Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On believable characters, and reading sci-fi

After writing yesterday's review of Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale, I was startled this morning by one of the comments on this article in The Guardian, about whether speculative fiction was ready to break into big awards like the Booker Prize. One of the commenters responds as follows:
I think it is probably not the best idea. I have read a lot of science fiction and the problem lies with the characters, it seems as if all SF writers are incapable of producing a believable character, especially if it is an Alien character, which does not end up sounding like your English Teacher from High School. Morever, some of the more fantastical elements of simply making up names for alien cultures, with wobbly bits, it is absolutely confusing and mostly ridiculous. There is always a war going on in which not much seems to be happening.
Proper fiction, got which some niche should be preserved, should as a starting base point have believable characters. I am fairly sure that it is beyond the capabilities of any Fantasy/SF author to come up with anything more than Carboard charachters, whereas novels rooted in reality have more dimensions more reference points to peoples lives, so is probably superior. (emphasis mine)
The funny thing about this is that it is precisely what I would say about most literary fiction. I had to rack my brain and my bookshelves to find literary fiction titles/authors whom I loved, and thought of as having believably complex characters (the latter being the condition for the former). I did think of one, and immediately: Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, which I've read over and over again, and never gotten tired of. Now that I think about it, I also enjoyed Michael Cunningham's The Hours, though I don't own it. Let's see: I also was absolutely delighted with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, and the sequels that followed. For the most part, literary fiction, no matter how many titles I look at, and what awards they're up for, give me the sense that the authors carefully followed a formula akin to that of the sonata form, carefully choosing objects and character traits that they felt were both unusual and poetic. This was how I felt about the house dragged across the ice in E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.

But I remember my delight at reading Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, when a friend lent it to me as an undergrad, as being a book that seemed to be written about the same world I lived in, or closer to it -- my university and my own development did not present the opportunities of Nick, Robin, and Thomas. In jr. high and high school, I read Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, and Piers Anthony, and a lot of Star Trek novels. It seems funny that I read these (most of which I now think of as fluff) at the same time I loved Dorothy L. Sayers and Noel Streatfeild, who wrote what I think of as utterly believable characters, and who seemed to see the world as I saw it (and thus to be confronted with adventures and problems like my own). When I got to college and someone introduced me to Carolyn Heilbrun's Kate Fansler detective stories, I felt that I had found someone writing about a woman who I hoped to become.

I don't remember when I started reading current sci-fi/fantasy, exactly. However, I will never forget the experience of reading Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and thinking "oh, my God, I had no idea that it was even possible to capture life, and its disappointments and victories, in this way." I'm afraid that's not an especially original eloquent blurb, but it's what I felt at the time, and what I still feel when I go back to the whole quartet to reread it, which I do about every year. If you're curious, you should rush right out and buy the series, or at least the first volume, and you should pay no attention to the cover art, which gives the impression that Melusine is a soppy bodice-ripper. It's nothing of the sort. Though it is a series in which sex, both abusive, and non, plays a major role. And it's what I would hold up as an example and standard to literary fiction authors who feel that they simply must include a sexual abuse plot in their novels: that is how you do it.

Monette isn't the only sci-fi/fantasy author who has been able to reach me, though she was the first, and the one who did so most dramatically. I think it's fair to say that she's the reason I began paying attention to other sci-fi authors, and to blogs at Tor. I haven't time tonight, but at some point, I would like to write more about why the other major genre that I read is YA Lit.

So, if you're reading this: is there a book, series, or genre, that amazed you, that knocked you flat by portraying the world more richly than you imagined was ever possible?


  1. I totally concur with your comparison of literary fiction and the sonata. Maybe one of the draws of both YA and sci-fi is that in those genres the plot matters. What happens to a character is an important way of looking at a character -- and lately it seems to me that literary fiction tries to obscure its plot simply for obscurity's sake.

    The last two literary novels I truly enjoyed ("Bad Marie" and "The Manual of Detection") were both very interested in the idea of how a character acts in a situation, and how a character reacts. Both struck me as very surprising novels, too, which can't be a coincidence.

