Gene Wolfe on the realism of fantasy

In an interview in Clarkesworld, Gene Wolfe was asked why his fantasy seemed ‘much truer to reality, truer to what we humans experience in this life than most of what passes for realistic, mainstream fiction’. His reply:

Because fantasy is nearer the truth, that’s all. Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He’s cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever’s handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?



  1. I’ve seen a claim that the naturalistic novel about a professor committing adultery has never been seen in the wild. Does anyone have any examples handy?

    • I don’t know of any examples of this as a novel, because even by the attenuated standards of the Realist Literati, that’s a painfully thin story to stretch out to book length. However, examples are fairly frequent in both film and short fiction. Dave Wolverton offers Il Postino and Sophie’s Choice as examples (though in those cases the protagonists were not actually academics). He also claims that short stories of this general pattern were disturbingly frequent in The New Yorker in the 1980s.

      I myself only once attempted to read a short story in The New Yorker, and it was so utterly tedious that I never repeated the experiment. I do not now recall the story, but it did indeed feature a middle-aged academic nebbish, and while I don’t think he committed adultery, he did go to a meaningless cocktail party and then angst afterwards about how he had wasted his life. I consider that close enough to the template; beyond that I am prepared to trust the reports of Messrs. Wolverton and Wolfe and other people listed way down in the W’s.

      Mr. Wolverton calls this subgenre ‘Manhattan Angst’; the film equivalent is distinguished chiefly by being set in picturesque locations, to draw in filmgoers who wouldn’t care to see dreary stories set in Manhattan. But it’s all the same studge, and it’s all pretty filboid.

    • Maybe it’s a worn-out genre now, but I pretty much gave up on literary fiction in the 80s precisely because I’d read one too many of what I called “the Hampstead Adultery novel”, where nice, university-educated, professional middle-class/upper middle-class English people (and yes, I mean English not British; Scots and Welsh writers may have had their own tics but they didn’t write this kind of thing) living in nice, middle-class areas of London and the Home Counties had mid-life crises, usually involving the husband having an affair with a student, younger colleague, or his secretary and the wife either leaving him to Find Herself, or having an affair of her own, or having an affair, then leaving him.

      It’s unfair to single out Penelope Lively, but her Booker Prize winning novel of 1984, According to Mark, is a sample of the type of thing I mean; reading the synopsis, I’m fairly sure I read the novel, but if you asked me before I looked it up, I couldn’t have told you whether or not I did. But you see the kind of thing – nice professional middle-class couple; husband is vaguely involved in academia (he’s a biographer); he ends up having a half-hearted affair with a younger woman, which is neatly resolved when she conveniently falls in love with another man (and so will not be making any messy demands about leaving his wife) and he goes back to his nice professional middle-class life with a minor triumph at the end and no consequences – or no anything, it would seem, not even the moral that ‘exploiting young women sexually in order to mine them for access to people and assets you hope to use is wrong’.

      If the phrase had existed at the time, I would have scoffed “First World Problems!” as I tossed the book from me 🙂

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