When I was five, my father read me fairy tales as he put me to bed. I fell asleep enchanted by the magic of Cinderella and the adventures of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. As I grew older, my love of stories did not fade, but my father’s encouragement did. Reading fiction, particularly children’s fantasy, was downgraded to a guilty pleasure, incompatible with the reality of working towards a well-paying career.
In recent years, this dismissive attitude towards the arts has manifested in a defunding of the humanities. In 2013, The New York Times reported that financing for humanities research had fallen steadily since 2009 — a global trend. In 2012, Governor Rick Scott of Florida expressed through a task force that humanities and social science students should pay higher tuition fees, because these were “nonstrategic disciplines.”
Mount concedes that art may not be absolutely essential to human existence. “But boy, it’s a big part of what it means to actually stop caring about just sustenance and become more fully human,” he adds.
Despite the apparent decline of appreciation for the arts, thousands of people — academics as well as the general public — have defended their value. Not only can fiction entertain, it also plays a significant role in helping people understand each other and see life from varying perspectives.
“Literature can give you windows on lives of people whose lives are very different from your own,” says Mount, “so it’s a way to cross classes, cross races, cross genders.” As U of T Professor Deirdre Baker, who teaches several courses in children’s literature, puts it, “It takes us into many people’s heads.”
Additionally, Mount expresses that reading can help prepare us for difficult experiences, such as death. In times of grief, stories can help us to feel less alone. At the end of a long day, reading can even help people get to sleep. “It’s a lot better than taking sleeping pills as a way of easing yourself out of the world and putting you to sleep,” Mount says.
Mount argues for the coexistence of art and reality. “I don’t see why you can’t have both at the same time,” he says. “You can care about more than one thing at once.”
Lindsay Yates, a third-year Women and Gender Studies major, offers a similar opinion: “I don’t think the knowledge that fiction is fake matters… I have never really read a book and been aware of its falseness or found it to distract from the story itself.”
When I ask author Susan Cooper her thoughts on this distinction, she likewise answers, “This thing people say about the damaging nature of ‘fake’ is so ludicrous that it belongs with the Puritans in the seventeenth century.” Cooper, who wrote the popular fantasy series The Dark is Rising, goes on to say that “good fiction reflects reality.”
Dr. Michael Johnstone, who teaches speculative fiction in the U of T English Department, offers several examples of this notion in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror texts that he teaches.
“Alien encounter novels have always addressed issues of imperialism, colonialism, [and] the other,” he says. “Dracula gives us an opportunity to look at the figure of the monster, which gets us into discussions about otherness and identity and even colonialism. [Shirley] Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, published in the fifties, can be a really great opportunity to think about women’s roles, the idea of women in domesticity, and the horror of that kind of life, which can be seen as quite constricting and restrictive.” Johnstone concludes, “With fantasy, it’s a great opportunity to get into the idea of the hero, what constitutes heroism, and talk about issues of power.”
Within President Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office, Amazon made headlines after the online bookseller sold out of George Orwell’s classic dystopia novel 1984.
It is possible to view this as one way that people take note of the ways that art reflects reality.
On this point, Johnstone emphasizes that science fiction writers are not “soothsayers looking at crystal balls,” but rather just people who “look at current social, cultural, scientific, technological, and political trends and ask those ‘what if’ questions.”
Many people, myself included, feel apprehensive looking to our political or technological future, and science fiction explores the consequences of those uncertainties. As Julie Zhang, a fourth-year Global Health and Peace, Conflict, and Justice student puts it, “Reading science fiction can allow us to be more critical of the society we exist in and conform to.”
“There are these negative views of fantasy in particular,” says Johnstone, “that it’s childish and unproductive and escapist.” He goes on to say that speculative fiction is often seen as immature or as poor writing, and he partially attributes this reputation to marketing.
“You go to the bookstore and fantasy [and science fiction] novels have certain kinds of covers,” he says, “and they’re off in their own section… You can even think of Harry Potter, for instance. The original books would come out, and then they would give them different covers and put them in the adult section… so an adult’s not embarrassed to be reading Harry Potter. But I know many adults, myself included, who loved Harry Potter.”
Certainly, children’s literature is another category of books that experiences contempt. Many people feel that these books, though acceptable to read as kids, shouldn’t be engaged with or taken seriously by adults. I ask Kyle Sharratt, a fourth-year English and Classic Civilization student, if he’d ever felt that people looked down on him for liking children’s literature. His response is unequivocal: “Of course I have… Liking children’s lit is definitely something you feel you need to hide.”
