Last week I was talking to a coworker about the books the two of us had read so far this year. He had mostly been reading historical nonfiction and contemporary political biographies. I admitted that nonfiction has, for the most part, been too much for me lately. This isn't entirely true—I've actually read quite a bit more nonfiction this year than I usually do, much of it relevant in one way or another to the times we're living through right now. But for the most part, what I've found myself longing for is fiction, which I suspect is motivated in large part by a desire for escape.
It's interesting, because even the fiction I've been reading this year has often touched on the very same social and political issues that I spend so much of my time on, and which I am ostensibly trying to get away from during my down time. Somehow, though, presenting the same ideas in fiction makes them feel less stressful, or perhaps less threatening. The fact that it's something that might happen instead of something that did happen provides enough of a remove that I'm able to interface with them more easily. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, really.
The last book I read—which I finished this past Wednesday—was the fifth and final chapter of an epic fantasy series that I started reading eight years ago, when it was recommended to me by the same coworker I mentioned above. Since then, I've learned a lot about representation and literary tropes, which is to say that I noticed things about this story that were most likely problematic in one way or another, which I wouldn't have noticed before. I couldn't enjoy it in an uncomplicated way anymore, which on balance I think is a good thing—I'd rather be more aware than less. Even so, there was something seductive about the experience, something that brought me back to my youth in a way that I found familiar and comfortable, which makes me think there's something worth interrogating there.
I read a lot as a kid, and the overwhelming majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and really a lot more fantasy than science fiction. Books like The Lord of the Rings and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story are probably two of the most foundational texts of my life. There are a lot of reasons I've come back to those stories over and over again throughout my life, but something I've been thinking about for the past few days is how fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is a genre in which stories are built around a certain fundamental conservatism.
Epic fantasy is, for the most part, a genre about war. The stories are usually set in a world that is some mythical analogue of a real historical period—often, but not always, European. There's usually some sort of a hero's journey, and the central conflict usually pits a few heroic individuals against some ancient evil in order to decide the fate of the world. There are exceptions to all of these, of course, even in just the examples I named before—in The Neverending Story the "villain" of the first half is more or less human disillusionment, and in the second half it's the protagonist's vanity. But genres are more defined by their centers than by their boundaries, and for the most part we recognize fantasy by its most common tropes: swords, sorcery, and a battle between good and evil.
Lately when I read epic fantasy, whether it's a contemporary novel or a classic of the genre, I find it an intensely nostalgic experience. And I think this is something that's kind of built in to the genre, perhaps in a way that wouldn't have been as potent for me when I was a child. There's something seductive about a simple story with clear, simple morals. And even though fantasy authors have for decades found interesting ways to complicate their heroes or villains or conflicts, ultimately most of these stories still come down to a fairly uncomplicated moral binary. It's comforting, being able to read a story and just go along for the ride, without thinking too deeply about whether or not we really want the heroes to win. Or whether scenarios with clear winners and losers are even something we ought to be rooting for in the first place.
I suppose the easy thing to do here would be to turn this into some sort of sermon about this kind of nostalgia and escapism being bad for us, but I'm not going to do that. We all talk all the time about self-care, and choosing to spend your leisure time reading comfortable adventure stories is as legitimate a way to unwind as most other methods we might come up with. Still, it's on my mind that tomorrow we will be deciding again how we wish to be governed, and that the rhetoric we use to talk about elections is generally one of binaries, of good and evil, of winners and losers.
I guess what I'm saying is this: we all love stories that comfort us and tell us the things we want to believe, especially the things we want to believe about ourselves. And in and of itself, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I think we have to be willing to look more deeply at our stories and ourselves if we wish to live in a real world that's just, and that works for everyone. I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.