I have often wondered what brings people to their favourite genre of book. In my experience, people seem to be more wide-ranging in their choices when it comes to films and even music, but often, even if you read widely, you will often have a preferred genre of book, your very favourite works of which you will revisit again and again as the experience is something you don’t get bored of savouring. I’ve often mused on whether you aquire the taste for your particular type of reading material, or whether you were born with it.
I often thought I would grow out of science fiction and fantasy. I started reading it as a typically awkward teenager, choosing to escape from myself rather than get to know or improve the person I was but didn’t understand, as many often do at that age. There was a stage when evenings after school I was more likely to be found closeted with a science fiction novel than in the front room watching the television. I devoured book after book, took them in to school to read at lunch times and counted down every minute in lessons that lay between me and escaping from the real world to the fantastic other-worldly places created by all those authors, which felt more like home than home, precisely because it wasn’t home. Escapism is a major part of enjoying art, particularly fiction, so it’s not unsurprising I enjoyed the most far away of places at a time when I was must unsettled.
But even now as an adult, with two degrees in English and Creative Writing under my belt and the range of reading material that came with them, as well as a solid number of years living happily in the real world of work, people and (less happily) bills, I still find myself drifting into more often than I drift out of, fantasy. I have generally branched out and I think my reading palette is more sophisticated, bring into my realm of favourites some historical fiction and some works outside the realms of obscure, some of the world’s favourites in fact, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca being probably the most notable examples. But arguably, even in these exceptions to my general rule, you can taste the flavour of the fantastic: darkness, mystery, discovery and an ‘other’ quality that is suggestive of the not-quite-real. I have even attempted a few short stories deliberately in genres out of my comfort zone, like crime (see my short story Hearth and Home) but even here I was unable to resist stirring ina character that was more than ordinary.
I can’t seem to draw any logical conclusion from this, other than that even now that I am happily entrenched in myself and the world I have made for myself, flights of fancy and fantasy are too enjoyable to grow out of. And perhaps it’s less about escaping who you are than letting yourself be who you are.
Which leads me to wonder about others’ and their tastes and whether they come from experiences found on the path life has lead them down, or from sort of person they are. My mum loves crime fiction, especially that written by a few particular authors, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers being two of the most prominent on her bookshelf. In fact, like many of us bookworms, she will more often than not revisit these old favourites rather than seek out something different. And yet my mum is about as far from a criminal as you can get, and one of the gentlest and most forgiving souls I’ve encountered, so what is it that draws her to these tales of theft, betrayal and often murder, the grislier the better, again and again?
Maybe, then, it’s not the genre, the taste or the flavoure that is the important thing, but just a damn good story. A reality other than your own so well-formed and expertly played out by the writer that you can’t help but be enthralled, no matter what you’re like. I know my mum has recently got into Terry Pratchett too which seems to support the idea that a story well told is a story to enthral, no matter what your preference or personality.
Thus is the power of the well-told story, and maybe we’re all powerless to it’s pull. I know I’m a firm believer that even if you do have a favourite genre that you are loathe to stray from, you can still always find something somewhere else that can surprise you and stimulate areas of your soul that are normally exclusively reserved for your favourites. So I rarely turn down the chance to try something new. But even then, a firm favourite of someone else’s that may be well told, well written and described by them, fervently, as a damn good story, sometimes will just leave you cold. Clearly you can see that these are good stories, can see why your fellow recommended them, but still they just do nothing for you.
So clearly it can’t all just be about talent of the writer or quality of the story, though these aspects combined are often hard for the most stubborn to resist, but clearly not impossible.There will be occasions where taste will overwrite all, even sometimes against your better judgement. I found this with, for example (and I often get abuse or, mroe often, dazed, bemused looks from fellow bookworms/writers when I admit this) with 1984. More than a classic, it’s a cornerstone, a bastion of literature. Maybe even a footstep in the path of humanity. I understand this book, I appreciate it’s message and I value it’s significance…but I just didn’t enjoy reading it. Maybe because my enjoyment tends to be fostered in that which takes you away from the real world and it’s problems (and though undoubtedly science fiction, I don’t think anyone would deny that 1984 is a commentary on humanity in this very real world of ours, pertinent at the time it was written and still resonating today) this story sucked you deeply into reality and look at some of its ugly truths, the very opposite of escapism.And you can’t deny and you can’t help what you enjoy, even when your acquired knowledge would argue against it.
Taste, it seems, cannot be ruled by logic and doesn’t necessarily give flight to your innermost desires. So the love between you and your genre must be something deep, indefinable, a mixture of what your experience has lead you to prefer, what your personality is drawn to and where your imagination most likes to roam. This combination of factors must mix uniquely in everyone, which is why even a book shared between firm pals, with intrinsically linked personalities and experiences and often similar tastes, can still just not communicate to them both in the same way.
The link between you and your favourite books is a special bond and one that more often than not does not break, though you may drift apart sometimes, only to come back together more compatible than ever.
And perhaps analysing the reasoning behind it is redundant, maybe even goes against all that you can learn as a writer as well as a reader. Maybe we should all just sit back and enjoy the journey, whether it’s to pastures new or into familiar territory, and not worry about what it might say about us. Bon voyage!