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SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better
 

SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better

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The Stigma of Reading Fantasy

We live in a modern world where fantasy is king. Some of the hottest films in the world right now are based on fantasy, with this summer alone being populated with Green Lanterns, boxing robots and thunder gods. Even the Oscars, who in the past have been notoriously anti-fantasy (robbing the Lord of the Rings for years), this year include nominations for How To Train Your Dragon and Alice in Wonderland. Werewolves, once the stuff of nightmares, have devolved from lightening fast killers into posters of Taylor Lautner on every 13-year-old girl’s bedroom wall. These days, Dracula no longer melts in the sunshine; he just sparkles like a chandelier, and hangs around with Anna Paquin and Boone from Lost.

My point? My point is that even with all the watered down fantasy surrounding our everyday lives, why when we, as fans of fantasy fiction, tell people what we like to read, do we always get that same, awkward and slightly squinted look? The look that says, “You weirdo.”

You know the look I mean.

The Look

You’re sitting there on your lunch break and a person from human resources decides to take an interest in your life and asks what it is you’re reading. The moment that they hear the word fantasy they recoil slightly as their mind rushes to imagine what fantasy you are currently enjoying. Congratulations, you have just become some Thatcherite Tory MP (UK Political Party) being strung up by his balls while a fat guy in a leotard tickles your face with a pink feather duster.

“No, No, NO! That’s not me,” you protest. “I’m not into THAT kind of fantasy. I’m in to stuff like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and China Meiville.”

At this, their face goes blank. Who are these people you just mentioned? That doesn’t sound like Mills and Boone to me?

“No, they are fantasy authors,” you say. Hmm, how can you explain fantasy to this person?

“Urm…okay, have you seen The Lord of the Rings?”

The moment you say Lord of the Rings the person you’re talking to suddenly thinks, “Talking dragons.” You want to correct them and say that actually, there are no talking dragons in The Lord of the Rings, and they are, in fact, thinking of Smaug from The Hobbit. You don’t correct them though, because you’re afraid they’ll think you’re some kind of weirdo but sadly the damage is already done. They’re thinking of talking dragons and now you’re once again being fixed with the squinted eye look, but this time it isn’t the “I wonder where he keeps his gimp suit” look, it’s now become the “talking dragon” look.

Smaug by the Hildebrandt's

The “talking dragon” look leaves you labeled. No longer do you sleep like normal folk; now you stalk the midnight shadows eating vermin. What are you doing this weekend? Well, you’ll be frequenting dank cellars dressed as a warrior elf with D6 magic and the fiery power of Greyskull with +1 defence.

So how do you avoid being forever known as Frodo?

You could ask this person from HR what they are interested in and when they say gardening you could give them the same squinted weirdo look right back, but no, don’t do that because you are above such condescension. These people need to be educated, but how?

I have some suggestions.

First of all there’s the Disney defence. Everyone loves Disney films, which is why this argument could win over non-believers. Y’see, back in the good ol’ days when the world was black and white and Blu-Rays didn’t exist (can you imagine such horror?) there was little variety in films. If you didn’t like Clark Gable then you were pretty much resigned to the classic Disney films that currently fill up your grandparents’ VHS draw. So ask those bearing the “talking dragon” look, what would Cinderella be without the fantasy element of talking mice and a pumpkin that turns in to a stage coach? It would be Bippity-boppity-boring.

This argument isn’t guaranteed to work though, because the mention of Disney could bring back memories of Mufasa dying in the Lion King and then you are forever known amongst your colleagues as “Frodo who made Maurine from Accounts Dept cry.”

Mufasa Dies

Argument number two is the Bible argument. The Bible is the biggest selling book of all time and millions of people live their lives by it. Whether you yourself believe the Bible or not, these millions of people practice their lives in accordance with a book that tells of talking snakes, two of every animal cohabitating on a cruise, people being turned in to pillars of salt and even the sea being parted. With all due respect, it is arguably the greatest fantasy story ever told. Surely if a snake can talk, then talking dragons aren’t much more of a stretch, are they?

However, the Bible argument is probably best avoided, because if Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has taught me anything it’s that a dispute of faith brings the wrath of Sir Ian McKellen, and no one messes with Magneto.

