This is the first of a new monthly feature we are calling Synergy. Basically, one of our contributors offers a single question for our other contributors to give answer to. Beyond that, we go out and get talented outsiders who choose to become extended family to participate.
So what we have is a combining our regular contributors with a group of people that count among them bestselling authors, award winning novelists, editors, and leaders in commentary and opinion in a variety of mediums. We have Synergy. We come together – especially with this edition – as readers. Matt Denault offers up the first question for the feature.
One of the rewarding aspects of talking with other readers of fiction is realizing what a great variety there exists in how people read, in the conceptual lens or lenses we use. We all have a different sense of identity, different life experiences, areas of academic study, professional training, leisure activities or interests that impact how we read. Can you share something interesting about how you read fiction, the elements of story that you focus on that you’ve noticed others may not — ideally providing a few examples — and why you do so (if you know)?
(For example, some readers may bring a focus on gender, sexuality and sexual experience, race, culture, age, class, religion and/or power dynamics. Some readers may feel a heightened awareness of place, a concern with the details and groundedness of a story’s setting. Some readers may find themselves reading with extra care any passages mentioning art, architecture, and other areas of study. Etc.)
It’s a beast of a question and more than one game contributor bowed out when confronted with it. I think you even see those who did answer juggle with it a bit rather liberally – which is perfect for the question! I want to thank everybody who participated, and those who considered to participate who are not represented below.
Lydia Millet – It’s a good question and a complex one, which goes as much to our limitations as readers as to our abilities. I look first for a certain aesthetic sensibility, or range of sensibilities, that is very difficult to define. What I like is cumulative and open-ended, that is, it can be added to at any moment, when I encounter a writer who’s authoritative and powerfully intelligent and offers me an entry into a fresh landscape or idiom. But what I don’t like is predefined for me, and a book can repulse me right away by qualifying into this category.
And I honestly wouldn’t say this is bias; I’d say it’s a precise judgment strategy developed over a lifetime of reading literature, and a strategy I need to be able to implement to read well. After all, there are far too many good books out there to read in one puny lifespan, and I don’t want to waste my time on the others. A book may contain any number of technically good sentences and paragraphs—may be, in a sense, perfectly well-written—but if I feel the writer’s interests and assumptions are myopic or parochial I won’t bother reading much further than the first few pages. There’s plenty of upscale writing out there, generally held to be literary, that I find repugnant for its narrow or self-indulgent sensibility.
Conversely, a writer may be technically clumsy, sloppy, or simply not language-oriented—Philip K. Dick is a prime example—but if the ideas are vivid and compelling enough, I’m willing to read past the awkwardness of the diction because I’m beholding a playful and intriguing imagination at work. This is how I read so-called genre fiction: for the ideas, for the ontological exploration between the lines and the liveliness of the invented worlds. In a nutshell, I guess you could say I read for thought. If I’m going to step inside someone else’s brain, which is what reading is, I want to make damn sure that brain has something new to offer.
Lydia Millet is the author of Omnivores (Algonquin, 1996), George Bush, Dark Prince of Love (Scribner, 2000), My Happy Life (Henry Holt, 2002; Soft Skull Press 2007), a winner of the 2003 PEN-USA Award for Fiction, Everyone’s Pretty (Soft Skull Press, 2005) and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (Soft Skull, 2005).
Felix Gilman – This has been a difficult question for me to answer because as a straight white affluent able-bodied etc male I am pretty much a monster of unexamined privilege, i.e. inclined automatically to consider myself the norm, with no particular conceptual lenses, no “identity,” no agenda, what I see in books being simply what’s there. This is not true, of course. Nevertheless.
I was a grad student in history for a while, with an interest in (popular) cultural history, and then for a much longer time I’ve been a lawyer, so I have a certain professional interest in: bullshit. Or to put it another way: argument, cultural conflict, myth-making in service of the various competing interests out of which a society is constructed; so one of the main things I look for in secondary-world fiction is a sense of social complexity, interest-struggles mediated through cultural narratives and styles and poses. Generally I feel most interested in fictional worlds where this stuff is somewhat arbitrary, inscrutable. (Again: lawyer).
One of the things I like most about China Mieville’s books is that sense of thick, contested culture. Gormenghast presents something of a monoculture, up to a point, but is also sort of the ur-text for this sort of thing: the whole trilogy (or at least the first two books) is a vast slow fascinating exploration of the castle’s cultural life, and how it intertwines with its weird and irrational political structures, and how it feels to inhabit or accept or reject both.
