Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Which I Babble for a While About Literary Merit

I'm a sucker for lists. Almost any kind of list. I am a list maker and lists bring some sort of order to the chaos around me. One of my favorite kind of lists is the "Books Everyone Should Read," lists. There are a million. Libraries have them, newspapers have them. The BBC has one, which is sort of confounding.

I love to read these lists and tick off what I have read. 55 out of this 100, 16 out of this 100, 84 out of that 100. They all seem to have 100.

What I don't do is use them as a "to read" list. Why? Because I don't want to.

Here's the thing: I love good writing. I love literature. I love deep meaning and beautiful prose. I also love trash. And I don't read to make myself a better person or to measure up to some ideal constructed by a TV station or a newspaper. I read for two reasons: to become a better writer and to become a happier person.

Reading to become a better writer is, I think, a tricky proposition. It puts you in the corner of wanting to read things that will make you a better writer. I'm not talking about books about writing, although I do like those, but fiction. But I would posit that every word you read makes you a better writer.

The good stuff shows you how to be good and pushes you to be better, true. But sometimes it's the bad stuff that makes you really think. Think about how you could have done it better. Think about what it failed to do. Think about why it didn't work. The stuff that's similar to what you want to write can help you zero in on a voice or a character, show you what works with an audience and what doesn't. But reading something completely unlike what you write can inspire you to mix it up in a way that's never been done before, or show you a technique that would really improve what you're doing.

So, if you're trying to read to be a better writer, the best advice I* would have is to just read anything and everything. And if you are going to read anything and everything, with the understanding that even the fastest reader, reading full time wouldn't be able to keep up with current publication rates, let alone read everything that's already been written, then how do you narrow it down?

Point the second: read what makes you happy. Here is a list of what makes me happy in no particular order:

  • Magic
  • Fairies - preferably kind of mean and tricksy ones
  • Space
  • Dystopian futures
  • Plucky girl protagonists
  • Cuss words
  • Kisses - good, deep and passionate kisses
  • Zombies
  • Terrifying technological advances
  • Questions of faith in the face of an alien world
  • Characters to hate and characters to love
  • Evil
  • Totally real things that I've never heard of before and look up on Google
Now obviously, no story should have all of these things. Space fairies in the dystopian future fighting zombies while questioning their fairy-faith would be a terrible book. But these are the things that make me happy.

And I know what doesn't make me happy:
  • A bunch of characters I don't care about at all
  • Romance
  • Sappy, whiny girl protagonists
  • Too much sex
  • A lack of sex where there should clearly be sex
  • Futures that look pretty much just like the present
  • Long explanations of things that most people already understand
And I'll admit that you can't take the top list and check off a couple of things and guarantee I'll like it. I have read some truly horrible zombie books. And I have read books that would fall into the bottom list that I actually kind of liked. 

I guess what I want to get at, but am not doing a very good job of, is that a lot of people seem to look at books like food. And what you really want is a balanced diet. It's fine to read the literary equivalent of a Snickers bar once in a while, but most of your diet should come be literary brussell sprouts. 

And what I think is that's a terrible analogy. Because books are like food. And you shouldn't eat steamed broccoli just because it's good for you if you hate it. There's a whole culinary world out there and you can find the same nutrients in a way that makes you happy. Maybe you'd even like broccoli under the right circumstances. 

If you don't like a book, put it down and read something else. Read everything and anything. Read the bad, the good, the trash and the classics. Read silly things and things with great reviews. Read what's written for you and what's written for a completely different audience. Read whatever makes you tick. Because there's no sense in forcing down something you hate when there's so much out there to love. 


Meesh said...

And because I should add to your list of books (not that you should listen to me but really! listen to me! I am the voice of the interwebzzzzzz!)

The Honor Harrington series by David Weber is the best space opera series I have ever read. It. Is. Fantastic.

And they are turning one of the books into a movie and will likely screw it up and irritate me to no end.

Seriously, read the series. It's long and involved and fantastic.

Jessi said...

I love book recommendations, though! I will definitely look into it. :)