Is This The Real Life? Why I Don’t Like Fantasy

fantasy-header

It comes to some shock when I say to my reader friends that I have a distinct dislike of fantasy fiction. As a reader and writer who is certainly a lot more comfortable dealing with plot-heavy genre fiction as opposed to more highbrow, high-concept literary work (that’s not to say I’m opposed to literary work; just not at the expense of plot, but that’s a whole other blogpost) my disdain and difficulty with fantasy may come as a shock.

High fantasy is where I struggle the most, and I know exactly which book it is that both, I think, set the example for the genres worst and compelled me to be hostile (and that’s being generous) toward fantasy on the whole to the point where now I don’t attempt it:

The Lord of the Rings.

I have one endearing memory of Lord of the Rings: an English class at secondary school where we had to bring in a book to read – a wonderful idea, in hindsight. But I brought in Lord of the Rings and I literally fell asleep reading it. Incidentally, I fell asleep watching the first two movie adaptations and never bothered with the third.

But The Lord of the Rings I feel is so archetypal of fantasy, especially high fantasy, and is so influential a work on that entire genre that I feel it’s hard to decouple a fantasy book from thoughts of it. And I find that subconscious comparison that’s always present does stunt and colour my suspension of disbelief toward fantasy books that, more often than not, I find I simply have no patience for them.

Let’s explore a few aspects of fantasy that do nothing for me.

Pacing and Plot

One of the major flaws I saw in The Lord of the Rings for a start is that the plot is glacial. Pages and pages of stuff is there but nothing happens. Tolkien has a gift for lush and detailed worldbuilding but it comes at the absolute expense of plot progress. Frank Herbert does this too in Dune, which reads less like a science-fiction novel and more of a fantasy; the plot moves like molasses and there seems to be a distinct focus on worldbuilding – it’s not done subtly but piled on to the degree that it leaves the reader confused – what details are important to retain now and which are mere backstory. And the pacing suffers, fatally. I prefer much more pacier narratives – that’s not to say that these pacey narratives have less depth than Lord of the Rings or Dune (which I actually consider a fantasy novel, not science-fiction).

I’ve also noticed that in some works I’ve attempted that the story just seems derivative and, ultimately, unworthy of my time, no matter the lusciousness of the characters or world. I was lent Twelve Kings of Sharakhai and I ended up abandoning the book roughly a third of the way in because it was unfolding in an extremely formulaic way – the book established the journey of vengeance the protagonist was embarking upon, and was doing some heavy worldbuilding but I found myself simply not caring to accompany the protagonist on the journey, figuring that, whatever happened, they were going to eventually get aforementioned vengeance and that was that. Yes, that may come across as extremely harsh but that assessment is a direct result of my longstanding antipathy toward the genre; I did not feel I was able to immerse myself in the world enough to allow my suspension of disbelief to fully take over.

Author Voice

Another major flaw I’ve experienced when approaching fantasy fiction – especially high-fantasy, toward which most of my ire is directed – is that writing a fantasy genre almost imbues the author to adopt an irritating, twee narrative voice which I feel merely gets in the way of comprehending the narrative, which is already a stretch given how I previously said how threadbare the plots seem to be, especially when poorly or glacially paced.

While I get that the authors want to tell the story from the perspective of a narrator immersed and emergent from the universe created therein, it gets old real fast. I recall the most egregious example of this that I recall reading being Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb which borders on the unreadable, hence I abandoned it. Is this a predilection of high fantasy especially? I’d say so; again, going back to archetypes of high fantasy, which are “beardy-weirdy” tales from a pseudo-medieval time period definitely subconsciously encourage this.

Does it always have to be this way? Again, I feel no – there’s books of a high fantasy bent that avoid this trap and therefore succeed a lot more with me – The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris being a surprising and refreshing example. I’d also say that this is truer of A Game of Thrones which I feel drops a lot of the narrative pretention.

And that’s what I feel it is a lot of the time – narrative pretention on the part of the author, who maybe feels they have something to prove when writing a very genre-heavy fantasy book. But that’s no excuse to baffle or bamboozle one’s readers with some of the purplest of purple prose.

Overwhelming Lore & Magic

The final aspect that I have noticed rubs me up the wrong way is the lore inherent in high fantasy books, especially those that attempt to convey entire new worlds different to our own, is that of lore overload. The Lord of the Rings was a prime example of this, as I touched on earlier – there’s so much lore, at expense of plot or pacing, I feel that it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s important and what is just backstory, and to drop huge chunks of lore in the middle of chapters ruins the pacing. But it also encumbers the reader with a lot of extraneous information they feel like they need to retain, and that’s at the expense of plot comprehension.