  2. Character as sonata in lit: absolutely right. I like the form, too, for certain values of it - but I'm more critical. For example, Michael Ondaatje, who as a Canadian I believe I'm contractually obligated to love, has written characters that left me unmoved because of the themes and images he picked out. I couldn't find the person, there.

    Of course, if the commenter is reading SciFi where everyone's named X'xyazzfer'nas and is primarily concerned with how various aliens mate in zero g, then I get his comment. But there is so much brilliant in SF/F.

  3. Alicia, thank you -- I shall look those up.

    Arwen, yes, I'm afraid I did read at least a few short stories about X'xyazzfer'nas and its mating cycle which were definitely not The Left Hand of Darkness. I don't mean to suggest that sci-fi doesn't have its ghastly iterations. And I suppose that one person's ghastly is someone else's glorious, but I'm definitely curious about what it is that can make sci-fi one's home genre, and lit-fic another person's.

  4. I was put off literary fiction at a tender age when I took a creative writing class with a teacher who insisted that we must all write nothing but Contemporary Realistic Literary Fiction if we wanted to be taken seriously. She wanted us all to write like Raymond Carver, and I wanted to write like Jorge Luis Borges. I've grown more willing to read literary fiction in recent years, but for a long time I wouldn't go near it -- and I still gravitate more to genre fiction.

  5. It's been an embarrassingly long time since I read any "literary" fiction. In fact, I remember the last one I attempted to read: "A Suitable Boy". I never finished, and apparently it broke me.

    I do think of myself as primarily attracted to setting and themes; characters are good and important, and they can certainly break a book, but setting and themes are what differentiate the great from the merely good. And both are much more richly at play (or can be) in SF/F than straight-up realistic fiction. Terry Pratchett can create a world where the gods are literally real, exploring ideas about belief and divinity in ways one simply couldn't if one were tethered exclusively to the real world. Other writers play with political systems, philosophies, utopias. There's so much more SPACE for playing out ideas, and for looking back at ourselves through that lens.

    Have you read any Lois McMaster Bujold, Paige? If not, I recommend The Curse of Chalion as a book that really blends world, politics, ideas, and -yes- character into something truly luminous and extraordinary.

  6. Amanda, oh, gods, yes. I had a similar experience. And I like Carver's language: but it wasn't doing it for me. I didn't know about Borges at the time, because he was never held up as an example.

    Rachel, I read the first two Vorkosigan books, and like them very much -- I need to read The Curse of Chalion, which I've heard about before. And thank you for your explanation of why you tend towards sci-fi -- the settings and themes being so much more richly at play exactly captures what I get from it, and I hadn't put that into words.

  7. Rachel recommended Chalion to me and it's one of my favorites. Plus, I love the sequel - Paladin of Souls - as a character study.

    I've been thinking about lit fic which I like. For some reason, the ones I've been considering are Life of Pi (Martel) and A Fine Balance (Mistri). Both hit me like a John Irving novel - something slightly larger than life about the characters - but both are about people coming from cultures and countries I don't know.

    I ascribed the larger-than-life aspects with these books as being because I was learning a new context. So I read them differently. The strange dislocation that can happen with lit fic characters where they're not really anyone-you-know I considered here as different culture / different philosophy. But that meant I was giving that dislocation to India.

    What is really interesting to me is that this suggests that most of the sci-fi/fantasy I've read I'm reading with the cultural recognition as though the characters are North American. Even if the Left Hand of Darkness is gender free, they're still people I recognize. But since you're right about The Shipping News, which has the same twangy characters as Martel or Mistri, well? It's maybe just of the style; what gets embossed heavily is that which is strange or odd.

    I really like some of those lit-fic books, although I'm pickier about them and more likely to get frustrated with 'em - but I wonder if lit-fic doesn't do with character what Rachel is suggesting Pratchett does with setting and theme. Taking Irving & Hotel New Hampshire - because he's high relief of the form - you have characters that live with bears and enjoy consensual incest. They're people-you-don't-quite-know pushing the known boundaries of society, which makes 'em extreme, but also expresses what Irving had to say on a bunch of related themes. Maybe he does with character what Pratchett does with world.

