How I stopped reading fantasy and started reading classics- a guest post by Malcolm McNeill

I guess everyone has a hero to zero story.

Mine: when I was thirteen I decided to move from a school in Glasgow where I’d studied since I was five, to a new school in Edinburgh, a boarding school, on a scholarship. This meant I moved from a place I knew and understood and was familiar with, where I was popular and well-liked, to a new, unfamiliar environment, where I was immediately reduced to a nothing (as were all new boys), and surrounded by behaviour I had never seen before, could not understand, and did not wish to understand. It was a gruesome shock.

I was never bullied, but the atmosphere was one of delight in cruelty, and it was this I retreated from—from the ugliness of it. I went into deep withdrawal, and I started to read fantasy.

I’d always been a reader, but this was different: the act of reading had been corrupted and lost its innocence. Previously I’d read in the pure way children read, the soft-in-the-eyes, up-in-a-tree way. Now I was reading out of desperation—to escape from something dreadful.

Under these circumstances, the lure of fantasy was given a new potency, and I quickly became addicted. Each time I took out a book from the house library, I had to sign my name in a small jotter. Before long it was filled with my name and hardly anyone else’s.

Unwisely, I chose a corner of the dayroom beneath the wall-mounted TV for my reading spot. If any other boy was watching TV, they would also see me reading a book. I didn’t do that for long. I was soon astonished to be “slagged off” for reading fantasy. “Live in the real world!” I was told, by the boys who had made that world so pleasant.

It was an isolated incident, just one of the floating acts of maliciousness generated by the restless boredom of unhappy children. But the little suggestion turned out to be quite formative.

What I took from it, first of all, was the unsettling idea that it was possible for one kind of book to be silly, and another to be not silly. That there were “kinds” of books at all was new to me. (I suppose this was my first encounter with literary criticism.) Was it silly to read fantasy books, when some other activity was available? It didn’t matter how the message had been delivered, or who delivered it—was it correct? I didn’t have an answer.

I started to think about this strange phrase, “Live in the real world.” It was the first time anyone had said it to me, and there was something about it that made me suspicious. I analyzed it furiously, and so, by accident, I started to think philosophically, because certain words with deep and complex meanings had been used, like “live” and “real” and “world”.

It seemed to suggest there were two worlds, one real and one not real, and I had selected to live in the latter, and I’d made a mistake in doing so. But how could there be two of a thing, if one was not real? If there are two apples, and one is not real, there are not two apples, one real and one not real, there is simply one apple.

So there were not, in fact, two worlds, and if that was so, how could I be accused of living in a different one? On the other hand, if that other world was possible to live in (and it had to be, because according to them I was living in it) then it too had to be “real”, because you could not live in a place that was “not real”. So I was still “living in a real world” no matter what I did.

Despite all this, I knew the phrase was a figure of speech, and I was taking it too literally in order to pick apart the argument. I was simply being told that the physical world existed and the world of stories did not, and you could not escape from the former by building a home in the latter—precisely because the second world did not exist. This I certainly agreed with.

None of my new doubts stopped me from beginning to write my own fantasy novel, called Where the Sword Lies. It was about a boy who begins to feel a certain mysterious tension in his mind, which puzzles and alarms him, until he discovers that the tension he is sensing is in fact not a headache, but the furious struggle of the wizard Merlin to escape from the oak tree at the foot of his garden, in which he has been trapped for hundreds of years. Merlin tries to talk to him and give him various instructions, but can only communicate through the boy’s little sister, who can speak to Merlin directly because she is “still a child” and puberty has not removed from her the ability to talk to wizards in oak trees. But she is only small, and keeps garbling the messages, and they are treated as the outpourings of her imagination, not as a wizard’s increasingly agitated appeals for help. Finally the boy realizes what’s going on and gets his best friend involved, who is much more clever than the boy and somehow “immediately understands” and “knows what to do” because he “knows about this sort of thing”. The fact that what he “knows” turns out to be dead right is explained by the fact that he happens to be a bit odd, i.e., he is called Peewee, wears a tweed jacket and lives in an attic, unlike the hero, who has a normal bedroom. Then, suddenly, their peaceful village life is disrupted by a murder, because I happened to see an episode of Bergerac, and then we discover an “ancient evil” (the owner of the village sweet shop) is guarding Merlin in his prison, then there is an explosion at a prize vegetable competition, caused by camper fuel, not magic, because the ancient evil is not permitted to use its otherworldly powers “in this dimension” (even though the oak tree prison and Merlin’s powers of telepathic communication seem fully functional). The boy is rescued by his grandfather, who has blue eyes that never stop twinkling, with, mirth, or merriment, or amusement, and only stop twinkling when he is facing an enemy (the ancient evil), at which point they start glittering, and become “sharp as pinheads”, or something. I forget how it went. I stopped around page sixty four.

I even developed my own system of magic—a central pillar of fantasy writing—based on something called Ichor, a sort of fundamental fluid that came in different colours, a bit like the elements, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and imbuing various people to a greater or lesser extent. Merlin, uniquely, was imbued with them all at once—that was what made him Merlin. So he was extra-powerful, powerful to an almost absurd extent, though of course there were other creatures who were even more super-powerful “ranged against him”, such as the owner of the sweet shop, as well as another sort of Demon Baron called the Moriark Mark, who the little girl constantly refers to as Marky Mark, a fact that enrages the Demon. I knew the ending of the book before I’d even written the first sentence, because it was the same way all these books end: only the hero could defeat these enemies (for the tautological reason that he was “destined” to do so), but he would not know how until the very last second, by discovering, hidden within him, a truth, or a power, or a memory, that surges out of him through a conduit—maybe a sword, or a wand, or an orb, or his fingertips (it’s all a gigantic orgasm)—blasting the enemy into nothing.

In other words it was all extremely silly. Still, it should be clear that I enjoyed coming up with all this stuff and am still rather fond of it. I did it all instead of studying for my A-Levels.

By this time things had settled down. My year group passed into the domain of a housemaster with a zero tolerance attitude and a ruthless dedication to late-night patrols, who soon rooted out the worst offenders. Ringleaders were expelled, the boys generally matured. I found my niche and established an identity.

None of this occurred because of fantasy novels. It happened by following the “advice” I’d been given, by “living in the real world”. I formed attachments to people, to other students and teachers, by developing interests that had social implications, such as being in the school choirs, or doing school plays. I’d been given back the sense that there were indeed other people like me, who were interested in me, and with whom I had something in common. By the time I was sixteen things were tickety-boo. I’d even figured out a way to get out of rugby.

So I’d passed through the situation that had caused me to need fantasy books. They had helped me get through it, and I’m not sure what would have happened if they hadn’t been there: you do need bunkers when the bombs are dropping. But even so, a habit had been formed, and it was too late to simply stop. I brought the habit with me into a new phase of life that would not have produced it, and it became a hindrance. Life was getting “serious”. I was a candidate for Oxbridge English, but I was doing none of the wider reading required. I knew those intimidating dons would not be interested in wizards in oak trees, but did nothing about it, because I found the steroidally-enhanced escapism of fantasy novels too intensely enjoyable.

I wasn’t completely immune to the influence of other kinds of reading experience. I just did very little of it on my own. For example, I enjoyed Paradise Lost Books IX and X very much, but this enjoyment never transformed into the impulse to read Books I-VIII. It never even occurred to me as a possibility. There were two types of reading, as far as I was concerned: reading I did for myself (fantasy) and reading I did for teachers (everything else). Even though I was interested in reading, and ideas—even though I had the ability to read widely and deeply—I did not buy a single book myself, that was not a fantasy book, until I was in my final year in school.

I still remember exactly how this happened, because it was the first step in the transition from fantasy to classics.

I had won some prizes and was given a book token. I had to buy some books and return them to the school, so I could be presented with them at prize-giving, in front of parents, teachers, pupils and other guests, who would all be scrutinizing me very closely to see which books I’d chosen, and not asleep. So off I went to the Waterstones on Princes Street. What I really wanted to buy with this book token was the latest Terry Brooks novel, probably The Talismans of Shannara, a gigantic fantasy hardback that would disappear in a single afternoon, that Brooks had taken an utterly villainous, unforgivable amount of time to write, something like an entire year.

But I was not going to allow myself to be given this gigantic fantasy novel in front of all these billions of people who would rise up en masse and scream “LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD!” and then pelt me with copies of Das Kapital and physics textbooks. I had to be given something intellectual and impressive. Something not silly.

My usual section of the bookshop was Science Fiction and Fantasy. Clearly none of these books would do, so with a sense of betrayal and trepidation, I tiptoed into Fiction, a section I’d never been into before with the intention of making a purchase. Immediately I was incapacitated by boredom and despair. I didn’t see any names I recognised, and I didn’t know where to start. There were simply too many to choose from. It did not matter which book I chose from the fantasy section—I knew what kind of experience, by and large, the book would contain. What kind of “experience” would I get from fiction? I did not know. I sensed there was something different about these shelves, something more uncertain and chaotic.

