Fantasy World, Real Resistance

Alison Morris -- September 15th, 2007

I have a confession to make: While I like to think of myself as an open-minded gal, I do sometimes discover that there are stumbling blocks on my road to acceptance of all people, all things, all experiences. There are occasions during which I discover the shameful limits of my own comfort zone.

When I first started dating Gareth and learned that he was on the staff of a then biannual “fantasy adventure weekend” of the wearing capes and casting spells in the woods variety, I’ll admit it: I thought his nerd score had shot too high even for me, who had so often fallen for geeky guys with quirky interests. Throughout the first year and a half of our relationship anytime this “adventure weekend” would come up in conversation I would inwardly groan at the horror of having to participate in such a thing. I would grit my teeth at the knowledge that, were we to still be dating in October of 2006, I would probably have to spend a long weekend in the woods playing the time-honored role of “good sport girlfriend,” this time while wearing some RIDICULOUS costume and fighting monsters with foam swords. Yes, I performed leading roles in my high school plays and musicals. Yes, I adored my summer camp days and love hiking in the woods and sleeping in cabins. Yes, I have fallen under the spell of Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling, our beloved L’Engle, and so many others. And, YES, I have lots of extremely nerdy friends. What was the problem here? Who was I to judge? I don’t know, but I did — all the while HATING myself for doing so and not understanding why I was so leary of participating in a story, just because it was fantasy.

In one of my pre-Otherworld moments of trepidation I distinctly recall saying to Gareth, “It’s not that I don’t think I’ll enjoy it at all – I enjoy almost everything I try. It’s just that it’s "NOT ME." To which Gareth replied that the people who are into "live action role-playing" or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism wind up disappointed with Otherworld, because it’s not what they’re expecting — it’s not serious enough for them, and it’s not competitive. It’s the age-old problem with Otherworld, he explained for the umpteenth time, that the people who would enjoy it the most are the people who would least expect to. I smugly thought I would prove that theory wrong.

But of course (and you saw this coming, didn’t you?) Otherworld turned out to be none of the things I had been inexplicably fearing. My "adventure weekend" turned out, in fact, to be one of the single most entertaining weekends I have ever spent in my entire life. Seriously. I laughed my ass off from Friday night until Sunday morning. So did the other five members of my assigned party, two of them my housemates, three of them complete strangers at the start of the weekend, all of us regular working professionals by day, and one of us 68 years old. We were caught in a mystery replete with humor and suspense, completely unconcerned with our ordinary lives and seemingly light years away from it. 

In short, I had so much fun at Otherworld that I would love nothing more than to be able to go again as a participant and repeat the experience. But I can’t. With few exceptions, each participant is only allowed to attend ONCE. After that you’re left either with the memories, OR (if you’re lucky) an invitation to join the staff of the program, who (like the participants) pay to attend each year. Turns out I’m a lucky one (or a good team player, good sport, decent actress, something), as I am, it’s true, on the staff of Otherworld this year, alongside Gareth and the two members of my party whom Otherworld’s founder had spent eight years trying to convince to attend.

Now I’m also stuck in the same ugly role Gareth was for a year and a half — trying to figure out how the heck you convince non-role-playing, non-gamer types to understand that this weekend is guaranteed to be blissfully entertaining. The best way I’ve found to describe it is to say it’s like falling into a book. You are yourself but suddenly transplanted to an unfamiliar place where you’re surrounded by unfamiliar people. You introduce yourself to them, learn a thing or two about who they are and learn what object your party of six is supposed to be searching for. It could be anywhere and may have been taken by anyone. And your group has about 36 hours to find it. Clue the adrenaline (and maybe a Renaissance version of the James Bond theme). The trouble is that then you mention the costumes and the foam swords and your wavering audience now runs screaming into the hills.

I personally think almost anyone would enjoy Otherworld, but it’s especially meaningful for readers to attend — to literally feel what it’s like to tumble down the metaphorical rabbit hole, not just imagine it. But the fantasy cloak of Otherworld seems to trip up even folks like me, readers of the occasional fantasy novel.

What is it about this genre that is so off-putting to so many people? That’s what I keep trying to figure out. I’ve thought about it often in the context of books, and now I’m thinking about it a great deal as Columbus Day weekend approaches, bringing Otherworld with it.

In my experience the only way to get self-proclaimed non-fantasy readers to TRY reading a fantasy book is to earn their trust first. THEN maybe they can be convinced by themes or plots or descriptions of the writing. But the trust part has to come first. I suppose it’s true that trust is helpful when convincing someone to try something almost anything, but with fantasy it seems almost essential. Readers come to trust you as a person or (better still) trust your taste in books and then, finally, they’re willing to make that leap.

I’m curious if other people agree or disagree with this and curious if anyone has any good theories about why fantasy is so hard for people to stomach, at least until they’ve tried it successfully. Help me solve this puzzle, would you? And feel free to puzzle it out while you’re battling monsters with me in Connecticut over Columbus Day weekend. TRUST ME — it’ll be the cheapest, best fun you’ve had in ages. And if it’s not, Otherworld’s "Ridiculously Overconfident Guarantee" ensures that you’ll get double your admission fee back. (Imagine if bookstores offered that kind of reassurance!)

7 thoughts on “Fantasy World, Real Resistance

  1. Sam Musher

    (x-posted to Monica’s blog) There’s also a common attitude that if it’s schlocky and formulaic, it’s fantasy or sci-fi, and if it’s literary, it’s not. This isn’t a kids’ book, but I recently noticed a new acquaintance reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and made a comment about how I was so pleased to see sci-fi in the mainstream like that. “This isn’t sci-fi!” he said indignantly. “Dude, it’s about a man with a medical condition that makes him time travel involuntarily. Of course it’s sci-fi!” The more people continue to assume fantasy=low-quality, the more smart literary types will think they don’t like “that stuff.”

  2. ShelfTalker

    Thanks so much, Monica! As I wrote in the comments of your post, I still haven’t decided whether reading bad fantasy or being reluctant to dip into a different world were the things holding me back personally when it came to considering Otherworld, but…? It certainly bears thinking about! In any case, you should definitely give Otherworld a try, post-Newbery. In fact, I think the entire committee should! (ha!) Everyone, the URL for Monica’s excellent blog is as follows: medinger.wordpress.com Best, alison

  3. Monica Edinger

    You’ve certainly intrigued me. After-Newebery I’m game to give Otherworld a try. As to your question, I’ve written a lengthy post in response on my blog, educating alice. (The comments don’t allow URLs evidently so please go find it!)

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