Tag Archives: rambling

Medicus, by Ruth Downie

Medicus

by Ruth Downie

“Divorced and down on his luck, Gaius Petreius Ruso has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. In a moment of weakness, after a straight thirty six-hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to compassion and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner. Now he has a new problem: a slave who won’t talk and can’t cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. Now Ruso must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next. With a gift for comic timing and historical detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.” (via Amazon)

Medicus

Good Things: I picked up Medicus for Kindle because the price was right–it’s still $1.99, actually–and because the premise was pretty interesting. I’m starting to get more into mysteries these days, and an unusual setting can spice up what might otherwise be a predictable story, so why not a murder mystery set during the Roman Empire?

Which is not to say that the mystery in Medicus is predictable–at least, not to me it wasn’t, although I’m still a mystery newb at this point. The solution to the murders is both more and less complex than I expected, and while the answers that come out left me a little with a feeling of really? that’s what was going on?, it felt like a rather realistic, muted end to things, especially in comparison to some of the weirdness that the story goes through as it races to the denouement. I enjoyed the setting, although I couldn’t speak to the historical accuracy, which may end up being a sticking point for those more versed in Roman history than I. (As an aside, how much does historical accuracy matter to you in a historically-based novel? I’m still working through my feelings on authenticity and how much I care about it.)

There are moments of casual misogyny that don’t feel out of place for such a patriarchially-oriented society, and most of the moments that would have become really uncomfortable–oh great, Ruso thinks, my slave has misbehaved and now I must beat her–are thankfully averted in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived. I feel complicatedly about historical novels that impress current morals and culture on a historical setting, especially with all the preternaturally modern-sounding Bluestockings that end up running around; I don’t want to read super-misogynistic things that make me feel terrible, of course, but ignoring the reality of times and places that weren’t so hot for women (and POC, of course) and pretending everything was hunky-dorey doesn’t seem like the way to go either? To that end, I appreciated the way that Ruso slowly comes to an understanding of how shitty life is for a large number of women in his time and place, but doesn’t end up acting on that realization in a way that seems unrealistic. Plus, you know, many of the supporting characters in the story work as prostitutes and they are (for the most part) not slut-shamed by the main character or the internal narration! Yay!

Bad Things: Although I generally felt comfortable with the line between historical accuracy and blatant misogyny that the book walks, I wasn’t comfortable with the moments when Ruso reminisces about his ex-wife Claudia. These memories don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to remind us oh yeah, what a shallow bitch she obviously was and give us a reason that Ruso doesn’t want to get involved with another woman, which–what’s the point? Now, this is the first book in a series, and this may be setting the stage for something that happens later down the line, but I didn’t feel great about the inclusion. There were also a couple moments of fat-shaming and other things that made me unhappy, and which didn’t really build towards my seeing Ruso as a sympathetic main character. Actually, he’s kind of a curmudgeon, and while he’s got that soft spot that keeps him doing good things–doctoring, helping the helpless, financially supporting his brother’s family–his grouchy view of the rest of the world as taking advantage of his good nature got a little tiresome. I also didn’t feel super-strongly about Tilla one way or another, which isn’t great since she’s supposed to be the (eventual) love interest. On the other hand, some of the other female characters were pretty rad (holla, Chloe!), so that made up for it a little bit.

Overall: I’ll probably pick up the second book at the library since I bought the third one as a Kindle Daily Deal a while back. (Those Daily Deals, they get me sometimes!) Pretty interesting, although it didn’t leave a strong lasting impression–for historical murder mystery, I’d be more inclined to recommend The Unquiet Bones, by Mel Starr.

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The Catcher in the Rye

Sometimes the best books are the ones you just grab off the shelves just because you feel like it.

