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August 30, 2009

Oh No Lev Grossman No
Posted by Patrick at 01:12 PM *

Point, counterpoint. I do feel like I’ve seen this argument before. Endlessly.

I generally enjoy the books Lev Grossman praises more than the books Matt Cheney praises, but I think that on balance Cheney is more right than not. Grossman is getting at something real, but the way he’s couching his argument is rife with what Cheney calls “armies of straw people marching through an alternate literary history.” Among other things, Grossman palms a whole bunch of cards, first telling us that “the Modernists” were a group of writers including E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—none of whom are really known for their wild, plot-free typographic experimentalism—and then suddenly turning around to reveal that, no, actually, the Modernists were really Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, who set out in their remote mountain fastness to “break plot.” Which evidently they managed to do, putting “the novel” into a “100-year carbonite nap” from which it is finally awakening (never mind the math), because there are a bunch of new mainstream writers who don’t disdain genre elements and fun storylines, hooray.

I want to see the bookstore shelves in this alternate world, the one in which The Waste Land and Ulysses had this titanic influence on what got published, filling the catalogs of Doubleday and Harper & Row with brilliantly hermetic stream-of-consciousness narratives and irregular verse. More to the point, I sometimes think that people lap this storyline up because so many people’s school experience contains at least one instance of being looked down upon because they didn’t care for one or more of the sacred mutant outcroppings of High Modernism, and they concluded from this that Literature is all about impenetrable stuff that they don’t like. That damn Hemingway with his crazy free verse.

As far as “plot” goes, as I get older I more and more suspect that “plot” is really being used, in the many incarnations of this argument, as a placeholder for a whole cloud of qualities found (or not found) in certain narratives, some of which actually constitute “plot” and many of which do not. What first led me to suspect this is the fact that many of the sternest exponents of “I want novels to have plots, dammit” are also demonstrably fans of, for instance, quite a few Robert A. Heinlein novels whose plots can barely be detected even by advanced scientific equipment. (Not just later Heinlein, either; go back and look at Beyond This Horizon). As it happens, I like some of those books, too, and what I learn from them, and from thousands of other books, is that what matters isn’t the presence of a carefully-engineered, structurally sound “plot.” What matters is whether a book entrances us into reading it or forces us to decode it—and “plot” is just one of several methods of getting us into the reading trance. It’s a good method. It’s not the only one.

Teresa has observed that “plot is a literary convention; story is a force of nature.” But that’s only a sidebar to what I’m saying, because “story” isn’t the only way a book can entrance us, either. Sometimes it’s just the voice. A sensibility. The promise of knowledge we urgently want. Sometimes it’s the way a book flatters us, and sometimes it’s because it hurts us, but in just the right way. (Seductions don’t all work by a single means; why should we expect books to?) My point is this: We don’t read plots. We read books. Some of them captivate us; many don’t. Plot is one way to captivate us, but there are far too many uninteresting books with perfectly-formed plots, and fascinating books with defective or stunted plots, to support an argument that Plot is the magic juice that makes good books good.

I said that Grossman is getting at something real. Cheney is right when he says:

Lev Grossman sez: “Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing.” This is called The History of the Novel. Those two statements could have been made at any time during the last 300 years at least.
Quite right. And yet, it’s worth talking about the specifics; what’s actually happening between particular readers and particular books. Imagine: Conversations about actual books! Instead of grudge matches about somebody else’s imagined (or even real) snobbery! We could even try believing one another when we talk about why we find certain things cool. Instead of making up narratives about straw men. It’s a crazy idea, but it might be worth a try.

UPDATE: Evil Monkey weighs in.

Comments on Oh No Lev Grossman No:
#1 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 01:52 PM:

This sort of thing is one of the reasons I didn't go for an English major. While analysis of structure can be fun and all, there comes a point at which I want to say, "if you enjoy it, it doesn't matter why, dammit."

You can enjoy a novel for plot, that's fine. You can enjoy a novel for sentence structure, sure. You can enjoy a novel that breaks all the literary conventions in a new and fascinating way, and yes, I have a friend like that. I don't give him reading suggestions.

Sooner or later I'd like to see people stop trying to analyze this and just go off and read something.

#2 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 01:53 PM:

Lev Grossman says: "suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas"

And why is that? Because their use in the supermarket potboiler serves to reinforce a morally shitty view of the world.

#3 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:03 PM:

That seems like a tendentious reading of Grossman, John A.

I mean, the moral and the amoral alike both use metaphors. And zeugma. Sheesh.

#4 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:17 PM:

Possibly so, Patrick, though I wasn't so much reading Grossman as suggesting an alternative cause for the effect he describes.

I mostly see the books my family members and my co-workers have around, and with some exceptions, they leave me feeling somewhat unclean after I read them. (Thus my habit of mostly reading the last thirty pages or so to see how they end up.)

Examples will only get me in trouble with family members and co-workers, some of whom read Making Light. Yes, I'm chicken.

#5 ::: James Enge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:30 PM:

I guess I'll swim against the tide a little on this one. I'm not saying that Grossman is beyond criticism, but people aren't taking into consideration the very influential tradition of criticism, hostile to mere plot or story, which Grossman is self-consciously arguing against. (Doesn't James Wood remark somewhere about the "essentially juvenile" satisfactions of plot?)

#6 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:33 PM:

B. Durbin, #1: Sooner or later I'd like to see people stop trying to analyze this and just go off and read something.

I dislike the false dichotomy between analysis and enjoyment of a book. I can analyze a piece without enjoying it, and enjoy a piece without analyzing it; however, I find that having better analytical tools at my disposal makes it easier for me to enjoy most of the things I read, and to articulate why I didn't like something. At which point I can better figure out how to avoid that disliked element in the future. Plus, I get to have fun with the analysis itself, even of works I didn't enjoy; it nets to more fun for me all around.

Which is not to say everyone needs to run off and get a college degree in literature to enjoy reading. But I see that pernicious meme of "Unlike people who study literature, I actually read and enjoy books" crop up often enough that it begins to irk me even by implication as much as the fast food jokes do.

#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:42 PM:

#5: James Enge: Influential on who? Why do grown-up human beings have to care what James Wood thinks?

Really, as Abi Sutherland just now pointed out to me in IM, there are real reasons people pre-emptively flinch over certain kinds of snobbery. Goodness knows I have my own reasons. The point of my last paragraph is, please, God, can we have conversations about how we read books without endlessly worrying that someone is going to walk in with the Cricket Bat Of Cultural Authority and tell us UR DOIN IT WRONG.

I am not interested in telling anybody that their reading tastes are wrong. I am extremely interested in how and why people read, and the purposes to which they put their reading.

#6, Fade Manley: I'm with you. I don't think academic literary types should pass wholesale judgment on why people read popular novels, and I don't think non-academics should claim that people who "analyze" books aren't also enjoying them. Both are sloppy attempts at pretending to an omniscience that no one actually has.

#8 ::: Steve Burnap ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:45 PM:

Fade@6: That's a natural reaction to reading something, really enjoying something, and being told it is crap for literary reasons.

#9 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:56 PM:

PNH @ #7 - When you talk about how and why people read, do you mean people in specific (I read in bed or on the subway), people in general (The average American reads X books per year, The average Robert Jordan fan buys X other 'genre' books, etc.)

Or both? Regardless, they're nifty things to think about.

#10 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Steve Burnap @8: I'm not sure what you mean by "natural reaction." I mean, it's obnoxious when someone comes in and tells a group of friends playing Guitar Hero, "You're not really in a band! You're just playing with toys! That's stupid! You shouldn't be having fun!" So...irritation at that? Sure. But I don't see a lot of people automatically going, "Yeah, well, playing a real guitar sucks, and clearly you aren't enjoying it the way we're enjoying our game!" There's room for people to enjoy all sorts of things, and I'm tired of getting snide remarks for daring to enjoy literary analysis just because someone once had a bad experience with an English teacher telling them that their Sweet Valley High books weren't real literature*.

If by "natural reaction" you mean "people are irked by being told what to enjoy," sure, I agree with you. Of course people are upset when they're having fun and someone shows up to tell them it's not real fun and they're inferior for liking that kind of fun.

If you mean "Therefore they're going to tell anyone who enjoys things differently that they're wrong instead and this is a perfectly valid response," I'm going to disagree. It's an error of the exact same type as what set them off in the first place. The useful response to "You shouldn't enjoy that in that way!" is not "Well, you shouldn't enjoy it in your way!"


* I am not going to try to define Real Literature. And I did read Sweet Valley High books, and I didn't enjoy them, and I consider it very useful to be able to articulate both why I didn't and why my little sister did. It helps when figuring out what books to recommend to her.

#11 ::: James Enge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 03:14 PM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden @ #7: I'm not saying that anyone has to care what Wood in particular thinks, but he does exist, he writes a lot of stuff that some people take seriously (or the New Yorker and Harvard wouldn't be paying him) and he's part of the tradition Grossman is arguing against. Essentially, I think Wood et al. are wronger than Grossman.

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 03:19 PM:

As Patrick found out when we started talking about this on IM, there is a lot of anger and a lot of insecurity around this topic.

It's basic primate dominance games, of course: a certain proportion of academics have used their mastery of a (very useful) toolkit as a form of bludgeon. Then a bunch of people who have been bludgeoned have decided that All Academics Are Thugs, and the future of talking about books is being told that you're interrogating the text from the wrong perspective forever.

(I see Fade Manley and Steve Burnap are now displaying the characteristic flinches of the two sides of this classic interaction.)

Can we declare a truce here?

I'll accept that people with academic degrees in English are (a) having fun with literature and (b) advancing the state of human knowledge, if no one in this thread tells me I'm wrong and stupid for liking what I like, or thinking about this stuff without the official toolkit.

If not, we're switching this whole damn' thread to Latin till everyone respects mah authoriteh.

#13 ::: Sam C ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 03:33 PM:

I'm with Fade Manley at 6 about the false dichotomy between enjoyment and analysis. I'd like tentatively to suggest another false dichotomy: between the various perceptual, passionate and rational activities, including analysis, which make up reading, and 'enjoyment'. I don't think the second exists separately. Enjoying - taking pleasure in - reading is undertaking those various activities in a certain way: enthusiastically, with focus, joyfully.

Of course, people enjoy reading different things, which engage those perceptual, passionate and rational activities in different ways and to different degrees. There's no simple hierarchy of value such that engaging analytic faculties is better than engaging emotions, for instance.

But some things - maybe the books John A at 2 gestured at - engage and cultivate only ugly passions: gleeful identification with heedless power and violence, for instance. 'I enjoy it' isn't a defence of reading those kinds of book, because the enjoyment is corrupt, and analysis can tell us why.

(Disclosure: I've just reread C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism; can you tell?)

#14 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 03:45 PM:

What about the New Wave? Doesn't the WSFA Constitution require someone to complain about the New Wave at some point in this kind of discussion? (Not me, though; I think the New Wave was awesome.)

#15 ::: James Enge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 03:50 PM:

abi @ 12: Mihi placet.

#16 ::: KarinH ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:01 PM:

I find this interesting, being an example of the same arguments happening at the same time in different cultural spheres.

A week ago, a literary manifesto was published in one of the main Swedish newspapers. A group of young authors declared the teens "the decade of the plot," wanting to erase all experimentation other than that with storytelling and plot from their writing, and calling for other authors to join them in their endeavour to save the plot.

Another group of young authors immediately answered with a counter manifesto, promising to continue playing around with words and form and typography.

The Swedish blogosphere broke out in arms (for which, read debate), and it feels as if we'll be talking about this for a while.

#17 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:08 PM:

Gosh, KarinH, sounds like All Fandom Plunged Into War to me!

#18 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:15 PM:

[sixteen paragraphs of self-deprecating commentary snipped per comment 12]

It's hard, sometimes, to figure out in the abstract what I love about books. So let me list a few and see what they have in common. My off-the-top-of-my-head list of really good books would include things like:

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer

These are the books I can go back to at any time, for any purpose from comfort to enjoyment. Sometimes I want to read a single scene, or even just a line or two. Sometimes I reread them three or four times in a row.

They're not the "best" books in my collection by any standard that I could possibly name. But they're the ones I almost wish I hadn't yet read, so I could have the pleasure of reading them for the first time again*.

No, better: I wish almost wish I hadn't yet read them, so that I could fall in love with the characters for the first time again. All of those books have characters that I have come to love. I read them the way I visit friends.

For me, I guess, plot and writing are ways of defining and exercising characters.

Your mileage will certainly vary. I'd like to hear how.

(Interesting to note, on reread, that all of the books that spring to mind have female authors.)

-----
* This category also includes Firefly

#19 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:18 PM:

At this point, I really wish Teresa would drop in a humongous post about the changes in the publishing industry that led to the sorts of supermarket racks we have today. She made a remark on that in passing once, and I've since wanted to read more about it.

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:24 PM:

John Arkansawyer @19, I can do that, but Patrick does it better.

#21 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:27 PM:

Teresa @ 20: Either way, I'd sure like to read it.

By the way, isn't the usage "Oh Lev Grossman No"?

#22 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:31 PM:

I'm reminded here of a TV series by the British composer, Howard Goodall, in which he described how new classical music lost its mass audience, while popular music became the target of mass adulation. (I'm pretty sure it was Twentieth Century Greats.)

If I recall right, he started with Cole Porter, also covered Bernard Hermann (whose music for Psycho was right there with the current hot modern classical style, but was for a movie and so didn't count), and finished with the Beatles, who were lifting stuff from all over.

What the heck, go read about it on the guy's webpage, here

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:41 PM:

Announcement:

Let us banish the idea that it's possible to enjoy a book for the wrong reason.

Let us also banish the worry that we will be accused of enjoying books for the wrong reasons.

Let us believe each other when we say we liked a particular book, even if it was Black Body by H. C. Turk.

Do that, and I can guarantee we'll have some interesting conversations.

Signed,
The Management

#24 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:48 PM:

(delurking, yet again)

This topic strikes near to my heart. I spent a good portion of my late adolesence and early twenties laboring under the belief that I could perch upon an endowed chair uttering gnomic profundities on the directions of literature or the impossibility of narrative truth...

Naturally, I failed (for a variety of reasons) but life has turned out to be fine regardless. Nevertheless, I still care a lot about literature and criticism.

Earlier in the thread, Patrick (Mr. Nielsen Hayden? I don't know the etiquette, and do apologize) asks "Why do grown-up human beings have to care what James Wood thinks?" Well, that's a reasonable question. I believe that I'm a grown-up human being so I'll have a stab at it.

There is a difference between a Reviewer and a Critic. A reviewer tells you (in their worthy or unworthy opinion) whether or not a book is worth reading. A critic, if they are engaged in the art and craft of criticism, gives you an opportunity to consider or reconsider a book through their analytic lens. James Wood is a prime example of a pure aesthete in his application of criticism - for him the ideal novel is one in which nothing happens, but the process of it not happening is honest, immaculate, and above all else true.

Now I don't agree with this view, but I respect that James Wood is a sincere intelligent critic, and I appreciate that he can give me an alternative perspective on a work. Literature is a slippery notion, but I think that Gene Wolfe gave a working definition that I can wholeheartedly endorse and proclaim:

"My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure."

The critical task is to read and re-read, to see and re-see, and to (hopefully) offer new readings to readers.

(relurking, but shall return.)

#25 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 04:54 PM:

I'm reminded of Twain's comment about Wagner, which was that his music is better than it sounds.

#27 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:27 PM:

TNH @ #23 - Not more than two hours ago, by the oddest of coincedenks, Melody was reading me your review of Black Body, and I had decided I really should go read it, just to bask in its' awesome badness...

Patrick: All your Cricket Bat of Authoriteh is ours. Bend over, naawteh boi...

#28 ::: Melody Nims ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:28 PM:

Creepy coincidence time. I was just reading Teresa's Mountain-Dew-expelling Amazon review of Black Body to Oleander an hour and a half ago. Whafuh?

#29 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:30 PM:

Jinx!

#30 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:32 PM:

The Grossman piece is very very odd. It's a bit like reading something written in the early 1970s. Knowing he comes out of Comp lit helps explain some of the oddness, but he's very much misusing terms--and I've verified that via Abram's Literary Terms, and the usual undergraduate lit handbooks.

He's just plain wrong.

But the oddest thing of all is that he talks about plot, and story, and he refers to Forster--who is the person who crystallized the distinctions between plot and story in terms of twentieth century literary theory, and criticism of the novel.

But Grossman doesn't seem to be aware of that.

Most particularly though, Grossman doesn't seem to understand the associations of Modernism, and seems almost to see it as something divorced from what came before, and from everything that came after, and it just isn't. There's a continuous connection.

There is nothing new under the sun, and of the making of books there is no end.

#31 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:44 PM:

I spend an inordinate amount of time on Absolute Write's forums. They're pretty nifty.

Over and over in genre discussions people attempt to define and categorize "literary fiction," and "literature," as separate from "fiction" and "genre fiction."

As someone who thinks a lot of medieval lit qualifies as urban fantasy, this makes me pull my hair and gnash my teeth.

The endless qualitative distinctions between Austen (or any other canon author) as literature and Stephen King as "trash," or "genre fiction" and hence inferior to "literature" get a little thin too. They do very much seem to be tied to a difference between wanting to read to find out what happens, and reading for an external reason. Austen or Faulkner are "good" for us; King not so much.

Is the idea that if it isn't "hard," and "difficult," that if we have narrative lust reading a book then the book is "bad" part of our puritan heritage? Is it even uniquely American? I do note that German and French book reviews even in terms of SF and F seem to be very very different that American ones.

#32 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:50 PM:

Lisa Spangenberg @ 31... a lot of medieval lit qualifies as urban fantasy

But is it fantasy when they believe this is the way Nature truly functions?

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 05:59 PM:

But is it fantasy when they believe this is the way Nature truly functions?

Dude, the Medievalies may not have known a lot about nuclear physics, but they weren't stupid. No way anyone would believe some of the stuff in various chansons, gestes, lays, and metrical romances was or could be literally true. It was fantasy, they knew it was fantasy, and they were having a good time with it.

#34 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:01 PM:

Lisa Spangenberg @ 31..."Is the idea that if it isn't "hard," and "difficult," that if we have narrative lust reading a book then the book is "bad" part of our puritan heritage?"

I think that you're on to something here, although I'd like to alter and amplify it slightly. There seems to be a definite feeling...not just about novels but about learning in general that it must have UTILITY. Somehow, reading for pleasure (to some) has the whiff of decadence. Reading must be an *improving* act, something that will better us.

This is the sentiment behind statements like "I can't imagine why you'd learn any other language but Spanish...what will Latin do for your resume?"

#35 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:01 PM:

James @ 33... I don't remember calling them stupid, but I stand corrected anyway.

#36 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:02 PM:

The literature academics I know read everything, including scifi. Yeah, they call it that, and surely that proves something doesn't it?

As for Fitzgerald though ... This Side of Paradise, which catapaulted him to fame and fortune is experimental in terms of fiction for the year 1920. It is cut-up, without conventional chapters or breaks. It quotes in full the popular songs of the day, as well as mention other popular culture practices and products. This was the first fiction to do so, whereas now these have become signatures of either careful historical research or lessons from Bill Gibson, or product placement to offset production costs. Nor is there any real plot or conclusion.

Fitzgerald's next novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, did the same except at much greater length and with less brio or successful artistic effect (this is my opinion, of course, and mine alone).

His least popular novels, Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, his straight ahead realist novels were failures, commercially, unlike his previous two. For the record I really love these two Fitzgerald novels, admire This Side of Paradise, and care not at all for The Beautiful and the Damned.

In the end Fitzgerald made most of his fortune from his short fiction, not his novels.

What a strange time 1920 was, I kept thinking this mid-summer, while working out to This Side of Paradise on cd. I hadn't read the novel in many years. This is the first time I really understood it -- got it, so to speak. But then I'd not spent time at Princeton myself when I read the novel the two times before. (My mind kept flipping the script, or in deconstructionist terms, 'decentering' the Princeton of This Side of Paradise, as First Lady Michelle Obama's unhappiness at Princeton kept intruding my reactions to the text I was listening to so carefully.)

By the way the Wiki plot summary of This Side of Paradise is wrong in most of the details.

Love, C.

#37 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:19 PM:

Serge @#32

But is it fantasy when they believe this is the way Nature truly functions?

A lot of times they knew they were making up stuff just because they could--they didn't, for instance, actually believe that all the things said of fairies were true--for one thing, the Church had decided opinions about it and took measures to make their feelings about "fabulae" very clear.

I rather doubt that Chaucer's readers and hearers thought that kissing an ugly old hag would restore her to youth and fecudity.

But it was totally cool story.

#38 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:37 PM:

Lisa L Spamgenberg @ 37... Good point. I ask because I remember something that a buddy in Québec once said about the origins of fantasy tales up there. He pointed out that the tales of the 19th Century could not be considered as belonging to the genre of fantasy because people truly believed that, for example, the defiance certain religious interdictions was how one could become a werewolf, and that thus those stories belonged to the realm of folk tales. Anyway.

#39 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 06:38 PM:

Argh. My aopologies for misspelling your name, Lisa. How embarassing.

#40 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:01 PM:

He pointed out that the tales of the 19th Century could not be considered as belonging to the genre of fantasy because people truly believed that, for example, the defiance certain religious interdictions was how one could become a werewolf, and that thus those stories belonged to the realm of folk tales.


I am not convinced that your friend was as conversant with 19th c. society or 19th c. literature as perhaps he needed to be to make that argument.

#41 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:09 PM:

Lisa L. Spangenberg @ 30:

There is nothing new under the sun, and of the making of books there is no end.

What a beautiful thought! Could we have it in Latin please? I'm sure I would find it much more profound, and certainly Improved, if rendered in a language I can't really read.

#42 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:09 PM:

James @ 40... As he is a professor of Literature, and especially about French-language literature, I give him the credit that he knows what he's talking about. Me, I'm like Sgt Schultz. I know nothing, nothing.

#43 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:16 PM:

Serge @#39 Hah! I can't spell my name, or anything else, correctly at least half the time. I bless PNH's note about spelling of things every time I screw my courage to the sticking point and post, because even though I proof and write outside the comment window, I'm afraid I'll make an error and annoy PNH.

Actually, I spell everything perfectly but the Internet introduces errors . . . yeah, that's it.

Serge@#38 wrote:
I ask because I remember something that a buddy in Québec once said about the origins of fantasy tales up there. He pointed out that the tales of the 19th Century could not be considered as belonging to the genre of fantasy because people truly believed that, for example, the defiance certain religious interdictions was how one could become a werewolf, and that thus those stories belonged to the realm of folk tales.

I say Feh. The first widely circulated and written version of a werewolf tale was Mare de France's Bisclavret, from the twelfth century. She very much wrote for an erudite and educated aristocratic audience, and the tale is very clearly identified wrt genre as a Breton Lay--which by definition is a fantasy that includes love, magic, and usually, the otherworld.

I note that even earlier Old Irish lists of the genres of tales include two that are specifically about fantastic trips to the otherworld--echtras, and imramms. The lists of tales make it very clear that these really are genres in just the way we use genres to categorize story types today. And these too were also very much created for a learned audience, pre and post Christianity.

So I'm sticking to fantasy as a medieval genre.

And to the governing belief that it's ok to enjoy what we read.

#44 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:34 PM:

@#41 Ralph Giles

Lisa L. Spangenberg @ 30:

There is nothing new under the sun, and of the making of books there is no end.

What a beautiful thought! Could we have it in Latin please? I'm sure I would find it much more profound, and certainly Improved, if rendered in a language I can't really read.

You're gonna laugh, now.

Ecclesiastes 1:9
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
http://www.latinvulgate.com/verse.aspx?t=0&b=23

Ecclesiastes 12:12
And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
http://www.latinvulgate.com/verse.aspx?t=0&b=23&c=12

Keep in mind that the Vulgate numbers and breaks verses a bit differently.

I note in passing that the "Overmuch study maketh men mad" in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was much inspired by the second verse.

http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/article/show/56

#45 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:35 PM:

Let's also banish the idea that only "classic" or "literary" books are worth analyzing (cf. the article linked at #26). I hear this sometimes from would-be preservers of our beleaguered culture who've discovered academic studies of pop culture, and recoiled--Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason, for instance.

Great novels stand up to more analysis, and more varied analysis, than others. (A month or two ago I came across a blogger who mused that maybe "the artist's task consists primarily in maximizing the number of possible interesting interpretations of their work." That's not a perfect standard to use for determining the quality of a novel, but there is no perfect standard. This one is as good as many others.)

But not-so-literary books--all the way down to the potboilers and novelizations--are also worth analyzing. Fred Clark's exegesis on the Left Behind series should, all by itself, refute anyone who argues otherwise.

#46 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:48 PM:

Lisa L Spangenberg @ 43... the governing belief that it's ok to enjoy what we read

I couldn't agree more. In fact, that's why I don't believe anymore that one should finish a story once one has started even if the act of reading is as pleasant as watching Karl Rove & Dick Cheney fighting each other and dressed like Mexican wrestlers.

#47 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 07:52 PM:

B. Durbin @1:

While analysis of structure can be fun and all, there comes a point at which I want to say, "if you enjoy it, it doesn't matter why, dammit."
Of course it matters why you like it. It's a really interesting question that has no wrong answers.

I've read more published litcrit than anyone here except Patrick and Scraps. I promise you, the good stuff is interesting, and has a detectable resemblance to normal readers talking to their friends about why they like what they do.

Weird fact about academic lit types: They like the stuff they study. They don't spend their professional careers concentrating on Samuel Richardson, Edward Gibbon, minor Elizabethan playwrights, James Merrill, William Faulkner, the later Greek poets, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, ME metrical romances, Anne Bradstreet, or John Cowper Powys because they think it's somehow good for them, or morally uplifting, or any of that rot. They like it. They feel affinity for it. They think there are interesting things to say about it.

Not all of them are good at explaining why.

Sooner or later I'd like to see people stop trying to analyze this and just go off and read something.
For some of us, thinking about why we liked it is a natural part of digesting and assimilating the book. We can't stop doing it. It's not in our nature.

John A Arkansawyer @2:

Lev Grossman says: "suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas"
Maybe he's got stigmas confused with stamens and pistils?
And why is that? Because their use in the supermarket potboiler serves to reinforce a morally shitty view of the world.
What? How?

Suspense and pacing are basic narrative tools. Humor, like story, is a force of nature. An author who can reliably manage all three deserves to sell a lot of books.

John Arkansawyer again @4:

I mostly see the books my family members and my co-workers have around, and with some exceptions, they leave me feeling somewhat unclean after I read them. (Thus my habit of mostly reading the last thirty pages or so to see how they end up.)
I know that feeling, but I just stop reading. Checking out the last thirty pages is how I assess their notions of causation and consequence.
Examples will only get me in trouble with family members and co-workers, some of whom read Making Light. Yes, I'm chicken.
I can't do anything about their judgement, but we can enforce manners; and figuring out the tropes/mechanisms/tone that makes you have that reaction to some writers would be very interesting indeed.

James Enge @5:

I'm not saying that Grossman is beyond criticism, but people aren't taking into consideration the very influential tradition of criticism, hostile to mere plot or story, which Grossman is self-consciously arguing against. (Doesn't James Wood remark somewhere about the "essentially juvenile" satisfactions of plot?)
Oh, well, James Wood. He's an alien.

Okay, I'm being unfair. When James Wood talks about what makes literature good, he's actually telling us what he enjoys. Some critics agree with him, because they enjoy the same things. Some critics (and many readers) think he's a frackin' alien -- I'm sorry, I can't help it, he just is! -- and wouldn't dream of reading a book on his recommendation.

He and I probably have some overlapping tastes. I'm not sure we could discuss them. (Maybe if we were both drunk? Not sure.) I nevertheless believe he's telling the truth about what he enjoys.

Other than that, What Patrick Said (see #7).

Fade Manley @6: Agreed, on all points.

Patrick @7: And if he's that hot, why isn't he at Yale?

Steve Burnap @8:

That's a natural reaction to reading something, really enjoying something, and being told it is crap for literary reasons.
When were you ever told that by someone whose opinions you valued? It would be a poorer world if I couldn't dismiss James Wood, or Harold Bloom when I disagree with him. Learn how to do the same. It's useful, and will make you a happier reader.

Jim Macdonald is a secondhand participant in this thread via my chat window:

Jim: Here's dialogue you're never going to see:
Reader: This book sucks!
Writer: But I worked so hard!
Reader: Oh, in that case I like it.
TNH: Here's one I've never heard:
Reader: This book sucks!
Writer: But James Wood and Harold Bloom said it was good!
Reader: Oh, in that case I like it.
Jim:
Reader: This book sucks!
Prominent Literary Guy: This is an important work of modern literature!
Reader: Modern literature sucks.
He had me there. I have heard that one, often.

Also:

Jim: Someday I'd like to show you a movie: The Car. It is incredibly bad, but it's also wonderfully good, all at the same time.

Or, I think it is, only the film makers were reaching beyond their level of budget and talent for it.

The plot: Satan comes to earth in the form of a modified Cadillac. Many people die.

TNH: One wonders how the author came up with that one.

Why is it bad?

Jim: Because it's cheesy, and it doesn't have a resolution, or any motivation, and wow is it non-slick.

On the other hand, it's got a lot of "how did they do that?" moments in it (all pre-CGI), and it has a guy playing "Dawn" from Peer Gynt on a bass horn, just because they had a guy who could play "Dawn" from Peer Gynt on a bass horn. And the music behind the titles is Dies Irae played on automobile horns. And it opens with a quote from Jack Kerouac. And it's pretty much a morality tale about loving automobiles too much, and people not enough.

TNH: Cool stuff is cool stuff.

Jim: Oh, and there's a porno film, one of the hard-core triple-Xers from the 'seventies, paused for one of the actors to do a really cool magic trick. (Swallowing razor blades: a classic.)

The filmmakers ruined it, by cutting away for a reaction shot in the middle. The effect requires that it be done completely fairly, in one continuous take. But I could see that it was a dynamite version, and this guy was really good.

They hadn't done Moovvveee Maaagggiiiicccc, it was the real thing. The filmmakers walked on it by making it look like a cheap, no-skill cheat.

But I saw the guy doing it, and knew what he was doing, and was impressed.

Sometimes I have hours-long hard-fought arguments with Jim about litcrit. Other times, I just sit back and applaud.

Josh Jasper @9: Patrick's gone out to pick up some groceries, but I'll bet he was primarily asking how we all read as individuals, with the possibility of eventually working up to more general statements, if the initial lab results warrant it.

Fade Manley @10 (Addressing Steve Burnap):

There's room for people to enjoy all sorts of things, and I'm tired of getting snide remarks for daring to enjoy literary analysis just because someone once had a bad experience with an English teacher telling them that their Sweet Valley High books weren't real literature*.
Thus demonstrating that their English teacher had a defective understanding of literature. It's that horrible old faux-genteel Twoo Art thing about "literature" being refined and uplifting and dull, and exerting an improving moral influence on readers (even if they loathe it and are bored out of their minds); whereas popular fiction is a shallow, debased, and corrupting influence, no matter how it's written or what it's about.

That whole mindset is basically literature as social control, and nobody likes it. If you want a book package to be the kiss of death, contrive to have it suggest that reading this book will be good for you.

If by "natural reaction" you mean "people are irked by being told what to enjoy," sure, I agree with you. Of course people are upset when they're having fun and someone shows up to tell them it's not real fun and they're inferior for liking that kind of fun.
Which is why you and Patrick and I and assorted others here get irritated when people dismiss our enjoyment of literary analysis.

I don't know whether they're aware that they're doing it.

James Enge @11 (addressing Patrick):

I'm not saying that anyone has to care what Wood in particular thinks, but he does exist, he writes a lot of stuff that some people take seriously (or the New Yorker and Harvard wouldn't be paying him) and he's part of the tradition Grossman is arguing against.
So? All it means is that a small number of writers you've never heard of, but who've probably gone to the right schools, and whose tastes resemble his, are likelier to receive certain prestigious grants, which they'll use to write novels and short stories you wouldn't want to read anyway. Many of those books will sell in quantities inadequate to support a single mass-market edition.

Yeah, the ruling class pays its nieces and nephews to write dull books, and hires its aunts and uncles to talk about how good they are. How come you can ignore that when they do it with painting and sculpture, but it bothers you when they do it with literature? And why are you giving them the priceless gifts of your time, your attention, and your sense of satisfaction with yourself?

The only really satisfactory response is to read books you find good, and refuse to let yourself feel belittled on account of doing it.

Abi @12:

As Patrick found out when we started talking about this on IM, there is a lot of anger and a lot of insecurity around this topic.
Not to invalidate the anger and insecurity, but at bottom it makes exactly as much sense as people acting like you're a class enemy because you have Greek and Latin. English lit studies and classical languages have both been misused in the cause of unacknowledged class warfare.

Children of privilege went to schools that taught Latin and Greek. When public education was provided to the children of the poor, it was decided that they wouldn't be taught classics. English lit studies were invented to fill the slot that left open. That's when the canon became the canon. Before that, books were just books. It's also where second-rate lit studies picked up their emotional load of gentility, improvement, and resentment.

It's not surprising that they leave so many students feeling like they haven't understood what they've read, or haven't understood it in the right ways, or haven't liked it for the right reasons. If you'd been confident that you'd really understood it, you'd have realized that you were just reading books and stories, and that they had only such magical powers as books and stories normally possess.

It's basic primate dominance games, of course: a certain proportion of academics have used their mastery of a (very useful) toolkit as a form of bludgeon. Then a bunch of people who have been bludgeoned have decided that All Academics Are Thugs, and the future of talking about books is being told that you're interrogating the text from the wrong perspective forever.
I've hypothesized that some of the raw nastiness of academic lit studies is an inadvertent product of scaling problems.

When there weren't many universities, it was reasonable to expect that all academics would write and do research as well as teach. When you establish land grant colleges and state university systems, you have a lot more academics who are obliged to publish, and they aren't all going to come up with something new to say about Andrew Marvell. Competitive hermeticism is a natural outgrowth of this system.

Can we declare a truce here?

I'll accept that people with academic degrees in English are (a) having fun with literature and (b) advancing the state of human knowledge, if no one in this thread tells me I'm wrong and stupid for liking what I like, or thinking about this stuff without the official toolkit.

I have not the slightest objection to that. And by the way, there is no official toolkit, and the canon is constantly being reformulated. Acting like it came down off the mountain written on stone tablets is mere convention.
If not, we're switching this whole damn' thread to Latin till everyone respects mah authoriteh.
Entirely appropriate, and pleasingly symmetrical besides. I'm in.

#48 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:02 PM:

James D. Macdonald #33: There's a novel (part of which is dedicated to an ancestor of mine) based on the presumption that the protagonist actually believes that mediaeval romances, chansons &c are true.

#49 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:09 PM:

abi @12,

That was something of a reflective flinching on my part, and I am more than happy to back down from potential implied hostility.

Besides, I've only just reached chapter 3 of Wheelock's (again), and if this thread goes all Latin, I'm going to be reduced to discussing poets giving roses to girls and announcing that their great country is strong.

#50 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:14 PM:

#24, dlbowman76 -- Yes, "Nielsen Hayden" is our last name.

I actually do understand reviewing and criticism, and the shades and nuances thereof. I've read a reasonable amount of the stuff. I even know who James Wood is. What I was really asking is, do we really have to wander around apologizing for enjoying plot, just because James Wood and a few dozen other arch-aesthetes sniff at it? It's like being careful not to sing pop songs in the shower because some guy in the local alt-weekly is a music snob. That guy from the alt-weekly isn't lurking outside your bathroom door, and James Wood isn't in this comment thread.

I find it unremarkable that a few people hold an extreme, aestheticized view of literature--odds are, a few people always will. I find it quite remarkable that we should grant this small coterie such power to define the terms of discourse, to the extent that we inevitably have to argue with them before we can get down to just plain talking about what we like about stuff we've read. Even though they're not in the room. I want to say to so many of my friends, particularly in the SF world, "CALM DOWN, THOSE PEOPLE AREN'T HERE, THEY CAN'T HURT YOU ANY MORE."

I do like your observation in #34 that there's a "definite feeling," in some critical quarters, that literature has to have utility, and that logically following from that, it should be to some extent work. I'm reminded of Terry Eagleton's claim that the "English Studies" syllabus was devised in the later nineteenth century, as a way of properly socializing and normalizing the new waves of tradesmen now ascending into the middle class, since obviously you wouldn't want to waste the trivium and the quadrivium on arrivistes but you had to do something to ensure their outlook was In Line. If indeed modern English Studies academia originated as a system of social control, much is explained. But it doesn't mean that when Gore Vidal or Joanna Russ or Marvin Mudrick or Edmund Wilson dive deeply into how a book works, where it succeeds and where it fails, how it fits into its time, and what can be teased out of it with a close reading, that they're doing it out of a desire to kill anyone's simple enjoyment, or because they disdain the pleasures of reading unanalytically, or because they think that literature needs to have Purpose and Utility. The best critics, and those are some good critics, do it because they take enormous pleasure in it, a pleasure that's just as real as my pleasure in re-reading Starman Jones.

#36, Constance: You're right that Fitzgerald was more of an experimentalist than my hasty generalization acknowledged. Then again, so was Heinlein. And some of Joyce's best work consists of short stories that are formally conventional. One of the problems with potted histories like Grossman's is that they simplify that sort of thing, reducing complicated writers and historical eras to sports teams all wearing the same jerseys.

#51 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:16 PM:

(Incidentally, I'm not ignoring abi's #18, I'm thinking about it. That's actually the kind of stuff I want to talk about.)

#52 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:22 PM:

And, Fragano, that's why it's funny. Because *nobody* believes that stuff. I thought it was the most boring book in the world in high school--then I read the same stuff the hero did, and all of a sudden it was a kneeslapper.

#53 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:36 PM:

Send not to know
For whom the earth moves
(Did it move
For thee too
In Spanish boxcars with machine guns
Tearing apart
Large fish?)
Decrypting codes of
Behavior
I saw
Maleness
And Dorthy liked
it.

#54 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:36 PM:

A phrasing that might help, and amuses me at the instant: if you're looking at a group of people with what strikes you as a really odd, distorted, or fun-destroying idea of books, tell yourself "Their kink is okay, it's just not my kink." Their kink is okay, and they can go off and have their fun, and you can have yours.

The books themselves will still be there in the morning.

#55 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Kinks are a good analogy.

#56 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:05 PM:

I was composing a post about John Gardner and profluence and what-makes-writing-appealing that might have been useful, but EditPad Lite locked up and ate it and now maybe I'll content myself with being a kind of data point.

First, I must, as they say, situate myself. I'm a white male literature Ph.D. of A Certain Age who used to teach. I'm a compulsive reader who also reads professionally (for Locus), so my actual reading habits are not representative of any significant demographic. In any case, here are some of the writers I read for pleasure when I'm not reviewing: M.C. Beaton, Bernard Cornwell, Lindsey Davis, C.S. Forester, Dick Francis, George MacDonald Fraser, Carl Hiasssen, Reginald Hill, Stewart Kaminsky, Patrick O'Brian, Robert B. Parker, Martin Cruz Smith. All these have something that pleases a reader who trained particularly hard on Old and Middle English and Renaissance drama and poetry and who taught considerable chunks of the modern (and modernist) canon, along with popular literature and SF. And some of them I would happily teach in, say, a freshman lit-for-writing course, should I ever have the chance again.

My recreational reading no longer includes the kinds of books that get reviews in the serious literary press--possible candidates, presumably, for inclusion in some future canon of school texts. I find them uninteresting and often tediously badly written (for example, Cormac McCarthy, for my money a chronic over-writer). If someone were to produce a novel of middle-aged angst or pathological family dynamics as sharply written as Gorky Park or Master and Commander or Flash for Freedom, maybe I'd reconsider.

In grad school and in the classroom, I really enjoyed dealing with Eliot and Pound and Joyce and many of the more challenging modernists-as-conventionally-conceived, along with the merely-moderns such as Shaw and Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O'Connor. Many of my students did not enjoy this material as much as I did, partly because it can be hard to read, partly because some of it can be pretty bleak. But they found Shakespeare tough going, too, and even something as direct as Frost's "The Span of Life."

I'm not sure there's a point in here, except that I tend to connect questions about "quality" to further questions about for whom and what and when.

TNH: Would competitive hermetics be a natural result of competitive hermeneutics, or the other way around?

#57 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:06 PM:

If you don't mind, here's something I've been wondering about an actual book:

About ten years ago I was reading the Penguin Sagas of Icelanders and enjoying it not just for the stories but for the style in which they were told. What struck me was the way they would say, matter of fact, what they thought motivated a character's actions. This violates what I think is a modern rule of good storytelling, "show, don't tell", but it worked. Maybe because they tell, then show. Maybe because the rough and fractious society of the sagas is the kind of place where you'd be talking about and thinking a lot about the motivations of powerful people. Whatever it was it made a powerful impression on me.

I just started reading the Tales of the Heike and I'm getting the same kind of feeling. The culture is different. People score points by composing poems packed with punning references to ancient literature. (Which is beyond ancient for me; I am thankful for footnotes.) But there is an undercurrent of ruthlessness and wariness; people intently observing each other and trying to take each other's measure.

#58 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:12 PM:

I don't think I've seen Teresa's review of Black Body; and I can't actually recall if I introduced her to it or not. I know I read it independently (and yes, I finished that train wreck). T, do you remember?

The debate reminds me of the old story about the fellow who's seeing a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says to him "You're crazy!" and the patient says he'd like to get a second opinion. "Okay, you're stupid, too!" Agreeing with T's point on "wrong reasons", and saying that I'm much more likely to learn something if I try to figure out why a person likes something than if I just say the person is wrong. This assumes that I'm happier learning than not, which is mostly true.

#59 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:19 PM:

I am giddy with excitement over this post. This is one of my favorite topics!

I started liking genre, then was convinced by school to like literature, then went back to genre. I still read litfic, but as a genre, it isn't as fun for me these days.

I think one aspect, touched on above, is that 'good literature' must not be escapist. An immersive read, that Patrick describes as being 'plot' is precisely what puts some people off of a genre book. 'Immersive' becomes 'fun' and that becomes 'escapist'. If you read a difficult work, it prevents you from being carried away. You must chip away at each sentence, you must labor to understand what the author is doing. I'm not being sarcastic, some people consider that act of labor stimulating and that is what distinguishes a worthy work of art from what they might call 'fluff.'

I have no problem with that. I am not into SM or BD, but since I went to San Francisco State University, I had the luxury of getting a minor in human sexuality. I learned a lot about tops and bottoms in power relationships.

My personal opinion is that in so-called 'literary fiction' the author is the top. You, the reader, are the author's bitch. You will submit, you will struggle through what he is doing, and you will enjoy it. You exist to serve and service the author. There is nothing wrong with this relationship. It is consensual, and some folks really like it. It is especially appealing to creative writing students, because we aspire to be the top to a whole pool of readers.

With genre fiction, the author is the bottom. The reader is the top. The author exists to serve and service the reader. The author must make the prose good enough to keep the reader coming back for more, and if the author doesn't, the understanding is that reader will throw the book across the room. The author is the reader's bitch, there to serve. Take a look at how fiesty genre fans get when their authors aren't writing books fast enough.

This does not happen to Jonathan Franzen. He making our struggling-to-understand asses come correct with his leatherclad, horsewhipping prose. But an fantasy writer? Where's my product, bitch. I read your blog! Stop having a life and tell me what happens next!

I originally wanted to be a writer because I wanted to get laid. I didn't know this at the time, but I hoped, yearned, ached for legions of smart women and men to admire my prose, to prize out the meaning, and to take me to bed. I wanted adoration, and literature was to be my vehicle.

After I got older, I realized I still really want to write. In fact, I want people to like what I write because I want them to have fun. Somewhere I stopped making writing be about me, and started making it be about the reader. I found this attitude in the SF community, and it was this philosophical turnaround that led me back to science fiction. I liked the attitude that SF writers had, I liked it more than the attitude that litfic writers had.

That was why I switched sides. That, and now that I'm a grown man, I don't worry so much what that woman in the cafe thinks about the cover of the book I am reading. I am free to read space ship stuff.

A true tragedy: Jonathan Lethem, first published by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a brilliant genre writer. He went the other way. At first, it looked like a good move. He wrote a great crime book called 'Motherless Brooklyn'. Wonderful stuff, and it made him a legit writer in the minds of the litfic folks.

He just had a short story in the New Yorker. I was so excited to read it. The protagonist was a middle class person with a midlife crisis and a big headache. That's right, Jonathan Lethem is now writing about headaches that come in midlife. If I had the time, I would buy one of those archives of the New Yorker and do a spreadsheet on every story in the past 30 years that had a middle aged protagonist with a terrible headache. It is a stand-in for 'something is wrong with my life but I don't know what...nobody can see it because it is in my head.'

I liked 'Gun, With Occaisional Music' so much more.

I am sorry for the length of this post, but I just love this topic.

#60 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:22 PM:

Sean Sakamoto@59: "With genre fiction, the author is the bottom. The reader is the top. The author exists to serve and service the reader."

Christ Jesus.

#61 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:36 PM:

Sean Sakamoto @59

Ah. You've essentially just made that long-standing thing about reading novels contributing to moral depravity--and being especially corrupting for women, who lacked sufficient intellectual rigor to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

In addition, there's the long-standing critical discussions about the so-called masculinization of novels as a mark of both integrity and mental rigor, as opposed to "feminine" novels having less integrity, literary merit, or moral fiber. With your suggestion that "literary" writers are tops and "genre" writers are bottoms, you're buying into what's essentially at least a two-hundred-year-old reason to be dismissive of the merits of any fiction that can remotely be classed as genre.

Because if the experience of reading is enjoyable, or course, it must be morally bad. And also, might reveal the reader as weak-minded and female-ish.

#62 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:38 PM:

Sorry if it's too over the top, I'm just trying to make the point that I think genre readers have more empahsis on their audience, and litfic writers are more interested in their audience doing the heavy lifting.

#63 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:39 PM:

Sean, have you read any Gene Wolfe lately?

#64 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:40 PM:

Sean @62 - it's not over the top, as such, but you're perhaps buying into some very old and weird thinking about the nature of reading and writing.

#65 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:42 PM:

Sean Sakamoto, #59: Okay, that's another entry in this thread that I'm going to need to think over for a while.

Small correction: I wasn't the first editor to publish Jonathan Lethem; that would be Michael Kandel at Harcourt, who published Gun, with Occasional Music in hardcover. I merely have the distinction of having beaten Del Rey in a brief battle to reprint the book in softcover (Harcourt being one of the few remaining hardcover fiction houses of the day with no attached mass-market paperback line). That said, I actually like Lethem's recent work a lot. The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorite mainstream novels of the last twenty years, and I also quite enjoyed his lightweight-but-biting dark-romantic-rock-and-roll-comedy You Don't Love Me Yet. I guess I missed that New Yorker story--I'm so used to skipping the fiction in the magazine that I'd probably miss a story by Teresa if one appeared there.

#66 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:43 PM:

I disagree.

First of all, I don't think it is immoral to be a top or a bottom. Secondly, I don't think one is less intellectually rigorous, and third, I don't necessarily agree with people who define fun as being escapist, nor do I think that escapism is necessarily wrong.

I was trying to describe what I see, not advocating one side or the other. As a matter of personal taste, I prefer genre fiction. It is more fun to read, and I like fun. I see nothing immoral about the experience.

#67 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:47 PM:

Mac, #61 -- But Sean wasn't being dismissive of genre fiction, quite the opposite. Also, obviously "top" =/= "male" and "bottom" =/= "female." (For that matter, "bottom" =/= "not in charge", which lends an extra resonance to Sean's whimsical metaphor.)

#68 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Sean Sakamoto @59
I started liking genre, then was convinced by school to like literature, then went back to genre. I still read litfic, but as a genre, it isn't as fun for me these days.

You show me a novel in the canon, and I'll show you a genre. Our brains work in terms of motifs and themes and tropes. Pretty much all of the canon novels we read now, say for a novel Ph.D. qualifying exam, were initially decried as genre fic and populist. The authors, by the way, even then were just as much telling lies for money as the scops behind Beowulf and the current genre fic authors, low list, mid list, and best seller, and yeah, category romance is in there too.

I'm not a fan lit fic per se. If a novel is such that a press will only publish less than five thousand copies, it's likely lit fic, and as far as I can see, that means M.F.A. and publish or perish. God knows I don't want to read any more of 'em if I'm not being paid up front.

#69 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Sean @66 - I'm not accusing you of thinking one or the other is immoral, at all. As it happens, neither do I.

But the idea of one type of writing as being dominant, active, in-control, and performing upon versus another type of writing as being submissive, passive, and doing-as-told, is very much an argument about masculinization vs feminization of literature (this certainly isn't mine, btw, I refer you to the rather famous mid-90s essay by Beth Newman, "The Heart of Midlothian and the Masculinization of Fiction")in terms of a greater theory of fiction.

That's what I find problematic.

#70 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:53 PM:

Sean Sakamoto @59: With genre fiction, the author is the bottom. The reader is the top. The author exists to serve and service the reader.

Isaac Asimov said that he got into writing SF because there wasn't enough of the stuff he liked to read out there. So perhaps the secret to Asimov's productivity is that he was servicing his own kink.

#71 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:55 PM:

It's interesting that the top/bottom metaphor is being used here...as for who's in charge, look at who's doing all the work.

#72 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:56 PM:

PNH, Sean, I'm clearly expressing myself badly -- how do we talk about writing in terms of

A = You're my bitch

vs.

B = I'm your bitch

without talking about masculinizing or feminizing?

I seem to have made a leap in terms of this discussion, though, that's left me out on a limb. So I'll gently bow right back out with a tip of my metaphorical hat.

#73 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:57 PM:

Sean. SKZB. 59-60. Three points.

#74 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 09:59 PM:

Gene Wolfe is on record as saying "I am the reader's slave."

On the other hand, I've been telling students for years that fiction is about what you can do to the reader ... as long as they get off on it, of course.

#75 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:00 PM:

#69, you misunderstand me. I think your previous reading is coloring your view of what I am saying.

I believe that both types of writing can be intellectually rigorous. I am describing the reader's relationship to the writer, not to the prose itself.

I believe that in so-called 'literary fiction`, the reader enters a submissive relationship with the author. A (make me work, make me struggle, make me earn understanding), whereas a genre author works from the assumption that the onus is on him or her to create something that will be less work for the reader, more immersive, more compelling and captivating.

The actual prose is neither top nor bottom, it's an authorial stance. The prose might be difficult, obtuse, wonderful, turgid, dense, light, feathery, butch, femme, or woody with buttery finish and a fruity nose.

As for these terms, 'literary' and 'genre', I am agree with anyone who says all litfic is a genre. One distinguishing feature of the litfic genre is the idea the the reader will be engaging in a certain kind of effort to meet the author more than halfway. Some folks really like doing this kidn of work. I have enjoyed it myself.

#76 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:01 PM:

I have no objection to the d/s metaphor; I'm all for d/s metaphors. More d/s metaphors, say I. I just want to snap my crop at the notion that genre writers, as a class, write what they think readers want. I have no doubt that there are writers who think in those terms, but for the most part what readers do is go hunt out and find writers who appeal them; while the writers are busy writing stories they wish someone else had written because they want to read them. Genre writers do not, as a rule, willingly place themselves in the fur-lined handcuffs of trying to guess what readers like (other than, insofar as possible, "good").

(P.S. Didn't anyone get my Hemmingway free verse? Or was it just not funny? *sniff* *lip quiver*)

#77 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:10 PM:

Steve, I got it! I even Laughed Out Loud. It's a fast-moving thread--I've barely managed to keep up.

Mac, no, you do have a point -- don't bow out of the conversation. I think this is one of those cases where certain metaphors both deepen our understanding and cloud our vision, which means that in short order we're all stepping on rakes and walking underneath falling anvils.

#78 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:12 PM:

@76
You may be right. I can't speak for all writers in either genre. But I do speak from the experience of having been in both kinds of workshops. I have a degree in creative writing, and I have been in some SF writing groups and workshops.

It really did seem to me that the fundamental difference betweent the two was a regard and attitude toward the reader. Also, as a student of both litfic and genre fic, I have observed a different attitude among the fans that seemed to support my views on this. I don't claim to be describing an absolute law here, but I my ideas do come from my experience in both spheres.

#79 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:15 PM:

@#75 Sean Sakamoto
I believe that in so-called 'literary fiction`, the reader enters a submissive relationship with the author. A (make me work, make me struggle, make me earn understanding), whereas a genre author works from the assumption that the onus is on him or her to create something that will be less work for the reader, more immersive, more compelling and captivating.

Do you think Dickens was writing for the critics? Or Twain? Both were roundly condemned for their lack of style, and absence of philosophic value. Dickens' books were described as "consumables" by the leading literary critic. You might also think about the fact that the Brontes, like Tiptree, were deemed to be, clearly, "masculine" because of their masculine, dominant style.

Referring to an author as someone's bitch is very much using gendered language--I note Neil Gaiman's carefully chosen "George R. R. Martin is not your bitch" reference wrt to "who's on top."

LitFIc is mostly a category used by publishing marketing folk and tenure-seeking M.F.A.s It's mostly used to mean "books we can't sell except to the M.F.A.'s own students." It's not a genre outside of publishing and book selling. It's not even in the huge giant list of LOC headings for genre.

#80 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:19 PM:

I think there's an either/or conflict happening, as well -- that is, either you're the reader's bitch, or the reader is just along for your private ride -- that's perhaps not entirely helpful.

But then, it occurs to me that we're operating without a solid definition of what Sean means when he says "lit fic" and that might, in addition, be helpful.

Joyce's Ulysses perhaps rides me hard and puts me away wet, to extend this metaphor, but that doesn't mean I think of him as a more "literary" writer than I think of Khaled Hosseini or even John Irving or even Stephen King.

#81 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:20 PM:

If I step on a rake, I think that makes me the top. Hopefully the rake likes it.

#82 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:20 PM:

I laughed at the Hemmingway free verse thing too!

I'm just too busy making sure my metaphor doesn't make me its bitch.

Mac, I welcome your posts. You helped me refine what I was saying. The last thing I want to do is come across as a guy who thinks fun books are girlish and therefore bad. I do not, not, not think that.

texanne, I will go find some Gene Wolf, thanks for the suggestion.

#83 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:24 PM:

(raises hand)

Sean is a good guy, and very smart, and a professional writer. Do not be alarmed.

#84 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:25 PM:

Also, Mac, Lisa, I get what you're saying.

#85 ::: Tazistan Jen ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:26 PM:

"many of the sternest exponents of “I want novels to have plots, dammit” are also demonstrably fans of, for instance, quite a few Robert A. Heinlein novels whose plots can barely be detected"

OK, but, I really don't like Heinlein in large part because of lack of plot. I like Terry Pratchett and not Douglas Adams because of plot. I like later Pratchett more than earlier for several reasons, but largely, again, plot. Some people really do want books to have plots.

#86 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:26 PM:

My own experience with writing in "genre" style vs. "literary" style--working on the definitions as they seem to be used above, rather than my usual reading of them--is almost precisely the opposite of the top/bottom divide as described. When I'm writing "literary" fiction, it's with a great deal of consciousness for what the reader might be expecting, and what style I'm emulating, and how I can meet the expectations of that very specific style. Whereas when writing "genre" fiction, I'm generally ambling along having a cheery old time writing whatever the hell I feel like, and hoping that there'll be a few people out there who also want to read that sort of thing. The "literary" reader is the demanding one I need to put a lot of thought into meeting the demands of; the "genre" reader is the one where I figure we'll hook up if we have similar interests, and if not, well, I'm still having fun, aren't I?

#87 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:26 PM:

@#81 TomB

If I step on a rake, I think that makes me the top. Hopefully the rake likes it.

That rather depends on whether the rake is Byron, Rochester or Anne Lister.

#88 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:27 PM:

PS: Hemingway. Wolfe. (*Crack!*)

#89 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:29 PM:

Sean, I completely get that you don't think genre = girlish = bad/weak-minded/etc. I also get that you love and appreciate genre fiction. I made a leap, after, and forgot to leave an adequate trail for folks to follow.

My response was to your characterization of "literary" (whatever that means) vs. "genre" in terms of dom/sub language.

There's been ongoing critical discussion about the centuries-old dismissal of reading! novels! as Bad For Moral Character, and I found your metaphor absolutely fascinating in terms of that discussion. I also found it deeply interesting in terms of the use of gendered language around writing/reading.

That's what I was responding to -- so please accept my apologies if I sounded as if I was making value judgments regarding your personal theories around writing. That certainly wasn't my intention.

#90 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:30 PM:

"I think one aspect, touched on above, is that 'good literature' must not be escapist."

This notion is made pretty explicit in some of the standard English texts that students get assigned in later high school or early college. I wonder how many folks it puts off literature.

When I was going to school, for instance, we had as one of our required anthologies Laurence Perrine's Story and Structure. As I recall, it had a preface that posited a strict dichotomy between "escape literature" and "interpretive literature", with the former not being worthy of the latter. Science fiction was explicitly thrown into the "escape literature" bucket, in toto.

I was annoyed by this when I read it, and knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't really articulate exactly what was wrong with it, and couldn't help wondering whether my objection to it simply showed that I wasn't an adequately perceptive reader.

I have to wonder how many students have gone through similar experience with this and other books like it. (Story and Structure is still coming out in new editions, the latest published in 2008, though it's being carried on by new editors by this point. I don't know whether they've kept the preface more or less the same, or modified it, buf if you google for "escape" and "interpretive" literature you'll see all kinds of assignments online related to distinguishing them.)

#91 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:30 PM:

Lisa,
I had Gaiman's post in mind when I wrote my post. If it helps to clarify my main point, please let's use the word 'bottom' instead of 'bitch'. My main point, as evidenced in that Gaiman post, is that genre fans want their writers to work for them, whereas litfic fans want to work for their writers.

As for defining terms, well, I will try.

I think that in his day, Dickens was what we would now call a genre writer. He worked very hard to make a compelling, gripping, and wonderfully nuanced world for his writer. He very much had his writer in mind. The critics smelled this, and they said it was bad, precisely because of this.

Now, many years later, Dickens is more difficult to read. The language is dated, the references are dated. I LOVE Dickens. But, as a reader, I have to do more work to read his books. I have to become more of a bottom than a top. This is not Dicken's fault. The blame in this instance lies with the passage of time.

With Dickens, as with all good literary fiction, the work is worth the payoff. Here's a tautology (If it is worth the payoff, then the book is good. A book is good if it is worth the payoff.)

Some folks set out to write a difficult book from the start. These tend to be litfic types. Jonathan Franzen wrote a great essay in the New Yorker about 'difficult fiction' and, unless I read it wrong, he seemed to be rethinking his position on whether or not a writer should strive to make his prose difficult. It was a wonderfully introspective response the the whole Oprah drama a while back.

#92 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:38 PM:

A friend of a friend of mine from back in school that I used to know before she moved away once observed that for her, topping was never a matter of "me boss, you bitch." It's about the interesting new ways you can get them to squirm, and the really pretty noises they make, and what tiny amounts of input it takes to get them to scare themselves into a state of pink and hyperventilating apprehension.

I think about that whenever I read Melville.

#93 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:39 PM:

MacAllister,
Thanks for the apology, but it is not at all necessary. I knew I was venturing onto dangerous territory by using loaded terms, but I wanted to make my point with a bang. I did not know that I was using the same imagery as centuries of anti-literature Puritans.

I think I disagree with those folks on two points, that a type of writing can be immoral based on esthetics, and that if an esthetic is somehow feminine, it is therefore bad.

teresa, thanks for vouching for me. Everyone has been very respectful.

If I saw someone whom I may have thought was claiming that novels are girlish and wrong, I could not have rebutted with the same degree of diplomacy that I have encountered here.

#94 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:43 PM:

Melville and making pretty noises. Nice. I know exactly what you mean.

Louis Ferdinand Celine was a literary French writer, misanthropist, curmudgeon, and all around creep whose fiction can top me every time I dare venture into it. Journey to the End of Night is an exquisite pain.

#95 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:46 PM:

Now, many years later, Dickens is more difficult to read. The language is dated, the references are dated.

Difficulty in reading for those reasons is different from the writing being difficult to read from the beginning. Those are books I would describe as litfic. It doesn't necessarily make any of them bad, but I'm less likely to read them. (I read Austen.)

#96 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:51 PM:

Ah! But there's this really cool thing, here!

We sexualize our description of the reading/writing experience (at least some of us do) because it is, at heart, an intimate transaction, regardless of all else.

To some degree, that leads to gendered language when we're trying to construct metaphors, describe experiences, and otherwise communicate the nature of a highly intimate experience.

In terms of classic Puritan arguments about the moral depravity lurking between the covers of novels, it might has well have been an indictment of the depravity lurking beneath the covers of a shared bed -- and the nature of all evils embodied by and unique to the feminine, either way.

But here we are, again, needing to define and describe the terminology and inherent meaning behind the metaphors themselves before we can go anywhere at all with the discussion itself.

And Lisa wonders why I think litcrit is so cool. *g*

#97 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:52 PM:

In all this talk about analyzing, there is one factor missing... the author.

There's a lot about what an author is trying to accomplish, or whether or not the author wrote a fun read. What I would like to hear is how people go about analyzing the authors themselves.

I'm not talking about a public discussion of so-and-so's particular neuroses or the childhood trauma that affected so-and-so's later writing. That, for the most part, would be horribly disrespectful (except for the few authors who specifically encourage it), especially for living writers.

What I'm wondering is how people allow discoveries about writers to affect their perceptions of that author's works.

For example, there are two authors whose books I initially loved. In each case, a few hints lead me to investigate their positions on gender relations. What I discovered caused me to never pick up their works again, despite the fact that the stories had not changed.

On the flip side, learning about several other authors as people has made me reread and enjoy work that hadn't interested me before, or made me want to pick up books I might not have considered before meeting/learning of that particular author.

I find that once I understand (at least the basics of) an author, that person's books don't need as much analysis. They can be understood at more of an intuative level (of course, I could just be foolin' myself there). Which is good, because I'm terrible at analysis. I'm the opposite of Dr. Letson above, wholly unschooled beyond the high school/college liberal arts minimums in serious literature. When asked recently to test read a book, I found doing the feedback to be as hard as any college paper ever was. I loved the book, but actually analyzing why, and putting that into words, was very difficult (as well as one of the more interesting and unique bits of fun I've had in years).

It's funny... Sean's top/bottom comments have actually underscored my belief in trying to understand the authors more so than their individual works... I can think of several authors that I love to read who have described themselves as being very commercial... they ARE my bitches, writing what I want to read. For a few others, they are in charge of what they write and when, and I am THEIR willing bitch if it will help persuade them to focus on what I want.

In both cases, knowing which role they like is a definite part of their appeal.

