Recent Reading and Surfing: All Kinds of Books

In which a bunch of things I’ve been reading come together in my mind; or, in which I go off from nowhere in particular on a variety of tangents.

A lot of my time (though predictably, never enough!) in the past week or so has been given to re-reading books for my fall class and thinking about the structure of the class and the kinds of assignments I want to create. How do I want my students to think about (children’s) literature and what it can be and do? What are the big questions this class is going to explore?

In this state of mind, I discovered Remittance Girl’s great response to a Chuck Palahniuk essay urging writers to cut all the “thought” verbs out of their fiction. I don’t think Palahniuk’s advice is useless; exposition (i.e. telling) badly done is painful to read, and I don’t want an author to spell so much out for me that there’s nothing left to interpret. On the other hand, as Remittance Girl points out, the abstract and internal are as much a part of life as the concrete and external. One thing prose story-telling has over film is that it’s easier to represent those parts. (I find Palahniuk’s claim that movies have made audiences more sophisticated about storytelling ridiculous. Human beings have been telling stories since . . . well, at least since the dawn of language, I expect, and we suddenly figured out how to do it right in the last 100 years or so because we developed a new medium to do it in? Readers and listeners were/are less sophisticated consumers of stories than viewers? Why?)

I know I’m biased (or informed) by years of studying Victorian novels, but I believe one “purpose” of the novel is to represent psychic interiority, or subjectivity. If I want to interpret what people are thinking and feeling from external cues, I have movies and real life. One reason I love reading fiction is to spend time with and in other minds, to be reminded that other people have an interior life as real to them as mine is to me. I suspect one reason I like reading romance is its emphasis on deep point of view and states of mind and heart.

My real problem with Palahniuk’s advice is the same one I have with any writing advice of the always/never variety: why would we want all books to be alike? There are many different readers, and every reader has many moods. I want different stories, told in different ways. A chorus of voices has been making this point in one way or another lately:

I loved this post by Daniel Kenney on how sometimes maybe you shouldn’t kill your darlings, because we need the quirky books that attract a small but passionate readership. (via Cecilia Grant, to whose books I am passionately devoted).

Meoskop wrote about “Reading Asexually,” and how her own reading interests have changed (this post is really great and honest).

Willaful skimmed a TBR challenge read that didn’t work for her, but commented that “I might have loved it a few years ago, when intensity was everything to me.”

And a few weeks in the Vorkosiverse prompted these thoughts from Ruthie Knox:

I’ve been thinking, vis-à-vis Bujold’s work, that it’s hard to know sometimes why books grab us and refuse to let go. But that there is a way in which we take from fiction what we need, when we need it, and I’m so grateful for the variety of genres and options out there, because I’m always looking for something, but I don’t always know what it is.

In fact, I’m interested lately in all the different needs and wants we fulfill in reading romance, and how our reading changes depending on what’s happening in our lives. This inherent heterogeneity in reading makes it silly to say “Romance readers want X,” because the truth is that some readers want X and others want Y — I mean, of course — but also sometimes I want X and other times I want Y or even Z. And sometimes I loved X when I was younger but then wasn’t interested in X anymore, and all of this is completely legitimate.

Knox’s comments resonated particularly with me, because I’ve been spending some time in the Vorkosiverse myself. I’d been hoarding Bujold audiobooks in my TBR (TBL?), doling them out slowly. And then suddenly I thought, why? For one thing, I have at least a dozen left. For another, my pleasure in these books doesn’t depend on not knowing what’s going to happen.

In fact, I can’t wait to be re-reading them, to see how my response to the earlier books I’m on now (I just finished Cetaganda) will change when I come back to them–as I know I will–having read/listened to later books in the series. And I wish my middle-aged reading could be informed by having started to read them first 20 years ago, both because they would have spoken to me then and because I wonder how my perspective would have changed with age. (The joke in all this is that Bujold linked one of my reviews of her as an example of a young person’s perspective, so I guess I somehow did read them as a 20-something?)

Here are some of the reasons I’m loving these books: they are about some of the big questions about what it means to be a grown-up, questions that would have mattered to me at 20 and that I’m still (re)figuring out at 45. Miles is caught in a complex web of relationships–to his parents, his mentors, his superior officers, his childhood friends (one of whom is now his emperor), his dependents and followers. How does he balance these competing responsibilities? Ambition and duty? His obligations to others and his need to be (and prove) himself? What other people want him to be and what he desires? Is a Barrayaran military career really the best role for him, much as he wants it? Who and what should he be? These are all questions I’ve negotiated and renegotiated for myself over the years, if not so dramatically.

