MIND MELD: The Books We Didn’t Love
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week we asked about books you don’t love.
This is what they had to say…
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land was not the first Heinlein book I read. I started with what is still, in my mind, one of his best, Double Star. Nor was Stranger the second Heinlein book I read. Or the third. Or the fourth.
Indeed, back in the days when my interests in science fiction were broadening and I would occasionally talk to people about them, Heinlein would inevitably come up. “You should read Stranger In A Strange Land.” I must have been told this a dozen times by a dozen different people. I even tried reading the book, but on two occasions, spaced years apart, I simply couldn’t get very far into it. I felt terribly guilty about this. Something must be wrong me. It seemed everyone who ever read a book had read and loved Stranger. But not me. I couldn’t even get through it.
It wasn’t Heinlein. Couldn’t be, right? I went on to read and enjoy Heinlein’s future history in The Past Through Tomorrow. I read and loved Podkayne of Mars. I read Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers and found those entertaining. (Although both movies were appallingly bad.) I adored Friday and The Door Into Summer.
It finally took jury duty for me to get through Stranger. In the fall of 2000, in a cavernous room within a Hollywood courthouse, I battled my way through Heinlein’s tour de force. And before my jury service was up, I’d managed to finally finish the book.
And hated it. Just plain didn’t like it. To this day, when asked if I’ve read Stranger, I reply with a world-weary, “Of course. I read it while suffering through jury duty in the fall of 2000.”
“And what did you think of it?”
And without skipping a beat, reply, “I couldn’t be picked for a jury soon enough. My how I suffered through that book!”
I’m an extraordinarily specific reader, and a book has to be doing a lot of particular stuff well to keep me reading: powerful, inventive world building, evocative writing, interesting (if not entirely likable) protagonists, a clear sense of progression (I need to feel like the story’s going somewhere), smart dialogue, some acknowledgement up front that the world has women in it who are actual people (or gives a good reason why they’re not there. You’d be surprised how many books fail this simple test) and some sense that the author is writing “smart” as opposed to lazy. When I see careless clichés, assumptions, and stereotypes, I put the book back down. Sometimes, if a book has all but one or two of the above going for it, I can slog through. But often…not.
Some of this over-specificity has to do with the fact that since I started working full time, writing novels for publication, and freelancing, I have very little time left for reading. That means that unless something really grabs me in the first few paragraphs or pages, I’m not likely to pick it up a second time. In the case of stuff that comes highly recommended from multiple folks, like Sam Sykes’s The Tome of the Undergates did, I might give it 50 or 100 pages (With Sykes’s book, I gave it 150 pages, at which point I realized I’d just read a 150 page fight scene. That’s ambitious writing –also, very exhausting, but tons of folks love it). I very nearly put down Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold after just a few pages because the dialogue initially came off so trite and cliché – but then I got to the holy-crap-what-just-happened end of chapter one and was hooked.
I also stuck with Lavie Tidhar’s Osama despite the fact that the female characters are all two-dimensional clichés. In this case, I had a good idea of what I thought Tidhar was trying to do (all of the non-protag characters are a bit two-dimensional, which does indeed make total sense when you get to the end). So I trusted the author enough to finish the book. But I admit I’ve struggled with some of his other stuff, which I’m not sure is doing this quite so consciously.
There are some books folks assume I’ve read, like The Lies of Locke Lamora and KJ Parker’s books, that I stopped reading pretty quickly because I couldn’t figure out where all the women in these worlds were within the first few pages (this is the same problem I had with Tolkien. I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings either). Did men reproduce through parthenogenesis? I’m told that women show up in these books if you stick with them for a bit, but I just couldn’t get myself there (I should note that I know a lot of folks who love love love these books, and you should check them out for yourselves).
Other books look like they should be right up my alley. I started reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and had to stop when I got to the gang rape scene. I spent some time living in South Africa, where one in every three women will be raped in her lifetime, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time reading first-hand accounts of such assaults. I just couldn’t get through it. It’s such a beautifully written book, though, that I expect I will come back to it eventually. Just not… today. I’ve also been reading Jo Anderton’s Debris for over a year. For some reason I keep reading a few pages, then putting it down again. Despite great characters and fascinating world building, the book’s slower pacing makes it really easy for me to set aside. This is another I know I’ll finish, jut not… today (Osiris by E.J. Swift also falls into this category for me. I’ll get to it! But not today).
Every book I chose to mention here, even those I haven’t yet finished, are actually books that others have found irresistible without reservation, which is why I’ve mentioned them as opposed to, you know, actual bad books. It’s easy to blather on about how much terrible popcorn fantasy porn is out there, but I’m more interested in why it is that I often struggle to read really good books that others find un-put-downable, or even struggle with books that I like for tons of reasons, and yet… still haven’t finished.
