Remember when you discovered your favourite books for the first time? The ones you loved so much you've read them five or six times more since; the ones that were so real to you, you almost believed they were true?
Me too. Brilliant, isn't it? There's nothing quite like that feeling of being totally caught up in another world, to the exclusion of the one around you. That sense of knowing the characters, of caring about them, of desperately wanting things to go right for them. You can't beat lifting your head from a book and realising it's two o'clock in the morning and your eyes are sore with reading so much, yet it doesn't matter because the story has temporarily become more important than anything else in your life. I had that with Lord of the Rings when I was 9. I had it with The Wheel of Time when I was 16. I even had it with Kushiel's Legacy when I was 23.
Funny, though – it's rare for me to feel that way about a book any more. Or about anything else, for that matter. These days, I find it almost impossible to lose myself in a story. I can read it and appreciate it, even be gripped by it to a certain extent, but I can always put it down when it's time for bed. There's always a part of me that remains detached from the unfolding events, no matter how dramatic they are.
In short, my friends, I have lost my sense of wonder.
Some of it, I'm sorry to say, is probably an inevitable function of age. When I was a teen I had an almost limitless capacity to immerse myself in things that interested me. Maybe I had fresher eyes; maybe I had better powers of concentration; maybe I wasn't afflicted by that awful sense of time passing that seems to have crept up on me as an adult. (Now, I spend more than a couple of hours with a book and a little voice inside my mind starts yelling that I should be doing something else.) Whatever the reason, I consumed fantasy literature voraciously and uncritically. More than that – I lived it. I can't do that any more.
Another part of it is surely the job I do. I'm an editor. It's my job to notice the niggles, flaws and holes in other people's writing. And as I've become a better editor, I've become a worse reader – because it's very difficult to switch off the critical part of the brain and just go with the flow. I suppose it's like becoming a wine connoisseur: once you know how to identify good-quality wine, you'll never again be able to enjoy the £5.99 bottle of red you used to pick up from the supermarket. It's the same for most writers. Once you learn how to be critical of your own writing, you soon find yourself applying the same analysis to other people's – even if you don't want to.
Yet perhaps there's still more to it than that. When I started out as a writer, many moons ago, I lacked technical ability and a knowledge of the industry and pretty much everything else I needed to succeed. But I did have one thing going for me: I believed in concepts like heroism and bravery and honour. I had a sense of the importance and grandeur of fantasy. I found real meaning in it. Since then I've become more cynical, and it seems fantasy has too. Yet while I appreciate the grit and the ambiguity, the anti-heroes and the playing with tropes, I feel as though I've lost something along the way. The sense of wonder has gone, to be replaced by something more knowing and concomitantly less pure.
To enjoy fantasy in its truest form, you have to take it seriously. And sometimes I worry that with our collective deconstruction of the genre, we're losing the ability to do that. If you don't believe in acts of selfless courage or breathtaking heroism – if all your protagonists are morally grey – then you may achieve realism, but you'll lose sight of the true heart of fantasy. Because at heart, fantasy is the struggle between light and darkness that's in all of us. And when we see the light win in fiction, we can be inspired to believe that's possible in real life too.
Do you agree that the ability to lose yourself in literature diminishes with age/writing experience? What books have you read recently that rekindled your sense of wonder?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Are there times when you become heartily sick of your main project? If so, rather than stop writing altogether, why not try something completely different? This one was sent to me by @mlhroberts a few weeks ago: How to Start a Twitter Novel. If you decide to give it a go then please let me know!