Don't tell me how to be inspired

Mar 12 2014 Published by under Academia, Activism, Synaptic Misfires

This is a rant. It's a rant because, sometimes, you've heard something just one too many times. And sometimes, things link together in my head.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day. He was shaking his head over a girl he was seeing. She called herself a fantasy fan...but she had never read Joseph Campbell! HOW?!

I am a huge fantasy fan. I've never read Joseph Campell. And I lost my temper.

Because I have been told, over and over again, that my education is incomplete unless I've read X. I'm not a TRUE fan of a genre unless I've read Y, and I'm just not a nerd at all unless I've been blown away by Z.

My friend stated that Joseph Campbell is important because he felt that for any aspiring fan or writer, "A Hero's Journey" would be required reading. The "methods section" of the fantasy genre, like how you have introduction to certain texts as a history major which introduce you to all the main concepts.

I disagree. Last I heard Joseph Campbell was an author (Edited to add: he was also an academic and mythologian who introduced really important concepts and tropes, like the hero's journey, which are used to this day). He did a lot of really interesting work, but he is not a required gestalt for the enjoyment of fantasy. And I think it's very possible to be an expert in something without having read the "must read" list of things that mostly old white guys have developed for us to be educated by. Does a person with a PhD and many publications in ancient Chinese history really need to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to be considered an educated individual? If you answer that with a "yes," I'd really love to know your reasoning.

He may think that if you haven't read Joseph Campbell you are an ill-educated fantasy reader. I might think that if you haven't read Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley you are just as ill-educated.

Who is right? NEITHER OF US.

You don't get to determine what inspires someone else or even what someone else considers good literature.
The "classics" do not define education in most subjects. I understood the concept of evolution long before I read Darwin, because I had read other books on the subject. After I read Darwin, I cannot say that I understood it any better. Darwin had the original concept, yes. He was really thorough about it, yes. But it is very possible to understand evolution without ever having read Darwin. It is possible to LOVE fantasy without ever having read the Silmarillion (heck, I have read it and I think it lessened my love of the genre slightly. Sorry, Tolkien).

Read what you like. Be inspired by what inspires you. Do not feel pressure to be inspired on someone else's terms.

I was reminded of this argument again yesterday as I tweeted that I had watched the first episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos. It was ok.

It was my first exposure to Cosmos. I have never seen the Carl Sagan version. I was too young for it, and was raised primarily on Bill Nye, Ranger Rick and the Magic School Bus (the "inside the body" book and episode sticks in my head today. INSPIRING AS ANYTHING). My parents are not scientists, and I'm not sure they've ever seen Cosmos either. I never even HEARD of it until, like Ed, I heard about it on twitter a few years ago, looked it up, and saw what it was.

But of course, on twitter, every time I reveal I haven't seen the original Cosmos, I get a lot of "WHUT?!" "NO!" "HOW?!" I have even been told at times that I'm not a true science communicator because I haven't seen it and been inspired by it.


And I lost my temper again. At a poor tweep who didn't know what they stepped in. Sorry @KeesEngels. It's not you! It's my past history of not having read Joseph Campbell!

It is completely possible to be inspired in science without having seen Carl Sagan. Heck, it is completely possible to have seen Carl Sagan, go "meh," and be inspired by something else! Carl Sagan is probably (to this date, still haven't seen it) great TV. Probably very inspirational to lots of people. I by no means want to knock good Sci Comm. But it won't be inspirational to everyone. And that's ok! Matthew Francis put it best.



People who require you to read or watch or be inspired by certain things are people who want to believe there is one TRUE path to science, fantasy, etc. The path they took, the true one, the best one.

Those people need to get over themselves.

Do not expect or require everyone to be inspired by the same things you are inspired by. Accept that what inspired you may NOT inspire someone else. Let's all be inspired in our own way. After all, the point is the inspiration, not where it comes from.



*Footnote: My friend who was talking about Joseph Campbell recanted in the face of my arguments. Because he's a cool guy. Also, I throw elbows when I argue.