  8. Arwen, your comment has made me realize something. Are either of you familiar with the idea of a "weirdness budget"? It's usually thought of as a SF/F thing, I guess: that readers can tolerate only so much "weirdness" before they get confused or disgusted or uncomfortable and stop reading. You have to choose where to spend it, and in SF/F that's usually going to be on world details, belief systems, social structures, that kind of thing.

    So, okay! Irving, in the above example, is spending it on characters. It's the same thing, isn't it. If you had those kind of goings-on among the purple mushroom-people of Planet Gorg, everyone would just find it baffling. It would be too much.

    Maybe I could like Lit Fic better if I thought of it as having a weirdness budget...

  9. I do like Life of Pi, Arwen. And I haven't read any Irving. I should, and see whether it strikes me differently. I would love to feel the dislocation that you mention in regards to character when I read litfic, but the problem is that I usually really don't. I used the analogy of sonata form not complimentarily, but because as a musician it's so darned obvious when a piece moves from theme exposition to development - and though I like that in music, in a novel, it's the surest way to make me put the book down and forget about it.

    But that might be just me, being bad-tempered.

  10. A weirdness budget! Rachel, I shall endeavor to think of that next time I'm attempting to read litfic.

  11. I knew it wasn't complimentary; but it's interesting to me, because I *can* like the form, and you've put your finger on where it wins or loses for me. I do read a lot of fiction of all sorts, but lit-fic - oh, well, and romance - are the only ones that really tend to irritate me. Romance, it's usually clear I've had a break in belief systems, viz: Twilight, and I am irritated at the subtext. But literary forms can cause me to roll my eyes and sigh mightily as if I've been personally aggrieved, without it being clear what aggrieves me. Why? What's irritating? Why did The English Patient climb up my nose?

    The cool thing is, using your metric and flipping to what's NOT irritating, well - either I recognize the protag as a person I'd know in an interesting circumstance (SF/F, but also litfic like The Stone Angel) - or the person is exaggerated enough in a direction I find interesting to catch my interest, like in Irving or Life of Pi.

    .... And ALL my literary references appear to be Canadian. CBC: You've done well in selling Cdn novels to Canucks, obviously. I have read others, really!

  12. I sounded peevish in my earlier comment, Arwen -- apologies. See, that's interesting, and proof, for me, of a precise difference in the way that people read, and that novels work for them. I'm glad it works -- thank you for helping to clarify that.

    And you've captured something for me about the way I read: I don't like exaggerated characters. At all. I react really badly to them (as the above makes clear). Now I wonder why that is.

  13. Rachel, that fits - a weirdness budget. There's got to be something you're doing that's challenging, or why write?

    I think sometimes it's been real-world circumstances that are being illustrated to the mainstream but will still be "weird": The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, anything by Alice Munro, all the fiction of what it is to live as "other". That Otherness can be very true-to-life but still spends the weirdness coin.

  14. Um, and, "apologies" sounds cavalier. I am sorry, I was getting bitchy, especially in my frustration at not being able to articulate how my preferences work, which you very helpfully clarify. It is very good to have something more defined to chew on.

  15. I didn't hear you as peevish, Paige! But not, perhaps, seeing that your metaphor might work even for people who do like (examples of) the lit-fic form.

  16. I remember seeing ads for the film version of The Stone Angel, and being curious about it. I shall have to look it up; glancing at a review, it still sounds good.

    Maybe the problem is that I have been reading American litfic when really I should be reading Canadian?

  17. Hah! Possibly. But who is American lit-fic?

    I can think of Don DeLillo? I read half of something he did, but wandered away from it. Jeanette Winterson? Same thing. I didn't even grow irritated, just bored.

    Lots of the other non-Canuck ones I'm thinking of aren't American.

    But lit-fic is sort of a hard genre to define, isn't it? Because what about Oryx & Crake or the Time Traveller's Wife? Those are sort of speculative, but they're also sort of literary. And I don't know what the hell John Irving is, other than popular - I'm pretty sure the Booker Prize judges would sneer down their pince nez at him.