Yates expresses a similar sentiment saying, “I remember feeling embarrassed for a while at the end of high school when I still found pleasure in reading [Young Adult] novels, because I felt I was too old for them and should be reading more adult stories.”
Sharratt elaborates on this idea, saying, “The moment ‘children’ is used, everybody’s first thought is ‘childish.’” Speaking to why speculative fiction might be less respected than other types of fiction, Johnstone echoes that thought: “There’s this idea that particularly with fantasy — things like fairytales, children’s literature — that’s what we read when we’re children; and as we get older, we set childish things aside and read more adult stuff like literary fiction and historical fiction… despite the fact that a lot of fantasy deals with very complex, very adult subjects.”
Baker cautions against underestimating the scope of children’s literature. “I wouldn’t attribute generic qualities to children’s lit,” she says. “I think the problem is that a lot of people do, and that’s why they avoid it. But I would say Howl’s Moving Castle is highly entertaining, extremely intelligent, and really perceptive, and makes you think differently about fairy tales and adolescence, for example. So why wouldn’t you read that?”
Like Johnstone, Baker also attributes part of the stigma to marketing. “This is like calling everything adult fiction,” she says. “It covers all genres. It covers poetry and drama and fantasy and realism and experimental work and conventional [work]. It’s inadequate, that kind of categorizing, and I think it comes out of expediency.”
This idea rings particularly true for Cooper, who notices little difference in the writing process between adult and children’s literature. “Once I wrote what I thought was an adult book called The Camp, and it was published as a children’s book, Dawn of Fear,” says Cooper. “I write the book that wants to be written, and the editor/publisher decides what list it should go on.”
Mount agrees, “I think the categories that you’re talking about, they’re just marketing tools. Even the invention of fiction and nonfiction is a relatively recent, I think twentieth century, invention. They’re just useful ways to sort books in classes, in bookstores, that kind of thing.”
For various reasons, many adults clearly still find value in engaging with fiction that is categorized as ‘young.’ “Children’s literature creates universes that are not constrained by the pretentiousness of the writer or in anticipation of the reader’s cynicism,” says Zhang. “As such, dialogue and plot can become unrealistic, exaggerated, or embellished, but this can sometimes produce refreshing and unique results. And sure, the dog doesn’t die at the end, but there is something restorative and healing when a good story ends happily… Children live in a more imaginative and kind world than adults, and it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what that’s like sometimes.”
She adds that, though we read children’s books differently as adults, this new perspective is a positive one. “Rather than believing that we can all cast spells, as we may have as children, as adults, we can believe that magic exists intangibly and metaphorically as a way to appreciate the events in the world we do live in,” says Zhang.
However, Zhang admits that she has mostly stopped reading young fiction in recent years. “I can’t relate to the characters and their predicaments the way I used to,” she says. In response to this type of scenario, Baker says, “We go through different phases of enjoying something and then, suddenly it’s not as enjoyable anymore.”
She associates this experience with other books as well. “You might’ve gone through a phase of reading Trollope and just loving it,” she says, “and then you go back and you think, ‘You know what, I just can’t get into this anymore.’ And you wouldn’t say it’s because it’s for adults. And I think that’s true for kids’ stuff.”
Baker also breaks down the perception of reading children’s literature as childish: “I think there’s a kind of anxiety about seeming juvenile, which I associate with a certain kind of immaturity — the fear that if you’re reading a children’s book, it somehow indicates that you’re not fully mature. Whereas it probably indicates that you are fully mature… I think if you’re certain about your maturity, you read books that are written for any age and in any genre, by people that have something to say, who are enriching and rewarding and consoling — all the things that art does for us.”
As an upper-year university student looking back on her high school reservations about young fiction, Yates affirms, “If I heard about a great [Young Adult] novel now, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. I think there are things to appreciate and get out of any book, and my age can’t determine what I read anymore.”
He does not make the case, though, that one kind is better than the other. “I just think it’s a different kind of pleasure,” he says. “I don’t see anything wrong with me reading detective novels one time and then reading Nabokov — hell, Nabokov wrote detective novels.”
Baker agrees that a distinction exists between reading for comfort and for learning or innovation. However, she argues that the distinction lies more in the way we read rather than the material itself. “You can read [texts] in a very analytical and critical way or you can just read [them] because you’re revisiting comfort zones,” says Baker. “Both are valid, although you probably don’t want to spend your whole life revisiting comfort zones.”
