The latest Literary Blog Hop question asks: How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction? This is an interesting question for me, because, for a long time, I didn’t – or, perhaps, I did, but didn’t think of it that way.
I’m not sure that my school studies put me off the idea of ‘literature’, but they certainly got me out of the habit of reading it: closed-book exams were my principle reason for not studying English Literature at A Level (though I did study English Language, and went on to read History at university, so I didn’t drift too far away). As a result, there was – and remains – a big literary classics-shaped hole in my reading history.
What I was reading as a teenager was mostly fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, science fiction). A key turning-point came at the age of seventeen, when I found a cheap copy of the Clute-Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy in a book sale; it changed my reading world, because it advocated a different conception of fantasy from the one to which I was used, one that cut across types of fiction that looked dissimilar on the surface – one that emphasised imaginative quality. I thought, yes, this is describing what I want to read.
Fast-forward several years to university, and my dissertation on Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy as a source for the history of childhood, where I tried to apply some of the theoretical concepts that I knew from reading the Encyclopedia. Looking back at that dissertation now, I can see the seeds of my style as a reviewer. I started reviewing books online in 2004, again mostly (exclusively, to begin with) sf and fantasy, now with some horror added to the mix. My guiding principle was that these genres deserved to be taken seriously (I must acknowledge the influence of John Grant’s reviews for Infinity Plus, which had a big influence on my approach and style).
In 2006, I began writing for Laura Hird’s website, my first venue as a reviewer that didn’t have an sf/fantasy focus. I barely had to change my approach, and that should have been the first hint of what I’ve only really come to realise in the past couple of years, since I started this blog: that what I value most in my reading is not a particular type of work, but a set of qualities – good writing, a strong sense of craft, something out-of-the-ordinary – and that I can find those qualities in many kinds of books. That’s my idea of ‘literary’, and I wouldn’t want it any other way now.