Why We Read Fantasy

I admit, it is a stretch to understand why someone would write novels with social injustice themes and run an grassroots political blog would suddenly go off and begin writing YA fantasy, But this I have done and I am trying to understand that there is no dichotomy as long as I enjoy the ride (and, I guess, my readers do).

I have just completed the manuscript for my second fantasy novel. What began a year ago as a way to bond with my oldest son (an avid 12-year-old fantasy reader) has become a whole new experience. I had previously read Tolkien, Paolini and probably a few others, but I never considered this my genre.

Now, 180,000+ (two books) on, I am avidly reading about fantasy writing techniques, devouring books by authors such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore, and considering getting my ears pointed (okay – but there really are people who do this cosmetic surgery).

Hey Mom, at least I promised no tatoos!

Whenever I tell people, especially those who know I write political fiction, about my foray into the world of fantasy, I do so in a somewhat apologetic way. Usually, I make sure to tell people that I am doing it for my son, which while true, is only one part as my enthusiasm grows. 

The question that is on my mind these days is why do intelligent, educated adults enjoy plowing through 90,000 word tomes about elves, dwarfs and dragons? Here are some Wiki answers:

“Some fantasy readers are unhappy with their lives and think that they would be happier in another world. A place where someone who is not so successful in this world might be a hero or king in another world.”

Lord of the Rings - No one understood elves like Tolkein.

“I like reading fantasy books because they provide me with a beneficial different point of view on world and everything. I like to think about it using the analogy to house that you may live in but you’ll never be able to understand if you don’t ever get outside and look at it from perspective.”

“You can see a lot of tiny details in fantasy books that you may somehow lose in your everyday life just because they aren’t getting enough your attention… Digest them and they’ll make your life more colorful and interesting.

A lot of fantasy is about the world we would like to see, a dream we want to pursue. Where would we be at if we didn’t dream?”

“Older readers might enjoy Fantasy because of its imaginative scope, and also because of the uncanny ability fantasy has to show us aspects of our own lives in an otherwise far-fetched format. People can relate to the emotions and experiences of fantasy characters, as well as mirror events in human history, through the blurred mirror of the fantasy world.”

“Fantasy is a place to escape when you no longer want to live in real life. Where you can let your imagination run free and have control over what you see and hear.

Many people like to escape the hustle and bustle of real life and be captured by a story which involves something special, unreal or different – possibly magic. People enjoy being in someone else’s shoes – someone extraordinary, so that we can look at the world through anothers eyes. You can switch off and enjoy letting your imagination run wild.”

Do you read fantasy? If so share what the attraction is for you? If you read it once in a period of your life, why then and not now?  Fascinating stuff. This blog is going to be a one-post-a-week (my other blog is daily) and focus on my journey into the world of fantasy.

Hey, want to join the quest? I promise swords, elves, brave exploits, and most of all, friendship.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#elfwriter).

7 comments on “Why We Read Fantasy

  1. Susannah says:

    I’ve been reading Sci-Fi/Fantasy since I was a girl many long years ago, and I still love my “mind candy” as much as ever. With the advent of self-publishing, it’s not quite as easy as it used to be to find excellent books in this genre, books that are not just a good idea but have been well written and properly edited; however, when I do discover them, Sci-fi/Fantasy is a terrific genre for getting away from it all, right in your own back yard.

    If you’ve not yet had a chance to read Octavia E. Butler, I invite you to this experience. Ms Butler was the first African American sci-fi writer out there, mentored by Harlan Ellison and the winner of a number of prestigious awards. My personal favourite is “Lilith’s Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago” (three of her stories in one presentation). Enjoy! 🙂

  2. Thaise Klich says:

    I’ve been reading fantasy ever since I could read. I sincerely don’t know if I do it because of habit or if the habit of reading fantasy twisted my perceptions about other books. All I can recognize now is that books with ordinary characters, people I could meet on the street, do not hold me like the fantastic ones do.
    Weird, isn’t it? But I suppose it’s ok, as long as there are fantasy books to be read.

