What about “classy fantasy”?

When I wrote my second-to-last post, a link to an article popped up under my box of text telling me to consider including it.  This is that article:

Children need classics not fantasy says Joanna Trollope.

I’ve heard this sort of concern before, from my boss, who said that most people, if they read at all (for leisure), read at about a 5th grade level.

I say, why not?  It’s entertaining!  So what’s the issue?  Let’s examine this…

Joanna Trollope cites Twilight and Hunger Games as two examples of what children are reading instead of such classics as Jane Austen novels.  Now, Twilight preaches marriage before sex and the Hunger Games is tackles massive social injustice and revolution; these particular things aren’t bad messages, even if they’re mired in a fantasy landscape.

I can understand the creepy obsession of Twilight being bad, and the whole child-murder thing being bad, but these aren’t mentioned in this particular article.  The article specifically talks about “guidance” and “wrestling with” the real world.  Trollope is concerned that children can’t find real-world guidance.  But there clearly IS some guidance there, so what’s the real issue?

It’s not real.

That’s the problem?  We don’t take things seriously if it’s in a world we don’t relate to?

Then why are the classics relevant?

I’ve never had to fight for my right to vote.  Hell, I never had to fight for my right to wear pants.  I make the same amount of money as all the other grad students, so I haven’t even faced that bit of workplace sexism that I hear still exists out there.  So I sure as hell can’t appreciate the struggles of a pre-Victorian woman.

Personally, I relate better to Katniss, and I’ve got both my parents, am the youngest of three siblings, have no sisters, and have never lived in a pauper mining town.  Or been forced to murder children.

However, Trollope has an exciting project that may help the classics become less “classic” and more “real.”  She, and other authors, are giving them a modern upgrade.

I heard years ago about a Romeo and Juliet upgrade, where all the dialogue was the same but the modern setting changed it all up.  “Sword” became a word for gun.  Like (pre)Victorian morals and (pre)Victorian women’s struggles, they’re outdated.

Some things just don’t translate.

So while I wish this project success, I remain dubious.  If you don’t have the (pre)Victorian setting, you don’t have Jane Austen.  It’s just a novel about some modern woman, to go with all the rest of them, right next to 50 Shades.  You could give the Scarlet Letter a modern upgrade by shifting it to some country where that sort of thing might still happen, but it doesn’t mean I’ll personally relate to it any better.  And thought Easy A managed a rough approximation of it, I don’t really think that book would translate to the US at all.  Ethan Frome is solved by divorce.  Wuthering Heights becomes all about passionate affairs (and divorce?).  Oh gosh, Heathcliff!?  What would he become if he still needed to be a bad boy today?

This is some scary stuff.

But moreover… on a personal level, I don’t want morally and socially outdated books to form my child’s world-view.  I’m not saying the classics can’t teach them anything, but some diversity in exposure certainly wouldn’t hurt.  My 8th grade English class tackled such difficult works as the Princess Bride and Earthsea.  Our curriculum was creativity, but within it there was also truth:

  • I learned more about love from Buttercup and Westley than I ever will from Heathcliff, though Ethan Frome gives them a run for their money.
  • I learned more about human nature from Ged than I would learn from an old fisherman admiring Joe DiMaggio.

So… while I see the obvious value in fiction, is it true that the message gets lost (unless you make it terribly preachy, like Happy Feet)?

Is this something that we, as writers of fantasy, need to tackle in order to be deemed satisfactorily sophisticated literature?

And I don’t just mean with long words and sentences and hidden meanings… but should we make them confront moral dilemmas akin to the classics (if that’s possible)?

Or is Trollope spewing a load of very biased anti-fantasy trollop?  Your thoughts?

– – –

Now, on a personal note, I doubt Trollope’s judgement.  I doubt it because I’m biased toward fantasy, and I’m grown up enough to admit it.

