Fantasy Friday – I’m Not Buying It

DunCowcoverI’m not actually writing this post about a particular book–it’s more about an idea.

There are a collection of authors who are on a number of bloggers and readers and journals “must read” lists. For fans or writers of speculative fiction that list undoubtedly includes Ursula LeGuin, Walter Wangerin, Gene Wolfe. But I’m not buying it.

Some months ago, a blogger wrote an article about why Christians should read horror. I’m not buying that either.

Call me snapped, but I don’t want to read stuff that is dragging my mind and heart into despair, and I’m not planning on reading that kind of book ever again if I can avoid it. I’ve tried.

I hefted myself through a number of “Christian horror” titles, and yes, there were messages of redemption toward the end, following pages and pages of ritual pagan human sacrifice, loss, and grief or fear and madness. I’m not buying the idea that my life is richer for having read those books, or that my spiritual eyes are open wider, or that I understand the world better.

I’ve also tried reading The Book of the Dun Cow, a title that appears on any number of best book lists. I stopped on page 136. That’s more than half way through (my copy has 246 pages). And I’ll tell you, by nature I’m a finisher. I’ve finished my share of bad books simply because I started them.

As it happened, the place in the story where I stalled is at least two pages of the animals coming:

The Foxes had come from the north. The Ants, like thought, had come from anywhere. Now, out of the east and wet with the sticky water of the Liver-brook, Otters rumbled into the yard, scooting chaos into the Antian dignity which had preceded them, snapping left and right like a hundred fish, altogether unrestrained by the gravity of the Council, playing games . . . Animals brown and soft, animals quick and gray, animals ruddy, animals black and melancholy, animals with piercing, suspicious eyes, animals plumed and animals pelted, winged animals and those footed for the ground, the fleet and the contemplative, the leapers and the dodgers and the crawlers and the carriers, the racers and the trotters . . . (pp. 135-137)

It keeps going, but I didn’t. There’s a point where I say, I’m not buying it. This book is supposed to be so deep, so profound, so great an example of stellar, literary writing, but I’m not jumping on that bandwagon. I’m just not.

I’ve tried reading A Wizard of Earthsea, too. This is one every fantasy writer is supposed to read, and I’ve started it, at least three times, I think, and I still have it on my to-be-read pile as if I will some day try once again and succeed. But really, should a “must read” be that hard to get into? Judging from my bookmark, I actually made it to p. 37 the last time I made the effort. And maybe I’ll give it another try some day. After all, it is fantasy, and it has maps.

I’ll admit, I even had a hard time with Out of the Silent Planet, book one in C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy when I reread it a couple years ago, and I haven’t picked up the other two books since. So maybe it’s me.

Or maybe contemporary fiction–21st Century Fiction, writing instructor Donald Maass calls it–has spoiled me for the old style. I don’t want to read books that meander or digress, but I also don’t want to read books that wallow in angst or fear or despair.

I’m just not buying it any more. These books can win all the awards out there and have other writers praising them to the hilt, but I’m not buying the idea any more that the best books are the ones I don’t like to read.

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12 Comments

  1. Bravo!

    But “Out of the Silent Planet,” too? Well, i guess I can see it a little bit. It is a slow development of story. Even more so in “Perelandra.”

    “That Hideous Strength” picks it up, though, and makes it all worth while.

  2. I agree with Thomas’ assessment of the pacing of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I loved all three, and thought each outdid the previous story. Very different from one another. I agree with you about Wangerin being overrated… but people sure do love him.

  3. […] Rebecca Luella Miller had a counterpoint on her blog. She’s rebelling against the idea that there are must-read novels or styles. I think […]

  4. […] Fantasy Friday – I’m Not Buying ItA Christian Worldview of Fiction […]

  5. Follow the advice of Nancy Pearl of Booklust fame: If you are over 50, you can quit reading after page 50. If the book has not caught you by then, it may not, and life is too short. The books you are having trouble with are all excellent, so it probably is you, not the author or the book, but that is all right.