It's GOOD to live in a genre with choices! :-)

#98 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 10:57 PM:

I am exquisitely uncomfortable with the use of "literary fiction" for a number of reasons.

1. It really is used a very great deal to refer to the M.F.A. books that tenure track academics send to university presses within the presses themselves. It is not well meant. It means "we'll do a small run, and hope that we can sell all of them in under five years." I say this as a former employer/reader at three university presses, and after wading through stacks of lit fic as a member of tenure and hiring committees.

2. I see some posters here using literary fiction to, I think, describe prose style. That makes me wince a bit.

3. I keep thinking of Barthes and things like S/Z, where he talks about jouissance / orgasm (with a nod at Lacan), and books he wants to fuck, and those he wants to fuck him. It's better in French, really, but he wants to make love to text--and as far as I can tell, pretty much does.

#99 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:09 PM:

I always had the feeling that the notion of Literature was missing the point, but it didn't crystallize until I learned (and made sense in retrospect) that Shakespeare was his time's equivalent of a hack. At which point I realized that Literature wasn't so much about what a book was, but instead was at best a collection of useful analysis tools and at worst a gang sign.

#100 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:09 PM:

@#97 edward oleander

There's a lot about what an author is trying to accomplish, or whether or not the author wrote a fun read. What I would like to hear is how people go about analyzing the authors themselves.

I'll try to respond, not so much because of indulging in the "Intentional Fallacy," but in terms of how my reading changed (the way I read changed), so for me, the books changed.

In the vicissitudes of grad school life, a lot of my books, especially genre fiction, had to be in storage. After years of close reading, when I got my SF and F out of storage, there were a lot of books I hadn't read for about twenty years. Books I very much loved.

Two authors, in particular, I couldn't stand to read. Both were authors I had attempted to ocate everything they'd written. Both were authors I'd published essays and presented papers about. Not just for the prose, but for the underlying assumptions about the world. My changes in perception changed the books for me, and yes, at the level of story.

#101 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:22 PM:

So back to the Lev Grossman essay, and PNH's observation that still has me laughing, "That damn Hemingway with his crazy free verse" -- we're still having trouble with definitions, then, and what we mean by literary vs genre, and what Grossman means by modernism. It's the can't-define-it "but I know it when I see it" problem.

So how do we sort writers who've been in the literary canon for decades, like LeGuin? Or genre writers who write tricksy and complex books (thinking of Lindholm/SKZ's co-written The Gypsy here, frex) and are still unabashedly creating a book that's commercial, as well as creating art as best they can be true to the term?

#102 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:29 PM:

When a trojan virus takes over Lisa Spangenburg's computer, and it floods the internet with meretricious emails promising to share an ill-gotten fortune, the email sender will be "Lisa Spamgenburg."

Fragano @48 -- you mean Don Quixote, right? Just checking.

I had to skip ahead at around #50, sorry. . . . On review, I don't think I could keep up with the kink/top/bottom metaphor . . . rewind a bit?

But I had to say:

I am an academic, and most of the academics I know read everything, and enjoy it too.

I am an English teacher, and most of us know better than to tell anyone to stop liking things. We have a harder time refraining from trying to convince people they should like certain great (. . . really, try it! Would you like it at the beach? Would you like it with a peach?) old books.

There are, of course, some English teachers who are literary snobs and bullies, and they are ruining our collective reputation, dash it all.

There are critics and critics . . . serious criticism can be found in magazines, newspapers, blogs, fanzines, etc., and another, very different kind of criticism can be found in academic journals, which is seldom about "my" enjoyment (though it might be about "the reader's" experience) and is instead focused, narrow, incremental, little readings that involve a lot of research.

I think it is all valuable (speaking of the two kinds of criticism . . . not to defend any individual article). For its different purposes.

The Lev Grossman thing reminds me of the kind of broad context-setting statement one gives while teaching a lit-survey class so the students have some basic frame of reference before they read.

No, actually it reminds me of the horrendously oversimplified and shallow distortion of your already over-generalized broad contextualization that you sometimes get back from the C student who doesn't really want to be taking this class, but who feels that regurgitating your points back to you in cartoon form will cause you to give an A instead of recoil in horrified recognition of your own teacherly sins (particularly, sloth and vanity).

#103 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:30 PM:

I'm enjoying the tools and snacks brought to the table here -- thought-provoking, to say the least.

Teresa asked:

When were you ever told that by someone whose opinions you valued?

A few times. I'm still wary of a particular acquaintance who scorned my enjoyment of Book 4 of Harry Potter, and said with great certainty that it wasn't just her opinion, Goblet of Fire was objectively bad.

Why do "grown-ups" care what some New Yorker critic says? Why do we "let" authority figures (English teachers, critics, more experienced friends, influential bloggers) reduce the joy we take from literature, or make us feel inferior for not having read (or not having enjoyed) certain works? Well, that's a why don't you just of the bootstraps variety. To follow your recommendations -- have fun and don't be bothered by what the authorities think -- you have to have self-confidence, and be able to articulate your own aesthetics and dismiss others' without fear of consequence.

We aren't born with those abilities. I have them, a little, now. Reading wasn't enough. I got them by editing others' work, reading slush, and writing positive and negative reviews of published work to help others decide whether to read it. I didn't really develop as a reader until I had the power to influence others' reading.

I know enough now that I can use newspaper/magazine critics' reviews as tools, instead of feeling like they're Telling Me How It Is. But at heart my sympathies are with that kid who doesn't even know she's allowed to scoff (privately) at her curriculum.

On the analysis front, I found Michael Lopp's "Art is 'the documentation of a thousand interesting decisions'" useful in helping me frame my own writing, and in helping me understand what I love about cerebral and subtle moments in art.

#104 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:40 PM:

Further observation: my taste in books is rather like my taste in music. My current playlist randomly jumps from TMBG's Birdhouse in your Soul to Strauss's Ein Heldenleben to Slipknot's Gematria to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor to Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit to Pollyanna Frank's Dykes and the Holy War (which I suppose can be classed as Israeli folk music). And there are similar arguments in that realm, none of which bother me one whit. There are useful tools for analysis of music, and there are music snobs.

#105 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:40 PM:

Skipping ahead in my reading of comments to say, re: TNH @ 23--your Amazon review of Black Body was so intriguing, I had to order the book.

Used. For $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping and handling.

I look forward to its awesome badness! Or at the very least, having some interesting things to say the next time someone asks what I've been reading lately...

#106 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:42 PM:

p.s. all credit to edward oleander @ 27 for the "awesome badness" line.

#107 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 11:55 PM:

PNH @ # 50 - I actually do understand reviewing and criticism, and the shades and nuances thereof. I've read a reasonable amount of the stuff. I even know who James Wood is. What I was really asking is, do we really have to wander around apologizing for enjoying plot, just because James Wood and a few dozen other arch-aesthetes sniff at it? It's like being careful not to sing pop songs in the shower because some guy in the local alt-weekly is a music snob. That guy from the alt-weekly isn't lurking outside your bathroom door, and James Wood isn't in this comment thread.

I find it unremarkable that a few people hold an extreme, aestheticized view of literature--odds are, a few people always will. I find it quite remarkable that we should grant this small coterie such power to define the terms of discourse, to the extent that we inevitably have to argue with them before we can get down to just plain talking about what we like about stuff we've read. Even though they're not in the room. I want to say to so many of my friends, particularly in the SF world, "CALM DOWN, THOSE PEOPLE AREN'T HERE, THEY CAN'T HURT YOU ANY MORE."

How does that fit in with the various genre-unfriendly gatekeepers at major media outlets, who let "literature" past, but keep genre fiction from getting mentioned? From my perspective, it's not just the select group of academics that are the only issue people have, it's that the academics are a symptom of a wider lack of respect for genre fiction.

In regards to "utility", expecting literature to have utility to be worth talking about is like expecting painting to have utility to be worth talking about.

Which is (IMO) why a lot of modern art gets dissed, because it's very serious commentary on elements that are important to painters, who think about this shit all the time, whereas Thomas Kinkade gets stores in shopping malls. Certainly people like his art, but there's not much introspection in terms of who the artist is, his relation to the history of art, and so on.

If you think about art history and art theory, Kinkade is pretty boring. Likewise, if you think about writing as an art, and study it, Stephanie Meyers isn't going to hide much in her books to interest you.

I'm not sure, though, if we require the technical competency from our most popular writers as we do our most popular painters. Kinkade is technically brilliant, and I don't think Meyers is. I've always gotten the sense that some authors get away with clumsiness in story arc, poorly crafted dialog, and other crap that other authors don't because they threw in some formulaic pouty vampires who hit the teenage angst button at just the right angle. "Entrancing" is what you call it, yes?

#108 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:00 AM:

What I didn't like about English class was a sense that I had to pretend to like what the teacher liked in order to get a good grade.

That's one reason I broke away from all that and majored in math. Not that I was really ready to major in math, but, as one person's reaction to my decision put it ,"it's so safe.."

Am I going off on too much of a tangent here, straying away from relevance?

Just saying I enjoy reading more when it's not for school. Writing too, sometimes.

#109 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:03 AM:

rm @102 re: teachers and book recommendations

Your post gave me one of those light bulb moments where all of a sudden you see a situation from both sides at once. I suspect that the real problem with literature teachers isn't a few who bully their students into accepting their tastes as "better."

From the student's point of view that's sort of built into the whole situation. After all, you're getting recommendations from someone who by definition ought to know these things better than you do. If you don't like the books they recommend, it can be easy to assume that either their expertise isn't worth much or you're just not very good at reading.

When the student says they didn't like the book and the teacher gives that slightly disappointed "Oh, well..." I'm sure the teacher feels bad that their recommendation didn't give the pleasure they had hoped, but it's awfully easy for the student to read that as "Oh, well...I thought you were smarter than that."

#110 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:33 AM:

Josh Jasper @107: How does that fit in with the various genre-unfriendly gatekeepers at major media outlets, who let "literature" past, but keep genre fiction from getting mentioned?

Like for instance...?

#111 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:37 AM:

Chris, it's really helpful to be reminded of that dynamic. I'll try to avoid sending that unintentional message.

And I just remembered to say, The Car is awesome. Period.

(But periods are followed by other sentences.) In my memory -- no telling if it's in the movie -- they kill the demonic car by collapsing a cliff on it . . . ?

And as it dies, it takes the form of several mythological monsters . . . ?

And if my memory is at all accurate, couldn't some analytical terms like mythology, archetype, allusion, and so on be, like, not only helpful but pleasurable to discuss . . . ?

(Favorite IMDB discussion post: "How did they come up with the title?")

Would you like them on the beach?
Would you like them with a peach?
Can you apply them to The Car?
Try them, try them, here they are!

#112 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:42 AM:

Oh, sorry . . . here they are.

#113 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:58 AM:

Some more general thoughts:

I think part of the problem is that people (even academics) mean so many different things when they talk about analysis and interpretation, even within the ivory tower.

There's analysis of form and structure, which I think can be the closest to being a normative measure of "worth." How does the author achieve the effects they do (or fail to achieve them?) How do the letters on the page add up to a whole?

Relatedly there's interrogation of meaning. What does the story tell us? How are we supposed to feel about the characters? What are the ideas and themes investigated? What values are implicit in the work?

And then there's the construction of interpretations. What sort of intellectual playground does this work give us? How does the work respond when we poke it and prod it with different tool sets? How many different ways can we cut it up and paste the pieces back together and come up with something interesting?

I guess my point is just to recognize that when Wesley (@45 he presents an argument for type #3) analyzes a book, he's not necessarily doing the same thing you are. And that's going to end up with different results with different works. I love Wodehouse's novels dearly, but they are so immaculately put together that constructing an interesting literary interpretation of them seems rather like grabbing a paint brush and setting out to improve on the Mona Lisa. They simply don't reward that sort of analysis.

And of course none of this says that revealing and playing with flaws can't be just as rewarding. I recently watched the first few episodes of HBO's True Blood and spent an enjoyable evening trying to quantify why the series so completely failed to engage my interest and sympathy or suspend my disbelief.

#114 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:21 AM:

A friend of mine went to a major science-and-tech university -- I'm embarrassed by being temporarily unable to remember which -- where the faculty had only one lit teacher.

When my friend took a course from him, this guy announced that he was going to hit them with the very best there was, and if they couldn't appreciate it, they just plain couldn't appreciate literature. And then, he had them read The Song of Roland.

I found this fairly stunning. In my list of sure-fire works for inexperienced readers, which is set in 10 pt. type with narrow leading, The Song of Roland makes its appearance a couple of fathoms down. I asked my friend how much context the teacher gave them for the poem, and whether they'd looked at other works from that period -- Cantar de Mio Cid, say, or Huon de Bordeaux. They'd had none of that, he said; no language, history, cultural background, context, nothing -- just the bare poem itself.

I've wondered about it ever since. Was the guy incompetent? A monomaniac? Had he lost all his non-Roland syllabus notes at the last minute? Did he forget to have the bookstore order the titles he'd intended to teach, forcing him to make do with three cartons of Song of Roland their distributor had shipped them by mistake? Was he trying to hide some kind of progressive amnesia, and had to fall back on his long-ago dissertation topic? Was he tormenting the students for his own amusement?

I'll never know, of course. But I believe that was the last literature course my friend ever took.

#115 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:24 AM:

Going to sleep now, which means responses to some stuff will have to wait, but I do want to note, also, that "academia" =/= "intellectualism." A large number of the critics I like are entirely free of academic affiliations, and the ones I read who do have Chairs of this or that, tend to be somewhat off the usual reservations.

Crooked Timber just did a whole online seminar about a fascinating-sounding critic and political thinker named George Scialabba. Who has a chair at Harvard--right behind the desk at which he conducts his day job as a building manager. Literary and political criticism aren't the property of academia.

#116 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:56 AM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden at #23writes:

> Let us believe each other when we say we liked a particular book, even if it was Black Body by H. C. Turk.

Now you've gone and made me look it up! Sounds steamy.

And given that I enjoyed _A Feast Unknown_, I'd best not complain about that.

#117 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 02:24 AM:

Sean @ #59:
"I originally wanted to be a writer because I wanted to get laid. I didn't know this at the time, but I hoped, yearned, ached for legions of smart women and men to admire my prose, to prize out the meaning, and to take me to bed. I wanted adoration, and literature was to be my vehicle."

I'm going to reveal the Terrible Secret about the Writing/Getting Laid connection:

A long, long time ago, I had a friend I'd see several times a year at conventions. We'd gotten into the practice of flirting with each other, and, after several years of this, we ended up going beyond flirting and wound up in bed together.

So there we were, side by side, having a pleasant post-coital conversation, and I happened to mention that I'd just sold my first professional piece of fiction.

And there was this sudden intake of breath from beside me, and I looked over, and the lady in question was staring at me with eyes wide and an absolutely aghast expression on her face.

"Oh my god," she said faintly. "Oh my god. I'd forgotten you've been trying to write fiction. Oh my god. And the one thing I've always promised myself is that, no matter how many guys I went to bed with, I'd never go to bed with a writer!"

And that, boys and girls, is the Terrible Secret: Writing actually makes you less likely to get laid.

You may now return to your litfic/genre discussion.

#118 ::: KarinH ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 03:07 AM:

Xopher @ 17 - Oh, yes, almost exactly so. With healthy population of fandom saying "we don't want to talk about structure, we just want to read/write/talk about books," (and, naturally, yet another part of the population pointing and laughing).

#119 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 04:02 AM:

Bruce,
Funny story!

I learned that being a writer made me less likely to get laid, but I didn't have the good fortune of having it explained. It was a long, painful lesson.

#120 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 06:41 AM:

rm #102: Yes, indeed.

#121 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:31 AM:

rm @ 102... There are, of course, some English teachers who are literary snobs and bullies

Mine (in 1970) introduced me to Mad Magazine, Doctor Strange, and to the Silver Surfer.

#122 ::: Pendrift spots spam ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:46 AM:

The links make me think of fat felines from Palestine.

#123 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:57 AM:

Sean Sakamoto, #91: Now, many years later, Dickens is more difficult to read.

Reading Dickens gets easier with practice. I currently find his prose as transparent as any modern author's.

#124 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 08:09 AM:

I googled for "escape" and "interpretive literature" as suggested above, and almost all of what came up looked like the kind of "sample essays" plagiarized by high school students. I'm guessing the concept isn't seen as useful by anyone in the world beyond the English teachers who use that textbook.

I also found a lecture by a professor at Western Kentucky University from which we may learn that posting direct, unedited transcriptions of your extemporaneous lectures is a bad idea:

Oscar Wilde said that fiction is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you’ll be when you can’t help it and that really sums up the way I feel about fiction because I always have my students read things that I enjoy reading too because when I enjoy reading it then I feel I’ve got much more impetus to talk to you all about it so we’re gonna be reading in fiction a lot of Southern writers because that’s a genre that I really, really enjoy so but before we even get into talking about who we’re going to read I want you to know a little bit about fiction itself.
#125 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 08:55 AM:

Avram @ 110 - Talk show hosts. The editorial departments of major newspapers let F/SF slip through on occasion, as long as no one actually say nice and insightful things about it (slight exaggeration, but you get my point). Lev Grossman himself has to argue with Time Magazine to get his reviews and commentary on F/SF books in. Even PW keeps the numbers of Q&A, signature reviews, etc. of genre authors down.

I'm not going to say that it's an organized conspiracy, or that it's a 100% exclusion effort, but there is pushback against inclusion of F/SF on a regular basis, no matter how "literary".

#126 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 08:55 AM:

I declare myself a lover of print on pages. Just about any kind. I've published on George Herbert and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So there's that, for what it's worth.

I also read Grossman's novel recently. (Anyone else?) I find his critique of modern literature interesting, to say the least, in light of my feelings about his novel.

Anyone else here read it yet? I'm intrigued to know how you felt the novel lined up with this article.

#127 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:04 PM:

Sean, #59: Interesting analysis! I do flinch a bit at some of your phrasing, but that's specifically because of the Gaiman post on the topic of the author not being the reader's bitch (which I suspect is the thing fueling a lot of the disagreement with you overall). But that doesn't mean there's not a lot of truth in what you say; for example, a writer who abandons a very popular series for several years and then releases a new book which is completely unrelated to it... well, that book is liable to flop because it's not what the writer's fans wanted.

I'm beyond amused by your admission that you went into writing because you wanted to get laid -- don't most guys mess around with garage bands for that? :-) Also, personally, you're more likely to catch my attention in the cafe if you're reading something with a spaceship on the cover than if you're reading something Terribly Serious And Self-Consciously Meaningful.

Side note: I also sometimes pick my public reading with an eye to the possible observer. For example, my on-the-plane book is much more likely to be hard SF or space opera than fantasy, even though I enjoy both, because reading fantasy is seen as stereotypically female and I like messing with people's expectations.

Lisa, #79: "Lit-fic" may not be an officially recognized genre yet, but IMO it should be. This is partly because (again IMO) it is no longer a negatively-defined space, as in "genre fiction has this, that, and the other, and WE don't"; there are some very well-defined tics and tropes which are common to the lit-fic genre. There was a longish discussion of that issue here a few years back, of which I don't recall the title of the thread.

edward, #97: I have never had to abandon an author I loved because of something I found out about them personally, but there are a couple of people whose books I used to like that I am no longer comfortable with having in my library for that reason. I'm not sure what I would do if I came across something really personally heinous about one of my top favorite authors, but I suspect my reaction might be along the lines of, "Well, the books are good, I'll just look for them used now."

#128 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:14 PM:

Bruce 117: Writing actually makes you less likely to get laid.

I believe I should be immune to this effect. Probabilities can't be less than zero, after all. However, to be on the safe side I will go home and delete all my half-finished stories, and burn all hard copies in the back yard. One must have priorities.

#129 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:45 PM:

This discussion has been going on a long time.

Yes, novels; -- for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." -- Such is the common cant. -- "And what are you reading, Miss ----------?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. -- "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

From Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, written 1798ish, published posthumously in 1818. Of course then the discussion was simply fiction/anti-fiction, not literature/genre, but it's the same idea.

#130 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 12:49 PM:

Serge @121
rm @ 102... There are, of course, some English teachers who are literary snobs and bullies

Mine (in 1970) introduced me to Mad Magazine, Doctor Strange, and to the Silver Surfer.

My 5th grade English teacher, around 1967, loaned me a copy of The Hobbit. I found Andre Norton on the library shelves the same year, sealing my fate as a reader of sff.

It was my aunt, the elementary school principal, who introduced me to Mad Magazine.

But in those days I remember being annoyed by the fact that the public library didn't find Nancy Drew worthy enough to carry, and so I only got to read them occasionally when someone gave me one or I borrowed one from a friend. The idea that one could buy books whenever one wished required that one have funds.

#131 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:01 PM:

OtterB @ 131... If I remember correctly, nobody ever recommended any book to me because I already was making frequent trips to the school's library. As for Mad magazine, I clearly remember when my teacher told our class about it, specifically the parody where a woman stabs her husband and he bleeds to death all over the sink, but have no fear because Josephine the Plumber was here to tell the woman about the cleansing power of Comet.

#132 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:02 PM:

The current sense of "genre" as "formulaic and convention-bound and thus predictable" is generally not applied to "literary" works that are clearly so constructed, which does not prevent SF or mystery readers from recognizing the reigning formulas and conventions of "literary" or "serious" fiction. Some of the mystification is rooted in the sense that literary fiction connects more strongly to reality--either via representational realism ("This is the way divorce/bereavement/abuse/addiction-and-recovery really feel"); or claims that complex and important and probably morally improving Issues are being addressed; or both. So: Art Is Really True and Art Is Good For You, which are the Defenses of Poesy back on which puritans always fall, since Art Feels Good is deeply suspect. Or, to take a slightly different tack, these folk distrust dulce but understand and can defend utile. I also suspect that the association of difficulty or opacity with Art is in part the result of believing that anything really improving and important shouldn't come too easy. After all, you gotta suffer if you gonna sing the blues.

TNH @114: When I was still in the trenches, I often thought that the snobbery and self-absorption (along with narrow reading habits) of some lit teachers made it even tougher for the rest of us. (I can't recall a time when literature wasn't a hard sell to the general student population.)

#133 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 01:47 PM:

What makes this debate so compelling, and enduring?

1) We have all invested a great deal of time reading books. We want to make sure we have read the best ones -- the ones that will enrich our lives and spirits.

2) We are all secretly concerned that literature is a failing enterprise anyway, and we hope that by restoring the qualities it had during the 19th century, what Ursula LeGuin called "The Century of the Book," it might once again reclaim it's place as the main focus of cultural energy.

3) We are all nerds who love categorizing and recategorizing the books in our heads just for the sake of it, dammit!

4) Somewhere at the intersection of the taxonomizing of literary tribes, wondering how books work, and evaluating what effects literature has on our minds -- there is a set of instructions, or the shape of a posture towards life, that is profoundly liberating and joyful, and if we just keep talking about it enough, we might find out what it is.

Deep thanks to Patrick for this post -- I was almost convinved by Grossman, but I couldn't shake the feeling that somewhere in his article, I'd been had.

And finally, I direct all perplexed readers to "The Superstitous Ethics of the Reader" by Borges. It's three pages on style v. substance that'll change the way you think about this question forever.

#134 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 02:32 PM:

“There are two kinds of music – good and bad.” attributed to Richard Strauss and Duke Ellington, among others.

abi @12
I can't find a citation for the line I recall of Timoty Leary's that, "The only reasonable political position is down on all fours."

from my .sig file:
There's also been some speculation about the Pre-Joycean Fellowship. The best explanation I can make is that we exist to poke fun at the excesses of modern literature while simultaneously mining it for everything of value. Does that help? I didn't think so.
-- Steven Brust

Teresa @23
Especially at #23, that ought to have been "The Mgt."

And yes, Shakespeare was a hack pandering both to the pit and to whoever might be of use to his career. I mean, does Macbeth suck up to the new king, or what? And as soon as he had an "income", he went back to Avon and never wrote another line.
& John Mark Ockerbloom @90
"I think one aspect, touched on above, is that 'good literature' must not be escapist."
So Shakespeare's comedies are right out, then!

Teresa @47
Does that make Tom Jones hysterical realism?

Oh, please, don't go to Latin. Google Translate doesn't do Latin.

Sean Sakamoto @59
Then the notorious popularity of the pomo inversion, which makes the critic the most important participant, among critics, is due to putting the critics on Top?

[Found in moderation queue and edited by JDM to add (presumed) URL of broken/missing link. --JDM)

#135 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 03:06 PM:

N.B. Writing poetry gets you laid, not prose.

#136 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 03:25 PM:

Roger Ebert told the joke of a Hollywood starlet so dumb, she slept with the writer.

#137 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 03:36 PM:

@135: Play the guitar. Write poetry. Join a gym. Get a wing-man.

Me, I think it's all pheromones. Everything else is a delusion and/or a hobby.

(And while writing poetry doesn't necessarily lead to getting laid, might it not work the other way round?)

#138 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 04:33 PM:

TomB@57: About ten years ago I was reading the Penguin Sagas of Icelanders and enjoying it not just for the stories but for the style in which they were told. What struck me was the way they would say, matter of fact, what they thought motivated a character's actions. This violates what I think is a modern rule of good storytelling, "show, don't tell", but it worked.

POV in the sagas is a weird thing, in that it's mostly all exterior. When a character's thoughts or motivations are given, they're reported not from inside the character's head, but more or less as a conclusion drawn from community observation of what the character is saying or doing. It's neither third-person-objective in the modern sense, nor omniscient in the 19th-century sense, but something a little bit like both and a lot like neither. (Somebody I read once -- I forget who -- gave it as his, or maybe her, opinion that the POV character in the typical Icelandic saga was the community as a whole.)

Edward Oleander@97: One of the good things about being primarily a medievalist is that all of the authors one studies are safely dead, and a lot of them are anonymous.

Chris W.@113: I love Wodehouse's novels dearly, but they are so immaculately put together that constructing an interesting literary interpretation of them seems rather like grabbing a paint brush and setting out to improve on the Mona Lisa. They simply don't reward that sort of analysis.

You've put your finger on what I suspect is an unavoidable problem with literary criticism: without meaning to, it gives pride of place to those texts which are productive of analysis. There's a lot more that can be said about something complex, knotty, and variously flawed than can be said about something clear and simple and damn-near perfect. "Wow. You have got to read this!" is an honest response, and one most if not all writers would give their eyeteeth to produce in their readers, but it never got anybody tenure.

(But it helps, I think, to remind oneself that hidden inside every piece of literary criticism, no matter how labored or abstruse, is another voice saying, "This nifty bit of writing -- let me show you it!")

#139 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 04:49 PM:

I never managed to get much in the way of lengthy prose finished until I got married, so perhaps I could say that getting laid got me to be a writer. It's as good a working theory as any.

#140 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 04:56 PM:

Sean Sakamoto: I still take issue with (if I understand correctly) the notion that a or the distinction between what we call genre fiction and what many call contemporary literature lies in the attitude of the writer toward the reader: in the former case it being one of service to, where in case of the latter this relationship is reversed.

There are several problems with your formulation. For one, it requires knowing what is going on in the head of the writer. This is a problem because many writers won't talk about what is going on in their heads, and the rest lie about it (often very sincerely, no doubt).

Next, it requires knowing what is going on in the head of the reader. Same problem, although perhaps less acute. To be sure, there are readers who will loudly and passionately berate a writer who is not producing what the reader wants, or is not producing it fast enough. But exactly because such readers are so loud that they drown out the rest, we cannot know how ubiquitous they are. Moreover, we cannot know to what degree writers actually pay attention to them (see above). I know for certain many genre writers have a visceral "fuck off" reaction to being told such things. No doubt others react more submissively, but have you reason to believe the latter are in any way the standard for genre writers?

To be sure, there is work-for-hire, and there is ghost writing, and there are media novelizations, but I think those can safely be excluded.

Finally, assuming you're right, and there is this massive layer of genre writers who set in to work with the idea of submitting to the desires of the reader, I'd like to know how they go about it. Do they take a poll? Take direction from their editors (who are, presumably, taking direction from marketing, who takes direction from the jobbers, who take direction from the chain managers)? What's the mechanism here?

I really think that writers (a generally cantankerous bunch, and that's one of the few generalizations I'll dare) tend, over-all, to aim their writing at their own tastes. At least, the good ones do, no matter what part of the bookstore the book ends up in.

#141 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 05:10 PM:

My taste in many things is abominably bourgeois, but I do remember seeing Fanny and Alexander shortly after it first was shown and coming out of it with a sense that there was an awful lot more to it than could be grasped by simply watching it. (OTOH, having seen the 180 min. cut of Andrei Rublev, my wife and I had the same reaction: "What was that?")

#142 ::: becca ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 05:33 PM:

I have tended to avoid litfic in any of it's various guises since high school and college classes seemed to say that "literature = depressing" and I do not care to get depressed any more than reading the newspaper will do to me.

#143 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 05:51 PM:

TomB #57:
About ten years ago I was reading the Penguin Sagas of Icelanders...

Illiterate and uncultured that I am, I had no idea that the ancient Icelanders even knew about penguins, much less write sagas about them!

#144 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 05:53 PM:

Illiterate and uncultured that I am, I don't seem to understand modern English tenses, either.

#145 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 06:16 PM:

John Houghton @ 144... "See Ensign Oates' frank adult death struggle with the spine-chilling giant electric penguin!"

#146 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 06:47 PM:

@Debra Doyle #139: Community POV seems like a good description. I was thinking "consensus POV" which is essentially the same thing. It doesn't presume omniscience, but it is allowed to make reasonable assumptions and draw conclusions.

... what I suspect is an unavoidable problem with literary criticism: without meaning to, it gives pride of place to those texts which are productive of analysis. There's a lot more that can be said about something complex, knotty, and variously flawed than can be said about something clear and simple and damn-near perfect.

But clear and simple doesn't necessarily mean shallow or empty. Texts which are easily productive of analysis are like places with especially fertile soil. Cities rise up on them. Texts that are harder to crack may yet contain gems of great value.

#147 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 06:54 PM:

@ 141 SKZB,

I understand you don't like my theory. I'm OK with that. It is flawed, not provable, and certainly not uniformly applicable. BUT, it is based on my experience with writers, in writers groups, and in the behavior I've witnessed within certain communities of readers. In other words, it might not be a bulletproof concept, but I didn't pull it out of my ass either.

In the creative writing circles, the main point was "How to I express myself," and in genre writing circles, the main point was, "how do I keep the reader's interest."

I suspect, but I may be wrong, but I reckon that when you write a story, you give a lot of thought to how the story might keep the reader's interest. For example, Jim Macdonald gives this advice about writing, "If you're bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it."

I've never heard such advice in a litfic writing workshop. If the reader was bored, he wasn't trying hard enough. That said, I'm certainly no authority on either type of author. As I said, this is based solely on my experience, but I do think it's a viewpoint worth discussion, if only because when I made this discovery it changed my entire outlook on writing.

#148 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:14 PM:

Sean, I don't know enough to have a strong opinion about whether your theory holds water or not, but I have another term for writers who assume that if the reader is bored, they just aren't trying hard enough.

I call them "bad writers."

So I kinda hope you're wrong (even though everything about your theory rings pretty true to me) because that would effectively write off dismiss a whole class of writers.

I'm comfortable with making readers work pretty hard, and with challenging them to think and puzzle and deduce. But the payoff has to be there; they have to end by saying "Yeah! I was right!" or "Shit! I had that all wrong!" or even "Waitaminnit...let me read that again." Note: "What?! I did all that work for THAT?!?!?" is NOT acceptable, and any writer who thinks it is is just a bad writer. If there's a whole genre (and I'm in the "litfic is a genre" camp) that values the expression of the writer's feelings (eyeroll) over the reader's enjoyment, then there's a whole genre of bad writing.

But then, I'm an extrovert and a manipulative control freak. I like to make people do things because they want to do them. I suppose I'll now be jumped all over by the introverts, so let me defend for a moment by pointing out that I see nothing wrong with writing to express your feelings; I just see no point in publishing the result. If writing isn't an act of communication, it is private and should stay that way. Besides, publishing it uses up resources that could be used by work that's actually worth reading that rewards the reader's efforts as described above.

#149 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:34 PM:

"Sooner or later I'd like to see people stop trying to analyze this and just go off and read something."

This is very specifically directed at article writers who do an OMG-People-Read-Things-For-This-Reason piece every so often, and I apologize for the sloppy writing that allowed people to think it was directed at literary analysis in general.

And the unconsciously ambiguous nature of my writing is the OTHER reason I didn't go for an English degree.

#150 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 07:56 PM:

Tangentially related: Vampire endorsement turns Brontë into bestseller | Books | guardian.co.uk

Reinforcing the need to judge a book from its cover.

I loved the review at the end:

"I was really disappointed when reading this book, it's made to believe to be one of the greatest love stories ever told and I found only five pages out of the whole book about there love and the rest filled with bitterness and pain and other peoples stories"
#151 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 08:22 PM:

Well, I certainly agree that it is worth discussing; otherwise, I wouldn't be discussing it. The issue is not that I don't like it, the issue is that I think it's wrong. With this latest clarification you made, perhaps instead wrong, I ought to say that it is a valid observation from a seriously flawed perspective.

Let me explain.

I cannot speak for the litfic community (if there is any such thing). But it would seem to me that to create any artifact intended for others with no concern or care for whether others get anything from it is not to be a top, it is to simply be a bad artificer. Are the works of what we've been calling the litfic community intended for others, or merely for the personal satisfaction of the author? If the latter, why on earth would I care why, how, or if they do it?

If your point is that genre writers care if readers enjoy their stuff, then, sure, I agree. And if "litfic" writers (or should I say litfic "writers"?) don't care, then that is a valid difference and one worth mentioning.

The reason I consider the top/bottom analogy to be wrong-headed is that, indeed, there is such a thing letting the reader control and determine what and how one writes. To me, a work is good insofar as it reaches, moves, delights, influences, and especially ephiphanizes as many people as possible over as wide a spectrum of humanity, across time and culture, as possible. With that definition of "good" in mind, the goal is to make it good. If a writer were bottoming to the reader (and, without doubt, some do), his goal would be to make it pleasing. Do you see the difference?

#152 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 08:26 PM:

Perhaps I just hang out with the wrong crowds of literary and genre writers, and got my MFA at the wrong place and have run workshops at the wrong writing centers and have been published by the wrong editors and have edited the wrong magazines and have read too widely the wrong writers and their literary biographies but I too am deeply suspicious of Sean's formulations.

I'm also deeply suspicious of the claim that "literary fiction" means books that can only sell a couple thousand copies to the MFA crowd and whatnot. Grossman points to Nam Le's book selling 16,000 copies in the past year and a half of so, in two formats. What he doesn't mention is that ~14,500 were in hardcover, which ain't bad (and which doesn't include sales to libraries, which Worldcat tells me Le has done well with, with 1207 library systems having at least one copy of his book).

I know plenty of genre writers that would looooove to sell 14,500 hardcovers of a single title in a year and a half (plus a couple thousand to libraries, and through independent bookstores etc etc etc.) According to Bookscan, which I am abusing here in the final minutes of my working day, a number of the more prominent genre writers--Hugo and Nebula nominees and winners--haven't managed that trick with their 2008 hardcover releases. (Though of course genre fiction often gets the mmpb release as well.)

#153 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:08 PM:

There is far too much in this thread for me to absorb at one sitting. Although I was highly amused at Sean's use of bondage terminology.

My mind is still pre-occupied with a statement John A. Arkansawyer made at the top of the thread: what, pray tell, are "immoral books"? As far as I can recall there have been only two books that made me want to take a shower afterwards: de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom* (which made me want to spend a week scrubbing off) and Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire (which I found so disturbing three quarters of the way through -- mainly because of Claudia -- that I put it down). One of these was popular fiction, the other, um, not.

*Read for a college course called "Evil and Decadence in Literature."

#154 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:31 PM:

Nick, we have had different experiences. Maybe you went to all the right places and met the right folks and I went to all the wrong places, wrong this and wrong that. That works for me.

skzb, you wrote "To me, a work is good insofar as it reaches, moves, delights, influences, and especially ephiphanizes as many people as possible over as wide a spectrum of humanity, across time and culture, as possible. "

When Oprah put Franzen's Corrections on her reading list, he objected. He said that his work was too complex for her readership and suggested that they wouldn't get it. This kicked off a huge controversy. Some folks said he was being a snob. Some folks said he was just being honest. Oprah herself was very angry. They've reconciled since, but it was a fun controversy, and it was a mainstream version of the lit vs. genre discussion that I enjoyed very much.

There are a lot of litfic folks who would not agree at all with your definition of 'good' writing. I was one of them, back when I was in school. We turned our noses up at any 'bestseller.' We were suspicious of anything that became too popular, too mainstream. It was pandering, it was selling out, it was bland, escapist, pablum, etc.

Good fiction required labor on the part of the reader. That's my central tenet. My choice of diction got in the way, perhaps the truth is more nuanced. I am not saying that litfic writers don't think at all of their writers and genre only think of their writers. It is a matter of degree.

I think that in litfic, the empasis is on the writer doing more of the 'work' to understand what the author is getting at. The onus is on the reader. If a reader doesn't understand the work, then the reader is embarrased and fakes it.

In genre, the onus is on the writer. If the work is not accessible, or not at the very least a fun read, then the writer has failed. A work of litfic can not be a fun read, and be considered very succesful.

I guess I am trying to say that a work of genre could be fun, and only fun, to be considered a success. Litfic can get away with being boring, difficult, and not fun at all, and still be considered a success by its readers, because they don't demand that their reading be fun.

Franzen describes both these models much better than I could. I see a suprising similarity in your words and his, although he would put you in what he calls his 'contract model' vs. Flaubert's Satus model, in which most people will NOT enjoy the work, precisely because it is literary!

I quote:

'It turns out that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience. In one model, which was championed by Flaubert, the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it's because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it. We can call this the Status model. It invites a discourse of genius and art-historical importance.

In the opposing model, a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing thus entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of "Finnegans Wake" enthusiasts or fans of Barbara Cartland. Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model. The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection. My mother would have liked it.'

#155 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:41 PM:

pat greene, #154: what, pray tell, are "immoral books"?

I take it to mean a book whose philosophical outlook, core argument, or basic assumptions about ethics are morally twisted.

As an example, here's a book that made me cringe for just those reasons.

#156 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:42 PM:

Here is a link to that Franzen essay, which I really enjoyed.

(Even the name sounds like a top!)

And, just for fun, here is a link to a great essay/ brutal takedown of academic literary criticism by a Yale Grad student.

I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. ‘The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism,’ a young man is saying. He pauses for a long time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser and sock. ‘In order to approach participating in.’ He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a children’s entertainer. Finally, in one rush: ‘The unity which is no longer accessible.’ My fellow students utter a long soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.

‘Brilliant,’ says the professor. ‘Very finely put. But I didn’t quite understand it. Could you repeat it?’ I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism – at least as it is practised here – is a hoax.

Letter from Yale

#157 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:45 PM:

Sean: Put that way, I don't think we have a disagreement. Alas. :-)

It should be added that, to me, a good book ought not to *require* labor on the part of the reader; but it ought to *reward* labor on the part of the reader.

#158 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:51 PM:

The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible.

It is not much consolation that society will pick up the bits, leaving us at eight modern where punishment, rather than interdiction, is paramount.

I know which one makes more sense to me.

#159 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 10:52 PM:

skzb,

I just want to say that our discussion has been really fun for me. I appreciate you making me work to clarify my point of view, and I also enjoy your style. I hope we meet some day. If you ever find yourself in rural Japan, drop me a line. I know some good soba restaurants.

#160 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 11:32 PM:

Sean:: Same here, and you're on.

#161 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 11:35 PM:

what, pray tell, are "immoral books"?

Chaucer!

Rabelais!

Balzac!

(This answer courtesy of the River City book club, which also has its suspicions about Shakespeare and all them other highfalutin' Greeks.)

#162 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2009, 11:51 PM:

Sean Sakamoto, 157: I wonder if the writer of that Letter from Yale has any scientific training? I can't tell if she understands that "inertial" is not a mere linguistic overextension of "inert," but a genuinely different concept.

Which makes me a bit wary of the rest of what she's saying.

Ah, the things we non-English majors choke on...

#163 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:01 AM:

Russell @ 135: And while writing poetry doesn't necessarily lead to getting laid, might it not work the other way round?

IMX it was the other way around—not getting laid led to poetry. I can't write it any more.

#164 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:09 AM:

People

Let's not, please, confuse critical theory, particularly as espoused by the likes of Ruth Yeazell (the Yale prof above in Sean's excerpt) and literary criticism. One is a lovely, fascinating theoretical and philosophical exercise, the other is practical application with an eye to understanding a text and our reactions to a text.

And 15K hardcovers of literary fiction by a tier one university faculty member will sell to students in five years. Easy. That's why more and more schools are telling faculty you can't require your book as a text; you must make it optional or demonstrate to the textbook committee that it really is the best choice.

#165 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:26 AM:

Nick, we have had different experiences. Maybe you went to all the right places and met the right folks and I went to all the wrong places, wrong this and wrong that. That works for me.

Perhaps. Though I would recommend a couple of things to consider:

1. there are plenty of blowhards in MFA classes and creative writing workshops. School is sort of the place where one can get one's hare-brained theories out of one's system. But the same is so of Clarion and other workshops in the SF/F field -- there's plenty of blogging about this or that silly idea that some emerging skiffy writer has. (Often, they take the form of ill-considered "movements.") These silly ideas aren't necessarily representative of the silly ideas working writers have.

2. I'd contend that SF/F requires enormous amounts of work on the part of the reader. The ability to sit through lengthy infodumps on means of propulsion, the neologisms, the immense casts of characters and endless 800-page volumes that take place over the course of generations, the many references to earlier literature, outright didacticism on everything from statecraft to sexual politics, and the topic of science in general require significant synoptic facilities and patience from readers. Many many readers simply slam shut a book when the first page contains many crazy terms and weird names--for these readers complex or unusual sentences about the everyday is LESS work than trying to read SF/F. This may be one reason why many adult SF/F readers come to the hobby as children while relatively few people start reading SF/F as adults--one needs years of experience to read the contemporary material in the field.


I also don't think Franzen/Oprah is a good example of lit v genre, when one considers that OBC selections included work by Toni Morrison, Edwidge Dandicat, Andre Dubus III, and Barbara Kingslover. Franzen's arguments were both more nuanced and more self-serving (to maximize air time on a variety of media outlets) than all that.

There's a good rejoinder to Franzen in Harper's, though sadly the entire article hasn't been pirated:
http://www.harpers.org/archive/2005/10/0080775

#166 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:31 AM:

And 15K hardcovers of literary fiction by a tier one university faculty member will sell to students in five years.

The Boat came out one year ago. Literary fiction does have an audience outside of classrooms. It really really is true, and that audience is as authentic and legitimate and often as large as any other audience out there.

#167 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:37 AM:

Again, my quibble with this discussion is that we're all talking about different things when we say "literary fiction."

The Boat? The KiteRunner? Satanic Verses? No one has actually made any attempt towards a definition - so it's a meaningless term. It means whatever the speaker at the moment intends to signify, regardless of how eccentric that assignment of meaning might otherwise be.

#168 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:40 AM:

I read that rebuttal. The author contends that institutions are NOT forcing a certain canon on readers, contrary to what Franzen claims. It seems like much of what Franzen argues, and that I argue, and who rebutts us, depends on what school and crowd one went to and hung out with.

I still like his Status model vs. Contract model, and I do think it applies to the dynamic of pleasure vs. work as a way that some folks seem to evaluate the merit of writing and the place of literature. I don't personally use this method to value a work of writing, but I think that's what is behind a lot of litfic snobbery.

#169 ::: Rob T. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:43 AM:

Mags @130: I just read and enjoyed Northanger Abbey last year and cracked up over the following dialogue between Isabella and Catherine, which comes shortly after (and ironically contrasts) the high-minded defense of novels you quote:

Isabella: "...But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? -- Have you gone on with Udolpho?"

Catherine: "Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil."

I: "Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?"

C: "Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? -- But do not tell me -- I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina's skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world."

I: "Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you."

C: "Have you, indeed! How glad I am! -- What are they all?"

I: "I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."

C: "Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"

I: "Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them...."

C. Wingate @142: Did you know Ingmar Bergman's preferred version of Fanny and Alexander was 312 minutes long? (It was broadcast in this form on Swedish television, I believe over several nights.) If you've only seen the theatrical version (188 minutes), your "sense that there was an awful lot more to it than could be grasped by simply watching it" was on target; obviously there was more that needed to be watched!

#170 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:47 AM:

Nick M @166: I'll accept the proposition that much SF requires familiarity with the tradition in order to get the whole experience, but wouldn't the kind of book described in section 2 be better described as "bad SF"? At least the infodumps, clumsy names and neologisms, and (presumably) badly managed matters of scale? Handling those elements in a way that makes them features rather than bugs is part of the craft of SF. Or, come to think of it, of serious historical fiction.

#171 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:57 AM:

At least the infodumps, clumsy names and neologisms, and (presumably) badly managed matters of scale?

Who said anything about "clumsy" names or "badly managed" matters of scale? Not I! No fair moving the goalposts.

What I am saying is that what Audience A (SF readers) see as features Audience B (non-SF readers) may see as bugs, even if Audience A is absolutely sure that the neologisms and the physics of the spaceship engines and all that stuff is the bee's knees and done well and properly. Sort of like musicals: there are people who simply dislike all musicals because they cannot get behind characters breaking into song. It doesn't matter whether fans of musicals say that, say, The Music Man is the Best Musical Evar and that with all the bands and music teachers it's okay that everyone starts singing, those who dislike musicals will dislike even The Music Man.

#172 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:59 AM:

I do think it applies to the dynamic of pleasure vs. work as a way that some folks seem to evaluate the merit of writing and the place of literature.

Could you name some of these people and point to their statements where they've said such things?

#173 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:03 AM:

Sean, #155: In genre, the onus is on the writer. If the work is not accessible, or not at the very least a fun read, then the writer has failed. A work of litfic can not be a fun read, and be considered very successful.

Okay, now here I'm going to disagree with you somewhat. I don't mind having to work at reading a piece of genre fiction if it seems to be heading in a direction which will make the work worth it. Some of the best SF I've ever read has been stories that made me think, stretched my brain -- I'm thinking of things like "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" here. I wouldn't call that a fun read; it's a strong and disturbing story, and it doesn't provide any pat answers for the reader.

My point is that I like both kinds of story -- but I like both of them within the area of genre fic, because its tropes speak to me more than those of lit-fic do. Sometimes I'm only in the mood to read fluff, and sometimes I want more substance, and I can find both of those in my genre of choice.

BTW, if I can't understand the work, I consider it the fault of the writer, because the writer is the professional; it's his or her job to communicate with the reader. I can follow quantum physics if it's put into layman's terms, so I have a lot of trouble considering myself too stupid to understand a work of fiction.

#174 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:18 AM:

Nick, #172: In #166, you talked about "the immense casts of characters and endless 800-page volumes that take place over the course of generations*" and said, "many readers simply slam shut a book when the first page contains many crazy terms and weird names." I don't think it's unreasonable for Russell to have paraphrased that as "clumsy names and badly managed matters of scale." If that reading is completely off from what you were trying to say, could you elucidate?

* I do feel obliged to point out here that this phenomenon is also common in the romance/historical genre, so it's not entirely true that only SF readers can handle that sort of thing.

#175 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:39 AM:

I know I'm coming into the discussion late. I like the idea of making the reader work versus making the author work, but in looking at the posts discussing it I think there might be some misunderstandings of what it means.

Making the author do the work doesn't mean that there is no work for the reader. Rather, the author has worked to encapsulate the work in such a way that the reader is willing to work with it. (Oops, overload on the "work" term, which is what I think is the issue in the first place. Let me try again.) The author has worked to encapsulate the story/poetry/ideas/whatever in such a way that the reader is willing to engage with it in a thoughtful manner.

Making the reader do the work, on the other hand, means that the reader has to chip away at the surface abstruseness before finding (or not) what's buried beneath it.

Does that sound about right, or am I completely missing the point?

#176 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:39 AM:

I do think it applies to the dynamic of pleasure vs. work as a way that some folks seem to evaluate the merit of writing and the place of literature.

Could you name some of these people and point to their statements where they've said such things?


In the essay that Patrick linked to at the start of this post, ' The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste." Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.

-----


I don't agree with all of what Grossman says in that essay. The one thing I do agree with is that in this strange and undefinable land of 'literary' fiction, there is a significant readership that values difficulty over pleasure in a text. I don't even think it is wrong, it is a matter of taste. What is wrong is to look down on someone who has different taste.

I think this dichotomy extends beyond fiction. I play the shakuhachi. It is an extremely difficult instrument to play. Within the tiny shakuhachi community, you will find people who value the pieces that are technically more difficult to play over the easy, crowd pleasing folk music.

In popular culture, you have classical music snobs who sneer at rock and roll. I remember when the classically trained prog rock virtuosos looked down on the 'three cord' punk rockers.

There is something about difficulty vs. pleasure in the assignment of artistic merit that happens. I don't know if this is about acquired taste, the reward of effort, snobbery, puritanism, or some unholy combination of all the above. But it exists, and in the genre vs. litfic arena the smell of it is very strong.

#177 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:03 AM:

Lee, I don't think I was saying anything all that obscure. "Weird" for example means "odd" and "extraordinary", not "clumsy." "Endless" doesn't necessarily mean "badly managed"—of course no book series or even mode of writing is actually endless, but it's easy enough to think of readers who didn't live to see the end of this or that series of books, or who fell away from a series because it became a slog or because life got in the way.

"SF/F requires enormous amounts of work on the part of the reader" is pretty straightforward. It does. It may not seem that way to people who have spent decades doing the work but the same is so of many of the people who enjoy (post)modernist fiction. They find their reading difficult but not too difficult. From the outside it may seem willfully obscure, but so too are stories about made-up kingdoms or the genetic differences between Neanderthals and modern humans etc etc.

#178 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:13 AM:

A personal example:

My mother was a college professor with a Ph.D in German literature. She and her colleagues read all kinds of complicated literary stuff to stay current.

In her spare time, my mom and her friends loved to read mysteries. They called the mysteries, 'junk.' For example, 'This weekend I'm just going to read junky mysteries.' They also called these mysteries, 'trashy' and 'guilty pleasures'.

Why was it junk? Why did they feel guilty about reading mysteries? They valued the hard stuff, the epic poems with references that took footnotes to explain, but they seemed to enjoy the trashy junk too, but that was somehow not OK.

#179 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:24 AM:

The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste."

Nothing in that Grossman quote shows that there is a pleasure v. work dichotomy when it comes to the assignment of artistic merit. It shows only that the Little Review has a different publishing program than, say, The Saturday Evening Post. (So too does Tor, which publishes mostly SF/F and thus which caters to less than 10% of the fiction market. Why does Tor ignore the voice of the people! The people who don't want SF/F but only more popular genres!)

The mere publishing of "difficult" work is not a demonstration that the work was considered good because it was difficult, or that difficulty is valorized over pleasure.

So again Seam, please name some people "who value difficulty over pleasure" in a text and show me where they have made statements to that effect. Seems to me to be pretty clear that people who enjoy "difficult" texts find pleasure in the difficulty-- they just dare take pleasures in things you might not.

And the pleasure of difficulty is not unique to readers of (post)modernist fiction. Readers of SF/F, also enjoy difficulty, though the sites of difficulty within those works vary. "The Cold Equations" is a difficult text -- go find some third graders to read it to and then report back to me how pleasurable they found it -- but for an audience who enjoys being confronted with the idea of an amoral uncaring narrative universe, it is pleasurable. Same too with people who enjoy spending significant amounts of mental energy on reading eleven volumes of this or that fantasy series, or who enjoy being overwhelmed by descriptions of the vastness of space or the infinity of time, etc etc.

#180 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:30 AM:

In her spare time, my mom and her friends loved to read mysteries. They called the mysteries, 'junk.' For example, 'This weekend I'm just going to read junky mysteries.' They also called these mysteries, 'trashy' and 'guilty pleasures'.

Why was it junk? Why did they feel guilty about reading mysteries? They valued the hard stuff, the epic poems with references that took footnotes to explain, but they seemed to enjoy the trashy junk too, but that was somehow not OK.

Again, this is NOT an example of your claim that some people valorize difficulty over pleasure.

One can enjoy formal dining at a top restaurant because it activates and challenges their palettes and also enjoy Kraft Dinner because it does not. One can enjoy epic poems because they are awesome and timeless and mysteries because they are not awesome and not timeless.

Your mother just had more than one axis when it came to pleasure.

#181 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:33 AM:

Nick, #178: the genetic differences between Neanderthals and modern humans

I'm going to take a bit of a tangent here, on the assumption that you're referring to Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal trilogy, which I have read. Now, I happen to think Sawyer does a very good job of handling the infodumps, but that could just be because I'm already loosely familiar with the areas of both genetics and sociology, and could therefore follow where he was tweaking things.

But what I want to say in particular is that when I got to the end of the first book, my most immediate reaction was to say, "Holy shit, that man can WRITE!" The text just... flowed, there's no other word to describe it. There were no clunky phrasings or choppy paragraphs to bounce me out of the story, and (at the other extreme) the words didn't stand up and holler, "Hey, look at me, ain't I something?" ; the writing didn't get in the way, as I have had it do in many books from far better-known authors. This doesn't have anything to do with the subjects he was writing about -- it was purely an issue of style. And that sense of the prose being the vehicle rather than the driver is one of the things I almost never get from lit-fic.

#182 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:49 AM:

Lee: and some people can read, say, Ben Marcus or Nam Le, and have that same experience. They can do it with Eliot or Joyce too. They are not lying, they are not just saying so to look good back on the college qudrangle, they're not showing off -- or not showing off anymore than some con-going enthusiast who bellows about his or her favorites all the time -- or anything like that. They just like what they like. They don't see words as something that could "get in the way" because the words are the way in some books.

Further, many people can enjoy books where words don't get in the way and books where the words are the way and where the whole point is to holler "Ain't I something." There's no privileged position, no essence of what a novel or story is (or should be) be that precedes its existence.

Incidentally, I too have some background knowledge (I took a bunch of physical anthropology classes in college, and was the only non-major in the my school called "400-level" courses) and found Sawyer's first book in that series incredibly clunky, to the point where I laughed out loud several times at his attempts to squeeze in this or that bit of the science, and to the point where I didn't bother with the other books in the series. (There was also one of the more ridiculous descriptions of a rape scene and its immediate psychic aftermath I've ever read on pp. 62-65 -- I didn't laugh out loud, but I did roll my eyes and put the book down for a week.)

#183 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:21 AM:

Rob T. @170: I am working my way through the Horrid Novels. My favorite so far is The Midnight Bell, which has the most hilariously convoluted plot and...

Lauretta and her guide followed him with their eyes in silent wonder for some moments, when a sudden blow from an unseen hand levelled her companion with the earth, and, from the firmness with which he had held her arm, he in his fall drew her upon him. Astonishment closed her lips; and in an instant, a man muffled up in a cloak lifted her from the ground, and whispering in her ear "Be silent," he took her arm under his, and led her swiftly along... (from Chapter XIII)

Ninjas! Could it get any better?

I'm on my third read of The Mysteries of Udolpho and enjoying it more than the previous two readings. I find skipping the poetry helps, and also speeds things along considerably.

#184 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 05:51 AM:

I'm frantically preparing for Burning Man, so apologies in advance if I've missed something important or this turns into a post-and-run, but I want to throw a couple of dogs on the fire.

I don't really believe in Sean's dichotomy, and here's why. When I write (music, not fiction, but I don't think that matters), I'm not trying to be the listener's bitch or make him* mine. I'm trying to do good work. I don't understand what it would even mean to write for or against the listener; what listener? For every listener who would prefer X, there's one who would prefer not-X. The only way I know to work is to play what I want to hear. If someone doesn't like it, I don't conclude that they're a philistine or that I failed; I conclude that the listener and the song are not a good match.

What does make me think that I've failed is listening to something I did a while back and realizing that it's shitty. This is quite painful, and a powerful (if, alas, not all-powerful) incentive against laziness and self-indulgence. Trying to do something to please "the listener" that didn't please me would, in effect, be to deliberately make something shitty. Being only human, I might do that for hard cash up front, but as a speculative effort to please people who would almost certainly rather get their shitty-to-my-ears music from people who are enthusiastic about it? No way.

I may be overgeneralizing from my own case, but I think most writers write what they want to read, and the rest is rationalization. If any authors want to admit that they often write something not to their taste because they think the public will like/hate it, I'll stand at least somewhat corrected.

"Difficulty vs. pleasure" seems so wrong to me that I think I must be misunderstanding it. Doing something difficult well--including reading a difficult but rewarding novel--is pleasure (although, of course, not the only kind).

Literary fiction is arguably a marketing category, but I'll believe that it's a genre in the sense that SF is when I see a definition of it that's both accurate and genuinely analogous to a well-accepted definition of SF. (Yes, I know there aren't any definitions of SF that are truly well-accepted. Work with me here.)

*A case where using the male pronoun to represent the general human is less sexist rather than more? Um, I hope so!

#185 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:14 AM:

The thing in this so far that's rung truest and most useful for me is in Patrick's #50: I find it quite remarkable that we should grant this small coterie such power to define the terms of discourse, to the extent that we inevitably have to argue with them before we can get down to just plain talking about what we like about stuff we've read. Even though they're not in the room. I want to say to so many of my friends, particularly in the SF world, "CALM DOWN, THOSE PEOPLE AREN'T HERE, THEY CAN'T HURT YOU ANY MORE."

This has been the dominant theme in my own life lately: letting go. It's not a matter of saying, in every case, "Oh, that doesn't matter anyway." It may matter a lot. But my time and mood matter too, and the question "What am I accomplishing by reengaging with this, and getting angry or miserable over it?" needs to be asked a lot. Early and often. Sometimes there's a reason, and ones like "I have information here that will bring some encouragement to people I care about" are worth taking seriously. But a lot of the time, at least for me, the answer turns out to be something like "Well, it's what people-like-me do and if I pull out of pointless, unproductive, rehashing arguments I won't see some of the other participants at all." At that point it's worth counter-reasoning something like "Then maybe you should learn to live with seeing them less, or use e-mail more, or something that doesn't keep you stirred up and depressed so much."

The other thing that I really wanted to flag agreement on was Nick Mamatas' #183: They are not lying, they are not just saying so to look good back on the college qudrangle, they're not showing off -- or not showing off anymore than some con-going enthusiast who bellows about his or her favorites all the time -- or anything like that. They just like what they like.

For work and personal reasons, I happen to be reading a fair amount lately in places where there's a lot of left-wing jargon in use, and in particular the language of studies of oppression, privilege, resistance, social change, and so on. I find a lot of the language unpleasantly grating at best - not the content, the style. But I find that there are people with information and perspectives I really, really want to hear from who really do communicate comfortably and fluidly in it, and so it's worth the work to me to think through what they're saying and deal with it. It might not be worth it to someone else, and in fact part of my current work project will be interpreting key ideas in the language of a different subculture, in hopes of making them useful for that audience.

But that's a digression. :) My point here, and I do have one, is that for any viewpoint at all, and particularly for ones stereotyped as anti-fun, anti-enjoyment, and the like, there are people for whom that style, subject, etc., are in fact fun, enjoyable, comfortable, the whole deal. Sometimes we can find the connections to say "Hey, I understand the satisfaction you get out of that, it's very much like what I get out of this other", and that's cool. But "your kink is okay" is cool, too, and we seldom have need to get quite so worked up over the fact that people get different pleasures out of different stuff.

Disengage! Disengage! Always dilute for Reading-Listening-Panels-Fanfic-Dissertations! OK!

#186 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:46 AM:

Nick, #181: That's not really a response to Sean's question. He's already acknowledged that his mother and her friends enjoyed both the academic reading and the mystery novels; the question was why they considered the latter something to be ashamed of reading. That's what "guilty pleasure" means -- something you know you shouldn't be doing, but you do it anyhow because you like it.

WRT our conversation, we seem to be talking past each other somehow, and I don't know what to do about that.

#187 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 10:22 AM:

About guilt and reading--

I think that a lot of people who call science fiction or fantasy or murder mysteries or romance novels or *whatever* their "guilty pleasures" do it not because they actually feel guilty, but because they think they should feel guilty.

They are aware that the way they are perceived by others makes their affection for sf/f/mm/rn/or whatever seem a bit...out of place. So they claim to feel "guilty" about reading them, just to make their persona appear to make sense. I know a lot of people who eat dessert with great pleasure and no guilty, but who still say that dessert is a guilty pleasure because they know they are perceived as being fitness freaks. So it may be like that.

It may also be quiet defiance.

I have an academic type job. When colleagues find me reading sf/f/mm/rn/or whatever I am inclined to make quiet remarks about my "low tastes" as a way of precluding smart ass remarks from them, but also as ironic praise of the very thing I'm reading, particularly as contrasted with what I "should" be reading.

"Yep, you caught me reading Louise Penny instead of Grun Von Prinsterer. Ah well. We've always known I have low tastes."

#188 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 10:30 AM:

Sean @ #157

I am a veteran of the Yale English department, and that article took me straight back to my dark days of befuddlement and confusion under the tutelage of the corrosive, joyless sophistry that passes for a literary education at Yale. And to the moments of inspiration that are, perhaps, brighter in contrast.

Three things saved me from hating books forever, and I hope Yale never abandons them.

1) English 125. It's a survey of major English poets and the syllabus hasn't changed too much since the curriculum was set by T.S. Eliot in the 1920s. Hearing the first 45 lines of Paradise Lost read aloud in class was a conversion experience for me. And so was having to memorize the first 20 or so lines of the Canterbury Tales. Depsite their best efforts to destory the joy of reading, Yale's English Professors are still powerless in the face of the actual poetry. I hope they never stop making this class and its syllabus a requirement. Getting an English degree is still worth it for the forced exposure to difficult books--they change you, their power is unassailable, immune to the periodic waves of nonsense that lap at every society.

2) Science Fiction & Science Fact. This was a science class I took because it was easy. You had to read Sci-Fi novels and then write a paper or two about the scientific concepts in them. On the syllabus was "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov. And, after I read it, my life was never the same. That class gave me a deeper, more honest love of books than anything I encountered in the English department. Somehow, Asimov struck me as a continuation of reading Milton in a way that all the criticism I had to read just wasn't.

3) The Elizabethan Club. A private club on campus grounds where graduate students can mix with undergrads and professors to have unpretentious, interested discussions of whatever, and tea every day from 4-6. There's also a kick-ass rare book vault that's open one day of the week. I learned more about the realities of academic life (which I subsequently avoided as a profession), and about the world of ideas than I ever did in class. Yale used to be filled with literary societies, which were all bought by the university and turned into office buildings for faculty. I can only hope this one stays open as long as the University does. Yes, only a small number of selected students get to enjoy it, but otherwise it would be swamped. Yale needs more clubs like this.