43 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    My own path to science included the BBC series Life on Earth; Gödel, Escher, Bach; and the first time I cobbled together a 2-d gravity simulation in BASIC and it actually worked.

    I expect many other people would list these three things on their "inspired by" lists, but I doubt there are all that many with this specific combination. Add a few secondary influences (a Swedish TV program called "Hajk"; our high-school philosophy teacher) and I'm pretty sure my path is unique. As is everybody else's, of course.

    But while I largely agree with you that nothing is absolutely necessary, I do think there are works in many fields that are so influential that you'd be under a real disadvantage if you haven't experienced them.

    For instance, I'd agree that Silmarillion or whatshisname above are not needed for fantasy fandom. But say that you have never read (or read about) Bilbo or the Fellowhsip of the Ring trilogy? You'd not know where many of the tropes and conventions come from. Every book you read would have references - or conspicuous abscence of references - to these works that'd go over your head. You don't _need_ to read them. But your appreciation of other works would arguably be diminished as a result.

    ps. I never heard of Cosmos until recently, and never seen Karl Sagan. Didn't show up in my country I guess. ds.

    • scicurious says:

      I actually still disagree. I love me some Bilbo and LOTR of course. But you can still enjoy, and LOVE, fantasy without knowing the references, tropes or conventions. They might be important if you wanted to do a literary critique of the genre, but to just enjoy reading? Why?

      • Jan Moren says:

        Why? To take one straightforward example, a number of jokes and set pieces in Terry Pratchetts books are based on knowing these tropes and knowing where they came from. You'd still enjoy the books just fine of course, but some jokes would simply pass you by. Which would arguably give you less enjoyment than had you experienced LOTR.

        Again, I don't say you couldn't be a fan without them, just that you'd slightly handicap yourself. Understand also that I don't say you'd need to actually read them; knowing about them through the movies, through abridged readers or even through Wikipedia would be enough.

        • scicurious says:

          Well, but if you still enjoy Pratchett...will you even know what you missed? And if you don't know what you missed, will it bother you? I don't necessarily consider it a handicap, it's just a different way of enjoying the genre.

        • Blaise Pascal says:

          Likewise, you can't be a true fan of LOTR without reading and understanding germanic myth (as told, among other places, in Wagner). I mean, without it, you'd never understand the nuances of what Tolkien was invoking and/or skewering (a quest to destroy a magic ring to stop the damage it does goes completely against the pre-existing tradition of magic rings being the subject of quests and treasurehunts -- and the violence, greed, hubris, etc involved in their acquisition. Tolkien knew this; he did it the opposite way deliberately).

          Or, maybe not. Maybe Tolkien, Pratchett, Shakespeare, Heinlein, Lord Dunsany, LeGuin, Zelazny, etc can stand or fall on their own merits, despite having been influenced by prior authors and tales. Maybe one benefits from being familiar with LOTR before reading Pratchett, or knowing the folk myths of King Lier before watching the Shakespeare play about him, but it certainly isn't necessary.

  • Louis Chartrand says:

    I really totally identify with that rant, but I have to point out there's also a culture-colonial aspect to it.

    I'm French Canadian, and when I hang out with Anglo folks, I get that "Oh my God, you haven't seen X" crap ALL.THE.TIME (especially outside Quebec). Of course I havent, this isn't my culture !

    Now, I sorta wished it stopped there. But no, apparently, when you meet someone who doesn't know your favorite show, you have to talk about it for half an hour – more if there's many fans around. And you need to throw around as much references as possible.

    I guess the original goal (getting me hooked?) is benevolent, but this kind of behaviour is somewhat offensive. I don't go around plugging references to La guerre des tuques if you won't catch them. I don't see my chinese, arabic or latinos friends doing it either. There's a reason to it: we want to include people in our conversation and make them feel adequate. Plugging cultural references that are obscure to me will do the opposite.

    • chall says:

      Oh I totally understand this feeling. As a non-anglo person, my upbringing had a lot of tvshows/cartoons/fairy tales not common in the USA or UK.