So what can we do to convert the masses to fantasy and thereby destroy the “talking dragon” stigma? I rub my chin menacingly until it hits me like a lightning bolt to the forehead…my argument is Harry Potter.

Harry Potter has magic, dragons, werewolves and manages to make broomsticks cool; it is the ultimate fantasy. The books, films and merchandise are worth billions, which by default makes the story cool. If you haven’t read the books then you are so uncool you’re warmer than sweating salami.

So chances are that if you ask someone whether they like Harry Potter or not they will say yes, even if they don’t actually like him, because peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. Once they’ve said yes then you have them in your clutches.

“What about those dragons in the The Goblet Of Fire? Cool right? Then you should check out some Christopher Paolini…” And so on.

You can win this.

N.B. This argument can also be good for picking up allies as talk of Harry Potter will often prompt someone nearby to chip in with something like, “Did you hear that Dumbledore’s actually gay?” and discussion begins.

If however, you unfortunately find yourself in a room full of ardent Potter haters then I’m sorry mon frère, you have no choice but to hide your fantasy novel inside a copy of their favourite gardening magazine and forever risk their inane questions about plant pots and weed killer. At least you’ll finally fit in with the sheep.

Good luck fantasy fan.

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20 Comments

  1. Avatar missoularedhead says:

    Gotta admit, I’ve never experienced this. Perhaps that’s because everyone I know is a geek?

  2. Avatar ChrisMB87 says:

    This article made my day, especially considering how this day has been. Thank you for putting this out there!

  3. Avatar PixiePrincess says:

    This is absolutely amazing 😀 I am a true fan! Can’t wait to read more of your work, sometime soon please?!?!

  4. Paul, I can totally relate with this whole article. When people ask me what kind of books I like to read, my default response has become “fiction.” If someone then seems more interested, I might say fantasy but I always follow up with well-known books (def. Harry Potter).

    It really sucks to get that one bad reaction- “Oh, fantasy books….neat.” I really hope that with the prevalence of popular movies and books that there will be a better understanding of what this awesome genre is and that more people read it than you think.

    Also, that picture is hilarious! Love it! 🙂

    • Avatar Paul Wiseall says:

      Hey Lisa. I completely agree, we need to convert the ignorant and let them know that other worlds exist outside of their soap operas, 24hr news channels and gossip magazines. Let’s start a revolution. 😀

      Also, without sounding like a total creep, I really like your website. I totally agree with your article about Borders and the closing of ‘brick-and-mortar book stores’.
      I don’t have an answer for your question at the end but I do think that stores need to work smarter. Sure, online retailing is cheaper with fewer overheads, less staff costs etc but who commits to reading an 800 page novel just on a whim? This is surely where the tangible book shops should capitalise.

      I love to spend hours just browsing the shelves, reading blurbs etc and I think Waterstones in the UK have got it kinda right. All the staff know their authors (I was recently buying a Palahniuk book and ended up chatting with the girl at the counter about his book ‘Survivor’) and all the shelves have suggestions of ‘if you like this author why not try…’ which is how I discovered Ian Banks.
      They have a Coste (coffee chain) in most stores so you can buy a book and then settle down for a coffee and a read making your journey to the shop a complete escape which is what reading should be. Also, they regularly have book signings and author events which adds a new dimension to the next time you pick up your favourite book, the one you got signed that time the author told you he likes your weird surname. (My weird surname not yours.)

      Sorry to waffle.

      Keep up the writing, I want to read more.

      Much Love

    • Avatar dt says:

      Wow, you know people who ask you what sort of book you read? Cool! (Goes back to Empire in Black in Gold cleverly disguised under macho car magazine at desk).

  5. I know the look you mean. But I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where people in Medieval attire practice their sword fighting skills openly in public parks and it’s not uncommon to have discussions about the zombie apocalypse with random parents in the Borders kid section or my son’s 2nd grade teacher. Ah, Oregon, how I do love thy uniquenes…..

    Fun article. 🙂

    • Avatar Paul Wiseall says:

      I live in a rather rural edge of the world where conversation in the work staff room has been known to be that the reason one colleague was late for work was due to a farmer walking his cows on the road. Another colleague then asked if the farmer in question was Farmer Warren because apparently he produces fantastic eggs. And so on and so forth.

