I am 24 years old and too old for science fiction and fantasy. I was, in fact, too old for them at the age of 9, when my parents dutifully informed me that I needed to expand my reading horizons to include the “real world.” They didn’t want my head to get stuck in the clouds, after all, and they knew that I could do better.
Part of it was pride, I suspect. I was a voracious reader; without hard data, I probably read more in a single year of elementary school than three years of adulthood. In the annual reading level tests, I consistently scored as having a Grade 12+ reading comprehension. This innate literary drive and talent signaled to my mother early on that I was ready for the hard stuff. The classics. The Literary Canon, inevitable proving ground of school curricula and symbol of literati sophistication. It was her solemn duty to shepherd me away from the frivolity of fantasy, towards the wisdom and maturity of Twain and Hawthorne.
I said no and laughed it off. After all, I had Susan Cooper’s fight against the Dark and Diane Duane’s Young Wizards, Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic and Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop. The summer before I started third grade, I begged my sister to read me excerpts of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in secret, as I was supposedly not old enough to read the series myself. (Later that year we read Sorcerer’s Stone as a class. Afterward, we played the Trivia Board Game; I was the only one sorted into Ravenclaw and I trounced everyone else. I remain fiercely proud of this achievement.)
But then came the hammer. I was forbidden from reading anything except the school-assigned literature until I completed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was probably the single worst reading experience of my childhood, with the possible exception of Flatland in middle school. Trapped in literary limbo, disinterested in the writing before me but unable to mutiny against the all-powerful beings living across the hall, I struggled for weeks. I knew that appeasement was the only way to earn back magic and outer space. It was a dark time.
When the ordeal was complete, I don’t recall my exact judgment, but imagine I declared Tom Sawyer’s absolute adequateness to my parents before slinking back to my growing Harry Potter obsession and Tolkien love affair. The experience branded me with a deep mistrust towards anything labeled a classic for the next decade. My staunch refusal to read classics outside of school slowly morphed into an act of rebellion against the highbrow perceptions of propriety and art that would dare place limits on my enjoyment. “What gives them the right to choose what becomes a classic?” I muttered to myself. “Why should I ignore books being released right now for these old doorstops,” I snapped.
As a child, I was fairly convinced I had the best judgment.
But still, those notions tying genre to age and maturity were planted, and as I grew older I saw them repeated in the discussions and defenses surrounding genre and literary fiction, a term itself dripping with smugness. And it jars, as I grow closer to an age of expected seriousness, that I still love stories of the strange and supernatural, and that I’ve also come to love exploring them through the medium of comics and graphic novels, which as a medium is even more strongly and consistently derided as being for children.
It is foolish, and I chide myself every time I do it, but while browsing the shelves I sometimes find myself thankful that I am still young enough for people to not think “Wow, that’s pathetic” based on what I’m searching for.
It is a toxic habit of self-censorship to feel shame for wanting to read, based on perceptions of a society’s expectations that are often harmful, typically ignorant, and ultimately meaningless to how we should choose to live our lives. Nonetheless, these expectations can take root and force us to surrender access to diverse storytelling traditions and mediums. Nobody actually gets to care if I pick up a John Green novel, a stack of comics, and a steampunk romp. And likewise, I don’t get to judge if you’re stacking up on steamy romance, cozy mysteries, and a true crime thriller, unless I’m getting recommendations or questioning my impulsive reactions. Literature is too vast and too beautiful for such artificial limitations.