She emphasizes that reading for familiarity applies as much to literary fiction as it does for commercial or children’s fiction. “How many people go back and read Austen every year?” she remarks, “Nobody would say it was bad for you to be reading Austen.”
Though the stigma of certain literary categories suggests that not everyone will agree, Mount states that in the end, “There [are] only two kinds of literature. There’s good literature and there’s bad literature. It really doesn’t matter what the genre is,” he says. “To me, the genre distinction between them is far less important than whether the book is rewarding.”
He elaborates on this claim, explaining what he believes makes “rewarding” art. “Art that, for whatever reason, moves us. The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web or Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or Shakespeare — there’s a fair bit of evidence that [all] of these things have managed to hang around, impress, and move a lot of people,” he says. Their value, therefore, should be judged solely on impact.
“I’d suggest that most video games have a plot element to them,” says fourth-year History and Criminology student Brennan Jackson, “ranging in themes seen in print or film mediums such as fantasy (the Elder Scrolls series), science fiction (the Mass Effect series), historical fiction (the Assassin’s Creed series), the Western (Red Dead Redemption), apocalypse survival (The Last of Us), dystopian (the Deus Ex series), film [noir] (L.A. Noire), and more.”
Johnstone agrees that video games possess storytelling potential. “I think video games as much as anything can be a means of introducing people to and challenging people with certain ideas, certain ideologies,” he says. He affirms that they have a “valuable cultural role” and also points out the possibility of global engagement brought on by online gaming communities. “These days you’re potentially playing with people from different parts of the world,” he says. “You can have a really interesting communal experience, whether that’s through World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.”
Both Jackson and Johnstone speak to the value of choice and active engagement in gaming, which allows for a “more personal” storytelling experience. “I’d get invested in the story and I get to be a part of creating the story and playing the story out and seeing where it leads. You also get that satisfaction of success and achievement even if you die ten times trying to complete a certain level,” Johnstone says.
A case for escapism
It is likely that one of the main reasons that people enjoy playing video games is the chance to escape. “Personally, I’ve always seen it on the one hand as a nice way to tune the world out for a little bit and escape into another world and engage in a story,” Johnstone says.
This idea brings us back to the initial question of what art is good for. While we can defend stories for being educational, consoling, and capable of affecting political change, those arguments ignore the main reason why so many people buy into them: because they’re fun. As Mount puts it, “Art isn’t water; it’s wine.”
Mount is not alone in pushing back against the need to justify art’s purpose. “I think there’s value in the enjoyment of art for the joy, or really any emotion that one may fancy,” says Jackson. “It can be a mindless game, or a game where you may learn something about history, or deduction, or task management. But an art that makes time better is well worth the time spent.”
Jackson further defends the value of escapism and entertainment by comparing stories to food: “We may justify putting in time to have a great tasting meal, rather than a bland paste of the same nutritional value, both for the joy of cooking and/or for the pleasure of a savoury meal.”
Fantasy author Neil Gaiman questions, “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, with people you want to be with.” Johnstone agrees, “Escape gives us a chance to break free of [our] prison and it also challenges us with or gives us the opportunity to see things in a different way.”
While art and specifically literature certainly has the power to create positive changes in our society, there is also the opinion that it should not have to.
Why do we care?
Though some may argue against investing in art without tangible results, our desire for it has always been apparent. “In the very early stages of any society, the primary needs are food and shelter, but they still made art. You go in the caves, and they’ve got stuff scratched on the walls… The evidence is already in that art does matter. Even if we can’t say why, or how it matters, it clearly does matter,” Mount says.
As academics and general readers suggest, art’s impact includes offering comfort, providing pleasure, escape, igniting political or cultural movements, and much more — all of which are equally valid and equally possible across genres and forms. Students and professors alike emphasize that good readers know to seek a range of literature for a range of purposes.
Sharratt, when asked why we should choose to engage with fictions, says simply, “Do you enjoy the book? Read it. Does it give you some sense of nostalgia? Read it. Did you set it down 10 years ago and never pick it back up? Read it.” We should not, according to Sharratt, have to justify what we want to read; the desire alone is reason enough.
Whether we believe in stories because they’re fun, educational, or anything in between, their impact on us has always been felt. Avid readers often claim that the effect alone makes fiction valid, significant, and worth being seriously considered. “If the books move you,” says Mount, “what does it matter whether they’re real?”