I guess what I’m really saying is that these are books that would work for me in many moods and at many ages, because they’re so rich. I loved Shelley Ann Clark’s post on the way her reading of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard (another book I discovered in adulthood but would also have loved earlier in my life) changed over many years. I would have liked to grow up with Miles in this way. I’ve always loved books with romance in them, but the books that I’ve read and re-read over the years because they speak to me deeply aren’t about romantic love. I think of them, grandiosely, as soul-making books, books that help me think about who I am and want to be (although who I want to be as a romantic partner is part of that, the books that spoke to me about that came later in my life). For me, that’s books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light
or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. I think, really, these are books about love of all kinds, and about courage, something I’ve always felt I lack. It’s a quality Miles, and others of Bujold’s heroes and heroines, has in spades, but sometimes in surprising forms. No wonder I love them so.

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18 Responses to Recent Reading and Surfing: All Kinds of Books

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I hadn’t been able to articulate for myself why I’ve loved rediscovering a love of reading romance these past five years, but what you said about “deep point of view and states of mind and heart” really hit home. I felt that about reading Austen for the first time; Brontë’s JANE, as novel and character, is my ideal on “deep point of view,” and “mind and heart.” (In Jane’s case, I’d add “soul,” as she asserts her equality to Rochester,”I have as much soul as you … and full as much heart.”) And in my favourite romance novels, this is what I love the best about them. Cecilia Grant is the nonpareil, I totally agree.

    I love the Earthsea books, haven’t thought about them in quite a while. I hope WIZARD OF EARTHSEA made it on the reading list of your course!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve taught WIZARD before, but not this time.

      I think the voice and POV of JANE EYRE (though of course it’s 1st and a lot of romance is 3rd) are probably an influence on genre romance–as much as they storyline is. I find the current trend towards 1st-person in certain subgenres of romance interesting. It can work really well for me, but it’s harder to do well than 3rd, I think.

      • Miss Bates says:

        It is most definitely harder to do well, the 1st person POV. More often than not, I don’t like romances I’ve read … and I can’t even think of any … written in first person. Which ones worked for you? I’d be curious to know. I think that the “types” of Jane and Rochester and the narrative arc are more of an influence than voice or point of view. I hadn’t thought of it that way, so it’s good to get a new perspective.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Now I said that I’m having a hard time thinking of examples–except for more erotica/erotic romance as in Charlotte Stein (mentioned below).

          I liked the first-person narration in Ruthie Knox’s BIG BOY, had more trouble with it in Mary Ann Rivers’ STORY GUY. I also liked a Harlequin Romance by Jessica Hart, OH SO SENSIBLE SECRETARY, which had a more chick-lit feel.

          I think more than 1st person I was thinking of books (like Betty Neels, say) that are all/almost all heroine point of view. There are times when I can really enjoy understanding the hero and other characters through her point of view–including when we may be aware of his feelings and the heroine is not.

      • joopdeloop says:

        [trying to reply to you and Miss Bates both] My favorite writer using 1st person narration is Charlotte Stein, but I don’t know if she can fill your cuppa (she writes erotic romance). In fact she has written many things that I think I want to cringe away from (bdsm, 3somes, apocalypse zombie romance, office romance… not always all at the same time), but does them so beguilingly, tender and obscene by turns, excruciatingly funny and wicked smart with a oddly sweet strain of romantic in there that is just so satisfying. (Meant to suggest Stein under your suggestion box call out for geek heroes too, for Gabriel in CONTROL, but instead i got sucked into re-reading instead of replying… Basically Gabriel is homeschooled, tweedy, hunched-shouldered and virginal, and applies to work for the Maddie, purveyor of Wicked Words, a bookstore featuring erotica and romance)

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          So far I’ve just read a couple of Stein’s shorter stories, but I’d agree that she uses first person very effectively. I felt really immersed in the character’s emotions (which is something I don’t always like, but it’s right for what she’s writing). I like the way she uses that to explore shame and vulnerability; there are all kinds of different tensions between her characters.

      • Miss Bates says:

        Hmm, not sure I’m replying in the right spot, but here it goes! Thanks to you both (joop … cool moniker) for the suggestions. Don’t know about millennial zombies … but wow! I almost never read erotica, but the one I did read was Cara McKenna’s After Hours and, come to think of it, it was first person. I quite quite liked that one, mainly because I thought the brooding hospital setting and urban blight were fantastic. I thought it was a great and unique example of gothic romance, bit of a revival there that I’d like to see more of, especially in that Cormac McCarthy vein.

        I have many Hart books in the TBR (because I loved Promoted to Wife and Mother so much), including that one … though I resisted because of the 1st person voice, but Wendy’s rec convinced me and now I have yet another nudge to read it. I love Betty Neels. I know exactly what you mean about that exclusivity to the heroine’s point of view. The one Charlotte Lamb I read, HOT BLOOD did the same. I like having the hero’s perspective most of the time; but the Neels and Lamb, I like that the hero is so very “other,” so very much a mystery to the heroine, inscrutable, impenetrable.

