Today was my daughter’s first day of summer vacation. We celebrated with a trip to the library. She didn’t want to sign up for the summer reading program (she likes to start about 10 books at a time and not finish most of them), but she did start a summer reading list and liked the idea of challenging me to see who could read the most.
My summer reading challenge is going to be “Tweet less, read more.” I feel like it’s been ages since I could really immerse myself in reading. And there are so many books on my TBR I want to read! I’m trying to cut back on the library so I can ease my TBR pressure, but I had a hold to pick up: Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth, about classicist Alice Kober’s work on deciphering Linear B. (It makes me think of Amanda Quick’s heroines, somehow).
One thing I’ll be reading is Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy, and I still plan to host a discussion for others who’ve been reading (sadly, the e-release seems to be North America only). I will do a post on To Love and to Cherish for July 15, and then leave about 3 weeks between each book. So if you want to join in, get reading! I’m about to embark on To Have and to Hold, with some trepidation.
I often feel that genre fiction over-emphasizes a really “hooky” first page. I give a book longer than that to draw me in, and many have let me down after starting with a bang. But the first page of my current read, Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, is perfectly calculated. I have a hardcover from the library, and I can’t help thinking that the first page was designed to end exactly where it does (that’s an advantage of paper over e-books). I went in with few expectations. It’s fantasy, and the opening scene is of a robed, tonsured monk praying before a sacred flame. It sounds like a medievalesque setting, though there are clues that it isn’t quite the typical version (he’s Novice Technician Abelard, for instance, and his god’s heat powers the city). Then, in the very last line on the page, “He rose, turned from the altar, and reached into an inside pocket of his robe for a cigarette.” Bam! I was hooked. If that page had ended anywhere else, the sentence would have had less impact. Of course I was going to turn the page, because suddenly, with that little detail, we weren’t in the kind of world I thought–it was both more familiar, more like our own, and more strange, less like the standard fantasy world I had thought I was in. And yet, it isn’t a flashy hook at all, just a mundane action. (I’m two-thirds in, and the book is still living up to that first page).
Readers Abhor a Vacuum
I keep thinking about the discussion about portraying disabled characters on this Dear Author review. Let’s set aside some of the familiar ways it went sideways. What interests me is the question of the vacuum. Ridley commented that a portrayal that might not bother her in a vacuum seemed problematic when you look at trends in the genre, and July, the reviewer, replied that “each book is a vacuum,” and shouldn’t be taken as the whole genre. I know what July means, of course, but no book–and perhaps even more, no work of genre fiction–exists in a vacuum. They exist in the context of their culture, and in the context of other books.
Readers often discuss this as a feature of the romance genre: as we gain competence in the genre repertoire–tropes, subgenres, etc.–our appreciation of individual books may deepen: we see how an author is overturning familiar elements, tweaking them, combining them in new ways, or simply telling a familiar story so well that we fall in love with it again. We have to accept, then, that the intertextual context of the genre is also a bug. I think it’s fair for readers to point out when a book fits genre patterns they find troubling, and to raise questions about those patterns. It’s also fair for other readers to say the depiction made sense or worked in the context of the particular book. There can be, after all, contested interpretations.
This issue is a tricky one for both readers and writers. I certainly don’t think we should ever hold a single book or author accountable for the whole genre, or rule any particular portrayal out of bounds (some disabled people are assholes, some poor people are addicts, etc., as the defenders of certain books say). At the same time, I think authors working in a genre that allows them a lot of convenient shortcuts–for example, you don’t have to sketch out a full Regency world if you don’t want to, but can rely on reader familiarity with the genre’s version of it–have a responsibility not to take shortcuts when they are problematic stereotypes. Why are there so many stories where it just makes sense for the disabled character to be a victim to be rescued, or where the villain just happens to be gay, or where the heroine just happens to want to leave her high-powered city job and have small-town babies? Yes, writers should tell the stories they want to tell, but I hope they’re not telling them unthinkingly. Sometimes, when they pull familiar and troubling genre matter into the vacuum of their stories, it feels to some readers that they are.
Things at work are finally easing up for me, and I plan not just to read more but to post more. What about you? Reading anything good? Got summer reading plans?