      I usually take the opportunity to explain yet again that most places have similar stufff, just not "the anglo one". Funny for me, the cartoon that influenced me the most in terms of "crazy professor and inventor" was Professor Balthazar by Zlatko Grgić as since he was croatian, not shown on anglo tv.

      that said, there is a huge collective feeling and bonding over the childhood memories, it's just to find some similar feelings and take that feeling rather than the show itself and talk about that. To me, that's the inspiration.

  • People putting other people down to assert their own ego and dominance over a subject must be older than spoken language itself.

    In game development or software development in general, this used to present itself quite often as "Real programmers don't use X.", where X is the language, concept, etc. the speaker is choosing to lambast. Thankfully this is rarely seen in recent years with the rise of indie game developers who often use whatever tool they damn well want to get the job done.

    In the context of gamer culture, specifically RPGs, I remember the classic "You call yourself an RPG fan and have never played Final Fantasy VII?!" That one hits the same ridiculous notes as your Joseph Campbell anecdote.

    Oh, here's a good one, "You're Cuban and you've never seen Scarface?!"

    That one's probably my favorite.


    Ebyan Alvarez-Buylla

  • CS Lewis wrote a great essay on defense of women who read romance novels. His point was that if you love it, its great literature to you.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If you did not read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs around age 12, your brain did not develop properly, and there is nothing to be done about it later in life. Please do not hit me with your elbow.

  • fossilosophy says:

    I hadn't seen the original Cosmos either, but I really enjoyed watching the premier of the new one.

    Seriously though. The Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye (and way too much Animal Planet documentary-watching on summer evenings) planted some great science-seeds in my young brain.

    I think I get the "OMG WHAT WHY HAVEN'T YOU SEEN ______" more often when it comes to movies, though. I didn't grow up with Star Wars, for example, and hadn't seen the first three until a couple years ago. Oh man, the faces of slight horror whenever I admit that in science-y circles...

  • DJMH says:

    Can you imagine how boring science (and life) would be if we had all read the same set of books, seen the same films, etc etc?

    I've never seen Cosmos either.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Everyone knows it is Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom that is the true inspiration. Duh.

  • PZ Myers says:

    I saw the original Cosmos.

    I can drive Saganites mad with fury by telling them that Bronowski's Ascent of Man was far superior. It's so easy to trigger nerd rage.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    That Joseph Campbell nonsense is one of the more annoying memes in nerd culture. I blame George Lucas.

  • I hate it when someone acts like I should know (and of course love) a particular thing. I like to react with scorn, using a tone of voice that implies "why the hell do you think I would care that so and so is going to be in the new X movie?" or "not everyone has read that book, dumbass." they are trying to make you feel dumb for not knowing or liking something? Act like they are dumb for expecting you to.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm sorry, but how can anyone take comments like "you've never read/heard of X" seriously enough to be upset by them? Especially when they are about things like fantasy? Perhaps if people would laugh that shit off more, you might hear such nonsense less often.

    And really, the attitude of "I don't need to be familiar with X to a be a real Y" smacks just a bit of anti-intellectualism to me. If certain people feel so passionate about X as to go on and on about it, I might take a look. Because I'm a very curious person who loves to learn new things, not someone who has to shun something/someone in order to protect her ego.

    Go watch Carl Sagan in Cosmos; read his other works. He was a great science communicator -- I bet you could learn a thing or 2 from him about that. Anyone could!

    • Scicurious says:

      So, wait, let me get this straight. You are responding to a post in which I ask people not to tell me how to be inspired NOT JUST by telling me to go "learn a thing or two," but also by telling me that I should not be upset by other people's elitist attitudes. You are both telling me what I should do AND how I should feel about it?

      I also note that there's a big difference between "I love this thing and I want you to try it because you might love it too" and "UGH you are SO NOT an X, Y, or Z unless you have read A, B, or C." The latter is what makes me angry.

  • scienerdorkeekist says:

    To be honest, Carl Sagan was way too hippie for my taste. Said some crazy shit.

