At this time of year I always feel that endings and beginnings are colliding like two weather fronts and brewing up a giant storm in my life.
On the one hand, there’s end of term business: I’m grading papers and making up exams. On the other, it’s time to look forward to next term: I need to think about my course outline, meet with my new teaching partner, find last-minute instructors for some of next semester’s sections. And let’s not even talk about how Christmas will happen between these semesters.
Anyway, that’s why this blog post has been brewing since Sunday. A collection of stray reading-related thoughts I’ve finally found a stray hour to record.
Recently I’ve been on a podcast binge. I think what started me off was reading somewhere about NPR’s podcast recommendation engine, earbud.fm. Podcasts are perfect for when I don’t know what audiobook to start next, or don’t want to commit to a long listen. Here are some I’ve been enjoying:
- The Partially Examined Life (3 philosophy grad-school “dropouts” discuss a philosophical text/idea)
- Literary Disco (3 pals–I think maybe they met doing their MFAs?–discuss books and other things)
I think I like the late-night-dorm-room-chat feel of these two, though every once in a while they make you feel like the only sober one at a party where everyone else is telling in jokes.
- On the Media (“how the sausage is made”–I especially liked this episode on whether and how the media can create empathy)
- Revolutions (I’m late to the party and still back at Oliver Cromwell; Mike Duncan is an engaging storyteller and synthesizer, but sometime I wish I had a better sense of his sources)
- Books on the Nightstand (two publishing professionals so this one is positive only but still interesting)
- I have some of the New Yorker fiction and poetry episodes waiting but have only listened to part of one so far. It was great (a poetry one). An author reads and discusses a poem or story by another author.
I’m especially interested in book discussions rather than recommendations/author interviews/publishing news. I think I miss long blog comment threads about a particular book and am looking for the same feeling. Two bookish podcast recommendation lists I found helpful, along with the NPR site, were Book Riot‘s and Bustle‘s.
Since last Sunday was the first in Advent and the start of a new church year, I’ve been thinking new year thoughts, looking back on how well I did on my reading plans this year, and thinking ahead to next. I hope to have more to say about all that in the next few weeks.
I love all the best, favorite, and top 10 lists that start to appear at this time of year, especially the quirky and personal ones, and they always have some impact on my own reading plans–ooh, that sounds good!
I do have some short-term plans: a couple of read-alongs, listed by Keira Soleore here, which grew out of Twitter conversations and which I’m really looking forward to. And in January, I plan to read only from my TBR. No buying, no library. Every time I look at what I own and haven’t read, I wonder what I’m waiting for! (When can I retire?)
I loved Manil Suri’s advice to the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction award (who turned out to be Morrissey). Suri is a former winner, and part of what he says is just common sense about being a good sport and comforting yourself. But it’s also good advice about taking risks in writing:
Finally, you’ll start wondering if you brought this on yourself. Why didn’t you tone things down? Why didn’t you take precautions?
The instant you have this thought, stop everything you’re doing. Because you’ve just embraced the doubts they want you to have. . . .
You now have the option of capitulating. Perhaps you’ll never write about sex again — and if you do, only in a chastened way, so it’s not too attention-grabbing.
But there’s another option: to repudiate your critics, instead of your words. . . .
I want you to write a fresh passage between now and Tuesday, as exuberant as the one they have picked, but twice as outlandish. . . .
For your acceptance speech, read the new piece aloud. Then . . . go back to your desk at home, and start writing your next book, the one in which your new sex scene will fit perfectly.
This award bugs me, partly because it suggests a discomfort with writing about sex that’s as weird and intense and, well, balls-out as sex itself can be–don’t write it in the road and frighten the horses!–and partly because it takes no account of how a scene fits in a novel. Some of the passages don’t seem bad to me, and sometimes I wonder if they’re of a piece with the weirdness of the rest of the novel. Are only Morrissey’s sex scenes wacky and overwrought? I kind of doubt it.
I also dislike the sometimes smug tweeting about the award from Romance folk, as if only they know how to do it right. Plenty of romance sex scenes are laughable when read out of context by unsympathetic readers, some even when not. Some of the criticisms I see, like “if it were good sex it wouldn’t be literary,” are just annoying stereotypes. And some miss the point that sex scenes serve different purposes in different kinds of books.
In romance, where close identification with the characters is the norm, and where there’s typically an element of fantasy, it makes sense that sex that’s good for the characters would also be good for the reader. Romance sex scenes are meant to provoke reactions like “fanning myself.” And the forthrightness with which some writers explore sexual fantasies and feelings in their books is a good thing.
But in a different kind of book, even if the sex is good for the characters, the point of reading about it might not be close identification or arousal. And so the writer might choose to write about it in way that isn’t “sexy.” Maybe they want to strip away the fantasy. Maybe they want to make us aware of how the characters are caught up in it, but not participate in it ourselves.
I want writers to take risks that sometimes backfire, so we’re not trapped in polite formulas. And I want books with all kinds of aims. So thanks, Manil Suri, for cheering on the exuberant and outlandish.