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  • Leah E. Welker

No More Cringing

A watercolor painting of a bunch of flowers, surrounded by paints, brushes, and plants. Photo credit: Elena Mozhvilo.

"What do you like to do?"

Why does this have to be such a loaded question?

We ask that as a way to get to know someone else, because it's seen as a neutral fact, at least as far as those go. However, what we think about less is that there are some tastes or hobbies that are more lauded than others, leading us to seldom answer that question with one-hundred-percent honesty. Sometimes we even cultivate interests solely to answer comfortably. For example, I met one person who said one of the main reasons she got involved in triathlons is because being a triathlete was something cool to share with other people.

Though I'm not saying that was her only motivation, or even a bad motivation, or that she should stop, it did make me think sometimes about the "safe" or publicly acclaimed hobbies that we share first. I have one: "I like to organize." Which I truly do. (Especially when that organization tied with its close cousin of optimization, but who ever says that in casual conversation? "I like to optimize." Yeah, no. That's likely to get a weird look asking the question, Are you a robot? Which is a fair question I guess, lol. I pass the reCAPTCHA tests, but I'm sure that doesn't say much. . . . But in all seriousness, I'm just an INXJ. We're like that.)

But is organizing/optimizing what I spend the majority of my free time doing? Eh, it depends on the season of my life. (Oh, man, did I delve into that hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic, though! While others were baking bread and making videos, I was optimizing my entire life, from the perfect low-cost, low-perishables meal-plan to my ten-year financial plan. . . . We all respond to stress differently, alright? [So why didn't you write a bunch of books like Brandon Sanderson did? I hear you ask. Weeell, I thought about it, but I was still resisting the call at that point, and I was genuinely enjoying doing what I thought I'd never have the time to do, sooo. . . .])

Moving beyond "safe" interests

I've tried to be braver in recent years, so I often say, "I like to read," or "I like to write." But I have to admit that I usually hoped they wouldn't ask "what." I've met others who liked to read fantasy like I do, except I had to pry that fact out of them. And I admit, people have had to pry it out of me in turn. Even though its probably a far more common, connecting interest than we suppose.

Why is it that we feel little to no fear of judgment when expressing our favorite ice cream flavor but not our favorite books? Especially if those books aren't the literary stars we are "supposed" to love?

My biases

I'm not calling anyone out here. If anything, I'm exploring my own unconscious, unspoken assumptions so that I can dispel them. So here are my (previously) unspoken biases against fantasy. That may seem an odd way to start defending my interests, but if you think about it, I first have to know and speak out loud what I have been subconsciously taught about fantasy to stop cringing at it. Luckily, the only good thing about assumptions is that they are often so flimsy, all it takes to disintegrate them is to bring them out into the sunlight. It's the same thing I did with my fears posts, except these ones are much easier for me to laugh at.

When I think of my unconscious, socially ingrained impressions about fantasy, I am confronted with these statements:

Fantasy is childish

There's this unspoken assumption ingrained somewhere in me that a real adult would not be interested in fairytales, when obviously that isn't true given all the remakes in popular media. Except there's some foundation for my assumption even there because the remakes nowadays are often dark or twisted. True, sometimes those remakes are actually closer to their darker origins, but I come back to my ingrained assumption that "adult" literature still = dark/twisted, and literature that grapples with the difficulties of life but ultimately expresses faith in humanity and the triumph over evil—especially with magic, wonder, and whimsy involved—is still inherently childish. Naive. Willfully ignorant of reality. An interest I should have grown out of long ago.

Fantasy is not literary

Or cool/successful/elite. Nobody has gotten a Nobel prize in literature for a fantasy work (as far as I am aware, without doing research—but I don't have to for this because this is about unpacking my biases). The very term "genre fiction" is dismissive and condescending, an "other" category to sweep under the achievement rug.

