I recently realised that I could divide my whole life into neat chapters according to which author I was obsessed with at the time. I have a bit of a tendency, after discovering an author who has particularly moved me, to then gorge myself on everything they’ve ever written. So here’s my life, laid out as the aforementioned series of literary obsessions. As with all obsessions, it’s slightly embarrassing; the teenage years particularly.
It’s a long one, so I’m sticking it below the cut.
I imagine Enid Blyton is a common one for middle class kids like me, though I do wonder if it was a bit of an anachronism for me to be reading her in the late 80s. They certainly seem distinctly old-fashioned here in the
future 21st century*. This is probably where the obsessive part comes from; my Mum had an entire collection of all 21 Famous Five books from her own childhood, and she passed them on to me. I think part of the appeal for me was that they were always set on holidays in the kind of places we went; picturesque coastal towns, ruined castles etc. Though I don’t remember Ginger Ale even being available back then (contrary to its apparent popularity today).
This was a similar deal. My dad had a collection of Swallows and Amazons books from his childhood (with gorgeous paper slip cases). Again part of the appeal was the similarity to our family holidays, but I think the gorgeous map at the front was the big draw (even if it did come complete with Dad’s pencil doodles from when he was my age 😉 ). I think Swallows and Amazons is the reason I have an abiding love of maps. I also have an abiding love of sailing dinghies for similar reasons.
Moving on to more recent writers, I think my next obsession was Jacques’ Redwall series, about warrior mice fighting weasels and stoats and foxes and things. This was my first encounter with fantasy writing, and it had such an impact that it probably set the course I followed up to my early 20s, books-wise. I remember the books being slightly melancholy, but full of noble deeds and good vs. evil narratives. These are things (well, not the melancholy) that I have real problems with these days, which will hopefully explain why I am distinctly uncomfortable with some of the writers coming up. Still, it’s the melancholy that stays with me, the sad tales of mice whose lives were cut short by the conflict that seemed ever-present.
Going into my teens, it was Terry Pratchett that garnered all my attention, for a couple of years anyway. To be honest, I don’t think I ever read it as satire; most of that stuff went right over my head (it was only hearing someone saying Djelibeybi out loud a couple of years ago that I finally got that particular joke). I think it was the world I loved – this wonderful place that gradually got more and more fleshed out as he went on. That and the gorgeous, lunatic covers.
One thing that did stick with me for a number of years after was the title of one of his non-discworld books: ‘Only you can save the world (if not you, who else?)’, which I took as a personal charge. I guess as a teenager I was simultaneously very earnest and kind of conceited – what on earth made me think I alone had a right to decide what would make other people’s lives better? I didn’t ever do anything about it (I figured that was what I would do when I grew up – fix everything), but I’m probably still pretty earnest; I still believe the world needs fixing, but it probably shouldn’t be my (or anyone’s) sole responsibility. At the risk of sounding all old-school socialist (and pointing out the obvious), change should be the result of the collective action of the people.
This was the suggestion of a librarian who saw me constantly checking out Terry Pratchett books, and (I guess) figured that I had a thing for fantasy-based satire. I don’t remember ever really loving these books; I think I read them more because I was hungry for books to read, but couldn’t find any that really appealed to me. Again though, I don’t think I ever really got the jokes, which was probably a major hurdle.
Now we get onto the embarrassing part/writers I have significant problems with today. I read (and re-read) Tolkien a lot as a teenager, and for all the scholarship involved (its folkloric roots, the creation of the elvish language), it all just comes down to black-and-white, good vs. evil storylines. I think my biggest problem though is that this is what fantasy means now. Elves and orcs and dwarves and big swords and epic quests to save the world and that’s it. It’s maybe a bigger problem in computer games than elsewhere, but I’m sick of it. If I never see another generic evil orc I will die a happy Niall.
Or: Tolkien but ‘gritty’. I guess I read it because it was a kind of adolescent power fantasy, but really, these books represent pretty much everything I detest today. I will now summarise the general plot they all follow:
War. War is hell. But warriors are noble and brave and courageous and good. Except for the warriors they are fighting against, those guys are evil. They killed our women! We don’t do that. We’re better than them, therefore we will inevitably win.
It’s possible I’m being a little hard on it, but this kind of fantasy seems to be all about glorifying war and soldiers, in the same way as David Cameron’s recent move to grant soldiers more rights than ordinary citizens is. And maybe it’s just me, but from where I’m standing soldier is just another word for murderer, and I don’t believe that’s something that we should be praising.
