A list of fantasy books with which I disagree, and a better list of my own

So this guy who writes for the New Yorker online sneers at the fantasy he's read to date (written at a fourth-grade level, he says), but for unknown reasons he wants a list of what he should read next ("I doubted whether the genre had more to offer adults—literary adults, adults who enjoy reading bonafide novels"), and his friend makes such a list for him, and you know what? It's not the list I would have made. There are good books here, but in general, the choices are too close to stereotypes, that probably will not sway the sneering reader of "real" books.

My own list (edited to add: of books that I would suggest to someone who reads bonafide adult novels, and sneers at fantasy; all though I like many of these, this is by no means a list of my own favorites, which are doubtless at a fourth-grade reading level).

I'm not exactly sure what a reader of bonafide novels likes (since clearly I'm not one), so I have created sub categories of possible readers.

1. For the reader who wants to be made vaguely unhappy by the reading experience, distrusts clear prose, and wants ambiguous complexity, here's a list of very well-respected, even beloved, fantasy novels that I would recommend:

Red Shift, by Alan Garner Miserable as all get out, but those who love it rave about the beauty and power of it. I found it not dissimilar to what I imagine being flayed by scorpions would be like.
Little, Big, by John Crowely. It's been a while since I read this, but I remember it being rather long, and me being not at all sure that I really cared. Many bonafide novels make me feel this way.
Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones. I have read it four times, and still am not clear what happened and why.
Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan. It's a beautiful book, and I enjoyed it lots (and so thought hard before including it in this list), but the violence, faint sense of detachment, and "feel" (she said articulately) give it a "bonafide novel- ness."

2. The reader who really likes beautiful prose and doesn't mind being confused

Ombria in Shadow, by Patricia Mckillip

3. The reader of bonafide novels who is a simply looking for another good book, regardless of genre, to read (these are the books I'd recommend to my mother):

Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanely Robinson, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (the one book I have in common with the original list).

I haven't put any Ursula Le Guin on the list because the books of hers that I most recommend I would call Science Fiction.

And finally, I'd also like to defend the fourth-grade reading level. For pure enjoyable story-- magical, wonderful, stories that stay in the mind forever--fourth-grade reading is about as good as it gets.


  1. I read Tender Morsels in February, and I still think about it quite often. It is so beautiful and unlike anything else I have ever read.

    Charlotte, I really like your blog. I appreciate how you write about much more than new releases.

  2. Thanks very much, Kate!

    I liked Tender Morsels a lot too.

  3. What ticked me off about the guy who made that list you link to is that he's the author of a book "for the scientifically impaired" called "Physics For Mom." Excuse me? Being a mom is synonymous for being scientifically impaired? What a twit.

  4. You raise a good point, Emily--I was so busy being annoyed at the fourth grade level that I missed my chance to be annoyed about that...

  5. What an odd assortment --- thanks for pointing this out.

  6. Oy. I get so annoyed when people DO this. They sneer at a genre, and then hunt and peck for a few things that they can like, in shreds and slivers. For heaven's sakes, if you don't like fantasy, DON'T FREAKIN' READ IT, all right? Not every reader takes all of any genre wholesale -- and it's annoying for him to lump all the readers and what they read into one indecipherable clump.


    Incidentally, I like Physics for Mom -- and the actual title? is Physics for MY Mom, which Mr. Doofus New Yorker didn't understand. It is a blog of this guy explaining his PhD to his mother - and those other people who have her level of laymanship and don't get what he's doing with the dark matter. I don't get it, either, but I appreciate what he calls a "cocktail party version" of his dissertation. I've watched people's eyes glaze when D. talks about what he's researching, and after THEY asked him about his studies, they walk away while he's mid-word. And honestly? It hurts him. He can't help how his big brain works, so I like the idea of someone working on physics for the rest of us.

  7. I do like many of the books recommended in that article, but the whole idea that fantasy has nothing to offer "literary adults... who enjoy reading bonafide novels" made me wrinkle my nose. I figure that with books, you get out what you put in. If you're bound and determined to look down on something, you're probably not going to get very much out of it, even if there's quite a bit lurking beneath the surface.

  8. Love your description of the serious, sad and confusing fantasy novels, even though I love both Red Shift and Fire and Hemlock. Hilarious. I'm married to a reader of serious, sad and confusing books who keeps twittering on about how rubbish fantasy is, and then picking the most rubbishy books in the genre to illustrate his point. Is beyond frustrating.

  9. Okay, I agree with you on the article. The recommendations are pretty safe, if you know what I mean... It's not to say I don't like a few of the series (Terry Goodkind and Robin Hobb), but people need more imagination. Your list is more 'thinking outside the box' if that makes any sense!


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