I was listening to a very modern setting of part of the “Battle of the Trees,” the Cad Goddeu. The poem, or at least the parts we have of it, is long and strange, and includes a declaration by Taliesin of all the various shapes he has worn over the aeons. The list includes:
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
I have been the light of lanterns,
A year and a half.
I have been a continuing bridge,
Over three score Abers.2
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been compliant in the banquet.
From: Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collection “The Battle of the Trees.”
So, what does this poem have to do with writing, other than being seriously cool inspiration for something if you are not careful? Not a lot. But it seems to have a great deal to say about reading.
One of the most wonderful things reading can do is transform the reader into someone or something else. Yes, it can inform and teach, it can recount the minutia of governmental processes (like two books on my desk about making laws), it can explain. But fiction takes readers out of their normal world and into something different. It might just be a different relationship—like all the novels in the “mommy-lit” sub-sub-genre that NYC was pushing ten years or so ago. It might be about a guy with medical problems and his, ahem, inabilities (Portnoy’s Complaint.) Or it might be about a dragon trying to unmake his world just for the h-ll of it so it can be remade into something better.
Something the activist-publishers and their supporters seem to be forgetting, or at least willfully ignoring, is that people read to get away and to be someone different. A middle-aged tech-support guy with mild hypertension and two dogs probably wants to read about more than just the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged tech-support guy with a dog. Unless the dog is a greater sidhe who has been exiled to Overhill and who is trying to persuade the man to try some coding experiments to see if they will open a gate into Underhill. [Idea free to good home]. Maybe he wants to read about the adventures of arctic explorers? Or a woman who ticks off the god Apollo and is punished by always speaking the truth but not having anyone believe her? Or he wants to read about Taliesin and Gwidion’s adventures in a Wales that might have been.
I know that most mystery readers don’t go through the stores looking for books about people of color by people of color. They look for great stories, and if Gideon Oliver or Smokey Dalton happen to be black, hey so what? Granted, in the Smokey Dalton stories it is important because of when and where they are set, but the books are great mystery stories about guys investigating things. It does not matter at all that a middle-aged white woman writes Smokey Dalton’s stories. It didn’t really matter that a white guy wrote the Fu Manchu stories – they are still neat tales of deceit, honor, adventure, and exotic places.
Readers read to go away, to become someone else for the duration of the story. It is not fair for us as writers to insist that only X can write about X, and that only X should read about X. Yes, I have seen some people go that far and insist that they will only read, or their children will only read, about people who look just like them and come from their culture. And then they complain because not enough X people are writing books. *sinal salute* So it must be Someone’s Fault.
Most readers love stories. They love reading books by people who can put them into someone else’s shoes, or hoofprints, or pug marks, or whatever. Robotic tanks that have personalities? Sure, why not. If we writers lose sight of that critical fact, we are going to go broke, and readers become former readers. Or they re-read the classics and wonder what happened to the genres they loved back then.
The human experience is the core of stories. What was it like for a woman in Shang Dynasty China? What would a recovering druggie do when a lemur hops onto her table at lunch and starts talking to her? What is it like to be a shape-shifting dragon, or a creature on a high-gravity world who accepts a contract to rescue a piece of equipment that humans can’t reach (Hal Clements “A Mission of Gravity”)? Our job as writers is to find a way to do that, to entertain readers and to convince them that they are – at least for a few pages – El Cid’s wife, or a sapient elephant, or a black private investigator in the upper South in the 1960s.
So go write. And don’t worry that you are not a Y, or an L. Tell your stories, entertain your readers, and let your imagination roam.
And speaking of roaming imaginations, I have two fantasy novels out, one with dragons, one without. You know, like country and western.