      I think I need to move to Oregon…

      • Well, I grew up in a small town in Oregon where such conversations were not uncommon… But overall, the western part of the state is quite tolerant of a wide range of interests. Really, our state motto should probably be “it’s all good.” 🙂

  6. Avatar Mr Pants says:

    While I think there used to be, to some degree, a stigma associated with reading fantasy, I don’t actually agree that it still exists – or if it does, certainly nowhere near enough to complain about. Fantasy has never been more mainstream or more accessible than it is today; it has been hugely successful over the past decade, spearheaded by the multi-billion Lord of the Rings trilogy, but borne up afterward by successive waves of popular books such as Harry Potter and Narnia, along with lesser known titles like Inkheart, Stardust, Percy Jackson & the Lightening Thief, The Vampire’s Assistant – to name just a few books.

    Alongside the fantasy cinema-explosion there was an even larger movement gaining momentum, namely that of the comic book superhero with Spiderman (1,2,3), X-Men (1,2,3, Wolverine: Origins), Transformers (1,2), Hulk, Iron Man (1,2), Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and a whole slate more upcoming, including Captain America, Thor, and the Avengers. Even outside of classic comic and fantasy titles, the popularity of the genre is such that other films have come out with broad fantasy elements such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Pirates of the Caribbean, Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia etc.

    As if that were not enough, even the small screen has found fantasy programs to be hugely popular too, with shows like Heroes, Merlin, Being Human, Warehouse 13, Legend of the Seeker, True Blood, Misfits proving to be incredibly successful with many more yet to come out, including the highly anticipated HBO production of George. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Basically, what I’m saying is that fantasy has never been more popular, never been more mainstream, more accessible and less stigmatised than it is today. Aside from being more socially acceptable – which comes from more exposure leading to a better understanding of what fantasy is/involves/can do – it’s just bad business, so on that front, I pretty much your premise.

    But let’s assume, hypothetically, that you were right and it’s all a bit silly and fun – just a casual look at what an outsider might think or feel, and the topic regards ways in which to persuade them that fantasy is actually okay reading material. You say, oh, look at Disney! Everyone loves Disney, just get the old VHS from your grandparents and note the fantasy elements in your favourite stories!

    To understand what’s wrong with that as a reference, you have to understand the stigma associated with fantasy to begin with – basically, that it’s childish, and not really meant for adults, certainly containing nothing of relevance to a modern reader. By recommending prejudiced individuals pick up Disney titles, which are aimed at children (obviously) you reinforce the stigma, going so far as to add even more weight to the idea of it’s irrelevance by saying get it from your grandparents, on VHS. (Disclaimer: I adore all the Disney classics and have them on DVD).

    Fantasy is an incredibly broad genre that is as rewarding to read as any other genre, Just because it takes place in an imagined world doesn’t make it any less relevant than any other genre and in actual fact there are countless essays that state that fantasy, more than any other genre, critically reflects social values and themes, transporting them out of local context allows writers to explore issues in ways that ‘realistic’ fiction and even non-fiction (to an extent) can’t. Check out writing by Dianne Wynn Jones and Ursula K. Leguin for examples. I’m not suggesting that you should say this – it’s more than a bit longwinded – merely that, rather than treat disinterested or prejudiced individuals with as much condescension as they regard you, you could try to educate them by recommending great fantasy titles.

    Don’t pander to them with some nonsense about Disney, or even Harry Potter as that too is widely seen as a children’s series, despite it’s popularity with adults (most of whom were children when it came out). Certainly, whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, EVER recommend the absolute drivel that is the writing of Christopher Paolini. Not to disinterested parties, not to interested people, not to children, not ever. You’re doing the world a great disservice even by mentioning it here. No, instead, pick a great story like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘American Gods’ and rely instead on great writing to carry the day, instead of going by a ‘popular-is-good’ mentality:

    “The books, films and merchandise are worth billions which by default makes the story cool” –

    Seriously? Have you come across the abomination known as Twilight?

    Anyway, this has gone on way too long. Why did I bother rambling so much? For three reasons.
    1) I’m at work and frankly, anything is better than working.
    2) I hate coming across out-dated stigmas and I especially hate coming across articles that supposedly deal with the issue while actually reinforcing the stigma to begin with
    3) I love fantasy and am always willing to ramble at great length about its awesomeness. If your co-workers can’t handle it or aren’t interested, whatever, don’t bother hiding something you know has merit because of their absurd views.