#189 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 10:38 AM:

One of the most interesting discussions here in a long time. Sean's at #59 especially good food for thought.

Back in 1987 at the bookstore in which I was working, Ambient was on the shelves and we just got in The 27th City, Franzen's first novel (google for plot description, if you for some strange reason can't recall). The store buyer introduced us when he dropped by the store to sign copies and we prepared to shake hands. At the moment she said "Jack's a science fiction writer too" Franzen pulled away his hand before I could shake it. Instinctual, I suspect.

Afterward, having landed in science fiction, I found myself being told more than once that what I wrote wasn't really science fiction, and my writing in the field potentially stole readers away from the Real Stuff. (Not many readers, but that didn't seem to be the point.) At Readercon in 1994 one of the PKD judges made a point of coming over to me to explain that he had voted against me, implying that those literary proclivities had proved troubling, and saying he'd like to tell me all the reasons why. I said I'd love to hear them but had to go wait in the lobby for the limo, and walked away.

A few months later that same year, the late Charles Brown told me, "well, anything you write is going to be science fiction, even if it's not science fiction."

I think ever since that point, as per Sean's theory, I've been a power bottom.

#190 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 10:41 AM:


Nick, #181: That's not really a response to Sean's question. He's already acknowledged that his mother and her friends enjoyed both the academic reading and the mystery novels; the question was why they considered the latter something to be ashamed of reading.

I was the one who asked a question of Sean, or rather made a request. I requested that he provide an example of someone who privileged difficulty over pleasure, of someone who points to something that is hard or difficult and declares that because it is difficult and offers no pleasure that it is good.

The reason I asked for an example, and the reason I looked closely at his attempts is because Grossman has sparked a number of conversations across the blogosphere and a number of people have made declarations that there are writers/critics/readers etc. who are just jerks and willfully obscure and purposefully make/champion/consume things difficult because they think difficult=good AND pleasure=bad.

And myself and a number of other people have asked for the names of some of these writers/critics/readers are and...no surprises here...not one person has managed to come up with a name that makes sense. They've listed writers whose works they didn't like, they've listed critics who have pooh-poohed (some) science fiction, they've waved their arms and have said "most every critic" or people who read "hard" stuff, but nobody has shown that any of these people are opposed to pleasure.

They just find pleasure in other things. #185 has it exactly right.

Also, I don't believe we are talking past one another at all. You think Sawyer can write well. I don't think he can. I can certainly appreciate writers who make sure that words/writing doesn't "get in the way" (as you put it) of the story; I don't think Sawyer is a good example of that at all. (A writer who is: Robert Charles Wilson. Another: Greg Bear.)

I also don't think that "the prose being the vehicle rather than the driver" is the definition of good writing (it's "a" definition), and driving in a prose vehicle isn't always the reading experience I want to have.

Good writing can involve prose being the vehicle, it can involve prose being the driver, it can involve prose being the obstacle that must be overcome, it can involve prose being the scenery that zips by almost too fast to recognize, it can involve prose being the flaming heap on the side of the road that we slowly drive past in order to linger upon. Bad writing can also involve all those things.

Good writing is a lot of things. The people who prefer (either always or sometimes) drivers, obstacles, scenery, and flaming heaps--and people who do not like (or do not always like) prose as vehicles--are not putting on airs or pretending to do so for tenure or social status or doing it because the nerd is the victim of the world and they are the great oppressor, or anything like that.

#191 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 10:58 AM:

Nick @191:
I requested that he provide an example of someone who privileged difficulty over pleasure

OK, I'll bite.

Of course, there’s always the possibility, of course, that you genuinely feel Zoe’s Tale is one of the best novels published last year. If that’s what you believe—if you actually think Zoe’s Tale is the best the novel can aspire to—then you really, really, really, really, really need to broaden your aesthetic horizons. You need to read more widely, to look at a greater selection of writers and modes of writing; to stretch yourself; to venture out of your comfort zone. Not just for the health of this award, and SF; but for the sanity of your soul. Because if you can actually read the excellent The Quiet War and then read the pleasant but mediocre Zoe’s Tale, and not see that the former is a much much better novel than the latter, there must be something wrong with you.

Adam Roberts thinks that one should read The Quiet War rather than "pleasant" Zoe's Tale for the sanity of your soul. He makes no claim about the enjoyability of his alternative suggestion; it is simply prescribed, like medicine.

(Personally, I have enjoyed some books that have made me work for my pleasures; I'm a big fan of Italo Calvino's slimmer and less coherent works, and I've got more than one Nicholson Baker on my shelves. But I don't like the feeling I'm being looked down on any more than any sentient being does.)

#192 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:21 AM:

Constance @36 said: His least popular novels, Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, his straight ahead realist novels were failures, commercially, unlike his previous two.

And yet, Gatsby is the one all American high school students are forced at grade-point to read, analyze, and write endless reports about, to the point that I -- a confirmed lifelong book-horse* -- was so fed up by it and bored with it that I managed completely to miss any of the gory description surrounding the car crash. I knew there'd BEEN a car crash, because who was involved, who died, etc, was on all the quizzes ... but a friend of mine who actually liked Gatsby, way back when, asked me recently if I thought it was too gory for kids, and we had a really odd conversation in which I started wondering what else I'd missed. Clearly, I was skimming it at light-speed for factoids so I could do my homework, put it down, and go on to some book I LIKED.

John Mark Ockerbloom @90 said: "I think one aspect, touched on above, is that 'good literature' must not be escapist." // This notion is made pretty explicit in some of the standard English texts that students get assigned in later high school or early college. I wonder how many folks it puts off literature.

Me, for one, for years. Two brief anecdotes, to the point:

A -- I understand there are very many people who get as excited and pleased by reading Austen, Bronte, etc, as I do from Ursula Vernon and Lois McMaster Bujold. However, I've never managed to PROPERLY READ any of Those Authors, despite having 'read' many of them for class over the years. Pride and Prejudice only made sense to me properly when I saw Gurinder Chadha's relatively recent Bollywoodization of it, "Bride and Prejudice". For one thing, it made all the suitors and sisters look DIFFERENT ENOUGH that I could keep them separate, which is emphatically not true in any BBCization of it I've ever sat through (or, for that matter, Zefirelli's "Romeo & Juliet," which a teacher showed us in high school in an attempt to be Hip And Interesting).

A 1/2 -- Another teacher in high school said (I paraphrase), "Hey, guys, this'll be fun: we're going to read science fiction this semester!" And then she assigned The Disposessed. Which sounds interesting to me when described by my friends, but which I utterly bounce off of in explosive boredom when trying to READ it. The same thing applies to The Left Hand of Darkness, and almost anything by Vernor Vinge: the metadiscussion of the work fascinates me, but I can't read the work.

B -- The first 'literary' book I read and really enjoyed was Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @47 said: Patrick's gone out to pick up some groceries, but I'll bet he was primarily asking how we all read as individuals, with the possibility of eventually working up to more general statements, if the initial lab results warrant it.

One of my major objections to the class of books that get shelved under 'Fiction' rather than in any of the subsets I prefer to shop in, is that the authors are often really, really sloppy with their worldbuilding. They think that just because they're using a contemporary American setting -- with, say, a heroine who is having a Life Crisis and therefore needs to do [plot thing] to get her head on straight -- they don't have to describe anything, set a scene, or even give me any reason to CARE ABOUT this person they're having life happen to. Therefore, I don't care, and I quit reading. I want my authors to work at least hard enough to intrigue me within the first, oh, eight or nine pages at the most. Margaret Atwood and (unrelatedly) the kinds of people that become Oprah's Book Club books ** rarely manage it.

Sean Sakamoto @91 said: With Dickens, as with all good literary fiction, the work is worth the payoff. Here's a tautology (If it is worth the payoff, then the book is good. A book is good if it is worth the payoff.) // Some folks set out to write a difficult book from the start. These tend to be litfic types. Jonathan Franzen wrote a great essay in the New Yorker about 'difficult fiction' and, unless I read it wrong, he seemed to be rethinking his position on whether or not a writer should strive to make his prose difficult. It was a wonderfully introspective response the the whole Oprah drama a while back.

A deliberately-made-difficult book that nonetheless sucked me in like an Electrolux and dragged me through it paragraph by paragraph until suddenly I was reading its bizarre argot as easily as Pratchett got me reading Nac Mac Feegle dialect: The Book of Dave, by Will Self (amazon link). Dickens, however, I have a really hard time with. Imagining reading and loving Dickens fluently, to me, is akin to trying to imagine the (very alien) minds that could listen to Cicero deliver his speeches in public and be rabble-roused to war by them, despite having to wait fifteen minutes or more for the verbs.

MacAllister @96 said: Ah! But there's this really cool thing, here! We sexualize our description of the reading/writing experience (at least some of us do) because it is, at heart, an intimate transaction, regardless of all else.

Another datapoint: I have a friend who will never again read anything produced by Anne McCaffrey ... because the first Pern book he read, unwarned, was Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and the way it ends so abruptly hit him in the face in a way it DIDN'T me, because I'd read all the previous, and knew that (avoiding spoilers, just in case) the ending of that book is (a) fated and (b) the settled history of the other books. He, however, had been expecting this to be the start of a whole cycle involving those characters, and to have them suddenly yanked away from him and the book end the way it did was, well. Insert your sexual metaphor here. But he felt it was a mean, rude, awful, inappropriate, and above all DECEITFUL cheat, and he'll never date THAT hosebeast again, EVER.

Sumana Harihareswara @103 said: I'm still wary of a particular acquaintance who scorned my enjoyment of Book 4 of Harry Potter, and said with great certainty that it wasn't just her opinion, Goblet of Fire was objectively bad.

I'm reading this and feeling acutely uncomfortable in a 'wow, I may have made an ass of myself' sort of way ... because some time ago I spent a good hour attempting to show my younger sister how not only objectively bad but morally poisonous the whole Twilight series is. Um. And yes, she enjoys reading them, and enjoys basking in the (cough, gag) 'romantic' themes the same way that I find some 80s songs irresistibly nostalgic: I remember crying uncontrollably to them in my preadolescent years. However, my sister is in her twenties, and actively seeking a life partner, and I desperately do NOT want her to use the same criteria to choose same that Bella finds so useful? So, um. Thinking about this now.

--
* A book-horse, according to my mother's coinage, is like a clothes-horse, only for books. I go through them at a staggering pace and continually need new ones, to the point that I utterly outstrip current fashion and ordinary retail supply, and must go searching through the racks at thrift stores and such for leftover unique 'vintage' items of yore. I have BEEN going through them like that since shortly after I learned to read whole sentences, at the age of three.

Reading 'properly,' to me, means actually being pulled in and excited, wanting to know what happens next. It often, for me, involves being able to slip into a character as a hand to a glove, being someone else, zooming or sauntering through events. Sometimes it's not immersive that way, but it always involves the words pulling my eyes/mind along inexorably. The text takes away all my will to stop reading, when all goes well. Speaking of d/s relationships. :->

** In re Oprah's Book Clubn, is it just me, or is Sheri S. Tepper's Gibbon's Decline and Fall precisely the right sort of book, except that it has sentient dinosaur-descendants in it?

#193 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:32 AM:

In re Oprah's Book Clubn, is it just me, or is Sheri S. Tepper's Gibbon's Decline and Fall precisely the right sort of book, except that it has sentient dinosaur-descendants in it?

Most any Tepper would do, if they weren't all science fiction. I mean, can you picture the furor over The Gate to Women's Country, or The Family Tree?

Grass might be a bit much, I guess.

#194 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:36 AM:

Avram@70 on Asimov servicing his own kink.

This explains both his output (what else but a compulsive activity could've produced so much) and the occasional whiff of unexplainable creepiness I get from his books, that stale odor of old cigars and uncirculated air, of being not unwelcome as a reader, but not totally necessary either.
"For me, writing is just thinking out loud," Asimov once said.

JackWomack @190 on being a power bottom.

First, wow. Second, I am eyeing the copy of "Going, Going, Gone" on the shelf over my head somewhat suspicioulsy now.

Sean @59 on tops and bottoms

I will never quite think about reading in the same way. A new piece of mental furniture added, thank you.

But I have to ask, what about those bottoms, power bottoms especially (thank you Mr. Womack, for giving me permission to use that term here on Making Light) who are secretly in control of the relationship, getting all the satisfaction they want, all the protection, and all the while leading their partner to new places. I think, if Gene Wolfe, for example is any kind of bottom, he is that kind. I can't believe I just typed that. I mean, this is a guy whose major work is about a torturer with some serious kinks to work out, right? All the masks and hidden sexual violence of Severian. It all makes sense now ...

#195 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:37 AM:

abi #192:

Swing and miss. Even the quote you provide declares The Quiet War to be "excellent" and a "better novel" while Scalzi's title is "pleasant but mediocre." Further, Roberts makes NO claim as to TQW's difficulty—and McAuley is not a difficult writer—nor does Roberts claim that TQW is good because it is difficult and denies the reader pleasure.

But your miss is more or less identical to the other misses I've seen yesterday and today. The mere claim that Book A is good and Book B isn't as good is insufficient. As far as why so many people see "Death to pleasure! Read the hard, obscure, incomprehensible stuff because it is hard!" in comment and claims that contain none of those imperatives, I can only suggest a reread of PNH's comment #50.

#196 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:41 AM:

One thing that is puzzling me a bit about this discussion is that a lot of people seem to be writing as if fiction were divided into literary and genre - genre, therefore, just being whatever does not have the virtues and/or faults of literary writing. But this is not so; there is a vast amount of 'mainstream' fiction that is not literary by any ordinary criterion.

I'm wondering why this escapes notice. One reason may be that genre people were often forced to read literary fiction at school, and literary people quite often read genre fiction for relaxation, so they register on one another's radar in a way that the great mass of popular fiction doesn't. But reflecting on some of Nick Mamatas' comments, I think it may also be the case that SF/F just has more in common with literary fiction than the mass of popular fiction has with either - both present a kind of challenge; with both it often makes sense to ask 'What is the big idea of this work?'.

#197 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:02 PM:

And what about the idea of being a versatile reader?

Sorry, couldn't resist. But seriously, it does provide a compelling metaphor for what goes on when I choose to pick up Henry James v. P.D. James, say.

#198 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:09 PM:

PNH @ #7 I am not interested in telling anybody that their reading tastes are wrong. I am extremely interested in how and why people read, and the purposes to which they put their reading.

First, I read to be entertained. I want to enjoy the trip that starts with the first sentence and have a good trip and an enjoyable time all the way to the last period. I like a strong narrative, interesting characters, and engrossing plot. Lacking a plot, some goal no matter how simple will do. Morals and/or messages are welcome -- as long as they are not preachy or try to hit me over the head with their improving ways. They are also optional. I have read plenty of good books that lack both moral and message. Again, it's all about me being entertained -- and I have ecclectic tastes.

Second, I read to learn. (This is mostly for my non-fiction selections, although it can apply to my fiction, too. Alt-History is the best example of this.) Writing style is important. I may be very interested in the subject, but if the author bores me, the book goes away.

Third, I read to share. My friends and siblings and I swap books out all the time. We like to talk about them, too. Or not. The best part of making a new friend is the ability to borrow from their personal libraries and finding a gem I never knew about before. In some cases, I discover a new author that I must collect.

Fourth, I read to find enduring tales and "new friends, soon to be old". I'm currently going through my personal library (I do this about every 5 years) because I'm out of shelf space. The stories that don't stand up to multiple readings get culled. With these stories, the journey is as important to me as the destination.

Fifth, I read to suit my mood. Some people crave certain foods. I crave certain stories. There is something to be said for a Popcorn Novel at the end of a long, aggravating day where all I do is solve other people's problems. Ditto for Bubblegum, Fluff and Pure Escapism. I've heard some people call these "guilty pleasures." I call them essential. Some days, I just have to buckle a swash or go crazy. Other days, I feel a driving need to improve my mind with Something Autodidactish.

#199 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:09 PM:

In re the urges by 'literary' writers to continually shout, "But it's not Science Fiction!", I'm forced to share two illuminating exemplar books.

Margaret Atwood has repeatedly stated in public that she Does Not Write that sf stuff, she writes real good literature. However, Oryx and Crake is a far-future dystopic novel about (among other things) humans raised to grow transplant organs, transgenic animals, and cloning. However, it can't possibly be sf, because she says it isn't (partly, in her view, because it isn't about "things that haven't been invented yet," apparently to her a key part of sf).

On the other hand, Tom Hyman's novel Jupiter's Daughter rewards reading in parallel with Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain books. Despite the former supposedly being a 'thriller' and not 'sf', they're basically about the same thing: a mysteeerious process is created that can modify one's embryos/future children to create a superhuman race that does not need to sleep and is intellectually brilliant.

The major difference between the books is that Kress makes such a child the protagonist and looks at what happens to society, long-term, when there are enough modified children out there to form a sizeable minority. Hyman instead looks at the spy-vs-spy infighting about who gets to own/control the process, and the book ends before any of the children grow to maturity.

A minor difference (but amusing to me) is that Hyman's science is laughably bad, of the 'actuate the verteron field' sort, only he uses real-world science words to do his Treknobabble. At one point he has a nanny surreptitiously save snippets of an engineered child's cut hair to ship to someone interested in reverse-engineering the process ... instead of, oh, I don't know, surreptitiously taking a cheek swab while the kid's asleep?!? Sigh.

#200 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:29 PM:

abi @ #12
I'll accept that people with academic degrees in English are (a) having fun with literature and (b) advancing the state of human knowledge, if no one in this thread tells me I'm wrong and stupid for liking what I like, or thinking about this stuff without the official toolkit.

I'm one of those with and English degree, but I never got beyond the bachelor's level. Abi is so right about the dominance games. It's even more apparent on the inside where the dedicated ones live.

In the end, the "you're ruining it* for me!" factor trumped everything else I wanted from my academic education. I'll never tell anyone what they're reading is trash, or stupid or not acceptable. Nor will I demand they explain why they like it -- or not. For me, it's enough that they read.

---
* "It" being my enjoyment of reading.

#201 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:35 PM:

Lee @ 174: BTW, if I can't understand the work, I consider it the fault of the writer, because the writer is the professional; it's his or her job to communicate with the reader. I can follow quantum physics if it's put into layman's terms, so I have a lot of trouble considering myself too stupid to understand a work of fiction.

This is like saying "if I can't make it down the ski slope, it's the resort's fault. I played varsity soccer, so I know I'm a good athlete."

It took me three tries to read Gravity's Rainbow; the last time it was a thrilling page-turner. I wasn't any smarter, I'd just gained some appropriate skills somewhere along the way. That doesn't make me a better reader than anyone else--my wife is less likely than I am to read "difficult" books, but when we read the same book I can pretty much guarantee that she'll be able to discuss it more insightfully and cogently than I will--but it means that I'm a better reader than I once was.

#202 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:43 PM:

Nick @196:

I beg to differ.

None of the adjectives he uses about The Quiet War are about the reader's pleasure. It's "good", "excellent" and "a better novel" than the "mediocre" and "pleasant but mediocre" Zoe's Tale. But "good" and its synonyms, in this context, is not clearly the same as "something you'll enjoy reading".

The reasons I am urged to read it are to "broaden my aesthetic horizons", "stretch myself" and "venture out of my comfort zone" for the "sanity of my soul".

There's a word for that, and it isn't "enjoyable". It's "worthy".

Now, from what I hear, that's selling the book short. But it's still reading as medicine, and it's patronizing and unappealing.

#203 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 12:52 PM:

In the play Wit, the dying English professor says that the reason she studies and writes about John Donne is because he's difficult.

She's right. He is.

The play then goes on to expose the ways in which her intellectualization of her world has left her dehumanized. We are meant to find the visit from her former student who reads her the children's tale "The Runaway Bunny" a consoling return to humanity for her--particularly since she declines with a whimper when her student offers to read her some Donne instead.

And okay, in the world of the play, I can take that.

But as someone who also specializes in Donne and other 17th century metaphysical writers, I can say that those of us who choose them don't, on the whole, choose them because they're difficult. And we certainly don't choose them because they are overly intellectual and unemotional. We choose them because they leave us breathless, ecstatic, enraptured. And one of the tools they use in order to produce that effect is their difficulty.

They aren't good *because* they are difficult. They're good. They are also difficult. They work at the height of their intellectual and emotional powers and they demand the same from their readers.

#204 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:00 PM:

OK, I'm picking up the vague impression that Jonathan Franzen, whatever fine qualities he may have, is a fucking asshole. In the Oprah situation, any non-asshole would simply have smiled quietly to himself; after all, any non-asshole would reason, how does it hurt ME if they read the book and fail to grasp its concepts? But Franzen appears to believe that his writing will be rendered unclean by being read outside the ivory towers of Akademe. And refusing a handshake SOLELY because someone is a science fiction writer goes in barely-resist-pushing-him-in-front-of-a-bus territory as far as I'm concerned.

Also he disses his own mother by using the fact that she would have liked Contract-model fiction to diss IT (if that sounds circular, think of how the word 'gay' is used by teenagers today).

So: does anyone know of any cases where he's been courteous to anyone, at any time?

By the way, Adam Roberts is an asshole too, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a Scalzi fan.

Elliott 193: forced at grade-point

That's brilliant. I'm stealing it, just so you know. I'll say where I got it.

#205 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Perhaps a part of the problem is that the sort of books taught at school are taught by teachers who don't much care for them. We complain about Dickens, but he was the Joss Whedon or J. Michael Straczynski of his day, writing enormously popular serial works. So wht do they come over so badly in school?

Shakespeare isn't easy, but I think I picked up on my teacher's enthusiasm. But, crikey, there was so much we had to read so as to pass exams which didn't get the same boost. And, in other ways, I think the teachers I had were not very good.

Of course, we suffered from being a bit too old for the home video revolution. We got one viewing of a 16mm print of Julius Caesar (Marlon Brando as Mark Anthony) but it wasn't exam syllabus for my year, and so the film didn't really feed into the teaching for me. I suppose I could have picked up something from Olivier's version of Henry V: now you even get Doctor Who filming at the Globe Theatre.

Heck, since there has been the BBC Shakespeare, and I have movie versions of Hamlet, Richard III. Henry V, Twelfth Night (which was the play I remember reading through in class), Much Ado About Nothing, and Love's Labours Lost (the musical version). And nobody told me that Will was very likely to have been a Catholic sympathiser at least, was involved in an attempted rebellion, and lived in a London where Africans, slave and free, were valued professional entertainers. Nor, for that matter, that he had a high-profile role in the entry of King James to London.

And the big Shakerspeare for me was Macbeth: it was in my O-level exam. I was told about the allusion to Banquo's heirs and the Stewarts, and hence King James, but not a word about Henry Garnet and equivocation.

(People say exams have become easier. With the internet, these things are dead easy to discover.)

Of course, it might just be my sensitive fannish mind, but I can't help feeling short-changed by the lit teachers. And a bit grumpy about the holes in what I remember of English language teaching. But I have a .pdf of the first edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, and I kind of like the way the old-fashioned beggar approaches the problems of using the language. I can write bad sonnets, pun atrociously, and write 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Maybe some of it is down to my teachers, but how many of their pupils have managed that?

I mean, I've met people in "professional" jobs who don't know what a sonnet is, and it's hardly an obscure verse form.

But if the English teachers were any good, would there be the same mystique about "literary" fiction? Would Dickens and Austen and Hardy be on a special sort of pedestal, instead of being competent and memorable? Would Six Charlies in Search of an Author work for a modern audience?

All these questions and more will be answered next week, same time, same channel.

#206 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:26 PM:

abi @ 203... Some time ago, I finished an SF novel I had very much enjoyed. When asked if it was good, I responded:

"Well, I liked it."

#207 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:36 PM:

abi @203:

Beg all you like, you're still inaccurate. You are torturing the text to make it say what you wish it to say. Roberts is NOT saying to read TQW to broaden your horizons, etc. He gives TQW as an example of a good book after explaining that it is a good idea to broaden one's horizons by reading widely and outside one one's comfort zone, not that the act of reading TQW will make you a better reader with a saner soul.

I refer again to Comment #50. The people you are arguing with are not here. Indeed, they are no anywhere so far as I can tell.

#208 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:41 PM:

I knew that Abi likes to bind text, but she tortures it too?

#209 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:46 PM:

I really, really don't like cantaloupe--as in, I find its smell and flavor nasty. My wife (at first) found it very strange, since she loves cantaloupe. But no amount of "give it a chance" or "most people love it" or "you don't know what you're missing" or even "it's good for you--full of vitamin whatever" can ever overcome my primal experience. Now, artistic taste is not rooted in the snake-brain (which is where I take my smell-based disgust of cantaloupe originates), but its base components can be buried pretty deep in the psyche. And I have had people push at me artistic cantaloupe--works and traditions that I just don't care for and (at my age and level of experience) know I never will. Free jazz. Experimental theatre. Soap operas. "Tintern Abbey." Slasher movies. Much mainstream, highbrow fiction. If I were an inexperienced 20-year-old, it might make sense to tell me that I should try Wordsworth or Sun Ra or Cormac McCarthy, since I would not yet have collapsed the wave functions of my personality and aesthetic universe. But most adult personalities (with the exception of the constitutionally neophilic) really do know what they like. And if it's cantaloupe, I say to hell with it. Or, if I'm with my wife, "Here, hon, take my portion."

Dave Bell @206: When I'm emperor, teachers not hopelessly in love with their subjects will be made into administrators. Wait, that already happens. OK, all teachers, etc. My wife is refusing to consider retirement because she can't give up re-reading and talking about Austen (who, by the way, completely deserves that pedestal), Homer, Ovid, and Shakespeare and the rest of her heroes. I'd say that it takes a special anti-talent to make Shakespeare unappealing--though maybe crappy teaching technique will suffice. And the wealth of recorded performances you note ought to compensate for even that.

#210 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 01:56 PM:

Nick 208: I read that quoted passage pretty much the way abi did. When someone uses only one enjoyment-word ('pleasant'), he's discounting enjoyment as a criterion. Assuming Adam Roberts isn't an entirely incompetent writer, his sneering use of the word 'pleasant' to diss Zoe's Tale indicates that he looks down on people who think enjoyability should be a criterion.

If he didn't mean that, he said it wrong.

#211 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:13 PM:

I once told my seventh-grade teacher that she should give this book I'd just reported on a try, because it was really good.

She replied, "I only read things that make me a better person. How is reading that book going to make me a better person?"

(She meant reading Scripture, of course.) I didn't have the resources to answer her back then, but I could have said "Because anything you read makes you a better person." Too abstract for her, I expect. But actually I think that's an appallingly narrow criterion for choosing one's reading, unless one thinks oneself so deeply in need of improvement that all one's free time should be taken up with the more, shall we say, medicinal sort of texts.

For the same reason, I think Adam Roberts is being narrowminded and snobbish (in this case; I know nothing more about him and probably shouldn't have called him an asshole above), and recommending "improving" books over "enjoyable" ones.

I think what's at issue here is the definition of the term 'good book'. Adam Roberts thinks it means a book that improves the reader; I think it means a book that engages the reader and leads to an enjoyable experience. And that means the value of 'good' is reader-dependent; while Everybody Poops is a "good book" for my five-year-old nephew (oh wait, he's six now, wow), Dhalgren would not be. I, on the other hand, enjoyed my first reading of Dhalgren (the most challenging book my teenage self had attempted to that point) so much that I read it again two weeks later—and enjoyed it even more. Subsequent rereadings have revealed more and more underlying textures and hidden meanings (some of which I have confirmed were not intended by Delany).

I think the attempt to establish universal and fixed criteria for what constitutes a "good book" is fundamentally wrong-headed.

#212 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:14 PM:

In my idiolect, "pleasant" is a very mild compliment, akin to "satisfactory." Calling a book "pleasant" is damning with faint praise, not saying there's something wrong with pleasure. Calling a book "pleasant but mediocre" is doing this even more clearly.

I can't see any way that "excellent" and "better" are not "enjoyment words" here. Who would think to say "it was excellent, and I also enjoyed it?" It's the opposite case--grudging admiration--that requires explanation.

He's being kind of a dick, but a "wake up, sheeple!" dick rather than an "eat your broccoli" dick.

#213 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:22 PM:

Russell Letson @ 210... If I were an inexperienced 20-year-old, it might make sense to tell me that I should try Wordsworth or Sun Ra or Cormac McCarthy

I'm going to have to give the latter a try, especially after the con I attended this weekend, where I chatted with a writer who said he's been called the Cormac McCarthy of HellBoy stories.

#214 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:25 PM:

TNH #114: my list of sure-fire works for inexperienced readers, which is set in 10 pt. type with narrow leading...

Am the only one who really wants to see this list?

Please? Pretty please with sugar on top?

#215 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:27 PM:

Elliott Mason @193: However, my sister is in her twenties, and actively seeking a life partner, and I desperately do NOT want her to use the same criteria to choose same that Bella finds so useful?

What makes you think that she will?

David Brin has written that medieval-setting fantasy novels are morally bad because they depict feudal monarchies, and therefor must also be endorsing anti-democratic politics. It's obvious to most fantasy readers of my acquaintance that Brin's argument is nonsense, yet somehow it's not obvious to most SF and fantasy fans of my acquaintance that the same argument applied to Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance novels is also nonsense.

#216 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:28 PM:

Re Dave Bell at 206: I was at state schools in Britain 20+ years ago, and with regard to the teaching of English back then I'm unable to work out what the hell the teachers were trying to do. English lessons seemed to consist of either reading through a book as a class (one pupil at a time reading aloud to everyone else, with discussions after each passage—it took us a month to get through Animal Farm), or, when we were younger, doing endless comprehension exercises. (Comprehension exercises... whenever I see an edition of a novel that's aimed at the book-group market and see the list of suggested discussion topics in the back pages, I have a depressing flashback). Mixed in with all this was creative writing with inadequate feedback and very little formal grammar taught except when a teacher had a particular bee in his or her bonnet about some aspect of usage. This was all before the National Curriculum.


There was very little encouragement to go off and read serious literature on one's own for pleasure. As a mechanism for putting you off reading for pleasure it couldn't be bettered. Good job I stumbled on SF in my late teens (it's not much of an exaggeration to say I read only the fiction I absolutely had to before then).

#217 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:28 PM:

Xopher @ 211 & 212:

No, if you read it the way abi did, you also read it wrong, for the same reasons abi did.

See; we can play this game all day long. Roberts thinks TQW is a good book. He says it in that paragraph, and he says it elsewhere in that post. He thinks it's a better book than Zoe's Tale.

And he says that "good readers" are likely to see what he means.

That's it. When you say "Adam Roberts thinks it means a book that improves the reader" you are MANUFACTURING something that does not exist in what Roberts said.

#218 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:34 PM:

What I'm getting out of all this: 'YMMV.'
Which it does. There are books I read in and for school, that I wouldn't want to read again even at grade-point (thanks for that one!), and others that I would, because they improve on re-reading. (I think I'm going to track down the 'Horrid Novels', just for fun.)

I suspect that with reading for school, it's wrapped up a lot with the teacher, the class, and the teaching - my English-lit teacher was very good with Shakespeared, and could get her mind around me reading in 'sight and sound' terms.

#219 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:36 PM:

Tim, while I see your point, I think he's contrasting 'excellent' with 'pleasant'. If he'd said "Give it a try; with a little effort you'll enjoy it too" I wouldn't be saying any of this. Instead (going beyond the part abi quoted now) he says

...the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing.
He spends the rest of his blogpost going on about how we should vote for books (and other works) that are good (by his criteria) so that people outside the genre and its fandom will see that SF is really brilliant. Never, at any point in the blogpost, does he talk about enjoying anything other than the things he disses. He's more concerned with the reputation of the genre outside itself than with anything approaching enjoyment. (He does mention that METAtropolis is his own personal vision of hell; get the feeling Scalzi is his bête noir?)

I think he should endow his own awards, and have them juried for literary merit by people who are not fans in any sense. Maybe he can get Jonathan Asshole Franzen to chair the committee. In other words, he wants the Hugos to be something other than what they are: an award that says "for people who like this sort of thing [i.e. science fiction fans], this is the sort of thing they like." That's all the Hugos mean. (Well, that and a sales bump.) If you're a science fiction fan, a Hugo means you're likely to enjoy the book, if you're like most other fans (at least the ones who join WorldCon, which is another conversation entirely).

And a "wake up sheeple" jerk is jerk enough.

#220 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:47 PM:

Nick: Could you dial back your tone a bit, please? You're coming across as quite a bit more hostile than I think is justified anything anyone has said. If you're offended by what I've said, please say so. Just getting nastier doesn't win any arguments.

My statement that I read it the same way abi did was intended to point out that her reading was not idiosyncratic to her. That's all.

Now: read the paragraph I quote from Adam's essay in my last post, and tell me that's not trying to improve readers. If you think it isn't, I think we fundamentally disagree on the meaning of the word 'improve'.

Yes, he says TQW is a good book. From the rest of his essay, it's clear that enjoyability is not one of the criteria he uses to define that term.

#221 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 02:49 PM:

sb "...justified by anything..."

#222 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:04 PM:

P J Evans: Yup, that's it. Part of the problem is that a lot of us aren't reliably good about talking about your pleasures, what triggers them and how they feel to us. It doesn't help that there are enough people who bolster their own sense of self by trampling on expressions of pleasure to breed a lot of defensive reactions, either.

#223 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:05 PM:

#193
[ And yet, Gatsby is the one all American high school students are forced at grade-point to read, analyze, and write endless reports about, to the point that I -- a confirmed lifelong book-horse* -- was so fed up by it and bored with it that I managed completely to miss any of the gory description surrounding the car crash. ]

High School students are still on the opening act of their lives. Why would or should (most) h.s. students penetrate the gravity, the sadness, the nostalgia, the peculiar historical qualities of what it is to be a member of the United States who is an outsider due to poverty, class or citizenship? Or rather, all of these elements and more, all together in one novel?

It's like the assignments in h.s. for Silas Marner and Ethan Frome -- wotinhell are They thinking? There are countless wonderful novels to assign h.s. students that aren't about the failures and sadnesses of middle-aged people and their miseries.

I have a 12-year-old friend, whose favorite novel while she was 11, was The Kiterunner. That book, though classified an adult novel, spoke so loudly to her due to the age of the primary protagonists, because of the setting so far from what she knew -- just everything about this adult novel -- that she re-read it 5 times!

Why do we torture our children with fiction that they aren't really for yet? I adore Silas Marner, but I didn't read it until I was in my late 20's.

Love, C.

#224 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:06 PM:

There is, I think, a quite widespread use of 'pleasure', to mean not just 'everything pleasant', but something more restricted, the precise nature of which I find it hard to define. There are some things we do 'for pleasure' - i.e. because we find them pleasant, and for no other reason - and there are other things we do for other reasons, e.g. because we find them challenging, or because we learn from them, etc. - which we may indeed enjoy, but aren't just doing them 'for pleasure'; the enjoyment is consequent on something else.

So when Roberts et al. are accused of 'privileging difficulty over pleasure' I take it the point is not that they think we shouldn't enjoy what we read; it's that they think that mere enjoyability by itself isn't a good reason for reading something. There seems to be some truth in this accusation.

(That said, 'difficulty' isn't a good word for the thing they privilege - the aren't so absurd as to think that the fact that something is difficult by itself gives us reason to read it. And I agree that 'pleasant but mediocre' doesn't mean that pleasantness is a demerit - rather, it means pleasantness is its only merit, and not a great one - but that still implies he's privileging something else over pleasure.)

#225 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:07 PM:

Nick, @208. I read the quoted passage the same way that abi and Xopher did.

And, this probably won't count with you since I cannot quote them, I had teachers who placed difficulty or "suitability for analysis" above pleasure in reading. Not just what we had to read for class, but what we should read personally. Perhaps they meant that pleasure was simply a lesser consideration than difficulty, rather than it should not matter at all, but then they were not clear.

#226 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:17 PM:

Nick,

I am fundamentally unconvinced that Adam Roberts's prime criterion for "a good novel" is that the reader will enjoy reading it. The context in which he uses "good" and "excellent" lead me to believe that he is using the terms in a more technical sense, as in "well-constructed".

Throughout the essay, he places value on works that are "challenging", "unnerving", and "outside the comfort zone". When he compares the Hugo shortlist to the Clarke shortlist, he praises even the "failed" candidate for "trying to do something a little new with the form of the novel". "It’s an experiment in voice and tone, and ambitious in its way." This is in contrast to the "pleasant" and "cozy" Hugo candidates he criticizes.

Really, very little of the essay is about enjoyment. That's not to say that he doesn't enjoy reading these challenging, envelope-pushing books—I am sure he does. But that's not why he's recommending them to fandom.

Now, you can wave your MFA in my face and tell me to stfu because I'm just an amateur Reader Of Stuff and you have a Degree, but that's kind of what we're trying to get away from, isn't it? Or was I wasting my bandwidth in comment 12?

#227 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:40 PM:

Xopher @220, I'm not sure improvement is the issue. Enjoyment is the issue. Do you think Roberts doesn't enjoy reading the material he prefers, that he forces himself through it like a beginning exerciser doing his morning routine, even if he didn't bother to actually use the word "enjoy" in that particular blog post?

#228 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:47 PM:

Avram, it doesn't seem at all implausible that as Andrew's #225 suggests, Roberts gets a variety of satisfactions from his fiction reading, none of which may particularly be well described as "pleasure". Or at least that the pleasures he cultivates and welcomes are all removed from the kinds of pleasures a bunch of us are talking about here.

I don't know that it's true in his case, but I know folks with a deep appreciation for good craft in various ways for whom "pleasure" is never really the point, at least.

#229 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 03:53 PM:

Nick: Could you dial back your tone a bit, please?

You first. Nothing I've written here is more hostile than, "his sneering use of the word 'pleasant' to diss Zoe's Tale indicates that he looks down on people who think enjoyability should be a criterion." Your entire increasingly silly misreading of Roberts's post simply tells me that you have exactly the baggage already discussed in comment #50. It's really not worth talking about enjoyment with someone who can look at the Roberts's enthusiastic use of the terms "stimulate" "mind-blowing" "the new" and "wake and shake" and come away with "enjoyability is not one of the criteria" Roberts uses to determine which books he believes to be good.

I don't know whether you really have reading comprehension difficulties (I suspect not, given your sentences), have a penchant for arguing yourself into a corner and trying to bluster your way out, or if you really just have so much comment #50 style baggage that you assume the worst of Roberts's comments and fill in the blanks with even more dire claims he's never made, but in the end it doesn't matter. Your remarks are limned with hostility toward Roberts (you already called him and asshole and then caught yourself -- funny that I never mistakenly typed a-s-s-h-o-l-e in the twenty years I've been online) and show a simple inability for whatever reason to understand Roberts's very simple claim:

The books on the Hugo shortlist are mediocre, which is bad because I think the Hugos are supposed to be about the best books. I like books that wow me and do something new. The Hugo books don't, except for one, but that one didn't really work for me either. I hope Hugo voters put books that wowed me on the shortlist next year because the Hugos have a high public profile. Here are some suggestions.

Is Roberts hostile? Sure, it's a polemic. Is he being a bit imperious? Of course, but no more imperious than, say, you Xopher. Is it a fair reading to say that Roberts doesn't like enjoyable books or doesn't find books enjoyable or that he holds enjoyability distinct from quality? No. Not at all. Not in the slightest. That interpretation tells me much more about the interpreter than it does the text.

Now, I don't care much for Roberts's actual claims: of course popularity contests are going to be popularity contests. I don't care about the Hugos, though I did enjoy receiving my little rocketpin. I think some of the books he champions in his posts and certainly the movies he champions are just as mediocre as the books he decries. But he is absolutely not saying "enjoyment bad/difficulty the only good." This is transparently so because the books Roberts champions are no more difficult than the ones he labels mediocre.

So again, can anyone actually attach a name and a quote to anyone ever who has said "enjoyment bad/difficulty the only good"? And if not, will anyone out there actually stop claiming that there are legions of teachers and critics and snooty bloggers and Japanese instrumentalists and MFA students who do just that?

#230 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:00 PM:

Nick Mamatas: You're not going to like my answer either, because again I can't link to it, but I have gotten exactly that attitude from my mother. She is not SF hostile--she has read and enjoyed some and is open to my suggestions for more that she might enjoy--but she is openly puzzled when I tell her that I read a lot of things simply because I enjoy them. She wants to be learning something*/be exposed to new ideas/have her mind stretched by what she reads. That's fine; I like that, too--but not all the time. But she is puzzled at best, disdainful at worst of reading simply for enjoyment.

*not necessarily facts; something about how people are works for her, too

#231 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:03 PM:

Now, you can wave your MFA in my face and tell me to stfu because I'm just an amateur Reader Of Stuff and you have a Degree, but that's kind of what we're trying to get away from, isn't it? Or was I wasting my bandwidth in comment 12?

It's always very funny when someone manufactures some insult, attributes it to someone else, and then gets sore at being insulted by the person who didn't say or do anything.

Roberts is clearly talking about enjoyment. What does Roberts enjoy? He enjoys books that challenge, stimulate, offer something new, unnerve, and blow his mind. He refers to these books as good, excellent, and brilliant and enthusiastically encourages others to read them.

The defensiveness in this thread is hysterical, and in more ways than one. Because Roberts didn't stand and up and swear, "By the sacred Gernsback and the holy Campbell I do swear that I will only enjoy the books that Fandom Assembled does and only for Fandom-Approved reasons, and I will be sure to pre-emptively denounce The Intellectual and The Literary and the Schoolteacher and the Beret-Wearing Homosexual In the Back of the Cafe who is their Servant if on such an occasion that I like something else for reasons that are my own, so help me ghod in heaven" he's a schoolmarm telling people to take their medicine. And that medicine? The Batman movie, as opposed to the Hellboy movie. Uh, okay.

#232 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:04 PM:

Wow, Nick, I read the first paragraph of yours at 220, the first couple of lines of the second, glanced through the rest, and concluded without reading further that no productive conversation can take place between us, at least on this topic, and probably on most others. I'll look through your posting history to see if I'm wrong on that last point, but our conversation in this thread is over.

Avram, I didn't mean he doesn't enjoy it. I meant that isn't the reason he gives for anyone wanting to read it.

Bruce: Yeah, that. Avram, what Bruce says here.

#233 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:12 PM:

She wants to be learning something*/be exposed to new ideas/have her mind stretched by what she reads.

My mother is the same way. (She calls her mystery reading "idiot reading".) However, that isn't the same as saying that the only good books are difficult books that require work and that enjoyment is bad. So it's not that I dislike your answer because it's not linkable, but because it doesn't actually match my request.

So again, the name and some evidence of anyone, anywhere, you thinks that the best way to determine the quality of a book is how "difficult" it is and how much "work" it involves, who dislikes pleasure.

It's a trick question, of course, because the organism always seeks pleasure. Your mother takes pleasure in learning something new about people (or talking squid, or the French Revolution) and thus that is what she seeks out. She's not torturing herself for the sake of social status or to impress you or for occult reasons.

My friend Brian chews tobacco. Why? He likes it. Why don't I chew tobacco? I don't like it. it doesn't taste to me the way it tastes to him, or at least what he likes in his mouth is not what I like in my mouth. My failure to find pleasure in dip does not make me anti-pleasure and pro-eating gross things that aren't enjoyable like dip is.

#234 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:13 PM:

Nick, we acknowledge your expertise, but you're edging further and further into "jerk."

#235 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:14 PM:

YA author John Green recently made the point in his blog that reviewers often concentrate on the likeability of a book as if the only thing a book can do is be likeable.

I'm in no way a fan of reading-as-broccoli and reading-as-medicine, but since I read Beloved in ninth grade I've been hitting up against books I found challenging, frustrating, infuriating, and wonderful if I refused to let myself be deterred. Rabelais in French, Murakami in Japanese, James Joyce, Greer Gilman, Kelly Link. It's not broccoli; it's pleasure, though it's the pleasure of hiking up a mountain or wrestling with packages in Linux. Often it's something I wouldn't do if I didn't have to, and yet, when I have to I'm glad I did it. Every so often--not as often as I should, perhaps, but the "shoulds" of reading are problems in themselves--I do try to tackle something far from my expertise and enjoyment, just to discover what’s there that I don’t know yet.

I’m 27. I’m not too old to discover that I do, in fact, like eggplant (when it’s broiled in miso).

A few months ago I picked up the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. I pretty much hate it, or at least, it’s way too much of exactly the same thing: the alcoholics, the desperate relationships, the flat-on-purpose prose. I don’t, in fact, think that it improved me, except in allowing me to cross that particular style of short fiction off the list of things I should try just in case they’re actually really neat. Maybe all it’s given me is this experience of confronting my own frustration with the stories. That was kind of… worth it. And just as reading for pleasure should never be dismissed as mere escapism, I wouldn’t want that experience dismissed as broccoli. Or “worthy.”

#236 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:16 PM:


no productive conversation can take place between us, at least on this topic, and probably on most others

Given that our last conversation involved you accusing me of hating someone and then claiming that my hatred was obvious to all—which you had to sorta kinda back down on finally after I objected—I suspected as much all morning. My purpose in debunking your misreading of Roberts's post was to benefit third parties who might be reading this thread.

#237 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:18 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 231... my mother (...) is openly puzzled when I tell her that I read a lot of things simply because I enjoy them

...while I come from a family that is perplexed by the idea of getting any pleasure from any reading.

#238 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:18 PM:

Re: Margaret Atwood, I read a review of her latest by Ursula K LeGuin in the Guardian on Saturday, in which LeGuin regrets that since The Year of the Flood isn't SF, she must review it as a 'realistic novel':

To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction. [..] Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

#239 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:24 PM:

Duck and Cover!


Meanwhile, yeah, I wonder if there is a problem with some books taught at h.s. level needing a more mature mindset. Which doesn't mean you should limit it to a YA classification. Possibly literary education needs more awareness of the psychological changes that take place--they are trying to teach teenagers, and their perception of the human condition changes, a lot.

OK, I remember one of the earlier books I was faced with was The Silver Sword. And the play She Stoops to Conquer. Steve with a Book @217 describes something close to what I remember.

Maybe it's lucky that the BBC broadcast a radio version of the Foundation Trilogy, and I came across Babel-17 in the school library. It may have been the only item of SF there.


#240 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:34 PM:

Nick @234:

It's always very funny when someone manufactures some insult, attributes it to someone else, and then gets sore at being insulted by the person who didn't say or do anything.
Allow me to add to my earlier remark that you are also embarrassing yourself. To be blunt, you have badly misread your context and the people you're dealing with. They may not have your en pointe facility with litcritspeak, but they're not stupid.

They're also good at keeping track of conversations. For instance, Abi and Xopher are both accomplished moderators, in their different styles, and they normally have no problem conducting civil and enlightening conversations, no matter how diverse the views are under discussion.

We don't argue to win. We argue to find out interesting things. I would have assumed you'd prefer the latter.

#241 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:45 PM:

for Emily H. @ #236

"The only people opposed to escape are the jailors"

-Tolkien

#242 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:51 PM:

re 232: Nick, I'm certainly not going to rise up to defend the Hugos, if for no other reason than I haven't read any of the nominees this year. And I am certainly capable of my own acts of snobbery for and against the genre. However, I would join those who are reading Roberts's treatise as being pretty prescriptive. For example, when he lists several things he thought should be looked for on next year's short list, he says of them, "They’re not all of them completely perfect; but they all of them, in various ways, push the envelope, try new stuff, shake you up." He says a lot of other things through the piece about what a great book ought to be like, and they add up to a lit prof's theory of good-book-itude. And if he doesn't say "prefer this over something 'pleasant'", I am tempted to infer that he thinks that one's taste should be developed to prefer the envelope-pushers over the merely 'pleasant'.

#243 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 04:53 PM:

Funny, Nick, I read back those earlier posts (as I said I would) and saw them as a misunderstanding, amicably resolved. My poor reading comprehension again, no doubt. I came back here to say that you've been quite reasonable and amiable in the past, and that I was unwilling to discard you entirely.

I haven't changed my mind.

NelC: Ooo, burrrrrnnnnn. And well-deserved, though Atwood has (I'm told) backed off from her "No! No! My work is not SF! LA LA LA" stance to some extent.

#244 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 05:00 PM:

That is a great quote from LeGuin.

#245 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 05:07 PM:

I really like Atwood's novels (except for Oryx and Crake, which I couldn't get through).

But I'm so sorry she came out with her Year of the Flood at the same time as The Year Before the Flood came out.

But maybe it's ok? She's Science Fiction, and according to amazon, The Year Before the Flood is "21st Century History."

Love, C.

#246 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 05:42 PM:

Atwood:

IM IN UR GENRE, STEALIN UR TROPES

I IZ TOO JENTEEL 4 SKIFFY


Science Fiction:

ROFLMAO

U NOT SIT SO FUNNY IF U STOP HIDIN ROKKIT SHIP

#247 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 05:51 PM:

Nick Mamatas @196
The mere claim that Book A is good and Book B isn't as good is insufficient. As far as why so many people see "Death to pleasure! Read the hard, obscure, incomprehensible stuff because it is hard!" in comment and claims that contain none of those imperatives, I can only suggest a reread of PNH's comment #50.

I don't think it's about "Death to Pleasure" or PNH's @ #50 modern English Studies academia originated as a system of social control either.

I think it has to do with: 1) assumptions about work 2) assumptions about what it means to be "A Responsible Adult."

I helped a friend move a few years ago. When we packed up her library, she handed me Heinline's Stranger in a Strange Land to keep. She reminisced that the first time she read it, she and her husband had dissected the book so they could both read it at the same time -- not being able to afford two of them since they were both in college. The book she handed me was the one she bought for herself after their divorce. I knew she enjoyed science fiction, but her library was full of reference books (she was an architect and taught at the university where I work), histories and "literary works". I asked her why she had stopped actively reading SF -- as opposed to accepting occasional loaners from me.

Her response was a vague description of it being something she did when she was a kid, but life since then hadn't allowrd for it. I started quoting 1 Corinthians 13:11. When I was a child, I talked like a child.., She paraphrased the ending to "...When I became a woman, I put childish ways behind me. Then told me that was exactly right. Reading for simple enjoyment was kin to a child's playing. There was no value in it.

At work, I find myself mentoring college students. Getting the concept of "work should be fun and not just work" is difficult because all their lives they've been told "Being an adult means getting a job, paying your bills, saving for the future, getting married and having kids." Enjoyment is nowhere on that list*. Finding a job that they enjoy is a distant last to finding one that pays well, has good benefits, and won't take them too/will get them as far from home as possible.

Children have fun. Adults have obligations^.

So. Pleasure for pleasure's sake is by its very nature guilty. It produces nothing. It saves nothing. It prepares us for nothing. It only takes time and resources away from productive, responsible actions.

Reading for education or self-improvement or reading because it's work has far more value. For a given definition of value.


------
* Every so often I will quote The Princess Bride at work. More and more, I get blank looks, so I wind up pitching the movie (it being my first exposure to the tale). My latest intern thought it sounded good, funny, etc., but didn't actually do anything about it until the book was assigned for reading and in-class discussion. Once she had read the book she was all about renting the movie.

^ I shocked a teenaged niece** by admitting that I read YA, YA SF and YA fantasy. I was a grown up. I wasn't supposed to do that. She didn't buy my answer that I don't see the need to deprive myself of good fiction just because it was written for kids.

** I'm the "weird, but fun" aunt.

#248 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:05 PM:

@248: I knew there was a reason I've been putting off growing up for so long. Maybe I'll skip it altogether. Mere oblivion and uninterrupted childhood, here I come.

#249 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:22 PM:

Victoria, I've always suspected there was a class agenda in the idea that adults have no right to indulge themselves in unproductive entertainment, or to hope for fufilling work. I know you didn't discuss the "fulfilling work" half of that, but in my experience those two memes travel as a pair.

What's funny is that there's no matching condemnation for indulging yourself in stupid, mindless entertainment when you come home exhausted after work. It's still unproductive; you just don't enjoy it the way you enjoyed those childish things you supposedly put away.

(I keep that set of suspicions filed next to the idea that it's necessary for executives to have lots of vacations and perks because their working lives are so stressful, and the one about how financial traders have to be given huge bonuses because otherwise they'll quit their jobs.)

All our lives contain hard-to-solve problems, and it's appropriate for us to spend a reasonable amount of time and energy doing what we can about them. But why should we get told that it's our duty to spend all the rest of our spare brain power on questions which we already know are intractable? That isn't "being realistic." It's self-inflicted dullness.

#250 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:34 PM:

Andrew M @225, CS Lewis, in his autobiography, drew a distinction between joy and (I think it was) pleasure that might be relevant here. Joy, for Lewis, was tied in with longing, wanting, and striving, in a way that mere pleasure wasn't. We haven't been drawing that distinction in this conversation -- I've seen pleasure and enjoyment used as synonyms -- but maybe we oughta, or something like it.

However, to get back to the original topic of this thread, that distinction, once drawn, is a different distinction from the one between genre and "literary" fiction, or between plot and plotlessness. One person's secondary-world fantasy comfort read is another person's incomprehensible massive series filled with unpronouncable names and bizarre unrealistic goings-on.

It also occurs to me that Sean Sakamoto's original top/bottom distinction is inside-out. It's not that literary authors are tops, and literary readers bottoms. It's that (among SF/F genre fans, and maybe others) "literary" is a label readers attach to books that make them feel like bottoms. This is why Dickens is considered literary today, when he was the JK Rowling of his time. Sean seems to be saying something similar further along in the thread.

Where I part from you, Sean, is where you say that more difficult works are written by authors who don't care as much about the reader, or where you say less difficult works are more compelling. You seem to believe that difficulty in a book arises from some kind of personality flaw in the author -- self-centeredness, or hostility towards the reader. I think that difficult books indicate that an author has faith that the reader will overcome the difficulty. Gene Wolfe's books, for example, are often like puzzles that the reader has to assemble, and you can't design a puzzle without giving some thought to the person who's going to be putting it together.

As far as compelling goes, I find that a certain minimal level of difficulty is necessary to keep me engaged with a work of long prose. Otherwise, I get bored.

Sean's description of easy genre works as more "immersive" also reminds me of some recent arguments in role-playing gaming, which I'd follow up on, but I don't actually remember the details of those arguments all that well, and besides, this thread has already eaten an hour or so of my day.

#251 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:40 PM:

TNH #250: What's funny is that there's no matching condemnation for indulging yourself in stupid, mindless entertainment when you come home exhausted after work.

And that's the thing about "junk" reading. It's not stupid and mindless, it's just mind in a lower gear than what's happening at work.

Some people just have a higher level of mind-in-gear when having fun. They read mysteries and SF and sea stories, instead of vegging out or doing SuperMario.

And as to obligation, well! I've always had an obligation to enjoy myself. There are no guilty pleasures, just guilty hairshirts.

#252 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 06:55 PM:

Victoria: I similarly shocked one of the 6th-grade girls in my son's after-school care when I saw her reading Coraline and commented "Oh, that's a great book!" I got a cautious eye and a "Interesting..." I seem to get that latter comment a lot.

#253 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:03 PM:

Joann @252, don't diss Super Mario; it's pretty challenging. Tougher than a lot of SF I've read.

This whole conversation is land-mined full of dubious assumptions about what is or isn't difficult.

#254 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:06 PM:

And if not, will anyone out there actually stop claiming that there are legions of teachers and critics and snooty bloggers and Japanese instrumentalists and MFA students who do just that?

Nick, I did just that. I did not give names because the individuals aren't around anymore, and they're not famous so it's not like you could contact them anyway. But I clearly talked about my experience with my teachers (high school teachers whose names I remember and one one college teacher whose name I have mercifully forgotten -- he made me read Faulkner's Absolom! Absolom! and I have never forgiven him) and you ignored what I said completely because it did not fit with your preconceived notions.

Now maybe because these people aren't famous they do not count, but let me assure you that high school teachers have the potential for having great impact - for good or ill -- in shaping reading habits. Especially as these teachers were charismatic and engaging individuals that I, personally, would have walked over coals for.

I was lucky in that I found what we were "supposed" to enjoy not too onerous -- I have always loved Eugene O'Neill, e.g. and went on to read all of his works on my own. And Steinbeck. (Faulkner was a different story, and I remember feeling guilty that I detested As I Lay Dying -- and unable to admit for years that I found Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth boring beyond belief.)

#255 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:08 PM:

Nick: Have you discussed with Roberts what he means in that passage? Or can you point to anywhere that he discusses what he meant? Or point to other statements of his that would support your reading? Because without further evidence it's just dueling interpretations: yours vs abi's/Xopher's/mine.

For the record, I agree that 'pleasant' as used there seems to indicate mild praise and not 'pleasure' in the sense that we're discussing it. But that's a red herring. The rest of the passage does indicate that Roberts prefers challenging works and believes that others should, too.

#256 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:09 PM:

Nick,

I almost went into internet warrior mode, scouring google books for citations, searching for quotes...heart pounding, fingers tapping...and I realized, I was going what I call internet crazy.

That's what I like about Making Light. I don't come to this blog to do battle. When you said you'd seen this claim that some people like difficult writing all over the internet, and in every place nobody can provide a source, I realized...you came to this discussion loaded for bear.

That's fine. I understand your situation. People are making claims, and you want us to prove those claims. The thing is, I didn't realize I'd waded into a cybewar.

I was baffled at first by the "maybe I went to the wrong schools, got the wrong MFA, etc." remark, but now I get it. You have a horse in this race. This matters to you. I respect your passion over this issue. I do suggest that you try to be nice to us here, we are not your opponents in an internet war. I will engage with you, but if you're nicer about your approach it will make an open discussion easier. I was put off by your attitude and it didn't make me want to discuss this idea.

My first issue was that in some corners, the author challenges the reader, and in others the reader is more of a primary concern. This was my top/bottom thing. I think we had fun with it, it might contain some elements of truth, who knows?

As for the other...a problem with pleasure in reading, vs. work being meritorious solely for its difficulty. Let me first say this: I'm not calling anyone a jerk, even if they like hard work only because it is hard.

Secondly, I'm not in this to win, or lose. I enjoy sharing ideas based on my experience. I can't always defend them like a thesis. If capitulation is what you're looking for, I happily produce my lack of documentation as a fatal flaw in my argument.

If you want to discuss the idea, I would be delighted to, because there's a lot to it, I think. The question, to me, is the work vs. pleasure and work as pleasure and no work as pleasure relationship.

I was once one of these people who liked difficult works only because they were difficult. I play the shakuhachi. It is an extremely difficult instrument to learn. I will never, ever be any good at it. I chose this instrument to play precisely because it is so difficult. I enjoy surrendering to the challenge, to practice something for the sole reason of the practice with no expectation of results. I like the pure, blunt, brutal difficulty of it.

For reading, not so much. But there was a time when I did like difficult books just because they were difficult. If you need evidence that this thinking exists...take me! I liked John Zorn because he was difficult. I didn' t know much, I was a poseur.

Now, my fellow travelers who liked those difficult things may very well have liked them based on other merits. I certainly hope so, and I am not criticizing them based on their tastes. But me, and some of my friends, we were faking it. We thought it was good for us because it was hard to access. There was also an "emperor has no clothes" thing going on as well. None of us wanted to stand up and admit we didn't understand what we were reading.

This happens all the time. Why do we call a chocolate brownie decadent but not carrot juice? There is something to this idea that pleasure can mean escapism and for some people, that is wrong. Something that demands constant attention, like the shakuhachi, or a difficult work of fiction, has a focusing effect on the mind. For some people, the very work is the reward. It's exercise.

When people lift weights, the very difficulty of the weight lifting is the entire point and purpose of the exercise. Why can't the same happen for some people regarding literature? Why do some people like puzzles like sudoku? I hate puzzles like sudoku, precisely because they are hard, and at the end, I just have numbers in a box. Yet I practice a bamboo flute that my teacher assures me I'll never do well, unless I practice for 25 more years, and I find it incredibly fulfilling.

Stoicism, buddist non-attachment, puritanism, the argument against pleasure in many forms exists everywhere. The problem comes when people assign a value judgement on another's experience. Or attach shame to an activity that does no harm.

#257 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:17 PM:

Xopher @ 220: Never, at any point in the blogpost, does he talk about enjoying anything other than the things he disses.

To me, it's so self-evident that "challenging," "stimulating," "mind-blowing," and even "unnerving," "wake and shake," and "outside your comfort zone" are describing forms of enjoyment that I'm at a loss for ways to explain it.

It's true that he privileges some forms of enjoyment over others, and that he thinks you're a better person if you enjoy literature his way, which is pretty lame. There's a nugget of truth there; obviously, if two things are equally pleasurable, you should choose the one that improves you over the one that doesn't. What he's missing is that being challenged all the time palls just like anything else, and that it's perfectly possible for people to get their dose of challenge and mind-blownitude from other sources than their reading.

jerk

I forgot about your reasonable objection to using a synonym for something as nice as a "penis" as a derogative. Sorry about that. I can't resist pointing out, though, that the same argument applies to masturbation (and the sphincter, for that matter).

#258 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:17 PM:

One thing about guilty pleasures-- I walked out of Pirates of the Caribbean feeling delighted, and also somewhat--not guilty, but certainly discomfited. Because here was a movie that seemed almost to be made just for me. It was all, "Oh, you like pretty men and period costumes and pirates and having adventures and saying witty things? Okay, here you go." And that has more in common with pandering, or pornography, than with art. Not that there's anything wrong with pornography.

The beauty of love, and of art, is in what happens when there's friction between one person and another, when you have to stretch yourself a bit to see things form the other point of view, or when they show you something you would never have seen by yourself. I'm always a little suspicious of the books I enjoy that seem, on closer reflection, to just be echoing my own biases.

#259 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 07:33 PM:

Teresa @ 247: Oh, HOWL. Oh, Gasp. Oh, OOK OOK SLOBBER DROOL!

Excuse me. Must recover.

*wipes eyes, clears throat*

Now then...

I have a question for those familiar with That Stuff Some People Call Contemporary Literature (henceforth, TSSPCCL. Or not).

My question concerns experiments in form and voice. Personally, I love playing games with form and voice (within, of course, my limits). But to me, doing something unexpected with form or voice (or structure, or...) must always serve the story, not be an end in itself.

The impression I have (from comments about it) is that in much of TSSPCCL (god, that's ugly) the experiments become the end in themselves. Is that true? If so, that would seem to me to be a weakness in those works.

#260 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:01 PM:

When people lift weights, the very difficulty of the weight lifting is the entire point and purpose of the exercise.

I always thought the main point was to get chicks and/or dudes. Have I been doing it wrong?

#261 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:07 PM:

Tim, I think there's a fundamental disagreement of viewpoint between us on this. I think it's obvious that being "outside your comfort zone" is uncomfortable—by definition. And being uncomfortable means you're not enjoying it. Otherwise people would wear hairshirts and sleep on cold concrete floors for enjoyment.