  3. Fantasy doesn’t have to just be GRRM sexist middle-ages escapism. Good fantasy writers explore issues like Jo Spurrier in Winter Be My Shield (class, gender, race, disability) and Francesca Haig in The Fire Sermon (disability in dystopian SF). While I enjoy escapism, I’m drawn to well-written books that explore social issues and the human condition.

    I’m bored with the other stuff, the same old tropes being trotted out by authors who only seem to read their own genre. While there is commercial demand for traditional fantasy and it can be like comfort food when life is stressful, I’m only interested if the characters are engaging and the plot is interesting (and preferably not made of Swiss cheese).

    I agree with Susannah: well-written, well-edited novels are becoming rarer. En masse books are slipping into the 1 to 3 range. Increasingly I’m reading stories in other genres to ensure I’m reading 4 and 5 star books.

    I disagree with Susannah that it’s the fault of self-publishing, however: as publishing houses of all sizes look to their bottom lines, the standard of editing has fallen considerably. It’s my understanding that only A-list and popular high-B-list authors have a shot at structural editing these days. Even when structural edits occur, editing is contracted out so editors are required to be fast to achieve deadlines instead of thorough. Also, a thorough editor risks offending the author and publishing house, thereby losing work in the future.

    Diversity is problematic: a publisher working for Pearson Education volunteered to mentor me in a disability mentoring program then, when she learnt I am vision impaired, she told me she didn’t want to mentor me and she’d personally ensure I would never be employed by Pearson. She instructed me to change my degree, change my university and find a different career because no one in publishing would ever employ me. With such a monocultural industry, with the majority of employees being straight white nondisabled middleclass women, publishing is in dire straits. (FYI Pearson Education’s response to my complaint was to state that, although all of the above occurred on their premises with their knowledge and permission for this woman to mentor there, they did not condone her conduct. Kudos to Pearson for not denying what occurred; I suspect staff saw me bawling my eyes out in the boardroom with its window/wall facing an open plan workspace.)

    Good writers ensure their work is properly edited even if it means hiring an editor themselves. Good writers write diversity after respectful research. Good writers also engage good beta readers for feedback, especially when writing others’ experiences to ensure they’re representing not misappropriating by creating minority sock-puppets to enact the author’s ill-informed biases. No one can be truly objective about their own work so it takes a village to raise a book-child.

    • Elfwriter says:

      Thank you so much for sharing such a difficult story. I want to agree with what you say about breaking out from the troupes and, sadly, with your assessment of the industry. You remind me that I read a series a long time ago – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – and thinking how brave he was to present an “imperfect” protagonist.

      I am so sorry for what you ensured with Pearson Education and hope you will find those who can support you and help you find your niche.


  4. […] Know your readers…here’s an older post from elfwriter.com that is worth a look: Why We Read Fantasy gives a look inside some of the readers out there who enjoy epic […]

  5. antimetica says:

    I liked fantasy as a pre-teen and teen because many of the stories were about transformation and maturing. I liked Piers Anthony but at some point found it too silly as my tastes changed. Early on I read the Belgariad and the Wheel of Time – they were just plain fun. The older I became I began to enjoy sci-fi more, and especially worlds that had a mix such as The Dragonriders of Pern and Andre Norton’s Witch World (with Piers Anthony being the earliest @ Split Infinity). Eventually I favored sci-fi over fantasy and currently gravitate toward hard sci-fi, cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic. What turned me off about modern fantasy was the amount of “mary sue” writing. The characters all were a little too perfect, their “flaws” masquerading as humble-brags, and the author’s voice (inner desires) a little too prominent. Good luck to you and your writing!

    • Elfwriter says:

      Thank you, antimetica, I appreciate your comment. I loved Wheel of Time and started The Dragonriders of Pern when I didn’t have time to get into it, but I will definitely give it another go.

      Love your “mary sue” comment. I never heard this phrase, but it is so true. I had to do a lot of rewriting earlier on to avoid this mistake. In my latest novel, Kingfisher: Slave to Honor – http://bit.ly/2ttpqt9 – a number of beta readers felt I made a protagonist too dark and want me to make her a bit more ‘heroic’. Still not sure if I will but your comment was really timely.


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