What I’ve noticed is that glutinous blobs of exposition are poor in any fiction, but to which high fantasy seems the most vulnerable and does to the excess. The Lord of the Rings is an example where I feel it is done extremely poorly; A Game of Thrones strikes a much better balance of imparting backstory, when appropriate and to appropriate levels – just mentioning some random character’s unseen half-nephew as an aside is no excuse to divert for the next twenty pages on an intricate study of bloodline that goes nowhere. It’s about proportion; reveal backstory in layers, not chunks and then it feels less like the novel is a textbook and the reader is expected to sit an A-level in the lore at its conclusion.

And that’s not to say that high-fantasy is the only genre to which this is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve experienced a fair few lore-heavy space operas that indulge in this, memorably Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and that heavy-handedness definitely gave me the impression that I was thoroughly confused.

One point about the lore in high fantasy which also comes to mind is the use of magic – something I generally feel is a narrative crutch and very unsatisfying, unless done correctly. Magic in fantasy should have clear and specific boundaries and limitations, otherwise why have a story with conflict, tension and jeopardy if a well-timed wave of a magic wand can solve the problem? It’s a deeply dissatisfying thing to experience when executed poorly and mishandled magic leads to many a deus ex machina. I recently experienced this with The Soul Drinkers Omnibus, which funnily enough is a science-fiction novel of the Warhammer series and it was a magical happening that broke the story for me – an all-too-convenient magical transformation in the nick of time to save a character in a fight… it broke my suspension of disbelief quite madly (I perhaps wasn’t well versed in the Chaos mythos but still, it was a poorly-written book anyway) to the point where I abandoned the book.

Now taking all that into account that’s not to say I’m averse to the elements of fantasy; I’m really not and I do have an interest in expanding into fantasy that doesn’t fall into traps I’ve outlined I feel are present. But I only have a certain amount of time for reading so I try to make sure I’m always reading well-written, pacey, plot-driven work that’s enjoyable. Everything I’ve outlined just spoils the enjoyment of books for me which is sad.

I recently re-read the first three Harry Potter books and mentioned this to friends while planning this post. They’re surprisingly-good books to read as an adult as there’s a whole layer of hidden depth that may not be apparent when reading as a child and that was a very pleasant surprise. But what do those books do well, as they’re unashamedly fantasy? My answer, considering what I’ve written above, can only be that they don’t fall into the traps I’ve outlined.

Now I have a ton on my reading plate but I am, on reflection from writing this post, feeling adventurous, so feel free to suggest some great fantasy to me – certainly eyeing up urban fantasy that’s a lot more contemporary!

Advertisements

Why I’m Not Setting a Goodreads Challenge in 2018

goodreads-logo-1024x576-7abf5bd8d98b9d10

After a pretty unimpressive year’s reading in 2017 I’ve decided that after two years of being an official participant, I won’t be setting myself a Goodreads goal for 2018.

This is not to say I don’t want to read lots of books this year – I do. But I feel the challenge makes it counterproductive, in my case anyway, and it does more to hinder than help me get more quality reading done, so it has to go.

What I’ve noticed most in 2017 is that my reading became two things: anxiety-inducing and very safe, and neither of these things are ideal in a reader, let alone one who wants to become a better writer on the back of that.

Constantly thinking about having to read – even if I didn’t really feel like I wanted to – just to “stay on track” really put me off my reading entirely. I will admit that I cheated toward the end of December, setting my goal back down from 40 to 30 books, which was a total fudge but my anxiety about this did get that bad to the point that I didn’t want to let myself or the system down.

But reading should be a joyous and enjoyable activity, not something that stresses me out or makes me anxious. I noticed that I was getting anxious not because I wasn’t reading, but because I wasn’t reading quickly enough for meeting, or taking days off that adversely impacted, an arbitrary goal.

Reading shouldn’t be reduced to that – and I’m sure my comprehension dropped as I was always… mindful that I was reading to tick another book off the challenge list. And reading shouldn’t be devolved to that level of mechanical feeling, it should be fun and enjoyable and sadly having this figure that I needed to achieve in the back of my mind drove me to not read at all. So I certainly wasn’t enjoying the feeling that I had to churn through books to tick off an arbitrary goal.

As a reader I consider myself more relaxed, but that’s not to say I’m not devoted. I want to give a story my full attention, which is why often I only really read in bed (either before or after sleep), on the couch at home or, funnily enough, on public transport. I can’t really read anywhere as I have to be comfortable; if that makes me a slow reader so be it. To see people finding themselves reading everywhere – not because they want to necessarily, but because they have to for their challenges – is something I can completely relate to. It’s not for me and it sucks the fun out of it!

