Slipstream, part 2.

In my previous post, I talked about how when I was younger, I kept reading science fiction, despite the fact that I often ended up not liking it very much. At this point, people tend to ask me, not necessarily kindly, “Well, what DO you like?”

To really answer that question, I think it’s worth considering some bigger ones: why do you read? What do you expect to get out of the things you read?

For me, the answer to this question is something like this:

In reading nonfiction — and I go through phases where I read a lot of nonfiction — my primary focus is context. Facts are all well and good, but a fact in isolation doesn’t mean much. If it’s a historical event, for instance, I want to know not just what happened, but who was involved, why they made the decisions they made, and what else was happening at the time that affected those choices and their outcome. I may or may not be interested in the author’s opinion or point of view; even if I agree with them, I want to gather enough information to draw my own conclusions.

For me, the pleasure in experiencing non-fiction is in drawing connections. This happened because of this. If not for this event, this one wouldn’t have happened, or wouldn’t have mattered. A connects to B connects to C. If you’ve read my automotive writing, you can see me trying to do this all the time, mostly because I enjoy it. It has the same satisfaction as solving a puzzle.

In reading fiction, I’m looking for a particular tone or feel that fits my mood, or the mood I want to be in. The principal reason I enjoy books I like is that reading them puts me in a headspace that I find pleasurable, cathartic, or evocative. In many respects, it’s like taking different recreational drugs — it’s about applying a filter or lens for my experience and state of mind.

Note that this says nothing about character or plot. I may certainly get caught up in a story because I’m fascinated by a particular character or mystery, but it’s not really the character or the mystery that speaks to me. It’s the way experiencing those characters (or the tension of that mystery) makes me feel.

Let’s consider a recent book that I really enjoyed: William Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country. As with many of Gibson’s previous novels, it features a group of disparate characters on separate but ultimately converging quests, tied together by inscrutable conspiracies and hidden agendas. You could, with some justice, call the plot cookie-cutter Gibson. Its cast of characters fall into types familiar from the author’s previous work, and none are particularly likable or sympathetic in any conventional sense. And its resolution is somewhat anti-climatic.

So, why do I enjoy it? For its prose, for one, which is spare, eloquent, and often lovely, and also for its mood. It’s like listening to a song so gorgeous and evocative that you play it over and over again; that you look for other songs like it so you can build a mix that will keep your head in exactly that place for as long as possible. The impact the novel had on me was often in spite of the occasionally banal movements of its plot or its characters. I don’t particularly like the kidnapped junkie Milgrim, for instance, but I like the way Gibson let met share a facet of his perceptions.

As you may gather, what I take from nonfiction is primarily an intellectual satisfaction, while what I take from fiction is mostly an emotional pleasure. The difference between those two poles has a lot to do with why it’s become very hard for me to enjoy science fiction, fantasy, or, for that matter, historical fiction.

Science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction all share one unfortunate trait in common: the burden of Cumbersome Exposition. Now, any story requires some exposition, and deciding how much and where to put it is one of the biggest challenges for any author. Naturally, if the story is not set in the here and now, the amount of exposition is inevitably greater. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, however, often suffer an additional problem, which is that the author has done a lot of work on developing the setting (in either invention or research), and he or she is naturally eager to show it off. Sometimes, the author ends up being visibly more interested in the setting than in the characters or story. Even if s/he isn’t, the more exotic the setting, the more work the reader has to do to keep up.

The problem for me is not that I can’t keep up, or even that I don’t enjoy soaking up the minutiae — it’s that it kicks me out of whatever emotional experience I was trying to have (the fiction channel of my brain) into intellectual mode (the nonfiction channel). It throws me out of looking at the work as a story and gets me looking at it as a set of facts to analyze and contextualize. Worse, I might decide the intellectual content is more interesting than the characters and plot. The result is sometimes that I go skipping ahead to the scenes that reveal the backstory, until I’m no longer tracking what’s going on in the plot and don’t particularly care. That can be fun in its own way, but it tends to preclude any kind of satisfactory emotional experience. (When I’m in intellectual mode, also, I’m more likely to be merciless about logical and structural flaws.)

Even with fictional settings with which I’m already very familiar, it’s pretty easy for me to be kicked out of fiction-reading headspace by continuity problems or logical flaws. It’s not that I necessarily care about continuity errors, more that I find them distracting, because it makes me suddenly have to think about the narrative, rather than experiencing it.

My primary criterion for enjoyable fiction, therefore, is a narrative with which I can engage emotionally in a satisfying way, with a minimum of distractions.

Which brings us back to the original question: what DO I like to read?

More on this to follow.

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