I haven't seen Avatar, and I don't really intend to (at least not unless someone tells me something about the story or characters that piques my interest, which hasn't happened yet). But I'm finding the early critiques of it fascinating, so I've been browsing Avatar-related articles all afternoon. I've seen lots of arguments about the movie being an environmental allegory, a replay of the "white guilt" narrative, a metaphor for the Bush Administration (whut), and scads of other things.
And in a New York Times article that rounded up several of the arguments, I read this question:
Why do you think science-fiction and fantasy films like “Avatar” — not to mention “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “The Matrix” and many more — lend themselves to so many interpretations?
So I've been sitting here - a student of fiction, specifically genre fiction - flailing my arms and gnashing my teeth at the monitor, going, "Do you really not get it? This is how genre fiction works!"
Genre fiction lives in Ambiguous Metaphor Land. Genre fiction and metaphor are like YouTube and cat videos. Like Wisconsin and cheese products. Like Like Barney Stinson and "It's gonna be legen--wait for it--"
Metaphor is what genre fiction does best.
(Quick note: I use the phrase"genre fiction" to mean genre books, films, and anything that's both genre and fictional, because across mediums, the function is the same. Also, it's way quicker to write and I'm lazy.)
This is my big peeve as a genre writer. While a certain type of books get held up as capital-L Literary and a certain type of movies get the Oscar nod for their deep themes, by and large people tend to shrug off all genre fiction as "just a fantasy novel" or "just a space movie" and treat them like they have no deeper meaning.
When really, writing these kinds of stories is trickier than writing the typical Literary stuff, because you know what? It's all meaning. All of it. To write good genre fiction, your wizards or zombies or whateverthefuck have to stand in for bigger real-world things. You need the symbolism - if it's not there, you have to figure out a way to tweak your wizards or zombies or whateverthefuck so that someone will see them shambling through a mall and say, "Ah, I get it. Consumerism." And to write good and successful genre fiction, your wizards or zombies or whateverthefuck should be open-ended enough as symbols to stand in for more than one real-world thing.
This is the point at which I'd like you to think of a few of your favorite scifi or fantasy books, and consider how much research and world building went into those. On top of all this. This is why I think genre is trickier to write than literary fiction. Of course this doesn't hold true for every single novel - there are literary novels that take epic amounts of research and genre novels that don't - but by and large, if you're going to write a novel, you'll probably spend less time bowing to the gods of Google and sweet talking your local librarians if you choose to set your novel in Nebraska instead of a moon colony. And your Nebraska novel is less likely to be called "mindless escapism" if it doesn't pull double-duty as a metaphor for issues of colonization.
Maybe this is the English major in me speaking, but the best stories are the ones that you can read on multiple levels: I can enjoy Lord of the Rings, for example, on the level of Damn Good Story, but I can also enjoy picking it apart as a critique of industrialism, a lesson on friendship, a sexual metaphor (it's in there!), and so many other things. Don't get me wrong, I love me some mindless escapism - especially during a hard semester - but the stories that stick with me? They're all layered like this.
Good genre fiction sticks around not just because of memorable worlds and characters but because it means something. Many somethings. It starts conversations. It makes you see an issue in a new light. It opens a box full of questions about real life, dumps them out on the table in front of you, and says, "Take what you need." The best genre fiction does this without its audience noticing until they've finished the story.
Because we need to ask questions. And sometimes the real world is too dense and angry and politically charged a place to ask them, so we do it through aliens. Or wizards. Or whateverthefuck. That's what genre fiction exists for.
That, and mindless escapism. Sometimes.