I'm not denying that there's value in being drawn outside your comfort zone, mind you. I'm just saying a) it doesn't have to be the only purpose for choosing your entertainment (I'm at a loss for another word that doesn't sound as prejudiced toward my point of view as that one), and b) if you're uncomfortable, that's not enjoyment, and if you're enjoying something you're not uncomfortable (at a basic level, I mean; obviously some people enjoy—in some sense—being tied up and whipped, and that's not exactly comfortable).

And similarly with the other terms, with some exceptions. 'Stimulating', for example, while I don't think it's necessarily an enjoyment word, doesn't directly contradict the idea of enjoyment.

That's why I think we have a fundamental difference here. I absolutely don't get the same thing out of the paragraph you're quoting as you do, and only with effort can I see how you read it that way. Thank you for not just saying I'm wrong, wrong, wrong because my POV does not match yours. It's appreciated.

And my substitution of 'jerk' for 'dick' was not intended as criticism in any way, or objection to using the term. I actually just plain misremembered what you said and didn't go back to check. Sorry. But btw I don't think of 'jerk' as being a reference to masturbation, and I think if it were, it wouldn't appear quite so freely in 40s movies. In fact the picture in my head is of someone suddenly yanking on a leash around someone else's neck, pulling the second person off balance. The person holding the leash is the jerk, see?

As for 'asshole'—well, that one's pretty ingrained. A character of mine named Addison Wesley Worthington (a stuck-up style queen of the most odious kind) was given the old line about "how come you homosexuals have to take a perfectly good word like 'gay' and ruin it so my grandmother can't say it any more?" He responded something like this (quoting from memory):

You know, I do sympathize, I do. I feel exactly the same way about the word 'asshole', which is a perfectly good word for a perfectly nice, perfectly fun part of the anatomy, which has been completely ruined by its by-now-indelible association with people like you.
One may suppose a dismissive gesture of a manicured hand, a turn on the heel, and a nose-held-high exit.

#262 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:09 PM:

The impression I have (from comments about it) is that in much of TSSPCCL (god, that's ugly) the experiments become the end in themselves. Is that true?

The vast majority of books that fit your acronym aren't experimental at all.

I'm not aware of any well-regarded experimental fiction that I would describe that way. But I also don't think "serve the story" and "end in itself" are the only two options (or, if you like, I'll include, for example, "expose, and explore alternatives to, a hidden assumption of supposedly-transparent storytelling" under "end in itself," but then disagree that it's necessarily a weakness).

But I don't consider myself an expert on contemporary literature by any means.

#263 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:10 PM:

Oh, and I agree with Evan. I don't enjoy lifting weights at all. I lift them because it makes me stronger (that is, it improves me). If I could get the same effect by folding laundry for hours on end (a task I loathe), I would prefer to do so.

The goal is not enjoyment of the process. The process is the unpleasant necessity to get the real goal of future enjoyment in another context.

#264 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:13 PM:

Pat Greene @255: Long after I'd left school, I read Absolom! Absolom! purely for the fun of it, and enjoyed it a great deal. I beg you, think it possible that others might do so as well.

The well-thought-of book which I personally loathe is Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Finishing it left me depressed and literally nauseated. I've known other people who didn't like it, but I've never heard of it having that repulsive an effect on anyone else

Steve @260: The trouble with experiments in form and voice for their own sake, unconnected with a story, is that they're missing all those technical things story does, like giving location and pace to the work, giving you some idea of who's talking, et cetera.

What I know is that James Joyce and Laurence Sterne tied their experiments to stories, and I can follow and make sense of them even when they're outre. I can't follow Gertrude Stein's non-narrative experiments nearly as readily, even though hers are generally less ambitious.

#265 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:14 PM:

I've always had the impression (based on zero evidence) that the insult "jerk" was from soda-jerk, implying someone generally unfit to get a "real job."

#266 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:21 PM:

Xopher @ 262: I think it's obvious that being "outside your comfort zone" is uncomfortable—by definition.

I don't quite agree with this. I think it's a buzzterm meaning something more like "where your habits fail to be optimal."

And being uncomfortable means you're not enjoying it. Otherwise people would wear hairshirts and sleep on cold concrete floors for enjoyment.

Substitute: ride roller coasters, jump out of airplanes, climb mountains, run marathons, drink too much, go snow camping, go to Burning Man (must... stop... posting...), etc., etc. People subject themselves to discomfort for pleasure all the time.

I mean; obviously some people enjoy—in some sense—being tied up and whipped, and that's not exactly comfortable).

"In some sense" is doing way too much work here. They enjoy it, is all.

But btw I don't think of 'jerk' as being a reference to masturbation

Somewhere I got the impression that it's short for "jerkoff." Bogus folk etymology, perhaps.

You know, I do sympathize, I do. I feel exactly the same way about the word 'asshole', which is a perfectly good word for a perfectly nice, perfectly fun part of the anatomy, which has been completely ruined by its by-now-indelible association with people like you.

Love it.

#267 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Constance, #224: It's like the assignments in h.s. for Silas Marner and Ethan Frome -- wotinhell are They thinking?

They're thinking "George Eliot's good, right? What did George Eliot do that's shorter than Middlemarch?"

Andrew M., #225: And I agree that 'pleasant but mediocre' doesn't mean that pleasantness is a demerit - rather, it means pleasantness is its only merit, and not a great one - but that still implies he's privileging something else over pleasure.

I'm not so sure. I think it's more that "pleasant" is not as good as "great," or "wonderful," that a "great" book is capable of delivering more pleasure than a "pleasant" one, and that a book that isn't really trying to do whatever the hell it's doing is unlikely to give that extra hit of pleasure.

(I'm pretty much in sympathy with Roberts on the Hugos. I'm withholding judgement on The Graveyard Book and Anathem but, while Doctorow and Stross have written award-worthy books, they weren't these books. Zoe's Tale is the worst book I have read in the past year--yes, I do mean in the "How much pleasure did this give me?" sense--and even managed to appall me when it answered the question "Does my heroine have the right to ask these aliens to sacrifice themselves for her benefit?" with "Like, whatever." Twice, if you count the natives whose homeworld Zoe's parents have invaded, who simply vanish away in the face of her awesomeness.

Don't get me started on the comics shortlist, although I'll grant you Girl Genius is good.)

Nick Mamatas, #230: So again, can anyone actually attach a name and a quote to anyone ever who has said "enjoyment bad/difficulty the only good"?

Maybe the problem is that many people have had to take this attitude from people who loomed large in their own lives--teachers, professors, parents, mentors--but who aren't important enough, in the grand scheme of things, to come with documentable quotes.

I had a drawing instructor in college tell me comics weren't art. Now, it's true that the comics I draw hover around the "pleasant but mediocre" end of the scale, and at the time I was even worse; but less accomplished art is still art and being told otherwise bothered me more than it should have.

It's the kind of pain in the neck that's hard to document. On the plus side, it may say something about this attitude that hardly anyone of any significance holds it.

#268 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:33 PM:

Xopher @262: And being uncomfortable means you're not enjoying it.

I don't think this is true.

#269 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 08:52 PM:

I had to deal with Silas Marner - I didn't get The Great Gatsby or Ethan Frome (or, for that matter, Hamlet) in HS. (I could have read Ethan Frome, if I had wanted, because my parents had a copy. I don't remember seeing any F Scott Fitzgerald on the shelves, although there might have been some.) I remember tackling Madame Bovary and War and Peace, and getting Finnegan's Wake from the library, too.

#270 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:04 PM:

They're thinking "George Eliot's good, right? What did George Eliot do that's shorter than Middlemarch?"

I like Silas Marner, and was not particularly happy with either Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss. I think that they were thinking: "This is an enjoyable, well-told story, accessible, with a simple plot, a moral point, and not too long". In short, the sort of book that a lot of people genuinely like.

I think that one of the ways of approaching some of this is that fen typically give a book extra points for extraliterary challenge -- literature of ideas, if you will -- of the sort which is usally referred to as senawunda. A lot of people also (or in some cases, instead) get equally pleased by intraliterary challenge --experiments in form and the like. The obvious extreme instance of this is Finnegan's Wake.

There have always been counterpoints (such as Trollope -- the author of what Henry James called "loose baggy monsters") who manage to become literary if they last long enough. And up until about 1900 nothing written in English really measured up, offficially -- it's only then that they were admitted to academe, under the shadow of their elder classical siblings.

One of my teachers (Hugh Kenner) suggested (orally; I don't know if he ever published this point) that our model of the Canon was largely shaped by what was public domain when the first modern copyright acts came into play -- basically, what was available in Everyman's Library at the time. What we call "literary" is pretty much an accident of a whole lot of factors.

I have reasonably catholic litarary tastes, and read a lot of light SF as well as having a couple of degrees in English and a taste for "classics". From where I sit much of the problem with many modern "literary" fiction is not that it's literary but the fact that it's inferior to many other exemplars. (I don't usually find people dissing Anthony Powell when they take aim at modern lit. They do aim at Joyce, but it's easy to see why people find Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake hard going; and he's hardly "contemporary" any more.) And what is the problem with much light reading is that although it repeats familiar tropes, sometimes with technical skill, it frequently brings nothing new to the party.

It's entirely possible that what people will be pointing at a century from now as late Hegemonic American Classics will include, say, Stephenson, Le Guin, and maybe Stephen King. We lack a lot of perspective.

#271 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:05 PM:

Xopher: On the other hand, sometimes good and bad features are rolled together inextricably. Sweating isn't fun, but getting things done that make one sweaty may well be, for instance. I think that reading a difficult book can be like climbing a steep slope to see a view you'd never have if you stayed down below, or for that matter learning how to live with someone you love who brings to the relationship a set of habits and needs that isn't 100% compatible with how you've lived on your own. In these kinds of experiences, payoffs and costs are all rolled together in a complex cycle.

#272 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:12 PM:

Sean @257: Why do we call a chocolate brownie decadent but not carrot juice?

Because carrot juice has a higher ratio of dietary nutrients to calories? There may well be people who subjectively enjoy carrot juice as much as (or even more than) they enjoy chocolate brownies, but unfortunately for this specific metaphor, nutritional value is far more objectively measureable than "reading value" is-- depending on who you ask, "reading value" may mean "amenable to multiple levels of analysis", "reinforcing proper moral values", "offering insight into the human condition", "introducing new intellectual concepts" or what-all, as already rehashed in this thread.

But I wonder if the "outside the comfort menu" might be a useful edible analogy-- some people prefer to eat the same thing over and over again (as per "An Engineer's Guide to Cats"); others enjoy the experience of trying new foods, where the novelty itself is part of the enjoyment. I guess the question is whether "stepping outside the comfort zone" means "stepping outside the known comfort zone to possibly expand its boundaries", or "knowing that you've stepped beyond possible boundary expansion to the point of actual discomfort."

#273 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:21 PM:

Avram, #216: It's obvious to most fantasy readers of my acquaintance that Brin's argument is nonsense, yet somehow it's not obvious to most SF and fantasy fans of my acquaintance that the same argument applied to Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance novels is also nonsense.

That would doubtless be as odd as you think, were it not that the troublesome memes in Twilight are heavily reinforced by a lot of contemporary culture, from fairy tales to romances to stories you hear on the evening news. As a culture, we spend significant amounts of time grooming young women to view skanky and emotionally-abusive behavior as romantic and admirable. In a world where Sting can be appalled by the number of people who consider "Every Breath You Take" to be a love song, worrying about the effects of too much Twilight worship on a young woman's love life isn't out of band. There are plenty of real live men who behave very much like Edward.

Dave, #240: I wonder if there is a problem with some books taught at h.s. level needing a more mature mindset.

Dingdingding! This is something I've been saying for the last 15 years or so. It takes a certain amount of life experience to really get anything out of a lot of canon lit-fic, and teenagers by and large simply have not yet had the time to acquire that experience. I suspect that if we spent less time teaching young people to hate reading, many more of them would eventually come to some of those books as adults, and find out for themselves why they are considered so outstanding.

Sean, #257: Tangentially, you have reminded me that I have had the "this is really hard, but that's part of what makes it good" response to something; it just wasn't a book. It was when my college choir did the Geographical Fugue. Most of the other people in the choir hated it, but I fell instantly and completely in love with it. It challenged me in ways that no other choral piece ever had; it pushed the envelope of my personal experience. And yet somehow, this didn't stop me from continuing to derive great enjoyment and fulfillment from singing simpler pieces.

Side thought: It's not so much that Nick and I are talking past each other, it's that he appears to be talking past everyone else in the thread as well, and doing so in ways that remind me of some very unpleasant... characters... from past online interactions.

#274 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:27 PM:

Re Xopher @262 and subsequent discussion on comfort zone. I concur with those who disagree with Xopher's position that if you're uncomfortable, that's not enjoyment, and if you're enjoying something you're not uncomfortable

Physical challenges that others have mentioned such as camping, long runs or bike rides, etc., are enjoyable in some ways and not in others. Perhaps it's that we have "comfort zones" of different sizes and shapes and permeability. One person's nice comfy niche is another's boring rut.

#275 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:35 PM:

Thanks, Lee. I am looking forward to viewing that link when I get home from work today.

I have had plenty of experiences whose difficulty was their most meritorious aspect, now that I think of it. I have also found that I had to let go and allow myself to have fun.

I knew a shrink who saw a big part of her job as teaching her clients to re-examine fun and start having it again. I think Americans have a hard time with the concept of fun sometimes. It is seen as childish, or unproductive. I have had that line from the bible 'when I became a man I put away childish things' quoted to me as a reason why I shouldn't play video games any more.

Actually, I did have to quit video games because they were killing my life. That's part of all this for me too. We now have an addiction for everything. When is something bad just because it is fun, or bad because it is too much fun and causes compulsion or addictive behavior?

And...how does this apply to books? Or doesn't it? I find this stuff very interesting.

#276 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:37 PM:

Lee @274, both monarchism (or at least anti-democratic strong-leaderism) and a debased form of feudalism are also heavily supported by our culture, in addition to superstition and magical thinking (another couple of things Brin fears are encouraged by fantasy). Have you noticed how much attention American society gives to the Chief Executive, and how much disdain it gives Congress?

#277 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 09:54 PM:

Sean: For what it's worth, as one more data point, my counselor says that one of her biggest thing is encouraging clients to take seriously the idea that they're dealing with real matters of real consequence and to give ourselves time for rest and reflection, and for things that we truly enjoy to build us up again.

#278 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:27 PM:

pat greene @255 and others have, I think, touched on why it's so difficult to dismiss the bullying of critics who are not here and can't hurt us; their opinions echo those of people whose instructions we value and who we were reluctant to disappoint.

For me, it was a high school English teacher who was otherwise quite wonderful as a mentor in nurturing enthusiasm for literature, but who was also convinced that science fiction was all rayguns and BEMs and therefore without real value. I knew better even at the time, but it's hard to shake that disapproval, and hard not to react to it when it comes up in another context. (Actually, come to think of it, I grew up surrounded by English teachers, including having one as a parent, and that there was a clear bright line between SFF and "good books" was a background assumption. If I've managed to quit being embarassed about reading something with a dragon or a spaceship on the cover, it's only because I've been disengaged from that environment for a long time now.)

When those are the opinions of people you trust, or want to trust, it's very hard to shake that iota of doubt that maybe they're fundamentally true, even when they're being spouted by complete jerks. And it takes a very long time to be able to trust your own view of the world. I'm sure my pursuit of writing fiction was set back considerably by the several well-meaning educators who told me I might be pretty good if only I could quit writing stuff with monsters in it; it took years to stop feeling like when I sat down to work on a genre story that I was wasting time I ought to be devoting to creating something "good." (And, of course, the truth was that the stories I wrote when I was in school were pretty much crap, but the monsters weren't half bad.)

#279 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2009, 11:30 PM:

Terms the definitions of which I apparently don't share with at least some of the commenters in this thread: 'comfort zone', 'comfortable', 'uncomfortable', 'enjoy', and probably several others.

For now, I'm finding this gap impossible to leap. Perhaps that's because I'm pretty tired right now. But I think most of the examples are about things you enjoy despite discomfort, not because of it. But I'm probably wrong even about that. Maybe some people really enjoy sleeping in tents and cooking over campfires for their own sake, rather than because of what else it does for them or to enjoy being in wilder places.

Not me, though. Last time I slept in a tent it proved life-threatening (asthmatic pneumonia is one of those No Fun things that doesn't "improve" you either, except by teaching you Not To Sleep In Tents), and generally I find the discomfort of camping is not sufficiently mitigated by the enjoyment of being in a wild place.

See, though, when my friends are going to go camping, I say "Have fun," and wish them a good time. Years ago someone was telling me I should go camping though (not a friend), and really giving me the whole spiel about how if I don't like camping I must be lazy (I am not), wimpy (I am not), or weak (well, my lungs are). That's not for not GOING camping, that's for not LIKING it. He basically implied that I was Not A Real Man for not liking it.

Here's my point (thank you for your patience): maybe I don't fully grasp what people are capable of enjoying (rock climbers. I totally don't get rock climbers), or even everything people mean when they say they enjoy something. But if you tell me I'm wrong or stupid or...any of that stuff if I don't enjoy what you enjoy, you're no better than the guy who said I was Not a Real Man because I don't like camping.

Now, my main point of disagreement with Nick was different. I was saying that Adam wassiz wasn't saying he enjoyed the books he was recommending. I may have been wrong about that. But you know what? I'm pretty much the target audience for that piece, unless he was just apostrophizing the eligible Hugo voters to amuse his fellow literati, which I still consider possible. If he was saying that the books he's recommending are enjoyable (and Tim says it seems to him that he was, and Tim is a sensible person), he said it really, really badly, because he failed to make that come across to me, to abi, and I daresay to many others.

Given that it was a polemic, that's HIS failure, to get his point across; HIS failure, that he offended me (and, I conjecture, many others) enough that his point didn't really sink in. I was too annoyed to listen. He came across as sneering at books I really liked. Then I get told, here, that characterizing his polemic as "sneering" is hostile (never mind the third party/person in the conversation distinction).

I bet Adam would dismiss me, as Nick dismissed me and abi, as having "misread" him. Well, tough shit Adam; if you want to talk to people in our world (and you said you did), you need to play by our rules. And our rules say that the responsibility for transmission of information lies with the sender. You fucked up.

#280 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:04 AM:

Xopher, here's an example of something I've done that was pleasurable because it was outside my comfort zone:

Xtreme Skyflyer: Experience the breathtaking thrill of hang gliding and skydiving. You'll be hoisted 153 feet above ground, and dive at speeds up to 60 miles per hour while free-falling 17 stories toward the Earth skimming just six feet above the ground.

The pleasure comes from your reptile brain screaming OH MY GOD I'M GOING TO DIE while your superego (mostly) knows better. Obviously, lots of people wouldn't enjoy it, and anyone who thinks that's any kind of failure is being very silly. But for me, it was awesome, and not improving in any way I can figure.

I don't think there's a direct literary equivalent, but if you hear me saying "whoa, that was messed up" in a reverent tone after reading a book, I'm praising it for squicking me in a good way.

And yes, I enjoy camping for its own sake (though not as much as some). That guy, though? A dick.

#281 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:05 AM:

Xopher: First off, agreed about the problem with Roberts' presentation.

Now, about discomfort. I think it's not that many of us actually get off on being uncomfortable. But the fact of different experience can be a pleasure of its own, with the discomfort subsumed into that. I don't like lumpy ground, but I really miss being able to sleep out of doors, with so much of the world around me, and like that. Discomfort looms large or small in the experience as a whole for a lot of reasons.

#282 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:23 AM:

Tim: Yeah, I pretty much take the tag 'Xtreme' as meaning "Christopher, this is not for you. Don't even watch other people doing this." I guess I think 'Xtreme (thing)' means "(thing) PLUS YOU MIGHT DIE!!!!!!" I believe that you like that, because I'm willing to take your word, but...non grokeo.

Bruce: I think I do get that part. It's like eating spicy food for me; I don't actually enjoy the burn itself, but it's part of a whole flavor experience that's impossible to have without the burn. There's maybe a little macho pride ("Look what hot food I can eat!") mixed in there, but I even like spicy things when I'm alone.

Both (and others): I have learned things in this thread today (in just the past few minutes, in fact). Thank you for that.

#283 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:27 AM:

I'm a little surprised that no one has yet mentioned the (ISTM) obvious genre connection with discomfort and pleasure: horror.

Being frightened and tense is not comfortable, and yet fiction (in an array of media) designed to produce those effects remains among the most popular entertainment around. As a fan of (some) horror, I can attest that there is also something pleasurable about those sensations, cultivated under the right set of circumstances. But damned if I can say exactly what, or why (though Tim's admiring "that was messed up" hints at some part of it).

It's not a pleasure everyone shares, and I have no judgment whatsoever to pass on those who don't. But it's very real, and widespread enough that even mediocre attempts to service it have been known to achieve success in finding their audience. (And, as Thomas Ligotti suggests in "The Consolations of Horror," at least some of the value of horror is connecting - in spirit if in nothing else - with other human beings who share your kink.)

#284 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:28 AM:

Mutual pleasure, Xopher - your question goaded me into trying to articulate something I've fumbled with in the past. (A productive discomfort!)

#285 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:36 AM:

Teresa, I understand that it is possible for people to enjoy Absolom! Absolom. After all, I really liked Nabokov's Pale Fire, which many people who were in my class *loathed.*

And I am being unfair to the book. If I am honest with myself, a lot of my loathing comes from personal circumstances. My family was from the South (my sister and brother still live in Mississippi), and I had come to loathe Faulkner probably on principle. (I had moved to Florida at age 8, so viewed myself as Not a Southerner, which I felt was a good thing, at least when I was 20 and going to school in Massachusetts.) Although it took place in the 19th century and my family was nothing like the Sutpens or Compsons, there was something about the book that resonated, and not in a good way.

I sat on the bus from MIT (where I was taking the lit course for which I was reading it -- yes, MIT, sort of a long story there) to Wellesley ripping the paperback copy of the book into small strips while repeating over and over "I don't hate the South! I don't hate it!" I don't hate it!* (It turned out later I had pneumonia, and was running a fever.)

So it's not completely the book's fault. Although, I have read three novels and two short stories by William Faulkner, (As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury being the other two novels) and hated the novels and liked the short fiction.

I should probably give it another try -- it's been over a quarter of a century. I'm a lot older and if not wiser at least not so touchy about things.

All of which is a roundabout way of bringing in another factor of why books are enjoyable to me and how or why I read what I do: how they resonate with life experiences.

It's a tricky thing; I want whatever I read to touch on humanity -- even stories of rockets and time travel. (I tend much more to be a mystery reader than a SF/F reader.) But things that are too close to painful experiences can simply be too hard to read.

I realize this is a lot more mundane than the litcrit discussion above: I majored in history. And I did not get nearly enough sleep last night, so am rather punchy.

*End of the book -- last line spoken by a major character who is the child of a typically Faulknerian Southern family

#286 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:41 AM:

I thought Pale Fire was absolutely hilarious. I couldn't stop laughing.

#287 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:01 AM:

Xopher:
And along with the people who tell you you have to like what they like, are the people who tell you you just haven't had the *proper* example of... medieval Gregorian chant, or experimental free-verse, or single-malt Scotch* and if you had you would enjoy it.

Dan:
I don't read horror. But horror in film is an interesting case for me, because there is outside the comfort zone, scary and enjoyable (for me) -- Psycho, The Blair Witch Project. Then there is outside the comfort zone, gory, and (to me) nauseating**: Friday the 13th and sequels, the Saw franchise.

*I hate Scotch. Single malt or blend.
**I know a lot of people like these movies.

#288 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:09 AM:

Xopher @287: Me, too.
It was a pleasant follow up to Lolita, which I found a fascinating read but made me feel vaguely queasy.

#289 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:17 AM:

pat 288: Or that you just haven't met the right girl (or boy) yet.

You don't like Gregorian chant? Oh, man. :-)

#290 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:26 AM:

pat: Just so. Me, I don't enjoy slasher movies or the stuff that usually gets called "torture porn," and yet I like an awful lot of things that share some of the same elements: the films Se7en and Event Horizon and Hellraiser, and particularly creepy TV show eps like Buffy's "Hush" or Torchwood's "Countrycide." And I'm not sure I could quite explain what exactly I think the difference is, or whether I think it's of degree or kind. Certainly all those things have some discomforting or at least unsettling effect on me, and some I find pleasurable and some I don't, and there's no clear bright line separating one from the other.

#291 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:31 AM:

if you want to talk to people in our world (and you said you did), you need to play by our rules. And our rules say that the responsibility for transmission of information lies with the sender. You fucked up.

Now THAT is what I call a top.

#292 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:47 AM:

I was lucky with reading in school--I didn't like everything, but I didn't get anything I loathed or couldn't handle, and a reading assignment was always preferable to any other kind regardless. I went through a phase where I believed (and stated in class) that "poetry is bullshit", but that wasn't because some teacher messed me up, it was because I was fifteen and had my head even further up my butt than it is now.

But I do understand, at a visceral level, how a teacher can mess you up. In seventh grade (when, for complicated reasons, I was only ten), a teacher asked me if I had really written the story I'd turned in. I had, and she accepted my response, but for some reason I was traumatized out of all proportion to the incident. For several semesters I just stopped doing writing assignments. Eventually I did resort to plagiarism; fortunately, even though I didn't get caught, it quickly became even more mortifying than writing, and I was able to write again. But throughout my school career I was never able to make myself start writing a paper, even a term paper, before the night before it was due, and to this day I can't write a thank-you note or a post to Making Light without a bit of that experience creeping back. This may or may not be why my writing tends to be overly stiff and formal.

I expect she meant well; the story was a narration of the last thoughts of a man falling into a blast furnace (how's that for depressing litfic!), and she may have been worried about my mental health.

More on-topic: the admiring "messed up" is usually a response to encountering a type of thinking so new to me that it seems almost alien. J.G. Ballard's Crash is a rare famous example (usually if it's famous, I'm prepared for it and the response is less intense). Horror alone doesn't trigger it, but some horror authors that did are Robert Aickman, William Hope Hodgson, and Philip Jose Farmer (in Image of the Beast and A Feast Unknown). The ultimate example is Felix Gotschalk's Growing Up In Tier 3000, which, whatever else you can say about it, is certainly as messed up as anyone could wish.

I love both Absalom, Absalom! and Pale Fire (which I agree is hilarious).

#293 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:58 AM:

pat greene @ 288: And along with the people who tell you you have to like what they like, are the people who tell you you just haven't had the *proper* example of... medieval Gregorian chant, or experimental free-verse, or single-malt Scotch* and if you had you would enjoy it.

I try really hard not to be like that because I know it's annoying as hell, but it's worked for me enough times (beer, fish, rock & roll) that I tend to believe in it. So: Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame.

(just kidding, and it's not exactly chant anyway)

#294 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:21 AM:

Tim @ 294: I agree. If you haven't tried Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, you don't know if you like single malt scotch.

#295 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:37 AM:

Pat Greene@288: Of course, some of those people are right -- I thought I didn't like Scotch, until someone at ConJosé let me taste the stuff that they were drinking.

@286 and passim earlier: can we start spelling "Absalom" correctly?

#296 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:43 AM:

Tim, I suppose I should listen to the chant you mention. I have heard some chant, and I just wasn't engaged. I didn't hate it, though, not like Scotch.

skzb -- I'm glad I was done with my drink or you would have owed me a new keyboard.

Xopher -- the right boy or girl -- or several. Depending upon the crowd you run with.

I think it boils down to "evangelists in most fields tend to be annoying as hell."

#297 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:02 AM:

David Goldfarb, mea culpa. I'm the person who originally misspelled Absalom.

As for Scotch... My husband loves Scotch. We have or have had in our house: Glenfidditch, Glenlivet, another one which starts with Glen (from a bottler in Glasgow - it's in another room and I'm too lazy to go look it up), Oban, and a couple others. And at same bottler I tried a number of different ones. My favorite? The rum. (We also have Appleton Rum, Havana Club Rum, Bacardi...) (We could probably open a bar if we wanted to -- and we don't really drink very much. People give my husband Scotch for his birthday.)

#298 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:26 AM:

skzb: I agree. If you haven't tried Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, you don't know if you like single malt scotch.

Does that also go for those of us who haven't tried the Machaut, but have already decided we like single malt scotch? If I try it, and discover I do not like it, will I have an epiphany along the lines of "I guess when I thought I loved Glenmorangie and Lagavulin I was just totally mistaken; I don't like single malt scotch after all"?

[tongue partly in cheek and partly lodged in Total Befuddlement, which for the purpose of this metaphor is the gap between the left bottom crown and the gum line.]


Xopher: maybe I don't fully grasp what people are capable of enjoying (rock climbers. I totally don't get rock climbers), or even everything people mean when they say they enjoy something.

You just gave me a light bulb moment. Rock climbing as parallel to literary criticism.

I enjoy several things about climbing (fwiw, all indoor/gym climbing; never done actual rocks yet even though they're Right Over There *points*). On one level, I enjoy feeling competent and strong and bad-ass like I do when I get to the top of the route. Experiencing one's own competence, I'm convinced, is a huge part of the positive feedback loop that leads to enjoying a certain skill or craft. In climbing, that enjoyment is heightened (ha! I pun) by knowing that I am not very strong and also deeply, physically, involuntarily acrophobic--but I finished that dang route anyway, go me! So that's one enjoyment of climbing for me.

The other is, I get an experience I wouldn't have had if I hadn't acquired this skill-set. A particularly tricky move to get from one set of holds to the next can be fun. A technically challenging route is fun like puzzles are fun. Getting to experience my body via a whole different set of movements and efforts than the everyday, that's fun too. Which loops back around into experiencing my body as capable of new things as one flavor of the "enjoying one's one competence" thing.

Both kinds of enjoyment are present in literary criticism for me. I enjoy having a toolbox filled with stuff I picked up both from academic literature study and from genre-focused peer-critique writing workshops. I enjoy the very ability to use those tools. And those tools allow me to enjoy fiction on a level that would be inaccessible to me if I didn't have them. Heck, those tools make enjoyable even fiction I didn't enjoy on its own merits, because of the pleasure to be found in being able to precisely say to my friends why I didn't like it, and they'll tell me why they did, pointing out interesting things I may have missed along the way, and eventually the whole thing morphs into a completely different but equally fascinating conversation...

Of course, lit-crit could be said to be like paragliding or painting miniatures on these merits too. It's just that you mentioned being baffled by rock climbers, which got me thinking about why I liked climbing, which led to "Aha! Two major enjoyments to be found in acquiring and employing specialized skill-sets. Hurrah!"


Sean: [quoting stuff about "you will play by OUR rules"] Now THAT is what I call a top.

I have to disagree, insofar as it's my understanding that it is actually the bottom who sets the rules and is in fact in complete control of the situation. I may be wrong, as it's not my scene, but people whose scene it is have impressed this point on me. (Or, I suppose, impressed a point upon me which I have misrepresented. This is always possible.) It's actually been bothering me throughout the BDSM subthread--someone way way way upthread pointed out that "bottom" doesn't necessarily equal "not the one in control of the situation," but that mistaken (as I understand it) equivalence still seems to be dominating the use of the metaphor here.

The other thing that's bothered me is the constant appearance of the "I'm his bitch," "they're my bitch" rhetoric. As Mac pointed out, it's a gendered phrase; I hear it as gendered in that particularly nasty way of female insult words being used to demean men. And the term "his bitch" I hear as very specifically connoting the (male) victim of repeated prison rape. So hearing the phrase used over and over again in a seemingly approving way, even as metaphor, is discomfiting.

(Neil Gaiman's "George R. R. Martin is not your bitch" blog post didn't bother me in the same way, in part because "NOT your bitch" can be read not just as opposing the label for a particular person, but opposing the whole institute which employs the label; and in part because of the delight/shock/scandal/squee of watching someone very mild mannered and easy-going suddenly let someone have it with both barrels of an extremely eloquent shotgun.)

#299 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:28 AM:

And now I bow my head shamefully at, through ignorance of both Gregorian Chant and Names of Single Malt Scotch I Haven't Had Yet, totally missing skzb's keyboard-damaging funny.

It must be bedtime.

#300 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:37 AM:

Nick Mamatas @ 181: "Your mother just had more than one axis when it came to pleasure."

No, YOUR mama has more than one axis--oh wait. ahem. sorry. Where was I?

"Again, this is NOT an example of your claim that some people valorize difficulty over pleasure."

Well it is, actually. You asked for an example where someone valued literature as work over literature as pleasure. His mama is so fa, ahem, reads both difficult lit and easy lit. One she has a job studying and one she refers to as "junk" reading.

difficult(status) > pleasure(status)

What more do you want?

Basically, your current argument seems to be "You can't actually find someone who will only read works carved into his/her own living flesh, so therefore no one is claiming the difficult literature is better than easy-to-read literature." Watch your goal posts there; I think they might be getting away from you.

#301 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:39 AM:

Something worth keeping in mind is that nearly everyone* reads both challenging, mind-blowing works of genius AND with-blanket-and-cup-of-tea comfort books. (Sometimes even in the same genre!) So it's not about People Who Prefer Difficult Literature versus People Who Like Easy Material. It's about what kind of challenges people like, and what kind of comforts they crave; and then also about what kind of challenges are lauded, and what kind of comforts are denigrated.

*Apart from the aliens.

#302 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:40 AM:

So now that the thread has most entirely moved on, I wanted to go off and read the entire Roberts post before commenting. First thought was that it was actually extremely unclear about what he values, other than "these specific books are good, valuable, these other specific books are juvenile" which could lead one to infer either meaning from it.

Here is why I think abi correctly interpreted Roberts as implying "difficult > good" and Nick misinterpreted him: Roberts states specifically and emphatically that the only book on the Hugo list that he felt deserved to be there is one he didn't care for much - Anathem "which isn’t so much mediocre as enormous and deranged and so boring it goes through boring into some strange condition on the far side." (His earlier review is pretty harsh on it too, though funny, complete with a new vocabulary to make fun of oversized SFF.) His comments about Little Brother and Graveyard Book seem to indicate that he enjoyed them quite a bit, but he didn't think they're good enough to be on the list - only the one he thought was challenging and difficult but boring deserves to be there. So I think there are concrete reasons in the text for believing Abi called it correctly.

Mind you, I agree with some parts of what he says. I'd like to read a lot more interesting and mind-blowing fiction, and I plan to look up some of the titles he lists. However, his scale of values does seem to show that he values challenging and experimental above fun to read.

#303 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:52 AM:

Oh yeah, one more thing re Nick's theses:

Is it wise to even try to defend the ground that there exists nobody, but nobody, "who value difficulty over pleasure"? When a single counter-example would suffice?

This is the Internet, the new universe of public discourse: you can without much difficulty find somebody who sincerely and emphatically believes any bat-shit crazy thesis, as for example that Nazi aliens live on the world inside the hollow earth, or that Time is a Cube. It's not my fight, but if I were picking a side here, I'd say the windmills have a considerable strategic advantage.

#304 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 06:21 AM:

Clifton Royston @ 304... any bat-shit crazy thesis, as for example that Nazi aliens live on the world inside the hollow earth

That sounds like the premise of one of Mike Mignola's stories.

#305 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 06:52 AM:

heresiarch @302: Something worth keeping in mind is that nearly everyone* reads both challenging, mind-blowing works of genius AND with-blanket-and-cup-of-tea comfort books.

My blanket-and-cup-of-tea comfort books are Gravity's Rainbow and The Book of the Long Sun. Not because I'm so sooper smart, but because I've reread them so many times, in the pursuit of understanding them, that they're as familiar and comfortable to me as an old baseball glove. (Mostly. Ensign Morituri's Story is still a big WTF.) I guess my point is that, as Dostoevsky put it, man is the animal who can get used to anything. I think Housekeeping is likely to get on that short list too, and for the same reason. Holy crap is that a strange book.

Somewhere back around post #50 (there were giants in the earth in those days), Patrick posted about skipping the fiction in The New Yorker. This made me think back on all the stories I've read in that magazine in the last couple of years, and, well, I couldn't. Not that I haven't read them - I read everything in the New Yorker, having that affliction, which Myles naGopaleen identified, that drives men to read the labels on jam jars - but I remember next to nothing about any of them. There was that one about the guy who inherited a house, that was tedious. And the one about the girl who was a babysitter somewhere in the Midwest.

But I do remember Rivka Galchen's "The Region of Unlikeness." Which was very striking to me because here was an actual, honest to God science fiction story in The New Yorker. I don't think I've ever seen that before (and no, "The Kugelmass Episode" doesn't count).

#306 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 07:15 AM:

Compulsive early-music nitpick: Machaut didn't write Gregorian chant. OTOH, it's true that the Messe de Nostre Dame is a reason to be glad I'm human.

#308 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 08:38 AM:

The only New Yorker stories I remember are one about ten years ago by Edwidge Danticat, which I remember because it was good (she is always worthwhile), but especially because it was good in ways that aren't easily stereotyped as a New Yorker story, and one very recently that was mentioned on Making Light, the one about the changeling who dies in the hospital, and his uncomprehending fairy parents. Because it was just like what I'd read in SFF contexts. Surely that author would acknowledge the story was Genre.

#309 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:19 AM:

I see yer Messe de Nostre Dame an' raise Le Chant des Templiers.

#310 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:50 AM:

TexAnne @ 307: I did say "not exactly chant anyway." A spoonful of sugar and all that.

#311 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:29 AM:

I regret mentioning that I did not like Gregorian chant. I have listened to all three videos (in their entirety) and feel...

...totally unmoved, and annoyed at at myself for spending 20 minutes when three -- one for each video -- would have sufficed.

I do not like chant. There are a few medieval *songs* I like -- I adore Gaudete -- but they strike me as a different animal. And even though the Messe de Nostre Dame seems to me, not being a musicologist, as closer to song than chant, it still did nothing for me.

I do not like it here or there, I do not like it anywhere. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.

I even find parodies of chant somewhat annoying. I am very fond of the *concept* of the Benzedrine Monks of Santa Domonica (their cover of "Smells like Teen Spirit" had me falling over for about fifteen seconds) but only for a minute or so. It gets old *fast*.


#312 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:21 PM:

Pat Greene - I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.

Wait, I remember how that story ended!

#313 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:32 PM:

Sean 292: Now THAT is what I call a top.

Why, thank you for recog...I mean, damn right, slave! On your knees when you talk to me!

Nicole 299: I like your rock climbing analogy, but by the time I've absorbed it enough to comment in detail the moment will have passed...food for thought, though, and highly enlightening about the motives behind both litcrit and rock climbing.

...it's my understanding that it is actually the bottom who sets the rules and is in fact in complete control of the situation.

It's a little more complex than that. I think I may be the one you refer to later; I said "look who's doing all the work." Hmm. Terminology: I'm going to use the terms 'dom' and 'sub', because 'top' and 'bottom' have different meanings in the "vanilla"* gay community, and the roles do NOT map 100%.

The sub must never feel like he's† in control, since not being in control is what makes it erotic for him; at the same time, he must never be in serious fear for his life or safety (well, at least anyone I'd want to play with doesn't want that; if you're looking for Mr. Goodbar I'm not your guy). The dom sets the rules, but with an eye toward exciting the sub. The sub controls nothing: he obeys, or disobeys and is punished (or sometimes obeys and is punished anyway). But the sub has an absolute veto over the entire scene in the form of his safeword; not over any element, but over the entire situation. He can end the entire thing but not shape it.

Meanwhile, the dom is watching the sub, noting when his limits are being approached, keeping him in the zone just short of saying his safeword. That's why I say the dom is doing the work, even if the sub is picking up marbles with his lips and putting them in a bowl. The sub is just experiencing; the dom is leading, but beneath the surface is a whole complex interplay of nonverbal communication.

That's how I play. YMMV is a gross understatement here; I'd say YMWCVAL. Some people play without safewords, which I'm not quite confident enough to do, even in the limited ways I've experienced this scene. And I'm not the most experienced at it, not by a long shot; what I've given here is my understanding and my perspective.

Clifton 303: Nice point about Anathem. That didn't occur to me, but it's absolutely true.

____ 304: ...or that Time is a Cube.

Not really on topic, but in some of my fiction there were some...well, sort of mathematicians...who proved that time cannot have a dimensionality less than 1.618, and may have a dimensionality in excess of 2. This is nonsense, of course, but if I published it some crazed bozo would decide it was The Truth and start telling it to other people. It's not dramatically crazier than believing that Elizabeth II is a lizard from outer space, and people really believe that one.
____
*Anyone who thinks this term is in any way belittling has not tasted my vanilla buttercream chocolates. Vanilla can be a flavor too, even one that stands up to bittersweet chocolate.

†Of course both subs and doms can be female, though I've sometimes seen the spellings subbe and domme used for women. I'm going to say 'he' throughout because that's how *I* play.

#314 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:38 PM:

Xopher @ 314... dom is doing the work

Dom de Luise?

#315 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:41 PM:

Heresiarch @302: Something worth keeping in mind is that nearly everyone* reads both challenging, mind-blowing works of genius AND with-blanket-and-cup-of-tea comfort books.

Actually, not me. I don't read for comfort. I read for challenge, for novelty, to be entertained, and to understand what the heck my friends are going on about, but not that metaphorical blanket-and-tea thing.

#316 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 12:56 PM:

Josh -- Oh, damn. You're right. Should not use that particular Suess reference here. *Goes off muttering "One fish two fish red fish blue fish..."*

The difference between me and the narrator of "Green Eggs and Ham," however, is that I've actually tried the things I say I don't like.

#317 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Russell Letson @ #249
I knew there was a reason I've been putting off growing up for so long.

Clifton Royston @ #253
I got a cautious eye and a "Interesting..." I seem to get that latter comment a lot.

Clifton, I think you, Russell and I all have the Peter Pan Syndrome. Kids of a certain age don't get it. Certain kinds of readers, do, no matter the age. I think we should start a Peter Pan Reading Group or a Peter Pan's Reading List. My most recent YA read was "Bloodhound" by Tamora Pierce.

Recommendations?


#318 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:16 PM:

Victoria: My last YA read was earlier this year, a recommendation from Jo Walton, The Bones of Faerie. It was good, but IMHO not remarkable; the core ideas were really interesting* and the writing was fairly good, but I felt it was slight; the ideas deserved more done with them.

* E.g. the setting as an aftermath of an apocalyptic war between Earth and Faerie, with both sides using their most powerful weapons. ** A conceptual hybrid between The Chrysalids and The Last Hot Time?

** This shouldn't spoil anything, it's revealed very early on in the book.

#319 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:22 PM:

I just finished Philip Reeve's YA novel Larklight. Amusing. It'll make an interesting movie.

#320 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:23 PM:

P.S. to Serge and Xopher: both my bat-shit crazy examples are for real. The former is derived from Richard Shaver's beliefs about the "Deros", which still has followers elaborating on it; the latter is TimeCube. Surprised you've never heard of it; it has a certain degree of Internet fame.

#321 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:23 PM:

Xopher @ 316
Nicole @ 299

Dan Simmons also uses rock climbing as an analogy for challenging reading. Here he is talking about Henry James:

"As readers, we’re like climbers used to practice rocks who are suddenly confronted with a 3,000-foot sheer face to climb or descend. The cry goes out for pitons, carabiners, jumars, and rope . . . lots and lots of rope. Oh, yes, and please send us a good climbing partner – someone who can show us the route."

The quote is from his amazing essay series on writing posted on his Web site: (http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/archive/2006_03.htm)

Xopher @ 316 on vanilla v. not vanilla

I think Sean's likening of reader/writer to top/bottom works for all the various definitions of top and bottom, "vanilla" and otherwise. Being a versatile reader means that at different times you get to try out all the roles, and see the complex, changing power distribution between tops and bottoms (which your post helped flesh out even further) as a really neat way of imagining what's going on when you pick up a book, or sit down to write one. Applied to just about any kind of sex we've seen alluded to or described here, the metaphor yields new things.

#322 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 01:58 PM:

pat 317: If abi had had to carry through on her threat to make the whole thread Latin, we could still use that book. Aren't you glad?

Clifton 321: Wow. I thought you were exaggerating, or at least making shit up. Wow. Loonies.

Evan 322: Are you...flirting? :-) Let's get together and apply some metaphors!

#323 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:08 PM:

pat greene, 312: I wasn't trying to convince you. I was pedantically correcting the idea that Machault wrote Gregorian chant, when in fact he wrote polyphony. Here endeth the early-music neep.

#324 ::: Mike Leung ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:09 PM:
Constance @ 36: [This Side of Paradise] is cut-up, without conventional chapters or breaks. It quotes in full the popular songs of the day, as well as mention other popular culture practices and products. This was the first fiction to do so, whereas now these have become signatures of either careful historical research or lessons from Bill Gibson, or product placement to offset production costs. Nor is there any real plot or conclusion.

This Side of Paradise seemed to have a defined plot: Amory Blaine was a narcissistic Princeton alum whose experiences, romantic then martial, couldn't be reconciled with the -ism-movements of the previous century. His being rejected by the Zelda stand-in caused him to realize his own narcissism had its own denying himself a cake by keeping it quality to it, and reconciled Humanity's narcissism with funding everything from a cap on ownership.

But Amory wasn't able to gain any traction because his capitalist-foils were, as we might say today, not reality-based. As a carry-over from the -ism-movement in question. And as far as I know, Fitzgerald was right. I think if you can stick $5M -10M in the bank and earn enough to fly first class every day for the rest of your life from the interest, you categorically have "enough," and you can "keep score" from the taxes above that you pay. And if you instead feel the need to let Bernie Madoff grow your $5M without a solid understanding what he's doing, I'm not really sure of your basis for my sympathy if you discover your $5M gone.

#325 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:16 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 321... Oh, I'm not surprised that those examples are beliefs held by some people. After all, this is the Reality where (if I remember correctly) John Birch's followers believe that public transportation is a government conspiracy to control our movements.

#326 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:17 PM:

Xopher @ 323

Well, I never turn down any chance to be intellectually promiscuous! :-)

#327 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:31 PM:

Sorry, TexAnne, I got defensive there. I shouldn't have.

Xopher -- But of course there has to be Latin Dr. Seuss! That's so wonderful. Along with Winnie Ille Pu.

#328 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:51 PM:

counter counterpoint. Well. Sorta. Feel free to pick it apart some more.

#329 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:56 PM:

#250 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden
I've always suspected there was a class agenda in the idea that adults have no right to indulge themselves in unproductive entertainment, or to hope for fufilling work. I know you didn't discuss the "fulfilling work" half of that, but in my experience those two memes travel as a pair.

I brushed past it and deliberately didn't address it. I am well aware the attitude exists that work shouldn't be fun. Otherwise, they wouldn't call it "work." I don't know if it's a class agenda, a moral agenda or a socio-political* agenda. I do know that I tried the "fulfilling work" gambit. All the reponses, in the end, were reduced to, "But I have bills! The sooner I get my loans paid off, the sooner I can do what I want. I can't wait around until I find something I like!"

It's not just college kids, either. I have a sister who is stuck in a job she hates, but can't leave it because she can't find a higher paying one to go to. Taking a cut in pay or settling for a lateral tranfer into another job is not an option. I think that ties into your suspicions about executives with perks and financial traders with big bonuses. Money is a metric everyone understands. Happiness and fulfillment are too subjective.

TNH
What's funny is that there's no matching condemnation for indulging yourself in stupid, mindless entertainment when you come home exhausted after work. It's still unproductive; you just don't enjoy it the way you enjoyed those childish things you supposedly put away.

In my experience, "mindless entertainment after a long, hard day" often includes those childish things we are supposed to put aside. I don't know if it's a lack of condemnation or the presence of an unspoken but widely acknowledged prerequisite that functions like an excuse. "I have no mind left, therefore simple, uncomplicated things that make me happy are finally okay." We are asked to justify our desires a lot. Ditto with explaining.


TNH
(I keep that set of suspicions filed next to the idea that it's necessary for executives to have lots of vacations and perks because their working lives are so stressful, and the one about how financial traders have to be given huge bonuses because otherwise they'll quit their jobs.)

I file these next to Office Politics and/or greed. If a top earner goes to his/her boss and says, "I'm unhappy with work and just sent out a bunch of resumes. So if you get calls, that's what it's about," the boss will usually try to keep that person around--situation allowing. If they can't improve the working conditions, they can improve the take home pay. That way, when the over worked employee finally does get some time, he/she can buy more happiness or a much desired status symbol. Then there are those that see the financial bribe in action and start working the system.

TNH
All our lives contain hard-to-solve problems, and it's appropriate for us to spend a reasonable amount of time and energy doing what we can about them. But why should we get told that it's our duty to spend all the rest of our spare brain power on questions which we already know are intractable? That isn't "being realistic." It's self-inflicted dullness.

The more anecdotes and arguments I read in this thread, the more I am inclined to write "Readers in the Hands of an Unselfish Meme" a la Jonathan Edwards^. My premise is that only selfish readers read for pleasure. Unselfish readers aspire to education, self-improvement and the redemptive act of working hard.

---
* It's a weird bit of EOE social legislation. I'm unhappy in my work, so you have to be unhappy in yours, too. You can't have fulfillment and a good wage with bennies. Pick one.

^ Lev Grossman's article and Nick Mamatas' defense of it both strike me as puritanical in the etymologic sense of the word rather the cultural one we've developed. They espouse the shining light on the hill attitude.

#330 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 02:59 PM:

#271 ::: James:

My own sense about Ulysses and particularly Finnegan's Wake, is that they are books about language, about sound -- about music. They are really meant to be read the way Joyce composed them -- aloud. And hopefully not in isolation, but with others.

Some of the most enjoyable times of my life were spent with a room of people, taking turns, reading these books out loud, with other music maybe also going on, drinking and eating, and conversation and telling our own stories.

This is how Joyce wrote them.

Love, C.

#331 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:13 PM:

#325 ::: Mike Leung

I don't read that as a plot or a conclusion.

Amory has a long discussion with a capitalist as he makes his broke way back to his cradle of discussion and debate, Princeton, the very bastion of legacy privilege in this country. This is just one of many long discussions that fill the book, about anything from fast girls to the value of Princeton's eating clubs, the deep, eternal significance of Amory & his friends' existence in the world, to the value of the artist.

However, one can see clearly why this slight, bright, MODERN novel so knocked the critics' and his generation's sox off; it was genuinely new. Like they saw themselves. It was the hippest thing ever, and they were IT.

This is very like what happened in our own time with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City in contemporary fiction, and around the same time in SF/F, Bill Gibson's Neuromancer. It would be difficult to find anyone who knew better than Bruce Sterling just how significant he was in the world at that time (Bill is too well-mannered to ever talk that way about himself), or McInerney in his dimension of the world. Really. My little ole ears heard both of them describing and explaining this to little ole me.

Surely this was much as it was with Fitzgerald when This Side of Paradise broke out of the pack and into new ground. You hear Amory and his friends speak this truth to the power throughout the novel.

Love, C.

#332 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:31 PM:

Victoria @318: I maintain an inner ten-year-old, but he's the one who at that age started reading through his aunts' collections of popular novels of the 1940s and 50s: Thomas B. Costain, Frank Yerby, Ellery Queen, Samuel Shellabarger. . . . I never went back to kids' books, other than the Heinlein and Winston titles in the public library. And I did recently enjoy Little Brother, though I spent half the book wanting to smack the narrator.

I still have an office full of model WWI aircraft and toy robots and rayguns, though.

#333 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:53 PM:

Sean Sakamoto @ 59: "My personal opinion is that in so-called 'literary fiction' the author is the top. You, the reader, are the author's bitch. You will submit, you will struggle through what he is doing, and you will enjoy it....

With genre fiction, the author is the bottom. The reader is the top. The author exists to serve and service the reader...."

It strikes me that writing within literary conventions is hard, just like writing a sonnet or a villanelle is hard: you have to take your own ideas and force them into a foreign mold. It's much easier to put your ideas onto paper in the words and the patterns that feel most natural, heedless of expectation or convention. Conversely, reading the former is much easier than reading the latter. Structure, like the three paragraph essay format, is the reader's friend.

It's very easy for this contrast to become morally loaded. Work versus pleasure isn't right--I think there are two dichotomies being conflated there. The first is work versus play. (Both work and play can be pleasurable.) Because it serves no purpose play tends to be viewed as worthless, whereas work--pleasurable or not--is morally worthy. That's part of the moral load.

The second dichotomy is challenge versus reward. A natural but fallacious assumption is that greater levels of reward are reaped at higher levels of difficulty: doing an Olympic triathlon makes somone happier than doing a sprint triathlon. But while challenge can be measured objectively, reward is entirely subjective. As challenge increases the feeling of reward will increase, peak, and then decline as the challenge moves beyond the person's ability to overcome it. Everyone will find their peak reward at a different level of challenge--even people with identical skill levels. One rock climber derives her greatest pleasure from falling her way up a 5.12b hold by hold, and another climber of identical ability prefers strolling up a new 5.10 every day.

In general, I think that genre tends toward the lower levels of challenge. Genre conventions work like built-in reading guides, allowing readers to follow along with less effort. Litfic tends towards the higher levels of challenge, forcing the reader to learn an entirely new way of reading every time. Neither is better, or more inherently rewarding. It just depends on what kinds and levels of challenges you find most rewarding.

Because of these tendencies, litfic and genre are prone to very different fail states. A genre book that succeeds uses the familiar conventions as a sugar coating to get its payload of ideas to the reader; failed genre doesn't have anything to deliver. It's sugar all the way through. (I think this is what Emily H. was getting at @ 259.) A successful litfic book gets at an idea beyond the scope of genre, that can't be reached without building new conventions from scratch; whereas a failed litfic book is impenetrable--the reader, bereft of familiar guides, can't get a hold on it at all.

(There is a second failure mode for litfic, which is that it has nothing to communicate and the lack of conventions is a sort of litfic-as-genre un-convention. This is the product of people who read litfic and said "I want to write like that," not realizing that the whole point of the earlier work was to write something new.)

#334 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 03:59 PM:

Bob Rossney @ 306: "My blanket-and-cup-of-tea comfort books are Gravity's Rainbow and The Book of the Long Sun. Not because I'm so sooper smart, but because I've reread them so many times, in the pursuit of understanding them, that they're as familiar and comfortable to me as an old baseball glove."

There's plenty of room in my philosophy for that.

Avram @ 316: "Actually, not me. I don't read for comfort."

You haven't ever thought to yourself, "Boy, that was hard. I think I'll go relax with a book"?

#335 ::: Mike Leung ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 04:59 PM:

Constance @ 332: I don't read that as a plot or a conclusion.

Amory has a long discussion with a capitalist as he makes his broke way back to his cradle of discussion and debate, Princeton, the very bastion of legacy privilege in this country. This is just one of many long discussions that fill the book, about anything from fast girls to the value of Princeton's eating clubs, the deep, eternal significance of Amory & his friends' existence in the world, to the value of the artist.

Amory treated Princeton as an opportunity to develop a pretense with which to socialize, and as far as he devoted his time to its practice rather than reasoning it through, I don't think it can be said he debated much of anything at all.

This Side of Paradise seems to provide all the events that constitute a plot on even the Robert McKee scale:

  1. the main character was driven from his comfort-zone (when he moved from enjoying the romantic attention of a classmate to actually kissing her),
  2. he proceeds to dismiss the 19th century as dead and an unsuitable foundation for existence,
  3. he loses the girl he's set on, and,
  4. like some kind of socialist-Ayn-Rand, he frames selfishness as a virtue by demonstrating how it can serve as the infrastructure that supports everything.

It's act followed by tiny act, etc. Raiders of the Lost Ark is also act followed by act followed by act, etc, but I've yet to hear anyone argue it had no plot.

#336 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 05:07 PM:

Inner 10-year-olds should note that this past year has been probably one of the best ever for YA science fiction and fantasy (as Hugo voters recognized by putting The Graveyard Book and Little Brother on their shortlist)--

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is far from a comfort read, a brutal fairy tale with intense, evocative prose. Lanagan's collections of short stories have the same dense prose and deep themes.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is science fiction that tackles religious fundamentalism, colonialism, misogyny, and the ties between violence and our conception of masculinity, set on a world where the men are constantly bombarded with one another's thoughts and the women are all dead. Warning: there is a dog. You know what happens to dogs in YA books.

Graceling is what I recommend to people who recoil at their daughters and sisters and nieces reading Twilight, a suspenseful high fantasy about a young woman whose grace--her special talent--is killing people. Features a non-stupid romance with actual human beings.

#337 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 05:22 PM:

Heresiarch @335: You haven't ever thought to yourself, "Boy, that was hard. I think I'll go relax with a book"?

Well, if I'm physically wiped out, I might choose to physically relax by reading, but I'll generally still want my book to be something engaging and exciting.

But to do something mentally difficult, and then comfort myself with an unchallenging book? No, I don't think so. Not recently, anyway.

What Bob said, in 306, about a book that's "as familiar and comfortable [...] as an old baseball glove"? I don't seek that out. I crave novelty. When I reread, it's because I suspect there's something I missed the first time around. Or sometimes to refresh my memory for a sequel, if it's been a long time. There are very few books that I've read more than twice as an adult.

#338 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 05:26 PM:

Heresiarch @ 334: Genre and form (in the sense of sonnet, quatrain, etc.) are not quite the same thing--there are, for example, genres of sonnets. And poetic forms (generally describably using the languages of linguistics and rhetoric) can serve readers as well as writers. (To shift artistic realms, ever participate in a swing-tune jam? The 32-bar song form keeps it from collapsing into a noisefest.) And genre (a mixed-element term that includes rhetorical/linguistic form as well as matters of content and arrangement of content) offers a range of effects denied to the one-off work: satire, and parody, for starters, plus irony, inversion, and all manner of variations on a form or convention-set. You can't play with satisfaction or frustration or redirection of audience expectations without having expectations in the first place. No genre, no Shaw. Or Shakespeare, for that matter. Or early Woody Allen. Or Randy Newman.

I find the metaphors of sugar-coating and payload telling: they assume a content+form model of the work of art, and this model often indicates an aesthetic that privileges content--which in turn often implies that the value of a work resides in the content (see fruit and chaff, which is a medieval version of the puritan aesthetic).

#339 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 05:29 PM:

-ble. Describable. I'm not wearing my computer bifocals.

#340 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 06:38 PM:

Avram @ 338: "What Bob said, in 306, about a book that's "as familiar and comfortable [...] as an old baseball glove"? I don't seek that out."

My apologies for my poor wording--"with-blanket-and-cup-of-tea" has led you off in the wrong direction altogether. My point wasn't about rereading or tea-sipping, but about mental exertion. There is reading that exhausts, and there is reading that relaxes. I'm saying that people generally like both--or maybe they prefer TV for their relaxing, but (nearly) everyone likes both kinds of entertainment.

Russell Letson @ 339: "Genre and form (in the sense of sonnet, quatrain, etc.) are not quite the same thing--there are, for example, genres of sonnets."

While genre is not the same thing as poetic form,
I'm not making a rigorous comparison. I'm merely trying to illustrate that prescribed forms make communication easier--like it's easier to read properly formatted essays than stream-of-consciousness ramblings--even as they limit the range of expression. Do you disagree with that point?

"(To shift artistic realms, ever participate in a swing-tune jam? The 32-bar song form keeps it from collapsing into a noisefest.)"

I think that's an excellent metaphor for genre--a set of artistic touchstones to keep the collaborators in time with each other.

"And genre (a mixed-element term that includes rhetorical/linguistic form as well as matters of content and arrangement of content) offers a range of effects denied to the one-off work: satire, and parody, for starters, plus irony, inversion, and all manner of variations on a form or convention-set."

You're making an awfully thorough defense of the uses of genre, but I'm not attacking genre.

"I find the metaphors of sugar-coating and payload telling: they assume a content+form model of the work of art, and this model often indicates an aesthetic that privileges content--which in turn often implies that the value of a work resides in the content (see fruit and chaff, which is a medieval version of the puritan aesthetic)."

Here we may have an honest disagreement. I do think there is a distinction between form and content. Otherwise there would be no translations from one language to another, nor from one medium to another. This isn't the same thing as saying that only content matters, however--content without form is gibberish. The crucial things is to have both. To rephrase what I was saying above, genre fails when it has form but no content; litfic when it has content but no form.

#341 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 07:42 PM:

(returning to thread, and gazing upon it in awe and wonder)

This board is astonishing...what a collection of erudition, opinion, and ideas gathers here. No wonder I lurk. My Latin is rusty at best, and my Middle English wanders no further that a smidgen of Chaucer. Nevertheless, in again I wish to wade!

I think that over the course of this conversation, we've seen several arguments, all revolving around the idea of the utility of literature - what's it for? Is it to improve us? That's a seductive notion, because reading involves work, and work should yield reward (so this line of thinking goes)

From that line of thought, there is a direct path to the notion of reading as a morally active act - by committing your time, your effort to the task of reading, what do you add to yourself, how do you become a better person, a better member of the community, of society? This is not a new argument.

Personally, and contra Avram, I'm enough of a hedonist that I will read and reread certain works for the sheer pleasure of reading them, and not necessarily for the challenge and stimulation. Although admittedly, some of my most dog-eared volumes include "White Noise", "Midnight's Children", "The Book of the New Sun" (in four *very* dog-eared paperbacks) and "Wolf Solent".

Perhaps the deeper question is *why do we read* when it is not necessary to our personal or professional survival? I have a colleague who told me once, with a note of pride, that he had not read a single book since university. When he asked me what the heck he was supposed to do on a trans-Atlantic flight, I told him a bit tersely "Sorry, but you're f***ed."

So what to make of us who read for ourselves? Are we hedonists? I'll be the first to admit that the books that I read and buy will not clothe my children or put food on my table. So is reading for personal benefit inherently selfish? I can't answer that, for I don't know.

If it is, then hang fire, I'm a selfish person, and by God I'll read what I damn well please.

#342 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 08:01 PM:

If it is, then hang fire, I'm a selfish person, and by God I'll read what I damn well please.

That's sort of the way I've come to feel, too, at least since I've gotten well into middle-age, therefore I don't hide the true crime books when I come back from the library. (Now *there's* a disreputable nonfiction genre for you if ever there was one, and the wheat to chaff ratio sometimes falls on the low side.)

#343 ::: Mike Leung ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 08:37 PM:
dlbowman76 @ 342: Perhaps the deeper question is *why do we read* when it is not necessary to our personal or professional survival?

Well, when black ink-marks on layers of cellulose can reach into your chest and show you your own beating heart, how many things are better *than* reading?

#344 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Re: Mike Leung @ 344: That's a powerful statement...but it could also be argued to be inherently selfish. I know I'm banging on this "utility" drum relentlessly, but hear me out. Being deeply emotionally touched is *valuable*, I certainly wouldn't argue that. But does it do good? Does it improve me as a person? You're right that reading does have a deep personal benefit and makes us feel good, but someone of a less sympathetic bent might say - so does alcohol.

