I hope that one day I will such a level of popularity that I also enjoy the corresponding dislike of large groups of people. Before I earn such distinction, I would do well to grow a thicker skin. Should I achieve such a level of popularity, I hope it will be as a result of my writing and my novels in particular. Amongst literary fan clubs, it seems there are two types of fans that align with their corresponding peers. For simplicity I will call one group those who enjoy escapist fiction which consists of cheap or trite plot lines and characters and who’s novels command a wide distribution. These works are often immensely popular and will remain at eye level on store shelves for a few years until the next fad novel comes along. The other category I refer to as literary fiction. This latter category may not sell as feverishly as the former but the influence of the books will often be felt in future generations. Though they may not receive bestseller placement, large book retailers will keep these books on their shelves for many decades and school’s will incorporate them into the curriculum well past their expiration date.
I used to gravitate toward escapist fiction. As a typical American caught in the trap of a semi-fulfilling career, I needed the escape from the monotony of making a living. As Orwell said in Coming Up For Air, “like everyone else I was fighting for a job, and then I’d got a job and the job had got me.”My heart wasn’t in my job and, rather than find a place for both to coexist, I escaped from real life in exciting but forgettable novels. The escape was valuable, in its way, but it had its a sinister side: this kind of writing gave me only the tool to escape real life while I engaged with the text. What it did not offer was inspiration. Nothing in the narrative or dialogue elevated my internal dialogue nor did it challenge me to re-engage with my own life’s trajectory having some momentum of my own to alter it. Having limited experience with drugs, even with alcohol, I imagine the escape as I might the effects of an intoxicant in that I began to need it to cope with life. There was nothing in escapist reading that improved my life, rather it only provided a brief reprieve from it.
In 2014, when my life-long faith crumbled before me, I needed to rebuild everything in my paradigm regarding the world and my place within it. Suddenly—almost overnight—escapist fiction lost its savor. I was primarily a fan of epic fantasy fiction up to this point. Since my faith transition, I would and still do pick up recommended titles in the genre with some excitement. Rarely will the writing entice me beyond the first chapter. If it does, I almost always find my interest fizzle by the third chapter. Those which I have completed are largely forgettable, and I have always had an uncanny knack for remembering what I read.
One of the first fictional works that I read after my loss of faith was George Orwell’s 1984. I have wondered if reading a master work like 1984 could be to blame for my dissatisfaction with fiction since. However, having known many people who have read Orwell’s seminal novel and largely forgotten it (and seem utterly unaffected by it) I am reasonably confident that the change that occurred within me is the culprit. Other works of literary fiction I have since enjoyed include:
The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger by Albert Camus;
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse;
Coming Up for Air and Burmese Days by George Orwell;
Silence by Shūsaku Endō;
and, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t read any escapist fiction in seven years. As I peruse my Goodreads bookshelf, I can see that I have read quite a few. Such as it is, and to my point, I don’t remember many of them. And I have read what many consider to be contemporary classics that I am neither fond of nor do I remember much about them. As an example, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I remember almost nothing about that book. While Andy Weirs, The Martian, remains one of my favorite reads of the last decade. Bestsellers, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky and 11/22/63 by Stephen King were not only entertaining but poignant for me. (King’s, The Gunslinger, absolutely crossed the lines between page-turning escapsim and literature for me.)I can remember my excitement reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Black Widow by Daniel Silva. What I can’t remember is anything else about them. Each author, whether I remember it or not, created an exciting narrative and compelling plot. They wrote well and I have no regret in reading their work (except The Alchemist—that’s a few hours I’ll never get back). But too many of them are entirely forgettable to me.
A few years ago I came across a sub-Reddit for my favorite non-Tolkien fantasy author, Patrick Rothfuss. Posts often involved redditors postulating their theories and attempting to second-guess the content of the long-awaited third installment in the Kingkiller Chronicle. Many asked for clarification of some plot-line they found confusing. Others tried to point out plot holes or inconsistencies (as if that redditor was capable of holding together a fictional narrative without mistake for over six-hundred-thousand words). A few complained about the author’s delay in releasing book three with many angrily vowing to abandon the series completely. Somehow, they were personally wronged by the author for having to wait. Escapist fiction is a hell-of-a-drug!
I see that I am not nearly the fan that so many others are. I made one post in the sub-Reddit simply to offer a chuckle to other redditors. A news article regarding the presence of fecal bacteria being often present in beards seemed apropos to the sub, considering Rothfuss’s famously expansive, wizard-like beard. I believe I titled the post, “Oh No, Pat! Say it Ain’t So!” I admit that the entire post was silly and, aside from evoking a chuckle here and there, entirely without merit. Not expecting to procure a great deal of karma, when I went back to Reddit the following day, I wasn’t surprised not to find much. What I did find amongst the few comments, were a small but very vocal constituency of fans who were offended by the jest. While they may simply have been socially inept with the corresponding lack of a sense of humor, they expressed their offense on behalf of Mr. Rothfuss that anyone would suggest something so vile.
