?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Musing on quality reading, sort of

Quality means many things at many ages. When I was thirteen, I could read romances. It was the last time I could. I found them for ten cents a piece at a used bookstore near my grandparents house, which was cheaper than comics. I bought them by the handfuls because they were cheap. Did I notice that they were poorly written? No. There are books I adored as a child that I simply cannot read now, and it pains me. It's a loss. I don't bother to waste time thinking I was stupid; those were things that saved time and sanity in a confusing world, and I've lost the way into them. I can still read the first John Carter of Mars book, though.


Was that another digression? You bet. Back to the question of quality. And why I stopped reading romance. I stopped when I realized that it wasn't real. That the men were actually jerks. That the women were improbable. That this was nothing that spoke to experience. I still didn't notice the language. Or the angst. Or the structure; I just hated the lack of emotional reality.

In high school, I discovered Leonard Cohen. Well, actually, my mother adored him, so I discovered him earlier, but I paid attention to him in high school. To his lyrics and his words. I was approaching them by the humiliation of daily life, and the understanding of them made them real to me. This lead me, oddly enough, to poets. And to poetry. I wrote very little prose in High School. The prose I did write was so over-the-top it was awful. I had the emotion, the heart, the drive -- but the tools were so far beyond me, it's painful to reread anything from that period. (With one or two astonishing exceptions).

It was at this age that I formulated my "crap" and "not crap" rules of reading. I went the high brow route because it spoke to me more viscerally than much else. Patrick
White's VOSS was a revelation, to me. Michael Ondaatje's COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER, the same. POWER POLITICS, Margaret Atwood's best known poetry collection, was a black and perfect look at gender interaction.

The first Heinlein book I was given was GLORY ROAD, and I think I threw it at the person who gave it to me. The first fantasy, aside from the C.S. Lewis books, was THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD. Which I adored, and I still adore. For someone who wanted reality, the magic enthralled -- but the emotional anchors were so true the local reality only underlined them. And at this stage, I was becoming aware of language.

So there I was, a teenage snob. Who had grown a love of SF from the more feminist novels I'd read. That didn't change much. I could pick up some of the SF and toss it aside as poorly written because of characterization. I could grind my teeth in smug superiority at the fact that these people were doing paint by number characters, if they bothered at all. The great thing about being that age is that I thought I knew everything <wry g>. bobafet, if you ask how that's different from now, you are going to suffer. I'm just saying.

I discovered the Scribblies (Brust, Dean, Bull, Shetterly, Lindholm to name a few), and I was in a state of bliss. But with few exceptions, it became clear to me that the better written I thought a book was, the less accessible it often was as well. This was frustrating, because they were entirely accessible to me.

However… some time later in life, I began to read what I call Comfort books. They became my guilty pleasures. I knew that they weren't realistic, and I didn't care. They had the heart that I had when I was young, and they spoke to that, and I was content. I couldn't write them :/. If I could write just one Robin McKinley book, I would be happy. I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay in my twenties, and he is a pleasure that is entirely without guilt. I of course read Tolkien, and he is my desert island book.

Never tell a crowded store of SF fans that you don't like Larry Niven's writing. I'm just saying.

How does this relate to everything else I've been saying? There are whole swathes of readers who have no desire to write. And many of those readers can read the early works that I no longer can; they can read books written in that vein that I no longer can. What they want out of the book, they find -- and the writerly tools that I spent so long developing? Not helpful in making my books accessible to them. Because if, in the end, I want to be read widely, there has to be some melding of the reader that I was with the writer that I am. And this means that I can't have that kind of flippant contempt for anything that moves a reader. Although I can make exceptions.

I no longer look at romance novels with dread or contempt because somewhere along the road I realized that the point of them was not, in fact, to be realistic; it was to entertain, to comfort. In fact, I look at almost nothing written with derision any more. I look instead at what those novels provide to readers. Some of those things can never be provided by me. I hate that. But I accept it; we write the stories that speak to us, because those are the ones we have. Some of those things, I might be able to provide, in the context of what I do now. I've heard writers whose character work I despise speak of their struggle to make those characters real because those characters are real -- to them. This was also illuminating, in that it made clear that we can only write what we can perceive; that what I thought was sloppy was not, in fact, any such thing; the writer and I had entirely different modes of perception. Full stop.

