions get some rather odd looks, but speculative fiction generally escapes unscathed. If there is commentary about it being off-beat or dark-weird-angsty-strange, it’s no more than any writer of any genre gets.

    Many well-loved classics (1984, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, Twenty thousand Leagues Under the Sea, etc) fall into this genre.

    Now that I think about it, I’d say romance novelists get a much more difficult time of it, if we start comparing book stereotypes.

    Like

  2. Hi Becky
    Part of the problem is that, at least here in Australia (and I suspect it is no different over your side of the pond), spec fiction is regarded by the literati and general reviewers as ‘popular’. The attitude is that it’s not true literature.

    So those of us who love reading and writing Christian spec fic are caught in a kind of pincer – the arbiters of culture tell us that spec fic is only for lesser minds and Christians have never quite tossed off the shackles of a worldview that says all fiction (and esp spec fic) is untrue and therefore ungodly.

    I still think, as I’ve occasionally commented here before, that fantasy is the only remaining form of writing that in any way allows us a glimpse of a Hebrew worldview. Fantasy writers don’t try to escape from reality, they try to escape to it.

    And, though I fear you may disagree with me, that desire to lay hands and heart and mind on reality is so uncommon that it really can’t qualify as anything other than ‘weird’.

    Like

  3. Hahaha! Good post. When I refer to weird, its only in reference to myself. I am definitely weird. I love pretty makeup and playing RTS games with my husband. I love peanut butter on my waffles and my tea black. I love Jane Austen and the Syfy channel. I love Bath and Body Works and GameStop 🙂

    Like

  4. For most of literary history, what we’d now call “speculative fiction” was in fact the universal norm; at some point, everything but true-to-life realistic fiction became the expected norm, and “genre” fiction was marginalized as such. (I’d add works like the Song of Roland and authors like Jules Verne to your list; my grasp of dates and relative chronology is fuzzy at best, but I think that all your examples except Shakespeare and the legends and myths were during or after this shift-period, and should be balanced by earlier works.)

    The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans.

    Christians have written blockbuster-hit speculative fiction before. Narnia? Lord of the Rings? (I’ll admit that I can’t think of any more recent examples, but I suspect that’s more an artifact of my peculiar literary diet while I was growing up than of recent literary history as a whole.) Harry Potter, even?—as I think Rowling is at least a nominal Christian and the symbolism grows rather blatant in the last book. The trouble is that if a Christian-speculative-fiction book grows too popular to be stuck in that pigeonhole, either the “Christian” or the “speculative fiction” (or “fantasy” or “science fiction”) label, or both, will get dropped from the discussion (and eventually the books just get filed under “classics” or “literature” as their genre), rather than leading readers back to the other worthy books they’ve been hiding away in that forgotten corner of the genre.

    Like

  5. Canary, I purposely withheld names because I didn’t want this to become an attack on a person, or a cause for defense of a position.

    I came across the sentiment again this morning, so thought I would pass along the quote:

    For the record, I do like science fiction, and I liked [redacted]. (Lest all the sf fans get worried by “normals” liking the book… :-P) [emphasis added]

    This kind of thing, often in jest, is frequent, so I’m surprised you haven’t see it before. The problem is, many see truth behind the humor, which is often the case with comedic expression.

    I don’t think anyone is trying to be offensive. But by taking this “weird niche” position, writers are putting themselves (and others writing in the speculative genre who may hold a different view) in a box that separates them from a large number of potential readers.

    Becky

    Like

  6. Hi, Anne, I’m thinking here that the “literati” don’t have much say. It seems our culture is all about the popular, which is one reason I think speculative fiction is so popular.

    I understand about escaping to. I would say, however, that I believe this to be a condition common to Man. However, the typical person here in the US escapes by partying, medicating, vacationing, or immersing in something else distracting — a hobby like watching sports or bungee jumping or bird watching or … But without a doubt, fiction in one form or another is a popular means of escape. We are, at least, borderline hedonistic. Why? Because we’re trying to escape. To purpose or belonging or joy or peace and most definitely to love.

    Speculative fiction, as I see it, is best equipped to point to the only escape of value.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Anne.

    Becky

    Like

  7. Morgan, I’m like you. I enjoy a wide spectrum of things. And in reality, I think that all of us feel weird at times, for one reason or the other — which only makes us more normal than we know. 😉

    Jonathan, I agree that speculative fiction was once the norm, simply because the world acknowledged the supernatural. As humanism grew and tightened its grip on the arts, “realism” became the expression of choice.

    Case in point: Mike Duran wrote another post about cursing and swearing in connection to Christian fiction. He used Flannery O’Connor as an example of a Christian who used ungodly language even as she wrote redemptive stories. I couldn’t help but think, How was it that for decades prior to O’Connor, who wrote in the 50s and 60s, Christians wrote redemptive stories for the culture at large without using cursing?

    I think it’s because of this advance of realism.

    Today we have a unique situation — postmodernism has reacquainted the culture with things beyond the understanding of science. Hence, speculative fiction has made up the ground it lost in the latter part of the twentieth century.

    And yes, Christians have written popular speculative fiction, but apart from the end times fiction of Jenkins/LaHaye, there hasn’t been a Christian speculative fiction work published by a Christian house that has captured the culture the way Twilight did, for example. I think there are writers who have the talent to do it. God only knows if this is what He plans.

    Becky

    Like


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: