One thing I hate in readers is a lack of curiosity. Often times folks devoted to a genre whine loudest about not having anything to read, when actually, if they just moved their heads a little in any direction, they’d find something great. Kindles have done away with that, although I’m not sure they’ve done much to improve reader curiosity. If anything Kindles have managed to speed everyone’s descent into a bottomless pit of their own choosing, only now that descent’s fueled by Amazon’s algorithm.
An illustrative anecdote: a month or so back I gave away some books to a friend. One of them I thought was awful and told my friend as much. A week or so later he told me he’d read the book, agreed it was awful, and “the next seven books in the series were just as bad”.
Now this lack of curiosity might not be the biggest problem in genre. But I’d hazard a guess that it could be the keystone problem all the other problems trickle out from. Again the solution is simple: move your head a little in any direction. You will find something better.
A while back I read this post by E. Catherine Tobler called “The Women We Don’t See”. It starts with an anecdote from a friend of hers who realized he hadn’t read a book by a woman in two years. And he was okay with that. A more recent while back, the writer K. T. Bradford challenged readers to quit reading white men for a year. I didn’t opt on the challenge, but I wasn’t incensed by the suggestion. If anything, both posts can simply be read as reminders to maybe think two minutes longer before picking up your next book to read. Even looking at the suggested books outlined in Bradford’s post, she’s only listing twelve books. One a month. You can’t read one book a month by a non-Anglo and/or non-dude writer. Seriously?
There are two big reasons authors get forgotten (beyond the fact that they might suck). The first is the author wrote only the one genre book, and that one was usually early in their career. Fred Chappell’s Dagon and Frederick Turner’s Double Shadow both fit this description (although Chappell has returned to genre at times).
The other reason books get forgotten is because they either exist outside a genre or within a genre that in part hopes to reject them. Despite the history and tradition of women and non-Anglo authors writing SFF, it’s certainly not part of the institutional memory yet. Not when an author can be asked to recommend books to readers and come up with nothing better than the equivalent of Led Zeppelin. This is also why I’m probably only hearing about Doris Piserchia this year. It’s probably also why Joanna Russ gets read like she’s an inoculation against feminism. And why a comment Margaret Atwood made years ago still gets trotted out against her.
All of which is to say show a little curiosity. Take the extra minute and change up your reading diet a bit.
Yeah, I hate that analogy too. It suggests I’m writing all this to extol the salubrious effects of reading certain books, like Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a bit of broccoli on your plate, and you should read it because vitamins, instead of the real reason, which is it’s a great science-fiction book with a moral dilemma at its heart that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who knows what the prime directive is.
And in case you need a place to start, here’s a link to SF Mistressworks. Go crazy.
Intestinal Parasite Bildungsroman
The Epic Mundane
Grimdark Judy Blume
Fan Fiction for Famous Mathematical Equations
“-gasm”: wherever you see the suffix “-punk” now, you’ll see “-gasm” in the future: Mythgasm, Cybergasm, Steamgasm, etc.
Lord of the Sweet Valley Highs
The Genre Adjacent
TV Trope Twister
Noirnoir, Neo-noirnoir, and Revisionist Neo-noirnoir
Real Estate Agents of Dune
The Future Needs Grandpa
Wait For the Cable TV Series
Pooh Corner Slash
Mod, Mod-Mod, Ultra Mod, and Incomprehensible Gibberish
Two-Fisted Tales of Engineering in Space
A thought experiment – every fantasy novel in the world has been destroyed. You have only been able to save three. From these a new fantasy genre will be born. What three novels are they?
I know two of mine, but I’m still trying to figure out the third.
In the meantime what are yours?
This isn’t going to be another Hugo post. But I won’t say that the Hugo announcement didn’t get me thinking more a bit about this. This stuff had been on my mind for a while now. For one reason I recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book some folks are claiming is the best/most ground-breaking novel they’ve read in recent years. A claim I don’t at all agree with. My reaction’s similar to this one. In a nutshell I thought it bland. It would have been better if it had had 50 – 100 pages cut from it. This would have kept the descriptions from miring the plot’s impetus. This is my usual complaint with most contemporary genre novels. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is 225 pages. Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is 256 pages. Personally I blame Iain M. Banks.
But… I read it, and that’s the thing.
The fact that I finish a book is a recommendation of that book. The fact that I’m compelled to critique it isn’t a reason not to read it. I might have issue with it, like I did with last month’s On Such A Full Sea or with Ancillary Justice now, but the critique doesn’t make the book not worth reading. Ancillary Justice is an entertaining Space Opera. I’ll blather more about it at the end of the month, as I will about Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (which I loved and think everyone should read, really).
The problem’s that the conversation’s going to be one-sided.
