I need to watch my mouth. Specifically when I talk about literature.
This is a big problem, because I work part time at an inn frequented primarily by older people, and I suck at talking. Unfortunately, older people love to talk; and by talk, I mean “ask me questions so they can insert their own thoughts/opinions/suggestions to aid me on my life’s journey.” They ask me what I do, what my hobbies are, where I’m going to school—are you a student? a teacher? what was your major? why? And they proceed to give me unwarranted advice on every aspect of my life.
Now, I’m okay with getting people’s two cents on just about anything, even though it’s almost always unasked for. You want to give me advice on investing in the housing market? Be my guest. Please, help me get rich. But perhaps the worst question, when I’m stuck on a hot, sticky plastic chair for three hours selling tickets and my only solace is the book in my hands, is “What are you reading?”
When anybody else asks me this question, I get pumped. I want to talk about books 24/7, and writing, and language, and movie adaptations, and everything else dorky and pure about fiction.
But now, every time an older person (really—it’s only them!) asks me what I’m reading, I get a weird, heavy feeling in my chest. I don’t want to tell them, because I know what their answer is—I’ve seen it a million times, and (so far, in the 3 years I’ve documented this) never once have I been wrong in my assumption.
So I tell them, “It’s just a fantasy.”
And they reply, “Oh.”
Or they go, “Hm. I don’t like fantasy.” (Funny, I don’t recall asking you.)
They say, “Well, as long as you like it, eh?” (Why else would I be reading it? Bye, bitch!)
They squint their eyes, they screw up their mouth, they ask me—again—if I’m a student, because educated people don’t read fantasy, they read literature. They read histories, textbooks, and Oprah’s book club picks.
I’m not exaggerating about this at all. I go through this every Friday, multiple times per night; I shrug, I smile, I force a laugh where necessary—usually at my own expense—and every Friday I leave a little more irritated, a little more dejected, and a whole lot sicker of crustaceous old snobs.
You know the ones I’m talking about: the people who see you reading on your Kindle and say, “I’ll let you get back to playing your games/Facebook/texting/etc.,” or, if you’re laden down with a paperback: “It’s good to see a kid your age reading an actual book instead of pressing some buttons.”
Listen, bub, the only one pressing any buttons is you. It’s not a game just because it’s on a screen. Whether I read it in a newspaper or via Twitter, it’s still the same news; I’m just saving trees while you cling to your traditions. It’s still the same book whether I buy it via Kindle or paperback, and the Kindle version is often more accessible, cheaper, and instantaneous. I get to start reading right away! I don’t have to leave my house, for chrissake! And either way, it’s not mindless scrolling just because it’s Facebook, it’s not texting just because I’m on my phone (and so what if it is?), and perhaps most importantly, it’s not “just” fantasy.
I can see it in their squinted eyes when I say the word—they’re thinking wizards and dwarves and dragons, silly magic or good versus evil or trolls asking riddles. But fantasy is more than this; it always has been. Fantasy is what happens when you free yourself of the rules of the physical world and allow your imagination to take over. It’s what happens when you can unleash some of your biggest questions and wonders on a universe unaffected by history as we know it, and come up with your own in the process. Fantasy isn’t escapism, but absolute involvement in some of the biggest issues in our lives: War. Hate. Fear. Love. Discovery of self. Good and bad and the colors between.
Fantasy isn’t lazy, rehashed plots and forgettable, black and white characters (although there’s a smattering of that, to be sure). Fantasy is the complete antithesis of lazy writing. It’s a vow to take the unshaped lump of a made up world in the palm of your hands and breathe life into it; to whisper histories and cultures and languages and desperate, broken characters into the cracks between your fingers and hold it, warm and pulsing, until it grows strong enough to take flight.
So the next time some snobby, crusty ol’ geezer comes up to me and asks what I’m reading with their preconceived notions of what constitutes fine literature, I’m going to watch my mouth. I’m going to meet their eye, smile. I’m going to tell them honestly, shamelessly, passionately: