Have you ever noticed how much fantasy fans read? It’s really astonishing. My fantasy-fan friends have always had the most packed bookshelves, even more than mystery/thriller fans. (Sci-fi fans can’t even compare.) One time I saw an apartment whose owners had a large room devoted to their mostly-fantasy book collection. They had giant shelves lined up across the room library-style, all packed with paperbacks. You literally had to use an aisle between the shelves to cross the room. It was wild.
The 80 people who did the “challenge” read four or five books from different fantasy sub-genres (Like, I guess, books with two-handed broadswords vs. books with crossbows) and then generated some 300 (!!!) reviews. Some read more than four — one person read 29!
Here’s the prob, though: There isn’t anything remotely “challenging” about this project. If you find it challenging to read a bunch of fantasy books, you need to … well, I don’t know what you can do, frankly. I was going to say “take some classes at your local community college,” but I’m not sure that would do it.
And the books … We’re talking Dragons of Autumn Twilight by that shining duo of modern literature, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, The Dragons of Krynn by Weis & Hickman, Kelley Armstrong’s werewolf books, The Princess Bride, miscellaneous stuff by That Goddamned Terry Pratchett, tons of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling and — you were waiting for it, weren’t you? — a bonecrushing load of Neil Fucking Gaiman.
Sure, there are plenty of genuinely talented authors in there, from Madeline L’Engle to George R. R. Martin. Also Sheri S. Tepper — and by the way, Tepper readers, why didn’t any of you go with The Gate to Women’s Country? It’s the one thing she’s written that deserves to go down in history as a significant work of feminist lit. Read it.
But none of these books are challenging. They aren’t daunting in structure or syntax. They aren’t hard to concentrate on. They don’t (or shouldn’t) provoke you to reassess your ideas about what literature should be and what it’s capable of. And only a tiny minority of them will still be talked about 50 years from now. They’re bedtime reading — superlatively crafted bedtime reading in some cases, but bedtime reading nonetheless. [NOTE: If you’re one of the handful who took on read-it-before-you-die works like Doctor Faustus or Gilgamesh, I’m not talking about you.]
I know, I know, big freakin’ deal, right? Like, who cares if a bunch of nerds want to congratulate themselves for finishing American Gods in three nights flat. But I can’t help it. Even though these people have nothing whatsoever to do with me or my life (beyond feeding a sort of amorphous anxiety about the future of Real Literature) they really, really irritate me. I just can’t stand it when nerds act all superior about their stupid crap. I read a lot too, you know. But I don’t want a freaking medal for it.
Or maybe … maybe I do want a freaking medal for it. Maybe that’s my problem — I feel so intellectually anxious all the time that I’m bitterly jealous of anyone who can enjoy a rush of self-esteem upon completing Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.
So cut it out, nerds! Take the FanDumb challenge: This month, read some fantasy-inflected Real Lit. Like Jonathan Carroll or Madison Smartt Bell. Or Mark Danielewski or Jonathan Lethem or Kazuo Ishiguro. You won’t finish as fast, but you’ll annoy me a hell of a lot less.
P.S. I heard about this contest via SQT’s entry on the Fantasy and Sci-Fi Lovin’ Blog. That’s right, SQT, you’re to blame!