Also I suppose I’m that guy who can’t stop nitpicking when writers get legal details wrong, though it doesn’t come up much in SF/F. It’s more of a problem at the movies. The Dark Knight was unusually stupid in this respect, FYI.
Felix Gilman is the author of Thunderer and its forthcoming sequel, Gears of the City. He lives in New York.
K.J. Bishop – Man, I just read books as they come to me. Different books offer different pleasures. That said, I’m always glad to find subtle psychological insights, and well-depicted scenery and atmosphere turn me on. I enjoy the impression of a calm surface with wild things seething beneath. I don’t tend to focus on any particular issues, only on how individual characters play the cards dealt to them.
K.J. Bishop is a half-writer, half-mall rat who lives in Bangkok. She is currently reading a Japanese children’s book called Uranai Nanka Kowakunai (Not Scared of Fate), written by the mother of one of her students. It has an awesome picture of an anteater playing Go on the cover. She is the author of The Etched City, The Crawford and Ditmar award winning novel that was also nominated for the World Fantasy award.
Jay Tomio – I’m very selfish, and I’m very much a proponent of the idea that reader perception, that the reader reality, is in fact what motivates both joy of reading much more so than understanding authorial intent. The latter is merely a step to the former in my mind. Don’t you read books and prescribe characters a certain look, with a certain style in your mind, and then if you ever go back and reread specific descriptive passages and have somebody draw or sculpt them they look nothing at all like the people you have in your mind? If you get ten different people to do the same you’d get something completely different each time. That’s just the surface. Has anybody ever seen Moorcock’s Elric depicted in the Conan comics by Barry Windsor-Smith? Smith is a legendary artist in his field, but he comes up with something rather unlike what you will see on older paperback cover or even other adaptations. This is the beauty, the craft of non-illustrated writing – you paint one canvas that turns into however many people read your book. It’s beyond even inspiration as we do it for all characters whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It’s creation.
I used to know this very cute girl in high school – Jessica Moore if you are out there – who used to use the line, “ummm. . . back to me” every time a conversation strayed from . . . well herself. It was very cute, and perfectly describes the type of girl a guy in high school would be interested in, and with the education one gets from those experiences I also gained my personal mantra as it pertains to reading. Because of this, I have a tendency to gladly and wrongly think it is impossible – especially in a non-earth fantastic setting – that an author doesn’t try to insert that fourth-door to stride into on occasion. I search for these and find them where they are and aren’t, veiled or blatantly. Matt asked us to point to examples, and finally I have – back to me – found something useful from this online review gig, so I do have a few! I can read a novel that offers as much Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: an Afterword and I focus on the insertion of his non-self.
In an interview I conducted with Jeff VanderMeer he said this when I brought it up:
Because, really, what that’s intimating is that X is not really me. That there is a doppelganger Jeff in Ambergris—my shadow cabinet counterpart, so to speak. And that would mean that everything in Ambergris is mapped to everything in the “real” world. And if that’s true, it ought to be possible, through reverse engineering, to find our way to Ambergris and at the same instantaneous moment for our doppelganger to break through into this world. Are you stepping into a mirror? Or through a window?
I’m not a writer, but the reader in me going back to Huck Finn on the river; or imagining I’m rolling with Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and Stalker on a special mission; to pretending I was once stopped by Polo to give him directions in my and Calvino’s invisible cities. It goes back to tying towels around necks, and pretending you can fly which some would view this as a simple fascination or preoccupation with escapism, but escapism is just one – of many – possible motivations for a grander journey of exploration. That Bastian Balthazar Bux scenario where at first you are reading the adventure, but before you know it, you are a part of it.
When I reviewed Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Night of Knives (read my interview with Esslemont) I offered the thought that two mortals that ascended to godhood in the series, whose machinations seems to be the frame around the frame of both author’s work in the setting were indeed pseudo-avatars of the two authors themselves – Kellanved/Shadowthrone and Dancer/Cotillon. These are explorers who literally and figuratively transcended mortality so that they can have more time to do so (explore). While feature characters, they tend to make brief appearances throughout the novels to mold events, and for myself it would just be impossible for me to sit down over years with a friend of mind and create what is perhaps the most ambitious secondary world created, and not have a personal Azath -back door. I don’t even know if it’s true, though I got this in my interview with Erikson:
“I think what exists with those two characters is a sense of a longstanding shared history, a trove of experiences. At the same time, it should be clear that each is his own person, and while they are together they are also separate, and this establishes a balance between the two. Maybe in some ways they are the most accurate (not in terms of madness!) composites of the creative side of myself and Cam. We share a world, but we are each distinct as individuals.”
