By heavens, the entire blog-o-verse has been ON FIRE with discussion of my reading habits and I didn’t even realise until just now!
Well, perhaps I’m being a touch over-dramatic (what, me?) Not the entire blog-o-verse, just a couple of bits of it. And not really on fire, just smouldering very slightly. And not really MY reading habits, David Bilsborough’s.
But my name has been mentioned, and it’s been a while since I offended anyone with my ignorance on genre issues, so I thought I’d try and flog a few more copies of my books for kindling. There are a few discussions around relating to the question of – “should writers of fantasy also be readers of fantasy? Or perhaps even fans of fantasy?” The story so far…
I think we can agree that if David Bilsborough’s aim was to win friends in the internet fantasy community then his comments were misjudged. I have a feeling that might not have been his aim. I actually have a kind of wierd respect for his loopy honesty. A bit like the respect one might feel watching a man set his head on fire for a laugh. Anyway, for better or worse, I am one of these writers of fantasy who say they don’t really read much fantasy (these days, at least), and so can’t help feeling implicated in the debate. I thought I’d take a run at explaining what I’ve read, why I don’t read fantasy now, and why, furthermore, I don’t think it’s that important that I should. I’m not offended. I’m not on some kind of self-justifying rant. That’s just so not me. I’m just exploring the issues. Some background then…
Am I a fantasy fan? I guess it all depends on your definition. Certainly, as a kid I was hugely into Tolkien and read the Lord of the Rings every year. I loved Wizard of Earthsea too, some Lloyd Alexander, some Michael Moorcock. As well as a whole load of other fiction, poetry, and blah, blah, blah. I was massively into dice-based RPGs as a boy and a pasty youth with dodgy hair, read White Dwarf a lot, devoured vast quantities of supplements for such games, wrote a few adventures of my own – D&D;, MERP, and Warhammer mostly (still rate the Warhammer world and campaigns very highly). I read a lot of fantasy in the 80s as well, though now I realise it was mostly of a pretty commercial epic-fantasy-series type: Eddings, Dragonlance, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Summer Tree, Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World, and many more I’ve forgotten, I’m sure, as well as a fair bit of classic sci-fi from my Dad’s collection with the groovy 70s covers. But more literary stuff like Vance, Leiber, Gene Wolfe and so on I was totally unaware of the existence of, if I’m honest. I don’t feel I was part of fandom, as it were, no community, to speak of, to turn me on to things, apart from the five or six guys I played RPGs with, who were about as clueless of the broad field of fantasy as me, I guess.
Some time around 20 I pretty much stopped reading fantasy. Moved away from home and the old RPG group went their separate ways. No huge decision to cast it aside in disgust – in fact I never stopped turning over some of my own ideas for an epic fantasy that would eventually become the germs of The First Law – but I just got into other things. Street Fighter II, mainly. In the seven or eight years following, up to the point I started seriously trying to write my own stuff, the only fantasy I read was Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (the first three books, at that time), which had a pretty strong effect on me, as I’ve mentioned before. I got much more into reading non-fiction, history in particular, as well as still a whole range of general fiction from classics to contemporary stuff.
Now, once I was getting near finishing a first draft of my first book, it did occur to me that it might be a good idea to get a vague sense of the state of the market. So I asked, in one of those bookshops they used to have, about what was big in fantasy these days, and I got given: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (read the first three, nice enough, but my world was not rocked), R.A. Salvatore’s The Demon Awakens (didn’t work for me), and Steven Erikson’s Memories of Ice (realised it was half way through a series, resolved to get the first one, got totally sidetracked as always). I must confess that, when going through the process of gathering rejections, I did worry that my stuff might be a bit too dark, a bit too off-beat, a bit too violent and sweary for the market. Unbeknownst to me, since Martin the market had shifted to leave me firmly in the commercial middle ground. Since being published, I have of course taken some interest in what else is out there. I’ve read a few things my publisher have passed my way. I’ve peered into a fair few others to get a notion of the kind of styles some folks are writing in, but it’s a fact I can’t deny that I don’t read much fantasy these days. I’m not proud of it, that’s true, but I’m not ashamed either.
I guess the bottom line is that I’m relatively well-versed in fantasy of a certain rather limited type and a certain rather limited era, but I’m by no means steeped in the broad sweep of the genre. I’m sure some fantasy readers would look at the influences I’ve spoken of and say, “wow, that stuff’s all really old and, like, kinda … hokey.” To that I can only shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the proof’s in the pudding, and my pudding is FRAKKING ACE” [warning – depends on who you ask, actual pudding may differ from pudding advertised].
Or perhaps I would shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the genre may be packed with interesting, adult work of the last dozen years and, indeed, before. But one can’t pretend that it isn’t still bestrid by Tolkien in the popular consciousness, more than ever since the films. Plus everyone’s still well aware of all that old stuff even if they’re pretending no one does it any more, and on the borders of the genre and beyond, popular culture is still riddled with a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy involving elves, dwarves, magic swords, and etc. which is further reinforced by millions and millions and millions of people playing fantasy MMORPGs which (often) are based on a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy.”
