The Myth of REAL [noun]

“This isn’t real [noun]…”

My, does this come up a lot. Do any of the following sound familiar? “This isn’t real Star Trek.” “This isn’t real Battlestar Galactica.” “Vampire books aren’t real fantasy.” “This is a movie but not real cinema.”

This is all over the place. Science Fiction and Fantasy fans are deeply invested in their genres and in specific works, and this is not surprising: like other forms of art, SciFi and Fantasy show a window into humanity that can be wholly transformative. It is not hyperbole when fans speak of movies, books, and games that have changed their lives. These works showed them a vision of what humanity was, or is, or could be someday.

Where I think we as a community fall down is not in recognizing the uniqueness and power of these transformative moments, but in recognizing their inviolability. When you read life-changing literature, or see a movie or TV episode that resounds, or listen to a glorious piece of music, that moment is yours. Artistic media is not a finished product, it is the start of a dialogue. The creation of media is not the end of the process—it is only the first half. The audience creates the second half. You, reader, have finished the work in your own way by seeing it. Perhaps you didn’t like it, or perhaps you did; either way, it has changed you, and in a way, you have changed it.

We declare that we understand the work or the genre in a way that no one else can, which is true, and that we understand it in the single way it was meant to be understood, which is not true. (Even the creator of the work cannot know all of what it has meant, or will mean.) We believe that our vision is the only vision, and we become its champions, fiercely determined to protect it. We strive to describe the media to others in words that will capture the power of our own response to it.

And because we believe that we can change others’ minds, and influence their vision, we in turn believe that they can change ours. We believe, erroneously, that those who showcase a different lens, a different story, or a different mode of storytelling, somehow diminish the meaning we have derived from the same or other works. We believe that Twilight diminishes Dracula, or that 50 Shades of Grey diminishes literature in general, or that a Star Trek/Star Wars/Battlestar Galatica reboot retroactively ruins the original series. If we do not like dark/gritty/bubblegum/ sunshine-and-rainbows, we assume that those visions diminish the validity of our genre.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Maybe you don’t like vampire books or urban fantasy. Or high fantasy. Or genre fiction. Or horror movies. But, as with Roger Ebert’s now-famous assessment of videogames, we would be wrong to say that we are the final arbiters of what is or isn’t art, genre fiction, or “REAL [noun.]” Enjoy your media and your moment and your vision. Relive it. Discuss it. It is in sharing your vision as clearly as you can that you create those transformative moments for others, not in loudly proclaiming that something else is unworthy.
Don’t fear that your moment can be diminished by others enjoying media in a different way. Don’t tell us why X isn’t really _____. Tell us about something you liked instead. Share your vision.

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