Even though I make my living writing the thing that I love the most, I still feel embarrassed when I tell a new acquaintance about what I do, even though I love my job, and they live for the brief respite at the weekend. This blog talks about how negative cultural associations continue to affect the way I feel about my life.
I couldn’t tell you why I’ve always been drawn to all things nerdy, but I have. When I was very young, I loved animals and wanted to be one, but past the age of seven, I would always be playing with a wooden sword rather than playing football, even to an age where such things were laughed at by the (younger) kid next door. I play with them now, although these days they’re steel.
My true transition into nerdery began on my ninth Christmas, when I received the incredible board game Hero Quest. The best thing about Hero Quest is… well. If you don’t know, here’s a man who will explain it to you:
It was my complete addiction to Hero Quest that started things off. My family didn’t really get it all that much, though my brother enjoyed being in control of stuff so he liked being the DM, and my sister was younger than me so she played whatever we did. We had a bunch of adventures, and that’s when the term for my lifelong pursuits got termed:
I think that ‘orcs’ was a new word to my mother, and so everything I was then interested in that was related to fantasy got termed ‘orcs’ from then on. I never really questioned it at the time, and nothing ill was meant at it, but like the evil race it represents, ‘orcs’ marked my interests, unintentionally, as being those of an outsider.
It seems a strange thing to reflect on now, but I’d still refer to wargames, board games, fantasy literature etc. to my family as ‘orcs’ and what that term said to me was “This is not a thing for adults.”
When I was 10, my friends and I played what I termed “Fighting Fantasy” (named for the Jackson/Livingstone gamebooks) every lunchtime. Essentially this was just roleplay games, but I’d never heard of them. We did no prep, used no dice; we just made up the games as we went along, and they started and ended each lunch time. I loved it, thought about my imaginary character all day and night. We each had one Citadel Miniature to represent us, all we could afford. But then, at age 10, I started saying this to them all:
“We can’t play this in Year 6. We’ll be too grown up.”
Maybe that reflects somehow on my pre-adolescent desire to grow up, but also, that I fundamentally believed, even though this was my passion, my great love in life, that it was a thing for children. I didn’t know of any adults who did it, after all, and the few adults I knew were disparaging of it as a hobby.
“Fighting Fantasy” lunchtimes died when I was ten. We had a tradition to do it only on sports day each year, bored and watching from the sidelines in 30 degree heat. I used to look forward to it. Two of those three friends lost interest in those things.
From there my interest in fantasy remained, and then we discovered older boys who played Warhammer 40k. I was desperate to play it, but it was deeply frowned upon in my family because it was both expensive, and outside my parents grasp. They could appreciate that I painted models, my dad had made Airfix kits, but the sci-fi element baffled them. My mother tried to help me along when I got to high school at 13, finding me Eddings’ The Belgariad and later Gemmell’s Legend, to read, but by then the stigma was already deep-set through me. I never talked about these beautiful, wonderful books to anyone other than two close friends who shared the interest. Other kids in the common room sneered at us for reading White Dwarf magazine or playing the abysmal TSR trading card game Spellfire.
When I was 14, I was writing a story about ninjas. I remember an adult looking at it and saying to me “Nobody wants to read about people killing each other with swords.”
I was not popular at school. Almost impossible to believe now, right?? No, but seriously. Girls wouldn’t go near me with a barge pole, I was way too smart to be popular, and my friends were dweebs like me, but non-fantasy dweebs. These days the situation is largely unchanged, except that some of my friends are fantasy dweebs. There were a few other boys who liked tabletop wargames and when I was 16 I tried to form a club, but these days I’m ashamed to say that I was ashamed to be seen with them. I wanted girls to like me; I wanted to be cool; I wanted to be into indie music and didn’t want to be see with the guys who somehow were even less cool than I was (which was actually quite a feat).
The hang ups that formed at that time have never truly gone away. They even cross over to my study and practice of Historical European Martial Arts. How do I describe to someone with no grasp of it that what I do is study 16th century treatise then try to fight in that style? How does that relate to the lives of the people I share an office with?
So for years now I’ve just called HEMA “swords.” I realised recently that I’d latched onto that name for it, because it was like “orcs.” It was something that said, in shorthand, “a silly thing that I do, which you won’t understand, and I’m pretending to not take seriously, because by doing so you are less likely to think that I’m weird.”
Fast forward 20 years. I’ve worked as a GM for Blizzard Entertainment on World of Warcraft. I was married for four years. I am Head of Learning and Teaching at a London university, and most important of all, I sold a series of fantasy books to nine different publishers, for more than ten times what most people make in a year, with my dream publisher, and have met every one of my literary heroes. My dorkery has given me riches beyond my dreams; I drive a freaking BMW and live in one of the wealthiest parts of one of one of the most expensive cities in the world (I debated mentioning these things as they may well sound like bragging, but I don’t think that I can make the full impact of this point without them). But STILL those hang ups are with me. When I meet new people whether it’s socially as friends, or dating, I still find it incredibly hard to explain what my books are about because my mind rushes on back to the old days. The days of being an outsider, the days of being mocked and sneered at, and the days of ultimately, believing that what I do is of limited value to most people.
How do I describe my books to non-fantasy fans?
“It’s about wizards, sword fights, stuff like that.”
This is the new way of saying “orcs.”
A recent nonsense article tried to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t really sci-fi because it’s too good, and too real. I felt something rise up in me, but this time it wasn’t cringing, or sadly looking away because I was an outsider. Because I’m not anymore; I’m part of a brilliant community of fantasy lovers. The writer trying to shit on fantasy for not being literary enough for his tastes – he was the one with the problem. Not me.
Later that same week, The Bookseller downright insulted Gollancz and everything it had accomplished in the last 20 years as being ‘merely’ a spec fic publisher, and it being a ‘tragedy’ that that’s what they do.
Honestly, fuck those guys. We don’t need them, we don’t care what they say. We never had to. We love something that’s creative, imaginative, brilliant, complex, nuanced and inspiring. And frankly, those who don’t grasp that – they’re the ones that don’t appreciate literature. Beowulf, the first story in English. Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, the Iliad, the first great works of fiction. Literature BELONGS to fantasy. Everyone else is playing off the backs of fantasists, even as they sneer and don’t realise it.
In my heart of hearts, I know that the feelings I’ve had all my life about fantasy have been wrong. I know that there are millions out there that share my joy in all things speculative, and I get to meet them and discuss it with them at conventions. At Eastercon I explained a new magic system to two different people. I’ve sat in front of an audience of 300 at Worldcon and talked about the meaning (or lack thereof) of grimdark. But the lessons we learn in our formative years stay with us, lingering on in our subconscious and tell us that we’re still outsiders, no matter whether we’re living the dream.
I often wonder whether the level of acceptance and promotion of diversity among the good people of the spec fic community comes from a shared experience in being a traditional outsider in our younger years, and having an understanding of what it’s like not to feel part of the mainstream. I can’t claim to have ever been someone who experienced hardship; I’m a mostly-heterosexual-white-male from a middle class background in a wealthy country. I couldn’t be more privileged. My experience of outsiderness is practically non-existent in comparison to so many people. But all the same, fantasy outsiderness has been a defining part of my life.
So you guys; readers, fans, enthusiasts, gamers, and movie goers – it’s amazing to be part of your community, where I can express what I really love, and be understood. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to walk into a room of city bankers and say “Hey. I’m Ed. I write fantasy novels,” and not worry what they’ll think.
Maybe one day.