Thu
Feb 18 2010 6:08pm
Fantasy Matters

Not long ago I devoured Ursula K. Le Guin’s Cheek By Jowl: Talks & Essays on How & Why Fantasy Matters. In keeping with The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy & Science Fiction and Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, it is a treasure trove of insight about fantasy, fiction, the craft of writing, and those neglected, spurned, interior worlds of the right brain.

As I was putting fingers to keyboard, a thought became a voice became an inner figure who demanded she be heard. While inclined to ignore this inner figure—a small frog, a juvenile Rhacophorus nigropalmatus I believe—her words carried weight and could not so easily be sloughed off. She asked:

“What about the left brain? Does fantasy matter to the human analytical biocomputer?”

As this small frog was both pilot and plane—her species is more commonly known as the Wallace’s Flying Frogs tribe—I figured she had raised questions of mental navigation and flight worth pondering.

So: left brain first, then right, then a knitting together with a thick, humming-avec-neural-chatter corpus callosum, that fabulous bundle of left-right-unification circuitry that makes us whole.

Fiction Matters: A Left Brain Weighs In

Who better to consult in such matters than Steven Pinker, formerly of MIT, now of Harvard, author of a list of essential reading including The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language and How the Mind Works?

“Fiction, stories, work like case-based reasoning in AI,” Pinker might say. “Think about chess. General strategies do you no good: such strategies might apply to—literally—trillions of decision forks. Better to have a store of ‘chess stories,’ a catalog of challenges, plus the various moves that have successfully responded to those challenges.”

And, Dr. Pinker, how does this make fiction important—in a left-brain kind of way?

“Fictional narratives”—Pinker is quoting himself here, from How the Mind Works—“supply us with a mental catalog of fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.”

So, say in Hamlet—?

“What are the options if I were to suspect my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

Fiction, then, is a simulation—the better the fiction, the better the simulation—in which the reader immerses herself. More, there’s plenty of evidence that real and imaginary stimulation excite the very same neurons in the brain, so when life is stranger than fiction, we’ve already been there, so to speak.

More recently, while reviewing The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Pinker says—eloquently as always, italics mine—

People tell stories.

All over the world, and probably for as long as they have existed, people invent characters and recount their fictitious exploits. This apparent frivolity is no small matter in human affairs.

If one were to tally the number of hours and resources spent in enjoying fiction in all its forms—story-telling, pretend play, myths and legends, fairy tales, novels, short stories, epic poems, television, movies, theater, opera, ballads, narrative paintings, jokes, comics, skits, video games, and pornography—it would surely account for a major portion of people’s time and a major portion of modern economic activity.

Considering the costs in time, foregone opportunities to engage in practical pursuits, and the dangers of confusing fantasy with reality, our longing to lose ourselves in fiction is a big puzzle for anyone seeking to understand human beings. All the more so from a Darwinian perspective, as one might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one.

Fiction is a huge part of who we are as human beings, an essential key—perhaps—to our essence. Fiction, from a Darwinian perspective, has survival value.

Time now to hear from our spokeswoman from the right.

Fantasy Matters: A Right Brain Weighs In

My copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Cheek by Jowl: Talks & Essays on How & Why Fantasy Matters is heavily underlined, something my wife is appalled by, but something that allows me quick access to Leguinian Thoughts That Resonate (LTTR). Many of those LTTRs begin in the left brain, take issue with an all left-brain perspective, then take a spectacular leap over to the right brain, that pattern-creating, wholistic, creative biocomputer within us all.

Le Guin stares the realists and modernists straight in the eye, unblinking, certain. They so much want to be “grown-ups,” so want the “respectability” that comes from reading only Flaubert and James, that they have contempt for children’s literature—and fantasy. Indeed, the modernists have left a “legacy of contempt” in their wake. Fantasy is fused with immaturity. Fantasy is escapist. Fantasy is for children.

“For the modernist realist, the mere presence of animals as conscious, thinking beings suffices to throw a book out of consideration as literature, while a book for young children is automatically beneath notice.”

Yet—and here Ursula takes aim, squeezes the trigger—the moment a story is told it becomes fiction. Assembling and narrating all those “left brain” facts is a right brain process. A string of facts, when shared, becomes story.

Le Guin also chides—whips? flays?—those employing a utilitarian approach to fantasy, what usually goes under the guise of the “psychological” approach. Here every element of a story is explained (away) as issuing forth from some Jungian archetype or Freudian impulse, as having some “educative” use. I agree whole-heartedly with Le Guin’s characterization of Jungians and Freudians, Bettlemans and Blys as “deeply regressive.” This utilitarian, psychological tribe are left brains in right brain clothing, wielding scalpels—actually, rather blunt and bloodied machetes—with which they dissect and vivisect fantasy. “Such reduction is a nefarious act.”

Our problem, Le Guin contends, is not just with literature as our literature reflects who we’ve become. We’ve become the creators of a modern, realist, utilitarian world reduced to—take a deep breath—ourselves and our artifacts. We now live in a “radically impoverished, single-species world.” This is not the world we were made to live in! Indeed, we must teach our children to live in this strange world of our own creation, a world split off from nature, animals, stories told by hearthside, sunrise, sunset, stars…

“We go crazy in solitude. We are social primates.”

At the risk of putting words in Le Guin’s mouth: fantasy helps to heal that craziness. Myth—myth the story, not the reductionist “moral”—can tell us who we are, who we really are, what we are as a people. Myth is the oldest form of literature. Myth fantasy par excellence.