#345 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 09:17 PM:

ldbowman76, in my opinion every bit of reading that moves you makes you a better person—if you let it. Comedy opens the heart to joy, which makes almost anyone a better person. Tragedy opens the heart to sorrow, which strengthens compassion. Speculation about how the world might have been different (if, say, magic worked) or how it might change (with, say, cheap space travel) expand the ability to think about why things are the way they are, and how they might change: this is politicizing, which I think is on balance a good thing.

In short, everything you read makes you a better person, or can if you let it. That's not just good for you, but for the people around you.

Even if you read a piece of total fluff with no edifying lesson or mental-stimulation value, taking time for a harmless pleasure is, I feel, likely to make you less cranky (that's a generic 'you'; I'm not saying you're cranky). If I have no joy in my life, I'm likely to take it out on others. Misery isn't good for anyone, or for society as a whole.

One character in a Mary Renault novel (ha! I do remember after all: The Mask of Apollo), an actor, said that each time he left the stage he hoped he'd made one man in the audience less inclined to beat his children.

So I say Enjoy! and share your joy with others. Else wallow in your misery, and woe to you if you share THAT.

#346 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 09:35 PM:

I'm delighted by Xopher's response, this is a positive assertion of the merits of reading for its own sake. It's also a Point of View (capitals deliberate). The opposite case could be made. Mind you, I'm firmly in the camp that reading is in and of itself a positive good, and I'll take an even more elementary position, Reading opens the self. Reading *anything* is solipsistic - but not bad! - and makes us engage with ourselves.

To take some pop examples: Carl Hiaasen makes us consider our relationship with our environment, James Ellroy and Henning Mankell are deeply engaged with morality and the idea of good and evil. Philip K. Dick takes us all the way back to square one and demands to know - What is a human? What does it mean to be human? Are we human? Are you human?

So, Xopher, I agree wholeheartedly, but also hope to engage with you (and anyone else) on the idea of "utility" (God, that again???) If we accept that reading and literature enriches us individually, how does that benefit us as a community, as a society, as a world?

yrs,
David

#347 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 09:49 PM:

It's amazingly difficult to talk about the whole idea of voluntary avocational reading without the use of language which, deliberately or not, imposes rank and hierarchy upon it. We speak of "higher levels" of difficulty, and "greater" challenges; and -- in our still-puritanical society -- even words like "pleasure" and "relaxation" have a faint negative cast to them, especially when set beside words like "instruction" or "insight" or "self-improvement."

I'm willing to accept that somebody else may find enjoyable something that I do not. After all, most of the people who tried to convince me, during my school days, that organized team sports were fun, certainly appeared themselves to enjoy them. But I'm no more fond than the next person of being told, or even feeling like I'm being told, that my enjoyment of those things that I do like is in some fashion inferior to the enjoyment experienced by people who like something else.

#348 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:03 PM:

Debra Doyle: Can we escape from those frames? Or is that structure of understanding *any* avocational activity ineluctable? Admittedly, my upbringing (Stolid, American, Catholic) imposes it's own set of frames, but my current existence (Flexible, European - expat, militant Agnostic †) Has shattered my previous "knowns" or false consciousness if you will, and given me a wider ability to understand and interact with...well everything.

The notion of fun is very slippery...so slippery in fact, that I'm not sure that fun, as a concrete concept can be defined other than people have it and everyone knows what it is, but for every single person, it's utterly different.

† - def.: I Not only don't I know what I believe, but frankly am not sure that anyone else does either.

#349 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:15 PM:

If we accept that reading and literature enriches us individually, how does that benefit us as a community, as a society, as a world?

Because, David, community, society, and world are composed of individuals. The man who does not beat his wife is a man who is not going to jail. The wife is not going to the hospital. Social resources are not being expended on keeping the vulnerable safe and the guilty punished. There is a great deal of utility in entertainment of all sorts as stress-relievers.

And they act as social lubricants. Reading gives us the structures through which we share ideas and even values. It allows the making of connections. Book clubs, for example (I've just joined one), can be a boon to people who otherwise might be isolated.

Social utility? For all its legion of problems, The Da Vinci Code led to a great many classes and seminars for laypeople on theology. And not just in fundamentalist churches: my Episcopalian rector led such a group, in which he urged people interested in the book's themes to read Eco's The Name of the Rose. People were given an opportunity to explore what they believed, and why, and why what they believed was important.

Harry Potter and Frodo give us hooks on which to hang our discussions of heroism and sacrifice, and the nature of good and evil. And more than that -- they give us ways to transmit those ideas to the next generation. There is a reason fundamentalists fight so hard to ban books from school libraries.

Those messages can be good or ill: several commenters have alluded to ways in which Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series impart unhealthy ideas about male-female relationships to teenage girls. (I would not know, having never read any of them.) But there is still utility in having the conversation.

When we as a society read -- and have our children read -- literature or nonfiction from other lands, the world becomes that much smaller. And, hopefully, we learn to be *less* solipsistic and nationalistic in our outlook.

We enrich ourselves, and help build bridges one to another, when we read and talk about what we read.

#350 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:24 PM:

Heresiarch @341: There is reading that exhausts, and there is reading that relaxes. I'm saying that people generally like both--or maybe they prefer TV for their relaxing, but (nearly) everyone likes both kinds of entertainment.

Yeah, when it comes to TV and movies, I'll watch something I've seen several times before. (Most often while doing something else at the same time.) And listening to music, sure. But reading hundreds of pages of prose is enough work, and takes enough time, that I reserve it for things that make my brain-gears spin faster, not slower.

#351 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:25 PM:

I've been following this thread faithfully, but mulling much more than posting.

It occurs to me that I got a bit derailed with Sean's choice of metaphor in ways that were both useful and misleading, all at once.

In very real ways, we seem to be talking about individual squick and squee buttons -- but for whatever weird personal kink reasons, we've done an odd sorting thing into "literary" (that which I *ought* to like) vs "junk" or "genre" or other deprecating sorts of labels (stuff I really *like* and don't care to have to defend.)

Way back in PNH's post @ #50, wasn't it, he said something to the effect of wanting to tell his friends "those tall-booted, swagger-sticked, black-clad critics aren't here, now, and they cannot hurt you any more." (Okay...I'm taking radical license with his actual post, but too tired to go find and quote it for real.) What he said is true, though.

Moreover, some of those booted, black-clad critics are only waiting for an invitation to join the fun. Or even an indication that they won't be mocked and shunned.

There is a long, long, VERY long tradition of sorting written stuff into what we're supposed to like, vs. stuff that's fun and "trashy" and we're supposed to be embarrassed about reading.

Those lines are, I think, becoming a great deal more blurred in the last generation. LeGuin's thoughtful and wry essay about Atwood, cited above, suggests that's true, to me.

After all, Sidney was defending Poesie (Poets being those decadent souls who made stuff up...not necessarily just in rhyming verse) against those puritanical and self-righteous critics who would dismiss any and all writing they deemed to stink of fiction and poetry and whimsy as trashy, immoral lies.

But if (fie of such a but) you be born so near the dull-making Cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the Planet-like Music of Poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of Poetry, or rather by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome, as to be a Momus of Poetry: then though I will not wish unto you the Asses ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a Poet's verses as Bubonax was, to hang himself, nor to be rhymed to death as is said to be done in Ireland, yet thus much Curse I must send you in the behalf of all Poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a Sonnet, and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an Epitaph.

Sir Philip Sideny The Defence of Poesie 1595

So while we're once again defending poesie, here, we don't have to do so nearly so fiercely or passionately, perhaps because we're among tribe. Perhaps because we don't have to purchase indulgences to atone for our fiction habits.

We have the luxury of rolling our eyes at someone who writes a long rant about who we *should* have put on the Hugo ballot...a rant in which he confessed he's not even a voting member. But he KNOWS what's Best For Us.

We have the luxury of responding with "*Snerk* Gosh, thanks, Daddy, but we like what we nominated and voted for just fine, thanks." The social penalties really are non-existent for the difference of opinion.

But we're also in a brave new world where, ten years ago, I convinced a committee of Grad School professors that writing an English master's thesis about King's Pet Sematary was not only defensible, but entirely reasonable.


#352 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:29 PM:

Pat Greene @350, The Name of the Rose, not Foucault's Pendulum?

#353 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:33 PM:

Avram @353: Yep, not Foucault's Pendulum. Which was just as well for me --- I couldn't get into that book, although I did enjoy The Name of the Rose.

#354 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:44 PM:

#352
Back in the mid-80s, I had to take the 'graduation writing test' (intended to demonstrated that I could actually write in English, at the end of mumble eyars of college). It included an essay, subject set by the test-givers; I was handed 'Why I believe _____'. So I carefully set up an essay on Why I Believe Science Fiction Is Good For You. With examples. (I passed the test - possibly not as well as if I'd written something more conventional, more mundane.)

#355 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:45 PM:

Sean @ 155:

I'm willing to agree that a book can be good, can be valuable to the reader (not the same thing, and of course "the reader" is palming a card or three) while being difficult, and without being fun. I am not convinced that a book can be both good and boring. The closest you'll come to that pairing is very dry reference works, of the sort that people don't exactly read: the CRC Handbook of Chemistry, tables of logarithms, the telephone directory (white pages).

Also, part of why I disagree with your statement that "good fiction required work on the part of the reader" is that it implies that a work is not as good if the reader has more of the background, skills, and temperament to make it a less comfortable read. From that viewpoint, a book that alludes to earlier literature is a "better" book as the reader is more ignorant of that literature, and any book is "better" if the reader has a relatively small vocabulary (or one specialized in a different direction) and has to look up words on every page.

Good fiction rewards work on the part of the reader: but clarity of prose is not a flaw, nor is using obscure vocabulary for its own sake a virtue. (Compare: The Book of the New Sun and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.)

#356 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Victoria @ 199:

I find alt-history a dubious way to learn about anything except, well, people, in the same way as I would read other science fiction or fantasy (or mimetic fiction), because it leaves me not sure of what bits of its history/description I can trust.

I remember the point, while reading Mary Gentle's Ash, where I realized that I knew less than nothing about medieval Burgundy, because at that point I didn't feel I could trust any of what was in that book, nor sort out my vague memories of that period of French history from the fiction. (Ash is somewhere sort of slanchwise of most alternate history, starting somewhere around the time Jesus became emperor of Rome.) Not that sf doesn't risk the same thing: I think it was TNH who thought for years that microfilm was something imaginary, invented by science fiction writers.

Evan @ 261:

I won't claim that I started lifting weights to get chicks and/or dudes--I do it for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to that I think it's good for me and I feel better afterwards--but certain people whose appreciation matters to me do appreciate the results.

#357 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:06 PM:

MacAllister @352: Gosh, thanks, Daddy, but we like what we nominated and voted for just fine, thanks.

Speak for yourself.

I was so appalled by the fact that a third of the Best Graphic Story nominees were tie-ins for popular other-media properties that I'm keeping a list of stuff published this year that I like, with the plan of posting it here next January in the hope that maybe a few dozen Hugo voters will broaden their horizons a bit.

#358 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:18 PM:

Avram @358
Good. I'm delighted to hear it. That's effort well-spent, then, and can only improve the field as a whole.

Here's the thing. That push-pull dynamism serves the entire reader-writer community in ways that a more static and self-congratulatory dynamic wouldn't serve us. We *need* to have our comfort levels called into question, sometimes--and we *need* to have a knee-jerk reaction to that calling-into-question, I personally suspect.

#359 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:19 PM:

Avram @358: Which is an excellent and constructive response. I always like your recommendations.

#360 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:31 PM:

MacAllister @ 352: "There is a long, long, VERY long tradition of sorting written stuff into what we're supposed to like, vs. stuff that's fun and "trashy" and we're supposed to be embarrassed about reading."

Um. Are you sure? Does this tradition pre-date the 20th Century? Can you point me at anything that indicates that it does?

#361 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:46 PM:

Avram @ 358... a third of the Best Graphic Story nominees were tie-ins for popular other-medimedia properties

Me, I can't understand why Warren Ellis's Aetheric Mechanics wasn't even a finalist.

#362 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2009, 11:46 PM:

#361
Jane Austen, at least. 'Improving' books vs novels.

#363 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:02 AM:

Indeed. One of the relevant passages, from Northanger Abbey, was quoted right in this thread.

I'm not sure I can find any quite that sort of example before the age of print, but it's not too hard to find much earlier distinctions that feel awfully similar.

#364 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:21 AM:

In China, the tradition of regarding novels as unworthy goes back at least to the 14th century, if not earlier--about the same time when Europeans were arguing about elevated Latin literature versus the trashy vernacular stuff. Shouldn't read that Boccaccio, definitely not the Jin Ping Mei--as a matter of fact, I've seen 20th-century English translations of both that rendered selected passages in Latin.

#365 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:47 AM:

skzb@361: Arguments against literature are very old--Sidney's Defense of Poesy mentioned @352 is part of a debate that goes back at least to Plato. Arrayed against poetry (which stands for imaginative/expressive literature in general) are those who think it untruthful or not truthful enough or that it is morally corrupting or distracting or that it makes the shop-girls dream inappropriate dreams or just that it isn't the current/local Holy Writ.

#366 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:56 AM:

pat greene @350: Those messages can be good or ill: several commenters have alluded to ways in which Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series impart unhealthy ideas about male-female relationships to teenage girls. (I would not know, having never read any of them.) But there is still utility in having the conversation.

There's a man in two of the community college classes I'm taking: Poetry (writing, as well as study of), and then Prose (ditto, with an emphasis on short fiction). On the first day of class, in both classes, we all introduced ourselves and talked about what sorts of poetry/fiction we liked to read, which authors we admired and wanted to emulate, what sorts of things we wrote.

He explained that he hadn't really read much poetry. Almost never read books. He couldn't name a single poet, much less one he liked, or any set of favorite authors. But he'd recently read the best book he'd ever read in his entire life, and it had inspired him to do more writing himself. He wanted to learn how to write something that good, and get it published. So he'd come down to the community college and signed up for two classes to do exactly that.

The "best book ever", of course, was Twilight. And however much the gender dynamics in that book creep me the hell out, I really have to admire that it got at least one person to go to all that trouble because it was that damn inspirational to him.

#367 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:06 AM:

skzb @361

Yes. I'm sure. I've already pointed to a couple of such references in this thread, and so have other kind and well-read people participating here. it really is a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sidney's Defense of Poesie, linked above in my immediately previous post, is late 16th century, for example, and very much concerned with precisely what you've asked.

The idea that some writing improves the reader, while some spoils or taints the reader is pretty old.

#368 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:13 AM:

#361@skzb asks

RE: MacAllister @ 352: "There is a long, long, VERY long tradition of sorting written stuff into what we're supposed to like, vs. stuff that's fun and "trashy" and we're supposed to be embarrassed about reading."

at which @skzb asks:

Um. Are you sure? Does this tradition pre-date the 20th Century? Can you point me at anything that indicates that it does?

I'm sure.

It's part of the Platonic tradition re: The Republic and what will and won't be allowed.

It's embedded in the lists of texts for the trivium and quadrivium, which typically includes that ones that are "trash" and fabulae, and not to be taught. It's the reason behind Sidney's Defense, which is a reply to Gosse's The Schoole of Abuse.

It runs through into Richardson arguing that Clarissa was not immoral but didactic, and not, therefore, titillating (see Shamela as Fielding's response) and Austen's parody of novels and the Gothic in particular as "immoral."

See Dicken's efforts to defend his work from the criticism that they were popular and trash, or the early responses to lending libraries with (gasp!) novels in them.

Or see Louisa May Alcott on Huckleberry Finn, when as a library board member in Concord, N. H. she wrote "wrote that "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them." It was, to her way of thinking a trashy novel. The funny thing about that is that she secretly wrote "trashy novels," and called them that, that were not at all like Little Women.

Or the way people still trash romance, especially category romances, as "trash," "not really writing," etc. etc.

#369 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:50 AM:

I've seen various opinions on Twilight. At one level, it is Romance, and emotion, without the icky sex stuff. Vampires have been sex-substitutes at least since Bram Stoker. But, at the same time, I do hear some pretty scathing stuff about the gender messages that mechanism carries.

Somebody ought to write a vampire novel about the geeky boy who falls in with a vampire girl, who manages to be scarily honest about being a vampire, and about her lust for blood (I recall a couple of girls at school who, I hope, were bragging about kinky sex), but who chooses not to drag him off to the cemetery.

#370 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:06 AM:

SKZB @361, how about Aristotle's Poetics? "So we are told that Epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; Tragedy, to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is evidently the lower of the two." (Translated by Ingram Bywater.)

Aristotle then goes on to argue with this view, and claim that tragedy can actually be superior to epic poetry, but the argument establishes that the division into sophisticated and unsophisticated art existed in his time.

#371 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:13 AM:

MacAllister & Lisa: I think I was reading things into it you weren't saying. I accept the distinction between "reading stuff that's good for you" and "reading stuff that isn't," and that this distinction has been attempted to be made for a long time.

1. It seems to me that the distinction between "fiction for the masses" and "literature for the elite" is a 20th century aberration.

2. Is the above the same as the distinction you were making? It seems different.

#372 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:53 AM:

skzb @ 372: "It seems to me that the distinction between "fiction for the masses" and "literature for the elite" is a 20th century aberration."

Er . . . no. This distinction was in place by the early 19th century -- see "Dickens, Charles", et. al.. For a specific class of works which evoked considerably more emphatic distinctions, see the (primarily U.S.) "dime novels" of the latter half of that century, many (but hardly all) of which specifically celebrated the challenges and opportunities of the (American) Western frontier.

This set of distinctions however, seems to properly be a mere continuation of the literary concerns which arose no later than the early 18th century in horrified response to the genre of "novels" (see "Defoe, Daniel", et. al.) which had arisen to e/n/t/i/c/e/ corrupt the gullible public of the day . . .

Which, in turn, were not all that far removed -- either in time or in interests -- from the "groundlings" who roared their appreciation at the Globe Theatre in London, when plays written by that hack Bill Shakespeare brought in capacity audiences.

#373 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 03:24 AM:

Xopher @ 346: "in my opinion every bit of reading that moves you makes you a better person—if you let it."

I don't think this is true--I think that if literature has the capacity to improve us, then it must certainly have the power to worsen us. Apologies for sexism, rationales for racism and xenophobia, calls for fascist policies don't make you a better person. Perhaps some people will read them and come to a better understanding of what makes such people tick, but it's equally if not more likely that such works will lead the reader towards becoming a worse human being: one who is quicker to act without thought or compassion.

Note that this is a distinct claim from "It is possible for us human merely beings to reliably tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff," and "Those good/bad effects are consistent from reader to reader," neither of which I hold to.

Avram @ 351: "But reading hundreds of pages of prose is enough work, and takes enough time, that I reserve it for things that make my brain-gears spin faster, not slower."

Even an entirely new book can be easy comfort reading, though. It's not the repetition that is the essential factor, but the feeling it engenders.

#374 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 04:02 AM:

MacAllister @352:
Way back in PNH's post @ #50, wasn't it, he said something to the effect of wanting to tell his friends "those tall-booted, swagger-sticked, black-clad critics aren't here, now, and they cannot hurt you any more." (Okay...I'm taking radical license with his actual post, but too tired to go find and quote it for real.) What he said is true, though.

(Not especially picking on you; this is a recurring touchstone throughout the conversation, and for good reason. It's a valuable comment.)

But the thing is, one of them was in the thread, and did hurt me, or at least made the conversation sufficiently unpleasant for me that I find myself disinclined to re-engage. Furthermore, I get the feeling that that tone, that outcome, was a deliberate choice.

I'm not trying turn this into a grudge match. I'm sure I'm just being oversensitive or something; I note that the other people he took after bounced back better than I did. But just be aware that playing the game of literary discussion for the win does still happen, right here and now, even among adults. We are not at the promised land.

Please do feel free to play, but play nice. Crossing threads, remember that a lot of people here show the characteristic twitches produced by early and persistent bullying.

#375 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:28 AM:

abi @375

I've had that same response to this thread. And was just as reluctant to venture back in, honestly. Clearly, I should have heeded that feeling sooner.

I do apologize for any offense I've given

#376 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:31 AM:

MacAllister @376:

Hey, no! It wasn't you! That was the "not picking on you" thing; I was just quoting you to tie it to the running discussion.

Please stay! Please keep talking! Please keep being nice the way people have been since that blowup! I'm reading with interest.

#377 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:39 AM:

Abi, ah. I misread you. Thank you for clarifying.

These discussions very much have power, and I'm not sure why. I'm not sure why people talk about being embarrassed by the covers of this book or that. We're definitely not at the promised land, just yet.

#378 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:23 AM:

Well, book covers are a different issue, but they are about how the book is being sold, including assumptions about the target audience. And so the question arises: do I want to be seen as part of that target audience?

And that same question is why people may react so badly to the memes of literary criticism. The idea that a book expresses your social class, however it might be defined, is lurking there. The literary/genre split can easily be taken as an accusation of being low class, somebody with no finer appreciation, a brute.

A garish, formulaic, genre-cover, exposes your tastes, and then you get walloped by the lit-crit-driven assumptions.

Some of the book covers create a sense of nakedness. I don't want the art and publicity people of $_BIGNAME publisher to rip my pants off.

#379 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 07:04 AM:

MacAllister @378
I'm not sure why people talk about being embarrassed by the covers of this book or that.

All I have done in this thread has been ill done, but I'm a slow learner. I'll take a stab at this one.

I think that we learn about analyzing literature, and begin to be graded on analyzing literature, at a peculiarly vulnerable age.

Adolescents are only just at the stage of mental complexity and technical reading ability* where they can really grasp the internal mechanics of storytelling. Unfortunately, adolescents are also just trying on their adulthood, figuring out what standards they're going to be judged by and how they measure up to them.

To me at that age, English class was both a delight and a minefield. On a math test, if my answer was wrong, it was wrong; if my proof took a wrong turn, the teacher could show me where. But prose is fuzzy and interpretation judgemental. I tended to do well at on my essays—and enjoy writing them, by the way—but I was rarely confident that I was "right". And I never felt that I really took the training wheels off those skills.

Thing is, most of the things that I felt insecure about in high school, I left behind. I don't go to proms, get picked for teams in PE, or date. But I do read, and think about what I read. But when I try to talk about what works and what doesn't, I'm back in sixth grade handing an essay into Mrs Elias, with no clue how I've done.

The only other thing that I can think of that pushes those same buttons is appearing in a swimsuit in public.

-----
* attention span, vocabulary, tracking of longer story lines and larger casts of characters, plus a certain facility with abstraction and pattern-matching to generalize between texts

#380 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 07:50 AM:

MacAllister @ 378
I'm not sure why people talk about being embarrassed by the covers of this book or that.

Well, part of it may be attached to the fact that many people are intensely concerned about the image of themselves that they present to the world. There are people who will make an assessment of the content of your character - based solely on your shoes. This is not necessarily a conscious process. We all have some preconceived notions or prejudices about other people that we apply when making a snap judgment. Sometimes these are reasonable, often they are not. If books are so important that you cannot conceive of a life or an identity separate from them, then it's pretty natural that you will identify with someone who shares your tastes as a kindred spirit. And of course the contrary can apply as well.

(I must add here that I was relieved to find out that Sherman Alexie won't clean my clock if he happens to see me on the München S-Bahn.)

It's not a nice impulse to feel automatic revulsion towards someone because they're carrying, oh...say a copy of "The Turner Diaries", but it's certainly an understandable one.

#381 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:02 AM:

Vicki @356

When I made that remark about "good fiction requires work," I was trying to explain a point of view that's not mine. I might have made my own point of view unclear, I did a lot of typing back there. I was just trying to elaborate on my earlier, spicier metaphor.

Also, for anyone who felt uncomfortable in this discussion due to any language or zeal of mine, please know that the last thing I want to do is alienate people. If you tell me to knock it off, I promise I will.

#382 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:17 AM:

MacAllister, #378: I'm not sure why people talk about being embarrassed by the covers of this book or that.

Some covers really are that tasteless.

Even if Charles Stross's Saturn's Children wasn't below par for Stross I'd still be unwilling to buy a copy of the American paperback edition. The hardcover, maybe. I could take off the dust jacket and throw it away. The paperback? Never. It's impossible to remove the plastic sexbot without ruining the book... and the designers cleverly positioned the illustration so that, as the book rests on the shelf, the spine proudly and prominently displays Freya's crotch.

#383 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:23 AM:

dlbowman76, #381: There are people who will make an assessment of the content of your character - based solely on your shoes.

It's more complicated with books, though, since your shoes don't actually say anything useful about you. Book covers, at least theoretically, are intended to convey something about the books they cover. A book with an ugly or misleading cover might send unwanted messages about the reader's tastes or interests.

#384 ::: Mike Leung ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:24 AM:
dlbowman76 @ 345: That's a powerful statement...but it could also be argued to be inherently selfish. I know I'm banging on this "utility" drum relentlessly, but hear me out. Being deeply emotionally touched is *valuable*, I certainly wouldn't argue that. But does it do good? Does it improve me as a person? You're right that reading does have a deep personal benefit and makes us feel good, but someone of a less sympathetic bent might say - so does alcohol.

Unless someone can provide a better definition, the baseline for respect seems to be validating someone's account of what they're going through. But, experience being the contrast to reason, and reason being the contrast to experience (this contrast perhaps forming the foundation of the observation "you can't possess your cake and eat it, too"), the most super-incisive tools for articulating our experiences, which seems to be Jungian analysis, is beyond the access of 99.44% of the population of what we consider the industrialized world (if you don't include the people who have gotten it wrong). The most accessible tools are art. And somewhere in the middle of super-incisive and accessible is written fiction. It is the conventional means by which we fulfill to the best of our ability the principle that you are qualified to call things what they are when you know what you are. You may as well observe that words are not interchangeable with the things they represent, and wonder what *their* utility is.

#385 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:27 AM:

Avram, #358: Are you keeping an eye on the anthology Mome? I haven't been keeping up with my comics reading and haven't seen this year's volumes yet, but in previous years it's published some excellent SFnal stories.

It's also worth keeping an eye out for the work Jim Woodring and Cathy Malkasian are reported to be coming out with later this year.

#386 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 09:09 AM:

Wesley @ 383... Meanwhile, my Freya is no sexbot, and, as can be seen here, she knows how to deal with nearly robotic beings.

#387 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:13 AM:

heresiarch #374:

Yeah, this is the way it looks to me, too. It seems hard to imagine that literature can only improve you.

#388 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:37 AM:

abi @ 375

I'm glad you're back.

#389 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:43 AM:

I keep thinking (looking at my own reading) that when you have a lot of choice in what you read, that acts as a kind of amplifier for your interests and personality and intelligence and all. Plenty of people get out of high school and never finish another book. Other people don't go a week without reading a book unless they're seriously ill or getting married or something. Right there, this amplifies the starting differences between them.

The same thing happens with genres, I think. People inclined to like mystery or adventure or romance or SF probably become more inclined in that direction, as they read more and more of it. You can expand your tastes (and lots of people do--I probably would never have enjoyed Jane Austen's books without the habit of mind of putting on a different culture and worldview so I could understand the motivations of people living in a fundamentally alien world), but the direction of the expansion is probably determined partly by your previous reading.

This fits a broad pattern, I think--the more choices you have, the more relatively small starting differences between people can grow huge, as they seek out very different inputs.

#390 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:47 AM:

abi... What pat greene said @ 389.

#391 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:06 PM:

Abi #380: I think that jibes with the type of discomfort I feel when talking about books I love--it's the same spot in my brain as where the adolescent awkwardness lives. There was a comment earlier about reading to share experiences with friends and family, and I was suprised that someone would willingly do that. It's like talking religion or politics, the stakes are just too high.

And it's odd, because it's not nearly as difficult for me to talk about other art forms without being hurt by a different opinion. Hearing that a friend doesn't like one of my favorite books hurts the way it hurts to find out that two friends dislike each other. Which is probably a similar adolescence thing.

Or maybe it's just the time investment. A song or a movie is only a few hours, but a good book is more like spending all day having a fabulous conversation.

#392 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 12:15 PM:

Me too, abi.

#393 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:01 PM:

dlbowman76 @345 You're right that reading does have a deep personal benefit and makes us feel good, but someone of a less sympathetic bent might say - so does alcohol.

and heresiarch @374 I think that if literature has the capacity to improve us, then it must certainly have the power to worsen us.

Fiction has all the power, for good and ill, of vicarious experience. It allows us to see things through other people's eyes, see places and times we've never been or can never go, experience things we never have and some we wouldn't want to if we could. In general I think this is an excellent thing, and of benefit to society as well as the individual, by increasing the pool of knowledge and ideas and the breadth of empathy.

But it does potentially have a down side. It's easier to hide unpalatable ideas in a narrative and have them swallowed hook, line, and sinker. (Not saying this is usually done on purpose, though sometimes it is.) Fiction affects the way you see the world, and in the same way a steady diet of ain't-it-awful TV news can make you think that crime is a greater danger than it is objectively, a steady diet of some books can make you think that "everyone" betrays their friends, steals from their boss, cheats on their spouse, or finds violence a perfectly acceptable form of problem solving. It puts you at risk of attitudes you absorb without even noticing them, because they're not stated directly, but are instead an implied subtext of "all right-thinking people know this."

Somewhere in one of Louisa May Alcott's books - either Eight Cousins or its sequel, I think - she talks about some novels (French ones, I believe, rather than good honest English ones - which is of course its own form of implicit snobbery) and that the poison is more dangerous for being wrapped in a bonbon. I believe this.

Heresiarch @374 went on to say Note that this is a distinct claim from "It is possible for us human merely beings to reliably tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff," and "Those good/bad effects are consistent from reader to reader," neither of which I hold to.

I tend to agree there, too. I think the effect is real, I think it's something to watch in my own reading and it was something I paid attention to in my kids' reading. But I deeply disagree with any blanket attempts to define what others should be permitted to read.

On a much lighter note, my personal example of "no piece of reading is ever entirely useless" was a book of TV and radio bloopers, from which I learned the word paean from an item about a radio ad with the unfortunate turn of phrase, "Let us now paean so-and-so's ice cream."

#394 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:15 PM:

#336

[ Amory treated Princeton as an opportunity to develop a pretense with which to socialize, and as far as he devoted his time to its practice rather than reasoning it through, I don't think it can be said he debated much of anything at all. ]

I didn't read / hear the Princeton experience that way. He comes under the influence of one different sort of classmate after another -- he challenges, he changes, as far as his privileged condition allows. But they all are privileged, the bespoke legacy inheritors of the earth.

What most changes Amory is the end of the family money, not the loss of the girl. He finds a new girl. He's always found a new girl. Anyway, in my granted, feminist, female reading, Amory doesn't really like girls or women. Nor do I grant McKee any value. He, in company iwth Joseph Campbell's hero's journey have done a great deal to create a great number of meaningless cookie-cutter boring scripts. Because McKee's pop sensibility never understood literature in the first place, anymore than Campbell's pop mythology has anything to do with actual archtype and mythology. Yes. I did take McKee's course once. I didn't want to, but some friends decided to send me and so I had to attend. What a scam!

But that's how it is with works of art -- they provoke many different kinds of readings, and survive them all.

Love, C.

#395 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:18 PM:

abi @ 375 if I'm correct in my reading of that, I have to agree. That mode of engagement is one reason why I won't have anything to do online with the individual who uses it. I am even reluctant to step into threads where I agree with them if they are already involved in the conversation.

On the broader front of why I read what I read, there are multiple modes. One of the most important is to be drawn out of myself. What some call escapism I prefer to think of as transcendence. The kind of fiction I most like to read puts me in someone's head other than my own, and gives me perspective on what goes on inside the black box that is the mind of another human being. Not only do I take great pleasure from the experience but I would argue (to touch on another of the threads in the discussion) that the fellow feeling and empathy it builds for those around us would be one of the most important social utilities of reading. By creating emotional bonds with other people, even purely fictional people, reading helps to create links between us and make us aware of being a part of something more than the self.

#396 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:21 PM:

skzb@#372

1. It seems to me that the distinction between "fiction for the masses" and "literature for the elite" is a 20th century aberration.

2. Is the above the same as the distinction you were making? It seems different.

The distinction I was making is related but not identical. That said, the distinction between "fiction for the masses" and "literature for the elite" was very much part of the medieval lit landscape.

Until fairly late, in terms of post Norman conquest lit, the literature that was "literature" was in Latin or French, not the vulgar stuff in Middle English. A standard thing for medievalists to point out is that Gower wrote in all three languages.

The Middle English Metrical Romances would likely qualify as "trash" reading; Lydgate as "literature," then, based on the comments we have about them. Chaucer makes loving fun of the metrical romances.

I note that we have one copy in ms. of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We have six of Beves of Hampton.

When I did my first M.A., I wanted to write about the metrical romances; two medievalists tried to dissuade from writing about them because they were "trashy." I wrote about them anyway.

I see others have pointed at the penny dreadfuls, and reminded us again of Austen's comments in Northanger Abbey.

#397 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 01:29 PM:

#394 ::: OtterB

It was in Alcott's Eight Cousins.

Another person who references Alcott -- Yay!

To make up for her Huckleberry Finn stance, she did write a powerful, short fiction piece for the newspapers from the pov of a slave girl, as part of one of the waves of abolitionists to educate the public about the evils of slavery. I have it saved to my computer's hd, it's that short.

Love, C.

#398 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:09 PM:

abi @ 380: "All I have done in this thread has been ill done, but I'm a slow learner."

I am forced to disagree. People are not mugged because they are bad at walking.

(I'm glad you're back, btw.)

OtterB @ 394: "But it does potentially have a down side. It's easier to hide unpalatable ideas in a narrative and have them swallowed hook, line, and sinker."

I think a very real and concrete example of that effect is the widespread acceptance of torture in modern American culture. It was spearheaded, in my humble, by shows like 24 that argued that torture was sometimes necessary and even admirable. (One of the reasons I like Burn Notice is that they regularly make the point that torture doesn't actually get you accurate information.)

#399 ::: Mike Leung ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:16 PM:
Constance @ 396: I didn't read / hear the Princeton experience that way. He comes under the influence of one different sort of classmate after another -- he challenges, he changes, as far as his privileged condition allows. But they all are privileged, the bespoke legacy inheritors of the earth.

Phrases like "Having decided to be one of the gods of the class..." were typical of Amory's attitude of his stay as Princeton. Practically the first thing he did after setting his bag down was to people-watch and size up the Princeton social-personas. Socializing came first for Amory. The reason Amory marveled at becoming acquainted with Burne in their last year was specifically because Burne was the schollar you're crediting Amory for being, and Amory became completely indifferent to him socially immediately in their first year.

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/This_Side_of_Paradise/Book_One/Chapter_2

Constance @ 396: What most changes Amory is the end of the family money, not the loss of the girl. He finds a new girl. He's always found a new girl.

Unless I missed it, the book does not show Amory recover from the one occasion his heart is broken. And I think the book ends with him refusing to liquidate the house he grew up in in St Paul for purely sentimental reasons.

Constance @ 396: He, in company iwth Joseph Campbell's hero's journey have done a great deal to create a great number of meaningless cookie-cutter boring scripts.

I only brought up McKee because Fitzgerald's cookies seem to fit his cutter. Blaming Campbell and McKee for bad writing seems to make as much sense as blaming words for bad writing. The standardization of language as embodied by the dictionary seems very much like the principles of archetypal representation. You don't have to use every word in the dictionary to write a book, either. You can say someone should come up with a better pantheon, or a better way to present a pantheon, of archetypal representation. But, until someone does, they are the only games of their kind in town.

#400 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 02:20 PM:

heresiarch #400:

Amen! Similarly, I strongly suspect that our weirdly police-loving/police-hating culture is largely a product of our massive number of TV and movie police dramas. And that both much conspiracy theorizing and much actual conspiracy at various levels of government and other large organization is helped along (or made possible) by the common conspiracies in fiction, particularly action movies. And probably some part of our culture's weird love/hate thing with guns, as well.

At a broader level, as I've talked about at way too much length in the past, the whole poisonous idea that you become a hero by discarding the restrictions placed on you by civilization (think Dirty Harry) has had a terrible effect on our country. And popular movies, TV shows, and books are chock full of that idea.

#401 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 03:06 PM:

@402: Heroes are often ambiguous figures--Achilles, Odysseus, Heracles. They're the guys you want on your side because they're so powerful and dangerous. John Gardner used to say that heroes are monsters, and he built that notion into Grendel, which echoes much of his classroom commentary on Beowulf.

One might argue that the Dirty Harry-Jack Bauer protagonist is an expression of various anxieties in the audience, a feeling that the rules are no longer protecting us, and we need our monsters to fight their monsters.

On the other side, there's Chandler's notion that the guy who walks the mean streets should not be mean himself--but that chivalric ideal is always being threatened in the Marlowe stories. And in Hammett's version of hard-boiled, the borders are even fuzzier and more permeable. Look at Red Harvest.

#402 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:07 PM:

. . . has been ill done . . .

Abi, I must join the chorus of reassurance. As a card-carrying, credentialed, tenured Piled-Higher-and-Deeper in the field, I am qualified to assure you that the bully's arguments abused logic as well as audience. Not only did you not invite or deserve the tone, you were also right on the substance. Whoever said he was "moving goalposts" was right on the money.

#403 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:39 PM:

OK, the elephant in the room: did Nick just get disgusted with all us low-minded sorts and take himself off, or has he been banned? I want to know so I'll know how to act if I encounter him elsewhere.

#404 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 05:53 PM:

Xopher @405:
I was not privy to whatever private discussions may have occurred; I had recused myself from the management of the situation for obvious reasons.

My own general approach, when meeting people elsewhere who have been banned, or who have embarrassed themselves, here, is that what awkwardness happens on Making Light stays on Making Light. Sometimes, you know, people encounter situations or atmospheres that cause them to behave more badly than is their general wont. And sometimes they learn to behave better, break bad habits, or get out of whatever rut was causing them to be offensive.

(I take a different tack for good things.)

#405 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:02 PM:

And pat greene, Serge, Xopher, heresiarch and rm?

Thanks. This thread has been a real struggle for me, starting with the IM conversation I had with Patrick as he posted it. But I've learned a lot, both about the topic and the meta-topic of how we talk about these things.

#406 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:16 PM:

OK, I just Googled him finally. I really had no idea who he was at all until now. Much is explained.

With the new information, he shifts categories in my mind. I think I'll just avoid him in the future, rather than take your approach, abi.

#407 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:28 PM:

Me too, abi. I have more appreciation for the lit-crit approach/viewpoint than I did before this thread, and dramatically more than I had just before Nick left. The conversation since then has been incredibly enlightening.

You're also right in your earlier statement, that we did have one of the people Patrick mentioned in #50 in here, and he was hurting us. (Yeah, the things he said about me hurt. I no longer believe the "act like it doesn't bother you" approach to bullying that I was taught as a child.) But there were plenty of people who were civil and friendly, on every side, and once the bully ducked/was pushed out, I learned a lot.

Thank you, everyone.

#408 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:29 PM:

#400 ::: heresiarch

[ OtterB @ 394: "But it does potentially have a down side. It's easier to hide unpalatable ideas in a narrative and have them swallowed hook, line, and sinker." ]

Another terrible and influential example is Birth of a Nation.

Which contributes to the concept that movies tell you lies (particularly when it comes to the confederacy and slavery) while music tells you the truth about what it is to be human and minority.

Love, C.

#409 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 06:45 PM:

abi @ 407... Glad I could help.

#410 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:39 PM:

OtterB @ 394: I think a very real and concrete example of that effect is the widespread acceptance of torture in modern American culture. It was spearheaded, in my humble, by shows like 24 that argued that torture was sometimes necessary and even admirable.

obSF, I have a friend who defended the lamest ST Voyager episodes*, but broke with Enterprise when Captain Archer was shown torturing a captive by putting him in an airlock and venting the atmosphere.

* From the perspective of waiting for ages since the original series, having new Star Trek on TV was a blessing — "It's Trek, for God's sake!"

#411 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 08:58 PM:

Constance @410: Which contributes to the concept that movies tell you lies [..] while music tells you the truth about what it is to be human and minority.

Actually, I think music helps sell the movies' lies — it seems to me that the music telegraphs how you are supposed to be feeling about what it is that you're seeing*.

A critic** talking about films of the 80s and 90s thought that future generations would consider them insanely over-orchestrated.


* I'll accept that you might mean something different and better by music than 'accompanying soundtrack' would suggest. Many people say 'illustration' is not 'art'.

** Forgot who; the original article was in The Atlantic (in the 90s) if that helps...

#412 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 09:25 PM:

Constance @399 Another person who references Alcott -- Yay! Yep. I acknowledge all of the problems with the attitudes embedded in those books, but they are still among my comfort reads.

#413 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 10:32 PM:

abi, yesyesyes, not only I'm glad you're back but I had the same reaction. I was all thinking about books I particularly liked and why and then there was this argument and I just didn't want to do that and what I liked seemed all stupid and trivial. And I know it's not, but still.

Anyway. Cover-shyness. It's less a worry now than when I was a teenager. I had a 35¢ per week allowance, and I was buying ERB's Mars series (and Pelucidar, and Venus) off the order forms in the backs of the books I had as I got them, and Conans too, as and when. The local library didn't have them, and Ace or Dell wanted 95¢ to a buck twenty-five, so it was a torturous process. I won't get into the 8-week shipping time, but still and all they sent me all I paid for so I've no call to fault them.

But still, the covers! They were lurid, it's the only word for it. I'm wanting the books because they're good yarns, and all about nobility and honour and sacrifice and glory and fabulous treasures and uncharted realms and decayed cities and everything except strip malls and tract housing and polyester. And still, the covers, and the young soldiers seeing them thinking I'm faster than I am or know lots about the stuff they sincerely hoped someone knew something about.

Kraft paper is a young girl's best friend.

But my first encounter with Literature, on an equal paying basis, was when I was told off to do a book report on Pamela for HS. Previously I'd thought of elderly writing as somehow elevated, since if it were trash who would be still reading it? But I read Pamela and I couldn't escape thinking, "This is trailer-park trash, dressed up in costume. I know this chick. I just double-dated at the drive-in with her."

I was at a party up the road, and dancing with basketball players, dunno why. I remember cos they were sporting rodeo belt buckles, darn near at my eye level, and I'm not all that short. Well, maybe some short. Still, I left the party early to write the report, while it still resonated. I compared it to that icon of romantic trash, Sweet, Savage Love and brought in Shamela and just went to town in a carriage and four. Literature had come down off the pedestal, ditched her corset, and settled in for an evening's gossip and shooters.

I wasn't all the way cured of believing old writings == Really Good No Matter What, still not, but the experience went a long ways to shoring up the idea that I get to like what I like, and more, that because I like something doesn't mean it's bad, and if I don't like it that doesn't mean it's too high-falutin' to speak to my lowbrow tastes.

#414 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 10:58 PM:

albatross @ 402: "At a broader level, as I've talked about at way too much length in the past, the whole poisonous idea that you become a hero by discarding the restrictions placed on you by civilization (think Dirty Harry) has had a terrible effect on our country. And popular movies, TV shows, and books are chock full of that idea."

Yeah. Serenity is a great critique of that meme. Totally un-Whedon-related, but on Tor.com David Weber was talking about how Honor Harrington was a flawed hero, no really!, because she disobeyed orders. Sorry, but no: Disobeying Direct Orders is pretty much the standard second stage of military heroism, right after Effortless Display of Awesome Skillz and followed by Vindication and Crow-Eating by Foolish Senior Officers. I'm waiting for the military drama where the hero cleverly follows orders and uses the regulations to achieve her goals. Not holding my breath, though.

abi @ 407: You're welcome!

Constance @ 410: "Which contributes to the concept that movies tell you lies (particularly when it comes to the confederacy and slavery) while music tells you the truth about what it is to be human and minority."

That idea strikes me as dangerously wrong--no medium is free from deceit. I mean, Prussian Blue.

#415 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:46 PM:

heresiarch #416: I'm waiting for the military drama where the hero cleverly follows orders and uses the regulations to achieve her goals.

That sounds like many episodes of JAG.

#416 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2009, 11:47 PM:

MacAllister @352 and Abi @375, the type of people Patrick actually described @50 was a "small coterie" who "hold an extreme, aestheticized view of literature", and he thought it remarkable that SF fans cede this small group the "power to define the terms of discourse".

Now, I know Nick Mamatas, have been reading his LJ for years, and have read some of his fiction. He's hardly an extreme aesthete. All you have to do is scroll up to his ct @172 and see him saying that what one person likes, another may dislike, and vice-versa. That's the exact opposite of the "extreme, aestheticized view" that Patrick described.

Then we get the argument. Sean Sakamoto says, @177, that "there is a significant readership that values difficulty over pleasure in a text". Nick disagrees, and asks Sean for specifics. Abi brings Adam Roberts into it. We then get an argument over whether Roberts actually enjoys the books he praises.

(Which is silly, incidentally, because Roberts's post was about Hugo-worthiness, not enjoyment. A typical SF fan probably reads and enjoys an order of magnitude more genre books in a typical year than he or she considers Hugo-worthy. Roberts doesn't care whether fans read or enjoyed Zoe's Tale; he just thinks we shouldn't have nominated it for the Hugo.)

From my point of view, this is the mirror image of the genre-lover's stereotype of the snobbish critic who disses beloved genre works. Instead, we've got a bunch of genre fans insisting that people with high literary standards can't actually be enjoying the books they say they like. And Nick, who's been designated the official Bad Guy of the thread, has now also been pressed into service as the classic bogeyman of SF fandom, all for the crime of being somewhat brusque when he asserted that people who praise books actually like the books they praise, even if they don't like the books you like.

I know I didn't ban him, and Abi says she didn't. I'm pretty sure that if Jim, TNH, or PNH had banned him, they'd've mentioned it. He probably just got tired of banging his head against the wall.

#417 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:11 AM:

Avram, the problem I'm seeing is that the Hugos aren't about which genre books have sufficient literary quality for the critics, they're about which books the readers (aka fans) like. (I liked Anathem. And Zoe's Tale. In 1983, I preferred Courtship Rite to whatever Asimov book actually won, and I thought that Friday didn't belong on the ballot. Clearly, I was outvoted.)

#418 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:24 AM:

Avram at #418,
I'd like to point out that I never said a thing about Nick Mamatas -- who actually said a couple of things I agree with wholeheartedly -- one way or the other.

So I'm perplexed as to why you're apparently feeling a need to take me to task for picking on your friend?

I was, frankly, concerned that I'd inadvertently been bruising towards Abi, who I consider to be a sane and kind voice of humanity, just in general. I would very much have regretted doing so.

And I'll certainly confess to my own degree of defensiveness in the preceding discussion, which, to my reading, seem rather full of inexplicable miscommunication between members of a community that typically aren't usually so prickly or so defensive. That, all by itself, seems deeply curious with regard to the subject matter.

#419 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:24 AM:

PJ Evans @419, how and for whom is that a problem, exactly?

#420 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:44 AM:

avram,
I can't agree with your characterization of this thread. I don't think anyone insisted "that people with high literary standards can't actually be enjoying the books they say they like."

I did suggest that some folks think difficulty iteslf is meritorious. I never suggested that those people didn't like reading difficult work. I posited that they liked it just because it's difficult. I even went out of my way to relate to that mindset, by admitting that I once had that approach to literature and that I approach some music in that way.

I think that the whole discussion up until Nick came was very civil, disagreements and all. People were debating in good faith, and I think that Nick was in 'internet attack mode.'

People like talking about this stuff without having their shields up, and Nick's tone was kind of nasty. He was condescending and sarcastic. The internet is a force multiplier for sarcasm, one just need to add a touch of sneer to make a disagreement feel very harsh, and I think that Nick didn't adjust his tone to his audience and he stepped on some toes.

Folks were describing how they felt about interactions they had with other folks, and Nick was demanding proof like a Orly Tait screaming for Obama's birth certficate at a town hall meeting on health care.

#421 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:44 AM:

MacAllister @420, sorry, I didn't mean to accuse you of being picking on Nick. That comment started out as being about your misquote of Patrick's ct @50, which Abi then repeated, and it sort of grew as I reread the thread. And somewhere in the middle of it I ran out to see Ponyo.

#422 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 12:56 AM:

Avram, Nick resorted to some illegitimate rhetorical moves. He violated the principle of charity, which in rhetoric means that you take your opponent seriously.

He posed a challenge rather than asking for clarification. He set himself up as the judge. He shot down responses instead of responding thoughtfully. He berated others for not meeting his standards. He moved the goalposts. He began to sound self-righteous. He was more than brusque, he was dismissive and insulting. He failed to consider any charitable reading of responses he got. He spoke of someone's mama.

BEFORE he set up that challenge, I though he said a number of things I could agree with, and some things I could think about while disagreeing. He seemed respectful. Something changed.

Clicking on his blog, I don't see anything objectionable. But he seems to have gotten caught up in the desire to win, to be right, instead of to converse. Oh, well.

#423 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 01:18 AM:

Sean @422:

I did suggest that some folks think difficulty iteslf is meritorious. I never suggested that those people didn't like reading difficult work. I posited that they liked it just because it's difficult. I even went out of my way to relate to that mindset, by admitting that I once had that approach to literature and that I approach some music in that way.

About that, I do think you're perhaps right. I can't remember now who brought up the example of sudoku -- it may well have been you, now that I'm thinking about it -- but I keep thinking of the various ways people approach and enjoy different sorts of puzzles: Logic, crosswords, word-finders, sudoku, or what-have-you.

Reading tastes seem to me to have something in common with the puzzle tastes of individuals. We like different things for different reasons at different stages of our lives and in different moods.

Teresa mentioned Gertrude Stein, upriver, who played word games that I still enjoy very much. Joyce's Finnegan's Wake on the other hand, I find seriously inaccessible unless I'm in exactly the right frame of mind. Neither of those writers meet the same needs. Nor do either or those writers answer the desire that sends me out for the latest King, Bear, Bujold, or Kingsolver novel.

It's that odd place where we seem to be making value judgments -- even inadvertently -- about those choices, either or own or other people's, that things quickly become oddly prickly and fraught, both inside and outside my own head.

#424 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 01:22 AM:

abi, you're welcome.

Avram? A point that you are missing here is that several people, myself included, told of experiences with people who valued difficulty of text over pleasure as the measure of how good a book it was, only to have Nick totally ignore them and claim that no such people existed. For my part, you can look at what I wrote at 226 and 255. He wasn't having a conversation - he was playing to win.

Instead, we've got a bunch of genre fans insisting that people with high literary standards can't actually be enjoying the books they say they like.

I would call that a mischaracterization in the extreme of what the argument in the thread was about.

I did not like having Nick in the thread not because I disagreed with him; I disagree with people all the time here. I disliked it because he was rude, snide, and dismissive of other people's experiences.

#425 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:05 AM:

heresiarch @ 416: "I'm waiting for the military drama where the hero cleverly follows orders and uses the regulations to achieve her goals. Not holding my breath, though."

Oh, man. Jim MacDonald could kick ass on that! Can I do a cover blurb?

#426 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:14 AM:

Sean @422, actually, Xopher said exactly that about Adam Roberts, though he later took it back. See his ct @280. ("I was saying that Adam wassiz wasn't saying he enjoyed the books he was recommending. I may have been wrong about that.") And you're the one who said "there is a significant readership that values difficulty over pleasure in a text". Now you seem to be backing off from that position, and saying instead that these people you describe find pleasure in difficulty, which is a different thing.

And Nick explained why he asked for examples @191.

I'm not actually all that interested in defending Nick or everything he's said. What primarily interests me is that Patrick's ct @50 reminded everyone that they don't have to be afraid of literary aesthetes, but that apparently the fear of those aesthetes runs so deep that someone advocating an explicitly anti-aesthete position can get tarred as one just because he has a rude commenting style.

#427 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:18 AM:

abi @380

I left for a little bit to digest what you said. It really resonates with me. English was a passion, yet I also had a recognition that, although I could construct a coherent sentence, I was not a naturally gifted writer. Analysis was hit and miss: I knew what was a good because my beloved Mrs. K told me that good books were definitionally difficult books, that that was how you learned to read good books properly. But the books I devoured for pleasure* were mysteries: every Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, then D.L. Sayers and many many short stories. But those weren't "good." (Except maybe Raymond Chandler.)

To this day, I am never sure if I know what a "good" book is, only what books I enjoy. So then we come to this thread. There are points where it is a stretch for me to understand some of the more rarified discussions (which is often true at ML), but I feel I've gained a lot by participating, if I can get over my flashes of defensiveness here and there.

*with some exceptions: my senior year I plowed through the complete works of Eugene O'Neill.


#428 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:23 AM:

OK, fair enough. Patrick said we don't have to fear literary snobs. We talked a bit about literary snobs.

Then this guy came, and called bullshit on all of us in a nasty and belittling way. Then we called him a literary snob. It kind of makes sense to me.

#429 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:34 AM:

Avram @ 418: "the type of people Patrick actually described @50 was a "small coterie" who "hold an extreme, aestheticized view of literature", and he thought it remarkable that SF fans cede this small group the "power to define the terms of discourse"."

I think Patrick was describing the sort of people who use literary taste as a rhetorical weapon to abuse and humiliate people they deem lacking; that many such abusers use aesthetics as their weapon of choice was less important. When people are talking about how they felt like they were in high school again, I'm pretty sure literature-as-attack-vector was the similarity that they were latching onto, not aesthetics.

"Which is silly, incidentally, because Roberts's post was about Hugo-worthiness, not enjoyment."

You're presuming an awfully large distinction between Roberts' definition of enjoyable and his definition of Hugo-worthy, when it seems natural to me that the concepts would be quite closely linked. They are in my mind.

"Instead, we've got a bunch of genre fans insisting that people with high literary standards can't actually be enjoying the books they say they like."

As I understand it, the argument that we genre fans have been making is that people with high literary standards act as if there's a clear correlation between "difficult" on one hand and "good" on the other, when in our experience that isn't the case. There's a secondary argument going on about how the kind of elitism that challenge-cravers engender attracts people who are in it for the elitism first, and the challenge second, but I don't think that's what most people were talking about before Nick started demanding examples and acting as if that was the whole of our argument.

#430 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:35 AM:

pat greene @429, and abi @380 -

I was admittedly one of those fair-haired English students who, mostly, could do no wrong. That was discouraging in ways that don't seem dissimilar to the experiences you both seem to be describing.

I'd been a terribly isolated child, for whom reading anything and everything I could get my hands on was very nearly literally a life-saving exercise. So in more formal educational environments, then, I was casting around desperately for those survival-cues about what I was "supposed" to be reading and liking, and not being able to read the proper cues, so it was like being in a vast house of mirrors.

What happened, then, is that it all started to seem like an enormous circle-jerk, and no matter what outrageous thing I might say about this text or that, everyone would nod gravely and look transfixed. That reaction started to seriously give me the heebie-jeebies by the time I was halfway through grad school.

But, as a reader, I suspect it led me to a similar place as the students felt like they were always guessing as best they could -- a place where I finally stopped looking outside for some sort of nod of approval about what I was reading or writing about.

I sort of got to a point where it felt like I could make up whatever silly crap I felt like defending with the appropriate jargon -- and it was all a game of the Emperor's New Clothes. That was an unjust judgment on my part, in many ways...but also perhaps not entirely inaccurate.

#431 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:39 AM:

Honestly, I can wrote a sentence with proper tense, I really could!

#432 ::: sean sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:44 AM:

heresiarch, I think I see things the same way that you do.

I also think that writing a book that is a lot of fun to read is the highest and most difficult of all literary standards. At least, as a writer, my primary goal is to entertain the reader. If I can do that, I'm really happy.

#433 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:49 AM:

Heresiarch @431: You're presuming an awfully large distinction between Roberts' definition of enjoyable and his definition of Hugo-worthy, when it seems natural to me that the concepts would be quite closely linked. They are in my mind.

I can't speak for you, or for Roberts, but in my mind, the set of enjoyable works is much larger than the set of works that ought to win high-profile awards.

#434 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:54 AM:

Avram @ 435: "I can't speak for you, or for Roberts, but in my mind, the set of enjoyable works is much larger than the set of works that ought to win high-profile awards."

No doubt, but are they overlapping sets? I think that "deserves to win awards" is entirely contained within "enjoyable to read," and is in fact composed of the most enjoyable. My guess is that Roberts feels the same way--I think we differ on our definition of "most enjoyable."

#435 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:11 AM:

Avram 418:
And Nick, who's been designated the official Bad Guy of the thread, has now also been pressed into service as the classic bogeyman of SF fandom, all for the crime of being somewhat brusque when he asserted that people who praise books actually like the books they praise, even if they don't like the books you like.

Nick came into a discussion with multiple, strongly stated markers that this was a trigger issue for many people, and played no-holds-barred authoritarian internet argument to win, with a side helping of personal invective and sneering.

Read comments 230 and 232 and tell me they were appropriate in the emotional context of the thread. Tell me they were called for. Tell me they were designed to further the conversation and expose more information.

So. Fine. He wasn't being the particular type of intellectual bully Patrick was talking about in 50. But Patrick's point in that comment was broader than you're making it: it's that readers need to feel free to discuss these things without hampering themselves with the fears of what other people, particularly other people with whatever form of standing they fear, will think.

What PNH wanted, what I wanted, was to discuss what is good in books. (I know this, because we had a long discussion on IM about whether the thread was going to work.) A fallback position was to discuss why we couldn't discuss this without running into our neatly mirrored set of emotional and intellectual twitches.

Having a worked example of how at least one group of us ends up with those intellectual twitches about discussing reading was not really on the agenda.

I've seen Nick elsewhere on the internet, and found him to be a fairly decent guy. He and I don't agree on all things, and he's a heavier hitter than appeals to my taste. But this matter seems to have triggered him as much as it triggered a lot of other people. Unfortunately, what it triggered wasn't sustainable in the conversation.

Thing is, he was arguing against at least as much of a strawman as the one you're objecting to. Multiple people, multiple times on this thread, have explicitly stated that they believe that people enjoy reading challenging literature. I said so myself at least twice, including naming some fairly non-mainstream authors that I enjoy.

He probably just got tired of banging his head against the wall.

Maybe he should have taken another look. It was actually a door.

& @423:
That comment started out as being about your misquote of Patrick's ct @50, which Abi then repeated, and it sort of grew as I reread the thread. And somewhere in the middle of it I ran out to see Ponyo.

An excellent metaphor for the thread as a whole.

#436 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:18 AM:

Hey, aren't you guys up awfully late? I'm used to having the place all to myself at this hour.

#437 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:29 AM:

Abi @ 438:

(First off: Hello from Oberbayern!)

When we refuse to acquiesce
to others who exploit their right
to share, argue or to express

Their ideas, debate becomes fight
And dialogue is utterly lost
In white angry noise. When might

Overcomes understanding, the cost
Immeasurably high, everyone cross.
Calm discussion, now tempest tost.

And everyone thinks that they're the boss -
To the original idea's immeasurable loss.

#438 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:36 AM:

PNH @ #7 I am not interested in telling anybody that their reading tastes are wrong. I am extremely interested in how and why people read, and the purposes to which they put their reading.

I read for escape, which I find in three avenues:

1. World-building that pulls me in and leaves me wanting to learn more about the author's sub-creation, sometimes to the point of writing about it myself. Yes, I commit fanfic. Worse, I commit fan-fictional encyclopedia entries. Also, non-fictional accounts of far-off places and times that bring them to life on the page and leave me wanting to learn more.

2. Sympathetic characterization that takes me out of myself and into the character's skin so that his/her eucatastrophe is my eucatastrophe and his/her heartbreaking loss is, briefly, mine. The character need not be somebody I would ever want to meet; if a fanfic writer can get me to root for (for example) Severus Snape, that's a good story. (Note that he must be the Snape Rowling created--not the languidly handsome, emotionally open and romantically inclined version in bad fanfic! Stock characters showing up where complex characters should be grates on me whether I find them in fanfic or profic.) Again, the right non-fictional book will do this for me; most recently, I was deeply moved by several new works about the inner workings of the Coast Guard, warts and all.

3. Beautiful language. Simple, well-chosen diction is good. So is prose full of words I have to guess from context, although I draw the line at having to get up and find some other book in order to understand what I'm reading, so Joyce and T.S. Eliot mostly annoy me. Complex rhyming structure is good. Insistent meter is good. Blank verse is good. Free verse is good. Kennings and stock phrases are good, but so are interesting neologisms. Basically, the prose has to fit the context. (In order, if you were wondering: Neena Gathering, from the viewpoint of a homeschooled teen in the backwoods of post-apocalyptic North America; Georgette Heyer's Regency romances; Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems read like fine beadwork; Beowulf, meant to be chanted; "The Death of the Hired Man," which simply wouldn't punch as hard if written as prose or in rhyme, but also Endymion, which would be lovely as both IMO; archy and mehitabel, which does the great hat trick of being deeply serious while refusing to take itself seriously; Anglo-Saxon poetry, Homer, and the Child Ballads (the ones he thought were good--he was IMO right about the ones he put down); any SF story in which the neologism not only becomes clear in context, but unpacks itself in intriguing ways--but that circles back to world-building.) The dialogue has to feel right in a prose work as well--if I can't hear the characters saying it, it tends to push me out of the story.

As to how I read, I have had to break myself of the bad habit of gobbling books, which I developed during a time in my life when I really needed to escape. Having kids has helped me with this because I go into a story knowing that I will be called out of it soon.

I usually read the first few chapters of a long work unless something happens in the first few pages that puts me off. Then I skip to the middle and read a page or so; if it still doesn't put me off, then I usually flip to the end. Why? Mostly because I have been burned by quite a few long works that turned into unpleasant screeds about the author's pet kinks (or whatever kink is selling these days) or the kind of story in which everybody is horrible and/or disposable and the world sucks. If I wanted that, I would watch the news. Anyway, a story with an obvious or spoilered ending or an ending that's telegraphed in the summary, as with the pairing information in the summary for a fanfic, can still be deeply pleasurable depending on how well the journey to that ending is written. I enjoy it a few chapters at a time, put it away, then come back to it when I can.

If I have read something many times, I may flip to my favorite part just to enjoy it.

Speaking of how to read, I was blessed with two good English/Lit teachers in high school, both of whom pointed out that some of the works in the Canon were meant to be read aloud in company and some were written to be enjoyed alone. So I first encountered large chunks of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Beowulf aloud, some of it sketchily staged by the class; we even tackled Waiting for Godot, although we made a hilarious mess of it. I think that some kids who started out not giving a damn about the material did end up caring about it more, at least enough to argue. OTOH, we also read a lot of modern short stories to ourselves, wrote reviews, and turned them in; the ones the teacher found most interesting (pro and con) were read aloud for discussion. Again, it did get people talking.

