I am here entirely by choice (blogging, I mean — I don’t wish to give the impression that I summoned myself into existence through an act of will), because I love books, and I love writing, reading, and talking about books. But sometimes that gets tested.
I post on this blog three times a week — again, entirely of my own volition — and in order to maintain that I typically need to read three books a week (what Kate would call “not really trying”) on top of working full time and doing all the household things that keep real life ticking over. Occasionally — very occasionally — I may even try to socialise. And to keep all these plates on the spin — boo-hoo, poor me, etc. — one of things I don’t have time for is a book I’m simply not enjoying. Case in point, I had planned to write about a particular novel today…but after reading the first two chapters I put it down for a day, then came back to it and struggled through the next two chapters, then left it for another day, eventually committed to finishing it on Wednesday and…haven’t. At the point of giving up on it, I was maybe 40 pages in and, since I rarely get far enough ahead of myself to have something in reserve, I don’t have anything else to post on today.
And, hey, I’m doing this by choice, so I very nearly wasn’t going to post anything today — both of you would cope, I’m sure — but then I got to thinking.
It’s not exactly unheard of for me to give up on a book, I’d say it happens maybe 15 times in a given year, but that’s a less than 10% rejection rate. True, I don’t love every book that I do finish, but I enjoy most of them and, the odd misgiving here and there aside, I’m happy that GAD and surrounds is the genre for me. But then…how do we really know that the genres or styles we settle in are the right ones? The sweeping, epic romance of Lucinda Riley might be for me, after all, yet I’m pretty happy not even attempting one of her tomes, despite never having read a single epic, sweeping romance (brace yourselves, I’ve not even seen Gone with the Wind (1940)). In short: How do you decide what to read?
I ask this of a community that probably has a pretty good idea of the sort of thing it likes to read — you’re on my blog reading about my reading, after all — and obviously there are various levels to this, all of them deeply personal and individual. But I suppose for me it breaks down in the following ways, and I was interested to see if this resonated with anyone else. So, from the broadest on down, I suppose to give this a pithy title I’d call it…
Essentially, the set of factors that result in you not even picking up a book to begin with. There are millions of books you’ll never read because of whatever selection bias and preference you have in your own reading.
a. Experiential Bias
The simplest of these is simply having no interest in the genre because it sounds so completely unlike your kind of thing — Bigfoot Erotica, say, or Here’s A Book That Will Definitely* Make You Rich/Popular/Better If You Do What It Says (* – Your Definition of ‘Definitely’ May Not Match That of the Author, Publisher, or Parent Corporation, and They Cannot Be Held Responsible If This Books Does Not Make You Rich/Popular/Better, and Hey You Were Probably not Following the Instructions Properly Anyway). Some people simply swear off fiction, or anything with “The Girl in the…” in its title. Aspects of reactionary publishing dissuade many of us the world over from picking up this kind of thing every day. Life, after all, lasts only so long.
This decision is typically based on your own broad life experience and choices. I have no desire to be More Popular because that would leave even less time for reading, and Bigfoot Erotica is…something I’ll take a risk on by avoiding. Maybe it’s what’s been missing from my life, but my understanding of what that combination of words promises leads my to highly suspect that it’s not.
b. Genre Bias
Slightly more specific than the above, because this requires you, dear reader, to have actually read the genre in the first place — so it’s usually a result of direct experience rather than impressions. At school, I read almost anything I could lay my hands on — from Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding to One, Two, Three…Infinity (1947) by George Gamow — and gradually established what was and wasn’t to my taste; I developed a lifelong love of George Orwell and a lifelong aversion to Tami Hoag. Part of this was subject matter, part of it was a recognition of what I enjoyed stylistically, part of it was a simple impatience with stories in which it takes a long time for very little to happen.
As a rule of thumb, I found that ‘real world’ events appealed to me more than Fantasy, and that generally there was a point in time (c. 12th May 1840) before which I found written English to be tedious and laborious and after which I at least found it bearable, and then frankly enjoyable….and then unbearable again Consequently, there’s a sort of Goldilocks Zone of dates where I’m now convinced I’ll find the best results for my tastes.
b.i Subgenre Bias
Once you experience a genre and get used to its foibles, divisions, and frank mendacity — “If you love Agatha Christie…try Ed McBain!” — you lean that, for example, the intelligent speculation of Arthur C. Clarke is more your cup of tea than the philosophy lessons of Robert A. Heinlein. In crime fiction I was initially drawn to the catchy prose and stylistic gewgaws of contemporary US writers, but now I find myself hankering after detection more than anything…except when I don’t. Tell me something has a strong seam of HIBK or Domestic Suspense and I’ll more than likely pass. Work in a complicated colour-based magic system, however, and I’m all for it so long as we know the rules and so can invest in the stakes.
