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Why Aren’t Adults More Inclined To Read Fantasy?

George MacDonald, a contemporary and friend of Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain, wrote fairy tales not only for children, but also for adults, and surprisingly, from our 21st century context, his work sold in the thousands of copies throughout Europe and also here in the U.S.
| Aug 17, 2012 | No comments |

Rebecca recently blogged concerning “The Appeal Of Fantasy For Young Adults.” My intention in this article is to simply offer the contrary in question form. Why aren’t adults more attracted to fantasy, and even more specifically, why don’t more men read these books?

I have a confession to make. I am a 37 year-old man who enjoys many things most would consider “manly,” like the NFL, camping, fishing, and even NASCAR, but even with that said, many men would take my “man card” if they knew that I liked to read fairy tales.

Of course, like any other literary snob, I’m peculiar about what literature I digest, and I have found the fantasy and fairy tales of George MacDonald to be some of the most introspective and spiritually profound. It would not surprise my wife, on any given night, if she found me sitting by the fire and reading one of his many works.

Many of you may have read MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin, which is what some say inspired J.R.R Tolkien’s goblins in the Misty Mountains in the Hobbit.  Others of you as children may have read MacDonald’s shorter fairy tales like The Light Princess or The Golden Key. But most don’t realize, and what made MacDonald unique, was that he wrote some of his fantasies and fairy tales directly for adults.

One of his most popular works, entitled Phantastes, was originally subtitled, “a Faerie Romance for Men and Women.”  This was the work for which C.S. Lewis wrote, “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”

So, this contemporary and friend of Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain wrote fairy tales not only for children, but also for adults, and surprisingly, from our 21st century context, MacDonald’s work sold in the thousands of copies throughout Europe and also here in the U.S.

One of the most oft asked questions I field when a newfound acquaintance realizes that I am a fantasy author is, “What age is your book written for?” or something of that sort. One time I need to answer, “Oh, sure, it’s for adults” just to see what sort of reaction I’d get. Those of you who know I am a huge fan of awkward moments in casual conversation may ask, “So, why don’t you do this?” Well, it’d be no fun, because I already know the reaction I’d likely receive: pooh-pooh. (For those of you who don’t have “pooh-pooh” in your vocabulary, it is a legitimate term that means ‘to express contempt or to make light of.’)  How do I know? Because of how I answer their question in reality, “Oh, well, Magnus Kir is written for a middle-grade audience, but older students and adults can get something out of it.” Something usually happens to the person’s face at the end of that sentence. It’s not obvious—usually a squint or raise of the eyebrow, or a slight turn of the head, or even an audible “huh.” No matter, I know what they are thinking: “why would I read a fantasy book?”

This is why I’ve posed the question. In the Victorian mindset, for a man to work on his farm, or play some croquet, cricket, golf or even join some friends for some foxhunting, then retire to his room to read a fairy tale was no inconsistency; but this would not work in today’s culture. Why is this the case? Have we not cultivated the minds of the young to enjoy such stories? Or are we simply not churning out works of MacDonald’s caliber? I’m interested to see what you think.

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Dean Hardy is the Bible Department Chair at Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina. His resume includes working with Palm Beach County Youth for Christ and a Masters degree under the tutelage of Norman Geisler at Southern Evangelical Seminary. In his spare time he enjoys watching Nascar races and the NFL as well as dabbling in philosophy and reading the works of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. Dean lives with his beautiful wife and two young sons in Matthews, NC. To learn more about Dean and his writing visit his Website, follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook.

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Paul Lee
Member

I believe that fantasy was once a male-dominated genre.  Now, women seem to read fantasy as much as men, and probably write it about as much as well, but I think it took decades for women to embrace the genre.  Still today, any list of the most popular high fantasy authors would have significantly more men’s names on in it than women’s — probably because men had outnumbered women in the fantasy writing world for decades.  Science fiction also was originally male-dominated, and it is also probably becoming much less male dominated than it once was, but I think science fiction is still more unbalanced than fantasy has become.

I don’t dispute that a lot of adults might think of reading “fairy tales” as unmanly, from the generation of Tolkien and Lewis until today.  Fantasy might be starting to become a little more socially acceptable in general (which goes along with women accepting the genre), but throughout the 1900s, fantasy was solidly the domain of unwashed geeks, right?

