Here’s a passage from a recently read crime novel, followed by an unexpected lesson learned:
“The girl was reading a novel by Felicitas Rose. At one point she held the book high enough for Studer to see the illustration on the cover: a man in jodhpurs and shiny riding boots was leaning against a balustrade, with swans swimming on a castle moat in the background; a young woman dressed all in white was coyly playing with her parasol.
“Why do you read rubbish like that?” Studer asked. Some people have an allergy to iodine or bromine, Studer’s allergy was to Felicitas Rose and other romantic novelists in the style of Hedwig Courths-Mahler. Perhaps because his wife used to read that kind of story, all through the night sometimes, which meant that his morning coffee was weak and lukewarm, and his wife had a soulful expression on her face.”
–Friedrich Glauser, Thumbprint, trans. Mike Mitchell, page 37
I ran across this passage in Friedrich Glauser’s crime novel Thumbprint and had to laugh. I don’t have to know Felicitas Rose or even if she’s a real writer to know what kind of novels this girl is reading. Or to know why the detective Studer, approaching the murder victim’s daughter for questioning, is disdainful of F.G.’s style novels. Or to know what this girl would be reading if she lived in the early 21st century and not the early 20th.
I’ve been a bit (okay, a lot) like Studer, and not just about romance novels, either. I’ve been known to be dismissive of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy. Allergic, with no sneeze-zapping medicine in the bathroom cabinet.
Here’s why. Most of the casual fiction-writing dabblers I’ve met in real life write in these genres. When I say I write mainstream or women’s fiction, they look at me like I’m either crazy (why would you write about that topic?) or confusing (what’s women’s fiction? mainstream? literary? What are those?). Then they talk about their “fiction novel.”
If you can’t see why that might frustrate me and make me roll my eyes, well, I’m sorry.
I know there are intelligent people writing in these genres; I’ve met them online and found them articulate, knowledgeable, and delightful. But these unfortunate real-world experiences probably account for my generally dismissive attitude toward these genres. Not fair, but true.
Lately, though, I’ve come to realize that just because I don’t connect with a particular genre doesn’t mean that other people can’t connect to it.
What changed my mind was a recent blog post by Writer Unboxed blogger Jo Eberhardt. In “The Power of Fiction,” she recounts a sadly familiar story of being bullied, taunted, and hurt by others during her teen years. Then a school gardener handed her a novel of speculative fiction.
In The Unlikely Ones, the main character, a girl called Thing, is being ridiculed, tortured, and imprisoned by a wicked witch. The girl has a stone inside her that causes her tremendous physical pain. Once the witch dies, Thing must journey to someone who can heal her of her physical pain, but along the way, she becomes a stronger person and is healed inside from the wounds left by the witch.
Jo says that she read the book twice in a week. From then on, when she was bullied, she remembered Thing. When she was kicked and taunted, she remembered Thing. And when she contemplated suicide, she remembered Thing—and chose to live.
All this thanks to a book of speculative fiction, a genre I’ve dismissed.
I felt ashamed. I may not like a particular genre, but other people may adore it. I don’t connect with fantasy, romance, or SF, but others do connect and see themselves reflected in the characters. I may be blind to the value, but others—like Jo—do see value in those pages. It may even inspire them to choose life.
The value doesn’t depend on me and my literary standards or preferences. It comes from the truth itself, the truth that has been clothed in words and wrapped in the cloak of a fantasy story. It’s a story that simultaneously can and cannot exist in our world, and it’s a truth that transcends worlds altogether.
Life is valuable. You are valuable. Live.
And I’ve learned a valuable lesson.