Suspension of Disbelief

Slipstream, horror and fantasy are genres which thrill, astound and invigorate the reader. This is because they fulfil the same function as mythology. Fantasy, slipstream and horror writers and filmmakers are the new Homers, Ovids, Virgils and Shakespeares.

I’m fascinated by why some people reject fantasy as something merely ‘for the kids’, as if adults aren’t allowed to have imaginations. This has been emphasised by the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. I’ve enjoyed all the books and films, but they’re not the greatest stories ever told, and it’s frustrating when adults read them, enjoy them, but then refuse to go on and read better examples of fantasy or slipstream. Those people need to try Michael Moorcock, Graham Joyce, China Mieville, Jeff Noon, Neil Gaiman ….

Poet and opium addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” in his Biographia Literaria in1817. This concept is an important one for our culture that for some ungodly reason still celebrates realism over imagination. Adults need to retain their imaginations and be willing to be creative or take a risk in their reading or movie/television watching. If you have the imagination to ‘go along’ with an author or director – take that leap of faith into something original and uncertain – then you will be rewarded with something challenging; mentally and emotionally stimulating; perhaps even spiritually inspiring; and ultimately more satisfactory than the usual naturalistic, soap opera, kitchen-sink dross.

Coleridge also defined ‘Imagination’ as a god-like act of creation. He was talking about the genius of romantic poets such as Wordsworth, but we can also be sub-creators when we read fantasy. Tolkien wrote of the creation of ‘Secondary Worlds’ that comes from Enchantment. This enchantment for fairy tales is NOT just for children. In fact, as Tolkien famously argued: “Fantasy is not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent”. Fantasy brings with it a joy and a sense of wonder and requires an active, creative reader. And we must never be ashamed of fantasy: for enjoying monster/horror movies or for reading comics. Instead we should celebrate the imagination.

And so fantasy, horror and sf  fans continue to proudly celebrate all forms of imagination, whether it is myth, romance, gothic, decadent, supernatural, surreal, horror, science fiction, sword and sorcery, magic realism, slipstream or some new form. We should support the small specialist publishers such as the UK’s Eibonvale Press and Tartarus Press, and the small magazines that produce excellent slipstream and horror fiction, such as ‘Estronomicon’, ‘Twisted Tongue’ and ‘Midnight Street’. We must continue to direct people to great fantasy literature, from our heritage through the ‘classics’ of Morris, Lindsey, Lovecraft et al to great living writers like Jonathan Carrol, Graham Joyce and Jeffrey Ford.

Fantasy is not an escape from the world – just another way of looking at it. Life is spiritual and emotional; full of dreams and desires; and it is sometimes unpredictably strange or cruel. Salman Rushdie expressed it perfectly in an interview about the stage production of Midnight’s Children at the RSC, when he explained lucidly that, “I think of fantasy as a method of producing intensified images of reality”.

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2 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, especially on the ‘fantasy is for kids’ front. How is reading a book on dragonslayers, etc, any more or less ‘for children’ than reading about catching a serial killer (i.e. realistic fic)? It isn’t like the average reader is ever in either situation!

    I read an interest book called The Philosophy of Horror, written by Noel Carroll if I remember correctly, and it had an entire chapter on the Suspension of Disbelief. Very interesting stuff- it also had a section on the natural tendency to be drawn to that which you know cannot exist, even if it frightens/confuses you. It’s worth checking out, if you haven’t already!

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  2. Thanks for that Alex. That book sounds intriguing – I’ll certainly check it out. I think some adults are too scared to use their imaginations – or to acknowledge that imaginative/fantastical art is as valid and important as so-called ‘realistic’ art. Their loss, I suppose.

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