Everyone has their quirks and habits as a reader, and one of mine is that I dislike not finishing a story. Many readers share this predilection; the reasons vary, from a generalized love of reading to specific ideas of “giving a story a chance” or showing how durable one’s reading fortitude is. For me, it is partly a matter of fortitude, but also of curiosity. Even when I do not like a book, I want to keep going to see if I can understand better what the problem is or perhaps find something of merit farther along. For many years I prided myself on this trait, until I returned to writing a few years ago and started penning reviews and fiction again. I read books that were so-so, that were terribly flawed, and that were outright awful. I read Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold so I could say that I had read all of his novels; I read a Gor novel to see what it was all about. I churned through a number of mediocre and problematic books, telling myself that this would prepare me to be a better writer and critic.
But what was I really doing? In retrospect I didn’t learn a lot from some of those reading experiences. All I learned from Farnham’s Freehold was that Heinlein could stumble mightily in terms of a premise and its execution. The Gor novel I read some of to my high school friends late at night after a D&D game so we could laugh at, and yet be (to varying degrees) strangely titillated. The mediocre books were more trouble to read than the really bad ones, because there was less to shake one’s head at in them. When I started graduate school I underwent a change in how I viewed books; they were now items to extract nuggets of information and argumentation from so that one could augment one’s own work. I think this is the period where I learned to skim books, prioritize sections to read, and left some books unfinished in the tsunami of reading we had to navigate and absorb.
When I started reading more fiction and writing about it, another deluge awaited me, one that I had more choice in controlling but that could overwhelm me as a reader if I wasn’t practical and choosy about how much I read and what I read. I tried to maintain my commitment to finishing what I started, but one day, as I finished reading a troubling and clunky short story, I realized that my supposed fortitude, based in my love of reading and understanding fiction, was rather stupid. By now I had read more than enough literature and criticism that reading unexceptional or awful writing was boring and counter-productive. I was finding all sorts of new stories and debates to engage and my time was far more limited now that I was no longer a student. And so, I realized that I had to not just change my habits, but change the story behind them
We tell ourselves stories about reading and writing stories; narratives take root and blossom from other narratives of enjoyment and discernment. Our love of authors, genres, tropes, and individual tales are supported by stories about our experience of reading them, of sharing them, of using them to connect to others and their stories. Our dislikes, hatreds, and dismissals come from the same practice. Sometimes they are pragmatic (“I just didn’t have enough time to finish it”) but frequently our stories come out of other considerations, subjective ones, ones that are emotionally and psychological more equivocal and personal.
For example, I am a great admirer of Samuel R. Delany’s work. I have enjoyed and been educated by his fiction and criticism since high school. He is one of the first SF authors to pull me deeper into both great literature and fantastika. He is a major influence on my own writing and someone whose words I return to constantly for inspiration and edification. When his latest novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, was published earlier this year I was eager to read it. I had heard him read from it and discuss it at Readercon for a few years and read excerpts, and I knew that it earthy, transgressive, and pantagruelian. Some of what I had encountered before reading the novel was disquieting, but I knew that there would be a lot to glean from it.
I stopped reading about 250 pages in, after almost two weeks of starts and stops. I wanted to keep going, but it was too much for me. The excesses of the text kept distracting me from the story (although one can argue that they are a large part of the story!). It was not the pornographic aspects, but the more transgressive ones of bodily matter and incest. It was overwhelming to me, mostly due to my own background. I could get through Rabelais and De Sade and even Anne Rice’s Beauty books (although I didn’t like the latter very much), but this text stopped my reading. I would suddenly realize that I had been staring at the page for a few minutes and fixating on an article or conjunction. I was vexed by inability to pull my own experiences and memories far enough back to keep reading. Once I had put the book down I quickly found a narrative to explain it, which I am calling the Grumplesnark’s Pantagruelian Vexation. I literally conjured a diffuse fable to help me explain what kept me from finishing and why I had failed to persevere. The fault was a combination of the book’s excesses and my own sensitivity. It was rather ambivalent, too, and I found myself feeling a bit like a victim, which was silly; I chose to read the book, I knew what it would be like, and I was trying to cover up what it touched inside me rather than deal with what the text was dredging up.
When we succeed in finishing a piece of fiction, we then tell a story of how we did it, detail the joys and letdowns of the text and what we gleaned from it. Those stories are limited by the text and its interpretations and applications. But when we do not finish a reading, the story is often different, and what often emerges is a fable, a story that tries to teach us a lesson. Dedicated readers often feel a sense that their experience with the story is unconsummated, and thus they need to make sense of that experience. A fable, even a brief or shallow one, often fulfills that purpose. The open-endedness of the experience requires some sort of closure, even if it is a dismissive one.
Representing that failure is a process of bounding our reader experience, not in a completely conscious manner but in an effective one. Reading is an ongoing social process, one which we have to enclose to make sense of it; we channel and demarcate our understanding of the narrative usually to get it out of our way so that we can move on to the next story. But sometimes, the fables we tell about these failures have more to them. We never really complete a reading or thoroughly understand a text anyway, and when we decide to disengage with a narrative we need a way to integrate that into our reading persona and standpoint. The stories we tell about reading need to bound a potentially unending process of interpretation and imagination, even when we do not complete a reading. Or, come to the end of the text.
Next week I will discuss a few more examples of this and try to clarify this idea further.