There is a preoccupation with this with writers that we see more and more, this touch of reality to bring our fantasy closer to us; to bring reality closer to the unknown. People like Gaiman have made a living doing this, as has the likes of Moore, Moorcock, or Ellis with Planetary. It is never a search for answers – that’s just what we tell people to foot the bill, or to not look too wide-eyed – we search for questions we have yet to ask in truths we know.
I am also oddly affected by even the most blatant of homages and memorials even when I’m not intimately aware of the gravity of them beyond simply recognizing them. Note, affected not just something I tend to notice (as most tend to be rather transparent for just such a purpose). I tend to be very self-referential as a reviewer and there are nods to items that nobody but perhaps ten people who know me would ever notice.
I do those to keep myself and that minute audience amused, but when I see them in-book I find an embarrassing remnant of the romantic in me (that weak fuzzy feeling). I don’t even know why and I’ve often actively thought on it, and I can’t get far beyond thinking that there is connection, that they are bonds. When I see Hal Duncan in his novel, Vellum, note things like,“Peake sitting at the table at the corner, working away on his notebooks with all the cartoons scribbled in the margins, all the faces with their hidden caricatures of nobs and lackeys;” – I just love that shit.
Same when I read about Matthew Stover’s Caine (read my interview with Stover) reflect on his favorite authors of the 20th century or Brad Meltzer killing me with well-timed, well-placed, definition of simple one liners like the brave and the bold in Identity Crisis.
There is a selflessness in these examples that contrast the selfishness I noted above. While you move forward and evolve as you pass the read on to readers, the homage is a wink in the rearview of all those who were a part of the ride until you explored your own territory. Bridges if you will, connections that enable maps – and who doesn’t like maps?
In my more melancholic moments it isn’t lost on me that the majority of my examples above depict madmen.
Matt Staggs – I tend to be especially aware of issues pertaining to mental illness, especially when it is portrayed pejoratively or inaccurately. While I can’t think of any particular instances, nothing will jar me out of a good story quicker than when an author refers to a schizophrenic character as having “multiple personalities” or writes about a psychologist prescribing medications. Even worse is when writers perpetuate shameful, lurid or hateful images of people living with mental illness.
I am probably more attuned to these issues than other people for several different reasons. I graduated college with a degree in psychology, and eventually worked for over five years in juvenile and adult inpatient psychiatric settings. I’ve worked hand in hand with people dealing with the burden of psychiatric illness, and I know that they’re not monsters: they’re our moms and dads, sisters, brothers, children and friends.
They’re our neighbors and our coworkers. They’re just people. The other reason is that I myself have dealt with psychiatric illness for most of my adult life. I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder years ago, and I know what it’s like to live with a condition that’s absolutely out of your control and the havoc that it can wreak on your life. I also know the stigma associated with mental illness, and it can be very painful. Just admitting that you need help and going out to get it can be embarrassing. Fortunately, I have an excellent support system: a loving wife and family, great friends and very effective medication. These can go a long way, but not everyone is so lucky.
A publicist specializing in book and author publicity, Matt Staggs has worked with science fiction, fantasy and horror authors like Jeff VanderMeer, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Evenson, James Morrow, David Wellington and Nancy A. Kress. In 2008 he launched Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies.
Jetse de Vries – As a reader, I like to (almost) have it all: I want to be entertained, but I want to be made to think, to be challenged mentally, and on top of that I like to be surprised.
Furthermore, I think that SF — the genre I’m most familiar with — is continuously improving and maturing. Where in earlier times SF readers might be forgiving if the prose wasn’t very good, or if the characters were little more than cardboard as long as there was a sharp idea or a strong sense of wonder, I think that modern SF readers are increasingly less forgiving in that aspect.
So a good, modern SF writers needs to get it right — or as good as she/he can get it — on almost all counts: the sense of wonder must be grounded in a convincing setting, the groundbreaking technology must be carried forward by compelling characters, and the paradigmatic shift must be embedded in good prose, or even better, be such an integral part of the story that it makes the reader forget that such a thing as an infodump ever existed.
On top of that, SF should reflect the diversity of the real world, both in its settings and in its use of point-of-view characters: the days that almost all protagonists were male, white, middle class Americans are slowly, if reluctantly, being left behind as the cast of characters increasingly include both genders (or even a mix or variation thereof), a variety of sexual preferences, all races, cultures, classes, religions and nationalities. Ideally, of course, but I think we’re moving there.
