Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Assignments and Other Artificial Emergencies

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Assignments and Other Artificial Emergencies

Binge readers beware!

“Finishing one Henry James novel a week is like trying to chug a pint of Bailey’s Irish Cream a day,” a favorite professor declared when I mentioned the reading pace of another professor’s class. “You can’t absorb it, you certainly can’t enjoy it, you’ll never want to look at it again, and there’s just no need to do that to yourself.” He regarded it as a violence against the books and their author, too, to demand that a class read them at a pace that could only make them repellent.

My mentor’s advice saved me from Henry James, and Henry James from me. I still think of that day often, when my students gorge themselves on dense books they’ve put off reading until their school deadlines are imminent.

For that matter, I think of it some weeks when I face the deadline for this blog column and realize I’m still not ready to talk about Stephen King’s On Writing or whatever other nebulous notion for a post hasn’t quite coalesced yet. The more worthy a book is of patient consideration, the more likely we are to attach some kind of assignment, an artificial emergency, to it.

We’ve had some wonderful conversations here at Black Gate about best-of lists lately, as we do whenever a high profile best-of list comes out. Two contradictory (but equally visceral) responses tend to hit me simultaneously when I see a list like the ones that have been coming from Locus in recent weeks: I am a kid in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, overwhelmed with delight at how many delicious possibilities surround me, and I am a grad student all over again, having panic attacks in the bookstore because every single book I haven’t read is an indictment on charges of intellectual fraud.

WIlliam Morris’s original book design will slow you to a pace you can enjoy, whether you want it to or not.

My inner grad student wants to assign herself a reading list, pronto, because if she can just whip through enough canonical works with enough speed, the feeling of ignorance will surely go away. Surely. I can turn the inside of my own head back into a school, with all its school protocols in place. I can track myself, grade myself, chastise myself for falling behind, compare myself to my imagined classmates, and fret about what might go on my permanent record. I am far from being the only writer to respond to best-of lists in this way.

When Tolkien read William Morris, I doubt he did so in any hurry. When H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith were all reading one another’s work, I am pretty sure it was not with a twitchy anxiety about falling behind on the great universal syllabus. Someday I will finally get around to reading John Crowley’s Little, Big. 

Yes, yes, it’s a pity and a shame that I haven’t read it already. What am I doing here, blogging in public, without having read Little, Big? But I hope that when I do finally come to that book, I can come to it with some kind of joy of discovery, and not with the shame and apprehension of a schoolgirl behind on her homework.

Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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That illustrates how I feel about these lists perfectly. I hadn’t been able to find the right words, thank you.

Matthew David Surridge

You know, it’s funny; I was thinking most of the way through ‘well, there’s nothing wrong with reading quickly, necessarily, and sometimes books are actually improved by reading them at speed’ — then you mentioned Little, Big, and that book is not only awesome but a book I *had* to read slowly because it was so rich, so full of ramifications and connections and unexpected-but-utterly-right authorial moves.

So … yeah, good points!


When I find myself skimming a book (given that I am not in college and nobody other than King Me is assigning me anything), I realize, almost without fail, that it is not worth reading. True, once in a while when I’m sleepy, I read a page or so or a worthy book/story/play/article and discover I can’t recall a single word, but that’s clearly my fault: I am only human, after all (and am clearly NOT King, not even of myself). But I really can’t think of a book that is improved via speed––the speed of its consumption, that is. If it’s worth my time, or anyone’s, it ought to be worth my Time in Great Big Capital Letters.

That doesn’t mean it has to be Hugely Serious. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is nonsense from beginning to end, but it’s grand nonsense, clever and far-reaching. Speed read it? Never.

As for being an intellectual fraud, name me someone (other than maybe Umberto Eco) who isn’t.

I’m okay, you’re okay.

(Cue internet hug.)

: )


Matthew David Surridge

Sarah (and maybe Mark): When I talk about books that seem to demand to be read at speed, I’m not necessarily talking about bad books. I’m reading The Pickwick Papers and enjoying it, but I think I’d be incapable of reading it slowly — it’s such a knockabout witty book, I find it gains by a snappy pace. It’s exhilarating. A lot of Dickens seems to be like that, to me. Sprawling, yes, but the sprawl becomes both more impressive and more comprehensible when I read it fast; the quicker I read it, the quicker the author’s mind seems to be working.

Mark: See, Hitchhiker’s would be a great example of a book I prefer to read fast (not skimming, not speed-reading, but at a good pace). The humour gains from the velocity of delivery. I can contemplate the book and draw connections and reflect on the emotional experience and so forth after I put it down. That experience of prose is to me a shock to the mind, and often it’s made better by pushing the pace. Not always; sometimes style is such that I have to read slowly — the density or complexity making up for the velocity.

For what it’s worth, I usually find it easier to read a book than watch TV or a movie, and a part of the reason is that dialogue gets delivered so … damn … slowly. It’s limited to the speed at which people can talk. The liberating thing about reading is that the only limit is the speed of thought.

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