I was finishing a re-read of The Lord of the Rings recently, just as a bit of DiscourseTM started up about whether or not it’s totally obligatory to read LOTR and anyone who hasn’t is a bad person who must be banned from fantasy.
Mild exaggeration. But you can guess which side of the debate I come down on.
From the reader’s perspective, it’s very simple. People are allowed to read or not read anything they like, gatekeeping is dumb, and there’s no reason to care if people are ‘true fans’ or not.
From the writer’s perspective, the idea that certain books are obligatory if you want to write certain genres seems like a growth on the face of a more sensible idea, which is that you should have read a reasonable range of the genre. You need to know what the well-trodden ground is, to both draw inspiration and avoid clichés. But extending that to ‘fantasy writers must read LOTR’ is a mistake.
One of the chief reasons people will give is ‘this book is particularly influential, it shaped the genre for decades to come.’ Well, if that’s the case, isn’t it fine to draw lessons from all those other books influenced by it? Of course someone writing medieval epic fantasy could use knowing about what’s already been done with elves and orcs and stuff – but they can get that from the works influenced by LOTR, as they can from the thing itself. Just because Tolkien introduced something doesn’t mean he’s the guy everyone has to go back to for it. Extreme comparison, but doctors today aren’t learning about arteries from Galen.
There are loads of books in every genre. Recommending specific works for certain things is fine (here’s me doing it), but the idea that someone has to follow your reading list to have authority in the subject just… sounds lame when I say it like that, right? What objective grounds is there to make that specific work essential reading – if influence, we can read the things it influenced; if something else, is this really objective or an opinion, or cultural bias?
Also, subgenres. Why does a fantasy writer have to read LOTR if they’re actually doing a steampunk heist story?
Even if they are writing a medieval fantasy with po-tay-toes and pointy-eared archers, let’s face it: no book is perfect. For all its influence and worldbuilding and epicness, LOTR is not the platonic ideal fantasy novel. The pacing is nuts. It has more named horses than women. Tom Bombadil. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, and fantasy writers are no different. The same applies to all genres and their ‘must-reads’.
In university I had literal reading lists with classics and works I’d never heard of. There is value in reading things considered significant and things you wouldn’t think to try. Sure, there might be value in taking a recommendation, in trying LOTR or whatever else. But this doesn’t mean you have to read specific works some person yells about to be a real fan or a good writer.