As a writer, it’s often difficult to acknowledge that your words are only half of what makes a reader love a book. The rest is what the reader brings to the experience. And sometimes readers have really specific kinks. I encourage folks to check out all these books for themselves, and report back.
It is not enough to say that I don’t love Stranger In a Strange Land. No, no, not nearly enough. The passionate hatred that burns in my bosom for this title is like that of a thousand suns. I tried to give it a fair reading. I truly, truly did. Many whom I have the utmost respect for, both as writers and readers, adore Heinlein. So I did my best to read this novel. Sure, I had heard that there were things about his writing that I might find unpleasant, but his titles are so beautiful. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and even Stranger In a Strange Land has a nice ring to it. Maybe it was just a matter of swallowing a few distasteful moments. How bad could it be? I said to myself. So I read this novel, or at least up until this point on page 66:
Jill ducked past Berquist, threw herself at Johnson. He slapped her aside. “None of that, you little slut!” Johnson did not hit Jill as hard as he used to hit his wife before she left him, not nearly as hard as he hit prisoners who were reluctant to talk.
I was not prepared for this blinding rage. And, yes indeed, I did go blind with rage. A moment slipped away from me. I wasn’t sure where I was. I began to have visions of myself walking into my front yard, book in hand, and placing it gently on the grass as I on bended knees lit the book aflame while writhing in ritualistic trance a la Jimi Hendrix.
If it had not been a library book (and I’m pretty sure illegal in the City of New York) I might have done it. But instead, I simply returned the tome to its place on the shelves of my local library and did my best to think of it no more … until now. So thank you, Mind Meld, for bringing it all back. Thank you so very much.
This one is easy for me, because there’s a classic author that I can’t stand, and no matter how many times I try, I just cannot read. I prepare myself for a lot of slings and arrows when I share my True Confession that the books I cannot love, ever, at all are: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, followed closely by The Hobbit.
I’ll be the first person to say that Tolkien created modern fantasy. And I can accept that these are great books — for someone else. My husband and daughter love these books, everyone I know loves these books, and I simply cannot stand the way Tolkien writes. I’m not saying he’s a bad writer, far from it, but his style is a style I personally cannot stand to read. He’s an incredibly detailed oriented author, and I’m not a detail oriented reader. And it’s not just the details, seeing as I love Dickens, and Dickens is pretty darned detail oriented. But while I find Dickens fascinating, I find Tolkien…boring. For whatever reason, his writing puts me to sleep.
There are plenty of books I’ve tried and didn’t like, but most of them aren’t huge, vitally important classics in one of the genres I write in. I love D&D. I love fantasy books and movies and TV shows. I can point out where someone owes Tolkien a debt (any and all of us writing in the realms of fantasy, for example), and yet, I cannot read his writing. I’ve tried, at least once every few years as I was growing up. And I can never get past the first three pages. Now that I’m a great big grown up girl, I don’t try any more. (And nothing you say can convince me to try, by the way, because I’ve heard it all, including the suggestion to just open the first book anywhere after around page 75 and read from there.)
However, thanks to the magic and wonder and dedication of Peter Jackson, I can enjoy the stories in their movie forms. And I truly enjoyed the movies (The Two Towers is my fave of the three LotR movies, and deadlines mean I most likely won’t see the first Hobbit movie until it comes onto DVD) and I’m grateful that they were so well done, because I enjoyed my time in Middle Earth that way. For me, this is the case where the movie is far better than the book, because the movie was the only way I was going to enjoy the story.
TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS is a writer and mother living in Tasmania. Author of the dark fantasy Creature Court trilogy and the short story collection Love and Romanpunk, she also has her first crime novel coming out in 2013 under the pen-name Livia Day. She received her first Hugo nomination in 2012 for the feminist SF podcast Galactic Suburbia. You can find Tansy on Twitter as @tansyrr and at her blog.
The first books that come to mind are the ones that traumatised me as a teenager – classic novels from dead authors, for the most part. Tess of the D’Urbervilles may be the novel that made me most devastatingly angry, because of the wretched fate of the heroine. But I also resent Charles Dickens for the time he stole from my life with that bloated mass of loose plot threads that is Bleak House.
The classic novel that I wish I loved more than I do is Jane Eyre – a friend of mine made a miraculous discovery of it at the age of 30 and has a very different relationship with it now than she did as a teenager. Part of me wants to do that too, but I had so many stops and starts and struggles with trying to love that book the first and second time around that I think I’m not in a place yet where we can have a healthy relationship.