So at forty, I know far less than I thought I knew. And as people become vastly less self-conscious about what they read, novels that would have made conservatives squeamish are available everywhere, and widely read. There's a lesson in this, but I'm not entirely certain what it is. Women's and YA fiction has certainly become a much more vital industry; the fiction aimed at boys and men, while it does sell in droves, has become almost less of a concern as publishers everywhere try to figure out how to tap into the numbers that exist in the romance market, and in the Harry Potter market.

I can't help but think that this is a good thing in many ways; that women no longer feel the need to hide what they read or enjoy reading. Norah Roberts has become the chart-topper, a solid slap in the face for all of the publishing and bookselling people who firmly believed that romances simply would not sell in hardcover. But I'm not sure where that leaves me, as a reader or as a writer.

Comments

( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 06:49 pm (UTC)
can still read the first John Carter of Mars book, though.

Do you still *have* it? Do you know how hard they are to find ?? I have 1 of them, the 6th, I think.


I have ten of them, although I'm almost positive they're actually at my parent's at the moment <g>. At some point there was some active plan to reprint them -- which I'm going to have to check on now.
phantom_wolfboy
Aug. 23rd, 2004 11:11 pm (UTC)
They've been reprinted at least once that I know of. Probably more than once, cause I've got more than one set of covers.

Personally, I always preferred Carson Napier to John Carter. Better character and, since the series was shorter, Burroughs didn't get to burn out on it the way he did on Tarzan and Barsoom.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 11:19 pm (UTC)
They've been reprinted at least once that I know of. Probably more than once, cause I've got more than one set of covers.

They were reprinted a lot about twenty years ago. And earlier. So there are several sets of covers -- but I don't recall seeing anything in the last, say, 8 years.

Personally, I always preferred Carson Napier to John Carter. Better character and, since the series was shorter, Burroughs didn't get to burn out on it the way he did on Tarzan and Barsoom.

Those, I never read. I read all of the Tarzan books I could find when I was in grade 4, I think (ten years old), but I recall very, very little of them. The Mars books, I was a little older, and it's really only the first one that I can reread -- which really annoyed the professor who was teaching SF the year I took it at UofT <wry g>. He expected a certain feminist outrage, but I just didn't have it in me because that book had impressed itself on my subconscious when I was just the right age for it.
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Aug. 24th, 2004 12:06 am (UTC)
  I understand that they'll be dated and whatnot but I still very much would like to read them as they're referenced very often in things that I've read.

I'll try to dig them loose the next time I'm up at my parents; I'm pretty darned sure I know whose shelf they're actually on at the moment <wry g>. What are you doing awake at this time of night, anyway?

I have the excuse of having written :D.
illaraphaniel
Aug. 23rd, 2004 02:50 am (UTC)
I could be wrong, but I think it leaves you at forty. :)

You mentioned that Romance novels were to entertain, to comfort. For me, as a reader who doesn't want to be a writer, that's the goal of any book, any genre. Sales in my view are dependant on the comfort and entertainment that book provides to the reader and as each reader's imagination has a slightly individualistic view on what comforts and entertains them, sales could be viewed as a function of who has the most denominators.

You used Harry Potter as an example of market and Guy Kay as an example of ideal almost. For me I've read maybe eight books that are a step up from Guy and maybe 30 that are a step across, the rest are varying degrees of stepping down. I'd use the elevator to get to Harry Potter, yet I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels. They were a quality read for me, I read them in the time I had available and enjoyed them. On the other hand, I don't think the books took any risks with the chance to entertain or comfort me, whereas Guy continually risks everything in the turn of a page. His books are quality reads, imo but his numbers are not in the same domain.

Taking that a step further, Robert Jordan is another author, with huge sales who in my belief is also taking no chances with me. In fact there are more than enough similarities between the Harry Potter books and Jordan's to make me think that many of the young readers looking outside of Potter might find comfort and entertainment in Jordan's books.

As a general rule (again for me), I've noticed that the more chances an author takes with my reading, the number of people who know that author is less.

"we write the stories that speak to us, because those are the ones we have". This is probably going to sound ridiculous to any author currently writing a book, but might not be the ones you have in you, be the litmus test for books you read that comfort you. Or in a slightly masochistic way be the book that actually comforts you. You mentioned McKinley, Kay and Tolkien Michelle as your pleasures but there is something of those authors also in your books.

