“Literature” is a contentious term. It means different things to different people. To some, genre fiction simply cannot be literature—or “good” literature, as it were. Some will accept certain genre fiction as worthy of the title, notably science fiction, but then reject others, romance oft proving the chief boo-boy.
Then there is the more egalitarian or democratic position that good literature is defined relative to the reader. This may mean that the most sordid dime-novel pulp action adventure is as good as the works of Shakespeare to the right person. Literature in this sense is simply that which resonates with the individual on a level deeper than pure escapism.
But I want to avoid the question of defining “literature” altogether. I am less concerned with answering whether or not fantasy is or can be literature than with exploring what happens if we actually treat it as literature, no questions asked. Would the same sorts of profound human examinations be found in fantasy as we see in Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare, and for which these authors are so celebrated? I would argue, for the most part, that yes they would, if we were willing to set aside preconceived biases.
I would argue that we get from reading, from literature, precisely what we look for.
With that in mind, I am planning to try a bit of experiment along the lines of the Children of Hurin podcast series I produced last year, though this time in text and with a book which, while considered a fantasy classic, is from an author less often termed a genre-definer.
I am going to offer a read through of Ursual LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea using the reader-response critical theory as my guide. There are all sorts of ways I could approach this, but I have decided on that critical mode for three chief reasons:
1) As it has been three years since I last read this book (and I have only read it twice), I have mostly forgotten the plot, though I have some vague idea of what happens. Thus, I will be able to read the book with relatively fresh eyes and yet still have some sense of anticipation with which to point out foreshadowing as it happens.
2) Seeing as I come to the book with fresh eyes, I can more accurately track my response as I am reading it. As readers, we often change over time, so that a book which resonated with us once might not do so in the future. I used to be fascinated by Arthurian legend as a child; now, I find the characters rather plain and the stories incredibly contrived, even juvenile in some cases (sacrilege, I know). The point here, though, is that I will not be weighed down by an intimate knowledge of the text I am studying, not like I was with The Children of Hurin, a book I reread at least once a year.
3) My premise of treating fantasy as literature—making the assumption that it can be literature from the start—is best served by choosing a book I am at least marginally familiar with in order to be able to track the literary elements as they crop up. Secondarily, the critical approach I will use is aided by coming to a book with little knowledge/memory of its contents in order to gain the fresh perspective. Thus, A Wizard of Earthsea is an excellent choice for me as it accomplishes both goals at once.
If, in the process of reading through this short novel, I find the experiment at least yields some interesting results as far as I am concerned, I may attempt a similar reading of a book more likely to pick up random search-engine hits, something like The Hobbit or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or I may choose something more unexpected, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The goal is simply to demonstrate that fantasy can be good literature if only we are willing to let go of our preconceived notions of what exactly literature is. For now, I will focus on the tale of the wizard Ged as he traverses the waters of Earthsea in a quest to defeat his own personal demon.
Let us see how far down the rabbit hole this takes us.