  2. As I mentioned over at Ruthie’s post, the Vorkosigan series really rewards re-reading; I read the early ones out of order, so the connections between books were really fun to discover, like little gifts to the attentive reader. BARRAYAR was the first one I read on release, and since it’s earlier in the continuity, it was fascinating to fit it into what I already knew! Ditto CETAGANDA when it came out. My favorites of the series are BROTHERS IN ARMS, MIRROR DANCE, and MEMORY.

    • willaful says:

      Those are my favorites too. Did you know they weren’t written in chornological order? So reading them “out of order” could make all kinds of sense. 🙂

      My favorite rereading example is My Cousin Rachel. The difference in how it read at different ages (when I was more mature and somewhat less inclined to accept things at face value) is astonishing.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I’m getting to those! When I realized that they weren’t written in chronological order and that most stood alone, I thought I would stick to the widely-published chronology for my first listen-through of the series, but that then it would be really interesting to re-listen around in whatever (dis)order suited my fancy and see what happened. It doesn’t take very many of the books to see that there are recurring themes and preoccupations. And yet, none has felt like a retread of an earlier book. I love that. (You can see romance-writers who do the same thing, reworking and revisiting certain tropes and themes; sometimes it feels tired and sometimes it makes for fascinating inter-textual illuminations).

  3. SonomaLass says:

    I completely agree about the interior perspective as one of the rewards of reading. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy a lot of genre romance — I tend to get both main characters’ perspectives, rather than knowing what one is thinking and guessing about the other, which is more common in love stories in other genres of fiction. Of course I also love a good, deep first person point of view, if it’s used well. I recently read a review (can’t recall where now, but probably Goodreads or Dear Author) that noted that the book, while written in first person, didn’t justify that by revealing the narrator in real depth. I thought that was a n excellent point.

    “More sophisticated” in terms of audiences made me laugh. Let’s talk about the (largely illiterate) Elizabethan audiences who appreciated a new Shakespeare play. Or the complex oral traditions maintained by cultures without any written language. Humans have communicated with both the spoken and written word, and with visual and performing arts, in a variety of ways; technology puts a new spin on that, that’s all.

    I need to get back to the Vorkosigan series. I bogged down in the middle of Miles’s first book, and I was worried that I was reading it too soon and risking burnout. I should pick it up again.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have a feeling I read that same review/comment somewhere, or a similar one.

      For me, 1st person requires the character to experience some kind of epiphany, to have perspective at the end that s/he did not at the beginning. I feel sometimes the way it’s used in romance (e.g. often erotica and I guess NA, though I haven’t read any) and coupled with present tense is all about the immediacy of the character’s feelings and having the reader share that. That’s not really a reading experience I’m after very often and I think it can then be hard to pull off any sort of distance/perspective on the action, though a really good writer can convey that. I’ve definitely read some 1st-person books that I thought would have been better served by 3rd (and in some cases multiple) POV.

  4. Erin Satie says:

    About the Palahniuk comment–I don’t know about our ability to process stories (that seems silly), but our ability to process images is much, much more sophisticated than it was a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago.

    At one point I studied this, but I don’t have the sources at my fingertips anymore. The gist of it, though, is pretty easy to follow. It used to be really technologically difficult/costly to produce images. Paintings, prints (color being costly, less sophisticated), photographs–they were all over, yes, but at nothing like the density to we are exposed today.

    We see many MORE images–that makes a difference, because exposure leads to sophistication–and TV & movies have consistently asked us to do more and more mental processing to follow the way that clips are juxtaposed.

    I think there’s hard data on this–performance in certain IQ tests and such, that measure how quickly people can solve visual puzzles.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that we process images differently makes complete sense. I’ve done some reading on picture-book theory, and one point the experts make is that reading images is not natural or really “easier” than reading words: it takes practice to learn to interpret how images show things like movement. It’s culturally-specific, too.

      • willaful says:

        Yes. (Have you read Understanding Comics? Amazing book.) My son loves illustration heavy books but not graphic novels — I suspect that he shares my problem with finding them hard to follow.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I’ve read bits of it; my husband uses it a lot. He said that when he teaches graphic novels a lot of students expect them to be “easy” and have to learn to slow down and pay attention to images as well as text, as he did himself. In many ways, it’s a more complex kind of reading.

  5. I completely agree re. fiction — For me, experiencing another person’s heart and mind is one of the best things about reading it.

    With regard to first person POV. IMO it can be used well in both of the ways you describe, though immediacy when immediacy isn’t what the needs of the story most requires can be disappointing to me. Epiphanies can be wonderful, and are one of the reasons first person works so well with coming of age novels and mysteries. But sometimes (especially in short stories) I think it can also be effective for the reader to have the epiphany about the character, while the character remains clueless.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I agree about short stories. In a longer story–and certainly a romance–I like to see a main character grow/change, and I think that requires some kind of self-awareness or recognition.

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