fantasy: building the new canon

by uzwi

Barbaric Document has YouTube of Polly Harvey’s Who Will Love Me Now ?, a mix of raw yearning, total self-awareness & Angela Carter-like manipulation of folk imagery which should have gone straight on to the fantasy list.

Apropos of that list–

One or two people have emailed me to point out that it is eccentric. Many of the recommendations on it are “not true fantasy” (ie, they weren’t written in the US after 1970). Some “aren’t fantasy at all”. Some aren’t even books. While several have done well, others are barely known.

I’m sorry you feel like that. Actually, I’ve begun to feel that it wasn’t eccentric enough. By concentrating on items made specifically to be art or entertainment objects, it missed an opportunity. So here’s a modest proposal.

The car industry offers fantasies of success, escape &, especially, competence (ninety percent of drivers rate themselves in the top ten percent of driving ability). The cosmetic & fashion industries offer the fantasy of perfectibility. The sports industry sells a fantasy of activity to people who rarely leave their cars or their sofas unless it’s to go to bed. From the iconography of Nationalism to the publicly managed death of a Reality TV star, cultural psychodramas have always been fantasies–some orchestrated, some spontaneous, most a mixture of both. All these elements are interlocked. You don’t have to be a theorist to recognise that. You only have to have lived in the 20th & 21st Centuries.

The world is constructed. It is imaginary from the off. Inside that imagined space, we act out off-the-rack fictions. Take a bus, sign a form, buy a product, catch up on your friends, catch up on the latest panic: each time we move we model the visions of politicians, journalists, lobbyists, standards agencies, architects, fashion houses, hypermarket shelf-planners. Each satisfactory performance brings fantasy rewards. Life flatpacks into a mobile phone. A bottle of shampoo contains a brief orgasm.

So my list is deficient in that it doesn’t include some of the truly great fantasies. Coca Cola’s appropriation and redesign of “Father Christmas” in 1931. Bernie Eccleston’s “Formula One” (see fantasies of competence, above). L’Oreal’s brilliant narcissistic fantasy, “You’re worth it!”, in which the full experience of the flattered self is stuffed into an astonishingly small word-count. (It would take the best–ie, highest-earning–fantasy writer in the world, JK Rowling herself, a minimum of 200,000 words to shift a fraction of the product to a fraction of the customers reached by that short phrase.)

These texts are more successful than fantasy novels. Their penetration of the global market is deeper. Yet we don’t find them, or the people who wrote them, on any list of great fantasies. They don’t win awards. The literary snobbery of the fantasy publishing industry excludes them. Compared to brand campaigns, political slogans & media psychodramas, fantasy novels speak to a minority. They are the indulgence of an elite, maintained in the face of the tastes of ordinary people, who don’t read but who just want to find some direct connection to their dreams–through a household purchase, an opportunity to vote, a day at a theme park–which allows them a moment of escape from the dreariness of daily existence. Is that wrong ? Was The Life & Death of Jade Goody any less of a fulfilling fantasy experience than The Lord of the Rings ? Only an elitist would say so.

Lewis Hamilton would be my pick for the World Fantasy Award this year. A well crafted YA fiction, it’s packed full of thrills & spills: the story of how one talented boy’s aspirational dream turns into a nightmare and then back into a dream and then back into a nightmare again and then back into a dream again and then… It lacks the feelgood appeal of Obama! But I think, in the end, it’s more original. After all, Hamilton didn’t steal his shoutline from Bob the Builder, a UK TV series for very young children.