Thoughtful Thursday: Why do people hate fantasy… but still love Harry Potter?

Bestselling author Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t known for writing fantasy, so when his novel The Buried Giant featured, among other surprising things, ogres, it caused quite a stir. Ishiguro commented on the reaction:

“I was slightly shocked by the level of prejudice, sheer prejudice, against ogres … I couldn’t understand it. It’s just another imaginary thing, like any other imaginary thing.”

Well Mr Ishiguro, I share your perplexity. Among my friends I am the only one who openly admits to a preference for fantasy fiction. In fact, most of my friends actively shun the genre. Which is curious because they all adore HARRY POTTER, the most loyal disciples from book 1 through to 7. Why, for so many people, is HARRY POTTER the only fantasy they will ever read or admit to enjoying?

To solve this conundrum, I took the simplest and laziest approach and asked my friends on social media. My findings were as follows:

#1 (and breaking news): Fantasy has a geeky/nerdy image. OK, so no one’s shocked by this, but it does help explain the conundrum. Through widespread appreciation, HARRY POTTER, Twilight, and A Game of Thrones have managed to secure acceptance by society at large. They have shed their geeky skin like the girl in a teen film who, on removing her glasses, is revealed to be a beauty. Suddenly, it’s OK to fancy her.

#2: Fantasy is for children. This mistaken perception explains many adults’ unease with the genre. Children enjoy fantasy and magic, but as we grow up we leave them behind (not many grown-ups believe in Father Christmas). Perhaps for some people, casting off these childlike beliefs and entering a serious world of adulthood extends to all fantasy. It’s embarrassing to say you like reading about dragons because they aren’t real, which means they aren’t serious, which, in turn, means that you aren’t a serious adult. But I find it bizarre that these fearful people read any fiction at all. As Ishiguro says, the ogre is “just another imaginary thing, like any other imaginary thing.” It strikes me as just as embarrassing to weep for a fictional human (a figment of someone else’s weird imagination), as it does to weep for an elf.

#3: Fantasy novels are always huge series. A simple and unfortunate misunderstanding of the genre.

#4: Some people just don’t enjoy fantastical creatures and magic. At this point I pounced on the aforementioned double standard — the dragon in the room if you will.

If you don’t like magic and fantasy creatures,” I said, “why do you like Harry Potter?

My friends’ answers were well-reasoned. They like that HARRY POTTER is set in our world, there is an explanation for everything, and there’s a reason why we (as “muggles”) can’t see and hear the fantasy world. They also like the school setting and that they could relate to Harry and his friends. In other words, Harry Potter is believable. Which is extraordinary because, let’s face it — it’s not. If my friends’ can relate to Harry, surely there are other fantasy characters they can relate to. There are other fantasy novels set in schools and set in our world (many in fact).

I am forced to conclude that when people say they don’t like fantasy, what they are really saying is, they don’t want to try it.

The other day I offered someone an olive (stay with me). They said, “I don’t like olives.” 

When I asked when they had last tried an olive, they said, “when I was young.

I pressed them to try another olive but they weren’t having it. My point is — people are unwilling to try. But what’s particularly perplexing is that, unlike my olive-fearing friend, many people who claim to hate fantasy tried it when they were younger and they liked it. If I were to transpose this dilemma into the olive conversation it would go something like this:

Please, try an olive,” I say.

My friend, politely declining the proffered olive, says, “no thank you. I did try one of those when I was younger and I absolutely loved it. Best thing I’ve ever eaten. But, I have an overwhelming suspicion that it was only that particular olive that I liked and all other olives just aren’t for me. Goodbye.”

Do you have fantasy-haters amongst your friends? Have you ever been successful in converting them? How do you bring them to the light?!

One random commenter will choose a book from our stacks. Winners are notified in the comments, so make sure to check the notification box or remember to check back in about 10 days. If we don’t choose a winner within 2 weeks, please bug Marion.

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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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  1. Meigan /

    Surprisingly, none of my friends hate fantasy books. It should also be noted that none of my friends are readers (which is why I love book blogs and Goodreads so much!). I’ve never been able to sway them to read fantasy, or read in general, which isn’t for lack of trying :-)

  2. mary henaghen /

    I have used both Mercedes Lackey, and David Eddings to get frrinds of mine interested in fantasy. I would also try Seanan McGuire if the opportunity presented itself today.