On Friday I was shelving books in the library where I work, and I had this beat up copy of The Catcher in the Rye in my hands and I just thought to myself– why not? This is one of those books that I’ve never read that I should have read by now (I’m looking at all y’all: Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, and The Red Badge of Courage). So, I picked it up with apprehension. On the one hand, The Catcher in the Rye has John Green’s seal of approval. On the other hand, I was really sure I was going to have to drag myself through this novel hating every minute of it (ahem, akin to my experience with The Great Gatsby). But this copy was an old, well-loved, 1951 edition, and, in the end, it was the physical heft of the book that made me take it home.

This has been such a pleasant surprise. The Catcher in the Rye  is fantastic. I love it. If I was a good reviewer like Jessica, I’d review it. Even though it’s a classic. Instead, I’m gonna just quote one of my favorite parts, about the Museum of Natural History. This is a long quote, but I promise that it’s worth it.

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving the same blanked. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or  you’d have a substitute taking the class instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way — I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

This is poetry. This makes me understand why professors get all bent out of shape when someone says that poetry and prose are opposites. I love the way that this pivots, how you get all the detail about the Museum of Natural History and then it gives you the list of possible changes in a series of “or”s. Stasis followed by flux. And the images!! I don’t know. I just love it.

The Catcher in the Rye has also made me sad in a way– this is a novel for a younger person. This is a novel I should have read 5 years ago. I feel like the teenager who picks up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about because they missed it as a kid. I mean, I obviously still love it, but I think that if I’d read this a few years ago it would have been more powerful in my life. Maybe I’d be a prose person instead of a poetry one. Oh my god, maybe I’d be writing a thesis on Virginia Wolfe (like everyone else in my program, it seems like) instead of on Yeats and Stevens. So, as a  newly minted grown-up (hah, it feels like a joke as I type it out), I love this book, but I wish that I’d found it earlier.

It’s the exact opposite of my experience reading Anna Karenina at 15. 15 is too young to read Tolstoy. Let me just put that out there right now. And I fully support 8 year olds reading books marked as college reading level and beyond, it’s not that. Tolstoy is just so… dogmatic and subtle. Maybe it was just the type of teenager I was, but I hated that book. I literally did not finish it, and I never do this. I am a book conqueror, people. I want to go back to it and see what I can get out of it now, but I am afraid that it will defeat me again. Or that I’ll still detest it.My mom had a similar experience with Moby Dick, she read it last year and loved it after reading it in High School and hating it.

Are there any books that you tried to read too young or ended up reading too late? Are there certain books for certain parts of your life? If so, is there a list compiled somewhere that I can follow?!

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Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

My copy of Prep announces, in two separate places, that it is a bestseller: once on the actual book itself, above the title and a gushing blurb from the Boston Globe, and once on the Borders sale price sticker, where the font is only slightly smaller than that of the sticker’s advertisement that the book is only $8.99. A good portion of readers around the world are strongly influenced by bestseller lists and the mysterious allure that clings to books that have attained that bestseller status. There’s definitely logic in this; the more people that like this book, the more likely a random individual is to like it as well. Popularity is telling, and there’s no denying that bestseller books which are regularly bashed as bad apples spoiling the bunch–The DaVinci Code, Twilight, and so on–have something that draws people to them. It may be a fast-paced plot or a story with identifiable wish-fulfillment, and there’s nothing wrong with reading books for these reasons. Still, though, and this is where I mark myself as a snob who has yet to shake old habits, there’s something distinctly uncomfortable to me about being seen reading a bestseller. I freely admit that this is my damage, not the book’s; I also feel slightly awkward or conspicuous reading YA or SF/F in public. It doesn’t matter what I would enjoy more, but the fact is, I feel smarter and more legitimate if someone catches me reading Anna Karenina on the plane than, say, Wild Magic (putting aside the sheer awesomeness of Tamora Pierce). Nevertheless, I have been working hard to shake these feelings, because being popular or a genre novel or non-”literary fiction” does not make a book any less legitimate or any less something to read, and enjoy, and analyze.