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Bainspal, I agree with what you’re saying about men reading fantasy more than women. It’s still true today, I think. In the CSFF blog tour, we have about a 50-50 ration men to women, although we feature Christian fiction and all the insiders agree that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of those readers are women. So we’re drawing more men.

However, I’ve read a number of comments from men who said they had to hide the cover of the book they were reading (heh-hem, naming no names, Fred. 😉 ) or who ignored a certain book because the cover made them think it was more romance than fantasy.

So I think it depends. I think men like fantasy but have a different idea about fairytale.

Becky

Sherwood Smith
Guest
Sherwood Smith

I think that fantasy is as popular as it was, if not moreso. Macdonald and his generation wrote in a certain style, which has become difficult (or boring, as the pacing is sedate) for the casual modern reader. I don’t think it’s the fantasy element so much as how it’s expressed.
I find that if one says ‘fairy tales’ adults will think of Andersen and other tales, especially those published for children. But if we look at the big sellers, there is almost always a supernatural element–Stephen King, magical realism, whatever–that suggests to me that people are unconsciously seeking the numinous, the irruption of the Unknown into the tight, seemingly practical and oh so very rational boundaries of non-religious lives.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Sherwood, your comment reminds me that the term “fantasy” has expanded so much. Now we include dystopian, steampunk, and urban right beside epic and fairytale. So do fantasy readers like all varieties of the genre? Unlikely. I suspect men may shy away from the types that seem lighter or more frivolous (Twilight, for example). I think we’d do the genre a disservice, though to suggest the re-telling of fairytales is somehow lesser fantasy. TV programs like Grimm have gone a long way to dispelling that notion, I think.

Becky

B. K. Miller
Guest

Well, here is one female who loves fantasies! 🙂 In fact, I’ve written a few myself!

My book series, “Paraiso’s Warriors,” is in fact written for young adults ages 10-17, but I have had just as many adults enjoy them, too. Like you, however, I would never say they were written for adults because…. well, adults don’t typically proudly proclaim, “I read fantasies!” Since the main character in my books is a girl, I’ve probably had just as many girls as guys read and enjoy my books. However, since my books involve spiritual warfare, I was a little dubious at first whether or not girls would get into them.  I haven’t heard any negative comments yet, though! In fact, the worship pastor of my church read my first 2 books in about 3 days!!

Personally, I love reading fantasies! There’s something about sword fighting and horses and evil villains that gets the blood going! And there’s a strong dose of reality in fantasies…. in fact, that’s what my books seek to point out: that “evil villains” are more a part of our everyday lives than we realize! (To find out more about my books, visit my website at http://BKMillerAuthor.com.) 

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors and always will be. I get a lot of my inspiration from him…. as well as from Frank Peretti. Pastor Mark Jones, my church’s worship leader, calls me a “female Frank Peretti”! 🙂     

Meagan
Guest

My father loved fantasy.  He read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and had the books in our home as we grew up.  My sisters and and I are all adults and of the 5 of us only 2 (including myself) read fantasy on a regular basis and love it.  My Grandmother loved MacDonald and gifted us with his works, including his fantasy works, over the years for Christmas and Birthdays.

The biggest problem that many people have when I try to interest them in the fantasy books I love is that they are too incredulous in the situation to allow themselves to be swept into the story.

I let people know that I like fantasy books (clean ones) and promote them whenever I can – one of the perks of working at a library and someone asks me for a suggestion as they are tired of the same old books that they always read.

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[…] I wonder. Is our perception of fairy tales changing? As Dean said in his post Friday, some guys feel as if their “man card” is at risk if they admit to reading fairy tales. […]

Galadriel
Guest

What really annoys me is how upside-down it all is. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” states:
But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.
 
For myself, there are some elements of scifi and fantasy which have more appeal as an adult. Even some modern programs acknowledge this:

Elton: When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all, “Grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it.”  But the truth is: the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better
–“Love and Monsters”

There is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look! 
–Sarah Jane Adventures.

As an “adult”, that’s why I read fantasy and scifi, and in a different way that I did even a few years ago.