  3. I have one smart, highly literate friend who cannot decode fantasy. I don’t know any other way to say it. She would probably do better, surprisingly, with straight-up epic fantasy, but if it is something like UPROOTED or contemporary fantasy with realist elements, she cannot tell whether an element in the story is magical or not. I’m not describing that well, but it goes like kind of like this:

    “The MC says reading her grandmother’s recipes is like having her back alive again. But she’s magical, so does she mean this as a metaphor, or does her grandmother come back to life every time she reads a recipe?” She cannot pick that up from context, even when to me it’s quite clear it’s a metaphor.

    Jo Walton calls the process of planting and unfurling magical clues “in-cluing.” My friend cannot decode the “in-clues.”

    I’ve stopped offering her fantasy books.

    • How interesting! Maybe I’m being harsh then by saying that most people just don’t try. Perhaps some people do try but the way they read fantasy means it doesn’t work for them. Sounds like your friend doesn’t like the very fantasy that I adore – I love the merging of real and magical!

      • This will sound strange; I don’t think she’s simply “not trying,” it’s more like she was trained to read a certain way from a very young age, and that technique doesn’t work well with fantasy. She doesn’t like science fiction either, but she likes techno-thrillers, so go figure.

  4. Many people find fantasy weird and superficial and they love Harry Potter, because the series became so famous that they had to read it and discover that they actually like it. May be they think that most fantasy books it’ s about settings, not about well developed characters and good writing.

  5. I think that part of the issue is that people have become convinced that all fantasy is “High Fantasy”, either Tolkien, pastiches of Tolkien (Shannara), or deconstructions of Tolkien (Game of Thrones), when that could not be further from the truth.

    The connection to the real world-the fantasy as the second world-seen in Harry Potter was more or less the norm in SFF. From Dunsany’s Elfland and Lovecraft’s Dreamworld to Farmer’s Tier-Worlds and Zelazny’s Amber, there is always the connection between the real world and the fantasy world – one steps beyond the veil from one to the other, and it can leave one with the impression that maybe, just maybe, they too could visit that magic land.

    There was also a much bigger blending of Sci-fi and fantasy elements in fiction prior to the 80s, but that’s a story unto itself.

  6. April /

    I don’t have very many reading friends – well, people who read at leisure rather than for work or school. Those few I do already like fantasy, so I’ve never really had this problem. My biggest problem is my brother who loves fantasy and scifi and reads voraciously but refuses to spend any time looking for new books to read and ends up reading the third in a series or something like that and asking me for recommendations. Do you know how hard it is to recommend books to someone who has probably read twice as many books as you and doesn’t have an online presence to show what he has already read? Very difficult.

    But, if I were to try and convince someone that liked Harry Potter I’d go with urban fantasy like McGuire’s Incriptid series or perhaps more YA fantasy – though only the ones without too much teenaged angst and romance, that can annoy potential new readers.

  7. Brandon /

    I just scratch their name off the “friends” list if they don’t like fantasy. Problem resolved.

  8. I actually was one of those people for a loooong time because I thought “epic fantasy” was synonymous with fantasy. What changed my mind was reading magical realism for the first time, where bits and pieces of magic fit perfectly into an otherwise realistic story. It wasn’t until then that I realized that fantasy as a genre covered a lot more than LOTR.

    • Yes, that’s what happened to me too! I’m not the biggest reader of epic fantasy but there’s so much more out there for us magic realism fans.

  9. I have one friend in particular who loves fantasy movies, but doesn’t like reading fantasy novels. He thinks many of the books are too wordy and dense, and I agree — they can be, especially when they’re filled with the author’s personally-invented terms and one is dealing with a moderate level of dyslexia, to boot. But now that more and more audiobooks are on the market, and are given really good-quality narrators, we’ve been steering his ship toward Fantasyland.

    (By the way, great topic and question, Katie!)

  10. Paul Connelly /

    As pointed out by several other commenters, there are people who never read. Stopped once they were out of school.

    There are also people who never (or only very rarely) read fiction. There are different motives for reading. Some people only read to Obtain Useful Knowledge. They don’t read to be in some imaginary person’s life, although they might read a biography or history book that’s stylistically like a novel.

    And some fiction readers only read For Entertainment, to cover the same familiar ground in whatever genre they’ve fixated on and avoid anything that challenges their worldview or their comfort zone. (Like the folks who only read techno-thrillers written by male authors or only read Regency romances written by female authors.)

    There are also people who read to maintain their Credentials as Serious People. So they will only read fantasy when it bears the stamp of “literature” or exhibits strong buzzword compliance with all the current Lit-Crit fashions.

    Those are all people who are unlikely to admit to liking fantasy. Any rational argument that could be made for disliking fantasy as a genre was pretty much demolished by Ursula Le Guin in several essays years ago. So what’s left is considering what motive people have for reading at all, and what makes them like what they like.