I also found that I was actively searching out books that would be “easy” to read, and that led my reading to stay very safe, and that’s a shame as part of the fun of reading, and certainly something I want to challenge myself to break out of, is experimenting with books. There’s a fair few books I started in 2017 but couldn’t get on with, and those failures for sure didn’t help with the anxiety. I felt I had to read “safe” books I could breeze quickly through – again, making reading less a leisure activity and more a chore, which is the anthesis of what I want reading to be – just to make up. All in all… it lead to my reading in 2017 being quite disappointing and led to this decision.

That’s not to say I hate Goodreads; it’s a wonderful service that I will continue to use to catalogue my reading and keep track – I find the stats are something that do drive me forward to keep on – but I won’t be setting a formal goal for 2018. I’d rather just make sure I read plenty of books this year, I enjoy them, get something out of them and use them to further my craft.

Therefore I don’t look at not having a reading challenge this year as bad thing, I’m sure it helps a lot of readers push themselves (and, conversely, people have the same experience as I have) but for me it’s not something I will pursue! I’d rather make reading a totally fun pursuit once again, that I can fit in with my life a lot more without the anxiety and stress I was experiencing.

I will be keeping a more informal track of my reading progress throughout the year!

Further reading I discovered in the process of writing this post:

The Bad Side of Goodreads’ Reading Challenge – The Guardian

Why I’m Not Participating In The Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2015 – BookRiot

I’m saying ‘good riddance’ to my Goodreads Challenge – There Were Books Involved

How the Goodreads Reading Challenge Ruined Me as a Reader – Book Reviews & The Written Word

My Year in Reading – 2016

I was pretty impressed to have accomplished my Goodreads 2016 Reading Challenge, even managing to get a couple of extra books in before the year was through, bringing my total to 37 books. It’s definitely been a stellar year for my reading and this is something I’m proud of; I recall the oft-quoted maxim that a great writer is a great reader.

I decided a while ago that finishing this would be a great opportunity to reflect on some of the books I managed to get through this year, both the good and the bad!

Hall of Shame

twilight

Twilight: I was bemused and concerned to find Twilight on my university reading list and, to be honest, was, I suppose, morbidly intrigued to see if Twilight was quite as bad as it was. I was not disappointed. Bella is an awful, soulless character who is the epitome of a spoiled brat, and worse seems to exist only to live off Edward, who is himself a particularly manipulative, creepy menace. The stomping over the conventions that can make vampires quite chilling and frightening to pursue this romance yarn was the icing on the cake.

50_shades

Fifty Shades of Grey: This was pure morbid curiosity; if it was borne as Twilight fan-fiction, it must be the pits? To be honest, I did think it a tiny bit better than Twilight; some potential character development between both Ana and Christian, though her naivety (and its rapid disappearance) was a somewhat problematic. Again, though, it focuses the story upon the male character and the young, impressionable woman’s focus on him above all else. There’s little point analysing the literary merit of Fifty Shades of Grey as it exists as a means to an end. Oh, and the constant sex got pretty boring!

the_road

The Road: This was a surprise at the end of the year – I was expecting an exquisitely-crafted story of two characters in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Well, it was certainly a nightmare; the characters were unrelatable and, while they undertake a physical journey, their emotional journey doesn’t even begin – they’re as cold and distant to each other at the end as they were at the start, we the reader learn nothing about them (not even names), we learn very little about the disaster that has befallen the setting, or much about the setting at all. I found the format of the book extremely contrived – no chapters, very little punctuation, which made the scant dialog a chore. What portions there were, presumably to stand in as actual chapters, felt very under-developed, almost like shopping lists, which removed any atmosphere. A poor effort.

ancillary_justice

Ancillary Justice: This didn’t work out for me at all. The concept of a spaceship’s AI inhabiting numerous “ancillaries” and the journey of justice the last remaining one to discover the truth was potentially very interesting, but the cold and mechanical prose didn’t help the story. The protagonist was utterly unlikeable, and the lore impenetrable as the book wore on. The author, like with The Road, decided to experiment with the form and use female pronouns for every character, which was probably very noble but was something I found confusing and didn’t aid with picturing the characters, all of which seemed identical cut-outs, at all. A failed experiment.