I say all this (woo woo, all aboard the Tangent Train!), but with Prep it was a moot point. Both times I’ve read it so far, it has been nearly from start to finish, absorbed in it while curled up in a nest on the couch or in bed while dishes pile up and other work begs to be done. I completely understand how this book became a national bestseller. If Prep is one thing, it’s thoroughly addictive. “Addictive as M&Ms,” if you believe and agree with the Boston Globe blurb. Me, I find M&Ms somewhat limiting in their addictiveness, unless they’re the peanut butter kind, and would more accurately describe the book (at least for me) to be “addictive as roasted yam slices.” That doesn’t quite have the same ring, though, and while a beautiful shade of orange, yams aren’t as bright and colorful, or as indicative of youth, as M&Ms, so the comparison feels like a deliberate and apt one on the part of the Globe’s reviewer.

What makes Prep so addictive? Part of it, I think, is the boarding school setting. It’s extremely immersive, moreso than a regular high school where there’s home and the mall and friends’ houses–Prep has that, but because it’s a boarding school, those settings that pull away from the 24-hour immersion of Ault become themselves bigger steps, more significant. Speaking of significance, it’s interesting to me that a lot of reviews that came out when it was first released mentioned Prep as being “light on plot.” To me, the slightly meandering, episodic feel is nostalgic. When I think back on my high school years–granted, with much less clarity than grown-up Lee looks back on hers–it’s with that same feeling, of this-is-a-story-that-happened and this-is-another-one. It’s striking to me how small things make or break a young person’s world; I was really surprised when I actually paid attention to the plot of “A Christmas Story” for the first time in years recently and realized how small, how trifling wanting a rifle for Christmas and not getting it seems now. But even so, our worlds aren’t often made up of huge intergalactic wars or battles between good and evil. We struggle through the small things and they become significant in our day, and that’s what the plot of Prep feels like to me: a young woman finds that her world increasingly revolves around one thing–a boy–and when she finally gets what she thinks she wants, she finds it isn’t as good as she cracked it up to be.

Some of the parts of the books that stood out the most to me were her interactions with her parents. I don’t know if I just have a thing for parent-child relationships in books, but whatever. What made them significant for me what the level of expectation her parents have for her, and how angry and disappointed her father is when she talks back and treats them disrespectfully during their visit to Ault. The second time through, all I could think was, isn’t that how teenagers are expected to act? what’s the big deal? It seems like such a small thing, like something her father should write off as a product of youth and rebellion and hormones, but somehow the most obvious and insignificant-seeming things don’t seem that way when one is in the middle of them, instead of looking in from outside.

Lee herself, too, is part of what I think makes Prep so absorbing. I found her largely unlikeable and then, in the same breath, undeniably familiar. She’s something of an uncomfortable mirror, and I imagine this is be the case for most people, with very few exceptions, who pick up and read Prep. (Bookshelves of Doom recently made a side-note in a review about how most, if not all, YA main characters are outsiders or isolated in some way from their peers, and although Prep is not strictly YA–is it the sex that separates it? its supposed aspirations towards “literary fiction”? the length?–that’s definitely the case here. May the god of nerds strike me down for making blanket statements, but most avid readers were a bit weird as children, and that isolation or outsider status creates an immediate connection between the reader and the main character that is harder to forge if the main character is the most popular girl in school, or someone wildly rich and successful–and then, characters like that usually experience a fall that makes them infinitely more identifiable.) Most of Lee’s problems stem from herself and her perception of how she thinks she should be, or how she thinks others think she should be, and it’s somewhat painful to see her go through that. Everything she does is so self-conscious and over-analyzed, and yet she seems surprisingly unconscious of the totality of her own actions. Which, really, seems exactly like a lot of teenagers I’ve known. Maybe the familiarity is what makes Prep so fascinating? Either way, I’d recommend it as absorbing, somewhat painful, somewhat cathartic, and very interesting.

