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Confessions of a Young SF Reader

January 19, 2010

I perceive a lot of pressure to be current with award-winning novels, New York Times bestsellers, and Jodi Picoult. Perhaps that’s just because I work in a bookstore, and those are the books my customers ask for? That and the fact that when the same customers ask, “Well, what do you read?” and I say, “Science fiction,” there feels like there’s a sudden shift in their attitude. I’m no longer the Trusted Bookseller. I’m now the Girl With Bad Taste.

I’ve been struggling with this problem for years, feeling poorly read and somehow ‘less’ than everyone else because I don’t read what they do, yet being unable to process the bestsellers or finding the plots uninteresting. If I have to choose between a boy in Afghanistan, a middle-aged housewife in crisis, a young fashionista in New York, a half-demon cop taking down an amulet dealer, or a space captain discovering an alien species, I’m going to pick the cop or the captain every time. I’m proud of this fact. I’m proud of my geeky tastes. I’m proud that I know what I like and don’t bow down to pressure.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel illiterate when somebody says, “What do you mean you haven’t read this? It won the Booker! It’s been a bestseller for ten months!” It also doesn’t mean I feel proud when someone says, “Who the heck are Charles de Lint and Orson Scott Card?”

I came across a post on last night that really spoke to me. It talked about how sci-fi, and to an extent fantasy, are undefinable in terms of tropes, and how they’re largely lacking in metaphor. It talked about how non-SF readers don’t understand that, and are always trying to define and trying to read metaphors into things that don’t need metaphors. SF readers read the surface story and are good at picking up hints at the world, whereas literary readers can deal with metaphors and sublevels, and are used to lots of description and explanation. They think too hard when they try SF. Sometimes a robot is just a robot.

The article opened my eyes, in a way. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, or women’s lit, or the other kinds of books that get shelved in the general fiction sections of bookstores and libraries, because they don’t engage me. I’m not interested in the plots, true, but so much literary fiction I’ve come across seems to rely on poetic language and literary devices and hidden meanings and metaphoric stories of personal growth. I really struggle with identifying those devices, I’m horrible with hidden meanings, and I tend to miss most of the personal growth because I’m so caught up in the surface story.

I’ve always thought that was just me, and that I was a bad reader for being that way. Now I see that it’s the outcome of having grown up on fantasy, science fiction, and mythologies. The Tor article also explained why I’m fine reading Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, and Dickens but struggle with Atwood and Steinbeck: classic lit are much more “surfacey” than what’s winning awards today. I think there may also be a quasi-fantasy element to my (and other geeky readers’) enjoyment of the classics, which Tor didn’t mention—the world of 1820 is far enough outside our worldview that it’s seen as another world entirely.

I’ve come away from that article comforted that I’m not alone, and more confident in myself as a reader. Does anyone else feel the same? Or is it really just me?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 6:19 pm

    It makes perfect sense! And I’m like you – I’ve spent my whole life reading genre fiction, and I don’t understand the allure of the stuffy literary intellectual stuff. Not that I don’t love literary fiction – but I like the literary that leans toward genre. Jellicoe Road, The Forest of Hands and Teeth…

    Okay, now I’M not making sense.

    • anassarhenisch permalink
      January 27, 2010 2:48 pm

      No, you’re still making sense. I’m the same with literary fiction. It has to have genre elements before I’ll be interested (Time Traveller’s Wife, Michael Chabon, Lovely Bones, etc.). I also don’t mind genre fiction with high writing quality and literary elements. I did mention de Lint, after all. 🙂

      Glad it’s not just me!

  2. January 28, 2010 2:18 pm

    Charles de Lint! How could they not know Charles de Lint?!

    I, too, lean towards literary books that contain fantasy elements (Alma Alexander’s Secrets of the Jin-Shei springs to mind), but I also grew up reading fantasy. I’ve definitely sensed a certain amount of disdain directed towards genre fiction from literary readers/writers, presumably because genre fiction doesn’t contain tons of metaphors or isn’t “deep” enough. Like you said, sometimes a robot is just a robot. And, too, I think depth in genre fiction comes in a variety of shapes and sizes; personally, I could wax poetic about the theme of barbarianism versus civilization in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince.

  3. March 23, 2010 10:52 am

    I like literary fiction, but not ALL literary fiction. Unfortunately the label “literary” sometimes gives novels license to be, well, boring and/or self-consciously pretentious.

    I actually like Margaret Atwood, although I would consider her stuff leaning more towards genre (like scifi, especially in THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which is dystopian). I’m with you on science-fiction/fantasy (and historical): I like “what if” and “what was” much more than “what is”. Also, just because something is genre doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not literary as well. THE HISTORIAN is one such novel. I would also consider something like Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS literary (it’s fantasy AND young adult to boot).

    I find it interesting you consider Chabon as having genre elements, especially as his early work is pretty clearly contemporary/literary (MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURG and WONDER BOYS). I will confess I didn’t like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. Time-travel aside, there were too many flaws in its worldbuilding for me, not to mention I thought it was a romance novel, not a literary/genre work.

    • March 23, 2010 10:52 am


    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      March 28, 2010 3:17 pm

      The same, I think. Like I said, if it’s got a geeky element to it, I’ll at least give it a go. And I know literary and genre aren’t mutually exclusive. I love HIS DARK MATERIALS, and I consider Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Ursula le Guin to be reasonably literary. I’m completely turned off by the pretentious stuff, however, and just about anything pretentious people read.

      I’ll admit that I haven’t read Chabon’s first two novels. I’ve read THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY and THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, which are definitely genre, at least in places. I know THE FINAL SOLUTION is a homage to Sherlock Holmes and GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD is a tribute to pulp novels. Most of his books have genre bits in them, so I think of him as a literary/genre author, but one who leans much more to the literary end of things.

      As for THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, I said I was interested, not that I enjoyed what I’ve read of the book. 😉

      • March 29, 2010 2:08 pm

        To be honest, I’m fairly certain Chabon peaked at THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. I do love him, of course. But the novels after KAVALIER AND CLAY went somewhere I wasn’t sure I could follow. I couldn’t get into THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION at all.

        I wouldn’t consider de Lint, Gaiman, or Le Guin to be “literary” exactly, although they are great prose stylists. Like all masters of genre, they use science-fiction/fantasy to explore themes the way literary writers use the mundane. I guess I always think of literary writers as writing about “the mundane” (i.e. everyday life, etc.).

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