Eventually I found the philosophy shelves. I was attracted to them, I think, because they were fewer in number. I also knew, and genuinely believed at this time in my life, that there was no finer thing than the study of philosophy—that was what life was for (with the exception of reading fantasy novels). It was certainly impressive to read philosophy, far more impressive even than reading fiction, and not silly (though I later began to wonder about that). Still, I was fairly apprehensive. I had joined a philosophy club at school, but I had no formal knowledge of philosophy and did not want to make a fool of myself by buying something no schoolboy would read.

I saw a book by someone called Bertrand Russell called “An Outline of Philosophy”. This seemed safe enough. (Six months later Russell destroyed my faith in God—but that’s what you get for leaving the Science Fiction and Fantasy section.)

Near Russell, because it was written by Ryle, was a book called “The Concept of Mind”, and I got that too, because that sounded rather safe as well. (Anyone who knows this book will be chuckling.)

My motives for buying them were quite a jumble. I was buying them, yes, out of vanity, because I wanted to be seen to have chosen them—I probably walked up and down Princes Street for several hours afterwards, holding them “nonchalantly” with the title facing outwards, so everybody could fall back in astonishment when they saw me. In fairness to myself, though, I was actually interested in this sort of stuff. Like I said, I’d grown accustomed to being educated. It was something that was done to me by others; it wasn’t something I did to myself. This kind of reading (for intellectual pleasure, or out of a sense of the obligation to understand) was done in a classroom, for homework, at school, etc. It wasn’t done on your own.

Anyway, I was given the books in front of all those people. None of them noticed, of course, because they were all thinking, “How many of these damn kids are there?” or “Oh my God, what’s next, the Jeffrey Thomson Memorial Prize for Sliding Down A Hill On Your Bottom?” or “Better be an open bar at the buffet.” Nobody saw, nobody cared, but I did earn a raised eyebrow from the visiting dignitary that kept me going, literally, for decades. As for Russell and Ryle, they disappeared into my bedroom and I didn’t read them.

The following autumn I was in Japan, an exchange student at a Japanese high school. To my astonishment they were using Bertrand Russell texts to teach English to the sixteen year olds. The Japanese teacher would come in, read out a section of Russell, then translate it into Japanese, and the Japanese students would all fall asleep. Because I did not speak Japanese, and could not possibly learn it in this way, I had nothing to do in class except read these Bertrand Russell books from cover to cover. I don’t remember the titles of these books, but it wasn’t technical philosophy, it was his later stuff, of philosophy applied to everyday life, and so it was very approachable. I suppose his way of thinking intrigued me—I was very struck by the demonstration that it was actually possible to apply your reason in a deliberate way to life, and the issues of life, instead of just to Measure for Measure and quadratic equations. It was an “Oh!” moment. Or, as we say in teaching, a “Critical Learning Episode.”

I’d brought his Outline to Philosophy along in my suitcase, probably so I could spend hours walking about Tokyo holding it “nonchalantly” with the title facing outwards, and now I actually read the thing.

Whatever you think about Russell as a philosopher, he’s good at writing about philosophy. I became a bit obsessed with him, and even fell in love with his mind—not his mathematical mind, which I never understood even remotely, but his clarity, his down-to-earthness and common sense. Most of all, his resolute application of logic to problems was new and fascinating for me, as an explicit technique.

I was still after fantasy books though. Kinokuniya has a flagship bookshop in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It was the biggest bookshop I knew of, and I reckoned if anyone had a good selection of English language books in Tokyo, they would.

As it turned out, I could only find a few shelves of cheap classics. I remember my eyes simply slid over these books, barely registering their drab existence, looking for my old pals, the snazzy fantasy covers that promised so much. These other books promised nothing, and they all looked exactly the same.

But those were the only ones I could see.

Well, I had to read something, so I wrinkled up my nose, and drew nearer. I bought Nicholas Nickleby and Jude the Obscure. With those two books, I felt as though a span had appeared in front of me. How was it possible for this span to be so wide? Dickens and Hardy both wrote about a young man growing up and facing difficulties. And both books came out utterly different. Which one was correct? Were either? Were both? If both were correct, didn’t that mean something incredible about human life? I loved Dicken’s wit and energy; I loved Hardy’s moroseness.

By the time I left Tokyo, I’d read more Dickens, more Hardy, Eliot, Austen, the Brontës, and a host of others. What did I think of them? I wondered where they’d been all my life.

You numpty, they said. We were in the fiction section.

And that’s how I ended up reading classics, and leaving my beloved fantasy worlds behind: because a day eventually came when they were no longer there to be had.

Why I ended up writing fantasy is another story.

Or is it?

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