A gradual education
I have a confession to make: I haven’t read much fantasy.
As a fantasy writer and a geek, this is my deepest shame. I can marathon fantasy movies, faithfully Tivo genre TV shows, and RP with friends as a hipster centaur until they’re sick of hearing my voice, but when it comes to reading, I don’t have that grounding in fantasy that seems to be prerequisite for my generation of geeks. There’s a shared language among fantasy readers, just as there is among mainstream YA readers or people who watch genre shows – a shared set of references and humor.
Earlier this year, I had the experience of walking into a Half-Price Books with two big fantasy readers – a friend from work and her little sister – and when they figured out just how little I’d read, they dragged me to the fantasy aisle and had a loud, reference-filled discussion over which books I most needed and why. It was like watching a Klingon debate team compete; I had no idea what they were talking about, but they were entertainingly passionate and a little scary.
When they turned to me and demanded, “What kinds of things do you like in a fantasy novel?” I jumped.
“Um…uh…” I stammered, scanning through my mental list of titles I’d actually read, “I guess I like humor? And…not sword and sorcery, generally? And I tend to gravitate toward young adult?”
My friend assessed me shrewdly, and I flashed back to my last doctor’s appointment. “Young adult fantasy section,” she said. “Diana Wynne Jones. Tamora Pierce. Othernames.” Her sister nodded.
“How did you get this far in life without reading all this?” she asked. I could tell she was thinking of the reason we were here at Half Price – the load of six hundred or so fantasy novels from my mom’s library that we’d packed up for her and brought here to sell.
“Well, I mean…” I sort of shrugged. “My mom’s a giant fantasy nerd, but she was always really territorial about it when I was growing up. Her library was off-limits to us kids. I can only think of two times she actually loaned me a book.” Mary Brown’s Pigs Don’t Fly But Dragons Do – an instant favorite – and the first Harry Potter book.
“That’s weird. Most geeky parents I know are psyched to get their kids into the books they like.”
“Yeah, it was…I dunno. It was like fantasy was her fandom, and she didn’t want to share it with her kids. And now, of course, she’s abandoned fantasy for romance novels, so the whole thing feels like a bit of a wash.”
“Weird,” she repeated.
“I didn’t think I actually liked fantasy until I was most of the way through high school.”
“Yeah, it was always my mom’s thing, y’know? And I didn’t want to be like her, so god forbid I like fantasy.” I laughed – awkwardly, because they were making faces like I’d just admitted to having been abandoned in the woods as a child. “I remember realizing at fifteen that I was writing a fantasy novel, and I called my friend Nastassja and freaked out at her over the phone, because OH NOES how could I write fantasy, I didn’t even like fantasy, and she had to talk me down from trashing the whole project.”
This was the first book in what I now call The Fantasy Series What Ate My Life. It lived on for several hundred more pages and went on to, well, eat my life.
My friend’s sister started pulling titles off the shelves and handing them to her. My friend looked over each, gave it a nod or a shake of her head depending on whether she thought I’d like it, and made me stick out my arms so she could start a pile of books for me. “In our family, we all read certain books so many times the binding fell out. I’ve got a copy of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci I could lend you – it doesn’t have a cover.”
“In my family, we all read different stuff. I read the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Nathan’s Run about a dozen times.”
Was that a pitying look?
“We did have The Prisoner of Azkaban,” I offered. “It was the only book everyone in my family owned. I read it aloud to my dad and brother when it came out, and then all of a sudden everyone had a copy. It’s still the only one of the Harry Potter books my dad owns.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t read more young adult fantasy when you got to college,” my friend said, looking over something with a cat on the cover.
I avoided her eyes. “I…didn’t really read much after high school.”
“You’re a writer!” she said, in a voice like she was admonishing a small child.
I winced. “I know! I know. I just never got that whole balancing act down between reading for class and reading for fun. And then college killed my will to read for fun and my reading speed, somehow, and I still haven’t recovered. I’ve been trying, though. I, um. I read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy last year!”
“It took me a month.”
Yep, that was definitely pity. “You need an education.”
“I don’t know if I have time for an education.” I frowned at the stack of a dozen or so hardcovers in my arms. “You know I’m not going to buy all these, right?”
“Oh, I won’t make you. I’m just making a list of things you need to read, for my own reference.”
Uh-oh. “Okay.” That stack of books felt illogically heavy in my hands. “I don’t think I’ll ever get through a whole childhood’s worth of these books.”
“No rush,” she said with a smile.
The next day at work, my friend brought in a stack of three books to loan me. One was her battered volume I of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, which almost fell apart in my hands. I crept through Charmed Lives but then devoured The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant, reading it while I was walking to and from work, sneaking a few paragraphs under my desk when no one was looking, and staying up way too late to read what was supposed to be “just one more chapter.” It felt like I was a kid again, reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by the glow of a street lamp shining in my window so my mom wouldn’t see a light on in my room after bedtime.
I haven’t read a lot since then, but I want to. There’s a whole shelf of unread novels on my bookcase and a grocery bag filled with must-reads pulled from my mom’s fantasy library before it was sold off – including the rest of the Chrestomanci series. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the sort of reader who reads voraciously enough to carry a book around with her wherever she goes, but I’d like to be. Taking suggested titles from friends is helping. Starting to keep books on the Nook app on my iPad is helping. Reviewing books here, I think, is helping.
I’m slow at this, and I’m trying not to feel bad about it. I do watch a lot of media in the genre that I write, and I have a small army of whip-smart, genre savvy beta readers and cheerleaders who will gladly whup me upside the head if I fall into a well-known trope that should’ve been part of my childhood fantasy education, so I don’t think my writing is suffering terribly for the lack. I’m trying to make up for it – I really am. But it’s not going to happen immediately.
Education is a life-long process, anyway, right? No rush.
(It took me about three months to work up the nerve to post this. Stupid reading guilt. But yesterday, debut YA author Natalie Whipple posted about being a writer who doesn’t read much, so I know it’s not just me.)