COVID-19 Has Turned Realistic Fiction Into Fantasy — and It’s All I Want to Read

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I have loved speculative fiction my whole life. Science fiction, fantasy, dystopian and post-apocalyptic books, magical realism, fabulism — give me magic, space, robots, and monsters in any and every combination and I am a happy reader. Until now, apparently. Because even though I have read more in the first two months of 2021 than…ever in my life (if you also read to avoid other things, I see you), I am completely uninterested in speculative books.

In general, my reading tastes are pretty broad, jumping from genre to genre, fiction to nonfiction. I love a mix of everything. So it’s not like I’ve gone from exclusively reading sci-fi to not reading any sci-fi. But SFF is usually a significant portion of what I read (and what I’m excited to read). Now, it is a minuscule portion of what I read. And it’s never, ever what I want to pick up.

This feeling of not wanting to pick up magical books is a strange sensation for me. I’ll be browsing through Goodreads, read someone’s glowing review of a recent fantasy novel, and scroll on past. When I’ve looked through my TBR in recent weeks, picking books to put on hold at the library, my eyes skip over the sci-fi and fantasy titles. It’s a sudden, physical reaction. It’s not that I’ve stopped loving SFF (never!) or that I think any of these books are going to be bad. It’s just that over and over again, when presented with the opportunity to read something speculative, something in my body says, “nope, not right now, not in the mood.”

It took me a little while to notice this pattern, but now that I have, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the kinds of books I have been reading, and, more specifically, the kinds of books I’ve been craving. Because, despite reading very little of some of my favorite genres, I am having the best few reading months of my life. What I want to read right now is realistic fiction. All kinds. All time periods. The books I’ve been devouring, at a slightly dizzying pace, are books set in this world, in which people messily, repeatedly, beautifully, gather.

I just finished Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi. It is a breathtaking novel in a million ways, but one of the things I loved most about it was the vividness of the scenes. It’s full of ordinary scenes of ordinary life. People cooking for each other. Staying over at your new lover’s house for the first time, making breakfast. Walking aimlessly around the city, wandering into a new coffeeshop. Attending a crowded lecture. Going dancing. An engagement party! This novel is overflowing with people walking in and out of each other’s houses like it’s no big deal. Reading it felt intensely familiar and intensely strange, like slipping into a world that’s like this one, but not. A little bit like reading the best kind of fantasy novel. Familiar, but new.

This is what I am so hungry for in realistic fiction right now. I have been greedily inhaling books that take me back to a pre-COVID existence. I read Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, in which characters mess up and get hurt and fall in love and have fights and engage in the all the minutia of life in New York City. There are scenes in stores and parks and apartments and restaurants and office buildings and a million other places that are no longer part of my everyday life. I could not read Cantoras fast enough (even though I never wanted it to end). It’s set mostly in the 1970s and ’80s in Uruguay, but it’s about a group of queer women who forge lifelong bonds after spending a few days together in a small house on a deserted beach. I wanted to sink into that house forever. It’s a novel that is full of people entangling and untangling. Sharing meals, sharing bodies, sharing space. I drank it up.

Obviously these kinds of scenes happen in sci-fi and fantasy, also. But I can see now why, for me, in this moment, realistic fiction is so appealing, and fantasy is so exhausting. Spaceships and magical kingdoms and monsters are just one step too far. The thing I love most about speculative fiction is the way it tells intimate human stories in strange and fantastical settings. I love the blurriness of it, the sense of escape and familiarity, of being able to relate so deeply to a story while being awed by an imaginative new world. I love what it reveals about the here and now. And in the here and now, realistic fiction is suddenly all of those things. It’s doing for me what SFF used to do.

I don’t even like crowds. I’m a homebody. I don’t live in a city; in fact, cities make me grumpy and tired. I like small, intimate gatherings. But even so, I miss the ease of moving through the world alongside other humans. Moving in and out of each other’s lives and homes. Reading realistic fiction in 2021 has become both an escape and a reminder. It reminds me of what the world used to feel like. It lets me escape into a reality of rowdy family dinners and casual dates. It’s become a way for me to hold onto the messy beauty of being a human in the world even though I spend so much time alone. It’s cathartic. It keeps me tethered. It reminds me what is possible. The world is always changing and I don’t believe in things “going back to normal,” but these chaotic, realistic books about humans doing what humans have always done give me hope that we will do those things again. And then I’ll go back to reading speculative fiction.

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