There’s an expectation that someone who reads from the Science Fiction & Fantasy section lacks maturity. They suffer from social anxiety and enjoys the not so occasional twinky. Because at the end of the day reading genre fiction demonstrates a complete lack of life acumen. Sound about right? It’s possible this is an American phenomenon and not something that’s shared worldwide, but I believe these assumptions are pervasive. There was a time I agreed with them.
When I turned 18 the law told me I was an adult. I still couldn’t buy beer which seemed more of a marker of adulthood than the right to vote or being able to give “consent”, yet I followed the advice set down in Corinthians (you know, from one of those books full of factual things):
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I taped up my books and stashed them in my parent’s garage. That box contained a lot of Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, and Raymond Feist. It may also have contained the first three books in the Sword of Truth series. I cannot confirm or deny these malicious rumors. If I was going to be an adult, I thought I should read like one.
What follows is no surprise: Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Albert Camus, Cormac McCarthy. etc. In hindsight, the only thing that’s more pathetic than a forty year old reading Runelords (come on, even fantasy readers can admit that’s pathetic, right?) is a 20 year old thinking he knows what the fuck he’s talking about because he reads from the Time 100 Novel List. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to keeping up with The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire in these intermittent years, but it was done with decorum (i.e. hidden with the porn). Somewhere along this road away from fantasy I became deeply enmeshed in historical fiction. From Shogun to Gates of Fire I began projecting my adolescent love of fantasy into a more socially acceptable medium.
It wasn’t until I was well out of school and into my late-twenties that I came across David Anthony Durham. He had written a trio of historical novels, the last of which told the story of the Roman victory over the Carthaginians. After finishing Pride of Carthage, I kept an eye out for Durham’s next novel. It was titled Acacia. The cover was tame, just a tree and a sunset sky. It could have been about botany – it wasn’t. Fantasy was back in my life to stay.
People ask me frequently why I read the things I do. I’m an open genre blogger in a work environment where preferred reading is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. What they’re really asking is how in God’s name did someone who reads fantasy get a woman that actually has sex with him often enough to bear children? I ask myself that same question although it has little to do with what I read and more to do with the fact that I haven’t successfully put dirty clothes in a hamper since I was seven. To the original question though, why do I read fantasy? Or maybe more importantly, why did I come back to it?
Reading, even the academic sort, is an escape from what’s going on around us. A Brad Meltzer novel, couched in American politics, is as much an escape from reality as Brandon Sanderon’s The Way of Kings. Trust me, politics isn’t as interesting as Meltzer makes it sound. So do I read to escape? Of course! However, it’s a mistake to presume that the desire for escapism is somehow exclusive, or heightened, among genre readers. An equally large mistake would be to presume that escapism is all fantasy has going for it.
I mentioned Acacia as the novel that brought me back. What’s so special about it? To anyone who’s read it, tropes abound. Noble children realize how crappy the world is outside their walls and they venture out to save it (Spectra wrote a slightly better summation). For someone who’d been in the desert of mainstream fiction for ten years it was a breath of fresh air. Beautifully imagined and full of texture it activated the part of my brain that had been so active in my youth, now fallen into disrepair. In spite of a straight forward and predictable narrative, I was invigorated. What made me really sit up and take notice though was the subtext – something I’d never noticed in my younger days. Behind the narrative there was a frank discussion on social class, duty, family, and fundamental morality. While in the moment Acacia felt special, I began to realize that it wasn’t Durham as much as the freedom fantasy offered him.
Let’s look at two Durham novels, his epic fantasy Acacia and his historical novel on slavery Walk Through Darkness. No one can read a novel on American slavery without attaching actual and true significance to what happened. But a novel about slavery set in a secondary world couched within an epic save-the-kingdom story arc? That’s something that I not only want to read, but something to which I attach no strings. As a fantasy reader I was freed from the restraints of what was real and allowed into a dialogue that was fearless and uninhibited about a subject matter that is anything but.
Coming back to fantasy, I realized that I could be party to larger thematic discussions without it being heavy handed and couched in social miasma. God’s War, and its sequel Infidel, written by Kameron Hurley, illustrate this point. Gender roles and faith, redemption and reparation, along with many war novels tropes, make up the majority of Hurley’s commentary. Take these themes in a modern work of fiction and we’re looking at something like The Kite Runner – a good, but very heavy handed novel that relies so much on our perception of the world that honesty seems precluded.
Not all fantasy does this. Some of it is exactly what it looks like – light entertainment, which strangely enough also describes the vast majority of the stuff filed under “fiction”. Unfortunately, some of the writers still resist being classified as such to the detriment of the genre as a whole. I’m reminded of the distinction between those who read fiction and those who insist it’s literature. As though all literature isn’t fiction and may God strike them down if childish fantasy be considered either.
When I came back to fantasy I found that instead of worrying about what literature should be, I now saw what it could be. As children we’re constantly urged to use our imagination and then when we turn some not-so-magical age we’re constantly urged to put it away. Be realistic. Stop dreaming. Do something meaningful. Why can’t imagination be meaningful? That’s why I came back – because it can and it is. May speculative fiction continue blowing preconceptions to kingdom come. Can someone pass me a twinky?