Maybe as a reader, you merely need to go into someone else's bookshop and ask them to recommend you a book along the lines of Kay or McKinley. Don't kill them if their opinion is wrong.

-illaraphaniel

p.s. Also, you decided to start your Sun Sword series of six books with a girl, who was young. Biggest risk ever. :)
ginny_t
Aug. 23rd, 2004 04:39 am (UTC)
8 books that are a step up from Guy Kay? What are they? I don't know if I can think of anything better than him, on a rock my world scale.
kristine_smith
Aug. 23rd, 2004 04:43 am (UTC)
You're reading my mind
>But I'm not sure where that leaves me, as a reader or as a writer.

A few of these posts of yours discuss matters I've been mulling over for years--this is scary. *g* The question of accessability, which to me is not writing books that are "easier", but books that appeal to a greater cross-section of readers. I have liked a few of these books in my time--Judith Krantz's 80s poor little rich girl tomes, LJ Braun's Qwilleran books. Not SF/fantasy--I don't know if that means anything or not.

I look forward to the next mindreading post!
sartorias
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:55 am (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Yeah, I too have been pondering, though part of the problem is identifying what spectrum of readership will respond to something. Frex, I never could get through a Krantz novel, and thing Guy Kay desperately needs an editor...but I still reread and love Robin McKinley, so I can't be too far off the mark?

Spread spectrum still won't hold still, I think is the problem.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 06:58 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Frex, I never could get through a Krantz novel, and thing Guy Kay desperately needs an editor...but I still reread and love Robin McKinley, so I can't be too far off the mark?

Krantz, I've never read, so I couldn't call her one way or the other, but I'd say that she doesn't have much in common with Kay or McKinley, at least on the surface of things. I'm curious about your take on Kay; he's a writer that writers seem to either adore or dislike, and I've learned to live with this (I adore his work, of course). My sister found him almost unreadable because she couldn't actually imagine speaking any of his sentences out loud; I grabbed the book and read her a full page out loud, and she said "only you could make that sound as if it were actually natural speech" (which is very, very untrue), but didn't really change her take <rueful g>.

His cadences, rhythms and words work for me on many levels.
sartorias
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:53 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Kay I find boring--I did like his first couple of Fianovar ones, before he shifted from channeling Tolkien to channeling Dorothy Dunnet fairly exclusively. He just got more arch and coy, and though there would be passages of some beauty, his overuse of such words as "nuanced" (I think it showed up like a dozen times in one short chapter) and his reiterations of Dunnett's conversational style and situations got kind of boring and predictable, and I found I lost interest. But I really loved the first two, flaws and all. Especially the second one. I just wept when Kevin did his fall.
sartorias
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:57 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Adding: words like "nuanced" can be cheats. Don't tell me soneone's voice or tone is "nuanced". Show me how. Don't tell me someone's expression is nuanced. Euw. Show me. It's a tell word, a word implying subtlety that was never shown, and he used a bunch of others like that, so that the aggregate feeling was a bag of tricks or sleight of hand, kind of, posturing as sophistication and intelligence without actually doing the work of showing me how.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 08:15 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Kay I find boring--I did like his first couple of Fianovar ones, before he shifted from channeling Tolkien to channeling Dorothy Dunnet fairly exclusively. He just got more arch and coy, and though there would be passages of some beauty, his overuse of such words as "nuanced" (I think it showed up like a dozen times in one short chapter) and his reiterations of Dunnett's conversational style and situations got kind of boring and predictable, and I found I lost interest. But I really loved the first two, flaws and all. Especially the second one. I just wept when Kevin did his fall.

This is where I reveal a large hole in my reading: I've never read Dunnett. I started one of the books, and it seemed very distant to me at the time; I could get the surface, but not necessarily what was beneath it, if there was anything beneath it. To me, then, perhaps because of my total lack of familiarity with Dunnett, this isn't a problem, and I've never found him unapproachable. I've certainly never found him boring. I'm wondering if this means that I would now find Dunnett more approachable or not.

Did you like those? Is it just the sense of faded echo that's annoying?

