You know, writing something that is worth reading takes a long time. Maybe not for you, but for me I need at least a month to clear a comma from a lengthy prepositional phrase. I don’t want to just throw words out into the pixelverse. I want to write something that someone else might understand and maybe even appreciate.
In the meantime, I’ll scribble out this or scrawl out that – writing replies or replying to someone else’s queries. Some of these things echo what I’d like to say if I had the time to sit around and do what writers are supposed to do – and nothing else.
A writer friend for many years is getting back into the harness, sold a nonfiction piece and a short story to one of the pro-zines recently, has been asking me for advice – on particular stories and the field in general. He also read one of my recent book review columns for Galaxy’s Edge magazine (Am I a book reviewer? I am now. That doesn’t mean I’m a book critic or a scholar or a literary essayist. Circumstance has so far spared me from those fates). But he decided, since I was there and convenient to ask: “Is there something missing in my apprehension, something that will block my progress as a writer, if I simply cannot fathom some of the works of the so-called greats in the literary sf field?” He continues, I am willing to give PK Dick another try. But honestly, I have tried Le Guin, Delaney, Russ, others, and in each case I cannot go more than a few pages before putting the book aside, confused and irritated.”
He went on to describe a recent encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where he got halfway through before giving up “in despair.” He liked the TV adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven, though, and thought maybe he should try again with that.
I replied that maybe he should. I think The Lathe of Heaven is still a favorite of mine (except on those days when The Left Hand of Darkness takes over). I also admitted that at times I find The Dispossessed a little too ponderous for me, but let’s not pursue that any further now, since I know many who consider it a masterpiece and love it dearly. It’s a great book no matter how I might stumble through it. The fault is all mine.
But my friend asked an honest question, so I tried to answer as honestly as I could:
That there’s so many books in the field of science fiction that we don’t want to read is part of the beauty of the form. Authors can write in so many ways, incorporate so many styles and techniques, and it’s still science fiction. To speak briefly of other “difficult” writers, I don’t think any other literary category, except perhaps fantasy (however one defines the boundaries of that field), contains the equivalent of Delany’s Dhalgren, or Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or Lafferty’s Past Master, or Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise. Etc., etc., etc.
Science fiction is a coat of many colors, but we don’t have to like every shade of them.
Sf has had its crews of cultural movers and shakers over the years. … I try not to judge books by critics. A book review is a creative response to a book by one person. Often, I'll like a book lauded by a reviewer – but not for the same reasons.
Reviews and awards, at times, are a way for a culture to, consciously or unconsciously, try to impose a uniformity upon literature. Some might see it as “quality control,” and that’s fine. I’ve nothing against quality control (depending upon the qualities being, or not being, controlled), But in general, I don’t think much of uniformity – and neither does literature (in the widest sense of the term, without the capital L). Literature, in the widest sense, is bigger than that. It’s bigger than everything – almost. If we can read what we love and love what we read, the literary world would be a whole lot better off.
And any time I feel like I’m being forced to read a book – either in school, by compulsion, or through the influence of peers and “betters,” it distracts from any enjoyment I may receive from the task, if enjoyment is to be found there at all.
I want to meet the book on its own terms, and not the terms as defined by its supporters or detractors. Exceptions granted. But the whole notion of having books shoved into my face doesn’t help me figure out what I do or do not enjoy or what I value in my reading.
So, I wouldn't worry too much about what one “should” read in the field over what one wants to read.
If any of those highly-touted books keep calling to you, you’ll get to them, when the time is right. And if you don’t care for them, the “Lit Police” can’t take you away. They have no tin badges. They have no authority. Reading should be an exploration and an adventure, but it should probably contain equal measures of the familiar and the uncharted.
The best thing about books is that you can open them and go nearly anywhere.
The second best thing about books is that you can also close them and put them back on the shelf, whispering, “Not this one. Not now. Maybe not ever.” If reading can’t be an exercise in freedom, what’s the bloody point?
And … Speaking of freedom, have a wonderful Fourth.