Hall of Fame

Jurassic_Park

Jurassic Park: I’d easily put this book as one of my favourites to discover this year. It was approachable but detailed, and intensely thrilling the whole way through. I particularly enjoyed the dusting of plausible, realistic but also forward-looking science that was contained but also left approachable and not at all condescending. I’ve started pillaging the Crichton back catalogue after reading Jurassic Park and I continue to be impressed with his body of work. Jurassic Park was a fine example of Michael Crichton’s crisp, intense and exhilarating prose coupled with a clear affinity and knowledge of the subject matter. I’ve also read The Lost World and Airframe since finishing Jurassic Park and found them to be a continuation of this type of precise but enjoyable techno-thriller.

leviathan-wakes-james-sa-corey

Leviathan Wakes: It would be a bit glib to describe Leviathan Wakes as “Game of Thrones in space” but it does tick all the boxes that GoT does – here we have a compelling and epic drama involving some memorable and distinct characters primarily, but with a rich and detailed universe that doesn’t make itself known for the sake of it; rather it acts as a grounding for the drama. There’s a sense of the colossal scale of the politics and factions within the politics but at the heart of it is the crew of the Rocinante who get into all manner of scrapes that get more and more epic and exciting as the book (and series) progresses. I’m definitely glad I discovered this series and Leviathan Wakes is a strong opener.

The_Rats

The Rats: I recently started reading quite a few of James Herbert’s work, given as I enjoyed The Fog quite a bit last year. His work is definitely enjoyable and lacks the pretention and is humble, which makes it so approachable. The Rats was a truly horrific story, well executed and exciting and, as a sign of its success. Even though it’s over 40 years old, I still found it visceral, gruesome, gripping and pacey, which is a mark of success given how desensitised society has become since it was published in the 1970s. I also read Lair, the follow-up, which continues the story admirably; however, The Rats is definitely a book I enjoyed a ton and I just wish I’d read it sooner!

christine

Christine/Misery: Continuing the thought of “books I wish I’d read before”, I finally gave some Stephen King a go. I suppose I’ve kindof been ignoring King in the search for other, less archetypal writers but I was wrong – King’s books, of which I’ve read two, were gripping and uniquely crafted, but still thrilling and, honestly, scary! There’s some original plots too and I appreciated how atmospheric both the books, Christine and Misery have been, definitely giving a feeling of something not being quite as it seems or right. Look forward to exploring more of King’s work!

Overall I think 2016 was a pretty fantastic year for reading and I certainly don’t regret pouring so much time and effort into it; I definitely feel I’ve gotten something out of it. It’s proved a catalyst to do equally as well, and hopefully better, next year. And I hope, too, that I’ve gained some insight, potentially subconsciously, that I can use to great effect in my own work going forward!

Reconsidering Ender’s Game

I’ve pretty much finished the first year of my degree in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. I’ve mainly been concerning myself with the creative writing aspect but one aspect of the literature side of my studies has gotten me thinking.

About three years ago I wrote about how I would not be reading the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game because its author, Orson Scott Card, was extremely homophobic and espoused personal views I found quite disgusting. I didn’t want to be seen to endorse those views by reading his work or support him by purchasing it.

Early on in my degree I read a literary essay published in the 1960s, The Death of the Author; this was before 4PM Friday lectures sapped my enthusiasm for dry literary theory, and, considering the essay, I began to rethink my approach to Ender’s Game.

The gist of the essay is that the “author” is merely a conduit for “work” to be created from, and that we must not consider a work as a vehicle for the author’s views and political standpoints but in the context of other contemporary works that existed at the time of writing; a work is not a singular piece isolated from the rest of the world. The responsibility is on the reader more to take their own message from a work than to try to decode the author’s intentions.

This, on first glance, does not seem to bode well for creative writers but I would argue that it allows a lot more freedom for writers to not worry about being psychoanalysed after the fact through their work and, on a personal level for me, anyway, means that the author does not become one with their work, and both cannot really be judged by the merits (or otherwise) of the other. One of the main reservations I have about my writing is being judged by what the fictional characters I create do, as if they’re always a representation or reflection on some part of my own personality.

What does this mean for Ender’s Game? For all intents and purposes, I have heard it’s a stellar piece of military science fiction. The book tackles themes such as inclusiveness, friendship and identity. Whether Orson Scott Card believed in this personally is, in hindsight, irrelevant; he however brought together this piece of work and, putting my reservations aside – I feel I’m being unfair on the book if I shun it wholly due to its author being a d*ck – I look forward to objectively taking Ender’s Game for its own merits.

I feel I was almost there when, in 2013, I wrote:

A book should be criticised separately from the personality of its author, though the personality of its author should be instilled throughout its pages. But with Ender’s Game this whole issue the proverbial elephant in the room and the scale of it means it really can’t be ignored. 

I’m happy to have finally found a personal, tangible use for all the dry literary theory I’ve been studying. Oh, and to circumvent supporting Mr. Card? I borrowed it from my local library, which is probably a far better cause!