Notable quote:

“I’d always loved the part in movies when a project, or even a person’s whole life, came together: the montage, set to uplifting music, where you saw the spunky multicultural kids set aside their differences and fix up the old man’s house, straighten the hanging shutters, pain the outside, mow the lawn, and weed the flowerbed; or the twentysomething woman who finally lost weight, dancing through aerobics classes, mopping her brow while she rode a gym bike, with a white towel around her neck, and then at least she emerged from the bathroom all cleaned up, bashful but beautiful (of course, she had no idea how beautiful), and her best friends hugged her before she left for the date or party that would be her triumph. I wanted to be that person, and I wanted the in-between time when I improved myself to glide by just that smoothly, with its own festive sound track. But to really learn precalculus would be laborious and miserable.” (p. 262-263)

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Character Death

This post is gonna span the book border that I usually stick to, but bear with me. I’m going to be talking about the death of characters so SPOILER WARNINGS FOR:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
Angel: Season One (television series)
Buffy: Season Six (television series)
Serenity (film)
A Sword From Red Ice by J.V. Jones
and others.

So, on with it. I was thinking about Joss Whedon’s oeuvre because I had just rewatched the seventh season of Buffy, the first season of Angel, and Serenity. And something occurred to me, which had occurred to me before, is that Whedon is the biggest emotional manipulator I have ever SEEN. He kills off characters, time and again, to get an emotional reaction from the audience, but doesn’t back it up with any… what’s the word? Larger meaning? Importance to the narrative? Now, I don’t mind a storyteller purposefully making me feel something – that’s his/her job – but I do mind if the only reason for a character’s death is to make me feel something. Because then I feel used.

So I starting thinking about this relationship between emotional response and narrative importance and then I started formulating a graph in my mind and filling in some examples (thank you, brother dearest, for helping me figure out the examples). I’ll show the graph in a moment, but let me define the terms I’m using first. Then I’ll show the graph, explain my examples and, lastly, open up the floor to comments! (Heh, I’ve always wanted to say that.)

Narrative Drive – a.k.a. narrative importance. This means that the character’s death serves a function in the plot or, at the very least, is mentioned again.
Meaning – I’m including this on the Narrative Drive axis because if a character dies at the end of a story, there can’t be a whole lot of plot affecting going on. There can, however, be a thematic meaning to his/her death. I’ll extrapolate more in my examples.
Emotional Response – Self-explanatory, I think?
Catharsis -  This is included because sometimes a character you care about dies, but it happens quickly or is glossed over and there is something missing in your emotional response. That something is catharsis.

It looked a little bare when I scanned it in, so I added AWESOME animal footprints and some of the animals that made them. It's almost like I'm a child.

In no particular order, here are some explanations (forgive the names, it’s late and I don’t have the time to think up awesome categories):

The Emotional Manipulator (high emotion/low meaning) - Wash is the perfect example of Whedon’s EM tendencies. His death is tragic and painful, especially for people who have seen the show, but it serves no narrative purpose or thematic meaning. As my brother said, “He dies so you’ll be sad.” There are quite a few examples of EMs, but none that I can think of at the moment outside of Whedon’s work.

The Important Ones (low emotion/high meaning) – Lupin and Tonks are the opposite of Wash. Of course, you’re heartbroken that they’re dead, but they don’t get a death scene. In fact, they barely get a mention as Harry is dazedly walking through Hogwarts! This is why I included the “catharsis” caveat. The reader has no time to grieve and so doesn’t experience catharsis. You might be wondering why they scored so high on the other axis, though. They don’t affect the narrative much, as they die right at the end of the series. This is where “meaning” comes in. JKR is making a point with their off-screen deaths: war sucks and people die and sometimes you don’t get to see what heroes they were because you were fighting too and suddenly it’s over and quiet and so many, many people you love are gone. Other examples include: Kvothe’s parents in Name of the Wind (important to him, also their killers are relevant later),

The Strongest Ones (high in both) – Charlotte… I don’t really know that I have to explain this one. It’s interesting to note, though, that all of the examples I could think for this category had hugely traumatic deaths at the end. The whole book/movie built up to that death and that is why the death itself was so extremely powerful and scored high on both of my axes. I hate these stories. I mean, I love Charlotte’s Web, but my other examples ripped me up so much that I couldn’t even stand it. Other examples: Bridge to Terabithia, The Man in the Moon (movie)

