A slow month for reading since I’ve gotten involved with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Here are the books I managed to finish:
1. At Amberleaf Fair – Phyllis Ann Karr
A mid-80s fantasy novel set at a seasonal fair and featuring miss-matched lovers, petty theft, and magic. It’s a bit of a curiosity: a secondary world fantasy crime novel where much of the world building and conflict deals with a barter economy and the small ways magic is integrated into everyday existence. At times the styles of the crime genre and the fantasy genre clash, and too often the novel sits heavily on the fantasy side and suffers for it. Still, I enjoyed it because it’s a small scale secondary world fantasy and I’m a sucker for those.
2. A House in Naples – Peter Rabe
A 50s pulp crime novel about two American criminals in post-War Naples. It’s a quick read, full of unlikable characters, and very ugly, but it’s better than most. If you have any desire to read pulp crime, Peter Rabe should be on your list of authors to check out.
3. The Digger’s Game – George V. Higgins
Crime circa-1970s Boston, I liked it but not as much as Cogan’s Trade or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Still, when it’s good, it’s good and sections of the novel leap off the page. I should also thank Rick Bowes for making me read Higgins in the first place.
4. How To Make Friends With Demons – Graham Joyce
I could see a person hating this book. It meanders, withholds information, and for much of it you’re wondering when Joyce is going to a) get on with it, b) tell you what it’s all about. But if you accept those things and admire how he’s doing it all, then you’ll find much to enjoy here.
5. Storm of Steel – Ernst Junger
War is good! War is great! War! War! War! Junger was a German storm trooper during World War One. He enjoyed the war on the occasions when it wasn’t making him breakdown into fits of sobbing, and this book is his memoir of his experiences. There’s a part early on where Junger enters a field hospital after a battle and he describes the doctor as having a “cold, antlike efficiency in the middle of the carnage”. The book is full of a lot of that.
Every now and then the debate over reading genre classics pops up and rears its ugly head. On the one hand you have folks who feel we’re losing a literary heritage and forgetting too many old great books as new great books get published. Mike Swanwick had a recent blog post to that effect. The genre was once smaller, you could read everything in it, and stay on top of it. It was easier not only to find the firsts in a genre, but also the outliers. Having a hungry curiosity for this stuff is good.
On the other hand you have the opposite position of just knowing what’s current, which in its extreme form might resemble this five year old blog post from Karen Traviss about not needing to read to be a writer. (I don’t know if Traviss still agrees with that blog post, but I’ll keep it until I learn otherwise because it’s useful.) In its milder form, it’s not needing to read every alien invasion story ever, but just those in recent years in order to see how alien invasion stories are being told now in this era.
There’s also a third hand, which shows up in the comments of Swanwick’s post, stating that the “classics” might not be so classic and why navigate through books dripping with the prejudices of their eras. This too is a valuable point, but my reading of Swanwick’s post is one not so much telling writers to know their history and cling to it, but to sift that history and find the gems in it, the outliers as he dubs them, or the books lost in genre’s shadow like the ones I mention here and here.
However there are ways to reconcile these three arguments when you keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Read only what you enjoy, but cultivate a curious and complex palette that enjoys challenges.
2. Make your own genre history. Lots of stuff gets lost in the margins or ignored because it doesn’t tidily fit in with someone’s imposed narrative. Bring these works to light.
3. The early work in a genre has more immediacy than subsequent iterations. It can sometimes be as fresh as more recent works.
4. As far as knowing your genre goes, once you’ve read the initial spark, focus on what’s been done with it in the past decade. But…
5. Always remember there are likely more amazing books that you haven’t heard of than ones you have.