  • chall says:

    I love this rant! it's so much about this "you're not really a fan unless you've read/seen that one" competition. I have a number of books I haven't read that makes me "not a real fan" (not to mention the "real fan books" I've read and might not love as much as others... .talk about not getting it ^^

    I had one of those conversations lately when I suggested a few fantasy books for a younger girl and said "Paksenarrion trilogy", "The Belgariad and The Malloreon series" and "The Riftwar series" and the comment from other fantasy reading ppl was "well, they're just like LoTR but not as good so she shouldn't read them until she's read LoTR". I disagreed just because of that. I don't see the point of saying all the time "it's the same story so don't read it" - well duh, most stories are basically the same "X live in a world, something happens, X go on an adventure, story ends" it's the details and the feelings it invokes in the reader that's important... well, I should probably say "to me". It's what I'm looking for when I dive into my fave fantasybooks 🙂 (and maybe some ideas of nice female characters every once in a while since I think that is extra topping and many books have tonnes of men and then a wench/queen or two.)

    • Elissa says:

      I would argue that the books you've suggested are all far more accessible than LotR - they'd make good "gateway" reading, and then you could move on to LotR once you had some context and experience in the genre. LotR as a first read would more likely put you off trying any fantasy again! (It's good, but it's hard work). We don't tell small children that they shouldn't read kid's versions of classics until after they're read the "real" Shakespeare, Austen, etc. They give them an understanding of the story that then allows them to better appreciate the "real" versions later on.

      Also, how can anyone say that the Paksenarrion trilogy is "not as good" as anything? It's awesome.

  • katiesci says:

    YES! Thank you! I tried to read Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, and I was bored to tears. I've also never seen Cosmos. Or those nature documentaries. But I still love science.

  • mike says:

    You are missing the point about Campbell.
    You don't have to watch Cosmos to like science.
    You do have to understand the scientific method, though, to truly appreciate science.
    That is what Campbell is. He is the method...not the end result.

    • scicurious says:

      No, I don't think I am.

      What is true "appreciation?" Can't I really like, or even love a book without a deep understanding of what makes it great? And can't I really appreciate science without a deep understanding of how it works?

      • mike says:

        First... not trying to start a fight 🙂

        When I say "appreciate" I am meaning the process. NOT just the end result.
        Example. I can't draw worth a crap but I do love looking at good art.
        However, I really get the full appreciation of their talent when I see HOW the artist created it. Some end results take a little time, some take longer.

        Same goes with Science experiments and monomyth story writing.

        Campbell should never inspire anyone, but it is pretty awesome how he observed and organized the outline of the stories that do.

        • scicurious says:

          Well, but...why do we have to appreciate the process? There are many levels of appreciation. Why does anyone need to force a deeper level of appreciation on someone else?

          And it's also possible to appreciate something in one way while others appreciate it in another way. For example, I know lots of people who appreciate Twilight because they like romance, and come at it through the lens of romance. I know other people who appreciate Twilight because they love vampires and come at it through that lens. They appreciate the same thing in different ways, but should we require the vampire fans to read Regency romance and the romance fans to read the history of Vlad the Impaler?

          You may appreciate Joseph Campbell for his organization and observations of the hero's journey. I appreciate many of the relationships between fantasy stories and folk tales.

          I don't deny that appreciation levels can be changed or deepened by exposure to one thing or another. But if you are seeking to be inspired, or to enjoy something...why is it necessary?

          • mike says:

            ok...i will change my wording.

            You don't have to watch Cosmos to like science.
            However to gain a deeper understanding, one would be advised to learn the scientific method.
            That is what Campbell is. He is the method...not the end result.

            Better? Truce?
            /for god sakes please say yes because I didn't realize I was arguing about the scientific method with a Ph.D
            //let me get out of this alive 🙂

          • scicurious says:

            LOL sure fine. 🙂

  • Tabor says:

    I don't see how you any one would say Joseph Campbell is required reading to claim yourself a "true fantasy fan". He's wasn't a fantasy or even a fiction writer and any notion of "true fan" is bullshit. You also don't need to be well versed in TV Tropes to enjoy watching television. That said I also don't see the inspiration behind writing an article ranting about how unimportant Joseph Campbell is when the content of the article shows you don't really know much about his work since his work as an academic and mythologist is what he's primarily recognized for. Again not essential reading, but I kind of find your lack of curiosity distasteful. Check out the Wikipedia article on the monomyth, it will tell you everything you need to know about Campbell's work without having to read through his dry recitation of the specific myths he dissects. You can take or leave his conclusions, but it would have taken less time than writing and editing this article defending/flaunting your ignorance must have.