The children’s book people most often expect me to love that I don’t is The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck. Like most books by Beatrix Potter, the illustrations are wondrous and delightful, and the actual story is nightmarish. The duck is mocked as being an unfit parent, has to lay her eggs in secret so as to not have them stolen by judgemental humans who think they know better, is conned by a smarmy fox, and then “rescued” by dogs who EAT HER EGGS. Beatrix Potter was a bit evil, just saying.
But what about genre fiction, and living authors?
I read Cloven Hooves by Megan Lindholm when I was in my late teens, and was so deeply enraged by it (a married woman has an affair with a horned green man in the forest, and is punished for that transgression by the hideous death of her child) that I can’t face anything else that she writes, even though people have telling me for fifteen years how much I would enjoy the work of Robin Hobb.
In the last couple of months I decided to educate myself about the work of Tim Powers, who came highly recommended, and picked The Stress of Her Regard on the grounds that it was about Byron, Shelley and lamia, but it was such a bleak and depressing story that I abandoned it at the halfway point. Dead children. Usually a deal breaker for me. In some stories I can manage it, but others simply overwhelm me with sadness and when the story was ALREADY a pit of despair… yeah. Moving on.
I filter my reading so heavily that it’s rare for me to actually start reading a book that I later give up on. Even my Dread To Read Shelf is full of books I haven’t quit yet – I intend to start them some day! So deciding NOT to keep reading The Stress of her Regard felt quite revolutionary. Perhaps for 2013 I shall resolve to give up on reading a book mid-stream more often, if it is making me unhappy.
Life’s too short for sad books!
People expect me to read and love science fiction and fantasy because I write it. But I don’t read either of them, and haven’t since the mid-1980s. For a while, I tried. I’d hear about this or that new title by some author who was supposed to be the cat’s meow. But the stories never caught fire in my mind the way they used to. Finally, I just gave up. Nowadays I read crime fiction and some historicals, and occasionally a western if it’s as good as the ones Elmore Leonard used to write. Right now I’m reading one called The Buffalo Runners that I found in a second-hand store and bought because Elmore blurbed it as “beautifully written.” He’s right.
The one exception to my no-sff rule is anything by Jack Vance. Every time he produced a new novel, I bought it and read it. I reread his stuff when I come across it in used-book stores, and it still conjures the same magic in me, though it’s faded in the fifty years since I first encountered him.
In my teens and twenties, I was an uncritical devourer of science fiction. I read a huge amount of it. As a result, I’ve read all the classics, all the greats. And, at the time, I enjoyed them – some, I admit, more than others. Some of them I couldn’t quite understand why they were considered classics. But I read them nonetheless.
However, my tastes have changed, and I now find many of those books appallingly written and near unreadable. Sadly, judging by the recent Locus All-Centuries Poll, science fiction fandom still mostly reads books like an uncritical thirteen-year-old. Isaac Asimov, for example, was an excellent science writer, but he was a terrible science fiction writer. The Foundation trilogy contains poor writing, almost no characterisation, and perfunctory world-building. It also contains a single idea, psychohistory, which doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Asimov wrote the Foundation trilogy when he was twenty-one. Given the trilogy’s popularity and appearance on numerous “best of” lists, it seems even his fans think he never improved as a writer.
A reread several years ago of The Stainless Steel Rat prompted me to purge by book-shelves of everything by Harry Harrison. I remember enjoying the book when I was in my teens, but it really is quite bad. Change the space battleship to an ocean-going battleship, set it in South America instead of outer space… and nothing else needs to change. Not to mention the villainess is a psychopath because she was born ugly…
Another book which often features on lists of classic sf is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Happily, it didn’t make the top 15 of the Locus poll (it came in at 21, which is still way too high). Starship Troopers is a thinly-disguised political tract with a plot added as an afterthought. And the politics are not especially appealing either. It’s the sort of book that can only have been written by someone who had served in the military and believed that fact made them more entitled to an opinion or the fruits of society than those who haven’t. Even though Heinlein never even came close to seeing combat himself. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is no better: a magical Forrest Gump has carnival adventures and hot orgies with faceless beautiful women, while paper-thin characters lecture the reader on everything from modern art to why rape is mostly the woman’s fault.
These are some of the books the genre treasures. In which case, we would be better off consigning most twentieth-century science fiction to the dustbin. There were indeed many good books written last century, but for some reason most science fiction fans chose to ignore them. Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren, for example, only came 49th in the Locus All-Centuries Poll.