Having said that, I do recognise that each writer will have her or his own forte: some will be superb at conveying a sense of place, others will create unforgettable characters, and again others will launch mindblowing concepts, and even others will have deftness with gender roles and power dynamics that few can match. But a writer should not just rely on her/his strengths, but make the complete story a quality experience.
Finally, to be totally honest: I like a strong sense of place, living and breathing characters, challenging looks at cultural commonplaces, and superb prose just as everybody else. But for me all these elements work best if they orchestrate the story to bring forward a conceptual breakthrough (in any area: doesn’t need to be scientific) that gives me a completely new look at the world. That will really blow me off my socks.
Jetse de Vries is a technical specialist for a propulsion company and travels the world for this, albeit it less frequently nowadays because of the time that co-editing Interzone and his writing is taking up. Other publications include Nemonymous, TEL : Stories, the Journal of Pulse-Pounding Narratives, and DeathGrip: Exit Laughing, which makes him a sort of late-labelled, experimental pulpster with a wicked sense of humour, drenched in stylistic excess. And all he really wants to do is write SF…
Ken – This is a very interesting question and one that I’m finding difficult to answer. I believe that at least some of this difficulty is due to the wide variety of books I read (even though I read primarily within the speculative fiction genre). In some books, I find myself so completely immersed in the story that I have little reaction in manor that this question refers to. Other books seemingly intentionally provoke various reactions, and most fall in between.
I’ve definitely noticed as I mature in my adult life and appreciate the struggles of my wife and other friends that I am increasingly sensitive to various bias such gender, sexual, racial, etc. A seemingly harmless ‘gay joke’ or the often unrealized derogatory treatment of women raises negative flags in my mind.
It’s rare, but as a geologist, I do react to any portrayal of geology and related sciences in books where it is present. Usually my reaction in somewhere on the spectrum of ‘cool, (s)he talked about geology’ to ‘that is totally wrong’.
Another common reaction when reading is based very much on my personality – I almost naturally become a devil’s advocate in any conversation and I naturally search out the exceptions to any rule and find the most mundane inconsistencies or inaccuracies in an argument. It drives my wife absolutely crazy. So, I often find myself treating books that I read with same scrutiny, but as I indicated at the beginning of my response, a well-written book can immerse me so fully in the created world that I move beyond that sort of reaction.
Ken is a thirty something fan of SFF who has continual problems with his identity, most notably by having two screen names at this site – Neth and kcf (neither being particularly interesting nor original) – and enjoys bucking the trend of using his actual name. His day job is that of an engineering geologist working in Tempe, Arizona, but his alter ego is an active blogger at Neth Space and frequent poster at several genre-related message boards. It is important to note that Ken has absolutely no qualification to review books beyond a love of reading and a rudimentary ability to write.
Samantha Henderson – I often find myself paying attention to gender in my reading, and more often to place when I am familiar with the place (which sometimes makes me seek fiction set in places I don’t know — I was reading a perfectly good mystery that included a hotel in Hollywood that’s a flophouse, and in the story was a very nice hotel and it send me straight out of the story). One thing I’ve always noticed why reading, however, is whether I can sense the author themselves past their curtain of words. Usually this is a negative: I imagine the author picking and choosing their phrases, and it makes the experience artificial for me. But sometimes, rarely, I am aware of the manipulating scenes and pulling levers and it’s done so well it does work — Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell come to mind. Mostly being aware of the author is like being aware of my tongue, as Linus says. And now I’m aware of it. Yikes!
Samantha Henderson’s fiction and poetry has been published in Realms of Fantasy, Chizine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, and Lone Star Stories. Her first novel, Heaven’s Bones, was released in September 2008 by Wizards of the Coast.
Rob (Val) – Interesting question, a variation of which is usually on my mind when I write a review. I’m going to narrow it down to my educational background otherwise my reply will be a novel. I studied environmental sciences for a total of 8 years and hold a degree in it. During these eight years I was exposed to a wide variety of subjects. Anything from end-of-pipe techniques and soil remediation to ecology, environmental policy and environmental economics. As with any proper education this changed the way I look at the world dramatically. Once it is pointed out to you the enormous impact our species has on the environment is inescapable. I find myself constantly thinking on why a certain place looks the way it does and what our part in it is (a fairly depressing habit, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone).
In 1996 I traveled to the US for a vacation. The flight to Los Angeles took me over some of the most arid parts of the US. Once in a while you could clearly spot a bright green lawn or golf course below though. I clearly remember feeling the urge to go down and slap some people silly for the kind of selfish behaviour that my well turn large parts of the American south-west uninhabitable in the not too distant future. My 2004 visit to the same region resulted in a similar reaction. So when I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s story The Tamarisk Hunter in the collection Pump Six and Other Stories it hit home for me. The Tamarisk Hunter is not the best story in the collection, but even in a collection that contains several excellent environmentally themed stories it stood out to me.
