Yeah, wouldn't you like to know...
Anyway, the title is simplistic and deliberately deceptive to suck you in. But it's just a title, and now that you're here, let's see what we have.
This thing came about because I started watching episodes of the first season of Legend of the Seeker, which is based on Terry Goodkind's first fantasy novel, Wizard's First Rule. Remember a couple of blogs back? Yeah, that's where it came from. Everything's connected...
With most of my close friends not really 'into' fantasy at all or just reading it occasionally—to the extent that many of them wouldn't even look at my own novels, because they just can't relate to them—I naturally wonder what makes people relate or not-relate to any type of literature and, of course, my own 'relate-to', fantasy and sci-fi. And you'd think that after all these years I would have figured some of it out.
Well, I think I have, but most of this figuring-out had to do with general explanations of context imposed by upbringing and life and disposition and all that. Some people just relate to this and that and others don't.
But that's rather general, and I had a notion as I started watching LotS that maybe there are, at least for certain aspects of the fantasy and also the science fiction genre, more concrete explanations. This results in me drawing lines through those genres, and saying that those lines are actually important to understand certain parts of it. Those lines aren't ususally drawn, because 'genres' tend not to be divided up, but lumped together as one unit; which they seldom are.
Still, I am aware that even so I will be generalizing, but that's unavoidable. So, if you find a counterexample, do not jump up and down and tell me I'm wrong. Since we're dealing with human beings, there are always instances that don't seem to fit. (Notice that I said 'seem'.)
So, with all these preliminaries out of the way, here's the thesis:
The difference between people who habitually 'go for' fantasy and science-fiction—and especially for the kind of science fiction that is not 'hard' science fiction—and those who don't, is that the former have a much stronger need for the reinforcement of the notion that human limitations are not actually 'real, and that there is a definite possibility that there's so much 'more' to us than meets the eye or as revealed by everydayness.
I know, this doesn't sound very original—not to some anyway—and I'm not saying that it is! But I've considered this at some length and I think this particular reason is important for people's choice of fantasy over other kinds of literature.
The notion gained more strength as I considered those friends and acquaintances of mine who are not into SF&F, and how they are disposed. And there are those who do include only certain variants of the genre in their reading; particularly those that carry strong 'social' or ideological themes, usually on the left of the political spectrum. The correlations between these folks' characters and predilections and inclinations, the ways they look at the world and their belief systems and so on are pretty obvious.
There's obviously a pretty deep divide here between people. One can almost use this relate-to-fantasy-or-do-not as a criterion to map out the chasm and how they meander across the psyches of various individuals.
And the reasons why some of them occasionally break out of the mold, be it pro or con, are even more revealing; because it indicates what aspects of stories appeal and 'speak' to them, and which don't. There may be certain elements that make a fantasy so appealing to a non-fantasy person that they'll go for it anyway. Conversely, there may be others that turn even fantasy fans off. One review of Keaen, for example, berated it for being too much romance, and that apparently was a serious turnoff. The reviewer obviously saw it as a romance novel in fantasy drag. Others related to the book because of the romance, which was strong enough to allow them to ignore the fantasy, something that they ordinarily would not have related to.
Since I know what's in my books and what isn't—for usually the balance of romance, philosophy, action, fighting, adventure, traveloguing, world-building and so on is deliberately chosen; albeit, I admit, usually with intuition and not careful consideration, because that would be truly boring for me!—it's a fascinating exercise to note people's reactions or lack thereof. Many don't even seem to see the deliberately mystical element mixed into the science. I keep hinting at it, especially when I get to 'Sareens'—and, let's face it, the Tethys series started off with a definite 'fantasy' slant—but somehow when I talk to people about it, it's either flying somewhere under the radar of their perception, though it may still have an effect, or else it just whizzes right past them.
In a similar manner, the essence of 'fantasy' remains undiscovered by those who can't relate to it. It's not about 'escapism', as so many of its detractors would have it; and as they are wont to express, with often difficult-to-conceal snobbery emerging from ignorance and blindness. It's really about our sense that we are more than we fear we are. Of course, you could say the same thing about 'religious' literature; but it's different. Fantasy is, at its heart, pagan and a-monotheist. It speaks of hidden things lurking all around us and asserts that we, too, have many hidden dimensions that we might tap into, if only...
Yeah, 'if only'.
It might be useful to point out that fantasy readers are usually far more ready to accept that maybe science will one day—and maybe one day soon-ish—bring us discoveries about the world and ourselves that will in effect be indistinguishable from the magic of fantasy. After all, the 'magical powers' of fantasy, and its strange and impossible creatures and happenings, are just based on things that those practicing 'magic' know about, while the rest of the common ruck don't.
Fantasy is the literature of hope; of a hope that goes beyond mere "you, too, can realize your dreams, if only you try" and shit like that. Fantasy is about the human condition and its terrible limitations. It tends to admit freely just how 'terrible' and terrifying those limitations are for an intelligent, sentient, survival-oriented, emotion-capable creaure like ourselves; and especially ourselves. Yet at the same time it always shines a beacon of some sort into dark nooks and tells us that though we may feel terror, we also have the power not just to overcome the terror, but to become masters of our fate. And I mean truly to become masters; not just in some waffly metaphorical way.
I think that people who can't relate to fantasy—and I'm not talking about those who rightly turn up their noses at a lot of 'fantasy' shit that's produced out there in print and film and computer games; because that's a completely different matter—are people, who deep down either have no hope and are afraid to ever have hope that such things could be possible and that they and the world may be so much more than meets the eye or is encompassed by the powers of their impoverished imaginations.
I know that sounds harsh, and it is a generalization. But I wonder just how much 'generalizing' it really is...
One thing though I know for sure. Show me a cynic; or someone who appears to scoff at existence and anything that smacks in any way of the non-scientific or 'rational'. Or show me someone who fulfills the sentimentality-fear alluded to by Robert Solomon in In Defense of Sentimentality. Show me that person's collection of fiction books, DVDs, P2P downloads, audio-books, cinema tickets.
If that collection contains certain works of fantasy by certain authors, and if there's more than just a smattering of it, I'll tell you with utter certainty that s/he's a liar; and that the face s/he presents to the world and maybe him or herself is a mask, a disguise; that beyond it there lurks at least the desire for 'more'. And maybe more than just a desire. It could well be a burning and desperate hunger.