What I meant when I said that thing about american fantasy

In my first post, I invoked a term that I’m not sure actually means anything: American fantasy. Of course, I’m not talking about fantasy works written in America by American writers with American accents, eating barbecue. I am fully aware that these are real things, especially barbecue. This was, in fact, exactly the type of fantasy I was weaned on: American writers transmitting Tolkien through the lens of D&D. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were for all intents and purposes my childhood spirit guides, my d20 Jiminy Crickets, and they are still so very much in my head all the time. No, what I’m talking about is whether there exists an actual sub-genre of fantasy that is for America what Tolkien’s works, and their innumerable spawn, are for western Europe.

Immediately, a whole lot of disparate and somewhat dissatisfying things come to mind. I think of tall tales: Paul Bunyan and Babe, Johnny Appleseed and John Henry and animals whose names start with “Brer.” I think of Civil War ghost stories, and New Orleans voodoo, and the works of L. Frank Baum, and Disney’s Hall of Presidents. I think of the statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and Superman and Batman and Area 51. I think of the loose and fluid canon of modern urban legends, though these are hardly unique to America. I think, also, of the deep strata of folklore that belongs the people who lived here first, but I think it’s fair to question how much of that we non-Native types can really claim as part of our mythic heritage. The one thing I don’t think about is cats. I never, ever think about cats.

I started asking these questions after reading somewhere that Tolkien, in writing LOTR, was trying to create for England the kind of mythic epic that so many other nations had: the works of Homer; the NIBELUNGENLIED; THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH; the MAHABHARATA, and many others we all pretend to have read. Even if this isn’t completely true (the more common narrative being that Tolkien was mainly interested in creating a backdrop to support his crazy made-up languages), it’s a nice story, right? JRR sitting around thinking, “Hey, we’ve got as much crazy folkloric shit as anyone else.  We’ve elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards. We’ve got magical traditions dating back thousands of years, and superstitions, and a native spirituality, so why shouldn’t we have our own mythic narrative that ties it all together? Also, I came up with some languages I think you might like.”

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The only language I speak is BALLER.

I also mentioned Stephen King’s THE TALISMAN in my first post. Yes, because it is awesome, but more so because of the vast shadow it casts over my entire childhood. For the most part, this book can do no wrong, and I wouldn’t be the person I am if it hadn’t turned up under my eleventh Christmas tree. And I do think it is an American fantasy…but. I’m sorry, TALISMAN, but there is a but, and it is this: even when I was reading it at the willing and generally all-around easy-to-impress age of eleven, I was completely baffled by the fact that the Territories – the fantasy version of our America – looked, well, kind of like a big ol’ Renaissance Fair. There are queens living in pavilions, and little English market towns, and jerkins. There are jerkins, for God’s sake. The question I had then and still have now is: if we ever did have our own homegrown fantasy world, what would it look like?

Neil Gaiman gives us one answer in AMERICAN GODS, sort of, and it’s very appropriately grounded in the immigrant experience. An entirely valid position. America is the great melting pot (where, to steal from Tony Kushner, nothing really melts). It is defined by its lack of a single unifying culture, its lack of agreed-upon creation myths, its lack of, well, anything that isn’t endless plurality. Even many of the Appalachian folktales and songs I draw on so heavily in BACK ROADS KINGDOM have their origins in older Scotch-Irish traditions. But: everything comes from somewhere. We look at things as we receive them, as they appear in the form that the journey has given them, as they have been refitted and retrofitted and molded to suit the needs of whoever is telling the story. It seems to me that the journey of these stories through time and space is what makes them, in more ways than one, truly American.

Quick diversion: If there’s one thing I learned from this one class I took about this very topic in grad school, there’s a long history of Eurocentric snobbery in American culture. Prior to the early twentieth century, the American artistic and social elite was constantly looking back to western Europe – Paris, in particular – for the defining examples of all things qualified by the word fine. After all, those nations were hundreds of years old at that point, and we, in our youth, were terribly insecure from a cultural standpoint, and I mean, have you heard the latest Viennese waltz? That is some classy shit.

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Good Heavens, look what America’s wearing. How embarrassing for them.

American schools of art, writing and music struggled for respectability for the first century and a half of this nation’s formal history, and were constantly, annoyingly, being compared their European analogues. The pervasive, if flawed, narrative is that this all came to an end with Eugene O’Neill, and Hemingway, and Gershwin, and with them a rising and undeniable sense that now we had our own stuff and it was good stuff and dammit, we just won a world war, we deserve our own stuff.

Today, we’re constantly hearing the complaint that the fantasy genre is stuck in a European sword-and-sorcery rut. This is hardly to say that other cultural variants don’t exist or aren’t finding success, but I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that western European mythology is still THE well that everyone keeps going back to, and man, is it ever starting to feel tapped.

Long story short:

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Too late.

I am trying to write an American mythic fantasy. That’s what the BACK ROADS CYCLE is all about. And I think, somehow, all those disparate pop cultural and folkloric strands I mentioned are going to somehow find a home there. Even Batman (or someone a lot like him…someone for whom All Rights are not Reserved).

The irony for me is that I’m the furthest thing from a fist-pumping stars-and-spangles type. I was the type of kid who found it utterly creepy that my middle school mandated a morning Pledge of Allegiance, and as an adult I’m still wary of nationalism. Flags of all kinds still weird me out, and I think the world would be better without them. Military culture confuses me. I am still, in so many ways, an outsider in my own country. And yet, the older I get, the more I realize I have not only a deep fascination with America but a love for it.  A love, indeed, for all the principles that America professes to represent, and how these values make this place such an audacious experiment, maybe unique in all human history. I think I kind of love my homeland.

I don’t know if any of that adds up to patriotism, but I do know that it feels deeply serendipitous to me that I’m finishing and publishing this silly little novel of mine under the watchful stare of the Statue of Liberty. I mean that very literally: from where I sit in front of my computer, I can stick my head out my window and she is right there, just down the hill, standing in the harbor, making pretty much direct eye contact with me. It’s entirely possible that no one will ever read my book except my wife, my mom, and a handful of my closest friends. It is, nevertheless, truly, genuinely, unexpectedly important to me that I do right by her.

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I’m watching you, O’Neill…always watching…

Or, to put it another way,

cat drying himself

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