Ashley and I will be at the Catfish Literary Festival in Athens, AL on June 4.
Today’s post is by Ashley Chappell, a lovely human being and author of YA Fantasy.
What follows might come across as a re-hashing of an old topic, but since it seems to keep rearing its ugly head I’m not going to apologize for making you read it yet again.
Disclaimer: This is only one awful encounter out of a million WONDERFUL encounters that I’ve had since I began my journey as an author. The people in our profession are 99% of the time simply the best people. Same goes for the readers. But this one tiny experience really got my hackles up and after I heard similar stories from other SFF and YA authors while I vented on writing forums, I made this my ultimate story of caution to new writers. Wait until the end – there’s a moral to this fable.
What happened? On my honeymoon back in 2014, we were on a cruise with some of the most well-educated and interesting people that I’ve ever met. Keep in mind, we were the outliers in average cruiser age by about 35 years, but these people have done everything – taken over banks, vacationed in Antarctica, built working test farms in drought-ridden African settlements, the list goes on. And I could have listened to the stories of 90% of these brilliant people until the sun rose. But that other 10% – pardon me while I take a drink for courage – were entrenched academics in primarily liberal arts disciplines.
Let me clarify here: The liberal arts are my lifeblood and where all of my passions go to snuggle up with a book, a surrealist painting, and a tangy wine and cheese pairing. But, in the darkest and narrowest parts of that arena, you can find the most immovable and pompous know-it-alls in the entire population of people with heads up butts.
You guessed right. This is the embodiment of the 10% I’m talking about here. These were the people who, despite the gloriously diverse selection of wine bottles paraded by our dinner table every night, tut-tutted with disapproval over every sip. Somehow conversation at these tables was always eventually guided to the topic of literature, an arena in which our resident academics were practically frothing over with wisdom they were dying to share. Whether we wanted it or not. And, without fail, they drew their prim little lines in the sand and placed fantasy, SF, and all popular fiction on the opposite side from ‘Real Literature.’
The incident that got under my fur the most (and the one that left me lying awake in bed wishing I were more confrontational and not just a passive-aggressive blogger), was the dinner with the lady I will refer to as the I-can-quote-articles-I-read-on-Slate-Lady. Maybe I’ll just call her Slate Lady for brevity.
This time the topic came up before I could even wave my Author Flag (they have those, right?), and Slate Lady made it clear immediately that she only read ‘Real Books.’ This, it turns out, is a literary unicorn of non-fiction and obscure authors who devote their lives to developing dark symbolism that would be a wet dream for any classic Russian novelists. I couldn’t help myself. I asked the question:
Me: “What about Fantasy and Science Fiction?”
Slate Lady: *Sniff* *Derisive laugh* “Um, just no.”
That was mere moments before she launched into her tirade of shaming adults for reading YA that came almost verbatim from this Slate article that ticked off readers and writers of all genres that same summer.
And no, *sigh*, I didn’t call her out. I didn’t acknowledge the immediate surge of brilliant rebuttals including this one from the Washington Post and this one from CNN. I did at least turn to another lady at the table (one of the sassiest and my favorite from the trip) and started talking loudly about how awesome it is that popular fantasy and even comic books are bringing a new generation of previously non-readers, especially among young boys. Remember that passive-aggressive thing I mentioned before? Damn it.
Eventually, that same awesome lady (an angel, she is) next to me pointed out to Slate Lady that I was an author.
Slate Lady: “Oh? And what do you write?”
Me: “Young Adult Fantasy and Satire.”
Slate Lady: “Hmm.”
I didn’t say a word. I’d love to say it was because I just didn’t want to spend the rest of the cruise on a small ship with someone at whom I’d thrown my glass of wine, but I just plain suck at confrontation. With or without alcohol. Eventually I’d have just gotten emotional and flustered and ended with an eloquent “Up yours,” so I decided to save my venting for you lucky readers on the blog.
What I WISH I could have said to her is something along these lines:
I write a series about a young girl who was abandoned by her parents and forced to discover who she was all on her own in a world that wasn’t forgiving of her ‘gifts.’ It’s about a child in what amounts to slavery who’s never known a life outside of abuse and neglect, but who overcomes her pains and heartache by retreating into her imaginary world.
It’s about laughing at ourselves and the empty traditions we value without knowing why and taking stock in our instincts before we let our fickle brains over-rationalize us out of the right choice.
It’s about learning the hard way that maturity, at any age, is no match for experience.
And finally, it’s about remembering that the right thing to do is still the right thing to do when no one is looking. It’s a novel for anyone who’s struggled with how they identify themselves and learned to define their own niche in a world that doesn’t have a place for them.
It just happens to be set in an alternate universe filled with magic, gods, and creatures. But yes, it is a REAL book.
So this post, I suppose, is as much about venting as it is a rallying cry for all of the writers and readers who’ve faced the accusation that fiction has nothing to offer because it “isn’t real.” This is where that moral I promised you comes in: DON’T BELIEVE THE “EXPERTS.” Authors might seem magical to those who don’t write, but we don’t have wands that create mystical social, family, financial, or political situations that could never exist. It’s pure insanity to think that our stories, whether in space or on Middle Earth, are anything other than an honest reflection of the world we live in, with the good and bad of actual human experience all rolled into one literary package.
And yes, Ms. Slate Lady, I used the word ‘literary,’ because whether you believe it or not, I write real books, too.