Monday, 13 April 2009

Why do Adults Read Fantasy?

It’s always fascinated me how many adults (me included) read fantasy. Most who read it don’t just read the occasional fantasy. They have shelf-loads of fantasies in their collections and hang out at bookstores for the sequel in this or that trilogy. The books are all shaped like bricks, but size doesn’t put off the avid fan. Even if they have to take a crane to bed to hold the book up while they read it, they’ll still want it. Why?

Yesterday I had a philosophical discussion with a teenager (well, as philosophical as you can get with a teenage boy) that may go part way to explaining it. On the last day of term, his sister had come home from school, proudly carrying her latest craft piece - ‘hairy man’. Hairy man consisted of an empty baked bean can, painted white with a smiley face and big ears pasted on the outside and alfalfa sprouts growing out of the top (green hair). He had looked at it and found himself feeling sad. He’d spent all weekend wondering why it should make him feel that way and had finally worked it out.

The answer? This year at school, he’s studying - as he put it – ‘all the subjects that show how the world’s really put together’- physics, chemistry, calculus. But in learning all that, he’s forgotten how to imagine like a child. He couldn’t join in his sister’s excitement at the new friend she’d made and it made him sad because he knew that once he could have. It was a loss he hadn’t noticed until that moment. To her it was real, to him it was a tin can with grass growing in it.

Is that why we read fantasy – to allow ourselves to believe once more in things that as intellectual adults we know can’t be true? I’ve often wondered how many fantasy fans are seeking something spiritual in their lives (how many fantasies have gods and religious systems?) and I guess this is the same – the need to get away from scientific and mathematical truths and find a sense of wonder, a belief in magic again.

I’m all for a sense of wonder. Life’s pretty boring without it.

What about you? Why do you think fantasy is so popular amongst adults?


Eric said...

Well, if the adults are anything like me (heaven help us), fantasy helps drag us away from the humdrum of normal life. Its also a great way to go somewhere that there is no stress, no impending disaster (other than within the story maybe). Its a form of release, and I think you're stretching to say its a search for something more spiritual. It may be, but I think its more basic than that. Its something different, something interesting, and something thats not part of our "normal" lives. Variety is indeed the spice of life.

Martha Flynn said...

I also think, as fantastical as fantasy is, there is always order and rules and part of me likes controlled imagination. I have a much harder time with magic realism and that kind of inexplicable fantasy.

Kate said...

Eric, you could be right. It's always nice to get away from reality when you need a break.

Martha, yes, you need rules in any fantasy, but I love it when fantasy merges with reality. But then, I'm slightly mad! :)

Anonymous said...

I think we are all adventurers at heart. I'd like to think there's a bit of Huckelberry Finn in me. However, it's not possible to truly have all those adventures in one lifetime; so we let all those fictional people have them for us. We just go along for the ride.

Great topic!
Warm Regards,

Kelly said...

Good post, I felt bad for the boy who felt sad about his loss of wonder! I just think if a story is well written, no matter what genre, it is well received. Maybe adults like the aspect of childhood where anything is possible, and we want to relive that a little, too.

Luc2 said...

Eric said it, and much better than I can.

Reading is a sort of escape, and with normal fiction, the distance is not big enough. I can still read about stuff that is uncomfortably close to my problems. With fantasy, a magical barrier makes that distance absolute, and I feel I can safely submerge in a whole different world.

I personally, am not seeking for something spiritual in fantasy (at least not on a conscious level).

Angela said...

I think this is right on the money. As adults, probably the most common words of wisdom to kids is, 'Don't be in a hurry to grow up'. No matter how we might say otherwise, it isn't because of the lack of responsibilities, the free time, the clean laundry magically appearing in our's the magic we miss most. Once we grow up, we loose the freedom we once had to look at everything sideways. As kids, the world and all the things in it have infinite possibilities. As we mature, knowledge squeezes out imagination. We fold it up, smaller and smaller, making room for things that impact us in the real world, things like morgages and rooms that need painting and buying the kids new shoes for school.

Fantasy lets us escape all of that and return to what we used to be: ignorant, impressionable and imaginative. Free.

Kate said...

Beautifully put, Angela.

It's a shame adulthood tends to preclude time for imagination isn't it?

Now...why is everyone so afraid of the word 'spirituality'? Is that not a belief in something beyond the norm, a sense of wonder?

Rena said...

I'm an oddball because I've never been into fantasy much. Not as an adult anyway, but of course it's different when you're a kid. I still struggle with fiction at times, but only when it comes to adult stories. Spirituality is a totally different story for me, as is religion.