Friday, June 29, 2012

Why I Do Not Read Fantasy

Having read this insightful post from Dave Cesarano, from about 17 months ago, I find myself puzzling over the question, why is it I do not read fantasy literature.  Because I don't.  Last year, I read through some R.E. Howard, and was struck - as I am always struck when I read books from my youth - with how truly juvenile it is.  While the praises falleth like gentle rain, I admit that I do not decry the stories; they were instrumental in my intellectual construction.  I would not want to live in a world where they did not exist.  That said, I'll probably never read them again.

I will certainly never read Tolkein again.  The Ring, the Hobbit, the Simarillion - I'm done with it.  Except for the Hobbit, reading the rest was more like an academic project than a thing done for joy.  I've read the Hobbit twice (once aloud to my daughter), and I've read the Lord of the Rings once.  It took six stabs at it to get through the entire book, and in the two tries I've made since, I got bored and quit.  That's eight altogether ... about the same number of times I've read Thucydides' Peloponnesian War cover-to-cover.

I've read the Simirillion twice, cover-to-cover ... for anyone who's read Tacitus or Livy, the 'Sim' is a cakewalk.  Alas, Tolkein for all his 'greatness' is but a patch upon Herodotus, whom he clearly tried to emulate - the result is something like comparing Edward Albee to Shakespeare.  There's certainly cleverness in the former, but it just doesn't - well, it just doesn't.

Not that anyone reads Herodotus, mind.  Both Tolkein and Albee are accessible.

I'm not fundamentally opposed to present-day fantasy.  I don't care that its scatological or violent or pornographic.  I don't care that its loaded with nihilism or depressive images.  If you're going to promote the reading of Camus, you can hardly take a position against themes which develop nihilism.  There is no subject matter and no character that does not have its place in the ongoing discussion that is art ... and anyone who takes a position that this theme, or that theme, is unworthy of a novel is a fool.  Not merely wrong, and not merely misguided - but a figure of such complete ignorance as to warrant pity.  One gives like pity to the drunk on the morning sidewalk railing at commuters on their way to work.  The drunk is so utterly out of the mainstream of life, pity is the only emotion one can feel.

Thus my distaste for fantasy does not stem from its theme.  Much of it is badly written, but I've no doubt much of it is written well - perhaps as well as anything I've read, though I confess that I wouldn't know which author to point at.  I am simply not driven to investigate the matter, a drive I lost from the experiences I had when once I did care to open a cover or two.

I think, honestly, it has more to do with the place I am than with the writing.  I simply don't "fantasize" that way.  The attempts I've made now and then - including the ill-fated abortion I began last year - to write fantasy suffers the same lack of interest as reading it.  I am not tuned to investigate supernatural phenomena thematically.  It brings me no messages of clarity or methodology; it does not inspire me to live my life differently; it offers no insight into other human beings with its prism.  It offers all that a dead horse on the side of the road might offer.  The flies are intriguing; the shape of the horse in its mortality compels the eye; the smell both offends and activates the senses; one is driven to look, and one is driven to turn away.  The shock may induce vomiting; it may induce realization that life or beauty is transient.  In the end, however, it is only a dead horse.  There are ten million horses in the country that are alive, and all ten million will one day be dead.  The presence of this horse at this time is not very significant.  The corpse cannot instruct me how better to see myself in terms of my longer span of life; it cannot aid me in negotiations with my daughter or my life partner; it cannot solve the nagging problem that remains in chapter 29 of my book.  It is there, and real, and of interest to someone, but my feeling is rather that I had walked from my origin to my destination without it being there.

At the end of the day, I cannot point to a single fantasy novel, from Dante's trilogy and Milton's Paradise Lost, up through Baum, Barrie and Lewis, without feeling that they've ceased to influence me.  Perhaps, possibly, my mind remaining open, I will stumble across something written in the fantasy genre that will leave me a different person upon exit than I was upon entry.  In the meantime I shall rely upon some unread novel by Fitzgerald or Eliot to manage that metamorphosis.  I shall save fantasy for when I enact its presence in the shape of the god I play while dungeon mastering.  It seems better suited for that medium.


Wilson Theodoro said...

This is one of your best posts ever. Actually, I miss your other blog.

JB said...

Huh. You and I have similar takes on fantasy literature, especially regarding Tolkien.

Though I also enjoyed Tacitus.
; )

JDJarvis said...

With the odd exception I generally enjoy science ficition to fantasy, actual science ficition not simply fantasy wrapped in starships and robots, most of the reading I really enjoyy classifies as non-ficition. I stll however enjoy fantasy gaming that isn't too far removed from faux-Howard, wayward Burroughs, or simulated Tolkien. Imerssion in one media need not drag one through another.

Fil Kearney said...

I think I can relate. Fiction in general isn't answering the questions I have... when I read it is for knowledge, not fun. Reading is a tool for my own enlightenment.

Having said that, I will also note that I get bored real fast of almost all video and computer games. I so prefer true Role Playing Games because the solutions I find to challenges rarely can be executed in a game. The puzzle solving and character interaction can only be duplicated in person-to-person interaction.