In 1973, the science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin gave a talk at the Pacific Northwest Library Association conference, which turned into an article "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" in PNLA Quarterly 38, Winter 1974 (unfortunately not online). The essay is collected in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Since we're in Harry Potter season, it seems appropriate to revisit the topic.
As you may know, the topic of "witchcraft" seems to have a thread running in American society from the days of Salem, including the strange idea (perhaps unique to a particular strand of American religion?) that books like Harry Potter are a bad influence. A thread strong enough for The Onion to satirise in the classic "Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children", which had enough of an impact to merit an entry in Snopes Urban Legends.
I was interested to see if this had also been the case over 30 years ago, but actually Le Guin's essay turns out to be a scathing critique of general American cultural conservatism - no mention is made of religion whatsoever. Well, she does connect to the Puritan work ethic, but not to the sort of fundamentalism behind some of the anti-Harry rhetoric in the US these days.
In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
"Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world."
Who speaks so? ... It is, I fear, the man in the street--the hardworking, over-thirty American male--the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profit-mindedness, and even our sexual mores.
To read War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings plainly is not "work"--you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as "educational" or "self-improvement," then, in the Puritan value system, it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. For pleasure is not a value, to the Puritan; on the contrary, it is a sin.
Equally, in the businessman's value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all.
Have these elements of American culture changed in the past thirty years? Or is it that capitalism, which must bring endless growth and at least the appearance of novelty, must eventually expand to encompass everything, every subculture? Or maybe it was Star Wars that gave it a push? Pulling in millions of dollars for a space opera in 1977 certainly would have gotten the attention of even the dullest businessman. But I think at most it became the case that it was more acceptable to use SF and fantasy to market to kids, not to adults. When did the real adult crossover start? When the Star Wars generation became adults?
It's clear that Harry Potter has been a major crossover success, to the point of having separate covers for adults. And the Lord of the Rings movies brought some wonderfully executed adult fantasy to the screen. Could the Lord of the Rings movies have had the same success in the 1970s? I know there was a phase of popularity coming out of the "hippie" days - was it the hippies that turned us all on to fantasy?
Did the return of Star Trek with the Next Generation in 1987 bring a ubiquitous presence to television science fiction? I know I can't switch a channel these days without coming across Trek or some other flavour of sci fi. Was it a cultural shift or was it just Paramount finding it can make piles of money?
With shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, with complex plots aimed directly at adults, are we in a new era? Or is it just that the market has fragmented into so many pieces that what would have been niche programming now has an acceptable fraction of the audience?
And has this acceptance of fantasy penetrated to the ruling class that Le Guin describes? I don't have any impression that it has.
I think that a great many American men have been taught... to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
Now I doubt that imagination can be suppressed. ... If it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. ... Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on television, or reading hack westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography... It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic--after all, sex exists, and there are criminals...and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn't interest most women.
Hmm, ego-centered wishful thinking taken seriously? Does that sound like any of the country-runners these days? CSI and porn seem to be going strong too. Has the culture just grown to encompass more options? Or is there a mainstream culture that is much more diverse, and a "serious old men" culture that is still clinging to a distaste for dragons? When was the last time a politician said they were reading a science fiction or fantasy book? But they have no problem saying they faithfully watch 24.
Have the geeks gone mainstream, or is the mainstream just so big and ill-defined now that everything is mainstream?
UPDATE 2007-07-16: I ran across this Washington Post article
More than half the adults in [the United States] won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade.
That statistic startles me, even though I hear it again and again. Whenever I confess to people who work for a living that I'm a book critic, I inevitably get the same response: "Imagine being able to sit around all day just reading novels!" Then they turn to each other and shake their heads, amazed that anything so effete should pass for a profession. (I can see it in their eyes: the little tufted pillow, the box of bonbons nearby.) "I don't read fiction," they say, suddenly serious. "I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Has reading Harry simply become a typical American mega-event, where participation in to some extent semi-mystical, the idea being that somehow being associated with a big success may cause some of success to rub off on you?
Are we moving into a Long Tail world, or is Harry a tail-less dragon that's eaten up all the casual readers?
Do the library patron trends support the assertion of the decline in fiction reading? (I work in a science library, so it's hard to know what the fiction trends are.)
UPDATE 2009-05-02 There's nothing like going right to the source: Ursula K. Le Guin tells me if Americans are Still Afraid of Dragons.