My education influenced what I read and what I like considerably. In my opinion Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is some of the finest science fiction ever written. Robinson’s vision of colonizing Mars goes far beyond the environmental aspects of it of course but the conflict between Reds and Greens, or between the characters of Ann Clayborne and Sax Russell, is a large part of why I like these novels so much. Ann’s character takes it to extremes of course but I recognize a lot in the way she sees human influence on the pristine Martian surface everywhere (even if I don’t dread it like she does). The final synthesis between these two currents make for a satisfying end of the trilogy.
In various novels Frank Herbert takes an other look at the environment. He sees is as a force shaping human society and evolution. In The Dosadi Experiment, extreme environmental pressures lead to the development of a dangerous kind of (mostly) human society. The completely survival driven ethics of this society poses an threat to the wider universe. The way Herbert squeezes a number of highly complex ideas into a relatively short novel make it quite inaccessible. Despite that I think this book beats even his masterwork Dune. Dune contains another variation on the environmental pressure theme of course. In this book he creates a society obsessed by water because of it’s apparent absence on the planet. In Dune Herbert packages his ecology in a classic Messiah story. Perhaps that makes it more accessible. Herbert books are full of well thought through references to ecology and environmental issues. It is part of why he is one of my favourite authors.
My perspective on the world can work the other way too though. Nothing annoys me more in a fantasy or science fiction novel what an author introducing large numbers of lethal predators without any means to sustain such populations. In his book Monster of God, we’re talking non-fiction now, author David Quammen, ask himself the question why the food chain stops where it does, or in other terms, why there is no predator that hunts tigers. The answer to that question ought to be required reading for any writer who’s novels require serious world-building.
Quammen is very good at explaining ecological concepts in terms anyone can understand. My suspense of disbelief abruptly ends reading scenes that violate these concepts. It’s why I never could get into stories like King Kong (insular gigantism my ass) or horror stories that feature all kinds of unlikely monsters.
Call it professional deformation if you will. My education determines for a large part what read an probably for an even larger part what I like. It’s so much part of me that I can’t switch it off to enjoy watching Jaws or read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (you ought to read that book keeping the Victorian cultural framework in mind, it works that way). I can on the other hand loose myself completely in The Forever Hero by L.E. Modesitt Jr., a story partly set on a post-apocalyptic, environmentally degraded earth.
I try not to let is surface too much in my reviews, a lot of these things would be completely irrelevant to someone who doesn’t share my background in environmental sciences, but there is no denying it’s influence on my tastes and preferences.
Rob/Val is an obsessive reader and frequent contributor to Bookspot Central with the bad habit of telling other people about the books he reads.
Tobias Buckell – When I’m reading I tend to enjoy world-building the most. Some of my favorite novels include wild settings that the characters then navigate, and there are often novels that are well written but with familiar tropes/worlds that I get bored with easily because that sense of ‘newness’ and exploration don’t strike me.
Some of my favorite novels, as a result, are Dune, Rendezvous With Rama, The Integral Trees, Eon, and more recently Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder, and Memory, by Linda Nagata, a book that I really wish had gotten more attention because its just so full of awesome.
I also tend to like first books of series more than their follow ups due to this inclination, as often a new place to explore doesn’t get trotted out in the next book.
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the US, and the British Virgin Islands. He now lives (through many strange twists of fate) in a small college town in Ohio with his wife, Emily. Buckell was a first place winner for the Writers of the Future, and has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Nebula Award. He is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop.
Peter Rios – I blame my entire reading experience – be it comics, novels, fiction, non-fiction, cook books or Chick Tracts – on Clifford the Big Red Dog, Greek Mythology, Super Fudge and Richie Rich.
I’ve learned over the years from my family that I was constantly reading as a kid. My older sister is seven years older than me. My younger sister is seven years younger than me. For the longest time, I was the middle child of five kids (before my youngest sister was born putting my family at six siblings). So this created a sort of emptiness around me as to sharing hobbies, playtime, etc. with any of my siblings. So I had to make my own entertainment. And that was reading.
My strongest memories include reading Clifford the Big Red Dog and readily accepting the situation of a giant red dog given in those wonderful short stories followed by my discovery of Greek Mythology in an elementary school library. There was a beautiful big red (!) book on the subject full of what seemed to be color-penciled drawings of the various Greek heroes, legends, monsters and more. This was not a children’s readers version, this had all the decapitations, all the baby-swallowing, all the death and misery that comes with the mythology.
