Why I Don’t Read Fantasy

(Cross-posted from the WriteClub blog)

When I was a little girl, boys were an alien species, to be avoided at all costs. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t want to talk to them, and I certainly didn’t want to read about them. Hence, I tended to gravitate towards books that had female protagonists. If there were boys in the book as well, I would put up with it, but there had to be a girl in there I could identify and empathise with.

When I hit puberty, boys became marginally more interesting, but when I was in high school, all the boys seemed horrendously immature and shallow. Needless to say I didn’t date much. No surprise that I completely identified with the girl in LABYRINTH (who was also called Sarah), who didn’t go out on dates, spent all her time immersed in a fantasy world and who was burdened with babysitting a baby half-sibling she found a trial.

Anyway, I digress. The point here is that I only wanted to read stories about girls. When I was young I wanted stories about girls who were isolated; different; alone. When I grew out of the angsty teenage phase I wanted to read books about independent-minded, intelligent, courageous women who could hold their own in the world of men.

When I developed my obsession with STAR WARS, in my early teens, I had a brief flirtation with reading science fiction. Most of it didn’t really grab me – there was a distinct lack of decent female characters. And this, when we come down to it, is the reason why I’ve never read fantasy. There are a lot of fantasy films I’ve seen and enjoyed (the aforementioned LABYRINTH being one – THE PRINCESS BRIDE is another one of my favourites). But I’ve never got into reading the genre. When I went through my sf phase I picked up a shabby copy of THE SWORD OF SHANNARA at a second hand book shop. I thought it was so dreadful, I never finished it – even at age 14, when my reading tastes were a lot less sophisticated. In retrospect, this is probably another reason why I never felt the urge to pick up another fantasy book.

Admittedly, the genre has come a long way since the 1980s. The stories are not full of insipid, two-dimensional women these days. There are a lot of female fantasy writers who I am reliably informed write books about strong-willed, intelligent women who know their own mind and are looking for more than just a handsome man to marry. But I have never read any of these books. My own prejudices are hard to shake. Plenty of people have said to me, about a particular fantasy author, “you’ll like her books, they have a strong female protagonist.” But as well as strong women, I like books filled with mystery and suspense, and most importantly, at least one gruesome death. Browsing in the book shops I always gravitate back to the crime and horror sections, even if my intention is to go to the fantasy section. I still go back to those books with the moody black covers and blood spatters. I’m comfortable with routine. That’s why I always go back to the violence in the end.

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