Friday, October 19, 2012

Fantasy Reading List for My Summer 2013 "Intro to Fiction" Course

Every so often on this blog I mention or allude to the fact that I teach in the English Department at a flagship state university. My primary research and teaching area is medieval literature (with a specialty in early English drama). But I also routinely teach fantasy fiction. In Summer 2013, I'm going to be teaching a fantasy-focused section of our "Intro to Fiction" course. Syllabi for this course usually rely on a published fiction anthology filled with mainstream "literary" narratives. When genre writers do appear, it's inevitably their least genre-marked material that shows up: the primary example here is the ubiquitous selection of Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" instead of any of her equally excellent fantasy or SF stories. I've decided to buck this trend and will be teaching a syllabus entirely devoted to genre fiction. For the sake of coherence, I'm limiting myself to story and novel-length fantasy narratives. Here's the most recent draft of the course reading list:

Lord Dunsany, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories

I had a number of Dunsany collections to choose from, but settled on this one from Dover. It's relatively inexpensive, and it contains many of my favorite Dunsany tales: "The Sword of Welleran," "The Fall of Babbulkind," "The Kith of the Elf-Folk," and "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth."

Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian

Again, lots of choices here for editions. I settled on this movie tie-in volume partially because it's cheap but primarily because the table of contents allows me to hit all of my favorite Conan stories in a way that the otherwise wonderful Del Rey collections do not: "Tower of the Elephant," "Queen of the Black Coast," and "Rogues in the House" sit alongside "People of the Black Circle" and "Red Nails." Since Del Rey publishes this text as well, it's quite possible that the texts are identical to those in the REH Library series.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Considerations of time were the primary factor in my decision to let The Hobbit stand in for Tolkien's work: there's just no way to teach The Lord of the Rings on the summer teaching schedule without basically abandoning the pretense of reading other authors. That said, The Hobbit is the book that turned me on to fantasy, and Peter Jackson's movie will have students primed to read the novel.

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

I needed a novel from the 1970s to fill in the large gap between Howard and Tolkien's 1930s texts and the books I was going to be choosing from the 2000s. McKillip is one of my favorite writers, and this 1974 novel is one of her best.

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Carter's 1979 collection of stories was the other book I picked to cover the 1970s. I selected it in large part because I've never read Carter's work, and this course seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

China Miéville, The Scar

My favorite New Weird novel: it's a big fat middle finger aimed at quest fantasy, and yet I love it just the same. If only this new UK paperback cover design was the American design as well! Sigh.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Voices

Le Guin was definitely going to be on the syllabus. I chose this book, the second in Le Guin's new Annals of the Western Shore series, because it brilliantly does everything Le Guin was trying to do with Tehanu and the second trilogy of Earthsea books but without any of the baggage that comes from revising an existing set of beloved books.

Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners

Like Carter, Link is a writer I've been meaning to read for some time. This is her major collection of stories, sitting right in the midstream of the slipstream between genre and literature. It's worth noting, though, that I have an alternate in mind if it turns out I don't particularly care for Link's stories:

Karen Russell, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Russell has just exploded onto the scene recently, and whatI know of her work gives it a slightly more American feel than Link's work (i.e., Russell appears to be drawing on regional folklore as opposed to Link's more suburban and/or cosmopolitan feel). In the end, I'll go with whichever collection I like best.

So there you have the reading list. I've tried to strike a balance between American and British writers (four of each), short story collections and novels (four of each), and men and women (four of each). The books also make a decent historical survey of modern fantasy fiction: Dunsany is odd man out, sitting by himself in 1908, followed by clusters of work from the 1930s, 1970s, and 2000s. I'm looking forward to teaching the class and hope you've enjoyed this sneak preview of its contents!


  1. We read The Hobbit for Sophomore English 30 years ago. Of course I had read it several times already, so that was an easy section for me. Crime and Punishment was a bit more of a struggle.

    If you do a Science Fiction reading list at some point may I recommend Eric Frank Russell's Wasp? It's one of my favorite books.

  2. I had not heard of Wasp before; I'll definitely put it on my reading list. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Alas, though, I'm not likely to get a chance to teach an SF list. I have two colleagues who've published on SF, and they get first shot at the SF course. We're also working on getting a graphic narratives course approved, so between that and fantasy, my nerd quota will be full.