Or I might shrug and say, “there’s still loads of folks for whom fantasy stopped in 1989 and just want David Eddings with much bitchier characters occasionally shitting themselves. I fill that hole.” So am I fan of fantasy? Certainly there’s a lot I love about the genre, and it all depends on your definition, but there seems to be a bit of an implication of unquestioning love about the word ‘fan’, of blindness to any shortcoming or chance of development, maybe? I recently read a bit of an interview with Jacqueline Carey that I could literally have written myself, if I was a better writer:
“For my part, I grew up reading fantasy and loving the sheer escapism and the sense of wonder it evoked; and yet, as I grew older, I found myself craving fantasy that was a little more grounded in plausible reality, a little m
ore visceral, possessed of a bit more intellectual substance and an adult emotional sensibility. I wanted work that made me think and feel in addition to entertaining me. I suspect that’s true of others, too. Like many writers, I write the books I want to read. Thankfully, it seems there’s a large audience that feels the same way that we do.”
It certainly do. Where was I? Ah, yes.
Part of the problem I have with the whole notion of being “a fan of the genre,” or having “contempt for the genre,” or “a rejection of the genre itself,” is that implicit in the phrases seems to be the idea that fantasy is a huge homogenous blob that you’re either for or against, and that there’s a sharp line between us, defending fortress fantasy to the death, and them, in the dangerous mainstream. “Do not cross the fence after dark, my boy, there be dragons. They hate us out there beyond the fence. Stay here in the village, and marry your sister. Stay here forever.” I’m grandstanding of course, but, you know, is this your first time here? I see that there’s sometimes a value in simplifying, saying a reader, or a writer, or a book is one thing or the other, but I’m just not sure the world is really like that. I would imagine that pretty much everyone who reads at all will have read some fantasy at some point – Tolkien or Lewis, Rowling or Pullman, if we can count those last two as fantasy since things are much hazier in YA land. Similarly there will be many readers who dip into the fantastic here or there, or did at one time but have got out of the habit, or never used to but do now. Not fans, per se, just, you know, readers. Furthermore, even those (I think relatively few) who would consider themselves die-hard fans and read little else will all have different tastes and profiles of reading. Some might dig new wierd. Some might hate it but love epic with a passion. Some might like the paranormal romance, with the crop tops and the back tattoos. Or ye olde schoole classicks of ye genre. Pass me another Dunsany, my boy, this one’s gone out. My point is, there’s no fixed profile for what qualifies you as in or out, as knowing enough or not. No one’s read everything. For my part as a writer, I’ll take every reader I can get without prejudice. Die hard epic fantasy fan? You’re in. Read Dragonlance once? You’re in too. I’m here by mistake, can’t read? Pull up a chair.
Where was I again? Ah yes.
So why don’t I read much fantasy now? Well, you may be horrified to learn that I don’t read that much at all these days, and what I do read is mostly non-fiction, because a lot of the time I used to spend reading – train journeys, morning commutes and so on – I now spend writing, or at least revising my own work. I find reading fiction can be a bit distracting from the writing, and that’s especially true of my own genre – other people’s work draws me in a certain direction, dilutes my own voice a bit, and since I’ve constantly got deadlines I don’t want to miss I lack downtime where I might catch up with this or that. Purely my personal experience. But mostly I don’t read fantasy just because, well, I kind of like what I’ve produced with the ingredients I’ve already got, and don’t particularly feel the need to change the formula. Maybe in time I will, but at the moment, for why? It’s also worth noting that there are all kinds of places you can find ideas outside of books. TV and film are full of great writing. Computer games less so, but plenty of ideas still. And then there’s, you know, life. Nothing wrong with adding a sprinkling of newer, edgier stuff from outside a genre or even a given medium to the tried and tested classics within it to produce the familiar with a twist. In fact I’d argue that approach can lead to some of the most impressive work. Not mine, of course. But Unforgiven, anyone? James Ellroy? Tarantino?
Ultimately, there are as many approaches to writing fantasy (or anything else) as there are authors. Everyone’s going to have their own balance of influences, books and otherwise, their own styles and voices, themes and concerns. Many writers of fantasy are most definitely big fans – GRRM and Scott Lynch spring to mind from my own experience – but still very clearly have their own approach. Others aren’t necessarily fans. My perception is that Richard Morgan, for example, has an approach to fantasy not dissimilar to mine – a range of fantasy influences from way back when accompanied by a whole battery of his own concerns and style refined in writing SF. It hasn’t stopped him writing what I think is a very original and interesting fantasy novel. I guess my point is you can be a fan and write derivative shit or brilliantly original magic with a unique voice. You can be more of an outsider and effortlessly fuse the familiar with ingenious outside influences, or, again, write derivative shit. To be fair, that’s what most people polled seem to say on this issue. The proof is all in the pudding. I guess my feeling would be similar to the one I have towards worldbuilding. My taste, as a writer, is toward a light hand on the world, but this being (supposedly) the genre of infinite ideas, there is ample room for other approaches, and god bless those who do the opposite well.
There does seem to be a frequently expressed opinion that you need to read a certain amount within the genre so you know the form, and avoid repeating the already overdone, and I can see where they’re coming from, but to me that seems to miss the fundamental point that the first feature of a good writer is that they should have some individuality of voice, style, approach that is unique to them, and that renders any character or situation, be they ne’er so hackneyed, new and interesting (at least for some readers, nothing works for everyone, you know). Others seem to feel a more personal sense of slight, that not reading their genre somehow constitutes an offence. Perhaps I’m straw-manning now, but as far as somehow having contempt for the genre goes, the implication that by not reading it religiously you’re somehow standing sneering to one side or whining at the letterbox of the mainstream to be let in, well, if I hated epic fantasies it would have been a pretty strange decision to spend three years of my life writing one with no guarantee I’d ever make a single penny out of it.
Take that, you straw bastard! Now who’s tough?