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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

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.