"nuanced" is not a word that trips my meter, fwiw. It has a tone for me that works, but I understand exactly what you mean because there are other words used (by other authors) that stick out in the same way; they're shadow words. I'm not always conscious -- either when reading or, sadly, when writing -- of the words for which I supply the meaning, as opposed to the words for which the meaning is inherent, if that makes sense.

I loved the Fionavar books (there were three; did you not like the way the third went?) and they all make me weep. But so does anything he's done.
sartorias
Aug. 23rd, 2004 08:51 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Though I think Lymond was annoying, I was impressed by the series overall (the last three books in particular); there seemed far more substance to them than I found in any of Kay's subsequent things. It's like in Tigana and afterward he was aping her style and emotional angst nexes but without the substance. I'd get bored because I knew where everything was going.

I disliked the third Fianovar book as it seemed really, really stodgy, superlative everything (the wickest villain, the longest torture sequence, the biggest armies, the worst battle, the toughest march, the terriblest weather...) little of the saving humor of the second, and I skimmed a whole lot of it. The second book remains my favorite of his.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:05 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Though I think Lymond was annoying, I was impressed by the series overall (the last three books in particular); there seemed far more substance to them than I found in any of Kay's subsequent things. It's like in Tigana and afterward he was aping her style and emotional angst nexes but without the substance. I'd get bored because I knew where everything was going.

This is interesting to me. I think Lymond has 6 books? (I could be wrong about this, and will happily be corrected, but I confess I'm too lazy to amazon.com the answer, because I think they're out of print). I wonder if there's a sense of more substance because she had the time in which to develop that knotty sense of textured world and histsory?

I admit that in TIGANA I had no idea where things were going, although when they did arrive, they felt so utterly true to me that they were like revelations. One of the things about his work that I like is the sense of the mythic or the archetypal -- where like is probably too weak a word. I dislike angst in general, and found little to none there -- but I define angst as the breast-beating that has the external sense of emotion without the internal, and if you weren't emotionally engaged, can easily see how it could be interpreted that way.

lnhammer
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:43 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Not at all out of print -- Dunnett's historicals have all gotten uniform trade paper reprints a couple years ago. Thus my finally getting a copy of King Hereafter.

---L.
phantom_wolfboy
Aug. 23rd, 2004 11:17 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Six Lymond books; The Game of Kings is the first and Checkmate is the last. If you like Diarmuid, you'll probably like Francis Crawford of Lymond.

But that's the only similarity I can see between Kay and Dunnett; one character isn't enough for me to say that he's channelling her.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 11:22 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Six Lymond books; The Game of Kings is the first and Checkmate is the last. If you like Diarmuid, you'll probably like Francis Crawford of Lymond.

A friend gave me a set of six Dunnett paperbacks in the old editions that are now out of print. I haven't read them, or tried beyond that initial attempt, but will try now. I liked Diarmuid, but most significantly for his last act of defiance, fwiw.

I think that sartorias is talking more about specific elements of style -- in the tone of conversations, for instance, as she mentioned above, rather than in specific plot cribs; I could be mistaken, and will stop here as it's generally not wise to speak for other authors when they can speak quite eloquently for themselves <g>.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:07 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
...little of the saving humor of the second, and I skimmed a whole lot of it. The second book remains my favorite of his.

I should also add that I'm not perhaps the person with the world's best-developed sense of humour, so I probably didn't notice the absence, and in truth by that point, I was engaged enough that things didn't seem all that humorous <wry g>.
sartorias
Aug. 24th, 2004 06:27 am (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Yeah...I think things were ramped up to a high pitch of maximum desperation and kept on that very note all the way through, without the rises and falls, expansions and contractions, that keep a book from becoming numbing. It surprised me--I was buying them as they came out--and I'd so looked forward to the last one, but I found it such a disappointment I never reread it. I just reread the first two and stop.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 06:53 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
The question of accessability, which to me is not writing books that are "easier", but books that appeal to a greater cross-section of readers.

Yes! For instance, CRYPTONOMICON can't be considered "easier" in any way, but even with its digressions and its detail, it had (and has) a very broad audience; I adored it. Had you asked me, otoh, I would have said it would lose him audience ground, which it hasn't.

