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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Fantasy and me: Really?

English teachers talk about the omniscient narrator. This week I’ve been thinking about the omniscient author. God knows, I don’t mean me.

The other day I finished The Hunger Games, which in my case is an accomplishment, even if I am six years behind everyone else. I tend not to get into fantasy, however much I want to. Whenever I’ve tried to read it, and this includes a couple of earlier stabs at this first book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, I have high hopes at the start — I’m going to get lost in another world, going to enjoy an old-fashioned good story, going to maybe glimpse why these damn things are so popular. And then, some days or weeks later, I realize I never got past page 82. Or somewhere around there. I just lose steam.

I have a history with this. When I was a miserable middle schooler in the early 60s, The Lord of the Rings was having its first great surge of popularity. I adored the idea of escaping the mean and confusing world I was in — Middle Earth was a great alternative, and I liked The Hobbit ... but I could not get through The Fellowship of the Ring. Tried several times. Years later I had a huge Joseph Campbell phase, and the concept of fantasy appeals to me — classic storytelling, a deeply filling link to our need for myth —  but the execution somehow doesn’t pull me in. I’m more drawn to stories that have a real-world relationship. Those are the books I read, and the ones I try to write.

But this time I mostly enjoyed The Hunger Games, though I made it to the end with no interest in the rest of the trilogy. (I went to Wikipedia to read plot summaries of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and I thought, Really? Killing after killing, betrayal after betrayal, angsty romance after angsty romance?) But here’s the thing that really struck me, and I think it might be the key to what loses me: When you’re writing fantasy, you can do anything.

As long as something contributes to a good story — and I’m totally in favor of a good story — then you can throw it in and it’s believable. Collins apparently saw no need to explain how every move, conflict and conversation in the Games can be caught, and broadcast live to all of Panem, by never-ever glimpsed video cameras and microphones. No matter where the tributes are — high in a tree, deep in a cave, half-submerged in a stream — the broadcasters clearly, subtly pick them up. And somewhere I started thinking, Really?

At a moment of dire need, a vital supply can be dropped by silver parachute, apparently out of nowhere anywhere. The Games arena seems to be just some chosen part of the landscape, not domed or specially built; yet the Capitol can send any weather anywhere, even create a surge of killing fire. If Katniss’s designer wants her parade costume to emit flames that have no heat and never burn out, he just does. You can put in just anything, so long as it helps build the story.

Nothing wrong with this, but sooner or later I'm thinking Really? more and more. An instant freeze out of nowhere? Murdered tributes suddenly morphed into ravenous beasts, each with its old Game number on a collar? So now the game-makers have the power to restore life, even transform it? Really?

Of course The Hunger Games made bazillions — and I could see why. The story is a very clever reflection of our 1%-ruled times and our media-obsessing culture, plus it’s perfectly tuned to the tensions of adolescence. And whenever I ask middle schoolers, as I often do, what they’re really into reading, more than nine times out of ten they’ll cite a fantasy series. Divergent is big these days. I always nod and act like I’ll run out and read that one, but I won’t. I know I wouldn’t get into it.

I’m not saying that writing realistic fiction is somehow superior to fantasy — I haven’t got the imagination to even try writing the latter — but somehow I feel like it’s more demanding. Or exacting. I’ve got to pull a story out of what could really happen; and if a teenager feels my story is bogus, he or she will discard it in an instant. Mythic elements belong in any kind of story, but I do think you’ve got to work harder to work them into realism. 

In the end, the core truth is that writers write the type of stories they love to read. I’ve always wanted to love fantasy ... but I think it loses me because the writer can throw in almost anything he or she wants. Sooner or later I just think, Really? And then weeks pass and I realize, I never got past page 82. Yet again. Oh well.

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