Know Your History? Some Guidelines For Reading

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.

And here’s another post where I carry on in more or less the same way.

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6 responses to “Know Your History? Some Guidelines For Reading”

  1. asakiyume says :

    Very good post (as was Michael Swanwick’s–thanks for the link)! And I think you’re onto something, definitely, with what you say about historical fiction and fantasy. Reaching out for new things and challenging yourself is so important.

  2. Gord Sellar says :

    Ha, a minefield linked to a minefield. My thoughts:

    1. Read only what you enjoy, but cultivate a curious and complex palette that enjoys challenges.

    … which may at some point require one to embrace unfamiliar kinds of enjoyment. (I guess that’s where the “challenges” comes in, but it’s worth noting that there may be some struggle mixed in with the enjoyment.) My recent post on You Bright and Risen Angels (and my experiences with film in the past year) are pretty much about me wrestling with that. The best metaphor I can come up with was that on my first visit back to Canada, I found the chocolate cakes inedible: they were too horrifyingly sweet. Sometimes changing your palette changes how you enjoy things. Or, you know: exercising. If you tend to default to couch potato (like me) then at first it’s not easy, but after a while you find that you enjoy a good workout.

    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.

    Yes! I’ve been thinking about that since some long-ago book you reviewed at, I think, Tor.com. It’s not always the most obscure authors, either. This is familiar to me from music: I always loved Stravinsky, but everyone recognizes Stravinsky as a big deal, and he gets a lot of coverage. It was listening to and exploring Messaien, and Ockeghem, and Scriabin, and troubadour songs–that I found a lot of new sounds and structures entering my imagination. And it’s worth noting that none of those composers are even obscure: they’re just not placed centrally in the “canon.”

    3. The early work in a genre has more immediacy than subsequent iterations. It can sometimes be as fresh as more recent works.

    … and it often also is more explicit in its linkages to earlier works outside of the genre. People imitating the old pulps now don’t wear that genealogy on their sleeve, whereas the genre’s ur-texts sometimes (even often?) reference their ur-texts. I’ve found it quite interesting how many of the ur-texts a book like Pound’s The Cantos share with Robert Howard’s Conan stories and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stuff. All these guys grew up reading Greek classics. A lot of Pound’s readers today don’t read the classics that closely, and I’ve yet to see many Lovecraftians dig too deeply into the Greek mythological roots of Cthulhu. (Joshi aside, I’m sure.)

    Then there’s these two points:

    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.

    I find point #4 odd on its own, and feel like maybe the “but” necessitates considering the two together. Like: You probably want to know what’s being done in your genre today, so try keep abreast of that, but remember that an effort to find the gems in earlier eras may also be well-rewarded.

    I have a feeling you might find most of this post (an interview with musician Henry Threadgill) rings a lot of bells, in terms of the perils of imitation versus awareness, in terms of the balance to be struck between slavishly following tradition and not knowing it at all, and so on. At least, that’s what I thought of when I read this post, and the one you link.

    Out of curiosity, how is Traviss as a writer? (I haven’t read her.) When I read her post, I couldn’t help but think of this musician I knew. He did sort of New-Agey rock, very simple and tonal and very listenable, but it sort of sounded like the same thing mixed different ways — it was more than consistent, it was sort of, well, limited. He used to brag about being unable to read music, as if a self-limitation were some great benefit to him and something to be proud of. I liked the guy a lot, and I still listen to one of his CDs occasionally, but you could tell he wasn’t very schooled: his music *sounded* like someone who was limited to playing by ear. He seemed to regard the idea of reading music as something that would contaminate him creatively, to the degree that he was blind to how not learning to read was limiting him creatively.

    (Chefs may be able to make dishes with ingredients they don’t like, but how many chefs don’t develop their palate eating top-class food? A man may be able to design for women without cross-dressing, but I doubt a designer walks around not checking out the clothes people are wearing, whether on the street or at fashion shows. And surgeons may not need heart conditions to operate, but they do spend a LOT of times futzing around with still hearts before they start operating on beating ones.)

    That’s not to say one cannot learn transferrable skills from other things. Presumably heart surgeons are competent not just from futzing around with hearts, but also with other body parts, and book learnin’, and so on. (I believe my music studies helped me a lot with fiction–structure, theme, repetition, and even just paying attention to the aural qualities of prose.)

    But truly great fiction doesn’t really work the way films do. You can learn certain things about narrative by watching movies, but you’re going to end up limited to that and whatever you come up with yourself. Which is why I’m curious about Traviss’ writing: I can’t help but feel like if you’re not a reader, it’s got to be really hard–on the order of reinventing the wheel a bunch of times, or working very well within tight self-imposed limitations–to become a truly great writer in those conditions.

    • Justin says :

      Heh. There you go writing a response longer than my initial blog post.

      There’s plenty of blank area to either side of these aphorisms, so they can be stretched to suit and reinterpreted. That said I don’t disagree with anything you say above. Challenging your palette will change it. A knowledge of the classics was likely more common in an earlier era.

      Of course, staying on top of the genre is tricky. Even if I only read what some folks consider to be the best books of the year, other folks will say those don’t represent the genre since they’re likely to be outliers.

      And re: Traviss, I haven’t read her. And can’t say if she’s “great” or not, but she’s successful writer that doesn’t read. I’ve intentionally left out qualitative concerns because they’re not really part of this argument. Besides, that way finger-wagging Moralism lies.

      • gordsellar says :

        Ha, it almost is longer… though I am kind of replying to both posts at once. 🙂

        Staying on top of the genre these days is pretty much impossible unless you’re a speed reader with no day job.. or a speed reader who reads for his or her day job. You ultimately end up having to rely on the judgment of others if you’re not, in terms of reading short fiction anyway. That said, there are outliers, and then there are outliers. Hm.

        As for Traviss, I’d never even heard of her, but that doesn’t mean much. My point isn’t whether she’s a “good” writer or a “bad” one, so much as whether her lack of interest in reading, and her having gotten her “schooling” in narrative from TV and comic books, shows in her prose. (In much the same way I would imagine it’d show if someone started writing space opera or supernatural detective stories when his or her background was primarily Shakespeare, or Dickens, or classical Greek and Roman epics, or for that matter The Mahabharata and the Ramayana or backwoods round-the-fire storytelling.)

        Which… well, the reason I linked Threadgill in my comment is because, when you listen to his music, you can tell her came up listening to contemporary chamber music. It shows.

        In the same way, I wonder if the comics/TV influence shows in Traviss’ books and to what degree that is part of the appeal to some readers. For example, she likens the episodic quality of TV narratives to what you need for a game that people don’t finish in one sitting.

        What she has to say about process suggests similar things to me. Now I’m curious read something by her, just to see if my predictions hold.

        But hey, who am I to criticize?

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