  11. John Smith /

    Before he became really famous in the U.S., I dutifully read “The Remains Of the Day” and an early novel about the making of a marriage contract in Japan. Everything is between the lines. Everything is not what you’re told. Everything is unreliable. And slow, so slow, achingly slow. I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything by him ever again. Maybe it would be better to read some wild, out-of-control writer of bizarre fantasies like Anita Brookner….

  12. Sandy Giden /

    I have some friends who read fantasy and some who don’t. My Mom doesn’t have any interest in reading fantasy but she enjoys Harry Potter. Her reason is the story is good and she likes the characters. But I had a hard time getting her to try the first Harry Potter book. She final tried it after the third book came out. I think that it is set in the real world makes a big difference for her.

  13. I’ve found SF a harder sell than fantasy. My wife isn’t fond of either, my daughter devours YA fantasy (particularly Percy Jackson – she gave up on Harry Potter at book 5 – can anyone recommend something with a similar feel?), but is edging towards SF (thank you Star Wars comics!).

    My friends devour both, plus technical, historicals and history. But they lean to fantasy. And they’ve read all the Harry Potter books and then some.

    So, what does this mean to me? HP is a gateway drug. And some folks never get past it. It’s urban fantasy light, without a lot of the challenging/sexy bits, wedded with the near universal literary concept of English boarding school. It also has the universal adolescent coming of age tropes as well.

    But if you get past it, fantasy can be easier to get into – in my limited experience, the genre used a lot more familiar tropes until recently (re: 2nd World Fantasies). It also has historically familiar trappings. Thus, if you like LotR, it’s easy to move over to something else similar. For me I found a lot of fantasy “Generic extruded product” it tended towards shallow and boring (for me). Which meant things that stood out, stood out a lot! And the more recent secondary world stuff (Craft Sequence, City of Stairs, etc.) has been a blast for me. I’ll have to see if I can sell folks on it.

    SF tends towards the diverse, with sub genres all over the place (and space opera, post-apocalyptic and zombies taking up a huge portion of the meme-space – with a lot of the same repetitive tropes). Thus it can be harder to find a common ground. I like trans- to post- human SF, and if it’s set in the solar system, so much the better. The problem with that is I’m unique among my friends in that regard. Which means I find a lot of their stuff kind of repetitive and they find mine “WTF?”

    In short, Harry Potter is _easy_. The rest of it slightly harder with fantasy being an easier sell than SF.

    • If she’s edging towards Sci-fi but still enjoys fantasy, I cannot recommend Leigh Brackett enough.

      My publishing company is in the early stages of putting together a new fully illustrated YA edition of one of her trilogies, which should be out by 2019, but you can find a lot of her books used fairly cheaply.

  14. Good question. As far as HP goes, I think it worth noting that each of the novels is a mystery novel, even if the series is clearly fantasy.

  15. What a fantastic column, Katie!

    As someone who still has not read a lot of fantasy (I mean compared to everything else I read), I agree with the LOTR problem. A friend gave them to me as a present and made me read them when I was 30. Well, they were impressive, and I did like them, but I did not want to seek out more like it. Luckily, I found other types of fantasy, but I didn’t really try that hard until I started reading and writing about comics. Comic books and my fellow reviewers really opened my eyes to the possibilities of fantasy (and horror, actually).

    I agree with the other comments about the overall problem that many people just stop reading as soon as they can. That makes me sad.

    The other problem is simple ignorance, of which I continue to be guilty, too, so I’m not simply pointing fingers here. I got a PhD in literature without being required to read any crime fiction or comics, but I have this policy that I teach my students: “If a lot of smart people like something and you do not like it, the fault is probably not in the something under consideration.”

    -I did not like classical music until I was 27.
    -Until I went to college, I did not like Shakespeare, or even Jane Austen, now my favorite author.
    -When I was a pre-teen, I did not like Jazz.
    -I did not like what was called “alternative music” until I was in college (I thought all good rock music began and ended in the 60s and 70s classic hard rock period).
    -Up until the age of 30 (when I got my PhD), I still thought MOST genre fiction as a rule was “lesser fiction” unless it was handled by a “great author” who could turn bad literary conventions into something worth reading. I did know there were a FEW good genre authors, but of course, in my great wisdom, I knew they were a rarity (and that they should probably be writing good literature). In other words, I was still a literary snob when I got my PhD, which makes me think I didn’t deserve that degree yet . . .
    -Until I was 35, I though all comics were garbage.

