When I was in grad school all my time was spend reading Dickens and Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Flannery O’Connor and the Best American Short Stories and the O’Henry and Pushcart Prize award-winning stories. Not only was I reading this high-brow stuff, but I had to analyze it too. I had to break apart everything I was reading so that I could:
- have something intelligent to say in class
- figure out how it was done so that I could attempt to use those same craft techniques myself
While my mind was being blown on a regular basis by all those books,, I also felt like I was losing my ability to read for fun. The MFA program had turned reading into an academic exercise, and I longed for the good old days when I was a teenager (Ha! Never thought I’d say that!) when reading was simple.
In elementary school, junior high, and high school I remembered reading:
- Ray Bradbury
- George Orwell
- Terry Pratchett
- Orson Scott Card
- Terry Goodkind
- Stephen King
- Robert Jordan
As a teen, every time I opened a book I felt like I was being rescued from my life. Being a person can be so hard sometimes, and reading was a welcome relief. When I read, I got to take a break from all those complicated feelings and social interactions involved with being a teenager. Reading was my escape. It was a breath of fresh air from a life that otherwise made me feel like I was drowning. The heroes in those books were golden conquerers who could do no wrong. They were übermensch—better than the average person. When the world I lived in was so dark and complicated, it was inspiring to read stories about The Good and The Just triumphing over adversity.
I was ravenous with those books; I consumed them the way one consumes french fries at a fast food joint—swallowing them whole with a combination of manic ecstasy and shame. (Like many sci-fi and fantasy fans, I endured the hot embarrassment of English teachers looking down their noses at my books; they’d sniff and grimace at me, as if I were a bum who had covered herself with her own feces.)
And then in college, the books I read for fun made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of the underbelly of life.
- John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and The Pearl
- Albert Camus’ The Plague and The Stranger
- George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
- Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
- Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
- Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Joke
- Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and We Need to Talk About Kevin
Reading those books and those authors made me feel inspired and wise. These authors knew something, and they were imparting their precious knowledge on me like little jewels. These authors took my hand and showed me the depths of the human soul and described the complex ties that bind us to each other. These were the books that shaped the way I see the world. They changed me forever.
But they weren’t exactly beach reading. Often these were hard books. Books that challenged the way I thought about myself and the world. Books that showed people I could relate to at their darkest and most unflattering hour. Maybe I was older and wiser and could handle reading about complex issues without feeling so shaken. Maybe all those heroic books I read as a teen provided the foundation for the sense of goodness and justice that all these more mature narrators took as a given.
I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life (more accurately, since I was 7 or 8 when my parents read me The Neverending Story), but now I found myself struggling with what kind of writer I wanted to be. Did I want to write stories that allowed people to escape their lives—providing that sweet relief for just a moment—or did I want to write stories that described how the world worked in all its unflinching, harsh-truth detail? Did I want to transport people into a fantasy, or did I want to walk with them in their real lives and make them feel less alone?
I definitely don’t think it’s an either/or choice. You can have books that grab you by the throat and take you on a wild fantasy ride, that also feel like they are imparting things that are real and true. You write books that are both entertaining and reach for something more. You can do fantasy, science fiction, and mystery with the artistic flair and soulful depth of a literary writer. There are many examples, but here are a few:
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
- Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World
- Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
- Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian
- China Mieville’s The City & The City
- Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
- Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams
- Alden Bell’s The Angels Are The Reapers
- Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
- Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Left-Hand of Darkness
- Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven
However, when I entered my MFA program I still felt like I was often presented with an either/or choice EVEN THOUGH I totally picked a genre-friendly program. SF State offered classes in serial narrative, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and in 19th Century Mystery Novels. One of my creative writing professors even wrote erotica…how much more genre-friendly can you get?
And most of my peers were just like me—we loved the fluffy escapist stuff, but we also had artistic pretensions. Even though cross-genre works are becoming more well-respected, saying, “I write speculative fiction” still feels a little risky. There was that remembered shame of past English teachers, and the weighty knowledge of being in an MFA program. Here we were, the future literati…shouldn’t we be more, um…discriminating (read: snobby) in our literary tastes? I think a lot of us (myself included) played it safe by writing stories more in the vein of Raymond Carver and Richard Yates than Stephen King and James Patterson.
(I think there is something to be said about pushing your boundaries. If learn how to captivate readers with a story that has no fancy tricks…that’s being a master of suspense. Personally, I think complex yet compelling characters are harder to pull off than complex plots. Even though plot is often what first interests us in a story, it’s the characters that keep us engaged.)
But in reading and writing all this high-minded stuff, I worried that I was betraying my roots. In an effort to teach myself how to read for pleasure again—and to see if my childhood heroes stood the test of time—I went back and read some of those books with the critical eye of an MFA grad.
Some of those books were every bit as good as I remembered them. (Hurray!)
But other books just sucked. And I felt so disappointed with those authors. If you’ve had this experience, you know who I’m talking about. It’s like having happy memories with a cherished childhood mentor—someone who changed your life and made you feel special—and then you go to their funeral reception and find out that they were racists or ass-holes to their spouse and kids. It makes you doubt yourself. You ask, “What did I ever see in this person? What does this say about me?”
I think the trick to growing up and having your tastes mature is acknowledging that what you look for in a book—or a friend, or in a romantic parter, or in a career—changes. Who you were in the past informs what you look for in the present and in the future. You have more information on which to base your decisions. I suppose growing up means making peace with who you are and what you like. It’s being in-tune with who you are rather than judging yourself for who you’re not.
In my own writing, I think I’m going to strive to keep what I loved best as a reader, and try to impart that experience to others.
What I love is that intoxicated thrill of reading a book I can’t put down. I also love that feeling of companionship—that the author is a dear and entertaining friend, the kind of person you would love to go on a long road trip with because they are spontaneous and funny, and wise and introspective.
I think that’s the kind of writer I want to be.
And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t stretched my reading tastes beyond what I was immediately comfortable with.