In a few days World Book Night will be marked in the UK. Now you may be confused. You may have heard of World Book Day and you may also have heard that World Book Day was for children, and yet I shall be talking about books for adults. So what’s going on?
When do you read? And what do you read whenever it is when you’re reading?
I ask this because I find that, almost unconsciously, I’ve slipped into an odd habit in recent months. Before your imaginations leap to unwarrantable conclusions, I hasten to qualify this statement: I’m finding — increasingly — that not only am I reading two or three titles simultaneously, I’m additionally selecting what time of day to read them.
In a sense all fiction is fantasy, isn’t it? Derived from Latin phantasia, ‘fantasy’ comes ultimately from the Greek word φαντασια, ‘imagination, appearance, apparition’, formed from a verb meaning ‘to make visible’. When we write we create images in the mind of the reader, ‘phantoms’ of what might be real but isn’t; indeed, even non-fiction is always a construct which, while trying to reflect reality, necessarily creates an illusion seen from the particular point of view of the writer.
Nowadays, though, fantasy is genre-specific: it implies magic, imagined new worlds, new eras, often contingent on our own but having no true existence. Sometimes literary snobs call their preferred fantasy ‘magic realism’, as if a different label fools anyone, but of course magic realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Fantasy is often dismissed as not only essentially unreal but also escapist, for people who can’t accept how the world actually is or even was. A shame, this, as fantasy fiction has a way of commenting obliquely on ‘real life’, by which I mean the life of our imagination through which we mediate all that we experience.
How do you read fantasy? Do you race through it for that sense of brief escape? Do you obsess about it, write fan fiction around it, role-play parts in costume, communicate with like-minded individuals and treat the key characters as if they are, indeed, real people? Or do you approach each work as a piece of literature and accord the author a bit of respect for their role as demiurge in the creation of a new world?
It’s been a while since I did evening classes. The last course I attended was for learning Welsh; I was a tenacious attendee — those like me who didn’t fall by the wayside managed, over some two years, to get through three different tutors with very different teaching styles — but I can’t say I have any proficiency in the language. It’s a difficult tongue for English-speakers to become acclimatised to, very different from Italian, the language I also lasted two years with; English shares so much more in the way of word roots with Latin languages, and for me familiarity with French made things so much easier.
Before that I took a course in teaching English as a foreign language, and even got a qualification for it. Now can you see a pattern here? Language, language, language — it was surely time to do something different. And so it was that I found myself signing up for a creative writing course.