Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Partrick's Day / Theory

One of my students asked me if I had St. Patty's plans. "You mean going on a green beer bar crawl?" I asked. He seemed delighted that we both had the same plans ... us and every other student on campus. However that's not really what I meant. St. Patrick's Day as a drinking holiday has lost it's appeal.

Anyhow, it's seventy degrees and sunny here. Perfect bar crawl weather.

About a month ago I was directed to this essay by Sara Douglass. Douglass is an Australian author who focuses primarily on writing fantasy novels. Her essay is on why fantasy as a genre endures and prospers. I read it because I'm fascinated by the idea of modern myth making -- and since this was before the AWP conference, I hadn't even begun to think about the 20th century mythology of the comic book possibly replacing the Greek epic.

Douglass' theory is that we are thrilled and delighted by the unknown in fiction. In real life the unknown is scary and we do our best to do away with it. And we've done a very good job with making our world sanitized, scientifically explained, healthy, and generally unscary. Yet we still seek safe ways of experiencing thrills: ghost stories, roller coasters, Jerry Springer. The fantasy novel, says Douglass, fills that niche.

Before science explained away the strange and mysterious events in life (ex: sunrise) we had to come up with our own reasons for why things were the way they were. Creation myths covered the big stuff -- btw, every culture has a creation myth and a flood myth -- and all the little stuff was covered in smaller tales, either mythological tales (tied to religion) or folk tales. But in a world where we don't need fairy changelings to explain infant mortality those tales have slid from things we can possibly believe in to things we read to children on occasion. We know what is out in the woods, and under the bed and fewer and fewer people believe in sprites, spirits, banshees and bogarts. We don't believe in it, but we crave the possibilities that come with it.

Douglass writes,"A book is a nice safe outlet for the yearning for the quest; it sates the craving in the soul for mystery and adventure and danger without the need to fret about how good your sword-wielding skills are." Too true. But this is also where I begin to disagree with Douglass.

Yes, I like the notion that the novel fills in the part of our brains that is given to such wonder as making shapes among the stars -- but I do not believe it applies only to the fantasy genre. I think it applies to any novel (well, except for much contemporary literary fiction which is about the everyday man). Most genre novels are about 1% of the population -- the other 99% of us will never solve the murder of a millionaire in Hong Kong -- but that 1% live on the edge, in danger, going on quests to find murders and double agents, nuclear arms, estranged Irish terrorist organizations, and buried treasure. And I can go along with them without ever needing to learn how to fire a gun, trail behind a suspect or lift a spade. I don't think I need to spell out the James Bond quest-appeal or how much Law & Order the average person watches despite the fact that that person will likely never have a violent crime committed against them. Science fiction fills the same niche by proposing a shifting world; things are unexplainable by science in a futuristic world because the author is proposing something beyond our currently proven theories.

And, just to hit all the major genres, romance fiction does it too. Yes, you are much more likely to fall in love than solve a murder in Hong Kong, but the circumstances are rarely that of a romance novel. If you look at Harlequin's most popular titles (as in these are the titles most repeated used AND most repeated purchased) you'll see Billionaire Take a Bride, The CEO's Wife, The Sheik Prince's Fiancee, Cowboy's (who owns half of Texas you'll come to find out) Reluctant Bride ... basically, there's fame and fortune and high powered sure-of-what-they-want guys in all of these because that creates uncertainty. We all know how to pick up the neighborhood boy, but the Sheik Prince? Now that's uncharted territory.

(I wish I could see the market research that turned up romance novels about Sheiks as ripe territory for romance novels because, frankly, I have no idea where that idea came from.)

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