There are other so-called “classics” whose continued appeal mystifies me. I disliked Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – though I love Truffaut’s film version – but then pretty much all of Bradbury’s fiction leaves me cold. I find him far too twee and vague to take seriously. A lot of Philip K Dick’s novels are too slapdash to take seriously, as well. He did, however, write a couple of genuine classics, such as A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle.
More recently, I’ve tried Neil Gaiman’s short fiction and cannot understand why it is so popular. I’ve no desire to try his novels. I did read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and thought it was really badly-written. I bailed on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl after 100 pages, unable to put up with its racism or its use of the sex slave trope. Connie Willis’s poor research and bloated prose means I’ll continue to avoid her Hugo-winning fun-in-the-Blitz monster.
Looking at the list of 21st Century SF Novels in the Locus poll, it’s telling that seven are by authors who don’t identify as sf authors (I’m including Suzanne Collins as she writes as a YA writer). Is the best sf now being written outside the genre? I know it’s getting harder to find fresh, new, interesting voices at novel-length inside science fiction. Yes, there are market factors to take into consideration; yes, publishing has changed a great deal in the past twenty years. But the rise of self-publishing and ebooks should mean a host of exciting new talent – non-commercial talent – is now available. Sadly, most of it is badly-written and derivative… perhaps because its writers continue to treasure those dreadful sf “classics” of last century…
I tend to find this happens with both personal recommendations and books whose description catches my interest, and it’s nearly always historical/alt history fantasy. The book sounds on the surface as if it ought to be right up my street, but I read it and it’s not for me. There are any number of reasons for it: maybe the characters don’t hook me, or the writing style grates, or perhaps I just went into it with wrong expectations. An example of the latter is a novel that I was expecting (hoping?) to be a reasonably straightforward alternate history exploring the politics of a favourite period of mine in English history, but which turned out to be heavy on the romance and fantasy – my fault for not reading the back cover closely enough, I fear.
As for why it tends to be historical fantasy, that might be because I know a lot about European history, which means there’s a fair chance I’ll disagree with others’ vision of it. After all, with a secondary world the author is the expert, so unless they make more general blunders (e.g. non-magical horses that can gallop all day!), it’s much harder to call them out on the details, and impossible to judge them on their interpretation of “historical” events.
It all comes down to the fact that a reader’s relationship with a book rests on a myriad factors that you the author have zero control over. This is why I tend not to get upset by negative reviews of my own novels – I just remember all the books that didn’t work for me!
I love when someone whose opinion I trust and who knows my tastes recommends a book to me. That’s how I found about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, and Lauren Stover’s Pluto, Animal Lover, to name a few.
I look forward to reading recommended books and when I can’t get into the book, I feel a rush of disappointment and then often wonder what’s wrong with me. Why didn’t I like this? Everyone likes it. Everyone of course being a pseudonym for the person or people who recommended it.
Sometimes it comes down to the author’s voice. Some voices grab and don’t let go, others reach their arms slowly around you and pull you close, and others try but meet only empty air. And sometimes it’s the story itself. Maybe you can’t connect with a character; maybe the story just isn’t something that interests you.
I adored Winter’s Tale and Pluto, Animal Lover. I liked House of Leaves and am glad I read it, but I would’ve preferred it without the inverted text and the rest of the unconventional layout. It put up a wall that prevented me from sinking as deep into the story as I like.
I adore lush language and rich prose. I’m in awe of China Mieville’s talent as a writer and a storyteller and I’ve enjoyed many of his books, but I’ve tried to read The Scar twice and have been unable to finish it. I’ve no doubt it’s a phenomenal book, but it just doesn’t speak to reader me.
And now I’ll reveal something that just might result in people taking away my horror writer card. I don’t care for H. P. Lovecraft. It isn’t the archaic language; I adore Shakespeare and Poe and many other non-contemporary authors. It isn’t Cthulhu; I love the concept. And the tentacles. But there’s something about Lovecraft’s writing that leaves me cold. I’m glad other writers explore his mythos so I can enjoy the elder god without having to gnash my teeth and wonder what’s wrong with me.
Because when it comes down to it, all reading is subjective and within that subjectivity, tastes often change. Maybe I’ll like The Scar next year. Maybe the crazy layout of House of Leaves won’t bother me so much. But Lovecraft?
I’m not holding my breath.
There are subgenres of SF/F that I will only read under duress or a dare: most cyberpunk, except for Melissa Scott; steampunk; grittygrotty (aka grimdark) fantasy; “hard” SF that mistakes itself for “fiction of ideas”; YA magic fantasy.
