Ironically, constraining myself with categories and challenges will encourage me to read more. I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature and a couple forthcoming books for my International Science Fiction quest are from this part of the world.
While this blog focuses primarily on genre fiction, my general reading tastes are much more eclectic. I have been known to indulge in the truths universally acknowledged in the works of Jane Austen. I have days where I love nothing more than to escape into the poetry of Lisel Mueller, Robert Frost or Richard Wilbur (among others). And I have long said that if I could ever learn to write even half as well as Ian McEwan (post The Child in Time), I would give up whatever day job I had and write novels for the rest of my life.
(Of course this isn’t to say that genre fiction can’t be great literary masterpieces. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell isn’t just a well written genre book–it deserves to be a classic. Not a genre classic, a CLASSIC with no hedging modifiers).
I also am not one of those who rends her garments and bemoans the children when I hear people don’t read novels as much anymore. The unspoken assumption in those pieces is that “Reading is the brussel sprouts of culture–you do it because it’s good for you, even if you just end up spitting out a regurgitated gooey mess for a B+ level paper in a liberal arts literature class for it.” I guarantee you that the vast majority people won’t do something merely because it’s “good for them.” Furthermore, turning reading into brussel sprouts, designed to cure intellectual spasms, is the fastest way to kill the enjoyment of any book.*
Any sort of medium is capable of producing great art (it is TV that gives us Mad Men, it was film that gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and any sort of medium is capable of producing throwaway entertainment (many mass market paperbacks). To single out reading as something special and magical that only the truly intelligent can appreciate both oversells its importance and undersells its potential.
In other words, I read because I like it. When I pick up a book, I have decided there’s something about it that’s worth my time. I can either enjoy the book on its own terms or perhaps ironically, the way people enjoy throwing spoons at theatre showings of The Room. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a literary masterpiece, a book that will change the way I look at the life, the universe and everything.** Other times I’m looking for a fast read that may not give new perspectives on life, but give me a few hours of enjoyment.*** And other times, I’ll have what TVTropes calls bile fascination–I’ll want to read a book simply because I can’t believe such a thing can exist and I want to see how off the wall it can go.****
In a future post I’ll go into more detail about what sorts of characters, themes, and plots make me stick with a book vs. ones that make me throw the book at the wall in disgust. With all the books out there, one has to know her own tastes to get a better sense of what books are worth her time. Sometimes you just know, while other times, experimenting is the way to go. Just like with any other artistic medium.
* Of the books that I consider my favorites of all time, only one of them I initially encountered in a classroom setting: The Master and Margarita. And even that one was in a college class where we spent two class days on it max. Enough to make me want to re-read on my own time, but not so much that I was worn out by the epic quest to find symbolism.
** Examples of such books are Atonement (Ian McEwan), Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis), and the aforementioned Sparrow.
*** Charlaine Harris is particularly good at crafting books like this.
**** Real Vampires Have Curves anyone?
First off, let me say that I am a huge fan of io9. I read it every day, frequently link to it, and take its recommendations to heart. If it wasn’t for io9, I never would have found the criminally unknown masterpiece that is The Sparrow.
I also enjoyed their recent #scifi101 syllabus. For a week, they talked about classics of sci-fi in film, television, books, graphic novels and videogames. They also dissected frequently used tropes and principles of actual science that inform the genre. Overall, a wonderfully informing series that will thoroughly introduce you to science fiction works of art.
Or more accurately, American and UK science fiction works of art.
With few exceptions, almost every work featured was either by an American or a UK production. I am not doubting their artistic merit, or even the far reaching influence of the works chosen, even if I’m not a fan personally.* However, I’m fairly certain that great works (and even not so great but entertaining works) of speculative fiction have come from other countries. For instance, the dystopian literature section on the booklist for SciFi 101 feature the well known 1984 and Brave New World, but did not mention the Russian predecessor to both, We. And how is any scifi 101 list complete without a work by Jules Verne? These are two glaring omissions and I’m not even out of Europe yet.
Io9 later remedied this somewhat with a list of ten foreign Sci-Fi films, but has not made a list for TV shows or books from other countries. Hence, with the help of the GreenDragon group, I’m on a quest to find interesting genre books from not from America or the UK. Granted, it will not be easy as many of these books do not have English translations, and the ones that do are inevitably filtered through the translator’s interpretation.
The first few I have on the list are a mixed bag. One of the books, The Invention of Morel is a novella that’s apparently a Latin American classic** and if a college ever tought a class on Latin American science fiction, I guarantee this book would be in the list. Another one is The Last Wish, is a Polish urban fantasy novel written in 1993 and is the basis for a PC RPG.*** No point in literary snobbery now-my goal is to get as full a picture of how different nations approach genre fiction as possible considering the time and language barriers.
* I was only mildly interested in Doctor Who during Christopher Eccleston’s run and completely lost interest when David Tennant took over. Tennant annoyed me to no end, as did the overemphasis on how Rose was the most spectacular specialist girl ever. And I can’t bring myself to make the time to check out if Matt Smith’s Doctor is any better.
** The back cover of the New York Review of Books edition has a blurb by Octavio Paz, a claim that Jorge Louis Borges compared this favorable to a Henry James novel, and a comparison to Phillip K. Dick. In other words, quite the literary pedigree.
*** The Last Wish is less likely to on a college syllabus. Or rather, less likely to be on a literature syllabus and more likely on a “media and culture” type class.