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3 September 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 3:55am

Watch: Terry Pratchett, A S Byatt and Terry Eagleton on fantasy, fiction and desire

What can fantasy tell us about the ways in which we perceive reality? Terry Pratchett, A S Byatt and Terry Eagleton discuss fantasy as a vast and powerful mode of thought.

By New Statesman

Fantasy is often seen as existing outside higher culture, with little to contribute to our lives. It is considered by many as little more than throwaway entertainment, but is this an error? Might our creation of fantasies be central to how we perceive the world, and even gesture towards the limits of our understanding?

Booker Prize-winning author A S Byatt has drawn heavily on fantasy, sci-fi and myth in her fiction and essays, writing that “fantasy is something we can’t do without. It is an essential aspect of reality.”

Sharing Byatt’s view of fantasy as “a way of thinking about things”, Terry Pratchett believes “fantasy makes a new world from which we can see this one” while acknowledging that “it can be dangerous”. Pratchett has sold over 85 million fantasy novels around the world, and is loved by adults and children alike.

Terry Eagleton is not only a Pratchett fan but also this country’s foremost literary theorist and critic. A Marxist thinker, he is opposed to the notion that the left has always favoured realist fiction, highlighting the prominence of fantasy and utopianism at historical moments when societies have most needed to imagine new ways of operating.

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But are their fantasies the same? Can they agree on what the essential point of fantasy is, or where the distinction lies between fantasy and fiction – and reality?

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In this debate above chaired by journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart, held at this year’s How The Light Gets In festival at Hay, these three brilliant thinkers ask why it is we crave fantastical worlds. They ponder what makes good fantasy writing. Does it provide writers and readers with incomparable freedom, they ask, or does liberty from the logic of the “real world” simply mean new rules must be invented and followed?

Byatt compares the “truth” of fiction with historical and scientific truths, while Pratchett examines the transformation of science fiction into science fact, and the pattern of news stories informing fantasy writing. Eagleton explores the Freudian necessity of fantasy and fiction in our perception of the world, claiming that they are economically woven into our society.

Patrick Driver