A couple of weeks ago my wife Hannah and I attended an “art salon” organized by a good friend from college and hosted by a local writing professor. Inspired by the Cubist salons of the early 20th century, the idea behind this gathering was for writers and artists to gather to discuss their aesthetics, and artistic ideology. It was a great time, full of exciting conversation, highlighted by a delightful musical performance.
During the salon, I was invited to discuss my writing, specifically the aesthetic philosophy that motivates it. As a speculative fiction writer, this sort of question tends to put me on the defensive. After all, the reasons I started writing had less to do with grand aesthetic goals and more to do with how cool dragons and wizards are.
That said, I have, in the course of my writing life, developed an aesthetic that motivates my work. A lot of it has come from reading interviews with and essays by writers like Steven Erikson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and R. Scott Bakker whose work I admire both as excellently entertaining fantasy, but also as thematically deep and compelling. Some of it has come from my own consideration of which stories resonate with me, how they resonate, and why.
The most important question motivating this aesthetic analysis is this: why write secondary world speculative fiction instead of realistic fiction? What can speculative fiction accomplish–artistically, thematically, and meaningfully–that literary fiction can’t?
I am still in the process of formulating my aesthetic, a process which is unlikely to end while I continue writing. Each project is, essentially, an effort to make good on aesthetic ideals, and simultaneously a process of refining those ideals. Basically, you are trying to write the best story/make the best art that you can, and in so doing you learn how write better stories/make better art.
The basic gist of the aesthetic ideal that motivates my writing lies in the layer of abstraction that speculative fiction is able to create. The best writing, to me, disrupts some assumption or belief that I hold about the world. It’s a bit of a cliche/meme to say, but the best stories give you something to think about, and maybe even change your worldview.
Realistic fiction is able to attack those assumptions and beliefs directly. A story set in the real world, featuring real characters dealing with real issues, presents those issues and characters in a clear and direct way. This, when done well, can be extremely powerful. But I am skeptical of realistic fiction’s ability to connect with readers that do not already agree, or at least sympathize, with the perspective on the world it presents, especially when that fiction deals with a contemporary and contentious issue.
A person who is convinced of American moral superiority in the War on Terror, for example, when presented with a novel meant to examine and humanize the perspective of an accused terrorist spirited away to be tortured in Guantanamo bay, might be more likely to hurl the novel across the room than allow their perspective to change.
Which is not to necessarily advocate for allegory, especially not allegories that obviously connect to current or historical events. Rather, speculative fiction allows for the creation of a secondary world in which to explore relevant themes and ideas. “The Lord of the Rings” wasn’t a direct allegory for World War I or World War II, but it did examine (among other things) the role of ordinary folk in opposing the spread of a seemingly unstoppable force for evil.
Similarly, you could write a story which examines the potency of propaganda and dehumanization as tools of empire, without the events of the story necessarily serving as an allegory for any particular empire, instance of propaganda, or process of dehumanization in the real world. The hope being that readers who might balk at a story that attacks their deeply held beliefs about the real world might read your story, enjoy it, sympathize with its characters, and in sympathizing have their assumptions about real people and real problems disrupted, if not changed.
Of course, that can’t happen unless the story is engaging and entertaining enough to keep a reader’s attention, and what’s more entertaining that wizards and dragons, or cyborgs and post-human spacefarers? Speculative fiction has the potential to challenge the way we see the world, but at the end of the day, I got into fantasy as much for the elven craft and wizards and Balrogs and magic rings as I did for any deeper meaning. One complements the other. You can’t have Frodo’s particular brand of endurance, nor Sam’s loyalty and resilience, nor Aragorn’s stalwart leadership in the face of unstoppable odds, without Sauron’s burning eye.