Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I Prefer to Read Fantasy

Reading thuRsday

Confession time: I tried to read a highly recommended contemporary young adult novel recently, but couldn't make it past the first few chapters. There were no problems with the characters, or plot, or writing. It's simply that it's a member of a class of novels that don't do much for me.


My glib answer is, "Because they're contemporary."

Let me try to explain.

In a contemporary story we, as readers, might have trouble with the choices characters make because we behaved differently when faced with similar experiences, while in a fantasy the rules are different and so it's harder to second guess the characters.

This objection is more subtle than characters simply doing things with which I don't agree: it's the sense that if they behaved a bit differently matters could be resolved without having to trudge through the whole book. For example, in this particular book and several others like it, much of the interaction takes place while the characters are hanging out. The story would be much shorter if one of the characters decided not to hang out any more.

On the heels of that observation came the thought that fantasy stories tend to have a lot less hanging out because the characters are trying to do something: get someplace, find something, unravel some mystery, etc.

But I think the heart of the matter is that contemporary stories are basically about making one's way in society--about finding friends and fitting in. Fantasy is almost never about fitting in, it's about being extraordinary.

I want to believe that all of us can be extraordinary in some way.

I realize that's a fantasy (and if the news has been particularly depressing, a wildly unrealistic one). But that's why I prefer stories that entertain the possibility that we might be wonderful over those that at best offer the hope that we might cope.

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying I have no appreciation for realistic stories. What I realized as I read the "well-written and highly-recommended" novel is that I have no interest in characters whose fundamental world view is that life is something to be put up with.

The only value in my generalization about fantastic vs. realistic stories is that there's no point inventing a new world if you want to tell stories about enduring life so those kinds of stories are rarely told as fantasies.

Fantastic or realistic, I like best stories that are fundamentally about engaging life and the world around you. 

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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