  6. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a must read book, either. I dont like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters or Faulkner. I really dislike Faulkner A LOT. I didn’t care for the much-lauded Kavalier and Clay (I thought “Carter Beats the Devil” was superior in every way that counts). I’ve never cared for Heinlein much, and most of Asimov is only okay. I couldn’t get through the Foundation books. I liked the first Dune and that’s it for Frank Herbert. I tried the others, read some of them and couldn’t muster any affection for them.

    I do like Wangnerin okay, Wolfe a lot and LeGuin pretty well. My favorite C.S. Lewis is “Til We Have Faces” which is one of his least popular.

    There are plenty of authors out there whose success is a complete mystery to me. I assume it’s a matter of my taste not matching up with that of others. The fact is, we have limited time on the Earth and the number of books is far beyond what we could read. So why not read what you love? I think that’s a great way to approach it.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Matt. I’m happy to hear you say you don’t think there are must reads out there. I actually went off a list for years. My high school newspaper (back in the days when such a thing existed) published an article about the books certain people said were must-read for students entering college. Well, years after college I still hadn’t read but about half of those. I tried. But I came up against some real snoozers and I didn’t see why in the world those would be ranked as must reads. There were some in the realm of philosophy I just thought were unattainable so I never gave them a thought–have started re-evaluating that recently. Others people rave about (Moby Dick), I suffered through. Some (Faulkner) I gave a try and abandoned.

      For some reason, Till We Have Faces captivated me from the start, but I know of people who love Lewis and can’t get into the book at all.

      My conclusion is, at best we can recommend books to people based on our own experience, and then it’s up to them to decide.

      BTW, I don’t know if you saw my comment at Spec Faith or not, but I’ve decided I’ll work on improving my writing by reading Mikalatos! :-D

      Becky

      • Ha ha. I didn’t see that comment but it’s very sweet. Thank you.

        Sometimes books I’ve been skeptical of upon recommendation have turned out really well, so I’m glad I try something new occasionally (which it sounds like you do). When my wife first told me to read Steinbeck I balked because I lumped him in with Faulkner. Now East of Eden is one of my favorite novels (even though it’s supposedly one of his lesser books… and I think Grapes of Wrath is one of my least favorite despite it being his master work, supposedly).

      • Well, I admit I was a little skeptical about a book then called Imaginary Jesus. It didn’t take me look to realize I was in the hands of someone who took his theology as seriously as his storytelling and humor.

        So, yes, I’m glad I’ve tried certain books and even certain genres, even if they primarily have reinforced what I thought going in.

        I’m a Grapes of Wrath fan, but I stopped reading Steinbeck before I got to East of Eden. The Pearl did me in, but I have to say Of Mice and Men is one of the best, most poignant and surprising stories I’ve ever read. The conclusion isn’t so very different from To Kill A Mockingbird, I don’t think, and the moral issues that arise in both are valuable.

        Interesting realization: I’m actually more willing to read a book that offers hope throughout, only to end in despair, than I am to read one that is bleak and dark only to present redemption in the end.

        I’ll have to think about that one for a while.

        Becky

  7. Great topic, Becky. I’m all over the place in my reading taste, I guess. I refuse to read books that depress me, although I do enjoy books that make me think and that offer something new with each re-reading. Some classics deserve the title (Les Miserables, for instance). Others, not so much, IMO (Yeah, Faulkner comes to mind. . .)

    A book that explains everything, offers no suspense, no questions to keep me reading–I am more likely to put down a book like that than one that confuses me. I guess I figure that a confusing book should give a good pay-off in the end and maybe I’ll be smarter for making the effort to understand it!

    My reading taste has evolved over the years. Some books that were favorites twenty years ago now bore me to death, and vice versa. One example is Diana Wynne Jones–I had long ago written off her fantasy books as dull but recently gave her another try, and some of her books are all-time favorites (some not so much, but she is almost always intriguing).

    I liked The Wizard of Earthsea more than 30 years ago. . .and now I couldn’t begin to tell you what it was about. Heh.Guess I need to reread that one!

  8. I was thinking more about the “must read” list idea and decided to make my own must read list. It’s not that I expect others to read these books, but that they are essential books that shaped my own love of literature and influenced my own writing. I thought you would enjoy it.

    http://www.mikalatos.com/2013/03/my-must-read-list-fiction


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