Heresiarch #416: Although I have stopped reading the Honor Harrington series, I enjoyed the first few books, and still do, partly because of the way Weber subverted Mary Sue tropes by presenting them as flaws. Before the series ran off the rails, she:

*Thought she wasn't as good, beautiful, deserving of decent treatment, etc., as she really was--and her insecurity was one of the root causes of a lot of deaths, one of which nearly destroyed her.

*Disdained politics in favor of direct action--and was ripped a new one for that attitude by somebody she respected very much, after which she applied herself to learning politics.

*Was super strong, super athletic, and just plain super--which came with a metabolic price tag, causing her to nearly starve to death on what should have been an adequate diet.

There are other examples, but I'm too tired to remember them just now.

#439 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:42 AM:

@abi437 writes:

What PNH wanted, what I wanted, was to discuss what is good in books. (I know this, because we had a long discussion on IM about whether the thread was going to work.) A fallback position was to discuss why we couldn't discuss this without running into our neatly mirrored set of emotional and intellectual twitches.

What is good in books is whatever is in an individual book that stirs "narrative lust" in the reader. It doesn't matter if the book is stone, a scroll, or a insect-marred sheepskin or a codex. It is narrative lust, in fiction, non- fiction, prose or poetry, that stirs us to find out "what happens next," to unroll the scroll, to turn the page, to flick the back-lit margins.

I give you C. S. Lewis in "On Stories," at the part where he talks about "narrative lust":

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness…In the only snese that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ’surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which mearely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ’surprise’ of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. If is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia. (page 17 )

That is what is good in books, any book, and any reader, though both will vary.

#440 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 04:05 AM:

Wow do I like that "narrative lust" idea. That's fantastic! Your post also made me realize I didn't spend much time on the original intention of the post. Why do I read books?

A playwright told me that the audience wants to know that they are in good hands. I am like that too. I want to enter a story and be carried away.

Maybe it's because I'm an addict (in recovery), and always have been. I walk around with an ache inside.

Most things that distract me from that ache are bad for me and I don't do them. But a good book. That fits the bill. It keeps the yearning at bay, it carries me away, and it gives me a sense of intimacy and connection with the author that reminds me that despite the howling feeling of isolation, I am not alone.

A good book makes me feel close to the narrator, to the characters. Not only do I enter a world, but I feel like I belong there somehow, often more than I feel like I belong in the real world.

A good book, a good read, makes me feel like I'm not crazy, like the funny nutty bits of life really are every bit as bizarre as I think they are. A good book makes me feel a sense of wonder, joy. If it's about wonder and joy. But also, I get very upset about everything that's hard about life, and a good book makes me realize that there's plenty to get upset about too, it helps me understand, or at least it shares the experience of pain. It validates my experience of life, which is really helpful.

It's hard to understand myself let alone explain. But books for me are spiritual food. I really need them.

#441 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:49 AM:

"We read to know we're not alone."
- Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis in Shadowland

#442 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 08:02 AM:

P. J. Evans, #419: I liked Anathem. And Zoe's Tale.

But did you like it better than 99 percent of the SF books published in 2008?

As someone who leans towards Adam Roberts's opinion of the shortlist, I'm actually interested in why people were excited by Zoe's Tale, Saturn's Children and Little Brother, and found them mindblowing enough to nominate them over (for example) Liberation or Matter or Nation or The Hidden World or Lavinia, or any of 2008's other SF books.

#443 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 08:08 AM:

@441 and @442, narrative lust and books as spiritual food ...

Jo Walton had a discussion over on tor.com a while ago about what we look for in books. My answer then, as now, is that currently I'm looking for a quality I think of as "hopefulness." This has changed over the years, and no doubt will change again, but when I try to analyze why I'm pickier about my reading choices than I used to be, that's where I end up. Jenny Islander came close to it @440 when she talked about avoiding the kind of story in which everybody is horrible and/or disposable and the world sucks. If I wanted that, I would watch the news. Yeah, me too.

I want a story in which there are people who try to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, and whose choices matter to themselves and the people around them, and who in a pinch have the virtues of courage, integrity, and compassion, leavened with wit. I do not want mocking nihilism, and I'm not wild about noir.

I don't claim these as universal virtues in a work of literature, understand. There are excellent books that are not like this. Some of them I've read and greatly enjoyed in the past. But they're not what I want to read right now.

#444 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 08:36 AM:

OtterB @ 445... the virtues of courage, integrity, and compassion, leavened with wit. I do not want mocking nihilism, and I'm not wild about noir.

"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's-it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere."
- Sam Spade

#445 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Serge @446. Yeah, I know. It sounds like what I said I liked, but there's some distinction I'm having trouble articulating. A description of something as noir isn't a red flag for me, but it's a yellow flag. Maybe the difference is in variations in the strength of the expectation of futility and betrayal. I'll have to think about it a little more.

#446 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:02 AM:

Avram, re: Nick. Having encountered him in many places over the past couple of years I find Nick to be brilliant, rhetorically clever, and quite often right. He is a friend of many people that I like and respect and I suspect that in person I would quite enjoy his company. Online however I also find him to be divisive, dismissive, and quite often unpleasant. That latter is what I saw here and despite being intensely interested in the topic it almost kept me out of this thread completely. Basically, despite respecting Nick enormously I actively avoid engaging him on the internet even when I agree with him (which I did not here) because I am not a fan of conversation as combat, especially online, and that is the vibe I get from his online presence.

#447 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:14 AM:

My theory (I believe I've articulated it at Viable Paradise once or twice) is that what most of us are looking for in our reading is the perfect birthday present effect -- the perfect birthday present being the one where you're completely surprised by exactly what you've always wanted.

And nobody likes being told that their perfect birthday present is actually a cheap piece of Wal-Mart trash.

#448 ::: Harriet Culver ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:22 AM:

For most of my life (bar the first six years or so) I've primarily self-identified as a reader: a reader of books, and when I can't get them, magazines, Kleenex boxes, whatever.

And, these days, computer screens -- and what I love best on computer screens are thinky essays on ML or LJ and other blogs, and the ensuing discussions in which fellow readers help to unpack the range of ideas that are contained in, or sparked by, the original essay. Or, where the blog/comment format becomes the cauldron into which we villagers drop our little contributions, resulting in a dense, nutritious and tasty Stone Soup of Thoughts.

For many years now, though, I have found myself pretty well tongue-tied when it comes to composing any dense or nutritious contributions to the pot of my own, so mostly I just sit silently over here, reading. And nodding my head, and occasionally banging my fist on the table and saying Yes!

But as a self-identified Reader I can't let this whole discussion go by without mumbling my thanks to those who are more articulate about the art of reading than I, and who have held up for consideration so many different facets of that jewel. Also, thanks to those like Abi who have stayed with the discussion or jumped back in despite the temptation to join me over here in the silent corner.

Also, Kelly McCullough @397: That!

#449 ::: Harriet Culver ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:25 AM:

Also, I suppose the discussion has veered away from the opening lines, and/or that many folks have already seen this, but after reading the earlier parts of this thread I was tickled by the entry in Josh Jasper's PW blog on "Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece"

http://www.publishersweekly.com/blog/400000640/post/1310048531.html

#450 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:37 AM:

I didn't take part in the original blowup, but I did reread through some of the comments, particularly Nick's. He made a really nice point in #166, which seems to have fallen through the cracks of the discussion, and which I'd like to revive:

Nick #166 said:

2. I'd contend that SF/F requires enormous amounts of work on the part of the reader. The ability to sit through lengthy infodumps on means of propulsion, the neologisms, the immense casts of characters and endless 800-page volumes that take place over the course of generations, the many references to earlier literature, outright didacticism on everything from statecraft to sexual politics, and the topic of science in general require significant synoptic facilities and patience from readers. Many many readers simply slam shut a book when the first page contains many crazy terms and weird names--for these readers complex or unusual sentences about the everyday is LESS work than trying to read SF/F. This may be one reason why many adult SF/F readers come to the hobby as children while relatively few people start reading SF/F as adults--one needs years of experience to read the contemporary material in the field.

When I read this, the first book that came to mind was _A Deepness in the Sky_, which is one of my all-time favorite books. The backdrop in the story, never really explained or discussed much beyond bare "here's how it is" description, is an enormous set of assumed technologies and ideas:

a. A kind of trade-empire traveling between the stars.

b. Ramscoop engines

c. Cold sleep

d. Rejuvenation technology that's imperfect but pretty good, getting your lifespan up to 300 or so years.

e. Relativistic time dilation. IIRC, we never have this explained at all, it's just assumed that his readers will know about it.

f. A completely unfamiliar set of time measures left for the reader to either infer from context or to compute.

g. Civilizations living on terraformed worlds and moons all across a big chunk of the galaxy.

h. Cycles of rise and collapse of civilizations.

i. The nature of a huge existing stock of almost-usable, buggy, occasionally booby-trapped software and how it can be used. He does describe this a bit, but I'm not sure it would make sense to most people without any exposure to computers.

and on and on. This is a really, really good book. But I'd never recommend it to someone who wasn't a heavy reader of SF. Exactly as Nick says, if you haven't already done the underlying work of building up the model of spaceflight and spacefaring societies, you're not even going to be able to make sense of the story. (Perhaps something comparable would be me trying to read a story intimately tied to details of life in a 10th century Japanese city.) Alongside this, Vinge gives us a whole sequence of different foreign and weird civilizations/worlds to grasp, in rapid succession. If you haven't built up the ability and enjoyment of constructing a whole new world to understand a character's motivations, fairly quickly, you're not going to be able to make much sense of the story.

I think this is a fairly common pattern, and it has a lot to do with why we often have big disagreements about what is good to read and what isn't. My sense is that one reason it makes sense to expose kids in school to various works is to help them develop those underlying skills and assumptions, so they can get the full pleasure out of other books. The critical point, to me, is that each step of that process needs to be entertaining and interesting. And not everyone is going to find the same sequence of steps interesting or entertaining. Plenty of people will just never be able to really enjoy _A Deepness in the Sky_, despite the fact that it's a very good book, because they won't build up those skills and assumptions. That's okay, it doesn't make them a bad person, it just shows that the world is too big and life too short for everyone to learn and enjoy everything.

#451 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 10:54 AM:

Addendum:

I should clarify. _A Deepness in the Sky_ did *not* include those dense infodumps, at least not for the stuff I talked about. (The infodumps were in the form of flashbacks or internal reflections, mostly.) Instead, it just assumed you could infer them or already knew them. That made the book writeable (if he'd had to explain all the underlying technology and assumptions, I think the book would have been much longer and much less fun to read), but probably not so easy to read as your first hard SF book.

#452 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 11:56 AM:

(Perhaps something comparable would be me trying to read a story intimately tied to details of life in a 10th century Japanese city.)

Is that a reference to The Tale of Genji? Because if not, you picked the work usually called "the first novel"--and having tried* to read it, it is indeed a whole heck of a lot of work.

*Got about a chapter in, realized I was going to need a scorecard to keep track of the five or six ways to refer to each character, gave up.

#453 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 11:57 AM:

Avram, people have been saying a lot of what I feel too, especially abi. Nick was being a bully.

I asked him if he would dial back his tone, and he said "you first," then pointed to an early post of mine. While he admitted that I'd later said I shouldn't have called Adam whatsis an asshole, somehow that didn't count as dialing back my tone, and neither did my many other perfectly civil posts. Admitting I might have been wrong to say that Adam didn't enjoy the books he was recommending didn't cut any mustard with him either.

In summary: I asked him to dial back his tone LONG AFTER I had dialed back mine, and he said "you first" and quoted back things I'd said at the beginning. I doubt he has poor enough reading comprehension to have done that by mistake.

And by the way, as someone else pointed out, Adam said the only novel on the list that he thought should be there was transcendently boring (paraphrase). Now when I call something boring I'm generally saying I don't enjoy it. If boring is just another challenge, and some people really enjoy reading boring things because of that challenge...well, I think that's a sense of the word 'enjoy' that I hadn't previously encountered, but if you assert it I will take your word for it.

When I said above that Nick shifted categories in my mind after I Googled him, it was from "reasonable person who either a) is unable to be reasonable on this topic or b) forgot himself on this occasion, and either of those could happen to anyone so I'll cut him slack" to "egocentric writer/editor who thinks all us lowly fans should bow down to his superior wisdom and just say 'gosh, Nick, you're so right! How right you are. Thank you for exposing us to your rightness once again!' and who should be ignored henceforth."

Tell me reasons to think he's better than that. OTOH, tell me how avoiding him online and off, and telling anyone who asks exactly why, will hurt me (or him—more than he deserves). He's a bully and there are too many good people to talk to, hang out with, etc., to waste my time with bullies. I won't be published in anything he edits, for sure, but that ship sailed before this conversation was half over (perhaps before it started, if you look at his post at 237), and I'm not that interested in horror.

And if I want someone of approximately his opinions on topics like this, there are much nicer, friendlier, and frankly more articulate* people who can give me that benefit: you're one. YOU have no trouble staying civil in a conversation like this. Why should I put up with a bully like Nick?
____
*He stopped trying to communicate when he started trying to win. From what others have said, this isn't the first time he's fallen into that trap.

#454 ::: (another) Harriet, delurking ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 01:28 PM:

I never normally say anything on Making Light, because it always seems inadequate when I actually type it out, but I just wanted to say that I adore this thread and I'm so so pleased that people are keeping on talking about such interesting questions despite the friction.

I have two thoughts, on difficulty of various kinds: first, I think it's absolutely true that as Nick said and Albatross agreed with at 452, beginning to read SF/F as an adult, I am finding, is enormously difficult. I have been mostly a literary fiction person, with all the massive caveats and qualifications that that entails. This afternoon I just finished reading Iain Banks' Consider Phlebas, which I enjoyed very much while having a very strong sense that I probably only got about half of what was there and despite struggling with, basically, the technology. I'm fairly sure it was worth it, and am going to try again with the next one.

The other thing, about literature being improving and 'pleasure in difficulty' (Avram, 428) or pleasurable-because-difficult or difficult-but-nevertheless-pleasurable, is a quotation from the foreword to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest by Dave Eggers, which I have just begun and which seems astonishingly apropos and pretty unambiguously illustrates a lot of the things people are saying that people say:

"In recent years, there have been a few literary dustups - how insane is it that such a thing exists in a world at war? - about readability in contemporary fiction. In essence, there are some people who feel that fiction should be easy to read, that it's a popular medium that should communicate on a somewhat conversational wavelength. On the other hand, there are those who feel that fiction can be challenging, generally and thematically, and even on a sentence-by-sentence basis - that it's okay if a person needs to work a bit while reading, for the rewards can be that much greater when one's mind has been exercised and thus (presumably) expanded.
Much in the way that would-be civilized debates are polarized by extreme thinkers on either side, this debate has been made to seem like an either/or proposition, that the world has room for only one kind of fiction, and that the other kind should be banned and its proponents hunted down and, why not, dismembered.
But while the polarizers have been going at it, there has existed a silent legion of readers, perhaps the majority of readers of literary fiction, who don't mind a little of both. They believe, although not too vocally, that so-called difficult books can exist next to, can even rub bindings suggestively with, more welcoming fiction. These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week."

And later in the same foreword, on reading Infinite Jest:
"And thus I spent a month of my young life. I did little else. And I can't say it was always a barrel of monkeys. It was occasionally trying. It demands your full attention. [...] And yet the time spent in this book, in this world of language, is absolutely rewarded. When you exit these pages after that month of reading, you are a better person. It's insane, but it's also hard to deny. Your brain is stronger because it's been given a monthlong workout, and more importantly, your heart is sturdier, for there has scarcely been written a more moving account of desperation, depression, addiction, generational stasis and yearning, or the obsession with human expectations, with artistic and athletic and intellectual possibility. The themes here are big, and the emotions (guarded as they are) are very real, and the cumulative effect of the book is, you could say, seismic. It would be very unlikely that you would find a reader who, after finishing the book, would shrug and say, 'Eh.'"

#455 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 01:28 PM:

dlbowman76 @ 439: Very nice! Though it is hard to tell whether the loss of dialogue is more a result of the people who refuse to acquiese or those who are exploiting their rights to argue. I assume you intended the latter reading?

albatross @ 452: "If you haven't built up the ability and enjoyment of constructing a whole new world to understand a character's motivations, fairly quickly, you're not going to be able to make much sense of the story."

One definition of genre that I especially like is the toolbox definition: genre is a set of tools designed for tackling a particular literary problem space. I think a good extension of that metaphor is to think about the tools needed not only to write genre, but to read it.

Another argument about litfic and genre happened back in April on the “But this is good!” “Well, then, it’s not SF.” thread. Tim Walters and I got to debating the validity and meaning of genre (and as it applies to litfic), and I think a lot of it is applicable to this thread as well. One of the things we talked about was the different reading protocols of sf and litfic--what knowledge is assumed, what reading skills are neccessary, etc., mostly @ 286, 289, and 297.

Xopher @ 455: "When I said above that Nick shifted categories in my mind after I Googled him, it was from "reasonable person who either a) is unable to be reasonable on this topic or b) forgot himself on this occasion, and either of those could happen to anyone so I'll cut him slack" to "egocentric writer/editor who thinks all us lowly fans should bow down to his superior wisdom and just say 'gosh, Nick, you're so right! How right you are. Thank you for exposing us to your rightness once again!' and who should be ignored henceforth.""

FWIW, I've never seen Nick take a stance on any issue other than "This is self-evidently the way it is, and people who disagree with me are deluded whiners." I don't exactly seek him out--you might be able to guess why--so my sample size isn't that great and he may have other modes. I don't really care, though.

#456 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 01:55 PM:

Avram, further thoughts on boring-ness as a challenge: I once had to hem a houpelonde by hand. (A houpelonde is a 14th-Century garment, for those of you who don't know.) It had seven feet of hem.

I have ADHD, was not yet medicated for it, and had never hemmed anything before in my life. Because I was new at it, I had to concentrate on what I was doing, but that didn't make it interesting. It was the most boring thing I've ever done. It was actually painful in a nonphysical way that I can't describe. I didn't have sufficient confidence to set it down often either, though I think I finally took one or two breaks.

I did not enjoy doing it at all. It was excruciating.

What I did enjoy was finishing. In part, of course, this was the "feels so good when you stop" effect, but also I had a real rush of pride and sense of accomplishment for having overcome this challenge, albeit one that would have been easier for a "normal" person than it was for me. THAT I enjoyed.

My point: the enjoyment of a process (none in the above case) is distinct from the enjoyment of the accomplishment (plenty).

By contrast, I have real process enjoyment of cooking. I enjoy the sensual experience (textures and smells and so forth) as well as the creative process. I also have goal enjoyment: I'm proud of what I've accomplished, especially when other people eat it and like it.

A different contrast: eating a bowl of ice cream is pure process-enjoyment. I don't feel like I've accomplished a goal when I'm done, in fact I usually feel mildly guilty.

If those terms make sense to you, Avram, could you use them to describe the type of enjoyment, or mix of enjoyments, you get out of reading something really complex and difficult?

I got process enjoyment out of reading the first parts of Dhalgren, and both process AND goal enjoyment out of reading the Anathemata section. That latter enjoyment was mixed with pain, because it took a lot of concentration (at the time) to figure out which pieces went where, but the enjoyment was still there.

Does that map to anything in your experience?

#457 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:25 PM:

Harriet, thanks for that! Right on the money, and...wow that sounds like an interesting book.

Heresiarch: The DNE (Do Not Engage) on Nick's file is looking increasingly justified. It's not in big red letters or anything; he's not a complete monster like Ibk Qnl, by any means.

#458 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:37 PM:

Pericat@415: Love it, a lot. I'm having an allergy-achy morning (weird symptoms, too, almost like a chemical burn; tea tree oil cream is taking the pain out like nobody's business, fortunately), and this post made me smile, laugh, and giggle, in various combinations. Thanks for writing it up.

Xopher@458: A great distinction. I'm doing a lot of research for a pulp-related project these days. All of it is rewarding in the accomplishment sense; some of it is tremendously rewarding as process (Eric Rauchway deserves to be a big name in American history coming up soon for the quality of his prose as well as the clarity of his thought and decency of his spirit), some just plain not.

#459 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:48 PM:

Difficulty is not meritorious. The confusion arises IMHO because sometimes, there is no simple way (or none yet found) to communicate complex content. Books that have complex content to communicate are perhaps more likely to be meritorious (though good vs. evil is an independent axis; still, evil tends towards simplicity).

So: a book should be as straight-forwardly presented as it can be, and no more so :-). (Paraphrasing Einstein I believe.)

I confess, however, to sometimes enjoying gratuitous complexity (*cough* Paarfi *cough*) at some levels.

If an author actually has something to communicate that he cares about, it makes no sense to deliberately obscure it. However, authors don't (that I've noticed) mostly come to their stories thinking they're presenting something important (at least not ones that write books I like); they come to their story thinking "if I write this down maybe I can get it out of my head", or something (wide range of somethings).

#460 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:48 PM:

Heresiarch @ 457: Vielen dank. Generally speaking, I'm happy to accept any interpretation that praises my mediocre prosody. But in this case, I have to suggest that it takes two to tango, and leave it at that.

On the topic of intellectual bullying and the chilling effects that follow: There are a great many smart people who have cultivated the mindset that an argument exists to be won, and that to compromise in any way displays weakness and heralds defeat.

There are also many people who love argument as bloodsport (I work with a number of them). Much joy may they have of it. The rest of us either tune out or get hurt. Blech.

(A final note. If you brandish your degree and CV as an opening salvo of an argument - you're at the very least a bit of a twat.)

#461 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 02:58 PM:

Don't give up on the Tale of Genji. There is an enormous sense of distance--a struggle to understand who these people are, what they are doing, and why--but it is very much worth it. Yes, it is like some science fiction in that regard.

#462 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:09 PM:

Xopher,your hemming (without hawing, I presume) experience strongly resembles mine with most kinds of housework, particularly big cleanup/cleanout jobs (garage, basement). Opposite of fun in the doing, much satisfaction in the being-done.

Swatches of grad school and computer-science coursework had at least a little of that kind of necessary-drudgery feel. Certainly the exertions of Old English grammar were heavy going, but necessary if one was to get at Beowulf and the rest of the OE canon.

There was even a bit of it in courses on periods and writers I never warmed to. It turned out to be worth the effort to slog through Gower or mediocre Jacobean dramas or second-tier Victorian novelists, since they supply information on the whole range of work produced in a period.

I'm not sure that this kind of professional-training experience applies to one's purely voluntary reading (or listening or viewing)--I no longer read what does not please me ("please" covering a wide range of satisfactions, pleasures, and perceptions-of-usefulness), and I've long since served my time reading material whose difficulty ratings don't justify the returns (which include the intellectual-boot-camp mental conditioning/initiation hazing required to join the club).

Maybe I've gotten lazy--or maybe now that I know in detail what I like and why, there's no point in expending the energy just so I can tell others why I find [insert random current darling of serious lit here] not worth the trouble.

#463 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:30 PM:

Xopher #455 had a truly wonderful one-line summary of all kinds of discussion fail, especially on the internet: He stopped trying to communicate when he started trying to win.


#464 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 03:55 PM:

pericat@415 I compared it to that icon of romantic trash, Sweet, Savage Love and brought in Shamela and just went to town in a carriage and four. Literature had come down off the pedestal, ditched her corset, and settled in for an evening's gossip and shooters.

Love this description / explanation.

#465 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 04:18 PM:

Xopher @ 458, I'd like to take a stab at that one! There is a specific kind of micro-goal-enjoyment at work when I read difficult fiction, like when I'm trying to troubleshoot my computer. It's not a pride in having read the Big Complicated Book, because the process itself (not just getting to the end) is enjoyable. Rather, I meet a difficulty in my reading, and I feel myself stretching to overcome it, I look for solutions, I try one tack and then another, and I get all these little "Ah-ha!" moments when I manage to get past a barrier.

Part of the enjoyment is a kind of pride in my own competence, I suppose, and I think part of it is the satisfaction of curiosity or trust--I hit a confusing part, and I say, "Okay, author, I will trust you with this," and 100 pages later my trust is rewarded. Which is, perhaps, very much like the satisfaction of baking, when you put in your eggs and your milk and your flour and you have to have faith that it will turn into a cake.

#466 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 05:16 PM:

I just have to quote this in full because I love it so much, both parts of it.

Debra Doyle @ 449:


My theory (I believe I've articulated it at Viable Paradise once or twice) is that what most of us are looking for in our reading is the perfect birthday present effect -- the perfect birthday present being the one where you're completely surprised by exactly what you've always wanted.
And nobody likes being told that their perfect birthday present is actually a cheap piece of Wal-Mart trash.

I think that explains a lot of the heat in this thread.

And I really do appreciate people sticking with it to talk about what they read and why. For instance, I'm fascinated that I and Avram seem to share a lot of tastes in what we read, but he doesn't do "comfort reading" and I do. Of course, I don't watch broadcast TV, and hardly ever even watch DVDs, so perhaps the unchallenging re-read fills that bit of my needs. (I had kind of a related discussion with Jo Walton on Tor.com last week, about how some Cherryh books are very discomforting reading, with The Paladin being an exception to that. Last week's re-read helped me get through a recent arthritis flare somewhat more cheerfully.)

#467 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 05:20 PM:

heresiarch @416 said: I'm waiting for the military drama where the hero cleverly follows orders and uses the regulations to achieve her goals. Not holding my breath, though.

That comes into play in Elizabeth Moon's "Vatta's War" books, actually. Underhandedly trying not to break the law, while dealing with interstellar trade (and otherwise) espionage, plus letters of marque and reprisal in play, and rather a lot of communications-outage-related fog of war. I like them rather a lot.

#468 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 05:57 PM:

Oh, and one more on cleverly using regulations in unexpected ways, in real life ...

My sister is currently in her second year at Annapolis. There is a tradition that each class of first-year students (henceforth 'plebes') shall try to place a 'cover' (one of their round hats)atop the spire on the chapel dome -- while circumventing the efforts of Designated Authority to keep them from doing any such thing. My sister's classmates, this past spring, managed to come up with a scheme never before tried in the history of the school ...

You see, one of the big obstacles to overcome (besides the purely-engineering parts) is that just standing around on the quad doing nothing in particular is against regulations. If you have no specific orders, you are only allowed to hang out in designated places. Any upperclassman can (and in chapel-topping season, delights in) slap you with all sorts of humiliating 'punishment' details if they catch you 'without orders'. A genius this spring went to the school commandant and politely asked for orders to be cut instructing him and his buddies to put a cover on the chapel.

It won't work next year, but I'm told it was a thing of beauty to see the looks on the upperclassmen's faces when they tried to roust the plebes. So much so, that several instructors went down to watch it.

Because this is 2009, there is a video of the actual covering on YouTube. Their chosen mechanics are fairly clever, though nowhere near as clever as the authority-circumvention subroutine. :->

OtterB @445 said: I want a story in which there are people who try to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, and whose choices matter to themselves and the people around them, and who in a pinch have the virtues of courage, integrity, and compassion, leavened with wit.

You might enjoy Trudi Canavan's trilogy that starts with 'Priestess of the White'; the first little bit reads like a strange, slightly clumsy generic epic fantasy with religious bits, but it keeps getting deeper, and the characters really do get faced with strong dilemmas, and then about 2/3 of the way through Book 2 you start realizing that What The Characters Think Is Going On is in fact not at all the case (and to say too much more might be spoilery). It's quite cleverly disguised as a shallow, candy-coated generic fantasy for a while, though.

#469 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 06:22 PM:

#413 ::: Rob Rusick

You are correct that I wouldn't be including movie soundtracks and television scores -- though, sometimes, for example the music directors of both The Wire and Deadwood exercised brilliant choice. There are always exceptions to everything.

But I was referencing particularly black music like the blues and even, later, R&B, as contrasted to what you were seeing re race in the movies of those decades.

This is the popular music that actually was instrumental in literally kicking down the barricades of 'colored' and white, starting at the music shows, that either had shows for white only audiences and black only audiences -- while all the performers were black -- and then went to putting a barricade between the white side of the auditorium, and the black side of the auditorium. Which the kids tore down.

While, still, in the movies, black people didn't exist, or the slaves, as in The Horse Soldiers just loved their owners so much they were happy to die for them in the Civil War.

Love, C.

#470 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 06:31 PM:

#416 ::: heresiarch

I guess I wasn't specific enough, and shouldn't have assumed the degree of popular music knowledge of the U.S. that I did.

I was specifically speaking of the sorts of lies about race -- and women, for that matter -- that Birth of a Nation deliberately started (see the faux bs filmed interview Hughes does with Griffith among the extras of the Kino Video set of BOAN -- and what was really going on IN THE POPULAR MUSIC of the time then, and throughout the decades of the Civil Rights eras here.

Particularly compare and contrast, say, The Horse Soldiers (1959) vs what was in the blues, R&B, etc. of the same period, and what was happening at the music shows then.
Love, C.

#471 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 06:41 PM:

heresiarch @ 416: "I'm waiting for the military drama where the hero cleverly follows orders and uses the regulations to achieve her goals. Not holding my breath, though."

Many years ago in a very large anthology of sf, which I believe was probably written in the 40's and early 1950's, there was a story exactly like that. Except it wasn't a military hero. But a functionary in an embassy, who managed to get the planetary indigenes get exactly what they needed, while around plots to take away their 'stuff' were being hatched. He was like a stock clerk or something.

I've never come across that story again, and I'm sorry. It obviously made a huge impression on me, because I couldn't have been 12 when I read it.

It kind of makes me think, now, of the engineer fellow in the well-intentioned and correct interpretation, and yet still wrong in so many ways, The Ugly American of 1958, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. They warned us of all we were doing wrong in Asia, and what we should do right. They were right about a great deal, but they still, without knowing it, advocated a simple-minded, white man's burden who can fix it all perspective. Particularly Americans.

Love, C.

#472 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 06:47 PM:

Thank you very much for this discussion. Despite the earlier discordance, reading this has been an awesome experience, a mother-lode of insightful comments.

Me, I read primarily for enjoyment, so required reading at school was a chore, though by the end of it I began to understand that analysing a work can actually enhance one's reading pleasure.

I bounced hard off Iain M. Banks the first time I tried him. It was not until some years later that I was able to appreciate the Culture books and now count them among my favourites. What was once challenging and a chore is now unalloyed joy and no work at all. So the comments about having to develop the mental muscles, acquire enough in the readerly toolkit, call it what you will, to enjoy certain writers or works, is apt.

But IMO the idea that "complex&challenging=good" / "simple&approachable=bad" is a false dichotomy. For example, Terry Pratchett's "Nation" is a very approachable work that is a joy to read, yet is a synthesis of big themes on the author's part. It's a YA book, yet Hugo-worthy. I have no problem with that at all.

#473 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:00 PM:

Soon Lee @ 474: Re: Iain Banks (sans or avec M.) One of my 5 "drop everything" authors. My first Banks book was the weird, terrifying, miraculous Feersum Endjinn. Your mention of the challenges of "Consider Phlebas" flung me back to my struggles with "Feersum Endjinn". If ever there was an example of a bloody challenging novel that rewards infinitely, That. Is. It. (IMHO.)

I think a new Banks novel is imminent. Time for shelf rearrangement (small gleeful sound, for which I don't have a suitable onomatopoeia.)

#474 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:12 PM:

Xopher, #458: I read books that would probably qualify as "difficult," and books that are probably "easy." (Although the definitions are different for everybody.)

I get both process enjoyment and goal enjoyment out of a book that interests me no matter how complex and difficult is is, or isn't. Reading about something that doesn't interest me feels like hemming that houpelonde, even if the book is "easy." Maybe especially if the book is easy: complex or outré books often have interesting digressions and side passages.

#475 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:18 PM:

I'm no longer a lurker on Making Light, yet nearly all my comments are limited to punning, expressions of sympathy, the sharing of interesting links, and spam-spotting*. The discussion here has gone a long way in helping me articulate why. Also, I want to thank all of you for making this thread happen.

Reading is important to me. Books have been a source of pleasure and comfort and solace ever since I can remember; I don't want anyone to mock my choice of reading material because it would ruin my enjoyment of them. I've mostly outgrown my tendency to hide the "trash" I read, but the fact that I still privately refer to some of my genre books as trash reflects how deeply ingrained the idea of book superiority is.

That attitude was reinforced by not a few high school teachers—ones I liked and respected—who would announce, for instance, that Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High romances were rubbish, making nearly all the girls in class feel guilty and somewhat unclean for enjoying them. My sister, who is 13 years older than me, had the same teachers in high school. To this day, she places all her "respectable" books in the living room bookshelves and hides the Harlequin romances in a closet.

As several commenters have already pointed out, this defensiveness develops early on and persists for a long time. I didn't want people I care about (for varying definitions of care) to think less of me because of what I read. To tie this in with commenting, I don't want people of whom I have a high opinion to think less of me for what I write. Since this pretty much describes the Fluorosphere, I am often too intimidated to share my opinion in topics with the slightest whiff of controversy. It's a totally irrational reaction, since ML commenters are, as a rule, friendly, welcoming and interested. Only, hanging out here makes me feel like the good high school student whom the cool kids tolerate because once in a while she's funny and useful, and who doesn't dare speak up because they might laugh at her when (not if) she puts her foot in her mouth.

On reading itself: I like Xopher's goal-enjoyment vs. process-enjoyment @458. Reading gives me immediate or delayed gratification. The best books give me both. Immediate gratification comes in many forms—"what happens next" (Da Vinci Code, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), happy endings (plain vanilla romances), interesting information (The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words), new ideas (The Tipping Point), challenging and rewarding prose (John Banville's Book of Evidence), different worlds (Spin), the lulz (Wodehouse)—as does delayed gratification (a sense of accomplishment, new skills, new knowledge, an expanded worldview, you name it).

Right now I'm trying to figure out what makes people stick with a so-so book. Do you go on reading books that still make you go meh fifty pages on, even though there are 300 other books in your backlog, and why?

I stick with a so-so book because I'm interested in the knowledge it contains, despite stilted prose; because I want to know how the story turns out; because I dislike it intensely and want to discuss why in an intelligent manner; or because I paid for it and don't want to feel like I wasted the money. But there are some books I keep plugging away at, and I can't for the life of me figure out why, when I've given up much faster than that on other books that bored me.**


* something I generally enjoy, because I discover plenty of fascinating older threads this way.
** I suspect the LOTR phenomenon may be at play here: it took me three tries, each 2 to 3 years apart, to get into the books, and when I finally did I loved them. Maybe, in the case of highly-praised books, it's a form of optimism that they'll be better when I read them at the right time in my life.

#476 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:24 PM:

albatross, #452: If you haven't built up the ability and enjoyment of constructing a whole new world to understand a character's motivations, fairly quickly, you're not going to be able to make much sense of the story.

On the same subject, it's also worth reading James Gunn's essay "The Protocols of Science Fiction."

#477 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 07:29 PM:

Pendrift @477

I spent several years working at a local indie bookstore where sneering at a customer's reading choice was grounds for immediate termination...even just among staff members, after the customer had left. More than once, a new employee didn't make it through their 30 day trial period -- almost inevitably for sneering at series romances.

I STILL miss that place.

#478 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 09:10 PM:

Constance: Sounds rather like one of Laumer's Retief stories. Come to think of it, it's been a long time since I read them, but if I recall correctly part of the fun of the Retief stories was that however wrong-headed the specific instructions he was given were, he would manage to follow them to the letter while completely subverting or reversing their intent. (Even if it required locking the ambassador in his quarters temporarily.)

Of course, now that I'm looking back on them, I find it more irritating that the Americans^WTerrans were always the good guys even if bumbling and ineffectual liberals, and the natives^Waliens always hapless backwards pawns of the Commies^Wbad aliens. Then again, the stories were intended to be light comic relief.

#480 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 09:54 PM:

Bruce Baugh & OtterB: Aw, thanks. You folks are sweet.

I loved The Thirteenth Tale. It wasn't so much the plot, or the characters, but the language. Reading it released language-endorphins. I haven't reread it yet, so don't know if it will do that again. I hope so, but even if that was a one-time thing, still.

Then there was Fingersmith, that was going along being pretty good and gradually more engrossing, and then the entire thing was flipped right on its head. I was stunned. Teach me to read for relaxation, that did.

But there've been any number of books I've started and put back on the shelf. Some because they were too challenging just then for my poor weary brain of an evening, and some because they were stupid, and their authors hacks who should know better, and their publishers off their game that go-round. I used when younger to think all books were good, and it was up to me to dig out their essential specialness.

Not so much anymore; I've realized that I won't sit through a bad movie, and lord knows they get made all the time and no one blinks an eye at the phenomenon. So it was just possible that when I noticed that I wasn't getting anything out of spelling my way through a given book, it was maybe because it was a bad book. I figure I'm gonna be dead in a few decades, I should be noticing how I spend my reading time and not give quite so much quarter to crap writing. There's a difference between good writing that I'm not prepped to deal with right now tonight when my feet hurt, and phoned-in schlock. So if it seems to be the latter, into the giveaway box it goes.

On re-reading books, I find that I'm much more interested in characters and interplay and sideshow stuff than I am the first go, when I'm pretty well blinkered to finding out what happened. I had a prof back in the day, who said that if you're set to work on a play, to design for it or act in it or direct it, you need to know it in your bones. Read once for plot, then for character, then for setting. Then however many more times it takes. Re-reading stories is like that, I find. I miss a lot the first time through a good story; I want to know what happens next, and after that and after that. I've forced myself to slow down, just to avoid getting to the end and thinking, "Wait. What?" But a good story will stand multiple readings, and will show up something worthwhile on the n-th time. It's why we have all these bloody shelf units, instead of giveaway boxes.

I think it was Avram who said he doesn't do re-reads. I'm not surprised; some people 'get' the entirety of a story the first time through and re-reading for them is a chore. I'm not them, I latch onto leaves and the forest can go hang. So I re-read, or re-listen; I have audio recordings of Sherlock Holmes stories and listen to them while I do chores, and I know them forward and back: what I listen for has nothing to do with what happens, and everything to do with how it happens, and the words Conan Doyle used to tell about it.

Teresa says story is a force of nature. Patrick O'Brian said, over and over, "They were used to it, and sailors like what they're used to." Stories don't get to be folk tales, told again and again, because they're new and fresh and edgy. They get there because something happens between the telling and the hearing, the writing and the reading, that is always wonderful. Because they are ever green.

#481 ::: beccab ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2009, 11:37 PM:

@467 - part of the reason I tend toward genre fiction over general fiction is that I know that my trust will be rewarded. Too often my experience of "literary" fiction is that I feel my trust in the author is betrayed.

#482 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 12:17 AM:

I've been thinking about what I like to read and why and having trouble articulating it, but here goes anyway.

I majored in Literature in college, because in high school that was the only subject I like even if the teacher wasn't very good. I mostly enjoyed the classes, and the reading, although very little of it was anything I'd pick up on my own, and some of it I actively disliked.

Analyzing a text is not how I prefer to read, however. When I pick up a book for pleasure, I'm looking for an immersive experience. I want to be swept away by the story, involved with the characters. Any thinking is reserved for afterwards. And too much analysis can ruin a book (or movie, or TV show) for me--even a good one. That doesn't mean I'm always looking for fluff, but I have to be in the right mood for something heavier. I am definitely a re-reader; sometimes the second--or fourth or tenth--time through a book, I'll notice a new detail or pick up on a theme that I missed before. It's great when that happens, but I certainly don't require it.

I favor transparent prose; I want to fall through the words into the story. Both overly ornate and overly rough styles can reduce or destroy my enjoyment, by calling too much attention to themselves.

I mostly read genre fiction, not just science fiction and fantasy, but also mystery, suspense, and romance. First and foremost, I have to care about the characters. That doesn't mean I have to like them--I can want to see them get their comeuppance or die in a pool of molten lava--but if I don't care what happens to them, I'm not going to read an entire book about them. It doesn't mean they all have to be three-dimensional, either; even cardboard characters can hold my interest if the plot is sufficiently involving. Especially with mysteries, I'll sometimes be a bit bored by the characters but interested in how the plot is resolved; in that case, I may skim, or dip in and out, or even jump straight to the end. But usually if a book hasn't grabbed me by the second chapter I drop it.

Some of my favorite authors: Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, David Weber, Mary Stewart, Jane Duncan, Julia Quinn, Nora Roberts, Margaret Maron, Jane Haddam.

(Does anyone else find it impossible to answer the question, "Who's your favorite author?"? What, I only get one? I can't even stick to one per genre.)

#483 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 12:42 AM:

Yay! The little motel in Gloucester, MA where Chris & I are staying for the weekend has wifi! (Or a neighbor has an open access point.)

Xopher @458, it depends. OK, a few years back I read Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. The whole book's written in 18th-century English (I'm not an authority on the period, but someone told me that the book contains bit quoted verbatim out of Mason and/or Dixon's actual writings, and they blend in seamlessly), and it's a bit of an effort for someone raised with 20th-century English. But there's a sensual pleasure to the language -- those 18th-century sentences are rich and chewy -- so I found worth the effort.

And furthermore, it wasn't that much effort. I had to furrow my brow at the beginning, but after two or three pages the effort went away and the prose became transparent. I didn't even realize it was still difficult until I quoted a particularly awesome paragraph to a friend of mine, and he was amazed that I could read a whole book full of that stuff.

So, a bit of difficult-but-enjoyable effort at the beginning, and then a whole bunch of "difficult"-according-to-other-people-but-not-for-me-as-I-was-doing-it.

And as for @455, Xopher, I don't actually care whether or not you think Nick is a bully. He's not a close friend of mine, just someone I've met once and read online, and who I value as a sharp critic. Nick himself isn't much interested in friendliness, so I don't see any reason I should take up that burden for him. What I cared about, above, was that we didn't use his rudeness as an excuse to falsely pigeon-hole him as a particular fannish bogey-man figure. Partly for Nick's benefit; partly out of a general sense of intellectual honesty; and partly because I think a lot of SF/F fans are obsessed to their own detriment what that particular bogey-man.

#484 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:25 AM:

Avram @ 485: "Xopher, I don't actually care whether or not you think Nick is a bully. He's not a close friend of mine, just someone I've met once and read online, and who I value as a sharp critic."

I think that valuing a bully for his insight is like valuing a mumbler for his rhetoric--it doesn't much matter what you have to say if you can't communicate.

#485 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:54 AM:

Top/bottom or dom/sub, "[author] is not your bitch", and what it takes to make some works "better" than others in X's opinion, famous case:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went to the length of killing off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, so that he could devote his writing time to works he considered better... and was dragged against his will, by reader demand, into resuscitating Holmes.

Holmes is still immortal (and another movie's coming out soon). Who even reads those better works these days? Poor Sir Arthur.

#486 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:55 AM:

heresiarch @486:
I think that valuing a bully for his insight is like valuing a mumbler for his rhetoric--it doesn't much matter what you have to say if you can't communicate.

Although that's catchy, I think it overstates the case. It's perfectly possible for someone to have good insights and state them, but behave really badly in discussion.

#487 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 06:07 AM:

Constance@473, Clifton Royston@480

Another story that somewhat fits the description is "Blind Alley" by Isaac Asimov (published in 1945, first anthologized in 1946 in Geoff Conklin's "The Best of Science Fiction").

The hero is a civilian administrator assigned to oversee a non-human intelligent species that is dying off. He figures out the real problem and by clever manipulation of the Imperial bureaucracy manages to arrange a solution.

Much of the story consists of letters in bureaucratese between the administrator and other officials.

#488 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:51 AM:

Teresa @ 47: Perhaps I overstate, but then, it's my feelings I'm overstating. But...two examples:

The novels where sex--just being sexual, not even having sex--leads straight to death. The novels where the bad guys (a phrase which has now leaked into our political discourse) are superhumanly effective and extravagantly ugly.

I think it's more the times feeding the stories than the stories feeding the times, but I do believe it's a feedback loop.

It is the books I react to, though, and not the authors. A case in point: I didn't stop reading Orson Scott Card because of his bigoted views. I'd read three of his books and thought they were good enough. (I believed Nancy Kress in Beggars in Spain; I didn't believe Card in Ender's Game. Simple as that.) I still love his short story "The Originist". But then I picked up Treasure Box, and made the mistake of finishing it. I doubt I'll read Card again.

It wasn't just the extreme ickiness of the book. I'll experience that for a good reason: Kaleidoscope Century, Maximum Light, An Exchange of Hostages. But all Card did with that ickiness was jerk me off.

#489 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:26 AM:

becca@483:

Maybe we're looking for different things in this direction, but I don't find that genre (or even specifically science fiction--romance, mystery, and westerns are also genres) writers are guaranteed to reward my trust. At any level: writers in and out of genre will drop plot threads (deliberately or not). Writers of all sorts of books will perpetrate inconsistencies at various levels, some of which matter more than others: but I still remember the novel I read a couple of decades ago in which the second part began with a large "Twelve Years Later" and a character born in part 1 was described as being ten years old--his age didn't matter, but it stuck with me. They will "resolve" the plot by someone not even hinted at wandering in five pages from the end and either Telling All or producing the magic widget that fixes things. (This is considered a worse offense in detective fiction, but it's poor writing in any genre, imho: the characters need not be aware of what's going on, but the writer has ways of foreshadowing and sketching background and should use them.)

Writers in any genre will casually defend or promote behavior I find reprenhensible. Some of the same writers will equally casually tell the world that people like me or my loved ones are the source of their problems, inherently evil, or necessarily doomed. Some of that is more deliberate than others--I'm tired of cutting stories slack for "torture works and is therefore acceptable," regardless of when written, but an awful lot of older writers were reflecting the racism, sexism, and other prejudices that were all around them. Sometimes they are better than most of what was around them, and still harmful and/or painful to read today.

#490 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:36 AM:

Vicki @ 491... Ah, the perils of cut&paste, the worries of writer's block, the doom of deadlines... (No, I'm not a writer, nor have I ever played one on TV, but I am married to one, but(bis) I'm fairly sure she's never screwed up in the manner you described.)

#491 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:39 AM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 490... I'll tell my wife she should write a novel where the good guy is superhumanly clumsy and extravagantly handsome. (No, I'm not suggesting that she should use me for inspiration.)

#492 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:01 AM:

Mary Aileen #484:

I think partly because of the influence of reading ML, I've started analyzing books I'm reading, kind-of without wanting to, in terms of the engineering kinds of problems the author faced: You've got them here, you need them there, you have those constraints. How did you do with that?

I've been reading Stirling's Emberverse books lately, and been struck both by some really interesting and neat world-building and writing[1], and also by some places where I wasn't impressed with how he solved the specific engineering problems he faced. And I've noticed this happening more and more in the last few years, like I'm not only enjoying the story and getting a sense of the characters, but I'm also noticing how the writer did what he needed to do.

I think part of this also comes out of reading series, where I can play with the existing problems and characters in my own mind for a year or two, waiting for the next book. (How many ways could you think of to end the siege of Camelyn and put Elaine on the throne? How do you think Jordan did solving that problem?) And part comes from reading my wife's fanfics, and having to put into words what I don't like about some scene or storyline.


#493 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:06 AM:

Mary Aileen @484, sounds like our tastes overlap quite a bit. I also would have trouble with favorite author, singular, read in multiple genres, and put Bujold, Lee & Miller, and Nora Roberts high on my list. You also mentioned a couple of authors I wasn't familiar with, so will check them out (pun intended) at the library. I'd add Laurie King's Holmes & Russell books and Michelle Sagara's Chronicles of Elantra, plus the Dresden Files ... hmmm, what else? Have to think.

#494 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:22 AM:

albatross @ 494: I loaned out The Man in the High Castle to the friend who introduced me to Stirling (whose books I like), saying it was an early alternate history book which I thought was really great.

His reaction? He didn't care for it: When there was passing mention of the Nazis genociding Africa, he wanted to see the details.

#495 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 11:59 AM:

#489 ::: Michael I

Constance@473, Clifton Royston@480

Another story that somewhat fits the description is "Blind Alley" by Isaac Asimov (published in 1945, first anthologized in 1946 in Geoff Conklin's "The Best of Science Fiction").

I'm sure this is the exact story I was recalling, because the name Geoff Conklin resonates. I can 'see' it on the cover of that anthology!

Love, C.

#496 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 12:20 PM:

In re "Blind Alley" -- it can be read in 'The Early Asimov' as well (which my local pub.lib. owns, unlike the Conklin).

#497 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 12:40 PM:

Dave Bell @ 370, belatedly:

Let The Right One In is something like what you're describing, though grimmer (going by the film, I haven't read the book yet).

#498 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 12:49 PM:

OtterB (495): Glad to be of assistance in suggesting new (to you) authors. I like King's Holmes and Russell books, although I'm fonder of her Kate Martinelli ones. The Sagara's Elantra series is good, too. I enjoyed the first few Dresden Files books, but stopped when he introduced the vampires. I don't Do vampires.

More thoughts on what I like and don't like, in the cold light of day:

I don't care for dark, dreary, and depressing. As others have said, there's enough of that in the news. Grim and gritty also tends to be a turn-off. This doesn't mean I want everything to be sweetness and light (some of my favorite comfort reads leave tearstains on my glasses every time), but I want there to be at least a glimmer of hope and/or redemption at the end. Actual happy endings are a plus. Except happy endings that have to cheat to get there.

Narrative voice matters. I'm not fond of "first-person smart-ass." Nor do I care for most things labelled 'noir' or any variety of '-punk'. Most private-eye stories annoy me. But despite all of the above, I thoroughly enjoyed Dashiell Hammett. Once; they're not re-reads for me.

I'm not particularly bothered by point-of-view problems. However, I can't stand things told in second person. I also tend to dislike present tense, but that's not an automatic drop-this-book.

More favorite authors: Diane Duane, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia Wrede, Guy Gavriel Kay, P. G. Wodehouse.

(My favorite authors are the ones that I most want to re-read and most eagerly look for new books by.)

#499 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 01:00 PM:

James Moar @499: Came across a website that discussed the differences between the book and the movie in some of the more recent book-inspired movies (don't have the link on hand to share, wish I did).

I did see Let The Right One In. From what was described, the book is grimmer.

#500 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 01:02 PM:

albatross (494): Structural analysis of a book is something that I might do on a re-read, but particularly on a first reading, I want to be engaged enough by the story that structure doesn't occur to me while I'm reading it. I might be thinking something like "how are they going to get out of this one?" or "where's this going?" or "who the heck is the murderer?" but I don't want to be disengaged enough to stop and analyze it in progress.

Relatedly, I'm not the kind of mystery reader who tries to figure out whodunnit ahead of the detective. For one thing, I'm no good at it. To the point that, if it's clear to me who the killer is (and I'm right), then the book is obviously badly written, and I don't enjoy it much. So I don't insist on the "plays fair" kind of mystery where all the clues are laid out on the page. I also prefer the type of mystery that's still good on a second (or subsequent) time through, meaning that there's something besides the puzzle to hold my interest. Often that's character, but it can be background about a setting or profession. Dick Francis is good for that, for example (although his latest books have been a bit disappointing).

#501 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 01:24 PM:

Pyre @487, similar famous musical example, another Sir Arthur – Sullivan, composer half of Gilbert & Sullivan. [My fuller post slipped into some alternate dimension, somehow.] Quickly: he bridled at continuing to compose "lesser" music under contract; his knighthood cited his "serious" music; music establishment agreed, e.g.

Some things that Mr Arthur Sullivan may do, Sir Arthur ought not to do … he must not dare to soil his hands with anything less than an anthem or a madrigal; oratorio, in which he has so conspicuously shone, and symphony, must now be his line. …
No post-Modern shilley-shalleying relativism there!

#502 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 01:58 PM:

abi @ 488: I think that habitually expressing oneself in a way that discourages one's audience from listening is at least as big a barrier to communication as a speech impediment. YMMV.

#503 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 02:01 PM:

OtterB @ 447... No problem. Aside from reading Hammett's early novels, most of my exposure to it has been thru old movies, which usually had a strong but rough sense of Justice. I expected none of that in the modern stories, which is why 1997's L.A.Confidential was such a wonderful surprise.

Jack Vincennes: Why in the world do you wanna go digging any deeper into the Nite Owl killings... Lieutenant?
Ed Exley: ...Rollo Tamasi.
Jack Vincennes: Is there more to that, or am I supposed to guess?
Ed Exley: [aftre gathering his thoughts] Rollo was a purse snatcher. My father ran into him off duty, and he shot my father six times and got away clean. No one even knew who he was. I just made the name up to give him some personality.
Jack Vincennes: What's your point?
Ed Exley: Rollo Tamasi is the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. It's supposed to be about justice. Then somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that... Why'd you become a cop?
Jack Vincennes: [long pause] I don't remember.

#504 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 02:35 PM:

Mary Aileen @500 said: Narrative voice matters. I'm not fond of "first-person smart-ass."

While I'd never expressed it quite that way before, I must admit I do rather like "first-person smart-ass" narrators, as long as they're not also assholes: Miles Vorkosigan, Mildmay, Vincent Rubio, et multi alia. So suggestions in suit for good examples of the class are welcomed, if any come to other commenters' minds.

#505 ::: Becca ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 02:52 PM:

re: OtterB and Vicki: we seem to have similar reading tastes - we share a lot of the same favorite authors.

I tend to mostly read mysteries, romance, romantic suspense these days (I'm loving going back and re-reading the Georgette Heyer novels as they're being re-released), not so much SF or fantasy as I used to. This is partly because I've found some really good review sites that review those genres - I may not always agree with the reviewer, but I can always tell from the reviews whether I'll like a book or not. I haven't found any source of SF/F book reviews that I can trust that way.

I pretty much stopped reading SF/F when it seemed like every other book I picked up was dystopian or ended badly for the protagonists. About the only fantasy writer who is currently an autobuy in hardback for me is Terry Pratchett. I can always trust him to not let me down.

I like books where Justice is Served, where the protagonists look like they'll have a better life after I've closed the book (in a good way, not necessarily in a sadder-but-wiser way). I like my books to end optimistically. Otherwise, as have many people above said (and more eloquently than I do), I'd read the newspaper.

#506 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:04 PM:

Elliott @ 506: I don't think Miles ever appears in first-person actually. (The narrative is usually third-person tightly focused on him, with view of his interior monologue, whatever that's called.)

Vlad Taltos, on the other hand, is first person in most (not all) of Brust's Dragaera books, and is a thorough smart-ass most of the time. (Except when he has just had his ass handed to him.)

Rob Rusick @ 501: This might be what you're thinking of?

The Onion's AV Club (a pretty neat place IMO) has an irregular feature comparing books vs. the movies made from them, and I know it had 'Let the Right One In' recently because I avoided it. (Have the movie from Netflix now, waiting to watch it.)

(As a bonus they just finished doing Little, Big in their reading club and have an interview up with John Crowley about it.)

#507 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:35 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 508: "Vlad Taltos, on the other hand, is first person in most (not all) of Brust's Dragaera books, and is a thorough smart-ass most of the time. (Except when he has just had his ass handed to him.)"

I do think that it is worth pointing out that Vlad Taltos is (specifically at the beginning of the series for new readers) one of the most completely amoral POV characters in a series I can think of next to the great Flashman himself.

I bring this up, because in comparison to someone with a highly defined moral compass like Miles Vorkosigan, Taltos exists in a much more noir universe (literarily speaking).

† I should point out that this is definitely a feature and not a bug!

#508 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 03:45 PM:

heresiarch @504
I think that habitually expressing oneself in a way that discourages one's audience from listening is at least as big a barrier to communication as a speech impediment.

I think that someone who can say interesting things but not discuss them without being a bully can still say interesting things.

#509 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 04:11 PM:

abi @ 510: "I think that someone who can say interesting things but not discuss them without being a bully can still say interesting things."

And someone who can say interesting things but not pronounce them aubibly (or type them legibly, as more fits our medium) can still say interesting things...but who could tell? Maybe someone with really good hearing, or aperosn who is willnig to liek read sum reelly purly riten proeso r sumthin, but a fair number of people will just bounce off. I guess what I'm saying is that communication is phenomenological: what matters isn't how much insight you start with, but how much gets across to your audience. Bullying hinders that.

#510 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 04:14 PM:

I don't think bullies have any problem with communicating their intentions. We just don't care to hear the message.

#511 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 04:50 PM:

abi 510: I think that someone who can say interesting things but not discuss them without being a bully can still say interesting things.

I guess my question would be "who cares?" Though I can see why quoting such a person as a third party might be useful, ISTM that it's a bad idea to listen to them when they actually show up. Just encourages them to keep showing up, when what we really want them to do is Go Away. And IMO no amount of interesting-ness is worth being bullied.

IMO, ISTM, YMMV, PDKMIANG.

As for books I like...I loved Dhalgren, as I've said, even though I was 17 when I first read it. I like stories where the bad guys get what they deserve, even if the good guys don't succeed/survive. I like stories about people overcoming adversity, so I'll put up with some horrible things happening early in the book if they become a source of strength and/or are overcome later. I really like Alice Walker; she's able to make stories that are sad and yet uplifting; my favorite example is her short story "Olive Oil," which made me cry (sad and joyful at the same time), but I'm a better person for having read it.

I like stories where the good guys have a clear grasp of their own fallibility. That's why I like Miles Vorkosigan so much; he does things that are mistakes, or really wrong, even unethical, and then he fixes it. He confesses, apologizes (his apology to Ekatarin in A Civil Campaign is one of the greatest ones in literature IMEHO), and atones, and still feels guilty books later. Sometimes there's no fixing something, and he's haunted by it. Lois McMaster Bujold is so humane, that's what I like about her. She and Connie Willis can make me terribly sad without leaving me depressed.

I don't like books that leave me depressed. If you're ever almost sure you want to kill yourself and need something to push you over the edge, read the short fiction of a creep named James T. Farrell. Actually I highly recommend avoiding him if you value your mental health even a little. And while I enjoyed reading a lot of Perdito Street Station, the ending was way too depressing for me. Fbzrguvat greevoyr unccraf gb gur bayl punenpgre V sbhaq rira znetvanyyl yvxrnoyr. I'm not reading China Miéville any more, even though I think he's a pretty good writer.

I don't like stories where ALL of the characters are scumbags of one kind or another...or not even scumbags, just selfish, narrow, dislikeable people. If there's no one in the story I like, then as someone said earlier I might as well read the newspaper. I'd like it if the main character were likeable, but that's not strictly required, especially if s/he is more likeable by the end, or finds some core of decency within hirself. Failing that, I'd like hir to be punished!

Stories that make me feel better about myself or my fellow humans are generally better than stories that make me feel worse.

Oh, and as beccab said at 483, I sometimes feel that "literary" fiction has betrayed my trust. It's all very well to make me work for it, but only if there's a payoff. Sometimes I feel that I've worked and worked and then the story just ends. I read a story in The New Yorker years ago, about an old man in a retirement community; the whole story was about a normal day in an ordinary elderly person's life. Nothing happened. Nobody learned, or changed, or had an epiphany, or even died or fought or moved out. It was completely boring and entirely pointless. Then it stopped. That was not worth reading, period.

#512 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 05:22 PM:

Well, I don't want to get into yet another argument on this thread, but I'd just like to say that I, personally, am deeply uncomfortable othering people as "bullies" and then ignoring everything that they say.

I think that there are people who use bullying tactics to a greater or lesser degree. Some of them remind me of the grumbling woman in The Great Divorce, who are so far into the habit of using one particular style that it can be hard to separate them from their behavior.

But we don't train people not to use bullying tactics by writing them off. We train them by rewarding interesting conversation and only turning them away when they go toxic.

YMalmostcertainlyWV

#513 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 05:55 PM:

I propose dropping the subject of bullies. Bullae and bulbs should be safer subjects.

#514 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 05:55 PM:

Xopher's idea @458 of process-enjoyment and goal-enjoyment was interesting to me. For me, the Harry Potter books are the closest thing I can think of to pure goal-enjoyment. JK Rowling's writing itself never really gives me any pleasure; but the characters and the plots expressed in them do. I never sit back and bask in how beautiful or extraordinary any writing is, I want to get to the end! Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons is the opposite, pure process-enjoyment. As far as I can tell, there is no meaning beyond the words themselves. Many of the sentences aren't even grammatical. But the words and their rythms are beautiful. Most books are in the middle, of course, and that has nothing to do with genre at all. William Gibson is SF but definitely further into the process-enjoyment side of things.

This might be sort of the opposite of how some people might define the two, but then I get a great deal of process-enjoyment from hemming as well, and also from ripping seams out (I'm a dressmaker.)

As for what I dislike in books: I am terrible at puzzles, and I don't like my books to be puzzles. I like mysteries just fine, because they explain the puzzle at the end, but books with unreliable narrators where you're supposed to infer what happened by reading between the lines (like The Good Soldier), or allegories where every event, location, and character stands for something else (like Giles Goat Boy) both make me frustrated and annoyed. Not only does it mean that I usually don't get it, but it also makes me feel like there is a "right answer", and I like ambiguity. I've never had a teacher who said anything like "difficult = good, fun = bad", but I did have one who insisted there were correct "solutions" to poems by people like George Herbert and Emily Dickinson, and it really drove me crazy. Luckily it didn't poison their work for me.

#515 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 06:03 PM:

Serge @515:
Seconded.

We could talk about books instead.

#516 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 06:10 PM:

"What do we talk about, when we're talking about talking about books?" -ibid (or his big brother, -anon.)

#517 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 06:13 PM:

My father once said, apropos of getting older, "We used to talk about ideas, but now all we seem to talk about is words."

#518 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 06:25 PM:

In my blackest moments, I harbor the suspicion that language exists merely as a weapon that we use to deceive one another (at this point, I shudder and actively seek a cuddle). But I still suspect that many of us (most of us? I hope not) Are interested in argument as an assertion of power, rather than as a petri dish for the cultivation of new notions. Admittedly, as a s***ty poet, I'm acutely aware of my limitations as far as my ability to add ideas to the great bouillabaisse of discussion, but there it is then.

*shudder, shake, judder*

Speaking of books, Stone's Fall is an absolute masterpiece of Alternate History SF. You might not know that though, because it's been shelved in "Fiction". Will happily discuss.

#519 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 07:00 PM:

Serge 515: Bullae and bulbs should be safer subjects.

How about bulimia and bullfinches? Or belts, bolts, and bowls?

#520 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 07:05 PM:

Abi @514: I'd just like to say that I, personally, am deeply uncomfortable othering people as "bullies" and then ignoring everything that they say.

Yeah, me too.

And speaking of uncomfortable things, is anyone else bothered by things like "I hate depressing books; if I wanted that, I'd watch the news"? A few people have chimed in with almost that exact phrasing, and it feels like a dismissive sneer to me.

Specifically, it's the second part of the formulation that makes it sound dismissive. The implication there is that there's no value in a "depressing" work of fiction (scare quotes because there's no universal agreement as to what's depressing) as a work of fiction.