Le Guin’s take on how fantasy heals—how the nuts and bolts of it works—is instructive. Le Guin says when she speaks as a fiction writer she does not speak “message,” she speaks “story.” Readers looking for the “complex meanings” in a work of fiction get to them “only by participation in the language of the story itself.”

Le Guin agrees with Pinker whole-heartedly: fantasy is a tool, a tool for sizing up the world we live in, a tool for sizing up our lives. Yet the only way to learn how to “use fantasy” is—to use it. Only then can the “art of words” take us beyond words.

Fantasy Matters: The Knitting Together of Left and Right

That ditty “both/an” not “either/or” is apropos here. We need both left and right brains. But not left and right brains disconnected from one another. We need connected left and right brains. We need the knitting-together biocircuitry of the corpus callosum; the better knit, the better.

Le Guin, the daughter of a “left brain” anthropologist male and “right brain” writer female is well positioned to speak “from the center,” from the rich communications and co-creation that marks healthy, creative brain activity. When she does so, she speaks to both readers of fantasy, and to writers.

Restricting myself to few ideas from Cheek By Jowl only, Le Guin calls upon readers and writers of fantasy to treasure language, to know the fantasy-literature corpus, to spot and flee shallow fantasy as a means of taking in—being transformed by—the best there is. A quick work about each, in reverse order.

Spot & Flee Shallow Fantasy—Dive Deep

Fantasy readers and writers would do well to read Le Guin’s 2004 talk “The Young Adult in YA,” delivered upon receiving the Margaret A. Edwards Award for young adult fiction. I would argue that what might be called “shallow fantasy” is “split brain” fantasy: left and right are not communicating, richness and complexity never develop. “Deep fantasy,” in contrast, is fantasy marked by a functioning corpus callosum.

One sure shallow-fantasy red flag is the battle between good and evil where the “good of the good” and the “vileness of the evil” are never questioned. Such fantasy is, Le Guin argues, simply an excuse for violence. And glorification of violence eradicates thought. We can do better than that, as readers and writers. Le Guin holds up Tolkein as an example of deep fantasy. Today’s a good day to re-read The Lord of the Rings. We can read—and write—with both sides of the brain.

Know (and Enjoy) Thy Fantasy

The isolation/connection theme—our split brain/communicating brain theme—also comes out in “knowing the fantasy corpus.” To honor the fantasy genre, we must know its history. To fully appreciate—to fully drink and be transformed by—fantasy, we must understand a story’s place lest we miss the healing “standing on the shoulders of giants” resonance and counterpoint. Le Guin tells a humorous story of a reader who ranted on about the genre-breaking originality of Harry Potter, oblivious to both the “school” and “wizard in training” literature.

Truth in lending: many of the underlines in my copy of Cheek By Jowl are works I have not read. Some—sad to say—I had never heard of. On the plus side, several works are currently winging themselves my way. (Fortunately I could never have read Harry Potter “in isolation”: I spent seven years in British boarding schools!)

Treasure Language, Fold Reality

Finally, Le Guin calls on us to treasure language, a whole brain activity.

Many literary critics describe Le Guin as a “superb stylist.” She is. More than that, she loves language. Le Guin also invites us—readers and writers alike—to love language ourselves. (If in any doubt, be sure to check out Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or Mutinous Crew.)

Fantasy Really Does Matter

My little friend, the Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus), just glided off, pleased as punch her question about the importance of fantasy to the left brain had been properly addressed, that fantasy was presented as having the substance, weight, and power of both sides of the brain, plus the corpus callosum. It’s not easy finding video of flying frogs, so it was a pleasure to see her fly.

She left a note, too. It reads—and I confess I had to find a flesh-and-blood translator as Google was of no use—

“Fantasy really does matter. Follow me, into my world. My world—the world where frogs and humans are animals together not species split apart—is your world too. You’ve simply forgotten this. Not sure you can fly? You can. Just—jump! Like a frog!”


Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson —“Cat” to his friends and colleagues — feeds his left brain with science, his right brain with the rich feast of fiction, including SF and fantasy.

Among his life’s highlights are sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle prepping for launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and accepting an invitation from Brannon Braga to pitch Star Trek scripts at Paramount in LA.

Just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.

4 comments
Amy McLane
1. Amy McLane
Brilliant post. I loved The Language of the Night. My copy is underlined too, which is a very rare thing for me. My favorite essay in that collection is "Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons," which had a lot of LTTRs, as you put it. I was unaware of Cheek by Jowl. I'll have to pick it up.

It is really frustrating (and a little sad) to me that writers in the modernist realist mode are in denial of their own status as myth makers.
Amy McLane
2. omega_n
This post is great. As someone planning to get a doctorate in fantasy literature, the books you have mentioned are now on the top of my "to-get" list.

"Genre-breaking originality of Harry Potter." *giggle* I love Harry Potter, but I have no delusions about it being the first (or the best) of its kind.

That said, non-realist modernist deserve not to be lumped in with their realist/naturalist compatriots, in this context. Quite a few of them broke a lot of new ground with their writings. Consider Woolf's "Orlando,"which must have had some sort of influence on Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness." Henry James set the bar for a lot of supernatural/speculative fiction with "A Turn of the Screw." And many of them, realist or no, exhibit the love of language and words that Le Guin continues to encourage (and which a good portion of sf/f needs to focus on).
Amy McLane
3. mjw
I'd pay good money to see Moorcock vs. Le Guin on Tolkien. (Moorcock on Tolkien can be found in Epic Pooh.)
Amy McLane
4. Catsongs
mjw — would you have another URL for Moorcock on Tolkien? I get a 404 error message... Thanks!

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