|Gazelle by Brom|
As much as I enjoy fantasy I often feel I can't admit to it without being understood. Like a forty year-old man who says he 'really likes Miley Cyrus', it's an admission that carries unfortunate implications. It's one thing to be misunderstood by those who don't have a taste for Fantasy: they assume that I am a escapist with negligible taste, when in fact I find escapism terribly dull and have never struggled to defend my preference in books.
Yet it is not the uninitiated I fear: I fear to be misunderstood by those who like fantasy. When our proverbial forty year-old tells the average person of his appreciation for Miley, they think "this man's an unabashed pedophile", but when he shares this with the like-minded, they think "This man's an unabashed pedophile just like me!" It's this misplaced camaraderie which irks me, because I don't simply like fantasy, I have a deep and abiding passion for it. I read it, I try to write it, and I've fallen into the foolish trap of feeling quite seriously about it.
Imagine our forty year-old is the same: his interest has nothing to do with sex, instead he likes Miley because of her vocal timbre (bear with me), her idiomatic performance, and her bevvy of songwriters. He appreciates the way the executives carefully turned her into something polished, and can explain this to you using his knowledge of music theory, the industry, and the history of pop music. Now imagine he meets another grown man who really appreciates Miley. He opens with a commentary on the interesting drum sampling on her latest song, and the other man looks at him for a moment, uncomprehending, before asking if he's seen the .gif of her humping the stage in a vinyl suit.
Clearly, there is a disconnect here.
|The Dragon Summoner by DiTerlizzi|
Likewise, when I bring up Fantasy books with people who are compulsive readers of the genre, the conversation quickly and awkwardly diverges. I begin to mention the reinvention of the epic tradition--and the monomyth in particular--and the use of the more abstract pagan system of the Fairy Tale—and I get a blank look. Sometimes, the Blank Look.
I'd like to mention here that I do use terms like 'monomyth' and 'epic tradition'; sometimes I even use them unironically. I don't expect everyone to know them, and I'm always happy to talk definitions, but many people seem to find them threatening. Yet specialized terms were not invented to bewilder or belittle people, they were developed to facilitate communication and mutual understanding. Apparently, people got tired of having to say "you know that thing, where there's a Hero, and he gets The Call and seeks out The Mentor and then encounters the First Conflict, &c?" Don't blame the words just because some people use them as a shield or a weapon.
But most people I talk to about fantasy with don't want to talk about words--they'd would rather argue which orphaned loner with a psychic wolf is the most badass, and which magical powers could beat other magic powers. That's their escapism. They want something fun that will take them away from their lives. I want something that will make me more connected to my life and to the world, something that will challenge my mind and inspire me. I tried to escape from life once; it didn't last. What concerns me is that fantasy fans often advocate 'getting lost' in a book, by which they mean turning off your brain and just letting it all in. Not only is such mindlessness rather dull, I but I often worry about the things that might slip into our brains if we just leave them open and unprotected. A lot of fantasy books are full of misogyny, stupidity, bad writing, rape, pointless violence, fetish porn and worse things, like Libertarianism. That's stuff I'd think twice about before dumping it freely into my head.
|Rotfang by Brom|
A lot of fantasy readers I talk to seem worried about the influence I might have on them. Namely, they are afraid of being disillusioned. I mean, their illusions have worked perfectly fine so far, so why change them? Plus, having them torn away is always painful: it's a trial by fire, but that doesn't make it bad. Every time I saw one of my preconceptions melt away, I felt a sense of wonder--and also like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Every time I stopped liking a fantasy book I used to rave about, it wasn't because I grew too bitter or forgot how to have fun, it was because I read something that was so awesome that it made me see that those other books are just, generic shadows of what fantasy can be. Coming to understand and accept something new takes time, but it is also exciting and fulfilling in a way that escape can never be. It didn't draw me away from the scary world, it brought me closer to a world I no longer had reason to fear.
I certainly have plenty of illusions and blind spots left, and I know I'll always be uncovering new ways that I've been totally stupid for years, but each good book I read makes me stronger, more whole, more understanding. Books are not merely placeholders. Why do something if you come away from it no different than when you stated? But when I rush off and write a review about how "I really learned something about narrative structure from that book", and hear in response "Yeah! I really learned something about the range of a Uranium Dragon's breath weapon!", it's rather nonplussing on both ends, really.
Worse than that is that the discussion almost immediately lapses into a which books we like, which is dangerous ground. There's only one thing an escapists hates worse than hearing you didn't like his pet book, and that's hearing precisely why you didn't like it in concrete terms, as compared to other books you've read with similar qualities.They find especially frustrating when, despite their overwhelming passion for the book, they can't think of any arguments for why it's good. The best they can muster is usually 'I thought the characters were interesting and well-written'--and if they do say that, don't ask them 'why?'
|Elysium by DiTerlizzi|
For them, it's not about the why, it's about their personal experience; but if science has taught me anything, it's that only misguided egotists believe in their own personal experiences. If I can't explain my opinion, then I have waived the right to reasonably hold it. Unfortunately, that expectation feels rather unfair when I have a reason handy and my fellow conversant doesn't. It's a mean trick, really.
Likewise, it's hardly fair for me to include Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Storia Vera, The Thousand and One Nights, Orlando Furioso, and Paradise Lost in my discussions of fantasy. I mean, they are so long, and their language is complex and specialized. Some even take umbrage at my references to The Worm Ouroboros and The King of Elfland's Daughter. I'm sure people would feel the same about my inclusion of Mervyn Peake, if anyone knew who he was.
And here is the crux of why saying "I like fantasy" really fails to get my point across, because my idea of fantasy never seems to match with anyone else's idea: I include way too many books, and I like them for the wrong reasons, and I can explain those reasons (and I will, if threatened). I tried saying "I like Cultural Epics" a few times, but that was clearly a mistake.
So I stick with 'fantasy'.
"Yeah, I like fantasy."
"Me too! Have you read all of the Wheel of Time books?"
"Just the first one."
"Did you like it?"
"It was too long" (always a safe critique: they can just assume you are an illiterate idiot)
"Oh, I didn't think so. You should try again! What books do you like?"
"Oh, what's that about?"
"It's based on a manga about a magical girl and her pet bunny who's a demon."
"Oh, that sounds cool!"
Isn't that better? Now everyone's smiling.
But only one of us knows why.