Genre Fiction Saved My Life
I gave up many things for graduate school: long blonde hair, contact lenses, the ease at which I smiled, and popular fiction. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my bookshelves and cluttered my dining room table. Reading for pleasure vanished from my schedule.
Instead, I trudged through the books that defined my new life as a serious intellectual. If I read anything beyond the assigned monographs, I found it necessary to read things labeled literary or non-fiction. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction appeared to be the only fiction appropriate for scholars-in-training. Most of what I preferred to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed somewhat less than serious. (Intriguingly, Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my carefully cultivated image).
I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about taking care of other children. I devoured books by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. Pike introduced me to the concept of reincarnation, and Stine provided my remarkable fear of garbage disposals. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts.
I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions trilogies. Their covers creased and fell apart. Their pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books, but I read on a Kindle now. I no longer see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books can’t fall apart before my eyes.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.
More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains could redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, these books were beautiful escapism. They permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled out between my mother and father. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my father’s time; the rest of the days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack or purse before school at one house, and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.
Horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; I witnessed casual cruelties weekly as I hoped that I would be spared some of the hurt. Horror confirmed my bias toward human interaction. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who (or what) you love. His books force us to contemplate something that we don’t want to: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I write about zombies.)
I lost a piece of myself when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out that I read horror novels? Would they think less of me? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read and reread the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have, but it was fitting. I needed once again to escape, so I scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, John Scalzi, and Devon Monk.
I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Andrews’ Kate Daniels and Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my fast favorites. I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that are Scalzi’s specialty, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I think about the narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.
My transition in and out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refused to read. Fiction once again saved me. I missed these books, and I needed them. Maybe we all do.
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