But let’s back up to that 50 Shades comment.  Trollope herself thinks that Jane Austen novels are like 50 Shades.  I must admit, at this point, that (on a spur of boredom and to be more informed about socially infamous works) I read ALL the 50 Shades books.   I’m all for some kinky fuckery in my literature, if it is actually as advertised.  50 Shades does not qualify as BDSM.  So it’s another boring novel about obsession and boring old virginal sexual self-discovery with an experienced man, dramatized by Grey’s more violent sexual tastes that he has to bottle up as he grows into a better person.  So it’s a set of novels about some rich people drama, which is the good part, but it’s just so superbly ridiculous when you factor in the narrator’s stubborn naivete and the unlikeliness of the situation.  Love does not equal obsession, and I’m sick of literature billing them as one and the same, whether it’s Twilight or 50 Shades.  (Personally, if Jane Austen translates, in modern terms, to 50 Shades, I don’t want my children reading it.)

But I digress.  The real message here is that if she thinks highly of 50 Shades, I don’t trust her judgment.  For the sexual repressed, it’s a bunch of hard-core trollop.  For the sexually deviant, it’s soft-core trollop.  Despite some occasional dramatic, plot-based high points (amidst a character-driven story with sappy, damaged characters that I hated), it’s really just poorly done smut with a clumsy and overly-dramatic plot.

Dark Destiny was better.


2 thoughts on “What about “classy fantasy”?

  1. I agree with you on the point that classics are sometimes overrated, but what about Dickens? I love his books specifically for the fact that they teach values, they teach good things in general and they are at times very religious (read: moral). I don’t think classics must be substituted by the modern literature, because (honestly) kids read modern literature like Hunger games and Mortal instruments without adults telling them so. I’ve never met a kid (or a teenager for that matter) who voluntarily chose to read any classical book. Maybe it’s not all about guidance – simple grammar and beauty of the language can sometimes be found only in classical literature. Besides, kids are very shrewd and picky, they won’t read what they don’t like and will always find a way to show as if they did (I’m telling you from my very own rich experience)))) Anyway, I think classics in the curriculum is certainly worth a try, and modern literature as extra assignment is a great addition (if it’s not Twilight, I’m sorry, but with the movies out I don’t see any sense in actually reading the book unless in case of insomnia).

    P.S. I too read 50 shades, because everyone was talking about it, I was bored to death by the middle of the second book. I think it’s very much an adult fairy tale, but it seems (by the sales figures) that’s exactly what people want right now. So, 50 shades is very near fantasy with an erotic slant))) And to compare Jane Austin to 50 shades is to compare a Porsche to a Morgan 3 Wheeler, but that’s my personal and very subjective opinion.

    • Svapne says:

      I think I may have come off a little drastic… 😛 I don’t think we should eliminate classics and substitute fiction- and you do make an excellent point about children reading fun things for fun without the prompts of parents and teachers (though reading is not exactly something lots of kids do for fun unless their parents brought them up encouraging it- but that’s a different rant).

      I loved a great deal of the classics I read, and I do think they enriched my perspective in ways fantasy couldn’t. But Trollope seems to be saying that we can’t learn anything from fantasy, and I really do think that some (carefully selected) pieces of fantasy do more for imagination, creativity, and culture than certain classics do (I do love me some Tale of Two Cities- I wrote a beautiful essay on juxtaposition for my AP English class… but I could live without Old Man and the Sea. What’s that, Hemmingway, bad things happen to good people? Couldn’t you have summed that up in an essay!?).

      If there’s no room for fantasy in an English classroom, maybe they should incorporate creative reading in art classes- you know, paint a scene from this novel or something? I can honestly say that using one form of art to inspire another (Modernity Series) was a whole lot of fun and really exercised the creative muscle.

      I think a very clear distinction needs to be made between “fantasy” and “young adult fantasy” too. I DO NOT want my children assigned Twilight. But Earthsea? Hell to the yes. There’s a difference between enriching fantasy and romantic escapism fantasy, and Trolllope doesn’t seem to be making the distinction when she attacks it. But maybe that’s because, as you say, people are reaching for Twilight.

      I was also kind of morally outraged at the 50 Shades comparison. They may both center around the struggles of adults in their respective contemporary settings, and may involve the complications of love, BUT… so does A Tale of Two Cities. So does Macbeth. And so do every single romantic/ smutty novel in existence. It’s an utterly weak comparison that can be applied to almost everything (that isn’t children’s literature), and a very poorly made one. And insulting to Jane Austen.

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