…and the spell is broken, and I finally discover a genuinely exciting writer. Discovering Scarlett Thomas was like living your entire life inside a single house, then one day opening the front door and realising there’s an entire world outside, and there are actually people like you there. Prior to reading PopCo (the first of her books I read), I’d found myself reading books largely defined by their genre, whether that was fantasy, ‘spiffing adventure’, literary fiction (there’s a reason you won’t see any specifically literary writers here; I find that kind of writing largely bland and unimaginative), or whatever. But PopCo didn’t really fit into any genre. Instead it wove in code-cracking, veganism, anti-corporate activism, and characters and environments I could actually recognise.
Her more recent books tend to have gotten the most plaudits, but for me the touchstone is Going Out. A genius reworking of The Wizard of Oz, set in the retail parks and housing estates of Essex, it works in wicca, early rave (it’s wierd how little we hear of that era these days, but the stories from back then are surely some of the most romantic in recent British history**) and an adventure along B-roads to a travelodge with one of the main characters got up in a homemade tinfoil spacesuit. And I love the ending, so I’m going to reproduce it here (bit of a spoiler, so in case you’re planning on reading it, you may want to skip this bit):
Everything here is a miracle; more beautiful than the pictures in his book, more bright and soft and real than images on TV. He gets as far as the edge of the lake, and there are ducks, and Luke doesn’t know how such perfect creatures could ever exist. They float perfectly on the water, which is a blue Luke’s never seen before, rippled with orange from the sun, the colour he never thought he’d see.
Also, PopCo literally changed my life. Without it, I’d never have become vegetarian.
I’m not sure Kelly Link really belongs here, because I’ve only read one of her books, a collection of short stories called Magic for Beginners, but that book (really the title story) had such an impact on me that I couldn’t really leave her out. A pirate TV Buffy directed by David Lynch, it’s still one of the most exciting stories I’ve ever read. And it’s available as a free download, so go read.
Again, Jeff Vandermeer maybe doesn’t belong here, as I never actually tracked down everything he’s written, just the Ambergris trilogy, but those first two books! They contain some of the most remarkable writing and imagery. His descriptions of a fungal city are incredible; I found myself seeing that bizarre place in my dreams. So much so that it came out in a game I made for Ludum Dare. I didn’t enjoy Finch so much; it felt like too much was made plain to see. Where the previous books had spoken of the city’s secrets in hints and ambiguity, it felt like Finch just said ‘Yes, it’s all true. Every crazy rumour.’ And for me, that drained a lot of the magic out of it. It’s not a bad book, by any stretch, it just feels a bit heavy-handed.
Pretty much the polar opposite of Tolkien. This is writing that’s heavily rooted in English folklore, and tied to a particular place (Cheshire). It’s some of the most eerie, moving writing I’ve ever read. I’ve quoted it here before, but I’m going to do it again:
he is hurt too much she wants to be flowers and you make her owls and she is at the hunting
…from The Owl Service. I actually first discovered Alan Garner as a child following the Elidor TV series. I wound up reading it, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and The Moon of Gomrath, in a collected volume. And I do wonder where I’d have wound up if instead of reading Tolkien et al, I’d have read The Owl Service and Red Shift back then.
Also, re-reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (also highly recommended), I’ve just noticed: ‘Tom’s a-cold’.
Catherynne M. Valente
My current obsession. I’m head over heels in love with her writing. I started with the two Orphan’s Tales books, which gradually sucked me in with the incredible imagination on display, but it was Palimpsest that completely knocked me for six. The last 50 pages or so had me in floods of tears, huge, distinctly un-manly sobs (very glad I wasn’t reading it in the dining room at work at that point). It’s been a long time since a book’s hit me that hard. I suspect I may have identified with the main characters just a little too much.
I think what hits me so hard with her writing is the combination of that incredible imagination (seriously, I’ve never read anything as continually inventive), and, for want of a better word, heart. Again, maybe I identify a little too much, but I find myself caring for her characters in a big way.
Here’s a poem she’s started writing. And again, it hits me right in the chest.
* – It’s probably just me, but having grown up in the (admittedly late) 20th century, I still can’t get used to the fact that the 21st century is now the present, and not the distant future. Time confuses and scares me.
** – e.g. the M25 convoys with everyone trying to get to secret raves, the apparent rush of euphoria when an entire nightclub was on ecstasy, feeding off the music and each other.