And I loved every minute of it. On the inside cover, there was a family tree illustrated with various faces of all the characters to be found in the main portion of the book, spotlight the various connections and the ins and outs of everyone from the highest god to the lowest demon. It fascinated me to know that everything was or could be connected in some way or another. I enjoyed those secrets and the development of this magical history that helped to shape beliefs. The hero story unfolded in front of my eyes and I found that I enjoyed this storytelling.
Next came Judy Blume’s Super Fudge followed by comics, particularly Richie Rich comics. With Super Fudge, it was all about imagination, Fudge’s older brother named Peter, watching Superman the Movie and the odd bits of the story that seemed to echo my own life in one way or another especially the idea of embracing your heroes and family.
And it was my older uncle who dropped in my hands a whole box of comics. I had been reading Richie Rich up to that point, so they definitely taught me how to “read” and accept comics as entertainment. And with the first group of super-hero comics from my uncle, it was all downhill from there.
So is it any wonder that when I read any work – illustrated or not – that I look for connections. Connections with my own life experiences, connections within the story, connections to other stories. I enjoy seeing how and why things relate, how they inform what I already know and why it all reveals a bigger picture.
This isn’t a blanket exercise in seeing what isn’t there, it’s being wowed when those connections do appear and enjoying learning how authors are inspired, how stories continue to inspire and how the cycle keeps going like a giant family tree.
For example, in super-hero comics, I find that they are very similar to Greek Mythology in that comics seem to create their own mythology full of heroes, villains, family connections, etc. Super-hero comics are full of continuity and threads that connect and it helps to develop the larger world in a very puzzle like way. Sometimes the pieces fit, sometimes they don’t, but it’s great to keep working at it.
And with the advent of novelists coming into comics, it’s interesting to see their approaches filter through the comics medium and try and change it, push it, give it a new voice. It can frustrate some of the more strict comic readers, but for me, it just opens the medium and introduces me to new voices to follow.
It’s the challenge. The challenge to see a bigger picture when it’s available. A chance to understand where fiction comes from, where it’s at now, and speculating on its future.
That’s how I read. I accept big red animals, I worship pantheons and I have the imagination of a Fourth Grade Nothing, all of which leaves me as rich as the richest boy in the world.
Peter Rios is the Co-Host and Producer of the Comic Geek Speak podcast
Cherie Priest – I absolutely love it when a story refuses to apologize for being what it is — and when it is willing to take itself seriously, despite a possibly hokey, obvious, or overdone premise. I have a real weakness for tales like these, whether you’re talking about superheroes, monster stories, or any other trope at which people tend to roll their eyes. T wo of my more recent favorites are World War Z by Max Brooks, and Fangland by John Marks.
World War Z is a documentary-style mosaic of assorted narratives, collecting individual stories of survival in the wake of a zombie uprising that covers and threatens the globe. With such a set-up you’d expect a corny adventure told in primary colors, but that’s not at all what you get; instead, WWZ is an earnest and sometimes heart-wrenching look at disaster, social dynamics, and politics.
It’s got action, sure — and it’s got plenty of wild science and weird violence, but at the core it’s a serious story about people that’s told with hope, planning, and a very straight face. I loved the dichotomy of it — the wacky premise and the rich, thoughtful treatment.
Fangland is a postmodern retelling of Dracula, as presented through the prism of a 60 Minutes-type newsroom and its employees. I’ll grant you, I’ve been disillusioned with most of the Dracula re-dos and updates, but I took a chance on this one and I’m very glad I did so. Fangland takes the beaten-into-the-ground trope of, “Ooh, we’re going to give the count a modern makeover” and turns it into something genuinely modern, but genuinely dense and cool. The archetypes are a little bit shuffled and the setting is all new, but somehow it works — and this Victorian story set against 21st century backdrop succeeds because it’s told with such intense authenticity.
Cherie Priest is the author of Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, and Not Flesh Nor Feathers from Tor Books, plus two titles for Subterranean Press–Dreadful Skin and Those Who Went Remain There Still (forthcoming). She has three more novels in the works, a gothic fantasy called Fathom (Tor, winter 2008) and two steampunk novels, Boneshaker (Tor, 2009) and Clementine (Subterranean, 2009).
Jason Wood – As someone who considers himself a voracious reader, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about my own process; or how that might differ from others. I will say that, when reading fiction, I have a great propensity to read works by authors I’m already familiar with. That is to say if I try a new author and the work resonates, I’m quite likely to read their entire catalog shortly thereafter. Whether that’s indicative of some measure of obsessive compulsiveness or more about the comfort of already knowing what I’m getting into remains unanswered. It’s probably a little of both.
One driving force behind my ability to enjoy a work is the insistence of logic. By my nature, and my profession, logical analysis and rational reactions to said analysis are core to my being. As a result, I’m always finding myself assessing the logic of a character’s actions. My enjoyment of a work is tied to whether I think the people are acting logically. Yet, not by how I would act in that situation, but rather whether I feel they are being true to how THEY should act in my mind.
Circling back to the notion of reading multiple works by the same author, I much prefer reading works of fiction that continue to build on the characters in future volumes. Whether it be a series of detective mysteries, or my favorite comic books, or classic mythology, I LOVE reading further adventures surrounding similar people and settings. Nothing is worse than to have thoroughly enjoyed a work only to realize that it’s the last I’ll read of those characters or places. To that end, when I’m looking for new authors to try, I’m much more inclined to pick up a work that I know is already several volumes long and/or I know the author intends to continue the stories.
One last point to make, I’m prone to re-reading my most loved works. Whether it be Stephen King’s The Stand or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series or Eco’s Foucalt’s Pendulum or Melville’s Moby Dick, I have read and re-read and will no doubt re-read again these works countless times. There is no particularly rhyme or reason, although I suspect it’s at least subconsciously driven by a need to reconnect with a work I love after several books that I necessarily didn’t connect with. Almost a mental refresh of just how good fiction can be after a few clunkers.
Jason B. Wood is a portfolio manager by trade, but is also a passionate advocate for social media. His blog, The Ponderings of Woodrow, is an analytical and reflexive look at the economic, financial and technological developments that impact our society. A voracious reader, Jason has been collecting and reading comic books for the better part of three decades and co-hosts a comics-related podcast, 11 O’Clock Comics, with three of his friends each week.
Ben Parzybok – I would imagine that much of the time people do not realize that they’re looking at things through a specific lens of perception/understanding. I’m male and white, and so certainly that impacts how I read in ways I will probably never fully grasp. I’ve also traveled a fair amount and lived overseas for enough time that I hope that that the thickness of that lens is somewhat diminished. I grew up poor – I remember one Christmas a box of food was left anonymously outside our door and the bounty in that box – cheerios! fruit leather! – was just astounding and brought my father to tears. And so certainly this also a lens I have on. Another lens that is ingrained into my personality is that I’m a westerner. I grew up in what I consider to be the real West, the West of our mythology. (in Spokane, but also bouncing between small towns in Idaho and Montana) A West outside of the bigger cities, where there’s a tremendous amount of land and a fierce sense of independence. A sense that if things don’t work out – then you pick up your caravan and move on. A sense of pushing outward at the frontier. You get this some in the cities – I live in Portland, now, and while certainly there’s a deep westernness and a weird individualism (in the best sense) in this city, there’s also the deeper vein of tolerance and community that is inherent to cities.
These are the lenses that are ingrained in me via my environment and things outside of my control. Personally I have a different set of lenses that I apply because of who I’ve become. I often skip descriptions of things. I’m rarely interested in landscape or objects – I read for the emotional plot line, listening to body language and tone of voice. This is certainly something I want to keep working on in my own work. I also love to read for fractal-like metaphors. One of my favorite writers, Murakami, seems to do this a lot: The main character may be making spaghetti, which is a metaphor for the man’s life, which is a metaphor for a period of history, and so on, and in each case the metaphor is a broader, larger replica of the original. I love when meaning telescopes out like this, whether its intended by the author or fabricated by my own brain.
Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the recently published Couch.
Damon Casporaso – I took the question and interpreted it in my own way, who would have thought. I have a bias in breaking the immersion factor of a world by referencing things in our own world. That includes, books or plays at the beginning of a chapter, a quote from someone of our world, or even using slang that comes from our language. All of these remind me that I am not in the world of the author, but rather just reading a book. One can assume that since I use my reading time to relax and remove myself from the cares of this world is why this is an issue for me.
Another thing that I enjoy is a high magic world and it is probably related to that want to escape into the book. I remember being a little kid and reading the Dungeon Masters Guide as well as the Players Handbook just to look at the cool magic items and spells. This could also be tied into the fact that none of my friends or myself ever played a session of D&D so all I had to go on was reading fantasy to quench that thirst along with reading the manuals to the game.
Another issue I used to have was reading a fantasy book where it took place on Earth, just an Earth that had magic woven through it. After reading the Harry Potter books though I think I was broken of that. While I would rather read something in an author built world, I do not turn my nose up at stories that take place on Earth anymore, either part time or full time.
I also really enjoy a story with some sort of love interest, I will really put myself out there and tell you why. I was the victim of a broken heart many a times (by the same girl) in junior high and high school. For some reason this makes me really want to see that movie/book type love story work itself out. Call me soft, but. . .ok, just call me soft.
Violence does not seem to be an issue for me to read, or about sexual acts, but I am a guy should they be? I do not do gory though. I always thought growing up I would have been a doctor, that is until I found out that I can not even watch the television when they are doing surgery, or when I almost passed out in biology class. Take your pick. Also on the same thought, I do not do scary either. I have seen maybe 2 horror films in my life and go out of my way to avoid them whenever possible. Especially true life horror, like things that are not supernatural. No thank you. Maybe it had to do with me living with ghosts, ok maybe not (I do not believe in ghosts), or maybe it just had to do with me being a wuss, who knows.
Damon is an owner and contributor at BookSpotCentral.com
Karen Miller – Reginald Hill. I remember a few years ago I was sick in bed, reading one of his novels — I believe it was Deadheads — and some particular turn of phrase he used had me sitting bolt up right feeling such a visceral pleasure from his magnificent use of words. Alas, I really was quite ill, so I don’t remember the particular phrase that so delighted me. I guess you’ll just have to read him! One phrase that is stuck in my brain forever, in a good way, comes from Ricardo Pinto’s fantasy novel The Chosen, one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve ever read. ‘He was a needle, darning in and out of sleep.’ Man, I wish I ‘d written that.
Do you know what one of the greatest tests of grand language is? Being a prompt in the theater. As a prompt, you’re glued to a playscript and you hear it over and over and over and over. Sometimes it’s an agony. Sometimes you think, if I have to hear these words one more my time my ears are going to bleed. I won’t say which play that was. But sometimes you can slowly fall in love with a story that way — I’m thinking of Pinter’s Homecoming. And then there are times when the work is so perfect that you can’t possibly hear it too many times. Peter Shaeffer’s Amadeus is that play for me.
Truthfully, I can’t tell you why these elements of fiction are so important to me. All I know is that when I’m with friends talking story, I remember the people, I remember their laughter and their tears, and I remember the wonderful ways they expressed themselves.
Karen Miller is the author of the bestselling fantasy duology Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, the fantasy trilogy Godspeaker, and the bestselling tie-in novels Stargate SG-1: Alliances and Stargate SG-1: Do No Harm. last year she wrote Wild Space a Star Wars: Clone Wars novel. Writing as K.E. Mills she is the author of the Rogue Agent series.
Matt Denault – One aspect of fiction that I tend to focus on and appreciate is the sense of play intrinsic to the very unreality of fiction, the delight in human imagination that comes from knowing participation in the creation of a fictional story (in my case, via completing the loop of the story’s creation as a reader and occasional reviewer).
On a large scale, that of story groups and genres, this is part of why I enjoy fantastic and speculative fiction, which make no bones about their unreality; it is part of why I enjoy meta-fiction, stories about the creation of story; it’s part of why I enjoy postmodern fiction, which suggests that all we have are stories. I don’t read fiction because I expect it to be “realistic,” as that word is usually understood; that’s what journalism is for. Rather, I read fiction because I expect it to be true to our unique and marvelous human need to imagine and share stories.
At the level of individual stories, my focus on the joy of imagining leads me to enjoy those works that make evident that an author is at play; for example, those that feel structured and architected to set up interesting or unusual themes, conflicts, and dramatic situations. However grim and dour the story situation may be — or however complicated the choice between multiple positive possibilities — we can tell that the author enjoyed imagining it and bringing it about in the story.
Similarly, I enjoy a strong sense of narrative presence, unreliable or otherwise, that makes plain that a story is being told. This appreciation is also part of why I enjoy elements of prose such as simile and metaphor: these encapsulate the essence of story, how saying that one thing is something else, or is two things at once, can be (or seem) impossible, and yet be true and revelatory in their wondrous connections. Somewhat more prosaically, my appreciation for the sense of play intrinsic to story leads me to appreciate stories that include scenes of play, of games and fun, or that incorporate puzzles for the reader.
These are some of the elements of story that delight me when I encounter them, yet often I see many of them called pretentious, elitist, or simply unrealistic. Allow me to suggest an alternate interpretation: they are there to evoke delight, to be enjoyed, and to communicate a sense of hope in people’s ability to imagine
Matt Denault has reviewed SF&F for BookSpotCentral, and Strange Horizons