Fantasy Exists Badly: Creating a Centre for Fantasy in Glasgow

[This is the second blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first is here). It’s also the first guest blog post on The City of Lost Books. For that reason I’m delighted that it was written by one of our graduates, Marita Arvaniti, who will be beginning a PhD with us in September this year, on Fantasy in the Theatre. Marita raises some important issues here about the economics of academia, among other things…]

What does Fantasy do? What is Fantasy for?

Those were the two main questions that we were called to answer on Friday, May 10th, in a Kelvin Hall seminar room. We were scholars, young academics, students, writers, editors, and fans, brought together by the morning’s talks and coffee breaks and now ready to tackle the second part of the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic: the Discussion.

All of us were seated around impromptu cardboard tables (“Imagine a table”, suggested Rhys Williams as we struggled to balance the cardboard on our legs and arm rests, and we did), presented with big sheets of paper and markers, and asked to think and talk creatively about fantasy and the fantastic. It was important that everyone gets to talk, that everyone has a voice, but other than that we weren’t given any guidance. At the end of the talk I sneaked a look around the room to see the many different approaches people had taken to filling out their pieces of paper. Huge blocks of text and carefully bullet pointed lists all seemed miles away from my group’s haphazard collection of thoughts and ideas, thrown slapdashedly onto the page.

Our conversation started with a joke. According to our team the thing that fantasy both does and is for was “mental acrobatics”. But the joke soon took  on a life of its own as we started to realize its potential. Fantasy makes us perform mental acrobatics every time it presents us with an impossible situation, helping our mind think and move in ways that we are not used to in our everyday life. Fantasy exercises the imagination, makes us more flexible by presenting us with unimagined possibilities that attack the perceived realities of our world that are filled with inequality and hate. Fantasy is also playful: a genre, a mode that has inspired great parodies of itself and nurtured authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Even Tolkien, who protested silliness or buffoonery, has, we decided, ‘something of a B-movie quality about him,’ and where his imitators went wrong was in ignoring that.

In the end, my favourite view of Fantasy as we discussed it is the quote that gives this blog post its title: Fantasy exists badly. It exists as a joke, as a B-movie, as a formulaic sword and sorcery novel, as an all-white, all-male club. It also exists as the antithesis to itself, an oxymoron (I’m sure no other fantasy scholar has made that comment) that was able to provide the ground for the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Kushner, N. K. Jemisin, and Kai Ashante Wilson to thrive.

Fantasy exists badly. With that in mind we moved to the second issue we were called to discuss: What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do? And this, dear reader, is where this blogpost becomes less of a paean and more of a cry.

The sad truth is that the truth is sad, to paraphrase Lemony Snickett, and in this, as in all academic conversations I take part in these days, it all boiled down to this: more funding. Paid internships, paid positions in the University for Grad students and PhDs, paid initiatives that will help us all come together and create a centre for fantasy and the fantastic in this wonderful city that a lot of us desperately want to call home. Because the ideas were there. The will was there, driving us all forward to put down suggestions ranging from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from whimsical dreams of the university providing Rob Maslen with a group of (paid) flying monkeys à la the Wicked Witch of the West to serious requests for the one thing that’s not in our power to offer: more funding.

Fantasy academia relies heavily on the force of its cult status, kept alive by the love of people willing to give up their time freely and consistently. It is, for many of us, a passion made into a career, the official endorsement we needed to keep spending our time reading books about dragons, orogenes, witches, and fairies. Sadly, we’ll do it for free.

T

This is not to say that things aren’t changing. If anything, my writing of this blogpost and taking part in that wonderful conversation in Kelvin Hall proves it. Opportunities such as this amazing Symposium would have been impossible last year, perhaps unthinkable the year before that. But as a graduate of the MLitt Fantasy course who has to watch as some of my most brilliant classmates and friends received rejections despite their brilliant proposals, and deal with my own rejection and what that means for the future of my PhD, I am worried whether that change will come fast enough to help any of us, or whether we’ll do the job that’s in front of us for free, out of a passion that might sustain the mind but will definitely not pay the rent.

Fantasy exists badly and so, for the moment, does fantasy academia. But with this Symposium came an unmistakable hope for change, and a momentum that will drive us forward, if we let it.