The Middle Roaders (somewhere in between) – Tara from Buffy dies and we’re heartbroken because we love her and it’s important because Willow goes ker-AZY, but on neither axis is it hugely devastating/important. Doyle from Angel is an interesting example, I think, though I probably wouldn’t have thought of him if I hadn’t just watched the first season of Angel. He’s introduced as a main character, but dies halfway through season one. You’ve spent around ten hours with him at that point, plenty time to become emotional attached, and while his death doesn’t affect the plot, per se, it does affect the characters and we see them in a grieving process that lasts for multiple episodes. Of course, I would have liked to see Whedon going farther, like having Doyle’s seer abilities pass to Cordelia a few episodes later instead of the next episode or not having Wesley show up right away, and seeing how Angel and Cordelia cope in those circumstances, but I’ll take what I can get! There are tons more of these, of course – it’s probably the most common kind of death.

Forgotten Ones (low in both) – This was a hard one. Neither my brother nor I could think of a major character who dies without either the reader caring or importance to the plot. There are, of course, tons of minor characters who die this way, but we felt it should be a more major character. Additionally, we felt that the book the character was drawn from should be of some quality – it’s just not very interesting to say, “This character from this sucky book had a sucky death.” Now, I haven’t read any J.V. Jones, but my brother assures me that Lan Fallstar from A Sword from Red Ice, fits this category pretty well. He’s pretty much a douche (so we don’t care that he dies), is in half of the book travelling with a main character (so he can’t be called a minor character), and after his death, everybody just moves on. Case closed!

And that’s it. Well, no, there’s more to say, of course. For one thing, the qualities I chose to talk about, while I find them interesting and relevant, are not the only ways to talk about or the only important things about character death. For another, where a death is placed, especially on the emotional axis, depends a lot on the person reading/viewing/experiencing the story. I was sad about Doyle, but I’m sure others weren’t. I didn’t cry the first time I saw Wash die because I hadn’t seen Firefly, but you’d better bet that I’ve cried every time since!

Also there are incredibly complicated, circular deaths that don’t fit on the graph. Have you seen The Fall? It’s a movie that is about storytelling. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot is a man telling a little girl a story that he’s making up as he goes along. Near the end (it’s a fantastic movie, so if you haven’t seen it, you maybe should stop reading and go watch it!), the man starts killing off characters and the following exchange happens (this may not be exact):

Little Girl: “Why are you killing everybody??”
Man: “It’s my story!”
Girl: “Mine too!”

Which gets into one of the hearts of storytelling. I’m not tying The Fall very well into this discussion of character death, but trust me, it’s relevant. Maybe someone else who has seen it can take it away in the comments?

One last thing, though I didn’t talk about video games, I think this is actually especially important for them because of their interactive nature. I think these would be even more debatable on the emotional front. Some quickies: the Companion Cube in Portal (I would argue this is high on emotion, low on meaning), Aeris from FFVII, any of your Sims (though that gets into other issues, like whether your Sims are characters, and how different it is when it’s a story you’re creating), etc.

Thanks again to Brian for helping me out with examples and just generally helping me think through this post a little more!

And now it’s time to open up the discussion. What examples do you have and where do they fit on the chart? How important is it to think about this stuff as a reader, as as a writer? Any other thoughts?

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Reading Slowly

Cassandra Jade has an interesting blog post up at her often interesting blog (go read!). She says that when she likes a book, she tears through it and reads it quickly. She can tell she doesn’t like a book if she’s reading it slowly. “If I am reading it really slowly, it means I am dissecting it in my head and ready to rewrite it from the beginning because I really, really, dislike it.”