    Tom Stoppard! Does 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' count?

  18. OH! Grapes of Wrath. I LOVED Grapes of Wrath. That's lit-fic, yeah?

  19. American Lit Fic: Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby (but now we're getting back into Classics territory), Lorrie Moore, T.C. Boyle, Kathryn Harrison, Ursula Hegi, Anne Tyler, John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon (though he veers into various genres), Allegra Goodman, Gish Jen, Dorothy Allison, ...this is just random, but there's a few for you. Oh, and for short stories Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor. etc. Oh and that book of interlinked short stories that came out last year, Olive Kitteridge.

    British Lit Fic: Jeannette Winterson (though also sometimes veering into genre), Emma Donoghue-- though she's Canadian now, isn't she?--Salman Rushdie--also could be considered specfic--Martin Amis who I've never read...

    Ah, drawn in by a request for list. I usually stay away from discussions of genre because it all seems so fluid to me and the boundaries so arbitrary. Example: One of my favorite adult-fiction books of last year, Emma Donoghues's ROOM, is firmly realistic in its content but draws on myth and fairy tale for its structure and references. I know people who are passionately interested in the idea of interstitial art, but frankly lots of art seems interstitial when you get right down to it.

    Me, I think of myself as a realistic-fiction person at heart, but I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it's that when my energy reserves are low I'd prefer to spend my weirdness budget [I LOVE THAT TERM & never heard it before] reading about peculiarities of character rather than assimilating new worlds or alternate realities. For a realistic/literary-fiction person, I read a lot of fantasy & some SF. But unlike most of the fantasy & SF people I know, I'm happy and comforted, not bored, at the prospect of curling up with a book about little events in the lives of regular ordinary people. I love voice and character quirks (as long as they're not too obviously and self-consciously quirky) and what would be called ensemble pieces if they were movies-- stories about communities and overlapping interactions. And more and more I appreciate a good plot that pulls all the threads through. I like setting, but frankly I will read a book set in the most boring tract subdivision in the most boring suburb if the voice is lively.

  20. Note to self: must stop saying "but frankly"...

    Also "so." Also "also".

  21. Jeanette Winterson either verges or runs headlong into genre (she's quite upfront about this, unlike, say, Margaret Atwood).

    Non-genre books that moved me -- I admit I hated The Stone Angel, and Ondaatje's prose leaves me dry (not his poetry), but Cat's Eye (Atwood) or A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving) or Art & Lies (Winterson, in her least genre-ish book). Mistry moves me, too. Emma Donoghue surprised me by how I was affected. Anna Quindlen. Myla Goldberg's first book, about spelling bees. Kate Grenville. Catherine Bush.

    Lots of it doesn't move me, of course, but then lots of genre books don't move me.

    I know there are more books that have moved me

  22. Ah! Thanks, Els! Anne Tyler - I like Anne Tyler and Fannie Flagg in equal ways, but wouldn't have known how to characterize them. They're novels!

  23. I like Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe very much; I should look at her other stuff. Some goober told me about Room and spoiled it for me in one sentence, but maybe I should check it out anyways. Salinger I love (but you know that, Els); and also, now that I think of it, many of Amy Bloom's short stories. And the short stories in Michael Byers' The Coast of Good Intentions. Oh, yes, and that first Myla Goldberg is excellent, and I am curious about her newest.

    Winterson is interesting, because I tried reading Sexing the Cherry once, to no joy, but loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (of course, it's a memoir, not a novel).

    Els, have you read Walton's Lifelode? Because I think it's the best book I've read so far this year, and maybe in the last several, and it feels very much like she took all the minor characters who usually show up briefly in fantasy, and made a novel where they, and their everyday lives, were in the spotlight.

    There's a series by Jeanne Birdsall, called the Penderwicks, about four perfectly non-magical sisters, and I love that because it's so everyday; likewise, I think that's the attraction of Streatfeild's Apple Bough, which is one of her novels that I go back to most.