Despite how commercially successful it has been, there's enough bias ingrained in me from our education system and literary pundits that fantasy (and genre fiction period) is not something to be proud of—to read but especially to write.

No teacher I've had save one ever encouraged me to write fantasy (though admittedly I only felt comfortable really sharing that writing with one teacher). I never felt comfortable submitting fantasy works in the short story contests I entered in high school. Whether they would have done well or not is beside the point. Remember, I'm confronting my assumptions, which had their foundations in the unspoken mores of our society, where we assume that the very highest forms of literary expression exclude speculative fiction.

Fantasy fans are weird

My unspoken bias here is that to be a true fan, you have to be that person who owns twenty cats, would prefer to dress in fantastical clothing every day (not just at conventions or Renfests), and whose house resembles a cluttered hobbit-hole of fandom paraphernalia. In other words, by admitting I like fantasy (let alone writing it), I'm worried people will attach a whole bunch of stereotypes to me that simply aren't true. At least, about me. I have nothing against the people who proudly encapsulate and own all those aforementioned qualities. Go for it, I say!  (As long as you can humanly care for that many cats. . . .)

They aren't true about me, that's all. Contrary to the stereotype, I'm a dog person, and currently just a one-dog person (though, I'll admit, I do dream of some property with enough dogs it might be considered a small "pack," so maybe this is a bad counterexample, lol). I like dressing normally; I seldom ever want to dress up and never cosplay; I like keeping my appearance neat and my living space tidy; the only fan paraphernalia I own, I was given; I never feel any impulse to fill my space with it; I've never felt the inclination to dye my hair crazy colors or wear complicated or unconventional makeup; and my aesthetic tends toward elegance, minimalism, and utility. One of my sisters recently asked me if I'd like a fantasy-themed wedding, and my response was a comfortable no, without a single hint of longing.

I've examined this dichotomy in me long enough to conclude that my avoidance of the fantasy lifestyle doesn't stem from a cultural pressure to conform, as I feel with the first two points. The things I am genuinely drawn to and that make me happy and comfortable in my own skin and space truly aren't . . . fantasy-themed at all. The closest thing that I've ever come to it is when I plastered two walls of my living space with forest murals, but that was more because I just like . . . nature. Neither of the murals had any "fantastical" elements. I just wanted some soothing biophilia in my life, that's all.

Again, I have nothing against people who proudly own the fantasy (or simply geek) lifestyle. They have a right to fill their lives with the things that make them happy just as much as I do—and be proud of it!I just have to work harder on my own pride in the dichotomy of my tastes, in the natural, almost complete separation between what I like to read/write and how I like to appear/decorate/live.

No more cringing

Of course, none of those assumptions that society has tried to ingrain in me are true. Even if some people think those things or send me those unconscious vibes, I need to not care whatever assumptions others may make about me when I tell them about my interests, and not make any assumptions about them in turn. One of the greatest favors we can do to our fellow beings is to listen to what they say about themselves and see how they truly feel, and let that form our picture of them, and I've tried for years to be better about doing just that. The next step is for me to be braver with others so they can feel braver with me.

One reason I kept my writing private for so long was because I was teased early on for my interest writing and the fantasy/fairytale genre in particular. The teasing was light and even well-intentioned, but I can't deny it had an impact on my ability to share my work. I wonder a bit how it didn't crush it altogether. Perhaps if I hadn't had others supporting me at the same time, it might have. It's sad that our society and social sphere has so much impact on what we do, stop doing, or never do, but that's inescapable. Even if we could escape, society's pressures influence us to do good things (prosocial behavior, or even confronting those biases when they go public) as much as it influences us to do bad.

I still wish this were a world in which any benign, harmless interest, no matter how "cringe," could be expressed without the cringe. We're not there yet, but I resolve to no longer flinch away from expressing my own. So the next time someone asks me what I like to do . . . I'm not going to wait for them to drag first "reading" and then the genre out of me.

I'm just going to tell them, with a smile.


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