But this totally isn’t true of me! I read Twilight in a couple ferocious and intense hours. I had to finish it, even as I wanted to through it against the wall. (Which I didn’t do, because it was an ebook and that would have involved throwing my computer against the wall.) I also read those two Shannon Hale books very quickly and I loved them both very much. Then there are the books that I pick through and finish because I appreciate them, but don’t like them. School books often fall into this category. And then there are the books that I savor. It took me a loooooong time to read Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. I would read a few pages, putting the book down to savor the pure beauty of his words, and then pick it up again for a few more pages, but I never read more than, say, fifty pages a day.

I can’t even say the difference is “unputdownability” because many of my friends found Tigana unputdownable. And so did I, in a way, as even though it took me ages to finish it, I kept coming back to it. Even after I lost the book a third of the way through! All I can say is, when I am tearing through a book, I am completely immersed and that is great. But I can’t think about the book at all. I can’t think how it relates to my life or the world, I can’t even think about what’s going on in the book. I don’t always want to think about books. If you look at the books I’ve read so far this year, I’ve torn through all of them. (Although I’m sure that’s because I needed to balance the intense thinking I’m doing about school books.) I think that my brain automatically tries to create the maximally enjoyable read for me. Twilight was quick because if I hadn’t read it in one go I would have eaten my arm off or something. Tigana was slow because, oh my gods, that language. Kay has a way with words, lemme tell ya.

What about you? Fast reader, slow reader, what makes you switch?

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Death of genres?

John Green said something interesting. Using the National Books Awards as a frame, he theorizes that the idea of genre is becoming less and less relevant, that the internet is changing the ways we find and read books, and that the ideal definition of genre is “the same people like them.” I don’t think I would argue the first two points, but I’ll argue the third because I’ve essentially already argued against it. Shannon Hale also argued against it when she says that whether or not you like a book may not be all that important.

I don’t really want to spell it out or unpack that argument, but I will say that I think the trouble here is, to go full circle, that we’re working with different definitions. One thing I didn’t say in my big ol’ post about definitions is that the reason we define things is to clarify what we want. What John wants from a genre (books that he likes… or something) is different from what I want (a loose-ish set of rules or conventions that tell the reader what to expect and give the author a structure to base her story on… or something). Wants lead to definitions lead to actual practice and then back again to wants.

So, though I disagree with John (who is a fabulous author, btw), I’m not gonna say he’s wrong. I will say, though, that our changing wants lead to changing definitions and that we’d all be better off if we don’t try to preserve our wants and definitions long past their expiration dates. The larger definition of genre (which I think is closer to mine than John’s) will surely change and so maybe I will have some catching up to do!

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Science Fiction… and Beyond!

Charles Stross has a blog post up. He is a science fiction author of fair acclaim. I have only read one of his books, Singularity Sky, and it suffered from that classic SF symptom of Good (Great, Even) Ideas But Nothing Else Good At All, Really. Anyway, he wrote that he hates Star Trek (and most SF on TV) and has finally figured out why: it doesn’t fit with his definition with SF. That’s not what he said verbatim, but after copying part of an interview with a writer from Star Trek, he gives his definition. He writes, “SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don’t currently exist.” Star Trek and its ilk (BSG, B5, all the subsequent ST spawn) don’t fit with this definition, which makes them bad.*

This is ridiculous, of course. His definition is perfectly valid, but so are others (the definition of SF that birthed Firefly, for instance). Where he treads very dangerous water is his apparent obliviousness to the validity of those other definitions.** I’m about to say something inflammatory, so avert your eyes if you are trigger-y: that sort of insistence and that sort of exclusionary attitude (I am Right and therefore you are Wrong) is what starts wars.

The thing is… The thing is that people are different. That’s why they define things differently and care about different things and etc. It’s sometimes called taste, when you’re talking about what things people like and dislike, but it goes way beyond that. It’ll be easier to narrow the field if I focus in on something, so I’m gonna do that. That something is gonna be… uh… oh, I know! Books. Gasp!