    One of the things that I thought about the Morrow novel that started all this was that I would have absolutely adored it if he hadn't felt the need to insert Big Drama into it. It would have made a glorious episodic novel about three generations of a family in summer turning to fall.

  24. I just realized: you know what I like? Coming of age stories! Especially about girls. I don't care if they're in NYC or on the other side of the world or 300 years in the future or in medieval England or on the planet Zorg; I just love a good coming-of-age story. I guess that could be considered a genre of its own, but I think of it more as a theme that crosses genres.

  25. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a novel, and was published as such; it's based parly on Winterson's family and coming-out experience, but is fictionalized and some elements (and not just the mythical ones) are made up.

    I do like the Penderwicks and, even more, the Saturdays and many of that jolly-bickering-siblings kind of book; that's the best of what I mean about the everyday lives of ordinary people (juvenile edition). What I love about E. Nesbit and (sometimes) Diana Wynne Jones is the way they keep the family/friendship dynamics grounded firmly in that kind of thing and add magic.

    Haven't read Lifelode but I have Among Others and really want to read it!

  26. I'm fond of coming of age stories, too, especially about girls -- done well, they never get old. I think that a lot of literary fiction tells stories in which the characters go through a process like coming of age -- it's just that I don't identify with it the way that I can identify with something like the Enola Holmes books.

    ( I don't really know why that is, though there are darkly plausible arguments that part of me is, and will always be, frozen at around the age of 13-17. But I tend to subscribe to the theory that everyone is all the ages that they have ever been, so what does that matter?)

  27. Oh, I didn't know that, about Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (disadvantage of shopping via Kindle; no sections to inform one).

    I don't think I know the Saturdays...?

    If we were closer, I would drop Lifelode off at your library; since it's hard to find otherwise. But I look forward to seeing what you make of Among Others. And you'll probably like The Prize in the Game, if you run across it: there is some magic, but it is mostly a book about families, and coming of age (both girls and boys).

  28. Oh, don't worry about Room being "spoiled" -- it's made clear within the first chapter or two what room is, the book isn't about being shocked that it is OMG a single room. I have enjoyed her other books, too, though not as much.

    Sexing the Cherry is not my favourite of her books. I loved Art & Lies best, but also Gut Instincts and -- in a very different way -- Boating for Beginners.

    Do you recommend I read Lifelode? I was underwhelmed by Among Others, you know how I feel about the Farthing books, but I have enjoyed her short stories in Strange Horizons.

  29. I agree about Room being unspoilable; I read several reviews first and while yeah, ideally you'd come to it with no knowledge at all, anyone over the age of the narrator will figure it out right quick.

    My favorite Winterson is The Passion. I loved Oranges (coming of age story!) but The Passion is more daring and more gorgeously written and about as close to perfect as a novel could be. At least that's what I thought when I read it. After that, she got too baroque for me and broke my weirdness budget.

  30. JH- Lifelode is actually more brilliant than Among Others, in its thinking, and the way that it arranges things. Among Others is very personal, and I think, for some people, very reflective of who they are, or were. But it's a portrait, and in some ways, I wouldn't even call it a novel, -- but Lifelode is very much a novel.

    The trick is getting your hands on Lifelode, since it's only a limited print run. But if you buy it and regret it, then I'll buy it from you for the standard cover price, because it's the sort of book I would like to have two copies of.

  31. Els, I shall look up The Passion directly, because you've made me curious. At the moment, I'm just starting Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, which I like very much so far (though "like" isn't the right verb), but I'm not far into it yet.

  32. I LOVED Tender Morsels. I hope its recent exclusion from that Bitch Magazine list raises its profile. It's an amazing book, if very hard to read near the beginning.

    The Saturdays is first in a 4-book series by Elizabeth Enright. If you liked The Penderwicks you'll probably like it; it's pretty clear that Jeannie Birdsall grew up loving it & that it helped inspire The Penderwicks, and I think she even said so somewhere.

    I hope you'll like the Passion, too-- and it is short!