#521 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 07:12 PM:

dlbowman76 @509 said: I do think that it is worth pointing out that Vlad Taltos is (specifically at the beginning of the series for new readers) one of the most completely amoral POV characters in a series I can think of next to the great Flashman himself.

One of the things I found meta-fun (as opposed to just reading-the-story fun) in the Taltos books was watching Vlad, a clear case of Chaotic Neutral, claw his way through an alignment change because of/relating to his spouse breaking up with him (she was clearly, to me, Chaotic GOOD).

When I don't like Vlad it's because he's being whiny and annoying and getting in the way of the plot, his own good, and all sense. Or else because he's being telegraphic and cryptic enough to make me feel like the author's playing "I've got a seeeee-krit, isn't it cooool?", which gets firmly up my nose and annoys me.

#522 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 07:29 PM:

Avram (522): I can't speak for anyone else, but when I said that I don't like depressing books because the news is depressing enough, it was not a sneer, it was a simple statement of preference. I find the real world depressing enough and prefer my pleasure reading to be non-depressing. That's all. No value judgement intended.

Other people obviously enjoy books that I find depressing, or they wouldn't keep getting published. I don't have a problem with that, and I did not mean any criticism of people who like *any* kind of literature that I do not.

#523 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 07:52 PM:

abi @ 514: "Well, I don't want to get into yet another argument on this thread, but I'd just like to say that I, personally, am deeply uncomfortable othering people as "bullies" and then ignoring everything that they say."

Would you be okay with discussion? I'd like to pursue the topic, but not if you aren't enjoying it.

Either way, I didn't mean to make you feel attacked. My apologies.

#524 ::: mcz ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:03 PM:

I'm not bothered by the "I hate depressing books" thing, because I really do. But that's my quirk. I don't insist that (general) you hate the books that I find depressing, I don't insist that you agree with my assessment of a book as depressing, and I don't see you as a lesser person if you like books that I find depressing.

What I'm trying to say is: unless someone goes on to add "...and if you like them you suck" or similar sentiment, he/she is probably stating a fact as it applies to him/herself and not making a judgment on your reading or writing tastes.

#525 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:18 PM:

Clifton Royston @508: Rob Rusick @ 501: This might be what you're thinking of?

That was actually the right site, but to get to the article I was thinking of, took a little more searching.

You got me closer than my unaided memory would have managed, and there should have been a link to the related article. But the article you linked to looked 'close enough' to prompt me to do a little more searching.

#526 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:18 PM:

Avram @522,

While I am at times firmly in the camp of "Nothing depressing today, thank you", this isn't because I don't see the value in works that might be classed as such. When I find myself feeling that way, it's because I am, as the saying goes, out of spoons. I suspect most of the people who have expressed similar preferences here find themselves, if not in the same boat, at least a very similar one, although I could be wrong.

There are times when considering how the series of poor choices Emma Bovary manages to make combines into a concatenation of disaster that takes out not only her but bystanders as well is not just tolerable, but is plainly the only possible end, and then there are times when

At seven o'clock little Berthe, who had not seen him all the afternoon,
went to fetch him to dinner.

His head was thrown back against the wall, his eyes closed, his mouth open, and in his hand was a long tress of black hair.
"Come along, papa," she said.
And thinking he wanted to play; she pushed him gently. He fell to the ground. He was dead.
Thirty-six hours after, at the druggist's request, Monsieur Canivet came thither. He made a post-mortem and found nothing.
When everything had been sold, twelve francs seventy-five centimes remained, that served to pay for Mademoiselle Bovary's going to her grandmother. The good woman died the same year; old Rouault was paralysed, and it was an aunt who took charge of her. She is poor, and sends her to a cotton-factory to earn a living.
Since Bovary's death three doctors have followed one another at Yonville without any success, so severely did Homais attack them. He has an enormous practice; the authorities treat him with consideration, and public opinion protects him.
He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.

makes me want to howl like a lost dog. Sometimes, that's a little more misery than I can handle. It doesn't make Madame Bovary a book not worth any of the reams and reams of paper it's been printed on over the years.


#527 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:30 PM:

It's not "I hate depressing books" that sounds dismissive to me. It's the second part -- "if I wanted depressing, I'd turn on the news." That implies, as I said, that the fiction in question has no value as fiction merely because the speaker finds it depressing.

#528 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:36 PM:

Fidelio @528, "Madame Bovary is too much misery for me to handle" is fine. "Madame Bovary has no more value as a work of art than a news report" is not fine.

#529 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:39 PM:

Avram @522 I'm one of the ones who agreed that if I wanted depressing, I'd watch the news. I certainly didn't intend to disparage anyone whose tastes differed. If it was a little flip, I think the tone was an attempt at preemptive self-defense. It seems ... frivolous ... to rule out books for such a reason, and I feel a little apologetic for it. Yet when I examine my reading preferences, that's what I find.

#530 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:40 PM:

Avram (529): That implication was absolutely not intended by me. I am sorry that my phraseology made you feel dismissed.

#531 ::: mcz ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:48 PM:

Avram @ 529:

Only to that person. I can't see the entire statement as dissing someone who does find value in that type of fiction.

#532 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 08:59 PM:

Rob Rusick @527: Clifton Royston @508: That was actually the right site, but to get to the article I was thinking of, took a little more searching.

Like, entering the title of the film in the 'Search' field on the site you linked to.

School bullying is one of the topics covered in this film (to be relevant to the thread).

And the failure of socialized Swedish healthcare to prevent victims of vampirism from bursting into flame.

#533 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:33 PM:

There are two books off the top of my head that I class as "depressing". This is a highly personal judgement and I do not expect others to agree with me nor would I want to persuade anyone that I'm right. They are Mary Renault's Funeral Games and MZB's The Mists Of Avalon. It's been years since I've read either, but what I remember about them is the main characters could not catch a break if they'd nailed leprechauns to their foreheads.

I enjoy, and indeed seek out, stories where however much the characters may be pawns in the hands of an angry god, they're making something of it. They're growing, changing, learning, they are transformed by the experiences, or at the very least, they're still willing to come up to scratch.

Xopher brought up Connie Willis; a wonderful writer IME. At the end of her Doomsday Book a whole lot people have died, and it's sad, but it's not depressing. Same with the one about near-death experiences, I've forgotten the title, but it's all in what the story is really about that makes the difference. If I get to the end and am left thinking that nothing we do serves to brighten the corners where we are, as it were, then there's a story I can do without.

#534 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:40 PM:

I've been careful, I think, to talk about my personal preferences separately from questions of value or merit. If a story has no characters I like in it, I said, I might as well read the newspaper. This was an ironic comment on the state of the real world, and a statement of how such texts affect me.

It is not, however, a judgement of lack of merit to those stories. I know that a lot of people speak very highly of Miéville, and even the book I read was an extremely well-written one. I don't intend to read more of Miéville for two reasons: 1) I found the book unpleasant because of the lack of (to me) likeable characters, and 2) it left me depressed, and I struggle with depression as it is.

Your experience of Miéville may will certainly be different than mine. You may enjoy him, or appreciate him in ways that don't involve enjoyment if you don't think enjoyment is all there is to reading, and that's all fine. Certainly I wouldn't tell anyone they're wrong or inferior or stupid for liking Miéville.

#535 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:40 PM:

James Moar @ 499, I just recently read the book, and it is much, much darker than the movie. I don't believe the body count was any higher--but there are some definite grim tropes running through there that were only touched on in passing in the movie.

I'd be hesitant to call either "better". As with most adaptations, they're very different beasts. But there's a lot more dark underline to everything that happens in the book, and a lot more detail, none of which, as I recall, makes any of it any cheerier, except that the protagonist has one more actual friend than he did in the movie. I'd call it worth a read if you liked the movie, but maybe something to check out from the library rather than buying.

Veering wildly back towards why it came up, it does, in that sense, take that opposite trope, and then run it quite calmly and unapologetically into all its horrible natural consequences. I got a little tired of vampire novels because I found they weren't really horrible enough; there were bodies everywhere, but it wasn't nearly grimy enough for the topic at hand. (Personal preference, as with most things.) Let the Right One In does not have that problem.

#536 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:44 PM:

pericat @ 535: Same with the one about near-death experiences, I've forgotten the title, but it's all in what the story is really about that makes the difference.

Probably you mean Passage? I read that about once a year, and just sob through some of the chapters. But I always feel better when I get to the end, which makes that all worthwhile.

...I think I need to go reread The Doomsday Book now. It's been far too long since I have.

#537 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:45 PM:

Xopher @ 521... And what about Taras Bulba?

#538 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:57 PM:

Serge: And bulbar polio. And Bulgaria. And Bulova.

#539 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 09:58 PM:

I think it was Terri Windling who once said she had seen enough of the dark side of humanity when she was a teenager that she felt little wish to come across it in fiction. (I read that a few years ago, in Locus, so I may be remembering things quite inaccurately.)

#540 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:03 PM:

I mostly fall into the camp of "avoid depressing books", but not entirely. I adored Doomsday Book, despite crying, but I adore everything by Connie Willis. I also loved Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, but I put aside The Crossing because I just didn't want to find out what happened next. I read Jane Smiley's One Thousand Acres, but by the halfway point I was muttering "Dammit, Jane! Why do you have to be such a good writer, and suck me into turning the page. What are you going to do to that poor woman next?"

I absolutely love unreliable narrators. Flashman and Amelia Peabody come to mind first.


#541 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:12 PM:

I can't read depressing books right now because of the news. The last decade has worn me down and the constant drumbeat of awful seems unlikely to let up anytime soon.

In this case "depressing" means dystopian. If I pick up an SF book I want to know that its setting is in at least as good a shape as the real world, that your average ordinary person's life is not significantly harder than it is in the modern United States, that (assuming this is the future and not a fantasy world) while the world may have its problems they're at least new problems instead of the same damn crap we're dealing with now, made worse.

Brazil is one of my favorite movies. I'm not sure when I'll be able to watch it again. It's too much like life.

#542 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 10:13 PM:

How about 'Abdul the Bulbul Emir'?

#543 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 11:04 PM:

Fade Manley@548 Yes, Passage, that's it, thank you! That was a remarkably hope-filled story, considering, as was Doomsday Book. I'm very much looking forward to when the local library lets me have another.

#544 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 11:23 PM:

I loved Doomsday Book. Connie Willis manages not to be depressing (to me), even at her bleakest. And her humorous stuff is often hilarious. She's also one of the few writers I can stand to read at short story length.

#545 ::: becca ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2009, 11:44 PM:
And speaking of uncomfortable things, is anyone else bothered by things like "I hate depressing books; if I wanted that, I'd watch the news"? A few people have chimed in with almost that exact phrasing, and it feels like a dismissive sneer to me.

I'm one, and I don't mean it to be dismissive, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way. Rather, it's a recognition of my own limitations as a reader. For whatever reason, the mood of a book (perhaps overly) sets my mood, sometimes for days after reading a given book. Dystopias upset me. I know, they're supposed to be upsetting. But there is so much that is upsetting (particularly in the political news) that I have no control over, and can do nothing about! I therefore choose to don rose-colored glasses and to read only things that have optimistic endings. I am prone to dark depressions, and controlling my reading this way is one way that I attempt to control my mood.

I don't read all fluff. I very much enjoyed The Lace Reader, for example, and was in awe at the artistry of The Thirteenth Tale. But in both these cases (and in others like them), I admit to jumping to read the end, just to reassure myself that the ending would, at the least, be optimistic.

#546 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 12:42 AM:

Someone recently told me that the formula to determine how many pages of a book we'll read before we give up is (75 - age). That doesn't explain how today I managed to read an acclaimed SF author's book all the way to page 124 before I decided to skim the rest. Maybe I'm aging backward.

#547 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 01:22 AM:

Serge @548 - you're not alone. I'm a ridiculous optimist when I'm reading. My personal algorithm for when to give up is more like 75 x age, because I'm usually still rooting for a book to get better when I hit the last page and am left thunderstruck that it didn't work out nearly as well as I'd hoped for anyone involved...me or the characters.

Weirdly, and perhaps betraying deep psychological weaknesses I shouldn't disclose, I've been known to reread immediately, hoping for a better outcome the second time around...

#548 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 02:09 AM:

I have, a couple of times, dropped characters into really difficult situations. Love, marriage, and death in the first two chapters: that sort of thing.

There's a difference between a character never forgetting something like that, and never recovering from the pain. And I sometimes think that some writers get obsessive about inflicting pain.

And there used to be a time when it seemed every book had to have a slightly kinky sex scene. Maybe never happened so much in SF, but it was like the way a James Bond movie always seemed to end with the problem finally solved, and James Bond finally getting the chance to be with the girl for some R&R, and there always being an interruption.

I'll just do the equivalent of rolling the credits: after all, we can work out what comes next.

#549 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 04:32 AM:

Antonia T. Tiger #550: And there used to be a time when it seemed every book had to have a slightly kinky sex scene. Maybe never happened so much in SF, but

...an adventurous couple doing a spacewalk and talking dirty to each other using SeaSigns (since radio wouldn't be private enough, of course)?

#550 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 04:51 AM:

heresiarch @525:
Would you be okay with discussion? I'd like to pursue the topic, but not if you aren't enjoying it.

I'm happy to, but I think it will disrupt this thread an awful lot, and I still want to hear more about people and their relationships with books.

Can we give it about a week's distance? Then I'll post a front-page thread and we can run with it.

#551 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 07:13 AM:

abi @ 552... Can we give it about a week's distance?

In the meantime... We can talk about Bullwinkle, Bulfinch, bullion, bulrushes, bulletins...

#552 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 07:25 AM:

MacAllister @ 549... My personal algorithm for when to give up is more like 75 x age

If I were to follow that algorithm... But I must not betray my true age.

The last time I did something close to that was with a Peter Hamilton multi-volume story. After going thru the first 2 books, for a total of 1200 pages, I gave up, having decided that the writer's Voice just wasn't for me.

#553 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:08 AM:

Avram (522): I suspect it is in part a defensive response. Over at SFNovelists I am having a disagreement on this very subject with Alma Alexander—who is someone I really like and enjoying talking with on almost any other topic—because of a post she put up that included phrases like There is no such thing as a happy ending. and The best we can hope for is a resolution, and perhaps an epiphany and a lot of other verbiage that implies that the fiction of the happy ending is a less true fiction and therefore lesser.

Nor is this an isolated incident with a single individual. I have encountered quite a number of writers and readers who treat happy fiction as lesser either implicitly or explicitly and often justify that opinion because happy fiction isn't "real" or "true." After having the argument a few dozen times it can become reflexive to say something like: If I want depressing* I can tune to the news or read history.**

Of course, when deployed this way it makes the proponent of happy just as guilty of being dismissive as the proponent of depressing fiction. Whether or not this is justified in any given case is an exercise specific to the given discussion.

*there is a silent mental inclusion in this statement here that runs something like "for the value of depressing that makes something real or true and therefore more meritorious than happy fiction."

**And the whole comes with the subtext that depressing fiction is therefore redundant and can we talk about something else now or at least stop ripping on something I love.

#554 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:09 AM:

Avram (522): I suspect it is in part a defensive response. Over at SFNovelists I am having a disagreement on this very subject with Alma Alexander—who is someone I really like and enjoying talking with on almost any other topic—because of a post she put up that included phrases like There is no such thing as a happy ending. and The best we can hope for is a resolution, and perhaps an epiphany and a lot of other verbiage that implies that the fiction of the happy ending is a less true fiction and therefore lesser.

Nor is this an isolated incident with a single individual. I have encountered quite a number of writers and readers who treat happy fiction as lesser either implicitly or explicitly and often justify that opinion because happy fiction isn't "real" or "true." After having the argument a few dozen times it can become reflexive to say something like: If I want depressing* I can tune to the news or read history.**

Of course, when deployed this way it makes the proponent of happy fiction just as guilty of being dismissive as the proponent of depressing fiction. Whether or not this is justified in any given case is an exercise specific to the given discussion.

*there is a silent mental inclusion in this statement here that runs something like "for the value of depressing that makes something real or true and therefore more meritorious than happy fiction."

**And the whole comes with the subtext that depressing fiction is therefore redundant and can we talk about something else now or at least stop ripping on something I love.

#555 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:23 AM:

Sorry about the double post. Lack of patience on my part. I checked twice to see that it hadn't posted after the momentary freeze in my browser then hit "post" again when i clearly should not have.

#556 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:27 AM:

Avram, I think that for most of us here who have used it (whether we posted it, or just nodded our heads and said "Yeah, that's a good one"), the constructon that has hit you like fingernails on a blackboard is not so much a dismissal of different tastes as it is an honest self-analysis.

It's horrible how easy it is to appear dismissive of someone else's preferences when we try to honestly describe our own.

#557 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:58 AM:

Serge (548): When I was in high school and younger, if I started a book, I finished it. The only two exceptions: Wuthering Heights (tried it twice, made it half way through the second time) and Moby Dick (at age 17, reached page 3 and gave up*). Sometime in my early twenties, I gave myself permission to stop reading something I wasn't enjoying. There's too many other books I want to read to spend time on one I don't like. The number of pages I give it before stopping varies with the book, though, not with my age.

*I had to read Moby Dick for a seminar class my senior year in college. Although I was really dreading it, I wound up the only one in the class who liked it all the way through. Hmmm, maybe I should try Wuthering Heights again.

#558 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 11:31 AM:

There are books I can't get started on. There are books I *couldn't* get started on, and then suddenly I was older and I devoured them (Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons stories).

And then there's a category containing at least one book: books I bounced off of until a friend told me how much of the beginning to skip, and once I'd skipped that, I loved the rest of the book.

That book is Cyteen. I STILL don't see what purpose at all the entirety of the book prior to the decantation of Ari II serves; I went back and read it afterwards and I still don't get it. It's a bunch of fastpaced political machinations between a huge cast we're barely introduced to before they start killing one another, and as far as I can tell the content is summarizable as, "Ari I was a genius, but some people found her inconvenient, so they killed her. We're not sure who." Which is, by the way, repeated as a summary throughout the rest of the book, so you don't need it in the beginning, IMHO.

But presumably that was writing for someone else's kink, as some friends I have related this experience to are gabbleflasted at me that I don't LIKE that part, because that's the BEST PART EVAR, and is like the crowning pinnacle of the entirety of Alliance/Union fiction, or something.

Whereas I've been devouring Alliance/Union novels while, basically, skimming the parts that are like the front of Cyteen ... it says something that my two favorites are "40,000 in Gehenna" and the Downer parts of "Downbelow Station," plus the azi-POV parts of Cyteen, I suppose.

#559 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 01:25 PM:

Elliott, this is another example of YMMV. I think the front of Cyteen is great! (Well, the dumbest person would have put two and two together the way Ari Senior does in that section.) It's also really important because it sets up the idea that Ari Senior is a terrible person who...well, I have to avoid saying she deserved to die, but what I said when I first read it was that the worst thing about her death was that it wasn't particularly painful.

This sets up the rest of the book, where the reasons for her actions are slowly revealed; still not, to my mind, quite justified, but not the single-minded making-others-suffer-for-its-own-sake EVIL that it seems in the first part. It also explains why Justin is so fucked up (Ari Senior does it to him in that first part, being grossly, even grotesquely, unethical even by the lax standards of Reseune; because she doesn't get any comfort or enjoyment out of human relationships, she makes sure he can't either), and why he views Ari II with a complex mix of compassion and horror.

Now I'm not saying you should go back and read that part or anything. But for me it was really key to my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I'm just marveling at how differently two people can experience the same book, even when both of them liked it!

#560 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 01:34 PM:

abi @ 552: "Can we give it about a week's distance? Then I'll post a front-page thread and we can run with it."

Sounds lovely. Thank you.

fidelio @ 558: "It's horrible how easy it is to appear dismissive of someone else's preferences when we try to honestly describe our own."

It's a wicked trap, that we fall into it even in amidst a discussion of its peril.

#561 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 02:01 PM:

"...if I wanted depressing, I'd turn on the news."

This depresses me because it comes across "I won't listen to the news because it depresses me, so I put my fingers in my ears and go lalala." Which means the EviLe Doers keep having their own way because we won't even pay attention, much less fight them, because we are in possession of such delicate sensibilities.

Now this may not be the case for many, but I do know that this is the case for many too. The consequences they suddenly started to send me e-mails filled with fear and outrage about 2004, in utter shock of "How did we come to this, and you must do something about it now."

I'm really useless in a discussion like this because I read good books of every kind, and won't read badly written books of any kind, and in many cases won't read really good books of any kind either.

I tend to read systemically (which is an academic methodology -- see sneers upon academia), because I am always in the midst of more than one research process for works-in-progress, both fiction and non-fiction. This also changes the criteria of whether reading a work is worth doing or not too (see sneers upon literature).

Love, C.

#562 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 02:08 PM:

Xopher @561: I know, I HAVE gone back and reread it, more than once, and I still don't think it conveys usefully (to me) any information not back-inclued later in the book. Partly because the way it's written shoves things past so fast and so stacked-together that it's almost impossible to figure out (for me) what's going on even AFTER I know who everyone in it is (which you only know after reading the rest of the book; no one is introduced usefully in the front).

I also have a lot of trouble with Elizabeth Bear's fiction writing (LOVE her blog), in part because every single sentence is so tense and soaked in rich meaning and layers, every WORD is there for a strong purpose and pulling its weight, that it's really hard for me to read it at the speed I normally read fiction. Also, her characters (to me) seem to live behind a thick piece of plate glass that the reader's not allowed through, telling me what they think and feel instead of letting me be it with them.

Definitely YMMV.

#563 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 03:46 PM:

Elliott: I recently recommended 40,000 in Gehenna to someone as one of my favorite Cherryh books, and an easier introduction to her writing. Glad to see someone else finds it so appealing; while some seem to find it depressing, I find parts of it sad, but never depressing. Serpent's Reach is another favorite, which has some of the same virtues to me.

I think the common theme in both, at its most abstract, is about a form of higher order synthesizing itself out of apparent chaos.

#564 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 559... There's too many other books I want to read to spend time on one I don't like

Life becomes too short, and too busy, for me to spend it on a story that doesn't give me pleasure. Mind you, the definition of pleasure can be quite elastic. Robert Reed's 2008 novella "Truth" was an extremely harrowing readfing experience, but I loved it, and I think it should have won the Hugo.

#565 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2009, 11:44 PM:

I think Spider Robinson is the most depressing writer I've read, which probably says more about me than about him.

#566 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 12:12 AM:

skzb, I'm depressed by Spider Robinson too. But mostly because his stories project an ethical system that I find grotesque and inhumane; I don't find his characters or plots believable; and I find his prose style fails to hold my interest.

That's as politely as I can put it. It took several drafts to get here.

#567 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 02:05 AM:

In #560 Elliott Mason writes:

And then there's a category containing at least one book: books I bounced off of until a friend told me how much of the beginning to skip, and once I'd skipped that, I loved the rest of the book.

Skip the first 200 pages of Gravity's Rainbow.

#568 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 02:06 AM:

One of the reasons I like the first part of Cyteen is that it establishes a point of view. You have to read Cherryh carefully, partly because you can't make too many assumptions about which characters you're supposed to sympathize with and which points of view you're supposed to accept.

The first part of Cyteen makes you sympathize with Justin and Jordan and Corain, and shows you in excruciating detail just how powerful and horrible Ari is. Then the rest of the book (and the sequel) makes it more complicated.

#569 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 08:04 AM:

Bill Higgins @ 569... Did the book first bounce off your chest like a bullet off Superman's?

#570 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 08:41 AM:

Serge #571:

It seems like after all six of the author's books have bounced off your chest harmlessly, the author ought to throw his typewriter at you in frustration. At least, this would be in keeping with the old TV show....

#572 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 09:48 AM:

Serge writes in #571:

Did the book first bounce off your chest like a bullet off Superman's?

I can't remember. I first read Gravity's Rainbow in the summer of 1976. I think at least I was greatly slowed down (though the Banana Breakast scene and the Disgusting English Candy Drill are very fine). I do remember that when I hit a certain point, the pace of the book picked up and it was much better.

So I figure that a person who reads the last 600 or 700 pages of the book and likes it will be fortified circle back and read the dull parts.

#573 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 10:30 AM:

An author I keep bouncing off of is Vernor Vinge. His series starting with A Deepness in the Sky is adored by my friends, and I can't even start them ... there are several filk (mp3) songs (mp3) purporting to summarize the events therein, and I think they're very cool songs, but when I go to read the books I don't find any such coolness inside. Maybe it's me.

I've tried, and failed, to get into the Dorsai universe, too. And yet, he wrote a novella/short work that I ADORED in high school and still do, whose title escaped me, from the point of view of one of the Loch Ness Monsters. I read it in high school as part of The Baker's Dozen: 13 Short Science Fiction Novels , where it appeared with, inter alia, Enemy Mine. I was horrid at author names then, so didn't know who'd written anything until I found a copy used many, many years later, and reread it with great relish, until I got to the Loch Ness story and gaped. "Wait, this is by Gordon Dickson? But I can't stand Dickson!" Sigh.

I've attempted to read The Left Hand of Darkness so many times in the past two decades, I can't even keep track ... and yet, it's unfollowable dreck containing no characters I can care about, instead of the awesome wicked-cool musing on gender I've been TOLD it is. Mind, I've never gotten more than two chapters into it, so, um.

I have real problems with LeGuin in general; the only one of her long works I adore is Always Coming Home, which is rather a different thing entirely.

I get the impression (which bends me around to the post topic) that what I'm reading for is not what other people prize about these books. Rather like the way that I watch America's Next Top Model for the photography, modelling, and fashion, and mute it during the (increasingly taking over the show) middle-school level interpersonal DRAH-ma, which I find a waste of my time. I Am Not The Target Market, Here, and yet, there is content I enjoy (but would enjoy more if that annoying Other Stuff weren't so prevalent).

#574 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 01:26 PM:

Xopher @ 568: Interesting. I like his prose. And his characters are engaging for me. But there's something about the experience of having a happy ending artificially wrenched out of a story that obviously wanted to go somewhere different that leaves me with a strange sort of spiritual miasma--like, all of the efforts of everyone were meaningless.

#575 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 574... I take it that you were fortified and went back thru the dull parts.

#576 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 02:45 PM:

Xopher @#568: I very strongly recommend that you not read Very Bad Deaths, then, assuming that for some reason you were thinking of it.

Several characters are even less ethical than usual for him, I think.

#577 ::: becca ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 08:26 PM:

I stopped reading Spider Robinson years ago - could you give some examples of his characters acting in less than ethical ways? I'm curious, just not curious enough to, you know, actually read him.

#578 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 08:51 PM:

becca, in one of his novels a guy comes in to rob Jake's Place at gunpoint. They're all superheroes, so they foil him easily. Then they strip him naked, tie or cuff his hands behind his back, and push him out the door into a Vermont (I think) winter, miles from shelter. Deep snow.

The ethics of that is that if someone attempts a robbery it's OK for citizens to kill him—not in self-defense, but when he's already been neutralized as a threat. Spider has lived in northern climes and knows-or-should-know the survival potential of a naked man in such weather, let alone one with his hands tied behind his back.

There are no consequences for this; it's done by the heroes of the story; there's no guilt or remorse; in fact it's never mentioned again.

His generally-kind-of-liberal sensibility (well, aside from citizen's executions) doesn't extend to homosexuals, either, but that's an impression that takes a lot of story references ("in Greenwich Village with all the fruits and nuts," the fact that Bill the Transvestite is straight, lots of others) to build up that impression.

#579 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 08:59 PM:

Xopher @ 580: Well, there are a lot of straight transvestites. There's also a gay couple presented quite positively in one of the two of Robinson's novels I've read. You may be off on this point.

By the way, in an earlier life, I would have gone completely off on you for calling James T. Farrell a creep. As it is, I'm already spending much of this thread holding my tongue, so why start now?

#580 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 09:14 PM:

Xopher, that was what put me off him: the whole 'it's okay to take the law into your own hands if you're doing it for a good reason' thing. It started to overshadow the rest of his stuff, even the puns. (It wasn't the only thing, though.)

#581 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 09:19 PM:

How far does one read into a book before giving up on it? Well, it helps if you can rid your mind of the sunk cost fallacy. I quit reading Solaris with only one chapter left, because nothing was happening.

#582 ::: becca ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 09:26 PM:

Xopher: I knew there was a reason I'd stopped reading him. Thanks for confirming that.

#583 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 09:30 PM:

Sorry, John. I read a whole collection of his stories when I was a teenager, and not only did none of them end happily, any happy people in them must be destroyed, innocence is always punished, and everything goes from bad to worse. (He was particularly derisive of homosexuals, but given when he was writing that's not amazing.)

I didn't mean to dismiss him as a writer, but honestly I don't see how a person could write those stories and be a nice guy.

#584 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 10:28 PM:

Xopher #580:

I'm pretty sure the sense of the story (they were somewhere in NYC, not out in the country) was that the bad guy was going to be uncomfortable and embarrassed, not freeze to death. Now, in reality, that would be the kind of stunt that would have a fair chance of killing someone or leaving him permanently maimed, but I never had the sense that SR or any of his characters thought so[1]. (In another story, his main positive characters come to the conclusion that they are just barely willing to kill someone extralegally who has demonstrated that he's a psychopath with terrifying power.)

I enjoy Spider Robinson's stories. I never noticed any homophobia, and remember him counting that against Heinlein in some internal monologue in a book. OTOH, for obvious reasons, I'm absolutely certain you notice that sort of thing more than I do.

My biggest problem with the Callahan's stories (which really went downhill, IMO) was that the characters just got too capable, but the problems they faced didn't grow. It's like something Steve Barnes said on his weblog one time--you have to match the characters to the problems; watching James Bond foil a 7-11 holdup isn't very interesting. The problems they faced in later stories were mostly not any bigger than the ones they faced earlier on, but they were massively more powerful, better-put-together, etc., in the later stories. Callahan's Con was a particularly bizarre and awful example of this. Rdhvccrq jvgu gvzr-geniryvat travhfrf naq n oneshyy bs ohyyrgcebbs, oynfgcebbs cngebaf, lbh pna'g unaqyr bar fznyy-gvzr guht qrznaqvat cebgrpgvba zbarl jvgubhg fbzr xvaq bs rynobengr, whfg-oneryl-jbexnoyr cyna? Jura lbh'ir snprq qbja zhygvcyr nyvra vainfvbaf? Gur jubyr haqreylvat cerzvfr jnf fb fvyyl, vg oebxr gur fgbel sbe zr. More broadly, the basic idea of Callahan's was just stretched too far. The early stories were great, but it didn't make sense to continue it as he did. And it seemed pretty obvious to me that he continued it as long as he did more for commercial reasons than because he was inspired to make more stories in that world.

But I really enjoyed The Free Lunch--parts of the premise were kind-of silly, but the whole thing fit together as a pretty fun read. I also very much liked some of his non-Callahans stuff, particularly Mindkiller (more-or-less cyberpunk content with a rather different style) and Lifehouse (just good fun). The Starseed novels were pretty good but not great, as was Time Pressure. The worldview you have to put on to read and enjoy them is no harder, for me, than the one I need to put on to read and enjoy a Culture novel, frex.

[1] This is common in all kinds of story, right? I'll just hit him over the head and he'll be out for a couple hours, then awake good as new, right? Or I'll shoot the gun out of his hand. Or....

#585 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 10:31 PM:

About the remark, "I hate depressing books; if I wanted that, I'd watch the news":

A few weeks ago, my church had a revival. During the last service, we had a very neat "music communion", in which we put CDs of music that touched our spirit into a basket beforehand, and then passed the basket around during the service and each took one. I put in my copy of Miles Davis' "In A Silent Way" and a mix CD. One of the songs I put on it was this one, by Husker Du:

Turn On The News

It's the first song on the last side of a double album, concluded by a long free jam. The album tells a sad story, and this is where it ends: Not shutting down, but opening up to the world.

I think that's beautiful.

#586 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 10:36 PM:

The thing that broke me of my Spider Robinson habit (I liked his stuff a lot in my teens) was consciously noticing how often Robinson uses taste as a marker of virtue. The Good Guys in a Spider Robinson story (especially a Callahan's story) all like the same music, the same booze, etc, and if anyone turns up who doesn't like those things, he'll turn out to be a disguised evil space cockroach or something.

Also, as I got older, I got annoyed at how scientifically-illiterate Robinson's supposedly-smart characters were.

#587 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 10:51 PM:

Xopher, 585: I was Spider's gofer at a con once, and he really is a genuinely nice guy. I'm not as fond of his books as I once was, but they were the books I needed, when I needed them. I quit reading him because there are other authors who fit the current me better, but I'll always have a soft spot for the Spider I read when I was a kid.

(...I hope this makes sense. My Benadryl just kicked in.)

#588 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2009, 11:05 PM:

Xopher @580 and Albatross @586, I recall Callahan's Bar as being on Long Island. A bit of web-searching turns up that it's "off Route 25A in Suffolk County", so figure that it's maybe 50-100 miles east of NYC. I also recall that there was a 24-hour convenience store directly across the street; that's where people would go to break large bills, because Mike Callahan wouldn't take anything but singles.

Actually, Albatross, your mention of Callahan's Con reminds me of the exact moment I decided to give up on Spider Robinson: It was the bit where the mobster in Con, who's supposed to be extremely stupid, delivers a the line "If you guys don't deliver true-dough, youse'll be dunes-buried." (Or something like that. Maybe it's if they do deliver it. Whatever.)

#589 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:15 AM:

Avram: Arggh! Yes, that drives me crazy, too. It's a milder case of the same disease that Rand had, in which all right thinking people like the same music and art and literature and movies, adhere to the same (lack of) religion, hold the same political views, etc. The only way you get that kind of uniformity in practice is the way Rand got it: by bullying everyone into proclaiming her tastes correct, and by excluding anyone who wasn't susceptible to such bullying.

This is one reason I could enjoy Lifehouse, say. The same thing is going on, but among two couples (both very good permanent pairings based heavily on shared interests and similar lines of work), where it's actually kind of plausible that they'd share a lot of the same tastes and beliefs. OTOH, in The Free Lunch, the main character is young enough that it's not hard to see him just accepting a lot of his much older and wiser friend's tastes and assumptions, so it doesn't grate the same way.

#590 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 08:24 AM:

albatross, #586: This is common in all kinds of story, right? I'll just hit him over the head and he'll be out for a couple hours, then awake good as new, right? Or I'll shoot the gun out of his hand. Or....

The one that's been bothering me lately is the situation where the hero rightly refuses to kill the villain once he's defeated--but then the villain dies accidentally, or is killed by the henchman he's betrayed, or something. The universe kills the villain. The audience gets the sordid pleasure of seeing the bad guy killed, he's conveniently out of the way, but the hero's hands are clean. I've been seeing this a lot in Doctor Who, in particular.

If the fiction is going to make the argument that it's better to refrain from killing the people who've wronged you--and it's a very relevant argument right now, one I'd like to see made more often--then it should actually make that argument. Leave the villain alive and let the authorities lead him away for trial.

#591 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 11:12 AM:

No doubt there will be more argument about literary fiction, now the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has been announced.

#592 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 11:18 AM:

albatross 586: I'm pretty sure the sense of the story...was that the bad guy was going to be uncomfortable and embarrassed, not freeze to death. Now, in reality, that would be the kind of stunt that would have a fair chance of killing someone or leaving him permanently maimed, but I never had the sense that SR or any of his characters thought so[1].

Hmm. It didn't occur to me that anyone could be stupid enough to turn a naked, cuffed person out into the snow and expect him to survive; I was just horrified that they thought ensuring that he would die was any better than killing him outright. But then I grew up in Michigan, where hypothermia is a well-known problem and the possibility of freezing to death is a danger as familiar as a speeding car.

And did it never occur to you reading Lifehouse that the goal of the good guys in that book was gb perngr gur Obet?

Avram 590: Yes, Callahan's was on LI, but I'm not sure about the place in question (which I thought was Jake's Place but I'm not sure)...this is the novel where they move their entire community to Key West. I remember it being very clearly stated that there was nothing around for miles; certainly there was no convenience store across the street. It wouldn't necessarily be consistent with previous books, either. I'm not certain of it, but I was left with the clear idea that this guy was going to die. If he could just stagger naked into a 7-11, that wouldn't have left that impression. I'd have to reread it to be sure.

#593 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 11:36 AM:

Constance@563: I find the news depressing in part because I wish to be informed and the mainstream news, print and broadcast, just doesn't do it. Sorting through tolerated lies, encouraged lies, and active hostility to judgments that would make the conservative consensus in the halls of authority look bad grinds me down.

#594 ::: Iorwerth Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 11:56 AM:

#592: "If the fiction is going to make the argument that it's better to refrain from killing the people who've wronged you--and it's a very relevant argument right now, one I'd like to see made more often--then it should actually make that argument."

Indeed. Myself, I'm starting to have issues with the notion of 'redemptive violence' in fiction; it often seems to be handled rather *too* glibly. (Particularly in table-top RPGs; that may just be a sign of age and player-style incompatibility [I often find combat dull, and the tendency of some players to have their characters randomly murder NPCs and not realise why this could be both morally and pragmatically problematic is getting a *bit* wearing after about 15 years in the hobby] on my part, though.)

Regarding 'Genji': It really is worth sticking with it; I'm glad I did, even though it took me over a year (with breaks) to finish [1]. Admittedly, the translation I read has copious footnotes, appendices and indications as to which character holds which position at the beginning of each chapter, which does make it a lot easier...

[1] Which is unusual for me. I can devour up to three or four books a week at the moment (mostly over weekends). This is because I have no tv at the moment, and limited internet access.

#595 ::: Iorwerth Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:09 PM:

Ooops. Strike 'randomly' from 'characters randomly murder NPCs' and it'll be closer to my intended meaning there.

(Of course, the random murder of NPCs is therefore even more of a problem for me...)

#596 ::: becca ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:17 PM:

The notion of taking the law into one's own hands disturbs me. Granted, I grew up reading Simon Templar, but still... my 17yo daughter is a fan of the tv show Leverage, and of other such shows (wasn't there one called Hustle about a bunch of "good" con men?), and I wonder what kinds of moral lessons she's internalizing.

Similarly, the notion of redemptive violence distresses me. Violence (like torture) is permissible, even a good thing if it's done by the "good guys." the success of shows like 24 baffles me.

#597 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:20 PM:

Serge writes in #577:

I take it that you were fortified and went back thru the dull parts.

No, actually, I plowed through in the conventional manner, beginning to end. But I perceived that the narrative gets much livelier at a certain point (if memory serves, when Lt. Slothrop gets to the Continent).

#598 ::: Elliott Mason queries the moderators ...? ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:22 PM:

I made a comment with many links here yesterday morning that was held for moderation. I see it in my view-all-by, but not in the post? Just curious.

#599 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 12:39 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 5989.. the narrative gets much livelier at a certain point

Based on your original comment about skipping the first hundred pages, would I be mistaken in thinking that the first part of the narrative is slow in delivering very little information of consequence?

#600 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 01:32 PM:

MacAllister@549: have the immediate rereads ever worked out as you hoped? I can imagine feeling when I finished a book that I'm on the edge of getting it, and hoping that seeing it from the beginning with the stage already set in the end might kick me over. But -- has it worked? If it's never worked and if you keep trying it, at some point that becomes fanaticism, doesn't it? Continuing to try the same thing hoping for a different result?

#602 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 02:13 PM:

Echoing some of our earlier discussion on reasons for reading, this from an interview with Lois McMaster Bujold in the Dragon Con online newsletter

On the opposite end of the scale from “reading for status” or “books as tools for social engineering” (i.e., political propaganda), is the very common use of fiction by readers as a mood-altering drug ...

Some years back, I read an interview with a forensic pathologist who made the remark that he’d never walked into a bad crime scene, the kind with blood on the walls, in a house with a lot of books. These disasters were all in book-free spaces. Makes sense to me—books give a time-out, a place of temporary escape till one’s spirits lift, not available to trapped non-readers. It suggests that genre fiction, which tends very much to be chosen by readers’ mood needs, is not so trivial in its social benefits after all.

#603 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 02:18 PM:

OtterB (#604): of course not!

If you have that many books there's no bare wall space, and who wants to get their books all bloody?

#604 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 02:29 PM:

Elliot Mason @600:

I've released your comment from Purgatory (one can always see held comments in view all by), and untangled all the subsequently-wrong comment references since then.

If I've missed a cross-reference, shout and I'll go fix it.

#605 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 02:45 PM:

abi (606): When you release comments from moderation, could you also give reference numbers in the announcement? This is a long thread to backtrack to find the newly-visible comment, and even on a shorter thread it can be difficult. (In this case, I just hit Elliott's view-all-by, but I'm still missing one from Works and Hands of Days.)

#606 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 02:49 PM:

Gah! I messed up the title of that other thread. I don't know why I can't keep that straight. (I had it as Works of Hands and Days, then "fixed" it.)

#607 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 03:01 PM:

Mary Aileen @607
I've added a comment at the bottom of Hands of Days and Works with the released comment numbers.

Warning to all: we are veering close to Too Much Trouble For the Moderators†. I tend to read the active threads rather than the back end. If your comment goes into moderation, post another one on its heels saying Hey! Moderators! or some such*.

Then, among other things, if no one is awake we might subsume your held comment into your alert comment and not have to do any work but put a pointer at the bottom of the thread!

-----
† Or me, anyway, but I think I'm the only one of the five of us who does pick through the threads and clean up references.
* feel free to get creative and amusing with this What am I saying? I'll be telling water to flow downhill next!

#608 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 03:17 PM:

abi (609): Thank you for all your efforts.

#609 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 04:12 PM:

Christopher Davis @605
who wants to get their books all bloody
I thought about that too. Perhaps it's not the stress reduction of reading the books, but the cooldown time provided by needing to get the prospective victim away from the shelves so that innocent books don't become collateral damage.

#610 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 05:19 PM:

There's also worrying about them falling on you if you get feisty in a room full of books.

#611 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 05:27 PM:

Tonight's the night. I'll finally be rid of the bastard. I've got the knife ready, and when he comes in, he's had it.

Hey, look at that! It's been *years* since I've read that old book. Hmmm, it won't hurt anything to read it while I'm waiting for him....

[20 minutes later]

"Hey, Fred, howsit going?"

"Huh? Do you mind? I'm in the middle of this book right now."

"Okay." [Sits down.] Shit! What's this knife doing under the seat cushion?"

"Hmmm? Whatever. That'll be fine. Just let me finish this chapter."

"Okay, I'm gonna go put this somewhere safe. Someone could get hurt sitting on it."

"Mumble."

[Several hours later.]

"Say, did you see a knife laying around somewhere in the study?"

"Yeah, I moved it. Don't you remember me asking about it? What did you need with a knife in there, anyway?"

"Uh, hmmm....I forgot."

#612 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 06:01 PM:

I used to spend a lot of time in Callahan's, so let's see if I remember:

The first bar was Jake Callahan's and it was an ordinary bar in an ordinary neighborhood. When Jake Stonebender took over, he moved the bar, now called Mary's Place, to an isolated spot off Route 25A. When the licensing fell through, the Stonebenders and a bunch of other people said "hell with it" and moved to Key West, where Jake reopened as The Place.

#613 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 06:20 PM:

Jenny, 614: Some refinements: Mike Callahan's Place was on Rt. 25A in Long Island. Then Jake Stonebender put Mary's Place somewhere else near NYC. Then they moved the whole shebang to Key West.

#614 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 06:34 PM:

OtterB @ 611: That assumes that the prospective murderer is enough of a bibliophile to be concerned about potential damage to the books.

Bujold used that idea of "no bad crime scenes in places with lots of books" in "Winterfair Gifts", just a passing thought from Roic.

#615 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 07:05 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet @602

have the immediate rereads ever worked out as you hoped? I can imagine feeling when I finished a book that I'm on the edge of getting it, and hoping that seeing it from the beginning with the stage already set in the end might kick me over. But -- has it worked?

I don't think I could say it's necessarily ever worked out specifically as I'd *hoped* -- but it is my experience that a book is often an entirely different book upon immediate reread, than I'd originally judged upon first impression.

#616 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 08:22 PM:

Harriet, momentarily delurking in 456:

I was amused by your comment on Consider Phlebas. I've been reading speculative fiction since I was a child, and only getting "about half of what was there" pretty much sums up my experience of reading Banks in general, and the early Culture novels in particular.

Not struggling with the technology, I suppose, but I really like having to piece together what's going on from scattered clues about the characters and the world they live in. Banks does this with the tech and with the plot. There's usually at least one massive reveal that recasts everything that's happened in a different light. I've reread most of the culture novels, and it's a different experience, seeing how everything points to the conclusion I missed the first time through.

I really like that about his work. I don't think about it as being difficult (although sometimes the thematic darkness is) but the challenge of putting the pieces together is part of what makes the books fun and, well, not work to read.

I hope you enjoy your next one.

#617 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2009, 09:41 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet @602: MacAllister@549: have the immediate rereads ever worked out as you hoped?

MacAllister @617: [..] it is my experience that a book is often an entirely different book upon immediate reread, than I'd originally judged upon first impression.

If I recall, Fritz Leiber posited the mutability of literary passages as evidence of the Time War.

And if it was someone else other than Fritz Leiber, that only proves my point.

#618 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2009, 12:19 AM:

Bill Higgins at 569:
It's the other way around for me. Gravity's Rainbow is readable for me at the beginning but not at the end.

#619 ::: Iorwerth Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2009, 05:08 AM:

#598: "Violence (like torture) is permissible, even a good thing if it's done by the "good guys." the success of shows like 24 baffles me."

This reminds me of a really rather nasty argument I got into a few months back that taught me that there are members of online Exalted fandom that I really oughtn't to interact with. (The details are rather unpleasant, and I'm still smarting from it.) But the thing that got me was that my interlocutor honestly didn't see anything wrong with what he was arguing; it was self-evident to him that someone *could* deserve to be tortured by one of the settings major villains until their psyche collapsed [1]. At this point, I felt my desire for the human race to continue existing start to crumble.

[1] The character in question is a rather unpleasant individual, it's true, but there's a difference between justice (what she deserves) and victimisation (what she got). Mind you, one of the subtexts of the setting is that most of its present problems are due to people giving other people what they think they deserve; so some of my reaction was probably geekish frustration that this guy didn't get it...

#620 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2009, 03:34 AM:

Day late, dollar short, etc., but I think I've finally managed to articulate what I meant by the rather-too-offhand remark "if I wanted depressing, I would watch the news."

As I posted waaaaayyyyy upthread, I read for escape. I already know that for the vast majority of people on Earth, death is an escape from the same damn thing over and over; I already know that at least 5 percent of U.S. citizens are practicing sociopaths; I already know that the blind machinery of bureaucracy, corporate policy, and just plain Shit Happens destroys lives every day at home and abroad. I already know that the average human being is gullible, shallow, and selfish and the average human life is wasted. I already know that innocent bystanders catch bullets, that nice ordinary people treat other people like things all the time, and that children shiver in the dark, afraid to sleep. I already know what happens to the dog left on the interstate. I already know that old age is rarely dignified.

If I want to explore those issues, I read Ann Rule or listen to NPR. When I am reading for enjoyment, I do not want to wallow in them. I don't want Pollyanna stories, but stories that have no hope, joy, or simple human kindness whatsoever are wallbangers for me, every time.

Take The Quiet Earth for an example. The book leaves the main character trapped. Maybe he's in Hell. Maybe he's incurably insane. Maybe he's experiencing overdose-induced hallucinations as he circles the drain. He has no hope and there is no light. I couldn't bear it; it haunted me for weeks. The movie that was made from the book, on the other hand, leaves the main character just as screwed in the end, but injects just enough hope into the story to make it bittersweet instead of just bitter. He loses everything, but maybe, just maybe, not for nothing. And in both, he's a selfish, self-absorbed boor, but in the movie, he becomes more than that.

#621 ::: Harriet ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2009, 05:23 AM:

A bit late but it's hard to keep up, sorry!

Wesley, 478: Thanks for linking that essay 'The Protocols of Science Fiction', I actually found it really helpful and it illuminated some things I hadn't even begun to consider.

Soon Lee (474), dlbowman76 (475) Ralph Giles (618): Whew, bit of a relief to discover that Banks is a (rewarding) struggle for even the best equipped readers. I shall persevere, possibly even with Feersum Endjinn .

#622 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2009, 05:04 PM:

Dialect is an interesting example of the difficulties we've been talking about. For those who don't know, about a quarter of Iain M. Banks' novel Feersum Endjinn is in phonetic dialect.* And dialect, especially in long narrative sections, is something a lot of people bounce off of regardless of the genre. It's hard to go back to sounding out words, like when we first learned to read. Doing it while getting sfnal clues about the invented world doesn't make it easier!

I think Banks does take some pleasure in this difficulty for its own sake. He certainly enjoys challenging his readers in other ways. But he doesn't use it pointlessly. The sections in dialect really do contribute to the characterization by their very medium. The ability to represent accent is used to delightful effect. And overall, it reinforces the theme of the outside path and the ways a society can make use of it—by making us walk it as we're reading—which is expressed more elegantly here than in any of Culture books, although it's a theme of that entire series.

And if one can get past the dialect, one is rewarded. Those sections are filled with character, and the generic 3rd person narration in the rest of the book feels stingy by comparison so that I was never quite sorry to come to new dialect chapter. I got used to reading it over the book, and my investment in that voice, in its essential uniqueness, grew through the story, building all the way to the end. I just got it down from the self and reread those few pages again. The climactic sentence is still amazing, with the awful majesty of what it does. And I don't think it would have half that impact if it weren't in that special voice. The view really is nice from up there.

---
* This accounts for the tricky spelling of the title.
† And obscure architectural terms, in this particular case!

#623 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 05:11 PM:

This thread has had several effects on me.

A quite unusual one was that I didn't care to expose how I felt as the thread developed for fear of being treated roughly.

Another was to read a Spider Robinson book Mrs. Arkansawyer fortuitously had sitting on our bedroom dresser. It's a hell of a good book which contradicts nearly every criticism of Robinson's writing that came up here. (I care a lot about anti-gay bigotry, so I was looking very carefully for that one, and I couldn't quite make up my mind--the derogatory references were mild and appeared to be sarcastic rather than heartfelt--possibly because I'd had the idea put in my head.)

Another was to realize that one of my triggers is a knee-jerk anti-literary attitude (which, ironically enough, is often spurred by other peoples' triggers) built from stale, lazy cliches that cause me a certain amount of grief.

Anyway, if we're talking bouncers, I have some rules of thumb from my extensive experience in bars:

If the bouncer curses first, the bouncer was likely in the wrong.

If the patron gets thrown out over an argument with the bouncer, the bouncer was almost certainly in the wrong.

If the bouncer spends the rest of the night talking about what a jerk the patron he threw out was, and what a service he did by throwing the patron out, the bouncer was in the wrong until and unless conclusively proven otherwise.

The Big Idea that I take from it? Maybe the person you perceive as pushing your buttons has just had some of his own pushed. I know this discussion pushed plenty of mine, and I chose to largely withdraw from it after a certain point.

P.S. My estimation of Spider Robinson went up considerably after reading that book. I think I'll have another.

P.P.S. I find Sean's top/bottom argument quite interesting, and fun to think through, even though I didn't necessarily buy it, much like James Gifford's argument that certain Heinlein novels are about competence and feature incompetent protagonists.

#624 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 05:39 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @625:

If that last bit is to my address, as I suspect it is, it might be worth noting the differences between bouncers and Making Light moderators*.

Bouncers don't drink with the patrons, for instance. But we engage in the conversation, and sometimes even disagree with each other right here in this very comment thread. Can our decisions as moderators be tainted by our participation? Yep, though we do try not to let that happen. And if one of us goes off the rails, the others step in.

But in this case, you'll note that the moderator who tangled with the commenter did not bounce him. Indeed, no one did; he was (and is) perfectly free to come back, here or elsewhere, behave as he sees fit, and take whatever consequences that behavior brings.

And where is it written that I, as a human being, as a participant in the conversation, am not entitled to mention that I was hurt by the matter, and seek the comfort of friends? Or that other participants are not entitled to engage in meta-discussion about the conduct of the conversation? I paused that and moved it to another thread to de-personalize it, but there are valid points to discuss. Whatever that discussion makes you think of me.

I understand that this thread and the subsequent one push your buttons. Welcome to the club; it's got to almost everyone who's participated in it.

-----
* Yes, I know I used the analogy first. Don't make it perfect.

#625 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 05:48 PM:

John A Arkansawyer:

I realize that that came across a bit harshly. I won't delete it, both because that's not fair and because I still think that you're being unrealistic about what moderators on Making Light really do, or should do, to make this place work.

But I understand that you're feeling hurt and defensive, and may not have intended the tone that came across. I should not have bit back.

#626 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 06:00 PM:

Well, that's what I get for not naming names in an try for tact. I was ticked at Xopher's efforts at moderation, abi, not at you or yours, and I'm sorry you took it that way. That was my fault, and any tone failure on your part is a little my fault because of it.

I was thinking of what you'd said about triggers, but not unsympathetically. I have triggers. Possibly so does Nick.

#627 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 06:07 PM:

Ralph Giles #624:

Dialect is something I find fascinating. It forces the reader to work harder, pay more attention. And it doesn't take long for me to make that mental gearshift so that reading in dialect becomes second nature and the reading experience somehow becomes more immersive.

"Feersum Endjinn", Alan Moore's "Voice of the Fire" which begins, "A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I's feet and wetting they." and Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting" are examples where this was the case for me.

#628 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 06:45 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 628... About non-moderators's efforts at moderation, I know I've been guilty of doing that. My apologies.

#629 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 07:40 PM:

Well, John, I've been repeatedly encouraged to try non-moderator moderation here. That is, to try to reason with people and ask them to modify there behavior in a way that's not backed up by any threat of banning, or indeed any consequences at all.

When Nick refused that, and then continued to abuse me, I got upset. If he comes back I won't treat him like a reasonable person, because he sure doesn't seem like one to me.

If someone has an argument in a bar, and high words are exchanged, and one of them leaves, do you really expect the other one, still visibly shaken, not to rant a little about the one who left? If so, I'm sorry my behavior isn't up to your standards.

#630 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 08:01 PM:

OK, that sounded snottier than I meant it. No, I meant it snottier than I'm now comfortable with having said, and I'm sorry. (And no, no one contacted me to call me on this; this is my own rereading making me say this.)

John, if you would tell me what about the way I acted upset you, I'd be interested and try to listen with an open mind. References to specific posts a plus but not required.

If it was just that I said moderator-like things when I'm not a moderator, I'll contest that, since I have been encouraged to do that in the past. But I'm genuinely interested in what you have to say about it, and I'm honestly sorry that my actions upset you.

#631 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 08:44 PM:

I see a difference between people pretending to moderator status, and community members trying to explain community standards. Xopher, Serge, and Fragano fall firmly into the second group. Other people, too, but those are the first ones I thought of.

IOW, I don't think Serge has anything to apologize for. Xopher might--I stopped reading the thread early. But while it seems that he might have done it badly, I don't think he should be made to feel that he shouldn't have tried.

#632 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 08:47 PM:

PS: what John is objecting to is exactly the behavior that earned Abi her current elevated position.

#633 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 09:57 PM:

Xopher @631:
I would say that there came a point where you and Nick were obviously not engaging in constructive discussion, and one or both of you should have ceased. That said, I'm far better at recognizing such when I'm not one of the participants. :)

#634 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 10:00 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @625: It's a hell of a good book which contradicts nearly every criticism of Robinson's writing that came up here.

And you can't tell us the title?

#635 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 10:20 PM:

TexAnne @ 633-634...

Thanks. I wasn't quite sure how my actions came across.
As for the behavior that earned Abi her current elevated position...

"Fascinating. Pure energy. Pure thought. Totally incorporeal. Not life as we know it at all."
#636 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 10:34 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 625 & Avram @ 636: Holy cow, this is a pet peeve (not that I've any right to express such a thing) BUT, nonetheless, if you really liked a book, and want to recommend it - TELL ME WHAT IT IS. Don't send me on some oblique treasure hunt. Yeesh, this strikes me as the kind of cleverer-than-thou "I've read this and everyone in the know has as well, so I need not tell you to what I refer" behaviour that belittles those of us who may not be as up to date.

And fine, if it's a 25 year old book, then so is Libra. Care to test me on that? (end testiness, with profuse apologies in advance)

#637 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 10:43 PM:

Xopher,

I'm all for you, and everyone, trying to nudge people into keeping within community standards. Generally, I think the commentariat here does a good job of it. Occasionally it goes pear-shaped, and that happened, I think, in this thread.

Asking someone to tone down in a thread where you've already jumped with both feet on two different writers isn't going to work, especially in a thread that is about valuing writing (and thus, I should hope, writers).

Anyway, let me go back to a sentence from way, way up there, in 149:

If there's a whole genre (and I'm in the "litfic is a genre" camp) that values the expression of the writer's feelings (eyeroll) over the reader's enjoyment, then there's a whole genre of bad writing.

Every writing teacher encounters that writing in beginners and spends a fair amount of time explaining by any means necessary that such purely self-expressive writing is perfectly fine for your journal and of little if any interest to anyone else.

Every writer is writing in the hopes of being read. The smart ones try to be intelligible and the good ones are. Once that's done, whether you enjoy it or not is up to you. If the writing is distant in time or place or style or culture from you, then you may well have to work to read it. Whether or not that's worth it is up to you. But almost never does an actual publisher bother to print writing that is only the writer expressing his feelings without any concern for the reader.

That's such a caricature, such a straw man, and such a cliche you write there, I doubt you could've saved it with subjunctive mode. It certainly raised my hackles to read, and it still ticks me off now.

That ends my comment much more sourly than I'd intended, so:

This is a genre novel and is as good a book as you could ask for. When I ran the trade book section in a college book store, I personally hand-sold hardcovers of this one to my literary readers, including one of the profs in the creative writing program. It's been twenty years since I read it, and it has stayed fresh in my mind ever since. I only wish I'd bought one myself.

This one I do have a nice first of, and until I started writing this comment and thinking of non-SF genre novels I think are great, I had no idea it was written by the same writer under a pen name. I note it won a Lambda award, which from browsing the previous winners and finalists (goddam, I have a lot of these books) is not commonly given to a hetero writer.

Those are wonderful books, immensely satisfying as genre novels, yet full of bigger thoughts, especially about art. The first even has an experimental feature, photos by the author which nicely complement/supplement the story.

I wouldn't be shocked if these books are being studied and read well after we're all dead and gone. I admire them immensely. And you know what? Unlike so many other books I love, I've never re-read them. They've stayed that vivid in my mind.

#638 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 11:18 PM:

Avram @ 636, dlbowman @ 638: I apologize. I did not intend to be a tease, and actually had a reason for not mentioning the title. However, I was wrong. It's Very Hard Choices, the sequel to the above-referenced Very Bad Deaths. Having tired of the Callahan stories, I wasn't ready to be so awfully impressed with it. As I was telling Mrs. Arkansawyer so, she said, "It's tight, isn't it?" And it is, a well-crafted work. If I were a Hugo voter (but I don't read enough good current SF), it would've been on my list.

It explicitly cuts against many of the criticisms I saw raised above. Of the five main characters, gjb cnvef bs gurz qb vaqrrq yvxr fvzvyne guvatf, jvgu rnpu cnve qvfnterrvat jvgu gur bgure. Gur svsgu punenpgre vf hayvxr nal bs gurz.

Ethically, I found gurz nyy dhvgr fbhaq. Va snpg, gur rguvpf bs gur punenpgref ner n znggre bs rkcyvpvg qvfphffvba. It was eerie, really, like Robinson had precognized this thread and wished to refute it.

There weren't many puns, and those that were there did not bother me a bit. (I like puns and easily weary of them.)

There were cats, and marijuana, and Heinlein references, but what of that? No one objected to them above, so I guess those are three of my personal notes on Robinson's quirks. It's all good. (I can't believe I said that.)

As politics, it compares favorably to Little Brother. In some ways, it's more subversive. (Of course, I once wrote a review that said John Mellencamp was more subversive than the Dead Kennedys, so don't listen to me.) I surely admired that Cory Doctorow kept an unabashed fondness for sex and drugs and rock and roll in his YA manifesto. It's in this book, too, though it won't have the same impact, because the books are being read by different demographics audiences, but that's okay.

And I'm a bit pissed in a good way that Robinson came up with a variation on the thriller idea I've nursed for twenty years: Gur vqrn bs n tbbq PVN naq n onq PVN--va uvf pnfr, tbbq naq onq ntragf va n onq betnavmngvba.

I really liked this book. I think I'll also enjoy reading the one before it, even though now I know how it ends. That's praise.

#639 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2009, 11:30 PM:

I stopped reading Robinson after the book where his characters turned that guy out into the snow. Not solely because of that ethical problem, but because I found the book boring and predictable. I'm pleased to know he's written a better book.

And even in the thread above, people pointed out that Spider didn't intend for the guy to die. I reacted to that here.

#640 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 03:49 AM:

For the record, backseat moderation is always welcome. It is, of course, unlikely to be successful if you've just been arguing with someone.

But it's worth noting, and praising, that the first person Xopher moderated was himself.

#641 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 05:32 AM:

I've been re-reading what was, in its day, a very successful book. A WW2 thriller that was also a successful film, book and script written in parallel.

It's better as a film, and some of the characters are more wooden than a deHavilland Mosquito.

And there's a few howlers, apart from the bits of cinematic historicality. Here we are, winter 1943-44, with a character making references to Heathrow, which at the time was nothing more than a large field of grass which had been used by Fairey Aviation.

It reads a little bit too much like something an editor hasn't seen.

And, you know, it prompts an "I could write better than that!" reaction.

Well, I think I did, last NaNoWriMo.

About six weeks to go. Make sure I have the OpenOffice template tweaked to my liking. Plenty of space clear on the netbook. Ample stocks of coffee and biscuits. Story outlined and main characters clear in my mind.

Oh, and the right music cued up on my MP3 player. Possibly the regimental slow march of the SAS... As well as my more usual varied selections.


#643 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 09:31 AM:

Does anyone know who at the NYT to tell that one of their ads is aggressively pushing me a suspect executable? Twice this morning.

#644 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 09:45 AM:

John @ 645: I don't know, but I had that problem with the Times last night. F-Secure assures me nothing nasty got onto my system in the process, but I think I may be getting my local news elsewhere for a bit, which doesn't thrill me.

Nor do I know what fraction of my coworkers would have the wit and knowledge not to click on that, or how messy it would be if it got into that LAN.

#645 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 03:27 PM:

The NYT has acknowledged the AV problem and is investigating how it came about.

#646 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 06:52 PM:

Coming back very late to this thread, but finding I am in agreement with pat greene @ 255 re: As I Lay Dying--had to read it in college in a 20th C. comparative lit class and found the book unconvincing at best. I haven't read Faulkner since.

#647 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 10:17 PM:

This is in response to a comment on another thread that Throwmearope had intended to post here.

