Monday, January 15, 2007

shapeshifting prophets and the aisle of despair

My husband is an avid reader of fantasy fiction - a literary genre I've always found mystifying and vaguely intellectually threatening. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that the fanfic (yes, I get that this isn't the commonly accepted use of this term - click Comments to lodge a complaint :-)) readers I knew growing up were also members of the Chess Club, the Debate Team and Academic Decathlon, while I was in the student theater trying to learn the lyrics for our upcoming variety show rendition of "Good Morning, Starshine" from the musical Hair. (The lyrics go something like this: "Glibby glop gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo lo." You think I'm kidding.)

My husband's side of the bookshelf in our bedroom is stocked with paperbacks by - among others - Ursula LeGuin, Patricia McKillip, Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien. Many of these books are decades-old and in near-tatters, having been read several times and carted along each time he's moved. The best part of the day for our kids may be that quiet nook of time between teeth brushing and lights-out, when Dad sits on the edge of the bed and reads them a tale of strange creatures, daring young boys-turned-gallant heroes and smart-as-a-whip young girls (who are no slouches in the courage department, either). My three peeps are currently in the thick of The Princess and the Goblin, having finished the whole Narnia series when we were in California.

The few times I've braved the Aisle of Despair (aka the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle at bookstores) searching for a worthy literary gift for the father of my children, I've found that he is surprisingly easy to buy for. This is not because I am able to divine the literary merit behind the dragons and warlords and crystals-of-unsurpassed-power depicted on the book covers. No, I've been able to pick winners based solely on the advice of the Shapeshifting Prophets of Fantasy Fiction (or SPFF - blow a raspberry and you'll discover their secret password). I refer to these visitors as shapeshifters because, underneath their average, everyday appearance, there is little doubt in my mind that they are actually creatures from the Otherworld, sent in human form to offer guidance to the hopelessly lost spouses of fantasy readers.

The first was an adorable skater chick straight out of the John Hughes film, Some Kind of Wonderful. She appeared at my left shoulder several minutes after I'd started squinting and grimacing at a new series written by an author whose name I recognized from the bedroom bookshelf, but how in the world could I know if it was any good? "Dude, I LOVE David Eddings," the skater chick said, reading my mind with her Otherworldly powers. What followed was a private literary review/consultation and genre overview by, clearly, a teenaged master ahead of her time. I wish I'd had a tape recorder to capture her insights. More to the point, I wish I'd found her in the Literary Fiction aisle so that I could have drafted has as a reader for my then-unfinished novel. I left the store that day confident that I'd bought the right book. I don't know if my husband was impressed later on with my authoritative rundown on Eddings' career highlights and lows, but he tried to look like he was.

A more recent encounter with a SPFF happened at the San Rafael Borders during last month's holiday crunch. I was last-minute shopping for that little something extra for my beloved to open on Christmas morning, and found myself standing once again in the Aisle of Despair. Most of the fantasy books had been pretty well cleaned out by that point, so I blindly chose one of the last remaining box sets they had, not at all sure that it would do. The checkout line wrapped around the store that day, from the registers all the way back past the restrooms, so store employees were doing their best imitation of a Model T production line. When it was finally my turn to pay, an arm shot up from the veeeeery last register, way down at the end of the row. "Next!" a voice shouted. As I approached, I saw that the checkout guy had the telltale long hair and Look of Eagles of a UC Berkeley engineering student trying to make a few bucks before the semester started. He was all business and flurry, ready to rush me and my merchandise through the cattle chute of commerce. And then he saw what I was buying. "Dude," he said. "Robert Jordan is AWESOME." Long story short: I blew him a raspberry to let him know that I was on to his secret identity; he regaled me with the details of Robert Jordan's importance in the fanfic genre while bookstore commerce ground to a halt and his colleagues glared; and I arrived home with yet another winner for my husband's side of the bookshelf. Otherworldly guides, I couldn't do it without you.


  1. OH, Nicole, I AM your otherwordly guide. I love them all - Robert Newcomb, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and another guy from Ireland who writes children's books - Eoin Colfer. His series called "Artemis Fowl" is great! Fairies, goblins and sci-fi devices. When I was younger (ahem-I am "younger" now), I didn't like sci-fi, either. But now that is ALL that I read. Oh, the "Mists of Avalon" series (there are 3) by Marion Zimmer Bradley is good, too. But I do not know if a man would enjoy them. You should start with the Terry Goodkind series, "The Wizard's First Rule".

  2. Ack! Start with? I should start with?? Who said anything about starting to read fanfic? It scares and intimidates me! Nah, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool litfic chick.

  3. Anonymous10:39 AM

    Just thought you should know that 'fantasy fiction' is not generally abbreviated to 'fanfic' as that term has a long established other meaning: fiction written by fans of a book/series etc set in that universe. (eg a fan writing Star Trek stories writes fanfic.)

    Generally speaking the term for fantasy fiction, is Fantasy, a term which covers works as diverse as Borges, Tolkien, Rowling and Peake as well as the more obvious Eddings et al.

    -- pigeonhed (Livejournal name)

  4. Hi, Anon. You're correct, of course (and believe it or not I'm aware of the industry-accepted definition of "fanfic." Miss Snark has a great example of it, which I would link to, but she doesn't have URLs for individual posts. If you go to her blog and do a search for "fanfic here" you'll see what I mean). I was merely appropriating the term for my own unofficial use, since typing out "fantasy fiction" was getting tedious. Thanks for the free schooling, though. :-)

  5. Late again.

    Have you ever been in the Self-help section of a bookstore and asked a clerk a question? What do they say?

  6. LOL, Ken. I just about had to have another cup of coffee before I "got" that. Wit is best served dry, eh?