This week I have been forced to wonder whether I have finally become a grumpy old man that fears change.
That would be a hard pill to swallow for a number of reasons. First up, I’m only 40, and while my joints are a bit creaky and I’m not keen on staying out to dawn every Saturday night like I used to, I prefer not to consider myself ‘old’ just yet. Frankly, given that I have every intention of living well past 100 and ideally forever, possibly as a brain in a jar or a cloud of energised iron particles in a magnetic field, 40 isn’t even middle-aged.
More to the point, I’m always been a neophile. I’ve always loved to discover new things, explore unknown places, try out the radical departure in sound and generally embrace change. Because change is good, bringing with it new opportunities and possibilities. I am four-square for change; I am hip to the new; I’m in yr paradigm changin yr traditional perspectivez. I have dared to eat a motherfuckin’ peach, yo.
So it’s been a bit of a blow to my self-image to consider how I’ve been reacting to recent changes to the pop culture entertainments that I like. Those reactions can be seen over on LiveJournal, which I seem to have reinvented for myself as a platform for Bitching About the New. First there were my two long diatribes about the rebooting of the DC Comics universe – one before the change, one after, both very grumpy – and this week I went into a blessedly-shorter grumble about the news of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being announced and how I was going to stick with my fun and shiny 4th Edition books, thank you very much.
Oh god, I’m a grognard. I’ve become the one thing I most fear and despise – A CONSERVATIVE. Well, a conservative who likes a particular style of superhero comics and fantasy gaming but is otherwise all about freedom and change. I’m not exactly Bob Katter or anything. My hats are much less irritating. And I don’t hate The Gays.
But let’s be honest about it – it’s oa natural human impulse to resist change. Because if you like something, and someone who is not you decides to change it, you may not like it any more. And now you’ve lost something you like, and there are so few of those, and every morning is now that little bit colder and greyer and you know what fuck it let’s just get this over with and help the Joker put the neurotoxin in the city reservoir so we can derail this rotten train to Disappointment Town one way or another oh noes Batman just kicked me in the spine.
(Ahem. Sorry, I had to work Batman into this post somehow, or I’d be violating the blog’s terms-of-service agreement.)
So it’s understandable that it happens, and it’s a problem when we cut ourselves off from something different just because it’s different, rather than judging it on its intrinsic merits. And because this is a writing blog, I’m specifically thinking about books and readers and the way we sometimes dig in our heels when we fear we won’t get the books we want.
Because that happens a lot. A writer changes gears, puts something out in a new style/genre/direction, and established readers reject it out of hand and grumble that they wanted more of the old stuff. Robert Parker faced a storm of petulance from fans when he sidelined the Spenser series to try writing about new characters; Iain Banks would cop flack every time he switched from SF to mainstream fiction or back, often from readers who didn’t bother reading his latest novel before complaining that they wouldn’t like it because it did/didn’t have spaceships in it. And this isn’t new; Arthur Conan Doyle was dragged kicking and screaming back to Sherlock Holmes after trying his best to leave the character behind for ten years. Even his own mother gave him stick about it.
When an author creates a series, or character, or oeuvre that readers connect with, they want that author to stay in that groove, to keep providing them with the thing that makes them happy. And I am no different, as the scores of Batman TPBs on my bookshelf attest. But it’s a shame when we as readers get so comfortable in that familiar zone that we grumble and rebel against not just the threat of being pulled out of it, but the potential threat of no longer being forcibly kept there – the vague danger that at some point the writer who gives us the dishes we love may change the recipe and then proceed to not actually force us to eat their new main course. Because it’s not the worry of reading something we don’t like that riles us; it’s the worry of not getting the chance to read something we’re already pretty we will like, because we liked the last 2 or 4 or 10 things very much like it. It’s uncertainty that makes us curmudgeonly, not fear of the new but fear of change itself, and like I said, that’s a shame.
It’s especially a shame when readers fixate on genre, or the lack thereof, and reject a work from an author they like because of the inclusion/exclusion of fantasy/SF/horror/whatevs elements. There’s something so frustrating about readers who love Stephen King’s horror novels but don’t want to bother with his Dark Tower fantasies, or who read Banks’ Culture novels but refuse to read The Crow Road or The Wasp Factory because the lack of spaceships makes them sound boring. And, of course, literary stick-in-the-muds who cut Banks off the same way but in the other direction, or who’ll read Arturo Perez Reverte’s The Dumas Club (a magnificent book) but not his boisterous, pulpy Captain Alatriste adventure novels. (Although, to be honest, I find that the number of snobs that won’t lower themselves to the occasional fun genre read is less than the number of genre fans who balk at the idea of reading ‘serious’ fiction every once in a while. But your experience may vary.)
Me, I say that change is something to be embraced, or at the very least taken advantage of. If you can’t get exactly the kind of stories you like right now, that’s not a reason to grumble, it’s a reason to explore, to find something else that scratches that itch, or hits some spot you hadn’t realised existed until rubbing up against something different, and okay this metaphor is getting a little inappropriate now and I’m going to move on.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like. But perhaps there is something wrong in never trying to examine what you know you don’t like, or potentially discovering something new to add to your favourites. For all that I bitch about the New DC, I still read every new first issue, because I wanted to be sure about what I was rejecting – and while I read a bunch of shitty comics, I also read some excellent ones that I will go on to buy in trades, seamed costumes and popped collars be damned. For all that I’m happy with 4E D&D, I’m taking the change as an opportunity to rediscover other games and systems and get myself out of the gaming rut I’ve been in for the last couple of years, rather than dig myself further into it. I don’t need to take that change on board, but if I route my path around it, rather than just parking my butt in one place, I get to explore new territory anyway, but this way under my own terms.
So no, I’m not old yet. Not as long as I can still be delighted and surprised by something new. It’s that (and the regular implants of fresh glands) that keep me young. And all readers should do the same.
Except for the glands. MINE.