    • scicurious says:

      You find my lack of curiosity distasteful?

      Why do I need to be curious about this? Fantasy is a genre that I enjoy. I read it because I like it. Why do I need to be curious about the monomyth?

      • I've read Heinlein, Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart. I became aware of the hero's journey through my reading then, when I heard about Campbell's hero's journey, it was like something coming into focus, defining something I already knew. I haven't read Campbell directly (yet: I've bought a couple of books) although I've read about Campbell and about the hero's journey in various forms.

        Knowing the tropes can affect enjoyment. There were times reading Terry Pratchett when I knew he was winking at the reader but I didn't get the reference (particularly with old movies and music) but I still enjoyed Pratchett. Conversely, I've been reviewing books for three and a half years now only to discover I'VE FALLEN INTO THE CRITIC'S TRAP. That's right - I'm going 'OMG, THIS trope again - do something original, FFS.'

        I do NOT want to be the jaded, cynical reviewer who only wants to be entertained by something new. I want to be the enthusiastic reviewer who is happy with commercially popular SFF and delighted with something new and innovative. I write reviews for 'everyperson' not for those who consider themselves to be elite.

        So I argue that knowing the tropes can be a good thing AND a bad thing. Getting the in joke can be a good feeling and it can be a short step away from screaming 'AAARGH, PLOTHOLE!!!' before launching missiles at the television screen.

        Keep your joy alive. Read for enjoyment not to satisfy some wankerish BS. Life is too short to drink bad coffee.

      • Tabor says:

        Because a really interesting person who writes anything worth reading is curious about everything.

        • Scicurious says:

          Why? I'm not curious about how to give my hair a Pantene shine. Is that similarly off putting?

          Why is it my job to be interesting to you?

  • Love the rant! 🙂

    And I disagree on quite a few points. However, that doesn't matter as disagreeing on such an argument doesn't make you a good or a bad person - it just makes you interested in discussing things dear to you *g*

    I've recently been one of those "Campbell" guys as I am a hardcore Tolkienist and yes, "if you don't read the Silmarillion you're not a fan." Boom. Never had so much flak in my life. 🙂 That statement did cost me quite a few sympathies. Sorry to hear you don't really like the Elvish Phonebook *g*

    And I've come to question the definition of "fan" (and the obvious point of "who tf are u to tell me what I should do or not do!!!?") because I am a) convinced the definition has changed and b) expectations have changed accordingly - or vice versa.

    I agree with you that "enjoying" something does not necessarily rely on "knowing" things. I mean, a beautiful table is a beautiful table - and I can appreciate that without being a master carpenter. Same thing with literature - I can like a book, I can be inspired by it without knowing the tropes, without knowing archetype (and hell, no, Jung!), without having read anything at all before. Because that's how you _always_ start out.

    So what I have come to consider the definition as a fan is...

    Fan. [noun.] A person who likes something and aspires to know more about it.

    Because that's the point where I don't agree. 🙂

    Take the Campbell. Do you need it? No. You're right. Should you read it? Possibly. Will it change your perception of the literature you like to read (= fantasy)? It most certainly will. And that's where a fan who'd like to dig deeper goes to - to learn more about things, to find out more. So what I would look for is the -> level of appreciation. If that's the term in English, I am not a native speaker 🙁

    What will never work is to use that _one_ word on all of us. We're all fans. But the level of enthusiasm, the expectations involved are so bloody different - we'll never find anything to agree on. Except possibly one thing - we know what we love.

    So don't tell me what to love, right? 😀

    Thanks for the rant!

Leave a Reply to chall Cancel reply