I’m not a member of that sub-Reddit any longer. While I enjoy diving into the books, I can no longer see the point in devoting so much of my mental acuity to the nuances of a fictional world. Outliers notwithstanding, many fans of elaborate fictional worlds seem to know even the most minute of details in the lives of minor characters, the book’s great wars, and the world’s strange magics. But could these same acolytes tell you the first thing about the elected leader of their country, wars past and present, or how the economy works in the actual world they inhabit?For the majority, I think it unlikely. I would still take the over under on a person who reads being better informed about those things than a typical Nascar or NBA fan. But they are symptoms of a similar drug addiction. Avoidance of the painful and ever-present real world.
The difference between fans of escapist and literary fiction seem to me to be that literature forces us to confront the absurdity of the real world. It challenges us to confront our social and cultural norms. Though one could read East of Eden without reconsidering their concept of what morality is, it requires a magical capacity for mental and emotional lethargy to do so. This is why literary novels—though each has its ardent naysayers—more often inspires conversation over hero worship. Perhaps it is because many of the authors are dead already. Or, maybe it is precisely because the readers of it are thoughtful and trying to confront the real world rather than simply endure it.
There exists a latent and even blatant nihilism in fantasy. The worlds are make-believe and, even if they offer some metaphorical parallel to real life, the problems created and problems solved involve magical intervention.
Some works of fantasy fiction have transcended my seemingly strident definition of literature. And they are books that I love. The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. The Chronicles of Narnia. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. While Chronicles is a blatant allegory of Judeo-Christian mythology, it borrows that mythology from even more ancient tropes of Egyptian and Greek mythology. Tolkien famously decried the author’s oppressive tendency to apply allegory to his work, believing that it claimed too much influence over the reader. He preferred, “application,” which left power in the hands of the reader. We may argue whether or not Tolkien succeeded in maintaining an indifference to the mythologies and religious traditions with which he was raised and educated. Within Tolkien’s magical and whimsical world, any reader may step in and ask what they would do if faced with similar odds.
One of my favorite series of fantasy is Robin Hobb’s, The Farseer Trilogy. For me, the tale of FitzChivalry was utterly enjoyable. Hobb managed to craft a lengthy, first-person narrative better than anyone I had read before and, perhaps, since. Two decades later, I still remember many of the high and low points. Yet, I never remember wondering how I would behave if I were in the shoes of any character. How I interact with my own world and my conceptualization of morality, good and evil, remained unaffected. I was supremely entertained, but I was not inspired.
Fantasy’s less verbosely obese cousin, science fiction, is, by nature, far more prescient. It takes place in a world the author envisions growing out of our own. How could it not have direct implications for society? I read far less of this genre. But what I have read, in addition to being escapist, tends to stick with me on a deeper level than most fantasy. (Why don’t I read more of it?) In sophomore english class, my teacher elected to expose us to the books approved by the school board as acceptable alternatives to Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness. Instead, we read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I remember them well. I was and continue to be effected by their literary gravitas. Even modern sci-fi that I have read, for example, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovksy has haunted me in profound and lasting ways.
I wish I could say the same about modern fantasy. I really do. Some well-written books just lose their appeal by chapter three. Anything by Brandon Sanderson, unfortunately. Joe Abercrombie’s highly recommend, The Blade Itself, had one of the most gripping opening scenes I’ve read in a book. I lost interest, I’m sorry to say. That doesn’t mean these books are not worth reading and if I had made it through, perhaps I would have included their works in the successful transcendent works with The Gunslinger. I hope many readers buy them and continue to buy them. Authors put an obscene amount of time into crafting their works. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that there is an author for everyone, but no author is for everyone. I write what I would enjoy reading and one day I hope to have an audience. No doubt some blogger or Redditor will mention trying to read me and discovering how irreparably boring my writing is and that by chapter three they gave up.
What I don’t want is write something exciting and forgettable. Like lightening striking close: a flash of light, an ear-splitting crack, and a charge in the air that makes your hair stand on end. But then it is gone. Your light-bleached retinas return to normal; the ringing in your ears subsides; and your hair, once again, lies flat. Many an exciting, page-turner, has left me with far less. If the ending was exciting, I couldn’t tell you for what reason or why.
