I have a long and sometimes not-so-amiable history with reading. Or rather, with reading certain things.
You see, when you present at age eight reading books of 300 pages within a day, people are impressed– for about 12 seconds. (Sometimes this period of “impressed” takes longer, as people refuse to believe that you are actually reading the book you’re holding in your hand.) However, shortly after the people get over the shock at your feat, they immediately try to better you by suggesting you stop reading whatever trash you’re putting into your brain currently. You should read CLASSICS! You should read LITERARY works!
You may be able to gather from my tone that this attempt to better me didn’t work out with 100% success.
I mean, when I was little I was an avid devourer of adventure stories. I still really enjoy reading them. I wanted peril, physical drama, and last minute saves! I wanted witty jokes and sarcasm! I wanted happy endings. (Seriously, I had almost no tolerance for any kind of darkness until about four years ago.) And I wasn’t always very forgiving when I didn’t get this.
On one notable occasion I read Oliver Twist somehow under the impression that I was reading an adventure tale. Everything was going along well until the end, when suddenly people were dying left right and centre. After reading in vivid detail about a guy who beat his girlfriend to death and then hanged himself accidentally I wasn’t really open to seeing the end as a “happy ending”. (Trauma R Us, instead, I was kinda under the impression the ending could be filed there…)
I think, on reflection, while my language comprehension was very high, and my technical reading level was quite precocious, I wasn’t always good at picking up subtext. I focused on details, to the exclusion of the big plot picture. After all, I was reading for fun– I mean who wants to have to WORK to pick out who the bad guys are when you’re reading for fun? Moral ambiguity is hard stuff!
And then I grew up, and spent four years writing approximately six hundred thousand words of fiction and thinking a great deal about story structure, while simultaneously spending a year and a half reviewing every single book I read. Better with subtext now, thank you.
So now I’ve eschewed all my adventure books and happy endings, and I’ve moved on to reading wonderful classics and delicate, nuanced literary fiction, with refreshing jaunts into magical realism for the relaxation?
Not– quite. (Yes, my friends who know my reading tastes are laughing a lot right now, I’m sure, at the idea that I willingly read litfic.) Now I read primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Young Adult/Middle Grade section. But why would I restrict myself so, you ask? Why don’t I read books for adults? What is the point of this blog post anyways?
The point of this blog post is that I think I am finally able to put my finger on why I keep reading a certain type of book. I can finally identify what it is about a story that makes me go “YES, this is AWESOME. THIS is why I read.”
It comes down to a matter of tone, of (dare I say it?) subtext. I realized this in English class, where we were discussing magical realism. I asked what made that genre different from urban fantasy. (Protip: Do not mention urban fantasy in an english lit class as though you’re familiar with it, unless you’re aiming to be hilarious.) There wasn’t an easy definition of urban fantasy handy, but magical realism is typified by nostalgia.
It harkens back to a “more simple,” pre-moden time, when the lines between magic and science were fuzzier, and things could be simply accepted at face value. There is an underlying discontent with the world as it is, and, depending on the author, the statement is either that things used to be better, or things used to be simpler, but were never better.
And then because there wasn’t a definition of urban fantasy handy, I made one. Urban fantasy (at least the stuff I like to read,) looks at the world and says “things are awesome. But you know what would be more awesome? If we added DRAGONS.”
Firefighters with WINGS.
The basic tone is hopeful, saying that things are cool, and okay, there’s a monster outside my door that wants to eat me, but I can totally beat him with the help of my friends and my endless stubbornness and some ingenuity. There is an underlying fight against despair. (Sometimes the monsters are literally despair-inducing and need to be fought.) The message is that there are monsters, but they should be and can be fought, and can and should be defeated.
"I may have been bitten by a genetically modified spider which actually messed with my DNA and made me semi-human, but I'm gonna use that to help people! Also, I don't need glasses any more-- this is the best day!"
This also applies to straight up fantasy, with terrible costs and eventual bittersweet endings and ALSO DRAGONS. And it also applies to Science Fiction, which gets adventures, peril, and also ROCKETS. And ROCKET TRAINS.
No big deal, we're just living in a science fictional universe.
Of course, not everything in these genres fits those tone categories. *looks sidelong at all the “edgy” dark stuff with “edgy” nihilistic endings* *goes back to frequenting the YA and MG sections* *pointedly eschews the Dystopian section* But overall, I feel like my odds of coming up with a story I actually like are higher if I stay with stories which embrace the world and imagination hopefully, not despairingly.