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.