Friday, February 6, 2009

When I stopped reading fantasy novels

Yesterday we were down at the alternative comic shop, where they have a back room full of used sf/fantasy paperbacks, and I got to pondering the question of why I stopped reading fantasy novels. Now, I don't believe in privileging certain modes of fiction as more or less "real" than others, or think they're better or worse because of that. "Realistic fiction" is really just as fantastic. But apart from the Harry Potter books and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I haven't read any outright fantasy in years.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, some of my big favorites back in my fantasy-reading days were the Darkover series, the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, C.L. Moore's "Jirel of Joiry" stories, Robert E. Howard, and early Tanith Lee.

In retrospect, I think may drifting away was clearly a case of "it's not you, it's me." And of course, I don't draw any conclusions about any other fantasy readers based on my particular situation. But I suspect a lot of the attraction of fantasy novels, for me, was rooted in a specific form of escapism: I was at the stage in life where I was desperate to escape the limited confines of my small-town existence. The realm of fantasy allowed me a particularly imaginative metaphorical means to ponder that escape, because it was all about mysterious and interesting things that took place out there, somewhere, in worlds and societies that were very different from my own, but similar too. Within these overtly metaphorical places, fantasy narratives explored the possibilities and also the dangers of life somewhere obviously different from my everyday reality.

Because this context helped nurture my interest, I think my perspective changed when my context changed. I moved away from the small town and left the everyday world I'd always known, and entered an alien reality, in the "real world." There I'd quickly discover that things were hard in ways I never imagined (in addition to the ways I already knew about). Escaping to a different world was, for several years, going to keep me busy enough, and the difficulties I encountered made me look back at my earlier metaphorical notions as silly and childish.

Added hindsight makes me see how unfair that was, but that's the sort of thing many people do when they're young and trying to figure things out.

In addition, by leaving my early environment, I suddenly had more access to all the stuff from the "real world" that I'd been denied. So I could study the British Romantics and the French Surrealists, and Jung's big, weird books on alchemy, all of which took time and mental energy that I'd once lavished on the overtly fanciful. And by now, my standards for fiction have gotten pretty high, and I can't be as tolerant as I once was of things that aren't that well written, just because I like the world in which they're set. (Why I don't have that problem with bad movies is a question for another day).

Sometimes, though, I have to say, I miss the ability to sit down and lose myself in a fantasy novel. There was a sort of -- dare I say -- innocence, in my approach to reading and in fact to life, when I was full of hope about the possibility of a more interesting world. Losing the ability to sit down and enjoy a Marion Zimmer Bradley novel seems like part of the process of becoming jaded.

So I bought a couple of cheap DAW paperbacks, in the hope that I can dejade, at least a little bit. We'll see.

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