Fantasy gives me the chance to write what I like to read. The audience tends to appreciate what I call a slow burn. They aren’t typically in the mood for a quickie when they pick up a book with over 150,000 words. If they are like me, they want to be teased. They want you to help them explore each of their senses, building intensity then pulling back and letting them breath while they wonder what is next. They enjoy the build-up so much they don’t want it to end and, when it does, it is heavy and intense. Then, as the expected lightening flash fades, they bask in a serene and satisfying afterglow.
What I have just explained is, of course, possible in escapist and literary fiction. Patrick Rothfuss, a master of the slow burn, is a benchmark for my prose style. And though I remember much of his story, I’ve never felt the stakes were high enough or the conflict close enough to my heart to influence me as an individual. The relationship his protagonist, Kvothe, has with a strange and mysterious girl who lives in the catacombs under the University, Aurie, probably comes closest to achieving this level of impact. Nevertheless, I will continue to reread this series from time-to-time as I await the third installment—Rothfuss’s feces-soiled beard notwithstanding.
I recall being warned by zealous, religious parents that there was a danger in literature. A danger to my faith and the fictional narrative Christianity and Mormonism had reinforced in my head and heart for—go ahead and laugh or scoff, I have—thirty-four years before I realized that Mormonism was little more than escapist fan fiction that tried to advance and amend Christianity’s own mythology. It didn’t give me tools to comprehend or deal with the problems of the world in which I lived since it had created its own world and enticed me, on pain of eternal torture or eternal bliss, to buy into it, heart, body, and soul. It was a daily, hourly, by-the-minute escape into a fantasy realm where the stakes could not be higher. Everything outside the carefully crafted dogmas were simply nihilism.
I think I finally understood the fear of my parents with clarity when I recently read Orwell’s, Burmese Days. (Spoiler Alert). In the end, the protagonist kills himself. My conditioning from my upbringing set off the alarm bells. “This is why we don’t want you to read this stuff. It just shows that life isn’t worth living.”
Able to read it with the clear lens of a mature, skeptical mind, I can see how superficial such a reading of Burmese Days actually is. It is not about how life is not worth living. Such a conclusion is simply lazy. While some philosophers and writers have, no doubt, approached their writing with a sense of or dedication to nihilism, I have found the greatest peddler of nihilism to be found in the monotheistic faith traditions. One of my favorite authors who, though he read an overwhelming amount of fictional literature, never wrote a word of fiction himself, Christopher Hitchens, had a lot to say about the nihilism of monotheists. Here we have a world full of individuals dedicated to and eagerly awaiting armageddon and a wrathful judgment by a vengeful god. They cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake the earth and the daunting business of learning, understanding, and working to improve this life—the only one we can be certain actually exists. But let’s forget that! Burn it to the ground and end all life for the hope of a fantasy heaven to come on the other side of death. A side NO ONE can possibly claim to know exists for anyone else.
This is why fantasy and fiction, in general, has largely lost its appeal for me. I spent thirty-four years escaping real life into the fantasy world of Mormonism. Many lessons learned there are valuable, and I do carry them with me. But, at the core, the foundations and conclusion and many of the morals required to reach a level of purity to be saved are at best unverifiable and, at worst, admitted fraud by a convicted con man. To pretend or accept that those things don’t matter is nihilism to me and I won’t spend another minute of my life escaping into a similar world that claims to explain this one.
For literary fiction, the genius comes from the author’s ability to utilize the simple and profound power of, as Orwell put it, facing unpleasant facts. This may appear like nihilism to the superficial and suspicious and lazy reader, but it is what makes The Brother’s Karamazov, Les Miserables, Burmese Days, East of Eden, The Stranger, Lolita, Silas Marner, and any other work of literary greatness so powerful. Their impact is not in helping one escape, but in helping one navigate the absurdity of life in increasing their capacity to face unpleasant facts.
Who wouldn’t appreciate a fan club that debates and comes to my defense over fecal bacteria in my facial hair? (For the record, I typically go clean-shaven.) Who wouldn’t like a fan club that is so invested in your work that they learn the made-up languages you created and understand the mythology of your world better than they do their own?
I don’t want that fan club.
Far more do I want my work to make people engage in the real world. I would like for them to read it, tell their friends about it, and engage with reality. Make this world a better place or learn more about a different culture than argue about whether or not the Elf Witch could have defeated the Dark Lord one-on-one. The worst result would be to become something like a prophet or a yogi who’s work, intentionally or inadvertently, becomes simply a portrait of themselves. A work of self-adoration that increases their celebrity.
My goal is to be a window to direct a reader’s eye to the world outside or a mirror to reflect their view back upon themselves. Facts may be unpleasant but we can and we must face them—with a sense of irony and a commitment to our shared, inherently magical, and singular world.