So. Let me start with an anecdote. My brother’s ex-roommate and friend of ours, Elisa***, and I were talking one day when we hadn’t known each other very long. It came out during the conversation that Wicked is her favorite book. I was… surprised. Now, I’ve read Wicked and pretty much liked it and thought it was a good book and all, but. Come on! The musical is way better! The musical’s a wonderfully unexpected exploration of a deep friendship, both ups and downs, between these two strong female characters. With music! The novel explores what evil is and what it means to be evil and stuff. In other words, the musical is about character relationships (and music!), whereas the novel is about a specific theme. The latter moves slowly and goes off on tangents and none of the characters are likable (they are, in fact, mostly disturbing). I thought it was an interesting book, and I don’t regret reading it at all, and I in fact think it is probable that it’s even a good book by most accounts. But your favorite? I had to know why.

And, as it turns out, the answer is simple. Elisa loves explorations of theme. She loves other things, too, of course, but having a strong developed theme is what makes or breaks a book for her. It’s also what will keep her enthralled when other things are lacking. I only like theme. A lot of time, though less often now that I’m an old fart (of 23), a novel/movie/play’s theme will go over my head, so obviously it can’t be what I read for. Thankfully, the theme of Wicked is as explicit as it gets, and our conversation about it became much more productive after I found that out, because now we could talk about evil and how each character, even the setting and the plot and really everything, revolved around it. And not how everybody was unlikable and sometimes the plot was slow, etc. (As a sidenote, I think it’s really important to have these conversations with the people you talk to about books. Find out what they read for. It helps not only with conversations like these, but also helps you when you want to recommend or buy them a book!)

The things we like and dislike, the things we live for/read for/watch for, are multiple and not uncommonly competing (too much characterization gets in the way of pacing, for instance). Taste, and its larger unnamed buddy, is that area of balance where Our Things are all represented in a way that is pleasing. To us. To me. That is what I care about, after all. Me. The quintessence of perfection that is me! *cough*

Bottom line, don’t think that what you think is right. Do try to find out what other people think. Read a lot, and talk about books. Make definitions, but be flexible! Drink lots of water. If you stumble, get right back on that geriatric horse and continue to rule your own little universe like the benevolent god you are. And, uh, watch Emperor’s New Groove.

*He followed up that post with one that says, “All you people are equating me saying I don’t like something with me thinking it’s bad!” (paraphrased) I don’t really buy it, though. By his definition, ST is bad science fiction and maybe also bad storytelling. What he needs to say is that his definition isn’t the only valid one.

**To bring the conversation back quickly to my post on conventions, he is defining SF in a way that excludes some obviously popular conventions, which creates tension. OTOH, he’s very aware of which conventions of SF he likes, which helps him seek out entire books/etc he will like and to talk about SF on a more meta level. Even if it’s exclusionary.

***Name changed, but it’s from one of her favorite TV shows, Gargoyles.

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The Greatest!

Did y’all know that there’s an ongoing argument about which book was the first novel written in English? The question mostly revolves around what the definition of a novel is – is it realistic or fantastical? is it dependent on length? does allegory count?

The Greatest! (I hope you appreciate the eye candy... He's too much a ruffian for my tastes.)

The Greatest! (What the heck is up with his shoulder?)

All of which is very interesting, but not what I want to talk about. According to that Wikipedia article, Robinson Crusoe is often accepted as the winner (if such a thing is something to be won, that is) based on a 1950s literary sociological study* by some dude. Not relevant. What is relevant, and interesting, is that RC came out in 1719! I repeat, 1719! What struck me immediately was that Shakespeare and other playwrights had been composing plays in English for over a hundred years prior to 1719. English, back then, wasn’t “high art”. It was the language of the people. The written word was for ponces, plays were for the everyman. Of course, it’s also important to remember that the novel as an art form was in its infancy. If you really wanted to be taken seriously, you didn’t write “fiction”. You still sneer at the word! You wrote History! or Science…-y! books and you wrote in Latin.

