Death and Fantasy

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 90s 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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Death and Fantasy — 12 Comments

  1. Maybe we are getting down to the Goal of Fiction level. What is the goal of the piece? If it is to create tension, angst, and the resultant character development that leads to plot movement, then necessarily there must be pain and stress. And given this, then death is a sensible tool to judiciously apply.
    If the goal is different — how passive can we make the heroine before her pulse stops? Can the hero spend 409 pages experiencing angst that is only existential? — then death is clearly inappropriate.
    I personally am a big fan of the fear of death. The only topper I have found for it if you want character growth is the fear of damnation. But to find a character who fears Hell more than death takes some doing.

  2. This probably doesn’t help either your or Banks argument, but I kept thinking about Sir Terry Pratchett’s work. Characters not only die, but Death keeps showing up as a character.

    • I was thinking of Pratchett too – less of Death as the character but more in some of the Witches interactions with him. Where they talk about standing watch on the boundaries and the profound understanding of the impact of death.

  3. Has anyone done an anthology where Death is a character? I know I’ve done one short story where the only way to cheat Death is to become Death.

    • There are several novels in which Death is a character. (And several YAs in which Death is a cute young man who falls in love with the heroine . . .)

    • I don’t know of any anthologies revolving around Death, but it would be a great subject for one. If you decide to edit one, I have a reprint for you ;-). It’s called “The First Condition of Immortality” and it’s in Conscientious Inconsistencies. Someone please tell Mr. Banks that it is indeed fantasy and it’s all about death and the fear of same.

    • Not to mention Markus Zusak, who incorporated the character of Death into his Book Thief, a work that is neither fantasy nor sf…

  4. I wonder whether the distinction he’s going for is the one I found between Bridge to Terebithia and Martin the Warrior in 4th grade. In fantasy, death can be noble, tragic, unexpected, undeserved, or even cheered and it can advance the plot. In literary fiction it tends to aim to be a fist the comes out of nowhere and punches you right in the face. One of these is more accurate to our everyday experiences, but I can’t say I don’t wildly prefer the other. 🙂

    • I’m not sure I’m seeing that distinction very clearly: death is death, isn’t it?

      Isn’t the tragic, unexpected and undeserved death in fantasy really the same as the fist-out-of-nowhere-that-punches-you-in-the-face death of literary fiction?

      And doesn’t either serve to advance the plot, among other things?

      I’m actually trying desperately to identify off-hand a single fantasy/sf work that doesn’t in some way incorporate death. Methinks Mr. Banks is just displaying a wee bit of (dare I say somewhat misinformed?) genre snobbery.

  5. Considering my cover artist is putting my heroine on the next cover where she first has a long conversation with Death, and my current nighttime reading is Soul Music by Pratchett, I find this man’s knowledge of fantasy to be shallow at best.

    Perhaps readers of fantasy have different questions to ask to and about death…

  6. I love this. I just killed beaucoup people … I wouldn’t necessarily say my characters are classic “heroes” and “heroines.” They are by my standards, but then unlike individuals like Russell Banks, I’ve actually lived, been responsible for others’ well-being and livelihood, been a leader, dealt with large sums of money, etc. Almost been killed, too. Also been in a number of violent confrontations. And I know many people, both rich and poor and have been both myself. It would be nice to just be able to fall asleep while reading. But I think maybe 24 hours of that type of living and I’d like to go back to my usual 18 hour days.