  33. And it looks like I can get Lifelode on Inter-Library Loan here-- thanks for the recommendation!

  34. OK, just looked up Lifelode and thought I'd write down a little of my initial reaction to the description and (enthusiastic, positive) reviews, because it says a lot about my reaction to fantasy in general, which is: this sounds like WORK. Whenever a description starts out, "In the world of Xorgynblasten, where people have three legs and one's fate is determined by the length of one's toenails at birth...", or whatever, I have to get over an initial sigh as if I'm about to walk up a hill, no matter how fervid the praise or how much people whose opinion I trust swear that I'm going to love it. It helps a little if the description continues, "young Drorgen must leave her home to make her way in the world and Come of Age in the tradition of her people," because hey! coming of age! But even so it feels like work to me to dive into a novel that's about a totally different culture that doesn't exist IRL, often with people whose names don't exist and that I have to keep straight.

    I know this is probably heretical to people whose home genre is f/sf, and I'm kind of embarrassed about it. But I'm much more likely to pick up a book if it looks like it starts out closer to home, even if in the course of it I travel far.

  35. I would love to read a book where one's fate is determined by the length of one's toenails.

    But the name thing drives me nuts. I have a lot of trouble reading books set in some cultures (especially, say, England when everyone was named Elizabeth, Mary, Anne, Henry or Richard -- give me more names, please) or some fictional worlds because the names just don't seem different or memorable enough to me. I will often avoid SFF books -- my home genre, or one of two -- if the names on the back are too irritating to keep track of. I don't mind stupid names -- hi, Hunger Games -- as long as they're name-ish.

    I'll try to ILL Lifelode, though WorldCat suggests that it will take forever as no local libraries have it -- I assume it will come from Toronto or Nfld. I find it absurd that no stores here carry it. She's a local author! And yet.

    I'll put in one last push for ROOM, because it's one of the rare books I stayed up very very late to finish lately.

    Oh, Lydia Davis, and Diane Schoemperlen. Reif Larsen.

    I think I am just randomly mentioning non-genre authors I enjoy and think are good (as opposed to enjoy and think are beach reads -- an excellent type of book, of course, btu a different type), and I feel I am not making enough sense, so I will go to bed.

  36. That is a totally fair reaction, Els, and amusing to me in that it very much mirrors what I often feel when i pick up litfic set in the more-or-less here-and-now, which has often felt to me like reading about aliens, so foreign are some of the social exchanges and cues.

    (Normally this would be the point at which I suppose I ought to say something like, "well, yes, like some FSF fans/nerds/geeks, I have fewer social skills, etc." -- except I don't want to say that at all, because I do have social skills, though God knows I've worked to develop them -- but for some reason, my knowledge feels useless when I read a lot of litfic. I am very relieved when I read a book with a lot of worldbuilding, because it won't be full of things that are left unsaid but which I am assumed to know.

    (This is not to say that I am a huge fan of Tolkien's very long interjections of worldbuilding, because I'm not much a fan of them, most of the time.

  37. Room is going on my list, JH -- if you recommend it, it's worth my getting hold of.

  38. Paige, what's funny is that I'd describe my relationship to social skills in the same way: hard-won, and late-won, at that. I think, paradoxically, that that might be *why* I have the opposite reaction to F/SF & LitFic as you: I worked so hard for those skills and those understandings, by god I'm going to USE them. Whereas being thrown into a whole other world and having it explained to me in great detail tends to exhaust me the way that, say, having to learn a whole other language would: I learned English, and it took long enough! Can't I just read in English??

    Another analogy would be having to learn a whole other number-base system just to make change because everyone else is in Base 7.

    The thing is, I know people who would (and do!) LOVE the challenge of reading novels in other languages and/or figuring out arithmetic problems in bases other than 10. And I sometimes do, too. But when I pick up a novel, what I mostly want is to lose myself in narrative; I don't want that much of a challenge. (for the same reason, I'm not crazy about most experimental fiction.)