There are some books that I understand the accessibility of with far more ease, so it's both a puzzle and a bit of a mental struggle.

kristine_smith
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:19 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
For instance, CRYPTONOMICON can't be considered "easier" in any way, but even with its digressions and its detail, it had (and has) a very broad audience; I adored it. Had you asked me, otoh, I would have said it would lose him audience ground, which it hasn't.

I think fictionalized history--how's that for an oxymoron--is quite acceptable to a broad audience. As long as there are aspects to which a less speculation-prone reader can relate, vast swaths of info that they can understand because they've read it before or heard of the people involved, it will fly. Note that I am not talking about alternate history, which is history changed. I'm thinking more of history embellished with loops and whorls of story in such a way that the less skiffy-prone reader can consider it reality with something extra, like Dava Sobel or someone more mainstream.

I haven't read any Stephenson save for DIAMOND AGE, so I'm only guessing as to what's going on. But I think it's why some SF writers feel they may broaden their audience if they change their work to fit the technothriller mold. More current day stuff that the one or two SF book a year reader can relate to. This was the reader I have heard I needed to try to win over in order to breakout. I think this is the audience Stephenson has built.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:25 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
But I think it's why some SF writers feel they may broaden their audience if they change their work to fit the technothriller mold.

The funny thing, vis a vis Stephenson, was that he set out to write the Stephen Bury books with his Uncle (?) as a way of making money in order to give him greater freedom to write what he wanted to write on his own; they were the modern thriller books.

As it turned out, it was the stuff that he wanted to write was what had the staying and selling power, against conventional wisdom. I think you're right about the historical nature of C, but according to an older LOCUS interview, he'd written that as the first 2/3s of a braided SF novel (past, present), in which the last 3rd was the future of the data haven, etc. The fourth age, if you will. He lopped the future portion off because it was growing (again, interview source), and the rest was finished and even said the next book would be that one <wry g>. Demonstrably, this wasn't the case, though <wry g>.

kristine_smith
Aug. 23rd, 2004 07:37 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
The funny thing, vis a vis Stephenson, was that he set out to write the Stephen Bury books with his Uncle (?) as a way of making money in order to give him greater freedom to write what he wanted to write on his own; they were the modern thriller books.

As it turned out, it was the stuff that he wanted to write was what had the staying and selling power, against conventional wisdom.


Did the Bury books do well? Shows you how not well-read I am that I haven't heard of them, I guess.

I think technothrillers are tricky. The sellers are more than threat of the week. They tap a vein of anti-tech paranoia, like Crichton, or a fear, like some medical thrillers. What really goes on in that hospital basement? If you fear your next physical, you might want to see your fears confirmed and read on.

It will be interesting to see if Stephenson ever writes another book that takes place in the future.

msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
Did the Bury books do well? Shows you how not well-read I am that I haven't heard of them, I guess.

Not well enough to still be in print, when all of the rest of his books (including BIG U, which he's not fond of) are. In this case, I would say it's not that you're not well-read -- it's that they vanished without a trace; people who knew that he was half of the writing team picked them up, but that was a subset of his (growing) audience. I'd be curious to know how many people who didn't already read Stephenson read the Bury books, but that's know really a knowable thing <wry g>.
lnhammer
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:45 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
"books"? I only ever heard of the one by Stephen Bury.

---L.
msagara
Aug. 23rd, 2004 09:51 pm (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
"books"? I only ever heard of the one by Stephen Bury.

COBWEB and INTERFACE. If there were, otoh, more than those two, I didn't hear about them either <g>.
lnhammer
Aug. 24th, 2004 09:43 am (UTC)
Re: You're reading my mind
I only knew of Interface. I got it for completeness, but sold it off when done. It didn't have the tightly wound manic energy I read Stephenson for.

---L.
zhaneel69
Aug. 24th, 2004 01:12 pm (UTC)
Interesting.

My husband reads a lot of things. I joke that he has no taste. I read fewer things because I'll put a book down if the writing is poor. He jokes that I'm an elietist snob.

I'm in a stage right now where I have to choose who I read so I don't accidentally imitate the poor writing when I don't want to. I read romance/erotica when I'm writing that. I read gaming novels while I was writing my novel proposal for WotC. I read Lackey/MacCaffery while writing light fantasy. I read Gaiman/Martin when I'm looking at dense fantasy. I read Asimov when I'm doing SF.

Zhaneel
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )