Reading Uncritically

Oh, good! He’s going to blog about writing again! Yes, indeed. Sorry for the distractions.

Over the years I have bailed out on more novels than I finished reading — sometimes after ten or twenty pages, sometimes halfway through Book 3 of a trilogy. What usually sets my teeth grinding is some rank absurdity. There’s no shortage of them. But sometimes the book is just dull.

I’m starting to think this behavior may be a mistake. Not that one can readily forgive an author for perpetrating an absurdity, or for fumbling along interminably while the plot languishes. But so what? Maybe the book is worth finishing in spite of the author’s glaring weaknesses. Maybe something good will happen in the story. Maybe a paragraph of description will sparkle. Or maybe I’m just too damn critical for my own good.

Having at one time haunted the tables at the local library’s used book sales, back when we had book sales (a sad loss, I have to say), I have a fair collection of SF and fantasy novels that I haven’t read (or that I started and then gave up on). And it’s not like I don’t have time on my hands. I’m retired, for Pete’s sake! Sometimes in the evening I play solitaire. Since I am, in point of fact, a novelist, wouldn’t it make more sense to read someone else’s novel than to play solitaire?

At the moment I’m about 80 pages into a 500-page fantasy called Tiger Burning Bright. Not, let’s admit, the most original title for a novel. The authors, believe it or not, are Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey. A more formidable or venerable trio of best-selling female authors of fantasy would be hard to imagine (though I do also have, and have in fact read, the hardback of The Golden Key, by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn, another formidable trio).

So far, the story by Bradley, Norton, and Lackey is moving at a rather glacial pace. The peaceful but prosperous land of Merina has been invaded by the armies of the Emperor Balthasar. Merina has no army, so there has been no battle. It’s all over but the shouting. That’s okay by me — I don’t even like stories where knights go hacking and slashing with their swords. The trio of main characters, namely the Queen Mother, the Queen, and the Princess (a royal family without men and with no male advisers or functionaries of any importance, made up quite transparently of a maiden, a mother, and a crone) has dithered for 60 pages or so about what to do, and all three of the women are now going into hiding so that Balthasar can’t capture and imprison them. They’re adept at disguises, and based on the lack of overt excitement in the opening, it’s a good guess they’ll be able to stay under cover. Whether they will be able to mount a successful resistance to the invasion is very much in doubt, since (a) they don’t have an army and (b) they’ve never even discussed among themselves how they might be able to manage it.

It’s not even clear why they would want to. By surrendering without a fight, they seem to have preserved the well-being of their people. Balthasar’s evil mage, Apolon, has some designs on a thing called the Jewel, which is in the temple of the Goddess, but it’s not at all clear that the jewel has any value that’s not strictly sentimental. If there’s a potent reason why Apolon can’t be allowed to get his nasty hands on it, the authors have yet to tell us.

The point, however, is this: I’m not giving either the trio of characters or the trio of authors much of a chance. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the novel; there’s just nothing about it that makes me want to plow through the remaining 420 pages. For that reason, I need to make a conscious decision that, hey, this is okay. I’ll keep going.

Among the sagas I’ve given up on in the past are Michelle West’s multi-volume story of Jewel Markham and Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. As irked as I may get at the bad habits of a writer (West in particular — no need for details at the moment), I think there may be something to be gained by setting aside my reactions, however justified they may be, and just going on with the damned thing. At the very least, it will be an improvement on playing solitaire, and very possibly one or another of these stories will prove better than I expected. Maybe even a lot better. It could happen.

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4 Responses to Reading Uncritically

  1. Do you enjoy fantasy so much more than every other type of book or are you so focused on it to become better at it?

    My point is, it would be so much easier to find great books if you broaden your interest beyond fantasy novels.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m not sure about that. You seem to be disrespecting the fantasy genre in particular. I’m going to quote Theodore Sturgeon. He wrote science fiction mostly, not fantasy, but what he said was, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap — but then, ninety percent of anything is crap.” There’s some great fantasy. There are some great mysteries. There’s some great mainstream “literature.” Maybe in the case of the romance genre we’d have to say it’s 97% crap, but I’m in no danger of reading any romance, so that’s not an issue. But do you _really_ think fantasy is typically worse than other genres? If you think that, can you back up your opinion with any facts, or are you just winging it?

  2. George Oliver says:

    I don’t have a horse in this race, but while fantasy may not be *typically* worse than other genres, that’s not the question Roulette posed — it’s whether you can find great books in other genres (OK, mainstream literature) more easily, and I feel like anyone who argues the contrary is just doing so for fun :).

    • midiguru says:

      But what is “great”? This is a serious question. In your college English literature course they will of course assure you that Henry James is “great” while Terry Pratchett is a dreadful pop hack. But by any reasonable standard, that’s not just very debatable but probably backwards! For that reason, we can’t even discuss which genre has “great” novels in it without defining what we mean by “great.” And if the definition is biased in favor of the practices of any given genre, then the definition is not valid. I’m happy to kick around the question of what “great” might mean, but I’m not willing to accede to a purported answer without having that discussion.

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