  39. Els, what is interesting is that I am also interested in losing myself in a story, but find that SFF -- a genre I was introduced to at 15, by a most excellent HS librarian, who turned me on to the The Dark is Rising series -- is not challenging in that way (while much experimental and many historical novels are). I don't mind the challenges, when I am specifically looking for them. I wonder if it is about being introduced to SFF in the right way. I started on YA and fairy tale retellings, and so I got used to the ways that SFF books teach you about what you need to know, what will or won't be important or different (someone -- perhaps Jo Walton -- calls it incluing, which is a nice term, and opposes this to infodumping[1]), so it's not challenging the same way because I already know the tropes and the rules. You can see in genre writers who refuse to admit they are writing genre (Margaret Atwood) where they are less elegant about this.

    [1] I often sort of like infodumping. I know all about why it is problematic, but I still enjoy it a lot of the time. This is perhaps because I read Christie at an impressionable age.

  40. jh, that's interesting-- I also was introduced quite early and often to speculative fiction by a relative who was an avid fantasy reader (and, later, writer) and who recommended and discussed books with me and also carefully left books lying around my dad's house where I would pick them up and find them (I fondly remember "discovering" and loving Enchantress from the Stars, and only realizing later that of course it was left on the coffee table *on purpose*). I think that's one reason I like and understand the genre as well as I do; I'd probably be much more of a hard-core literary/realistic fiction person otherwise.

    I've thought about it a fair bit (I've had to!) and really do think that a predilection for one genre or another is at least partly hardwired, like handedness (or, dare I say, sexual orientation). You can foster an understanding of the conventions and an appreciation of its qualities, but you can't change what's going to be the core thing that someone likes most.

  41. Oh, interesting. The idea that we're hardwired for certain types is, I think, what I've been circling around lately, and thank you, Els, for putting it that way, because that's a much more direct and straightforward way of putting it. The first story I wrote, around 4 or 5, was satirical fantasy involving other worlds (about a girl who had a hundred brothers, and the one with a name was called "Messy Basic-H," because Basic-H was soap, and he was so messy that even soap's basic cleansing properties were corrupted.) And this was prior to any exposure, as far as I know, to genre fiction, other than fairytales, and Scooby-Doo (if that could count as genre fiction, which I think it should).

    I remember a lot about what I was read aloud, and what I learned to read with, and if I think about it, I think I remember feeling that other worlds, and a weirdness budget for them, was absolutely right for me. I'll post, quickly (because I've got to get back to work!) a list of what I remember, though if it's all hardwired, it's not like that will be meaningful to anyone but me.

  42. I absolutely do not believe that what we enjoy reading is hard-wired, or mostly not. I never felt that sff was the genre I had been missing my whole life when I was introduced to it, and though it is currently the genre I read the most, there have been periods when I have read little or nothing in that genre. (I am excluding myths and fairy tales, though, both of which I read from a fairly young age. Greek & Roman, the colour books by Lang, Arthurian, some Norse. I also exclude books for children that are about animals who do things, because that's 75% of kidlit.)

    I am trying to explain why it bothers me -- it's like you have no choice about what you like, and I don't think it's true. I think there is of course some hardwiring of preferences, but if you want to (and there is nothing wrong with *not* wanting to), you can learn how to read other genres and begin to enjoy them, too -- I need to think about this more.

    (The first stories I read and wrote were stories about cats. The cat from Norway got stuck in the doorway, but my cat likes to hide in boxes. I was so ecstatic the first time I actually had a cat who would go in boxes, 20 years later.)

  43. That's fair, JH, and eh, as much as I think, oh, it's hardwired, on thinking about it all day, I think I should also admit that one reason that SFF appeals is that it *was* an escape from everyday concerns. Very few SFF books have prolonged scenes about parental arguments, or divorce; I think I am still terrified of reading books that might turn out to be about the dissolution of a marriage. That's funny, in a way, because I think I've processed a lot in terms of moving past certain unhealthy aspects from my childhood and adolescence, but what springs to mind right now is that I find litfic books about relationships especially triggering, because I am powerless to do anything but witness the conflict, or to put down the book, which feels like a failure as a reader.

    Mmph. I go back and forth on this. Which, I think, is fine. We read a lot of the same stuff; Greek and Roman myth became one of my standards in elementary school, and the Lang books whenever I could find them at the library.

    I like your story about about the cat from Norway.