I’m an art student and the couple of theory and history classes (and even the studios) I’ve taken have all talked about this dichotomy between high and low art. When I was talking last week about genres and conventions and briefly in my post about awards, I was also talking about high art and low art. The genre ghettos are literature low art and the books that win most of the awards are high art. Why? Because that’s the culture at the moment. As we can see, looking back to when writing in English was “low”, these things change.

*Note to self: need more literary sociology in life!

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genres

(What follows is a rather unfocused jumble of ideas about genre and genre conventions. I may revise this later to make an actual point, but for now it exists as follows.)

All genres have conventions. Some are stricter than others (romances and mysteries come to mind), but they all follow certain rules. I think that is fact, but let me know if you disagree. Anyway, the point is, assuming that that is fact, a really useful way to look at books is to look at the genre as a whole & the conventions of the genre and then compare that to the book. People have not uncommonly rolled their eyes when I say I read romance, science fiction, fantasy, YA… To which I generally roll my eyes and move on. But if I had the opportunity to actually have a conversation with one of these people, it would be a conversation that probably started with conventions.

To understand a genre, you must understand its conventions. Romance is one of the easiest: there must be two people, the main story must be about the two of them falling in love, and it must have a happy ending. There are a lot of other conventions that may or may not have an resemblance to the real world, but those three are the heart of the genre. There are certainly romantic novels where there is not a happy ending, and those can be powerful, but they aren’t part of the genre. (Similarly, there are plenty of stories where people die, but they aren’t mysteries until there is, well, a mystery, and they aren’t a cop procedural unless the plot focus on the cops instead of the murderer or victims.) People who complain that romance is formulaic because there is always a happy ending are just kind of missing the point. Knowing what the story is about and knowing what the end will be opens up levels of depth for how they get there. Romances have, hands down, the best relationships, the deepest and most real, that are out there in literature. The average romance is going to have more compelling relationships (usually romantic, but often the platonic relationships are great, too) than the average… other fiction novel. Again, there are plenty of other books that do this well and many that do it better than the average romance, but this is what romances are about. So they consistently do it well.

Knowing the conventions of romance helps the reader to appreciate better what makes a good romance from a crappy one. That goes for any genre and I could repeat the previous paragraph, substituting in mysteries or SF&F, etc. But genre conventions, if it were possible to know them from outside the genre, also most likely tell you why you don’t like the genre. You don’t dislike romances because they’re “bad” (though, as in any genre, many are), you dislike them because you aren’t interest in the kinds of relationships they explore. Either that, or you are burdened by the stigma of the “genre ghetto”, which SF&F is second-to-last and romance is last, where stereotypes of the genre protrude into mass media and make all genre fiction (which is different from the genres I was talking about above), but especially those little seething with filth corners of SF&F and romance, a joke. But, of course, that’s not really the same thing as disliking a genre, it’s actually just being embarrassing to like a genre. Which is a great tragedy indeed, because it can stop a person from reading something to begin with, and then to look at that something with biased eyes.

Conventions, to restate, define a genre with certain rules. Those rules may define plot, character, tropes, themes, setting, etc. The primary purpose of those conventions is to create a place where certain other things can be explored at greater depth and subtlety than may be possible without those rules. (I can hear the arguments now: but there are books of great depth that aren’t genre, that don’t follow conventions! To which I say: well, first of all, those are exceptions, and second of all, hold your horses, I’ll address that in a next minute.)

So, throw those exceptions on me. Those books that are exceptionally deep, exceptionally thorough, written by an exceptional author, that defy genre conventions, fictional conventions, societal & cultural conventions… I’m sure you get my point, but these are exceptions. Not all writers or readers want to break conventions. So why do we deify authors who do and feel good about ourselves when we like those authors? Why does this dichotomy exist? Why is convention-defying fiction “high art” and genre fiction “low art”? These questions have been explored before and this essay is in part an argument that we should have this polar binary, so I’m not sure I feel the need to answer them.

Plus I’m super tired. I might edit this later, but for now, it will be good night, and good luck.

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