It was the days shortly before the Lord of the Rings movies were released and my sister and I were patiently trying to coax our mother into the world of Tolkien by means of the beautiful BBC radio dramatization. Mainly, of course, this was self-serving. Our mother required a constant stream of chatter to amuse her while she drove us to school, and if we were unobliging, she’d force us to listen to NPR, so the epic 26-episode series provided a full thirteen hours of sound we actually wanted to listen to. We knew she wouldn’t go for it, and she didn’t. Somewhere in the middle of The Return of the King, she announced, “All these names mean nothing to me! ‘Aragorn met Saruman at Minas Tirith:’ It’s just gibberish!”
I privately thought that, if I absolutely couldn’t get my mind around something, I wouldn’t announce it with so much pride.
It was the days shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies had been released and New Line was trying, unsuccessfully, to recapture that success with The Golden Compass. My father was a little more amenable than my mother had been to The Lord of the Rings, but he kept calling the Gyptians “Egyptians,” with no apparent awareness that this was a mistake. I was in college by then, and beginning to notice a pattern.
I had been aware of adults’ disdain for fantasy, and indeed for anything creative, for a long time. The more “official” the adults in question, the more marked it was. It showed up in schoolwork: No room for dragons between A Separate Peace and The Old Man and the Sea. It showed up in the ubiquitous persuasive essays (as a contrarian twelve-year-old, I delivered a persuasive speech against persuasive speeches, based on the iron-clad thesis that no one wants to listen to them) and in the ostensibly “creative writing” assignments that were just anecdotes about our own lives. I wracked my brain for anything that had happened to a middle-class suburban good girl that was worth telling. I learned to recycle assignments, not out of duplicity, but for the sake of sheer survival. A decade later, creative writing is my job and persuasive writing is only a hobby. Draw your own conclusions.
In art class, my portfolios overflowed with extracurricular doodles and drawings of mythical creatures, drawn in the spare moments between the still lifes, contour drawings, and abstracts that made up the actual curriculum. I knew that real artists either drew from life or they drew abstracts. They didn’t draw from their imagination, and they certainly didn’t draw illustrations of fantasy stories they made up themselves. I was lucky enough not to have many authority figures outright condemn my creativity, but there was always that quiet, firm pressure to move in a different direction.
As a kid, I unquestioningly accepted that the kinds of books and art I was pushed toward by school curriculum, by reading lists, by museums, by the dreary Newbery award, were superior to the kinds I chose on my own. I could read The Lord of the Rings if I liked, but it would be better to read some nice realistic fiction. Why would the critics like it so much if it weren’t better?
I was wrong. I’ll tell you a secret: Critics, teachers, and other “serious” people don’t dislike fantasy and other forms of imaginative self-expression because they’re bad. They dislike these things because they don’t get them.
My mother didn’t dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that it was sophomoric wish-fulfillment; she dismissed it because she couldn’t keep track of all the names and places, and it was easier to write the whole work off as nonsense than to accept that it was maybe written for people sharper than her. My father substituted the name of a real group of people for the name of a pretend group of people because he couldn’t make sense of them unless he related them to something he was already familiar with. And so it goes. Scratch a snobbish fantasy-hating critic and you’ll find someone who is hopelessly out of their depth and desperately doesn’t want to admit it.
What about those autobiographical “creative-writing” assignments? There’s a whole class of people who simply can’t comprehend writing about something other than themselves. For them, writing a story they didn’t directly experience is a challenge, one that didn’t really happen is an impossibility, and one that not only didn’t but couldn’t happen is not even to be dwelt upon. That English teacher kept assigning us essays about ourselves because he literally couldn’t think of any other possible topic.
The same bias shows up in art. One of my beginning drawing books described drawing from imagination as “difficult, but exciting.” But if I began doodling a curvy line, it would sprout wings, legs, and a monstrous face. Drawing from imagination is not, ipso facto, difficult; that author was just bad at it. (Conversely, I find it difficult to draw abstract geometric patterns without turning them into something representational. Fantasy is not a superior or more advanced art form; all art forms require skill sets that some people have and others don’t.)
So the next time someone tells you that serious writers and artists don’t waste their talents on fantasy, remember: What they really mean is that they just don’t get it.