Most cyberpunk falls into the transhumanist toxic stew of libertarianism, messianic fantasies and heavy-duty pseudoscience. Steampunk I consider too tainted by its fundamentals to be salvageable, despite JoSelle Vanderhooft’s brave attempts. I’ve discussed grittygrotty fantasy, “hard” SF and YA fantasy in several of my articles: A Plague on Both Your Houses; That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle; To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club; Aint’ Evolvin’: The Cookie-Cutter Self-Discovery Quest. My major objection to all three is that they invariably suffer from poverty of imagination, severe parochialism (pseudo-medievalism; pseudo-scientism) and terminal laziness of craft, resulting in works that evoke the sensation of chewing wet cement.
There have been individual books that I was told I’d love by people whose judgment I trust(ed) – and I could either not go past the first few chapters or I read them to the end grinding my teeth for the sake of being able to discuss them with their defenders. Within SF/F, the most prominent works in the “reading while grinding teeth” category were all of Tolkien (and like acquired allergies, my dislike increased the more I read) and Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. I have written extensively elsewhere about what I find deeply problematic with each of these (brief respective soundbites: regressiveness by very conscious choice and “separate but equal” gender essentialism), so I won’t enlarge further here.
Additional ones in that category are Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, John Harrison’s Light and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. I was accustomed to Atwood writing gripping plots with penetrating character studies and The Handmaid’s Tale still elicits chills in view of the resurgent fundamentalisms of our era. However, although her concept of a dystopian posthuman future in Oryx and Crake is unique and fascinating, the clunkiness and clichés (Oryx in particular) were jarringly uncharacteristic. Harrison’s Light is repellent for titillation’s sake and way less original than its proponents like to think: fractured prose, obvious convergences and (ab)use of QM terms doth not a paradigm shift make. In the Sarantium diptych, Kay makes a pseudo-scholarly hash of all cultures between London and Constantinople, and the Gary Stuism is exceptionally heavy-duty: the Empress herself MUST have the protagonist’s babies! Bear’s Range of Ghosts is a thinly fictionalized Ghenghis Khan bio featuring even Börte’s kidnapping, with dollops of incoherent magic and Nizari/Hashashin folklore and a feline alien who’s first cousin to the Angelina Jolie-voiced Tigress in Kung Fu Panda.
A partial but representative list of the “couldn’t go past first few pages/chapters” category includes Charles Stross’ Accelerando, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Susan Matthews’ Angel of Destruction, Bradley Beaulieu’s Winds of Khalakovo and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Cresecent Moon. Each was recommended to me as “a fresh take within its subgenre” (if only). Collectively, they showcase the chronic diseases that dog SF/F, most prominently its persistent multi-axial parochialism.
Stross’ Accelerando contains every single attribute that makes most cyberpunk flat and reactionary – it’s frankly unreadable (I tried the proverbial three times). I had skimmed Gaiman’s Sandman series, trying to ignore the scads of gruesomely dead women, and had managed to limp through the Zelazny-xerox retread of American Gods. But Anansi Boys is so off-key, smirky and obvious (the twins’ role reversal was telegraphed instantly) that I had to put it down. À propos of mythologies, Gaiman breezily opined that “There’s nothing inherently Greek about the Odyssey” to explain why he would be writing the script for the film adaptation of Journey to the West, a picaresque novel that’s one of China’s canon greats.
Matthews’ Angel of Destruction is a secondary work in her Andrej Koscuisco cycle – the saga of an angsty state torturer whose victims fall in love with him. It’s a by-the-numbers thin-gruel version of Cherryh’s Union/Alliance universe, plus rebels who conduct stealth raids wearing … gold-pinkish uniforms. Beaulieu’s Winds of Khalakovo shows its scholarship and unusual approach to not-commonly-used cultures in SF/F by having characters say “Da” and “Nyet” several times per page, to say nothing of the mysterious concubine from the Middle East… or Persia (close enough). Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon shows the original A Thousand and One Nights to be a beacon of progressiveness by its liberal sprinkling of “Your mother is a camel” jokes and by positing women who lose their magic powers when they menstruate, in harmony with the evopsycho MRA contingent of Scott Bakker et al.
People could fairly object that there are countless SF/F books that are far worse. The problem with these, however, is that they insist they are on the side of Good. The road to the remainder pile is strewn with books in which imagination and/or craft fail by hewing to comfortable unquestioned assumptions and to very poor knowledge of mythology, history and writing beyond narrow genre boundaries (I won’t even mention science – even basic science literacy is a lost cause in SF). Of course, many of the writers I listed have ascended to demi-god status in fandom and any criticism is considered blasphemy.
Walking unrutted paths does not mean “exploring” cartoon versions of other domains; and exclusively using the equivalent of cymbals in one’s writing is not innovation – it’s called a gimmick. All I can say is that I’m grateful my local bookstore has a liberal return policy.
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