A Message From Team Catawampus
January 11, 2021
One of our favorite classes in grad school was Victorian literature with Dr. Jill Galvan. (WE LOVE YOU, JILL!) We read staples like Oscar Wilde and H. G. Wells, but we also talked about things like the Imperial Gothic, mesmerism, the New Woman debate, and so much more.
We also discussed Andrew Lang, who you probably know from his Blue Fairy Book and the rest of his series of fairy-tale collections. Jill had us read Lang’s much less famous but totally awesome essay called “Realism and Romance.” Basically, Lang was arguing that both realism (or fiction about things that could realistically happen in real life) and romance (or what we might call the fantastic now – improbable stories about adventure and magic) are important. That both modes are worth writing and reading because they both have so much to offer us.
This should be obvious, right? But there’s a long, snobby tradition in academia and elsewhere that insists that “romance” (or “genre” media like fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) is kinda trashy, less insightful, childish, and, ultimately, less worthy of being taken seriously.
Obviously, we reject this with every fiber of our being. We know, in our bones and in our brains, that fairy tales and fantastic literature matter profoundly, and that they’re just as capable of showing us real truths about the world as realism. And, frankly, we think that sometimes they can be even more effective at things like offering solace in times of upheaval and helping us imagine a possible, better future.
And we’re not alone. Ultimately, Lang agreed. His essay ends –
“One may be as much excited in trying to discover whom a married American lady is really in love with, as by the search for the Fire of Immortality in the heart of Africa. But if there is to be no modus vivendi, if the battle between the crocodile of Realism and the catawampus of Romance is to be fought out to the bitter end–why, in that Ragnaruk, I am on the side of the catawampus.”
We are also Team Catawampus. In fact, we believe this so profoundly that we made “Team Catawampus” t-shirts and wore them to class.
The thing is, “romance” (or fantasy or genre or whatever you want to call it) is not unmoored from reality. Folklore, and stories in general, are reflections of the culture that makes them, and literature is always rooted in the experiences and beliefs of the author and the culture they live in.
Lovers of the fantastic are often accused of escapism. People see the lasers and dragons and Angelina Jolie’s knife-edged fairy cheekbones, and they assume that they’ve entered la la land.
But Star Wars is about the rise and defeat of fascism. Holly Black’s books are about alienation, political intrigue, and trust. N.K. Jemisin’s books are about oppression, cultural conflict, and how places can become identities.
Good fantasy has something to say about reality.
Over the last four years, many narratives have become increasingly unmoored from reality. We’re not talking about books or films, but rumors and conspiracy theories. Lies.
These lies, and the people who wield them, are attempting to wrap reality to fit their fantasies. This culminated last week in violence, insurrection, and an attempted coup in our nation’s Capitol.
As literal doctors of fairy tales and fantasy, Team Catawampus is furious. We’ve been furious for years. We’re furious at the way that Norse iconography and pagan symbols are being co-opted by racist white supremecists. We’re enraged to see Confederate flags and other symbols of treason, hatred, and oppression in our Capitol. And we’re sickened to see pieces of old anti-semetic legends being recycled and rebranded by hate groups online.
Team Catawampus is pissed off.
Why are we telling you this?
Partially because we think it’s important to tell you where we stand. We’re a very small business, but we’re still a business. Our own inboxes are full of business-as-usual emails from companies, thought leaders, and influencers, and, frankly, it’s set our teeth on edge. We don’t want to be that email or blog post for you.
And partially because we think it’s important, from our position in the world of folklore and the fantastic, to push back HARD against the toxic rhetoric and actions that have been escalating. Fantasy has an (often well-deserved) reputation for white-washing stories and histories. Symbols and stories have been weaponized against marginalized groups (like what the Nazis did with the Grimms’ fairy tales). Folklore can be used to bring people together or to instigate hatred. So it’s our job to point out when these things happen and to find ways to fight back.
You can learn more about fantasy and empire in Maria Sachiko Cecire’s brilliant book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century.
You can read a book by a Black or POC author. Some of our recent favorites include Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, and Shveta Thakrar’s Star Daughter. Next up on our TBR list is Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead.
And, as always, you can confront lies, hate, racism, anti-Semitism, and more when you encounter it in the wild. For what it’s worth, neither of us are confrontational people at all, so we keep scripts in our back pockets. Our go-to’s are “that’s not true,” “that’s super racist,” “wow,” and “I can’t believe you said that out loud.”
Sending lots of love to you all during this difficult and scary time,
Yours in mischief and magic,
Sara and Brittany