Friday Fragments: Summer Reading

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 Labyrinthabout 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.

First Page

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?

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15 Responses to Friday Fragments: Summer Reading

  1. pamela1740 says:

    I just picked up a copy of To Have and To Hold at my used bookshop, and Gaffney is on my summer reading list too! I have been hankering to read the Wyckerley books since Nicola from Alpha Heroes recommended TL&TC when I was musing about whether a hero in holy orders “works” for me — (actually, whether Julie Anne Long’s vicar hero is a badass or not). I will try to get going on this so I can participate! Yesterday was the first day of actual summer for me, since my kids were in school so long, but now I, too, am hoping to sink into more reading and more posting about what I’m reading. I know my list is way too long for the one week they’ll be away at camp, but I can dream!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m grateful that my kids are able to entertain themselves a lot of the time (let them play video games and write fanfiction all summer, I say! I want to read).

      To Love and to Cherish was really interesting for me, though I admired it more than I loved it; I think Christy is a challenge to conventional notions of what it means to be a “hero” (or indeed to be “badass”) which is something I always appreciate. That’s why I love Lois McMaster Bujold, for instance.

  2. I finally finished writing some thoughts on To Love and To Cherish, and have them ready to post for July 15th. I’d already posted on the middle book a while ago, so the third one is next for me,

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Honestly, I’m looking forward to #3 the most, because all I know about it is who the heroine is. The other two, I know so much going in that I’m reading for intellectual interest and find I can’t really immerse myself.

  3. Ridley says:

    I think this blog post sums up what I’m trying to get at when I object to a problematic portrayal.

    It’s not so much about including messed up people as what you’re doing with them. If you’re not challenging norms or stereotypes, you’re reinforcing them, and why do I want to read something that’s covering no new ground and is contributing to marginalizing attitudes?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I agree. And of course, without having read a particular book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether I think it has or says fucked up shit, or both. On the other hand, if it’s OK to write “sounds great! I want to try it” as a review comment, it’s equally OK to write “sounds really troubling; I’m tired of this depiction and I’m going to avoid it.”

      The other thing about that conversation that got me was that the character was described as “having no redeeming qualities” but also as “not just a narrative prop.” As far as I’m concerned, those two things are mutually exclusive. I’ve never met anyone with NO redeeming qualities–such a character can really only seem like a prop to me. And then if you make him/her part of a group that’s often portrayed stereotypically. . . .

  4. SonomaLass says:

    I dread the Gaffney books and have avoided them, just because I have already heard/read so many opinions, many of which are extreme, that I can’t come to them with an open mind. That’s another sort of vacuum that’s often lacking for me in genre fiction, especially if I’m catching up with books that many others have read and commented on. I know we’ve talked about the problems of reading the new books with a lot of “hype,” but for me, reading books after so many others have had their say is intimidating.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Actually, this may be the reason I’ve not started the Gaffney books in spite of being intrigued by all the conversation around them. I can’t comment without having read for myself, but there is that sense that so much has been said already. I agree it’s hard to have an open mind, and it’s equally hard to have anything fresh to add to the discussion.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, great point. I have a lot of trouble reading books when the “context” I’m bringing to them is other people’s responses. I’ve learned to wait until buzz dies down and/or to avoid reviews. I’d say that I switched into “academic reading” mode reading the Gaffney, because there I’m used to reading something I’ve already read a lot of critical commentary on. So on that level, I enjoyed it, but all those other people’s voices in my head as I read definitely kill immersion. That’s a problem with older, iconic books as much as hyped new ones.

  5. Sunita says:

    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.

    That’s not just true of genre fiction but of all writing and probably of all art forms.

    I interpreted the vacuum comment as referring more to what SonomaLass is talking about and what you have talked about in terms of being able to read a book without feeling as if there are many other people reading along with you, so to speak. The one-on-one relationship of reader and book, when everything else but the book vanishes, is an amazing experience. I remember reading a particular book years ago; it took me two tries to get into the first few dozen pages, and then I was so gripped by it that when I reached a stopping place and looked up, I was disoriented to find myself in my living room. Until that moment, the book was all there was for me. And even in less compelling books, I’ve found that once I’m reading, whatever preconceptions I bring to it (about the subject matter, about the author, etc.) fade into the background and the words on the page are foregrounded. I’m grateful for that, because otherwise I’d be unable to read books written by people I dislike or review book written by people I have positive or negative feelings about.

    I read four Gaffney books in a row years ago, when I finally found copies. They were the Wyckerley trilogy and Wild at Heart. I’m glad I read them and I recognized their quality, but I have no particular desire to read them again. Similar to your experience with To Love and to Cherish, I appreciated them rather than loved them, partly because I could never quite lose the feeling that I was watching a very talented author work through some interesting fiction challenges.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a good way of thinking about the vacuum. And yes, I think that WHILE I’m reading, if the book is a good experience, mostly “context” fades into the background. It’s more after the fact that I begin to think about these things. Although I’ve also read books I really enjoyed and thought were good, but at the same time there was a nagging “hang on . . . ” in the back of my mind (maybe that troubling context awareness is part of what makes a book a “guilty pleasure,” though I wouldn’t describe every book that’s given me that feeling that way).

  6. I’m so grateful I read To Have and to Hold for the first time knowing absolutely nothing about it. After I’d read it, I could not approach the other Gaffneys the same way.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on her books, be these academic readings or not. In fact academic readings may be more interesting to me at this point in my history of discussing these books. Which is not to say that I’m not also feeling some regret about your inability to approach them without foreknowledge.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Immersive reading is a really great experience, but the more “academic”/critical/intellectual experience is not really a lesser pleasure for me, just a different kind, so I don’t mind. I’m used to coming to a book with a lot of critical preconceptions, in my work life. I don’t always want to do that when reading for pleasure, but it’s not entirely negative, either.

  7. Miss Bates says:

    I don’t know a thing about Gaffney’s trilogy, having recently revived my love of romance only after it lay dormant for 30 years. I just read the first chapter of To Love and To Cherish and already scribbled frantic notes into my little book journal. I greatly look forward to reading your post and participating in the discussion.

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