Death and Fantasy

This post was originally published at Bookview Cafe in 2014.

There’s been a ripple of dismay in the fantasy and SF corner of the fiction-verse over an interview with Russell Banks in The New York Times Book Review from last Sunday.  The whole piece is interesting (a person who cannot read in bed, or on trains, planes, or buses without falling “instantly to sleep” is so directly opposite to me and my reading habits as to be intriguing) but the subhead on the piece explains the kerfuffle:

The author, most recently, of “A Permanent Member of the Family”steers clear of any book described as fantasy, “which to me says, ‘Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.’ ”

Because a writer who says his favorite genre is Literary Fiction might be dabbling in irony or hyperbole, I have to ask: how does Banks mean that?  That the Death of medieval lays, who comes and chats with virtuous young women and manly warriors, makes no appearance on?  That Neil Gaiman’s spiky-haired member of the Endless does not have a walk-on?  Perhaps Banks is under the impression that the whole genre of Fantasy is devoted to stories in which Death takes a holiday, or in which immortality has been achieved (that would more likely be SF than fantasy, but now I’m just being persnickety).

Perhaps he means that people don’t die in the course of a fantasy.  To which I can only say “hello.  Game of Thrones? The Hunger Games?”  But perhaps he’s not talking about body count. Within the body of the article Banks cites Thomas Pyncheon, who “says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.”

Where to begin.

There is, of course, fantasy (and SF, and romance, and westerns, etc.) in which no one dies.  There’s literary fiction in which no one dies, too, so perhaps what Mr. Banks is thinking of is the sense of jeopardy, that niggling back-of-the-brain certainty we all live with, that sooner or later that falling piano or head cold is gonna get us. I imagine it’s much easier to go out swinging an axe and taking down orcs if you don’t believe that you could wind up on the wrong end of the transaction.  Indeed, one of the things I take perverse pleasure in, when writing a fight scene, is my protagonist getting past the dread that comes with the knowledge that this might be the time she’s not going to make it. My belief is that even the greatest warriors must feel this, and part of their warrior-virtue is being able to back-burner it and just do what is needful to survive. So heroic fiction in which there really isn’t the real possibility of death is robbed of a significant amount of heroism.

There’s also SF and fantasy (assume from this point on that I’m adding in all other genres here) in which everyone dies except the leads–the Red Shirt phenomenon beloved of TV.  In  the episodic TV I grew up on, you could be morally certain that the hero wasn’t going to die because, well, it was his show.  That started to change in the 80s or earlier (maybe with the episode of M*A*S*H in which Henry Blake died), sometimes as a way of dealing with a cast member who was leaving, and nowadays the possibility of a major cast member dying is always with us.  And yes, I’ve moved over into TV; I don’t know Russell Banks’s views on TV; perhaps he loves America’s Next Top Model?  But TV is a medium where, these days, a character can be dead and then alive again: Bobby Ewing, Buffy, Agent Coulson, the whole cast of Supernatural. This has an honorable literary background: I for one am dying to know how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes survives that fall off the roof….

Back to books, though. Perhaps Banks is not interested in heroic death. Perhaps the presence of Death he’s talking about is more like that in Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne gets so ill that her life is despaired of, and we see reserved, dutiful Elinor completely overwhelmed by the thought of such loss.  But there are fantasies in which death has occurred, is occurring, where the balance of life and death trembles back and forth tortuously. There are writers who seem to specialize in killing women, or killing children, as a way of drawing the audience in; for my money that’s cheap and cynical. and not the “presence of Death” Banks is talking about.  Again, in my own writing, I’m constantly aware that I can’t be any kinder to my characters than  God, the Fates, the odds, what have you, would be–but I’m also aware that just killing people for the sake of “authenticity” is cheating.

In the end, it’s hard for me not to dismiss Banks’s characterization of fantasy as coming out of ignorance of the “I say it’s spinach and I say to Hell with it” variety.  Because death shows up in fantasy in many guises, sometimes only as a walk-on, sometimes as a character, sometimes just as a distant murmur: timor mortis conturbat me, even in fantasy..

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