    And I’m done. 🙂

    • Avatar Paul Wiseall says:

      Ah man I feel as if I’ve offended you here.

      Of course I take your points and on the whole I completely agree with you which is exactly why the article was written as it is.

      If the aim had truly been to write a piece defending fantasy as a genre in the face of prejudice then I simply wouldn’t have bothered. It would have been a boring article raging aimlessly using the exact argument you began with, reeling off the movies and books that are currently filling our lives. Perhaps I would have ripped in to gardening a bit more too.
      Of course you’re not going to change someone’s prejudice by arguing the fantasy elements of a Disney film and if someone is truly that closed minded then you’re never going to change their opinion whatever you do. Ultimately it isn’t a fight I’m interested in having as there are bigger things to argue about.

      This article was a piece of comic relief. Do I expect people to argue the nuances of Disney’s Cindrella to defend the fantasy genre? No. Do I expect Magneto to appear if I slight the Bible? Sadly not. The article simply aimed to lighten up someone’s day when they remember that time they got an odd look while describing their weekend spent LARP-ing, reading about trolls or dressed as Alpha 5 at a Power Rangers convention (This is for you Mr Clarke, thank you for your email earlier).

      If you did want to debate the matter with someone then I completely agree that education is without argument, the greatest way to quash a prejudice and I am pleased you recommend ‘American Gods’ as a way to do this as it tends to be my go-to book of choice if a non-fantasy reader asks me for a suggestion (Good Omens is also a personal favourite.). If they just want a quick taster of the darker fantasy I enjoy, I tend to suggest ‘Details’ by Mieville.

      Finally, Paolini isn’t really my cup of tea either but my girlfriend loves his stuff so I won’t tell her you called it drivel haha.

      All the best dude.

      • Avatar Mr Pants says:

        Heya, I wasn’t offended lol, as I said, I was at work and killing time, but it just seemed…dated, in light of all that…sorry.

  7. Avatar redhead says:

    oh that was awesome! especially the Dan Brown to Magneto mixed metaphor!

    I’m always reading something SF or F at work, and they already know I’m a geek. my only saving grace is that no matter how geeky I am, the dude who had the position before me was a LARPer. and Maurine from Accounts dept said she was waiting for him to show up to work wearing a cape.

  8. Avatar Mega Long Post Dude says:

    …what’s a LARPer? Also, I don’t dress up, ever. Or own anything resembling a costume. Adults wearing ill-fitting costumes are kinda creepy.

  9. Avatar Moonshine says:

    ‘Those who care don’t matter, those who matter don’t care’

    Oh, and Mr. Pants is completely correct. While I enjoyed your article, I have to say that elements ofthe argument struck me as a little underdeveloped and too broad. Money doesn’t = cool, just look at the ‘cult’ films people talk about – certainly not in educated circles.

    In uneducated circles, well, without trying to sound too dismissive, but if someone doesn’t have the knowledge to back up an argument (apart from the broad ‘I don’t like it therefore its no good’), then why should you care what they think?

  10. Avatar PixiePrincess says:

    The people criticising your work have missed the point of this article. You are an amazing writer Paul 😀 Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! I suggest that if people don’t have anything nice to say then they should keep their opinions to themselves.

  11. Avatar LeaveLipstick2Barbie says:

    No way, people should always vocalise their opinions, because this challenges people & sometimes they grow. Rejection makes us stronger, right? &If these people have missed the point then surely it says alot about them. xXx

  12. […] touched on this last week in his article The Stigma of Reading Fantasy, but I’d like to extrapolate some […]

  13. Avatar Larik says:

    This was a really great article. I have a friend that absolutely avoids fantasy, and he once asked me what my favorites are. You should’ve seen the glazed look of his eyes as he stopped listening as soon as I finished saying: “George R.R. Martin,” and then listened momentarily again before fading out when I said ‘Brandon Sanderson’. But then again, knowing we’re all fellow fantasy nerds (no point in lying about it, this is a safe place), you all probably know what I’m talking about. xD

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