We’ll talk about the books we read. We’ll engage with them and pick them apart. This may be because we don’t like the book, or had issue with it. But we’re having a conversation with it. Read the book and let’s argue about it! What we can’t do is talk about books we don’t read. And for all sorts of reasons there are plenty of books I don’t read.
There’s the obvious time constraint for one, knowledge for another, and a host of subjective reasons (I’m not the biggest fan of close reactive 1st person), but more importantly I’m not going to read works by authors I don’t respect or who I don’t think are particularly good writers. Nor am I really going to engage with many living writers whose politics are so much different than mine. So Ann Leckie’s on my radar because we’re both in that section of the genre ocean, but Larry Correia isn’t. I’ll dismiss Brad Torgerson as a bad writer, but by doing so I’m never going to engage with his work. And that silence there bothers me, because it’s willful on my part. It’s not that there’s no sound there. It’d that I’m choosing to reject it. That’s part of the problem.
Say there’s a disagreement between two people. One person you disagree with and reject outright as wrong. The other person you agree with, but wish spoke better, for whatever quality of better you want to apply. Now, when you ignore the person you disagree with because they’re wrong, but quibble with the person you do agree with, what purpose are you serving? Because what you might be doing is adding to the noise around the person you agree with without altering the message from the other side.
And those are some of the questions: Do you cheer louder for books you’re not enthusiastic about, simply to shout down the other side? Do you read books by authors you don’t like to prevent yourself from thinking there’s only silence on the other side? And then what about those hateful authors? Are you obligated to read them? Or is politicizing one’s reading time ultimately a waste of time? I don’t agree that’s true, but most people aren’t trying to read over a hundred books this year, and I’m not about to make any claims regarding how other people should spend their time.
I do my best to read widely. Not the easiest or cheapest thing to do outside the anglophone sphere when you’re a klutz and can’t seem to keep an e-reader from self-destructing, not to mention having a full-time job, writing my own stuff, and pursuing a graduate degree. But I try. The question is should I try and read books I’m fairly confident I’m not going to like.
Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind.
In my last post I talked slight crap about fan fiction. And after a few moment’s reflection I thought, “Well, shit, have I really even read much fan fiction?”
So I sought some out.
I did a Google search for Firefly fan fiction and came up with gold. That’s been my reading material for the past two days. And beside the Craiglist personal ad aspects of some of it (erotic pairings of Book & Wash, Mal & River, and Jane & everybody), I think I’m getting a better handle on what it is in fan fiction that grates on me. But before I tell you that, let me say that reading these stories has made me realize that the thing I don’t like about fan fiction is also the thing I need to learn how to do.
Back to what bothers me about it – it’s the immersion level of the work. And this is where I think it overlaps with a genre hang-up I have. I don’t enjoy being so deeply immersed in a story. Sure, I love when I’m immersed in the act of reading, but extreme moment to moment story immersion feels confining. I feel drowned by a writer that describes everything, every moment, every thought of a character’s life. Yeah, that’s hyperbole, but with some books it feels that way. It feels that the writer is holding my hand and directing what I can or can’t pay attention to while they monologue about the movie going on in their head.
But the thing is for fans of shows, fans that would want to write about their favorite show, and a good number of genre fans that level of immersion is what they’re after. They want to be deep in the paracosm on the moment to moment level. It’s not a bug, it’s a design feature. And that’s something I need to learn.
So today’s piece of writer enlightenment:
The thing you dislike in other books is the thing you need to learn for yours.
What’s more important to you?
My wife’s a cartoonist and she’s been creating a comic for the past 6 months. In that time she’s built up something of a fan base.* One thing she’s noticed is that her fans are less fans of her comic as a whole than fans of this or that character. It got us talking about what makes us like certain books. Whether it’s the genre/series itself, the character, or the writer.
Put another way, when you read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, what’s more important, the mystery or Sherlock Holmes? What about a Philip K. Dick novel?
There’s no right or wrong to this. I can think of two somewhat similar writers whose books I enjoy, Liz Hand and Kameron Hurley, both of whom write grim, violent stories. But I read Hurley’s Bel Dame series, for the series itself, then the characters, while the writer remains in the background. In the case of Liz Hand’s recent mystery novels I’m reading them more to see how this particular writer, Liz Hand, uses the mystery genre, yet while being less attracted to her messed-up “detective” character, Cass Neary.
And I don’t think it’s something you can maximize. Like if you blend all three effectively then you will write a blockbuster. But I wonder whether other folks have considered this. What do you think?
Do you read by genre, character, or writer?**
* When a complete stranger draws a picture of a character you’ve created, I’ll say you have developed a fandom.
** And yes, this questions skews towards popular genres. Though maybe not.