    But, in my early 30s, after being proved wrong so many times, I developed my policy which is designed to rid me of my ignorance when I have negative gut reactions or assumptions that I have not thought carefully about yet.

    So, I now love reading most kinds of genre fiction, and I particularly enjoy reading comic books using popular genres!

    And now I teach a course in Crime Fiction and a course in Comic Books, and I teach comic books in every course I teach. I even write about comics for this review site that’s not too shabby. My goal is to make sure college students, in particular, do not leave college as literary snobs. I also hope they leave college still wanting to read.

    I still don’t like Opera and many other things, but now I know that this is because of ignorance on my part and with enough time and open-mindedness, I know I might learn to enjoy, or at least appreciate, many other aspects of life of which I am still ignorant.

    • Thank you Brad! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      I do think giving someone LOTR as their first dip into fantasy is a risky move, I’m sure it wouldn’t have worked for me. I’m lucky that one of the first things I read was His Dark Materials and from then on I was hooked.
      I admire that you have applied your open-minded attitude to so many areas of life – definitely something I would like to do. Like you I do now enjoy classical music but opera has yet to win me over (as you say, utter ignorance on my part). I have to say though, I can’t quite get over the idea that all good music was made in the 60s and 70s – I was born after my time :(
      Very interesting that you include comics in your teaching – one of the reasons I didn’t choose to study Literature was because it felt a bit intimidating and snobby. I’m very glad that there are courses out there challenging the status quo.

      • April /

        I actually had a politics class in college that used Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as the basis for the course. It was a fun class and got me reading more science fiction where I had been mostly a fantasy reader up until then.

  16. I also have learned to apply my policy within genres and sub-genres. For example, after staying away from anything that resembled LOTR, I questioned that assumption as well, and I have fallen in love with Elric, who only at first glance would remind someone of LOTR.

    I have so much ignorance on so many levels that I have to keep identifying those to keep moving forward, even with my appreciation of literature, my main obsession in life.

    Another example: Brandon Sanderson was recommended as someone who has great “magic systems.” I cannot express the full extent of my lack of interest sparked by this remark.

    I have now read everything but a few of his novels for YA.

    And you know what? He’s got great f—ing “magic systems.”

  17. I have noticed my eighteen-and-nineteen-year-olds say that their friends consider fantasy to be geeky. Most don’t even like to admit they’ve watched LOTR. So sad!

    • That is sad, Traci! I though being a geek was “in” now. I feel like they make a distinction between Nerd and Geek, but I’m not sure either is positive (when they should both be, of course). But I thought that for teenagers “geek” was the positive term and “nerd” the negative one. Oh well . . .

  18. I feel the correct responce to any anyone who says they don’t like fantasy is “I do not like green eggs and ham.”

  19. This is such a great discussion! I’ve never truly thought about it much as I’m the reader of the group and that already classifies me as a nerd. Fantasy wasn’t even part of the decision there. Fantasy books are my escape from the rottenness of everyday life, and my grandmother just asked me this past weekend if I had outgrown that yet. My answer was, “No!” I love reading fantasy and I’ll never stop :)

  20. Paul Connelly, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

  21. June Elle /

    While I like Fantasy I know I will never love it like many others do. It will never be a comfort genre for me. I think what puts me off a bit is the length. Many fantasy series are often very long in individual page counts and then the series themselves tend to be quite long. Depending on the series, I can get series fatigue rather quickly. I also get annoyed that every Fantasy series has to have a bad guy bent on destroying the world or taking it over.

    But those things don’t stop me from reading fantasy. It just keeps me from ever being able to love it like I do romance or historical fiction.

  22. I loathe fantasy but love Sci-Fi. Favorite movie of all time: Back to the Future.

    Love: Back to the Future, The Martian, Interstellar, Gravity, some (but not all) Star Trek, Avatar, Batman/Joker movies, Stranger Things, Big Fish…

    Can’t stand: Star Wars, Game of Thrones, LOTR, Harry Potter, Vampire movies, Marvel movies, Dark Crystal, Neverending Story (I like the soundtrack though)…Zelda…

    There needs to be SOMETHING grounding me to realism or I lose all interest. Even Star Trek has more realism with life/earth as we know it vs Star Wars. If Stranger Things didn’t have the realism of Cold War/Russians in a lab developing an alternate world and it just “existed” like most fantasy plot lines do where I’m forced to acknowledge it without a realistic expectation, I would’ve hated it. But I could attach it to something REAL therefore I loved it. The Martian feels like something we could witness in our lifetimes, it’s a very real reality (NASA etc), GOT is not.

    Yet I consider myself quite creative. Just rooted in reality.

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