Marita Arvaniti
Fantasy MLitt graduate

Fantasy at Glasgow: A History

Brian Froud

[Thanks to the astonishing Dimitra Fimi we had a magnificent Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic at the Kelvin Hall in early May. Speakers included Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams, Brian Attebery and Dale Knickerbocker, as well as Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press and writers, artists, academics and fantasy activists from across Scotland and beyond, all gathered together to think about what we might do with a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic here in Glasgow. Our keynote was the inspirational Terri Windling.

Here is the introductory talk I gave at the Symposium. More material from the event will be appearing on this blog in days to come. I hope these posts will give those of you who couldn’t come a sense of being part of the conversation; please join in if you feel so inclined. It won’t be ending any time soon!]

The imagination is the capacity to invoke in your mind the image or idea of something not actually present. The art of fantasy, for me, is the art of invoking the image or idea of something that never existed and never could exist. For it to be true fantasy, that denial of the possibility of the thing’s existence seems to me essential, otherwise fantasy becomes something else – religious faith, perhaps. At the same time, if it’s good fantasy it needs to make the impossible seem possible, breaking down to some extent, for a time, our understanding of the distinction between what’s true and what’s false, or between what’s reasonable and what’s clearly arrant nonsense. Fantasy is the art of lies breathed through silver, as C S Lewis put it – though he was thinking of myths at the time. It makes lies beautiful; it makes lies breathe; and that can be both a good thing and a danger to all who get caught up in it.

Annibale Carracci

What is possible changes over time, and differs between cultures. Cultures too change, making the past an alien country whose inhabitants found many things plausible which to us are completely absurd. It’s essential, then, to study fantasy historically. That’s been a driving force of my approach since I first got the chance to teach a Masters course in fantasy, as Visiting Professor at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, between January and April 2004. After that I came home and set up an Honours course at the University of Glasgow called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’. It proved at once that the appetite for fantasy was strong among undergraduates, at least; we’ve had to set a cap on numbers every year since it was founded.

Aristodemo Costoli

This appetite was noticed by my colleague Alice Jenkins, who urged me to think of setting up a Masters programme in fantasy. I was reluctant at first because of the cost in terms of workload. At the time I was the only member of staff in the English Department who admitted to an interest in fantasy on my webpage, so I would have to devise and deliver the programme more or less by myself. But I went ahead in 2015, encouraging my lovely colleagues in Creative Writing to offer a workshop suitable for Fantasy Masters students, picking out already established courses from across the university – such as the Children’s Literature courses offered by my good friends in the School of Education, Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell – as suitable options to sit alongside the two core courses I had put together.

Arthur Rackham

I also worked hard to set up events and bring speakers to the programme. Over the four years of the course’s existence these have included the following: Ben Smith and Jon Oliver, Head of Books and Commissioning Editor at Rebellion publishing. The authors Julie Bertagna, Hal Duncan, Kij Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, Christopher Priest, Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson and Neil Williamson. The academics Jennifer Attebery, Andrew Butler, Edward James, Will Slocombe and Anna Vaninskaya. Events have included two separate workshops with Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Terri Windling, under the rubric ‘Reimagining Fantasy’. An evening festival of music, light and dramatic performance, ‘Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland’, which involved around 50 volunteers – many of them past and present students from the Fantasy programme – and brought around 800 visitors to the Hunterian Museum. Our now annual GIFCon conference (Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, for those who don’t know), of which this year’s is the third instalment. And the appointment of Brian Attebery as the world’s first Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Fantasy (thanks for coming, Brian, and for speaking here today!).

Kinuko Y. Kraft

The numbers on our MLitt have been high for an Arts programme at that level; around 20 a year, over half of whom are international. Alice Jenkins, now our Head of School, has created two new posts in fantasy – the first such posts in history, I think – which brought us the talents and energies of two world-class scholars, Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi. And the programme has attracted interest from around the world, simply by virtue of being the only dedicated graduate fantasy programme in existence.

Shaun Tan

Has the time come to think of branching out? Of seeing how the art of the impossible enables us to understand the world differently? How might the impossible itself – the concept of what could never exist in the past or the present – point the way to new ways of seeing and doing things in the future? What, as Rhys is always asking us, are the affordances of fantasy?

François Schuiten

We’re meeting here today to think about the activities, the thinking and the research that might help us address these questions. And we’re also here to ask a follow-up question. What might a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do for us? What might we want it to do? We’d like to respond to these questions with your help, as representatives of many academic disciplines, many kinds of work in the world, many kinds of creativity. We’d like to begin the process of putting together what we’re calling a Manifesto for Fantasy and the Fantastic.

Welcome to Fantasy at Glasgow. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you at this symposium.

Gustave Doré