There are stories that I read that make me feel as if I have accidentally taken a right turn into the Land of Purple Elephants and Nonsensical Non-Sequiturs.
Then I realize that I am holding the book upside down.
(Also, sometimes literally, but I like to pretend that doesn’t happen.)
While there are a number of stories written just to be series of hugely imaginative, strung-together pieces of unusual imagery, I think that a lot of the time we may not be reading these stories from the same frame of reference.
I think that with many genres, we get used to a certain pathway through the events of the story. The events themselves may change, but the general pathway and the type of character interaction remains very similar. Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” is a type often associated with epic storytelling, but many genres have even more narrowly defined and specific sequences.
Most of the time I like this.
When I pick up a story in specific sub-genres, I know exactly what I am getting into and what I can expect out of my reading. As a consumer, I know what I want for these and I am happy to get what I am paying for.
The problem lies in the more general genre categories such as “Fantasy” or “Science Fiction”. Pushing the boundaries of these categories can be very rewarding for the reader, but it can also mean that the frame of reference for how we are looking at the story is wrong. If I come into a Fantasy story and expect an epic, sword-wielding journey and I am faced with the existential crisis of a man slowly turning into an insect, I may feel like I have just been whacked about the head.
The thing is, a lot of Fantasy writing in particular relies on roots in a very specific set of traditional stories and assumptions about how a fantastical world will work. When fantasy that is rooted in other stories or other assumptions is produced, it may leave the reader feeling as if they are reading the book upside down.
I see a lot of these changing structures in the deeper understanding that the internet has provided of multicultural myths and folktales. Someone who has run into these other types of stories and structures is less surprised by Fantasy pulling from non-fairytale sources. However, those who have largely read and enjoyed Arthurian fantasy may find stories rooted in Shinto ethics a little confusing and bewildering.
I hope that we see more boundary-pushing, more stories that aren’t rooted in the same assumptions and fundamentals.
Because sometimes a purple elephant isn’t a nonsensical non-sequitur.
Because sometimes it isn’t the book that is upside down, but our own perspectives.
I like both the familiar and the unfamiliar as a reader. Reading has given me worlds that I could never imagine and gifts that I could never imagine living without.
If you’d like to see my own attempts at perspective shifts, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.