I don't understand why being able to create something that is wildly popular is bad or wrong.

It isn't, and hardly anyone believes that it is. To fans of traditionally looked-down-on genres this attitude sometimes seems more prevalent than it really is. It's for the most part a straw man.

The subset of skills may be very different from the skills required to write a book so complex and convoluted that only 500 people in all of America

I'm not convinced this book exists (although see below).

I heard a piece on This American Life where 2 New Yorkers were putting down the song Kokomo. They said the Beach Boys knew exactly what pap would appeal to the masses and they wrote it up. The song was a mega hit. The sneer in their voice was amazing. I think they were studying music crit or something.

But why is being able to appeal to a lot of people fluff or evil or something? And why is excluding the whole vast continent of the country because of your erudition such a wondrous thing?

I think Nora Roberts (for instance) must know a lot about how to appeal to women since she's sold 150 bajillion books. Why is that immoral?

I have no idea what the guys on This American Life said, specifically, so I can't probe their minds. I can tell you what I believe. If a thing is popular, that doesn't mean it's bad. It also doesn't mean it's good.

You mention that Nora Roberts's books "appeal" to people, but the word "appeal" covers a lot of ground. A novel that moves people, excites them, broadens their understanding of their fellow human beings, and maybe even changes their lives could be said to appeal to them. A novel that helps a few hours pass pleasantly, and is quickly forgotten, could be said to appeal to them, too.

The first novel and the second appeal to so many people for different reasons. The first novel appeals because it's great, and deep, and has something to excite everybody. The second novel appeals because it's pleasant, and competent, and doesn't risk offending anyone.

When someone seems to be down on some particular piece of "popular" culture, a more charitable interpretation of their attitude--and, I think in most cases, a more accurate one--is not that they think it's somehow immoral to get a popular audience. They're just frustrated that it's (in their opinion) shallow-popular instead of great-popular. If I were more of a Beach Boys fan, I'd be pissed off that they were wasting their time on lazy crap like "Kokomo" when I knew they could pull off great and genuinely heartfelt, and also massively appealing, songs like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't it be Nice."

I see having the ability to create something that a whole bunch of people derive enjoyment from as a bonus, not a negative. Why is genre literature discussed in the same tone of voice as professional wrestling?

It's important to remember that genre literature (or what we class as genre literature--depending on your definition, anything might belong to some kind of genre) is not the only literature capable of giving enjoyment to a whole bunch of people. (On Amazon right now, the top-selling edition of Moby Dick has a far higher sales ranking than the top-selling edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. I'm not sure how much that means, mind you--it's the only sales figure I could come up with on short notice.) It's also important to remember that, as a couple of other people have already brought up, different people have different ideas about what constitutes "complex and convoluted." For many, many people, that would describe A Song of Ice and Fire.

#648 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 11:24 PM:

Throwmearope, from the other thread, why do you write as if genre books were popular, and difficult books unpopular? (Actually, you haven't done a good job of defining exactly what you're contrasting genre with. Literarily difficult books? Critically-lauded books? Non-genre books, assuming we can call that a coherent category?)

I saw an essay earlier today, by Nina Siegal, that argued that from 1920 to 1980, many best-sellers were books that today are considered to have significant literary merit -- The Good Earth, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, and many others, but I've picked out a few that I personally had to read as school assignments. The late '50s and early '60s in particular had a lot of bestsellers that are also critically acclaimed, though I don't know that I'd call any of them "difficult".

And many books that are difficult are popular. Many SF fans consider Delany's Dhalgren to be unreadably difficult, but it's outsold a lot of easier SF books. Joyce's Ulysses is so popular that fans worldwide gather on June 16th each year to celebrate it.

#649 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2009, 11:24 PM:

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but just before reading the original post on the other thread, I'd gone to the site of Redbook Magazine to read the third part of a condensed-and-serialized summer beach romance book that I'd read the first two parts of before the gift subscription someone gave Mrs. Arkansawyer ran out and deprived me of bathroom reading. I enjoyed it (though I wouldn't pay for a copy to keep), which is more than I can say for Jane Austen's Emma (which I did keep).

So perhaps I have low tastes, but: I just cruised through the second half of the twentieth century on this list and found a lot of really good books which were bestsellers: Sweet Thursday, On the Beach, City of Night, The Sand Pebbles, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Portnoy's Complaint, The Godfather, The Day of the Jackal, The Honorary Consul, Ragtime, Jailbird, Smiley's People, Firestarter.

Nothing wrong with those. Some of those, or other books by those authors, will be remembered as among the great books of my time. I also saw a lot of really great authors who've written better books than some not-so-good ones that made the list and some books considered classics that I don't personally care for or am not familiar with. (I was surprised that Catch-22 and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues weren't best-sellers.)

I also saw a lot of mediocre books and a fair measure of dreck. (I mean, there's a Glenn Beck book in the 2008 list. Really.)

So there's nothing wrong with writing a best-seller. There's not necessarily anything all that right about it, either.

#651 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 12:12 AM:

Throwmearope & Wesley #649: The thing is, there are books that are bestsellers because they're good, but there is also a large field of books which achieve sales by, well, pushing people's buttons. The classic "pattern" romances are the traditional example of this, but they appear in every field -- books that don't really add anything new, just provide the superficial appearance and tropes of the current "fad".

They may be quite well crafted, but they're basically imitative, sometimes of prior volumes by the same author. ;-) These are the books that earn the flack directed at "wanting to be popular".

#652 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 06:48 AM:

David Harmon @ 653: Not that SF publishing would ever succeed with books which are "basically imitative, sometimes of prior volumes by the same author." I for one am far too smart to ever fall for a trick like that.

#653 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:13 AM:

@ 653 David Harmon,

My problem with this sort of formulation is that there is an inherent assumption within it about who is qualified to call something good. It would seem to me that in a democracy the number of votes a book gets in the terms of sales is every bit as reasonable a measure of a book's quality as that it is loved by critics, or by the people who I trust to recommend books that I like.

Which brings me to my broader problem, which bell was rung especially hard by John A Arkansawyer @ 651 with his dismissal of a bunch of best sellers as dreck.* I'm not entirely sure that where it comes to art there is an objective standard of what is good. Good for me does not necessarily equal good for you and as long as we talk about books as though "good" has a standard and set meaning we are very likely to spend at least some time locking horns to no avail.

*I do have to note here that the thought of reading anything by Glen Beck makes me a little bit queasy

#654 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:51 AM:

Thanks, Kelly @655, for elucidating for me why this bothered me so much. As a democrat (and a, well, Democrat), I don't see appealing to a lot of people as bad. The 500 number came from some scholarly type going after romance writers. His book had only sold 500 copies. He said it was because there were only 500 people in America capable of understanding him.

He also attacked SF/F and murder mysteries, thereby insulting 99% of my current reading.

(In my own defense, I did major in lit in undergrad, so I read almost all of the books you guys have mentioned at one point or another.)

Sorry again for the wrong thread. In Romanceland, we are not as organized as other people.

#655 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 12:01 PM:

But...aren't you named after the Muse of Rescue, Throwmearopë? :-) You should be well organized, I'd think!

#656 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 12:56 PM:

#656--Talk about being confused, Throwmearope! (Or, as Bugs Bunny put it: Whatta maroon!) This scholar is someone confusing a scholarly work of highly limited utility to those outside either his immediate field or closely peripheral fields, and works read for the sake of entertainment. Or was it someone who was complaining that a piece of fiction, published by a university press which ended up being read by a much smaller number of people than a work published by a commercial company, with the marketing department and ad budget aimed at reaching the largest number of people who might be interested in such a book?

The first case is apples and oranges, the second is the difference between someone selling their apples at a farm stand by the side of the road, and the produce section at the grocery store. The type of traffic you have access to matters. In either case, it's wake up and smell the coffee time: These are not the same things; do not try and ask yourself why they have different outcomes.

#657 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 01:22 PM:

Thank you for mentioning that highjack thing from the NY Times. It tried to coerce me into whatever it was twice last night. How I was smart enough not to fall for it is a miracle of the sort that guards the fool and the sleep deprived (I went 4 nights of sleep so interrupted that in the aggregate I may have gotten about 6 hours).

I set my sooperdooper Antispyvirii catcher program to work, but unlike the highjacker it found no trojans.

It seems taken from the NY Times site now. I hope.

In the meantime, re this convo-discussion, I'm in the process of swotting up Kate Chopin's The Awakening for a class discussion next week.

This novel, now considered to be a brilliant novel of proto-femininism and Southern fiction, is one I never have liked for many reasons. It was controversial and considered immoral in its time. It quickly disappeared from all literary memory and consciousne4ss, while now, post rediscovery by second wave Feminist studies, it's taught in all sorts of academic courses, and there are multiple copies in almost all public library systems.

Love, C.

#658 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 04:47 PM:

Constance,

will you be blogging about The Awakening? I am interested in your thoughts, and I rather liked the book when I read it in high school, and re-read it a few years ago. I can dig out one of my copies and read it again if you are willing to discuss...

#659 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 04:55 PM:

At one point in my life, I enjoyed reading difficult books because they were difficult, and I wanted to be seen reading difficult books, and rubbing how much smarter than they I was in the noses of the people who made my life miserable. Whether or not I enjoyed the books was beside the point.

It was grade school, it was a long time ago, and I have changed significantly since then that I will put a book down after 100-200 pages if I am not enjoying it.

#660 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 06:07 PM:

Rob Rusick at 537: Finally got to watching Let the Right One In this weekend. (I don't watch a lot of TV, even movies.) I thought it was really good, though indeed very grim.

#661 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 07:40 PM:

Kelly McCullough, #655: My problem with this sort of formulation is that there is an inherent assumption within it about who is qualified to call something good.

Could you give more details about who this formulation assumes to be qualified?

It would seem to me that in a democracy the number of votes a book gets in the terms of sales is every bit as reasonable a measure of a book's quality as that it is loved by critics, or by the people who I trust to recommend books that I like.

Have you seen the bestseller lists for the last century? In particular, it's interesting to look at the lists for the first decade of the 20th century, since those are out of copyright and frequently available on Project Gutenberg. Is it arguable that Jane Cable by George Barr McCutcheon and The Wheel of Life by Ellen Glasgow are as good as Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth?

(Also: some critics are people I trust to recommend books I like. That's part of what critics are for: you find some whose tastes match your own, and watch their writing for books you might not otherwise have heard about.)

I'm not entirely sure that where it comes to art there is an objective standard of what is good. Good for me does not necessarily equal good for you and as long as we talk about books as though "good" has a standard and set meaning we are very likely to spend at least some time locking horns to no avail.

There's no objective standard, but that doesn't mean that there are no standards, or that a culture can't come to a rough and imperfect consensus about them, or that it's never productive or interesting to debate standards and whether particular books measure up.

Throwmearope, #656: As a democrat (and a, well, Democrat), I don't see appealing to a lot of people as bad.

I really don't think anyone here believes appealing to a lot of people is bad. It's hard for me to believe that anyone anywhere believes appealing to a lot of people is bad.

The 500 number came from some scholarly type going after romance writers. His book had only sold 500 copies. He said it was because there were only 500 people in America capable of understanding him.

Was this on the web anywhere? (Please don't take this as a challenge--if this guy's rant is available anywhere, I'm genuinely curious to read it.)

#662 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Kelly McCullough #655: Actually, I figure anyone can call a book good (or bad) -- whether anybody else agrees with them is, of course, "another story". The real unexamined leap of logic in my comment was that for a book to be "really good", it has to offer something new or innovative.

The thing is, I read Mercedes Lackey's work and like it, but I don't rank it as "top-flight stuff", because it really is rather formulaic, despite the occasional protagonist rebelling against the plot. The craft of them is is well-done enough that they can be exceedingly enjoyable as "light entertainment" -- but there's still a distinct gulf between, say, her "500 Kingdoms" series and a book like Jim C. Hines' The Stepsister Scheme. Where Lackey toys with the formulas a bit, Hines bends them into new shapes. Much the same goes for Simon R. Green's Nightfall series and relations (including his new series) -- a fairly reliable formula, but I don't expect to learn anything new.

The real problem is when some theme or trope catches on as a fad, trying to ride the coattails of the latest hit. Sturgeon's Rule can get pretty vicious with those authors....

#663 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 08:38 PM:

You know, when I say, "Citizen of the Galaxy is a way better book than Rocket Ship Galileo," no one ever objects.

#664 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 08:40 PM:

To say nothing of The Number of the Beast.

#665 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 08:53 PM:

Clifton Royston @662: Let the Right One In has been proving popular at Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House. The first time they showed it they had showings on a couple of nights (most films on their calendar are scheduled for only one showing). It generated enough interest that they did this again a few months later.

Currently, they plan to show it on Halloween eve, along with a selection of trailers from classic vampire movies.

#666 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 09:00 PM:

Wesley @ 663. Point the first: Very simply. Here is the original statement:

The thing is, there are books that are bestsellers because they're good, but there is also a large field of books which achieve sales by, well, pushing people's buttons.

Which suggests that pushing people's buttons is objectively not good. Now, whether I agree with that statement or not, there is an inherent assumption within the statement that the person making it is qualified to say whether something is objectively good or not independent of anyone else's standards. David Harmon later notes that anyone can say something is good or bad but that getting others to agree with them is the problem. Now, there are absolutely some subsets of good that fit David's criteria, but I'm not willing to concede that those subsets are necessarily more valid than the mass vote of the readers that made those books into best sellers. What really made me decide to respond though was this bit:

The classic "pattern" romances are the traditional example of this, but they appear in every field -- books that don't really add anything new, just provide the superficial appearance and tropes of the current "fad". because of the mention of romance.

It's a half step from saying formulaic or light is not as good as a darker ending to one of the traditional attacks made on f&sf by those who prefer literary fiction, i.e. that lit fic is more real and more serious and thus inherently better than other genres.

More disturbingly, it also echoes the serious fiction/realist fiction argument that has been made by chauvinist academics and critics to devalue Romance in specific and more generally women's fiction and women authors as writing less important works because they don't hew to a maximally realist line.

Now, I don't think for a moment that's what David Harmon was trying to do, but the fact that to me those arguments seem to partake of some of the same assumptions is one of the things that makes me very leery of absolute statements of good and bad in art.

Point the second: You'll note that I didn't say that the number of votes/sales a book gets is a better measure of good, just "the number of votes a book gets in the terms of sales is every bit as reasonable a measure of a book's quality as that it is loved by critics, or by the people who I trust to recommend books that I like."

As to Is it arguable that Jane Cable by George Barr McCutcheon and The Wheel of Life by Ellen Glasgow are as good as Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth? I can't say whether I would personally enjoy one more than the other having read none of them, but am I willing to say that better sales might well mean that by some standards the books are better? Absolutely. That's the point of the sale metric as one measure of good.

Point the third: There's no objective standard, but that doesn't mean that there are no standards, or that a culture can't come to a rough and imperfect consensus about them, or that it's never productive or interesting to debate standards and whether particular books measure up.

Absolutely. I rather thought that was what I was doing proposing a standard that is more subject to real measurement than some of the more subjective ones.

Really, at root, my issue is that "good" is a really really slippery term. What I think is good does not necessarily equal what someone else thinks is good. When you say book X is not a good book, I have no way of determining whether I would agree with that statement unless I've read the book or you tell me what about it makes it not a good book by your standards in a fairly high degree of detail. If we discuss books a lot I can over time come to build a model in my head of what good means to you and judge from there, but until that relationship is built it's not of itself a terribly useful term, whereas bestseller at least gives me some genuine point of measure.

#667 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 09:23 PM:

Or, more simply, the power to arbitrate what is good and bad in a culture is a power that has been used in some very disturbing ways over the years, and thus it's something I want to be very careful about. It may well be that the least bad way to make those decisions is by vote by sales. I don't know for sure, and that one certainly has some personal downsides considering my own mid-list status.

#668 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 09:53 PM:

Kelly #669: Some excellent points, but the flip side of "who decides what makes it good?" is "good for who?"

All the bestsellers, derivative or not, are clearly good for the publishers, book merchants, and authors -- at least financially! But readers have a different set of agendas entirely -- and authors often have a share in their readers' agendas, above and beyond their own interest in profit.

(Digressing a bit: In this context, "the market" turns out to be a tool for negotiating between incommensurable agendas.)

#669 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 09:56 PM:

Kelly McCullough, #668:

The classic "pattern" romances are the traditional example of this, but they appear in every field -- books that don't really add anything new, just provide the superficial appearance and tropes of the current "fad". because of the mention of romance.
It's a half step from saying formulaic or light is not as good as a darker ending to one of the traditional attacks made on f&sf by those who prefer literary fiction, i.e. that lit fic is more real and more serious and thus inherently better than other genres.

It's a half step from the "light/dark" statement to the statement on SF, but it's a much bigger step back to David Harmon's original argument--he's talking about formula, but he doesn't say anything about light endings or dark endings at all. (Formulaic dark endings do exist; for obvious reasons, you get them all the time in the horror genre.)

You'll note that I didn't say that the number of votes/sales a book gets is a better measure of good, just "the number of votes a book gets in the terms of sales is every bit as reasonable a measure of a book's quality as that it is loved by critics, or by the people who I trust to recommend books that I like."

It's the "every bit as reasonable" bit that has me unconvinced. The bestseller lists don't appear to me to support that argument. Instead they appear to support the argument that there's absolutely no correlation at all, positive or negative, between sales and quality.

#670 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:01 PM:

Wesley @ 671 The bestseller lists don't appear to me to support that argument. Instead they appear to support the argument that there's absolutely no correlation at all, positive or negative, between sales and quality.

Again, that depends on your metric of quality. If brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of readers is your metric, there's likely a very strong correlation between quality and sales.

#671 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:08 PM:

Nancy Mittens @661, 100-200 pages! You're far more generous than I. I'll drop a book after a few paragraphs if there's nothing in it that catches my interest.

#672 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:09 PM:

David Harmon @ 670: the flip side of "who decides what makes it good?" is "good for who?"

Ooh, excellent point. There's some pretty objective data in there to if you can get access to it.

Marginally related note: generally, when I talk books with people I tend to talk about what I like, and what I think a book did successfully in terms of craft in my opinion. I always try to make sure that I'm talking about things in terms of my values not absolute values because I've too often been in conversations where one person or another has used "good" or "bad" as a club to try to impose their tastes as the standard of taste.

#673 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:21 PM:

Kelly McCullough @672, how does your way of thinking account for books that change in popularity over time?

Lord of the Rings didn't become a super-star best-seller until it was published in mass-market paperback. Were the paperbacks better books than the hardcover?

Moby-Dick remained a minor cult novel for more than half a century after its publication, only achieving widespread popularity after WW1. Did the book get better sitting there on the shelves?

#674 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:28 PM:

Who decides what makes something good?
Time does.
Rather, Time shows what was truly good that might have been eclipsed by shinier stuff.
Actor Cary Grant never won an Oscar.
People thought that Casablanca would do some nice business then would be forgotten.

#675 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:33 PM:

Avram @ 675. My contention isn't that it's necessarily the ideal way to judge quality, only that it is quite possibly the least bad way to judge quality of the ways that are currently available. I am also perfectly open to the idea that the voting (sales) remains open for some period of time longer then the first three weeks something is on the shelf. In point of fact, I would be perfectly happy to concede that it's possible that one doesn't definitively know anything about the quality of a book until decades or even centuries after initial publication. Heck that gives me more hope that my stuff will someday be considered the epitome of quality.

#676 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:44 PM:

#675
I would say that the answers to those questions are:
first, they became more available to readers;
second, no.

(Moby Dick may be a great novel, but it doesn't engage my interest for long enough that I can tell. YMMV. Which is about half the point of this thread.)

#677 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:47 PM:

Kelly, #668: It's a half step from saying formulaic or light is not as good as a darker ending to one of the traditional attacks made on f&sf by those who prefer literary fiction, i.e. that lit fic is more real and more serious and thus inherently better than other genres.

It's not just books which are subject to the notion that Serious Topics are automatically better than funny ones. The same trope permeates much of popular music (where funny songs are relegated to the area of "novelty" and rarely get airplay on mainstream channels); and when I first got into filk, some of the same attitudes were visible there -- although the immense talent and popularity of Tom Smith has done a lot to change that over the years. And has there ever been a comic movie that got Best Picture?

#678 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Avram at 673,

I read 2 pages a minute, and can read and walk at the same time, so 100-200 pages of a 300+ page book is not a huge investment on my part.

Also, every book I start reading looks interesting to me for some reason - someone recommended it, or the cover looked interesting, or I decided it was one of those "classics" that I should at least try, and it's worth the investment to see if I can see what the fuss is about.

#679 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:54 PM:

"Good for who?" and the related "good for what?" One book might be good for me because it gave me a new insight into someone I knew; another because it taught me a bit of statistics; a third because it distracted me one night when I was unable to sleep for some reason; a fourth because I just enjoyed reading it. I might recommend any of them, depending on who I was speaking to and when: but if you want The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, I'm not going to hand you a Terry Pratchett novel, nor vice versa.

#680 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 10:54 PM:

Kelly McCullough, #672: If brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of readers is your metric, there's likely a very strong correlation between quality and sales.

Not every book that reaches the greatest number of readers brings them the greatest pleasure. A lot of books are pleasant ways to pass the time, but not something their readers will return to, and maybe not even something they'll remember for long.

The difference between a great book and an okay book has nothing to do with sales. The difference is that an okay book will divert its readers agreeably for a few hours; a great book will amaze them, and give them a different and deeper kind of pleasure, which they can draw from again and again.

#681 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 11:36 PM:

Kelly McCullough @ 668: "Which suggests that pushing people's buttons is objectively not good."

Now I'm entirely in favor of reading books that push my buttons, but I do seem to be member of a rather large number of people who both enjoy it and also don't speak of it in the same breath as "quality," however we define that. It seems that there are competing standards for readability, both of which are seen as desirable by the individual but only one of which is valid socially. Unfortunately, the conversation keeps getting hung up on the question of whether it's fair for one of these to be ghetto-ized and the other lionized, when actually I'm much more interested in the question of why--what is the distinction I, and a bunch of other people, are making here?

#682 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2009, 11:50 PM:

You're just jealous of my jetpack!

#683 ::: Rainflame ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:12 AM:

Lee @679

Annie Hall won the Best Picture Oscar.

#684 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:42 AM:

The problem with using sales as a metric of quality isn't that it's right or wrong, but that it doesn't tell me anything I want to know (can you imagine basing your reading on sales figures? I can't) and doesn't make for very interesting conversations ("Book X sold twice as many copies as Book Y." "Well, that settles that."). Adopting the position that it's all a matter of taste has much the same problems.

It's better, I think, to talk about the stuff that can be productively discussed. Rather than saying Book X is better than Book Y, say it's more original, or has more musical prose, or has better insights into human nature, or has a more tightly machined plot, and let people weigh those things as they see fit.

If one must make a direct comparison of quality (as when voting for Hugos), one could just read the number off one's internal hedonometer and be done with it. But to me that's like making a recommendation to a friend based on one's own tastes rather than theirs--the Hugos are, in effect, a recommendation engine, and the recommendation is going out to future fans and current non-fans as well as current fans. Doing my best to keep my own taste in perspective seems like a good idea.

I just read Hereward the Wake and enjoyed it very much--as much, probably, as Bleak House, to the extent that I can compare them. But if I had to recommend one of these to an unknown reader I would choose Bleak House in a heartbeat, because it has a much higher genius-to-goofiness ratio. HtW's goofiness just happens to be a kind that I enjoy more. Does that mean Bleak House is "better"? I don't really care one way or the other.

Wesley: Coincidentally, I was just reading about Ellen Glasgow today. I haven't read her or Wharton, but it's Glasgow I have on my to-read shelf, for what that's worth.

In the same era, I just finished O, Pioneers!, which I found disappointing--she has a way with description, but the tell/show ratio was pretty high, and the dialog verged on the risible. Did these things improve later in her career?

#685 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:46 AM:

Hm. I meant to replace one of those "her"s with "[Willa] Cather," but failed.

#686 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 01:29 AM:

Kelly @668: It's a half step from saying formulaic or light is not as good as a darker ending to one of the traditional attacks made on f&sf by those who prefer literary fiction, i.e. that lit fic is more real and more serious and thus inherently better than other genres.

Maybe, but it's a half-step we don't have to take. Instead, let's take half a step in the opposite direction, and examine original versus formulaic fiction within the fantasy genre. Since our examples will be drawn from the fantasy genre, the issue of genre-vs-non-genre snobbery is avoided, right?

Our contenders: In the deep corner, representing originality, drawing upon a wealth of mythology examined with an eye trained by a career in linguistics and professional scholarship, as well as the author's personal experience in the First World War, the champion, JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings! In the shallow corner, representing formula, drawing upon the author's experience of reading Tolkien, the first fantasy paperback to appear on the NY Times bestseller list, the challenger, Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara!

So, is The Sword of Shannara more formulaic than The Lord of the Rings? Certainly. Early critics of Shannara were shocked at how blatantly Brooks had ripped off Tolkien's major plot arc. David Hartwell, in his essay "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre" (New York Review of Science Fiction #252, Aug 2009) describes the formula that Del Rey books used for fantasy series in the wake of Shannara's success: "The books would be original novels set in invented worlds in which magic works. Each would have a male central character who triumphed over evil -- usually associated with technical knowledge [of] some variety -- by innate virtue, with the help of an elder tutor or tutelary spirit."

Is Shannara shallower than Rings? Again, certainly. Shannara has none of the attention to language and scope of history that Rings has. Brooks himself has said that he "did not share [Tolkien's] background in academia or his interest in cultural study" and therefore wrote a "straightforward adventure story" that lacked the details and depth of Tolkien's work.

Is it possible that someone might prefer Shannara to Rings? Sure, lots of people prefer fast-moving adventure stories to longer, more complicated fare. (I myself have never actually finished The Lord of the Rings in its entirety, having skipped over the first half of The Return of the King when I read it as a kid -- I was much more interested in the ringbearer branch of the story than the war branch.)

Does anyone want to tackle the claim that The Sword of Shannara is a better book than The Lord of the Rings by some kind of objective criteria?

#687 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 02:25 AM:

I think it's possible to imagine The Lord of the Rings in a form which has the same plot, the same depth, but which happens to be badly written. You can see hints of that feeling in the film versions. And some of the changes that Peter Jackson made, partly to better suit his medium, are at least plausible. They're not bad story-telling. And some changes totally miss the mark.

#688 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 04:48 AM:

I am always a bit annoyed with people who propose popularity as the best indicator for "good."

Say that, and you're basically saying that the Twilight Series is one of the best piece of genre fiction written in the past few decades, and definitely the best piece of genre fiction written for girls. I'm going to go right out and say it: any system that judges a book that tells girls they should submit to being controlled by stalking men who are constantly battling impulses to kill them as one of the "best" possible books for girls is a terrible system.

I think it's more valuable intellectually to say that there's no way to judge quality than to say that popularity is the best judge. I'm not saying that popularity and accessibility can't be factors in judging if something is any good, but they're nowhere near the most important factor.

I'm trying to find a similar post I wrote on good vs. bad film. The problem with using sales in that case is even clearer, unless you really think that "Disaster Movie" is better than the vast majority of independent films made every year. It reveals that another serious factor in popularity is the level of marketing and accessibility a thing has... you're basically saying that ten million dollars in saturation advertising add to an items' quality. Look at TV and the absurdity of using popularity as a measure of quality gets even more apparent. If you think that popularity is a good judge of quality there, it means that Fox News is a higher quality network than CNN. Go further, and you'll conclude Rush Limbaugh is a higher quality radio host than Ira Glass and the Big Mac is a higher quality food than a fresh veggie salad... and on and on.

#689 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 04:52 AM:

Bah, "one of the best pieces" "an item's quality" I swear I previewed that post half a dozen times before hitting submit. Typos haunt me during late nights.

#690 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 05:01 AM:

Kelly McCullough @ 668:

Which suggests that pushing people's buttons is objectively not good.

Yes, exactly. That's why that evil, soul-damaging James Patterson book I unfortunately read is a crime against humanity.

#691 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 07:50 AM:

Serge@676

Who decides what makes something good?
Time does.

But what about Newsweek?

:-)

#692 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:25 AM:

Tim Walters, #686: I'm not an expert on Wharton--I've read just enough of her writing to conclude that I have no reason to disagree that she's a great writer, and that I'm still not very interested in reading more.

(I've read less from Ellen Glasgow and George Barr McCutcheon, but sometimes you don't need much.)

Which is another important point--just because someone is a great writer, it doesn't mean you're obligated to like their stuff. It's okay to accept the greatness of a book yet have no interest in reading it. Conversely, just because you like something it doesn't mean your continued self-respect hinges on defending its greatness. (I like Rex Stout, I think he's a good writer--but I don't need to pretend he's a great writer, and I'd feel silly arguing he belonged in the company of Wharton.)

#693 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:30 AM:

Tim Walters @ 686 which is the way I talk about books generally as noted at 674. I have no objections whatsoever to talking about books that way. What I objected to was what looked like a claim that implied good or bad is an objective term.

Avram, @ 688 I certainly like the Lord of the Rings better, but I am not willing to say that what I like is or should be the primary arbiter of what is good. I'd be delighted to talk about why I like the Lord of the Rings more or things that it did more effectively. It's the whole good/bad thing and who gets to say which is which that I am leery of, in part because historically it's often been a tool the privileged use to maintain privilege.

Leah Miller @ 690 That's my point, that popularity is as valid a measure of good or bad as any other, i.e. that none of them are very good but at least this one can be measured making it possibly the least bad. At another level, popularity over time is going to be the only measure that ultimately matters and that irregardless of intrinsic value. The stuff that stays popular will survive. The rest won't.

#694 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:51 AM:

Michael I @ 693... Wise guy, eh?

#695 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 09:17 AM:

Serge #676 Rather, Time shows what was truly good that might have been eclipsed by shinier stuff.... People thought that Casablanca would do some nice business then would be forgotten.

They thought the same about The Rocky Horror Picture Show too. ;-)

Seriously, there's also a significant factor of contingency -- some books happen to appear "right on cue" for their themes to resonate, others get held up by publishing problems (consider Piers Anthony's Tarot), some get publicized (or slashdotted) by a celebrity of the moment, others don't really get noticed at their time. Some works turn out to be prescient, or at least ahead of the curve for what themes or issues they address.

Kelly McCullough: Sales figures are a dubious metric for "how many people enjoyed this book". The numbers don't cover buyer's regrets and wall-bangers on the one hand, nor resales, hand-to-hand, or library readers on the other. And schoolroom readers could swing either way. ;-)

#696 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 09:30 AM:

David Harmon @ 697... Actually, they don't always happen on cue, but they eventually do. If I remember my History of Cinema correctly, Casablanca did fade away after its initial release, then it was rediscovered in the late 1950s. I think the same thing happened with The Wizard of Oz.

#697 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:09 AM:

Kelly McCullogh @ 695
I'm sorry, but if you read any agreement in my post I must rephrase it because I must have been unclear.

To me "least bad" and "best" are the same concept.

I believe that "popularity" as a judge of quality is, at best, no less bad than many other systems. More likely, using popularity as a judge is significantly worse than a number of other systems I could name.

I believe that any statement which implies that popularity is the "least bad" is incorrect.

I also disagree that popularity over time is the only measure that matters. At the very least I think that is a measure so obscure and open to interpretation as to be useless. It also discourages critical thinking, emotional response, and innovation.

Also, how do you judge popularity over time? The total number of people in all of history who have read a thing? The number of people who have read the thing times the number of years it was in print? If you destroy the language of a native people does that mean all their art is not as great as it once was? The idea that popular art is better and that popularity over time is a good judge of value has been a motivating factor for suppression and destruction of other cultures since time immemorial. If no one remembers the stories of the Pagans or the Jews, the stories of Christianity MUST be better! So destroy all their works and kill their storytellers!

Popularity over time may be a good measure of how influential a work is. But let's look at the Eye of Argon: it is famous and popular BECAUSE it is terrible. It's possible that more people have heard of it than have heard of it than, say, Dunsany's "the Sword of Welleran". I'm unwilling to admit that it is a better story, whether or not it is more popular than the Dunsany.

If preservation and awareness over time is a good rubric (or even a factor that should be weighted equally with other factors) then you should actively discourage anyone from mentioning any bad work, since any time you mention it, read it out loud to your friends, or email it to someone you are MAKING IT GOOD. STOP IT! Every year that we refuse to forget the Eye of Argon, we are valuing it over the works of thousands of great shorty story tellers throughout history! Any time I read a blog about how Twilight teaches bad lessons to young girls I am increasing Twilight's google rank and am causing it to be judged as even higher quality.

Popularity over time also gives censors and destroyers of works more power over literature than any other force. You would argue that Charlotte Bronte's books are better than Anne's because they are more famous: well that largely occurred because Charlotte refused to allow one of Anne's novels to be reprinted after Anne's death. Through her cruel dismissal of her younger sisters' work, Charlotte's work became "better" art.

That idea makes me so mad I could spit. Even if somehow, against all instincts, popularity over time is no worse than any other rubric, the fact that it is used as an excuse to destroy works of art must make it a worse system than most others. In the toolbox that is literary examination, popularity is the dynamite: useful in some cases but easily abused and, more often than not, harmful to what you're trying to accomplish.

I'm still working on a post about what we can use to judge whether something is good, but I wanted to make sure I cleared up any possible confusion about my feelings on "popularity" or even "popularity over time" as a rubric.

#698 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:51 AM:

Tim Walters (686): can you imagine basing your reading on sales figures? I can't

As a librarian, I see an awful lot of people who pick books almost exclusively from the current bestseller list. That's using sales figures at least as a first cut.

#699 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Wesley @ 694: (I've read less from Ellen Glasgow and George Barr McCutcheon, but sometimes you don't need much.)

After posting last night, I went ahead and started Glasgow's The Romantic Comedians. So far (88 pages in) it's witty and delightful.

#700 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 11:42 AM:

Leah Miller @ 699

Could we avoid the putting of words in my mouth, please? This is not true: You would argue that Charlotte Bronte's books are better than Anne's because they are more famous.

I won't argue that anything is objectively good* or more good than something else. What I will argue is that if you must come up with a metric for whether something is good, popularity is as reasonable as any other metric and that it at least has the value of being measurable and democratic. Full stop.

Am I always happy with the results of democratically held elections? No, absolutely not. There are many times when I feel that the results are significantly worse than if the other candidate has won. Does that mean I would choose to abandon democracy? No. It is the least bad system we've yet devised for governing ourselves. Come up with something better and I will happily sign up.

Likewise, I am not always happy with the results of the best seller lists. Some books I love vanish. Some books I loathe thrive. Take Avram's example above of LotR vs. Shannara. I like LotR much more but I know people who found Shannara to be a great, fun read and LotR to be tedious and dull, and that's okay. It's even okay if (as much as I would find it regrettable) over time it turns out that Shannara has more staying power.

My central point is that when you get into ostensibly objective statements about the quality of art you are getting into the business of making tools that have been used in some very dubious ways over the years. Such statements make me nervous because they are easily used as clubs. I have been hit in the forehead with the literary fiction=good genre fiction=bad, people who read literary fiction=good people who read genre fiction=bad club often enough that I find I have no taste for building clubs of my own.

*for values of good/bad, good/evil is a whole different discussion and one that's tangential to the discussion at hand.

#701 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 11:46 AM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 692

That sounds like the good/evil debate as opposed to the good/bad debate and it's one I'm not really interested in arguing beyond noting that I find the idea of good and evil expressed through art to be as reasonable an idea as I find good and evil—which is to say, it depends on how you define good and evil.

#702 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:15 PM:

Vicki @681 and the related "good for what?"
I think this is an important distinction. We use the catchphrase YMMV, but think about why your mileage may vary from some "nominal" standard: you drive on different terrain, with different loads, at different speeds. Similarly, we bring different things to books: different past experiences, different neuro-wiring, different interests or moods or needs at the time we meet the book. A book really doesn't stand alone; ultimately, it is judged in interaction with readers.

That means that it's possible to identify qualities of writing that make it more or less likely that a book will interact positively with readers in particular ways, and evaluate a book on those. I think that's what good critics try to do, litcrit or genre reviewers or just people talking to their friends about this great book they read last night.

BUT - there are many dimensions of the writing just like there are many types of readers. And none of this is linearly additive. Is it more important that a book have prose that makes you glory in what words can do, or that it have transparent prose that you can see right through to the action and characters? That it look fearlessly into the human heart and see evil - or good? That it give you people you can recognize and identify with, or take you to very strange and different worlds? That it give you a novel, unique world, or that it tap into universal mythical tropes? If you want to talk about a "good" book, I think you have to talk about the dimensions of goodness that you are considering and then compare and contrast.

That can be difficult, as we found here, because there is a slippery slope from "This is what I like and what matters to me" past "Contrasted with this other thing, which I don't like" and "this other person or this theory agrees with me," sinking down to "I don't understand why anyone could feel differently," and hitting bottom at "and anyone who disagrees with me is obviously either an ignorant fool or a pretentious blowhard."

When I talk to close friends, I can usually assume a certain shared outlook on what's important and what's not; we don't need to define our terms or draw up our rules of engagement each time, and I have a pretty good idea of their hot buttons and where I should tread lightly. It's usually different here. To some extent we hang out here because we value similar things, but it's easy to forget how broad our range of outlook and experience is. And so we sometimes stumble over unexamined assumptions about what "everyone" thinks, or unknown hot buttons. That makes it difficult to keep the discussion both vigorous and civil, but in general this community excels at that and it makes for fascinating reading. When I see someone react very differently to one of my favorite books (or something I hated, for that matter), I can get a new lens to look at things through. So I like to hear the specifics of what people like and don't like, and why.

And I realize now that I've come passionately back to revisit what PNH said in the original post: "And yet, it’s worth talking about the specifics; what’s actually happening between particular readers and particular books."

Ah well. I'll post it anyway.

#703 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:23 PM:

OtterB @ 704

*applause*

#704 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:52 PM:

Avram, I've never read The Sword of Shannara, and in fact tend to avoid books titled "The [cool sounding object] of [made-up placename]" in general, for exactly the reasons you might, so I can't speak to its quality or lack thereof (though nearly everyone I know who HAS read it called it trash and the rest just made gagging noises).

BUT I will recommend to you, for whatever such recommendations are worth, that you give LOTR another read now that you're an adult. I know I couldn't have appreciated the language when I first read it (though you may have been able to), and the war plot is actually relevant to the ringbearer plot (calling orc troops away just as Frodo and Sam needed to sneak past them, for example). And the Appendices not only have all kinds of information useful for understanding the main body of the story, they have more story, including Aragorn and Arwen's earlier (and later) lives.

I can't remember now if you were the one who said he didn't do rereads. If so, please ignore this; but based on other things you've said, I think the depth and scope of Tolkien's tale, and the language in which it's written, will please you; and please you in a way you might (might!) not have been able to appreciate as a teenager.

#705 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Kelley McCullough @ 702

I apologize for putting words in your mouth but, to be fair, there was some misunderstanding on both sides when you interpreted my post as supporting your stance. I also haven't slept tonight, so I might be a bit crazier than I normally am. I'll try to be better. What I should have written is this: if someone were to use the method you have proclaimed to be "least bad" they would conclude that Charlotte's books are better than Anne's due to Charlotte's suppression of Anne's work.

I think a the source of our conflict here is that we've both seen various tools of the critical evaluation trade used against works we like in extremely harmful ways. I've primarily seen the bludgeon of "popularity" thrown about to great damage, whereas you've had worse experience at the hands of "literary fiction is good, genre fiction is bad." I've just gotten the impression so far that you were claiming my beating was not as severe as yours, and the club used to beat me was not as bad as the club used to beat you. I'm not saying that you are actually claiming my pain is less, but I hope you can see why I'd be irritated when you say the thing I've had a problem with is less bad than the thing you've had a problem with.

I believe it is possible to come up with a rubric that avoids the pitfalls of both the "literary fic is superior" club and the "popularity" club. I'm trying to finish a proper post on the subject, but I'm going to throw out some vague ideas to give you a sense of what I'm getting at: Instead of straight popularity, let's try a system I'm going to call

Comparative Appeal: a measure where popularity is taken into account but only in cases where the person voting is familiar with both subjects. So you ask people if they've at least attempted to read both LotR and Shannara. If they haven't, their vote is less important in this scheme.

Example: I'm not the biggest fan of LotR, but I actively dislike Shannara. I have tried both, so I can vote in this. My vote goes to LotR.

My friend loves LotR, but refuses to even look at Shannara out of principle. He can't vote in this, or his vote is weighted lower.

This scheme also helps weed out a lot of the "Twilight Outliers" in the bestseller category. A lot of people who like Twilight or the DaVinci Code haven't read a huge number of other books, genre or not. So when you ask "which is better: Twilight or Dracula?" and filter out all the responses from people who have not even tried to read Dracula you'll probably get a better result than from a straight count of books sold. You'll also get better results if you ask "Which is better, the Twilight series or the Night World series?" Both are tweeny vampire lust stories, but everyone I know who has read both prefers Night World. It just wasn't as well marketed, so it has sold far less than Twilight.

I'm not saying this Comparative Appeal system is an ideal measure of whether a book is any good, but I'm saying it's a measure that I believe would yield better results than a straight popularity contest OR a straight categorization of literary versus genre fiction. It took me two minutes to come up with it. Give me a few hours and I can come up with more factors to consider and more tools to use, all of which I think will be less painful than straight popularity or genre identification.

I'm saying that there are a lot of implements out there, a number of which are bad and painful, but not all of them are vicious clubs. There are nerf bats and pillows out there, and I mean to find them.

#706 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 01:03 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 700: Well, that's hardly the first time that reality has outstripped my imagination. But damn.

#707 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Leah Miller @ 707...

Nerd bats?
("No, Serge, nerf bats.")
Oh.
OK.
I thought that maybe you had seen 1970s French movie Dracula & Son, in Dracula's son is such a nerd thaht he can't scare even little old ladies. My favorite part (the only funny part, really) was at the beginning, when Communists invade the castle of Dracula, who's played by Christopher Lee, and they send him screaming away by making a cross out of a hammer and a sickle.

#708 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 02:34 PM:

Leah Miller @ 707,

First, apology cheerfully accepted and my own tendered as well. I very clearly failed to convey what I meant when I said that I agreed with you, and did so in a way that was offensive, mea maxima culpa.

Your proposed system would be, I think, better than most in terms of reliability of results for recommending books. My two caveats would be that it still strikes me as primarily a measure of opinion and there's an underlying privileging of breadth of reading as expertise that makes me a little uneasy.

#709 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 03:30 PM:

# 660 --

Nancy, I will, maybe tomorrow, now that I finished the re-read and made all these copious, chapter-by-chapter notes. What is up there now was merely pre-thoughts before re-readings, which the last time I re-read was a few years before living in New Orleans. So some of what I recall has a different spin now than it did prior to the re-reading.

What hasn't changed though, is my admiration for how very, very sophisticated is the structure and composition of the novel, how tightly all its parts are entwined, with nothing extraneous at all.

Love, C.

#710 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 03:44 PM:

If a work isn't available, if a work isn't known about, it can't even compete for readers.

One of my top 5 fantasy triologies, The Nuestrian Cycle, consisting of Gerfalcon, Joris of the Rock and the so very splendid The Shy Leopardess, by Leslie Barringer, is unknown and generally unavailable. It isn't offered either on amazon or on google books.

Thus it has sold few copies, but each of these novels separately, and the three of them together, are superior to much Fantasy and secondary world historical Fantasy that has sold well since Fantasy became a marketing and shelving category for book sellers and publishers.

Even his wiki is sparser than need be.

Love, C.

#711 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 03:57 PM:

Apropos of the good vs. bad thread Justine Larbalestier is talking about reviewers and good vs. bad vs. opinion.

#712 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 04:15 PM:

Kelly McCullough @ 710: My two caveats would be that it still strikes me as primarily a measure of opinion and there's an underlying privileging of breadth of reading as expertise that makes me a little uneasy.

Your proposed system, on the other hand, would grant more power to those who already have the most, which makes me a little uneasy. Just how uneasy depends upon the practical applications of your system. I assume you're not advocating basing college reading curricula based on sales figures, but if not, how are we meant to use sales as a quality metric?

#713 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 06:02 PM:

Tim Walters @ 714,

Once again, given a choice of trying to create or proclaim a quality metric that is supposed to be objective vs. not doing so, I would opt for not.

If forced to pick one however, I am just as happy to go for sales figures as a measure of quality as I am to cede the decision to a privileged class as has so often been the case in the past with things like college reading curricula, which have quite often been used to, in your words, "grant more power to those who already have the most." One of the reasons I'm really not a big fan of trying to claim objectivity about the quality of art is for exactly that reason.

Personally, when I teach writing I try to choose stories that I know well and that I can use to illustrate what I see as successes and failures at specific aspects of writing craft, but I try never to make broad claims that the stories I have chosen are objectively good.

#714 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 07:16 PM:

Kelly McCullough @705 Thank you.

Mary Aileen @700
As a librarian, I see an awful lot of people who pick books almost exclusively from the current bestseller list. and Tim Walters @708 following up on the same.

For a while I took an inverse approach to this; if it was on the bestseller list I figured it couldn't be worth much, and so I wouldn't bother to read it. I've discovered that's no more true than the other way around. Surprise, surprise.

#715 ::: Meeg ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 07:37 PM:

I think this argument was a lot more cogent when Stephen King made it years ago. King was just praising good storytelling and suggesting that maybe the literary establishment didn't value it highly enough.

#716 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 07:40 PM:

Kelly McCullough @702: My central point is that when you get into ostensibly objective statements about the quality of art you are getting into the business of making tools that have been used in some very dubious ways over the years.

True, but also true about making knives, or building fires, or writing in general, or pretty much all of human endeavor, no?

Such statements make me nervous because they are easily used as clubs. I have been hit in the forehead with the literary fiction=good genre fiction=bad, people who read literary fiction=good people who read genre fiction=bad club often enough that I find I have no taste for building clubs of my own.

Which brings us right back to Patrick's ct @50, yet again.

#717 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:03 PM:

Kelly McCullough, #695: What I objected to was what looked like a claim that implied good or bad is an objective term.

It's not, but that still doesn't mean we should have no standards.

For instance, interpreting a novel is a matter of opinion. There's no right answer. Even so, if some guy came up with a theory that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a parable about fluoridated water, you'd be pretty safe in calling it wrong.

I don't think the evidence supports the idea popularity is as good as any other metric. It doesn't help that you can measure it. You can measure page count, too, but that doesn't mean The Wheel of Time is better than the Earthsea trilogy.

Tim Walters, #701: After posting last night, I went ahead and started Glasgow's The Romantic Comedians. So far (88 pages in) it's witty and delightful.

I tried The Wheel of Life, which... um, wasn't. According to Wikipedia The Romantic Comedians came 20 years later, so maybe her books got better as she went along.

Kelly McCullough, #702: My central point is that when you get into ostensibly objective statements about the quality of art you are getting into the business of making tools that have been used in some very dubious ways over the years.

A lot of tools are used in dubious ways. That doesn't mean that's the only way they can be used, or that it's a good idea to toss them out entirely.

Such statements make me nervous because they are easily used as clubs. I have been hit in the forehead with the literary fiction=good genre fiction=bad, people who read literary fiction=good people who read genre fiction=bad club often enough that I find I have no taste for building clubs of my own.

Some of us on this thread feel like we've been hit by the literary fiction=elitist, people who read literary fiction=privileged snobs club once or twice.

And at #710: there's an underlying privileging of breadth of reading as expertise

When it comes to discussing books, I'm not sure this is a harmful thing to privilege--breadth of reading broadens readers' tastes (or at least helps them understand their existing tastes better by giving them additional points of reference), expands their minds, informs their opinions, and exposes them to a wide variety of viewpoints, cultures, styles, and kinds of writing.

OtterB, #716: For a while I took an inverse approach to this; if it was on the bestseller list I figured it couldn't be worth much, and so I wouldn't bother to read it.

In my case I figure that if a book is on the bestseller list everyone else has it covered, so I don't have to read it. I realize this makes no sense.

#718 ::: Raine ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:14 PM:

I’m a lurker here, but I’ve been really enjoying this thread and had a couple thoughts I wanted to share. I’m going to post two things, because this first one might be kind of a tangent, or returning to something that’s already done and settled. I’m sorry if I’m distracting from the way the thread is turning, but...

Kelly McCullough @715

I understand that you aren’t saying that you actually want to use sales figures as a measure of quality, but I find myself getting all prickly at the suggestion and I wanted to de-lurk to explore why. I hope you don’t mind.

“If forced to pick one however, I am just as happy to go for sales figures as a measure of quality as I am to cede the decision to a privileged class as has so often been the case in the past with things like college reading curricula, which have quite often been used to, in your words, "grant more power to those who already have the most." One of the reasons I'm really not a big fan of trying to claim objectivity about the quality of art is for exactly that reason.”

I think the first part of my reaction is that I, like Leah Miller @707, have seen the lack of popularity for a work that I love used as a club to indicate that it should not be read (or at least, anyone who reads it is highly questionable). I’ll put that aside, though, since that is counter-balanced by the experience of many on this thread of other, equally vicious, clubs. The existence of both types of experiences just goes to show that currently both methods (the sales figure method and the literati elite method) are being used to declare (rather than determine, since it can’t be determined) quality, and both do a lot of harm to the self-esteem of people who care a lot about books. And I think both, unfortunately, have an effect on what books are published.

I think the one argument I have in favor of the literati elite versus the sales figure method, is that at least you can argue with the literati elite. That is, going towards the negative, once the sales figure for a book is cited as to why it is bad, within the sales figure method you don’t really have anything to argue back with. With the literati elite, you (editorial you) might have recourse to use their methods against them, as has happened with the opening up of the canon to include women and minorities.

Either way, though, I agree that objectivity and quality of art do not go together, and anyone who claims they know what is objectively good or bad should be questioned.

#719 ::: Raine ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:17 PM:

And, post two:

As to the larger question of what happens between a reader and a book: I wonder how much of what we enjoy in our reading is determined by what we read as a child? Maybe nothing at all, but I find that the books I love the most share a certain tone, or style, even more than sharing content similarities. It makes me wonder how much falling head over heels in love with Le Guin’s writing early in adolescence affects what I enjoy today. Or my dad reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to me when I was even younger. Though how that would correlate with my love for Edith Wharton (to bring her up again), I don't know...

#720 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:21 PM:

Another thing -- we seem to have fallen into the trap of talking about books as "good" or "bad", as if these were binary values, as if a book could be just one thing all the way through.

I think a reasonable discussion about a book has to talk about things the book does well and (unless you've found a perfect book somewhere) things the book does poorly.

#721 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 08:42 PM:

Otterb @ 716: For a while I took an inverse approach to this; if it was on the bestseller list I figured it couldn't be worth much, and so I wouldn't bother to read it.

I used to apply that rule at the video store. If they have 60 copies of a film, it can't be any good it wouldn't appeal to my non-mainstream tastes.

Now I only rent from Netflix, which as far as one can see has the same number of copies of everything (except for some Star Trek TOS episodes, for which "short wait").

#722 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 09:06 PM:

Avram at 722, hooray! I would be delighted if the conversation moved that way. I really don't think good/bad is a very useful tool, and I've certainly come to regret commenting on it in the first place.

Wesley @ 719 When it comes to discussing books, I'm not sure this is a harmful thing to privilege--breadth of reading broadens readers' tastes (or at least helps them understand their existing tastes better by giving them additional points of reference), expands their minds, informs their opinions, and exposes them to a wide variety of viewpoints, cultures, styles, and kinds of writing.

I'm not sure it's harmful either but it's a point to be aware of. I'm perfectly willing to say that it gives you better perspective on some things, but I also think there's an enormous amount to be learned from the kind of books that bring in inexperienced readers, many of which seem to come in for an awful lot of bashing from more experienced readers—for example Dan Brown or Robert James Waller—and from the perspectives of readers who will only pick up the best sellers. If I could bottle some of that and add it to the books that I love that are perhaps less commercially successful, I think it would be a wonderful thing. Both because it would improve the health of publishing and because more people reading more is an admirable goal in itself.

#723 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:26 PM:

Joel @616: Bujold used that idea of "no bad crime scenes in places with lots of books" in "Winterfair Gifts", just a passing thought from Roic.

I remember seeing that line in "Winterfair Gifts", and getting a dire feeling of wrongness by the way Bujold chose to rephrase it there. The original forensic pathologist may've said that he'd never seen a bad crime scene in a place with a lot of books (of any sort?)-- but Roic is waiting chez Vorthys and looking at shelves of antique books with leather spines and gilded pages, which prompt him to think that in his previous career in the Hassadar city guard, he'd never been at a bad crime scene "where there were books like this" (emph. added).

It made me wonder if decades earlier, if Roic had been waiting outside old Ezar's room in the Imperial Residence, whether he would've equally thought to himself that he'd never seen a bad crime scene in Hassadar where there were antique furniture/artwork/carpets/whatall like this. Perhaps it ties into the older idea that Ezar and his ilk were devious enough to commit mass murder from a distance while keeping the appearance of clean hands. But the lingering suggestion of "people with nice things don't commit horrible crimes" still bothers me somehow, although on principle I should probably be equally bothered by the parallel suggestions "people with lots of books don't commit horrible crimes" or "horrible crimes don't happen to people with lots of books"-- didn't someone here post a piclink a week or two ago to Jaycee Dugard's packed bookshelf, in the room where she'd been hidden away by the guy who kidnapped her when she was 11 and fathered two children on her before she was 18? Okay, so it doesn't have the acute splashiness of blood on the walls, but doesn't that count as a bad crime scene in chronic slow-motion?

Which of course doesn't negate the original quote from that forensic pathologist's professional experience. But still.

#724 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:45 PM:

Julie L. @ 725 -- I interpreted "gone into a house [...] where there were books like this" to mean "places like this with lots of books" rather than "places with really nice books like these ones", i.e., the quantity rather than the quality.

#725 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 10:50 PM:

Leah Miller #699: "The Eye of Argon" is a terrible story, but a popular joke.

#726 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2009, 11:18 PM:

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
- Groucho Marx

#727 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 12:01 AM:

I'm going to withdraw from this discussion thread at this point for reasons of mental health. I apologize to anyone who would like to continue to debate the point with me. If we are ever in the same place at the same time at a con or in some other venue where there are secondary social cues I would be willing to take it up again in person, but I find that this discussion in this format is becoming a truly brutal drag on my general well being. Again, my apologies.

#728 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 12:34 AM:

Wesley @ 719: According to Wikipedia The Romantic Comedians came 20 years later, so maybe her books got better as she went along.

Or maybe reading too much minor Cabell (which it somewhat resembles) has warped my brain. I'm sorry to report that by page 227 the protagonist's fatuity has grown irritating rather than amusing.

#729 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 03:09 AM:

Julie L #725:

My version:

A few years ago, our place was burgled. We lost a bunch of stuff but the insurance mostly covered the financial loss (except for a number of items we hadn't realised were missing when we filed our claim); the sentimental items were a different story.

The Crime Scene officer who came to dust for prints mentioned that in his long years of attending such scenes, he had never been to one where the items stolen were books.

#730 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 09:42 AM:

Raine @ 721: the books I love the most share a certain tone, or style...

I agree -- I have a wide list of books I like, in various genres, and their appeal is more of a personality quirk than a sales or critical approach.

#731 ::: Raine ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 11:09 AM:

Kelly McCullough @729: I feel like my last comment may have been the extra comment that drove you away. I'm sorry, I could feel the thread turning away from that discussion and should have let it go.

#732 ::: Raine ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 11:17 AM:

Ginger @732

Do you find that it makes it more difficult to find books you really like? I find I have to read the opening paragraph of a book to find out if I might like it, rather than reading a description of its contents.

#733 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 01:40 PM:

I have a longer catch-up post to formulate, but for now I wanted to throw some quick "be well" wishes in Kelly's direction, and also to comment on this:

While there may be an inherent privileging of haves over have-nots when privileging reading expertise in making decisions about what books are better than other books, that's rather a problem of privileging any expertise. It is good to be aware that in our society expertise in many matters tends to be a perk of being well-off not shared by those without money for books, white-collar education, etc. However, being aware of the class struggle does not stop me from privileging an expert in the field in matters of advice or practice.

IN other words, I would not, out of some egalitarian tendency, choose a life-long subsistence farm-worker over a brain surgeon if brain surgery is what's called for. But being aware of how hard it is for those in poverty to receive medical training, I might meanwhile put my efforts behind social movements aimed at making such training more accessible.

Similarly, I cannot trust the opinion of a non-reader over a wide reader when it comes to the relative quality of stories. But, recognizing that being a wide reader requires literacy and access to books, I support programs for bringing literacy teaching and a wide variety of books to all regardless of resources.

I can't help but come across as elitist when I say I'm fully behind the privileging of expertise. But I hope mitigate that via my support for any social change geared towards making the acquiring of expertise more accessible, such that expertise becomes less the exclusive purview of the well-off.

#734 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2009, 03:58 PM:

Kelly McCullough @729:
I know the feeling. Maybe you'll find yourself able to come back in a bit, when the conversation's moved to someplace you can feel more comfortable. Maybe not.

In either case, your well-being is really more important than this particular discussion. Your comments here stand, and people can walk around with them and chew them over as they are.

Don't worry about it. Don't let it eat you up.

#735 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2009, 07:19 AM:

I should not have looked back in. ^%%*&! &&*^&*! &%*&&^!

Abi @ 736 Thank you, it was keeping me up at night and making my stomach hurt. Unfortunately, so does leaving post 735 unanswered.

Raine @ 722 it wasn't you, thank you for the concern, it's appreciated.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 735 I agree with you completely in 95 cases out of every hundred, have qualifiers for 4, and find it potentially poisonous in 1.

Case 1, Brain surgeons, check.

Case 95 Bridge builders, check.

Case 96 Picking out books, depends. Does the expert's taste agree with mine. If not, then the expert may be useless to me. Someone who has read five books but likes what I like may well be more valuable to me then someone who has read 10,000 but hates the things I like.

Case 97, deciding about installing seat belts in cars, depends. What are the priorities of the expert? Cost? Safety?

Case 98 Smoking policy in bars. What constitutes an expert? Bar owners? Smokers? Public health experts?

Case 99 Experts in making the machinery of Washington do what they want it to do. Al Gore is one such expert. So is Dick Cheney. Expertise isn't the only thing that matters in this decision. So does agenda.

Case 100 Voting. What sort of expertise limitation shall we place on who is allowed to vote?

Expertise is incredibly valuable in most things most of the time. The closer something is to purely objective and to having one correct answer, the more expertise is a clear cut advantage. The more it is subjective and there are competing answers the fuzzier it gets.

#736 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2009, 08:27 AM:

Raine @ 734: Oh, absolutely. It's one of the main problems in shopping online, although that is now somewhat mitigated by the sites which allow a preview. For a while, though, I was sometimes very disappointed by the books I ordered.

#737 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2009, 11:24 AM:

Kelly, #737: Good points. I do have one caveat about your Case 98; it's not as non-objective as you seem to think. In every instance where a "no smoking in public venues" policy has been implemented, restaurant and bar business has gone up. This includes a few notable instances where there are similar smoking facilities only a few miles down the road*. So in this case, empirical evidence supports the experts.

* Such as El Paso, TX -- where people are used to routinely ducking over into Juarez to get around US laws that they find inconvenient.

#738 ::: Feline ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2009, 06:20 PM:

I feel I should add to Lee's point at #739, as a former bartender/smoker, specifically at the point when the smoking ban happened in Sweden. We moved our pub/nightclub to a new locale six months before the ban became law, and I can't recall any of us smokers complaining when we decided to race ahead of the ban and constrain all smoking to the smoking room we had prepared. The non-smokers were, of course, all for it, since it meant they didn't wake up feeling hungover after working in what we jokingly called "The Lützen Fog". And while we had to work a bit during the rollover period it was generally accepted by our guests, and though I can't say that we didn't lose part of our clientele by doing so (because there were too many factors involved there) I can say that the familiar faces of mine became the familiar faces of the young ones that became part of the staff after the move.
I do realise that my anecdotes from good old Communist Sweden are just that, but generally, and in my experience, these are the opinions of both the barstaff and the patrons. Mind you, I do have a counter-anecdote as well, but that one had different premises.
But I never knew how much people tended to pass wind at the bar until we didn't have a constant cloud of smoke hanging around the place.
As to the rest of the discussion (the relevant bit), I'm still trying to find out what I want to say, or if it's even worth saying in this storm of well-thought-out views. I might come back on that, or I might just listen. Umm, read. You know.

#739 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2009, 10:42 PM:

Nicole @ 735:

I will generally agree that people who read a lot are more likely to be good judges of the quality of books (and maybe short stories) than people who don't. But books are not the same as stories. Someone who reads 40 books a year, including things like guides to new computer languages and cookbooks in that 40, and never goes to movies may not be a better judge of stories than someone who reads one or two books a year, and sees 100 movies a year. (There are, of course, other story-telling media and modes, including orally, sitting with a friend or ten.)

Lee @739: Are people in El Paso still casually crossing the border to Juarez to avoid inconvenient U.S. laws? (That datapoint/example being possibly obsolete doesn't refute the main point, but I wonder how people saw the tradeoff between risking arrest in El Paso and risking kidnapping or murder in Juarez.)

#740 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2009, 07:39 PM:

It took me a while to decide exactly why Kelly's definition of "good book" rankled me so. Before I say it, let me point out there are several ways in which her definition is very reasonable: A book that meets her criterion is a book which (maybe with a very few exceptions) ought to be published, and which ought to be available libraries. It's a utilitarian definition, and in the realm of utilitarian problems, it's a very reasonable solution. That fact escaped me at first.

Now, that said, what bothers me about it is that, using that definition, someone reading two books cannot say of them, "This is a better book than that one." However, someone with a properly-designed iPhone application could scan the two books' bar codes, look at a graphical display showing each book's cover on top of its column in a histogram, and say, "This is a better book than that one." No reading, no writing, no arithmetic required. This way lies madness...or maybe John Searles.

#741 ::: Terry Karney (writes a huge post, covering lots of ground) ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2009, 02:59 AM:

I read things I like, which doesn't help much. I choose to read something (which usually means an author) because people I trust enjoy that writer's work, or because another author I like praises them (skzb was some of both. To Reign in Hell was praised by a friend, and then lauded by Zealazny [in the intro]).

What do I like? I like a writer who gets drunk on words. Not that they use an overblown style (though I like Paarfi :), but that the sense they are crafting the prose. I want to get the sense that, even if the words came ripping of the fingers in a single burst of creative energy, there was effort in making them fall just so.

I like story. I read Dickens, and Shakespeare. I enjoyed Gatsby, and loathed the Scarlet Letter. I devoured Melville, but abhored Steinbeck (and Hemminway). Robert Louis Stevenson, and Roy