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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Literary Battles with
Church and Empire

by Karen Michalson
Copyright © 1996, Karen Michalson

Literary fantasy has been suffering a precarious existence in the English language publishing world for the last two centuries. Most editors at literary presses are strongly biased towards realism and do not consider fantasy, no matter how well written, literature. Their bias is often the result of the aesthetic they were taught in graduate school: that serious writing can't deal with magic.

On the other hand, commercial publishers of fantasy fiction are openly skittish about considering literature, no matter how magically oriented, as a viable consumer product. Believing that sophisticated writing will intimidate most readers, they adhere to the policy that if a fantasy novel is literate and intelligent, it's unmarketable.

Which means that most of us are screwed.

Face it, Milton couldn't sell Paradise Lost in today's publishing market if he gave away free passes to Disneyland and released a CD of Satan chanting with the demonic chorus, "Nearer My God to Thee." If the censors on the far right didn't object to a heroic, defiant Satan and the censors on the far left didn't object to Eve being portrayed as weaker-willed than Adam, then the in-house censors in a prospective publishing house would get queasy over his fantasy epic being too idea-driven for the "average reader" to understand.

The reasons for this pass, the reasons that so many literate, intelligent fantasy novels languish in obscurity, have their roots in early nineteenth-century Britain. I explore this subject at length in my first book, Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

Fantasy literature had French connotations for many readers in early nineteenth-century Britain, largely because the imported fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy had enjoyed such popularity in England throughout the eighteenth century. Because of its French connotations, fantasy literature became associated with the Reign of Terror and radical politics. In fact, the word "fantasy" was often used pejoratively by many early nineteenth-century Tory reviewers when they wanted to attack the works of politically unpopular radical poets like Shelley or the early Wordsworth. Even at that time realism was privileged by the literary establishment, both as a carryover from the Age of Reason and as a way of drawing a line of distinction between "politically correct" conservative writers and upstart radicals.

One representative example of how politics were inexorably entwined with aesthetics can be seen in the career of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which typifies the age's predominant categories of thought. In his youth Coleridge was heavily involved in defending and promoting radical politics via his writing and lectures, long after the excesses of the Reign of Terror had alienated even the most liberal of his countrymen from the rhetoric of revolution. He was also writing some of the most glorious fantasy poetry in the language. However, when Coleridge committed a volte-face in later life by accepting Trinitarianism, he became more politically conservative. He also began at that point in his career to champion a literary aesthetic based on realism.

He wasn't alone. The intellectuals of his day were in a strange alliance with Low Church and Nonconformist evangelical Christian sects who were absolutely terrified of fantasy in all its forms. Writing fiction was considered to be no different than telling lies (despite Sir Philip Sidney's famous maxim) and many believed that excessive novel-reading would lead to insanity. Fantasy fiction was especially evil, because it seemed to violate the real world God had created by presenting mythical creatures to readers.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, it was these two groups that controlled most of the schools in Great Britain. The intellectual elite controlled the curriculum that was taught to upper-class students at public schools like Eton and at the universities. Fantasy writing, because it smacked of dangerous radicalism, had no place here. On the other hand, it was mostly Christian evangelicals who promoted literacy among the poor in order to facilitate Bible reading. They founded the charity schools and adult literacy programs to help teach the working class to read. Fantasy texts that dealt with magic had no place in a Christian classroom, either.

In short, fantasy literature did not have any support in the educational institutions of the day. Sound familiar? To a large degree the British publishing industry reflected this, in that respectable presses avoided fantasy for political reasons and many popular presses were jittery about promoting works that violated "good Christian values." The largest source of published fantasy was the chapbooks and broadsides which were sold on street corners and so lacked the respectability of being displayed in bookstores. There was often much consternation among evangelical Christians that newly-literate working class readers preferred chapbooks of fantasy tales bought for a ha'penny on the street corner to perusing the King James Bible, and among Oxford Dons that some wayward students preferred surreptitious versions of "Jack the Giant Killer" to parsing Horace.

One would think that as the fear of revolution and the influence of the Anglican Church and religion in general began to wane in the 1860s there would be an opening for institutional support of fantasy literature. This did not happen because in the latter part of the century the schools became places to educate young men for administrative posts in the Empire, and the English major (read Canon) began to get established by Matthew Arnold and others by privileging texts that supported this agenda. For example, the English patriotism of Shakespeare's Henry V was greatly preferred to the problematic accounts of colonialism in his fantasy play The Tempest.

Through the popularity of chapbooks, fantasy now had a reputation of appealing to the working classes who weren't educated in the niceties of literary criticism. Literary fantasy was one of those inter-class marriages that everyone knew wouldn't work out, and for most authors, usually didn't.

Another problem was that fantasy was considered the dominant mode of the language and literature of the Empire's people: "savages" who believed in myth and magic and needed to be civilized into proper British values. Good literature was defined as mimetic, as holding a mirror up to real life as accurately as possible. To that end Darwinism set much of the tone for intellectual discourse in the new discipline of literary criticism. The literary theories of Hippolyte Taine in particular were greatly indebted to Darwin's writings, and it became intellectually fashionable to follow Taine's lead in studying literature as if it were a fossil, or a geologic stratum that revealed the "real life" of its creator. Good literature was defined as having the most demonstrable one-to-one correspondences with reality.

As we all know, even today courses in the nineteenth-century novel are far more likely to cover William Thackeray, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy than George MacDonald, Charles Kingsley, and Lewis Carroll. Academic journals and tenure committees are far more likely to validate work on the former. Most creative writing programs actively discourage students from writing fantasy in favor of mimetic realism. And of course the publishing industry in general does not often recognize literary fantasy as a marketable category. This bias can be understood as a largely undocumented legacy of the nineteenth century that has imprinted itself in contemporary literary institutions.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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