Subgenre is where it starts to get tricky. I found that certain works that crossover between reality and Fantasy — Neverwhere (1996) by Neil Gaiman, say — are utterly delightful, containing the best of both (ahem) worlds, and yet as soon as we begin to lean too much one way — American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman, say — my interest evaporates PDQ. I imagine this is where most people get caught out, expecting one type of book and getting another. Sometimes you can adjust your expectations and enjoy it regardless, and others it’s simply a barrier too high to pass.
b.i) §a: Author Bias
Let’s face it, we all have an author we’ll never pick up again. They’re in your sub-sub-subgenre, but they simply don’t work for you despite the tintinnabulations of praise ringing out from all those around you. Every so often you weaken, pick one of their books up, read half a page, get disgusted with something, and put the book down, to repeat the process in another eight months (this is me with The Lord of the Rings). Any recommendation that involves a comparison to them puts you on your guard, and comparison to them leaves you feeling irrationally angry. I once read a book I hated that had a quote on the cover from another author essentially saying “Wow, I wish I was as good as this” — and I’ll read neither of them now.
Don’t fret, you’re among friends. As I read somewhere recently, your brain is organic matter with electricity running through it — of course it’s going to be react weirdly to certain stimuli. Take a breath, think about an author whose work you love…there, isn’t that better?
“Wow, you really did think about this, hey?”
b.i) §a: i) Moral Stances
Independent of the quality of the prose or the clarity of the argument put forth, sometimes the action of the author, actor, director, etc. might dissuade you for their real life actions. The sock-puppeting scandals surrounding the likes of Stephen Leather and R.J. Ellroy put me off ever reading their books. In light of the private behaviour of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roman Polanski, people are increasingly unwilling to support their films.
This isn’t me getting all political — I still remember the devastation cause in my life by one guy unfollowing me on Twitter because I bought a book by Jess Philips, and I’m not willing to risk that much upheaval again — but it’s a reason some people don’t do, read, see, listen to, or endorse a thing and so worth mentioning.
b.ii Format Bias
Poetry remains a nightmare for me. I have read three translations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, won’t hear a word against Emily Dickinson, and find the work of Charles Simic to be muscular, relevant, and wonderful. Yet the less said about most modern blank verse the better. Give me something epic and gloomy — The City of Dreadful Night (1874) by James Thomson, say — and you wouldn’t see me for a week if I could afford the time. This is true of other media, too, as well as books: most people blanch at the idea of “classical music” or run a mile at the prospect of an “open mic” or “interpretative theatre”. Attached the words “Jeremy Clarkson” to anything to watch my interest in it die faster than my willingness to come up with a witty metaphor here.
This is often the result of a sort of received wisdom, but equally some experience is, one hopes, to be counted on if there’s a legitimate objection. The same sort of thinking sees people avoiding horror movies or, at the risk of repeating myself, Adam Sandler movies. It’s essentially genre bias, but with a narrower focus. I think.
c. Cultural Bias
With apologies to the Scandinavians amongst you, I offer the following example: I don’t want to read about alcoholic, depressed, divorced, overweight, miserable, law-breaking, firebrand, depressed, alienated, alcoholic, depressed policemen solving depressing crimes involving Nazi paedophiles or sexual abuse suffered under the auspices of religious or business organisation. You write a lot of (though, no, not exclusively) that. It doesn’t interest me. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than an “As [adjective] as Jo Nesbø” comparison or a (heaven forfend) “Sjowall and Wahlöö reborn” one. There are plenty of other examples I could cite, but you get the idea, I hope.
Equally, no culture has ever produced hardcore Punk music quite like Scandinavia, and equally I’ll avoid the brattish, whiny American attempts at this and dive head first into anything Swedish in the genre at a moment’s notice. In much the same way that we’re all learning about the wild French approach to GAD, sometimes a specific place and, extending on the above, time produces something that simply really does or really does not appeal.
c.i Cultural Condescension
The rise of the popularity of any genre sees a commensurate rise in the, for want of a better word, parodying of that genre. Look at the three satirical versions of The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown, or the ever-popular Twop Twips Twitter account that sprang up in the wake of Condescending Celebrity Advice guides. With fiction, especially genre fiction where there are a series of “rules” for “squares” to follow, there’s a good chance some firebrand with genius insight into the falsity of such arcane constructs is going to sweep ion on their charger of Truth and show up anyone who likes That Sort of Thing to be, y’know, wrong or something. My understanding is that Gilbert Adair tried this, as did Larry Morse under the pseudonym ‘Runa Fairleigh’.
Fine, go for your life, but don’t expect me to give over my money and time to be told what a prick I am for loving something that causes no harm. This snarky division of ourselves into the damned and the saved is one of the cultural tendencies I’ll never understand.
c.i) §a: Earnest Cloth-Eared, Ham-Handed Bullshit Bias
Just Google “white saviour story” — it’ll save time. Actually, Seth Meyers(‘ writers) did a pretty good job with it here. The only thing less appealing than being told how silly and easily-dismissed your joy looks to others is being earnestly told everything you already know about it as if it’s profound to do so.
See also: musicians going “edgy” as they “discover a new sound” (or, worse, turning into Coldplay) and authors churning out Dan Brownalikes as a way of “expanding their range”. Artists gotta eat, sure, but the po-faced solemnity with which this is done kinda kills me.
“Are you still writing?!”
Now, of course, what got me started on this was having still exhibited all these preferences and yet giving up on a book I’d already started. I even started writing a whole second section about exactly that, but it’s gonna take some work and, frankly, you probably have things to be doing. But…does any of the above ring true for anyone? I didn’t realise how much I thought about this kind of thing until I started writing it, so please feel free to point out all the things I’ve forgotten.
Back to criminous deeds on Tuesday, I promise.