general fiction

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

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The burden of originality

A few weeks ago someone at work was reading aloud a review of a science fiction novel. During the part that described the plot, another someone snidely remarked ‘like that has never done before’.

I have to say I bristled at this. Realistic fiction is full of same old stories, but speculative fiction seems to be given a greater responsibility of coming up with fresh and original plot lines. There’s still an old-fashioned assumption that SF (particularly the science fiction part of it) is purely a genre of predictions and ideas.

Why do we (mostly) forgive realistic fiction for rehashing same old marriage-in-trouble, coming-of-age, going-off-to-war, dead-family tropes, but do not forgive science fiction for retelling its stories in different ways? Speculative fiction is absolved for re-imagining tales only when it cops to doing so on purpose (see a number of fairy tale-retelling anthologies).

But perhaps we do not let the so-called mainstream fiction off the hook either. I often see people look at a book and go ‘oh no, not this stuff again’. So what is the problem? At least half of the time I think it’s just the dust jacket description. I remember the blurb for Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It sounded so boring, I avoided the book for months. But in reality, it’s one of the best fantasy books I (eventually) read.

Every day, I look at stacks of ARCs and galleys in the break room at my job. These days, I pick them up and read the first sentence of the blurb. If it grabs me, I take the galley, but about 99% of the time I put it back. That’s because most of the blurbs are along the lines of: ‘after a terrible attack, person rebuilds her life’, ‘after losing parents, person rebuilds life’, ‘person is faced with a failed marriage and rebuilds life’. They all sound kind of the same and kind of unexciting, mostly because they are so general. It’s always a story of friendship, a story of love, a story of loss. When summarized in a sentence, even the best tales sound, well, kind of meh.* I want to quote Jo Walton, who wrote that her child had once jokingly remarked that there were only three conflicts in books: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Plan, and Man vs. Canal (i.e. technology). We always say that there are no new stories, and yet we demand newness, something we have not seen done before. Why do we care about this elusive ‘originality’? And why is certain type of fiction held to a higher standard when it comes to it?

What do reviews mean when they talk about ‘originality’ anyway? Things can’t be too original or they become ‘experimental’ (i.e. hard to read and too weird). Maybe it’s not the plot, maybe it’s the setting or the characters. My opinion is that this ‘originality’ is all in an author’s voice that can bring the same failed marriage of two orphans in New York to a whole new level. Or a voice that can take first contact or a sentient spaceship or the chosen one trope and spin it in new ways. And voice is really hard to encapsulate in a blurb.

I don’t think I’m looking for originality anymore. I’m looking for a book that has a good voice, because that’s what’s going to make characters I can feel emotional about, a setting that seems fascinating (even if it’s same old Mars), and a story that I want to follow (even if it’s the same chosen one trope). This requires me to mostly ignore the blurbs and just read the books. Stay tuned for future posts dedicated to topics like abandoning books halfway, using complicated social recommendation algorithms to find books to read, and wishes for time-turner or superhuman speed-reading ability.

 

*Let’s play a game where we summarize some good speculative novels in a sentence, shall we? Try to guess what any of these are. 1) Young man escapes an attack on his life and flees into the desert. 2) An order of monks preserves the remnants of humanity’s knowledge in the post-apocalyptic world. 3) Two people learn to understand each other better after a long trek through ice and snow.

What snooze-fests these must be.

 

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.

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Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.

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I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’

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Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:

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Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.