Reading for fun? Awful!

In an essay on fantasy, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” Ursula LeGuin argued that beautiful writing was essential to fantasy: if you could fit the dialog into a contemporary conversation, it wasn’t really fantasy.

This struck me as a kind of arbitrary rule but apparently AS Byatt expressed a similar view writing about Harry Potter, that fantasy should be “numinous” and Rowling isn’t — her readers are just too clueless to get it. Doris Egan replies that there’s a long tradition of non-numinous fantasy: “These books don’t make you fall to your knees — you’re having too much fun to do that.” And that’s perfectly fine.

M.A. Kropp quotes an even more restrictive view she encountered online, that reading fiction is bad. If you’re not reading to learn, not reading to enrich your mind, you’re just stuffing your brain with junk food. This, again, is a view I’ve encountered forms of before: Joanna Russ once wrote that reading for pleasure (as opposed to Serious Works like her own that tackle Serious Issues) was no different from taking drugs, a way to escape reality (Alan Moore has made similar complaints). This is why I will probably never read anything by Russ.

The idea that people are reading The Wrong Books has a long history. In 19th century England, as literacy became more widespread, there were worries about the working class reading lurid penny dreadfuls instead of uplifting art. In the 1950s, the book Cycle of Outrage says, Clever People Who Talk Loudly In Restaurants worried that American teens (and adults too) were turning to fluffy popular entertainment instead of embracing social realist fiction.

The same view of what makes Good Y/A continued for most of the last centuries. I read many times that teens don’t want fun reading — they’re serious truth-seekers who read to understand life! Which as one book on how school kills the urge to read said, is why the award-winning children and teen books are always Serious and nobody recommends popular favorites like Nancy Drew. As late as 2000 I read an article explaining the Oz books were crap because Baum didn’t discuss serious moral issues like C.S. Lewis did.

As the author of a book on Oz, needless to say I disagree. And my teenage tastes obviously weren’t those of a serious truth-seeker. Just look below (contrary to that one argument above, there’s a lot more to the best Conan than just machismo).That Frank Frazetta cover reminds me specfic has some of the same debates. SF fans who dislike fantasy have spilled a fair amount of ink explaining fantasy fiction is crap (in contrast, as Charles DeLint says, fantasy readers who don’t like SF simply don’t read it). It’s testosterone-laden Conan knockoffs for adolescent boys. It’s gauzy princesses-and-unicorns stuff for girls who don’t wat to deal with all that icky STEM stuff in SF. It doesn’t have carefully thought out scientific rules. Spider Robinson sneered that he’d be interested when someone comes up with a spell that can explain the heart’s loneliness (does he imagine technology can do that?).

A lot of this reminds me of HL Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as a person terrified that someone, somewhere, is having fun. I will never believe there’s anything wrong with wanting to read for pleasure or entertainment. It may not elevate our minds — though entertainment and art can coexist comfortably — but that’s okay. Whatever the appeal of popular fiction, it’s been appealing for a very long time. I don’t think it’s a flaw in our species.

To paraphrase activist Emma Goldman — who was told dancing was incompatible with fighting for political change — don’t join the revolution if it won’t let you dance. Or read.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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