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.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:
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?