Thursday, May 25, 2006

meme: things i hate about books.

This is a bad meme for me to do, because it's difficult for me to leave a book part-read. It's a character flaw. However, in my time - and when I say my time, I mean my years of college which involved me spending days in the British Library looking for books pertinent to my English degree but going home with varied works of light fiction united in their surfeit of pretty men, beleaguered/benighted women and bad romance - I have managed to fling a fair few novels across the room. But some things are instant turnoffs, listed for the pleasure and possible derision of those whose literary tastes are of a weightier, subtler nature, viz. to say, most of you.

disclaimer: Extreme wibbling.

I don't enjoy:

Books that aren't comic. Damning evidence of my petty and inattentive intelligence! Characteristically, I cannot bring myself to lament it. Put another way, I can rarely stand books that don't have a sense of proportion, of judgement and a little bit of destructive irony. You can call it the funnies, or you can call it a sense of perspective. I think it's what distinguishes Thomas Hardy (abhorred and little-read by myself) from George Eliot (beloved by same). They can both be ponderous and moralistic, Eliot's sense of intelligent, ironic self-deprecation, so evident in novels like Middlemarch is extraordinary. Hardy's is. Um. Not.

An exception: Tolkien.

Books that aren't compassionate
. I think the best novels recognise and make use of the fact that compassion and comedy are common aspects of human understanding. Really, what is comedy other than the knowledge that you are part of a larger whole, that things don't begin and end with yourself? I've stayed so far away from novels that lack either of these qualities that I can't think of a book that I've failed to finish for this particular reason. But John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, a play whose poverty of self-knowledge is only matched by its innocence of any understanding of other people, is a great example of why angry young men should, for the most part, be given lots of fresh greens and some personal space to wank in solitude, and then be allowed to publish their written work.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which is on my current reading list, is a good example of a book whose compassion outweighs the possible merits of overt irony. More on that when I finish the book.

Books about hetero male sexual angst. I wasn't interested in it when I was sixteen, I'm not interested in it now. Grow up, Holden Caulfield.

Books whose sole resolution is marriage. Usually this means that a little penis-in-vagina action resolves everyone's conflicts and having tiny bouncing babies completes the circle of life and perfection. Bollocks. (Books whose resolution is (are?) bollocks, on the other hand.)

Books that talk down to children. I hate these especially because I lapped them up as a child myself. The talking-down can occur may occur in various forms, but the general trope is to insert a thinly-veiled authorial substitute who will be pious, heroic and bully the ones who don't know any better. Beyond a point you're like, I can get all this plus sex and violence in the Old Testament, so bite ass.

An exception: Harry Potter, but only because it isn't all patronise-patronise-patronise and then ner-ner-ner.

Schmaltz. How do I define this? I have nothing against sentimentality. Or cheesiness. (Ohgodno.) Schmaltz is just the irritating intrusion of the idea that things have to be a certain way, which is usually the author's idea of how things should be regardless of where the novel wants to go. Writers like Tolstoy, who originally cast Anna Karenina as an evil, bad woman who deserved to die, can be counted on to let go of their schmaltziness at some point in time and let the story tell itself. Writers like Shashi Deshpande and Jonathan Safran Foer can't. There are no words to describe my disappointment at not being able to read Everything is Illuminated, which had almost everything I generally enjoy in a book. And then just got schmaltzy.

Books that are the author's earlier novels rewritten over and over again
, even though they're not pulp or genre fiction. Jeanette Winterson, you otherwise vastly-talented minor goddess, I'm looking at you.

Books that aim to shake yuppies out of their torpor. Okay, so how many of you have significantly changed your lives because of Fight Club the book? I thought so. I can think of a number of better ways to shake myself out of torpor. Reading random books about junkies and alienated corporate minions, even such as myself, seems a bit like emotional pornography, which is not my thing.

An antidote: Maybe Greenpeace?

Books that do not supplement historical exactitude with actual things to say. In my callow youth I read a fair bit of fanfiction for a bunch of (pseudo)/historical fandoms, and the stories that put me off were the ones that belaboured historical details and dialogue to exhaustion, but simply never added to what we already knew about the time or place. One of the many BCL novels that went unread by me was a godawful one called The Catalogue of Men, which was about Shakespeare and quoted liberally from his work, but was coasting along hoping you wouldn't notice anything else. This is probably where my postmodernist affectations go into overdrive. I want historical fiction to resonate. I want the dirt on the clothes and food and sexual mores and even the odd heigh-nonny-nonny if it must be, but I care a lot more about the people and the politics.

This is something I've found to be an especially good reason to read translated Japanese fiction. You can get the bare bones of a culturally 'Japanese' story from any geisha/samurai fic worth it's salt, but writers like Junichiro Tanizaki (or Tanizaki Junichiro) with their seemingly stilted prose and set-piece situations end up saying a lot more about character and motive.

Sci-fi. If being girly means having the honesty to say that bleeping robots and reams of inter-planetary persiflage are pretty fucking boring, then bring on the pink and the lace.

An exception: Dan Simmons' Ilium.

And to counter all the horribleness, a few novels I have really enjoyed in 2006:

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections
Michelle Lovric's The Remedy, viz. historical fluff at its best.
Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido, whose subsequent work also I lapped up like a hungry dog. I cannot recommend this enough.
G R R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series. It'll make you want to fling a book across the room at odd points, but don't. For one they're all really good, and for two the dent in your wall will be irreparable.
Pat Barker's Double Vision. Absolutely my favourite war novelist. She can hammer you with the force and horror of it all, sans schmaltz, sans repetition, sans gratuitious misery, but sans a penis-in-vagina ending. Pat Barker rocks very very hard.

current musix: collective soul - heavy. look at me, i'm alternative!


  1. And the rest cam tumbling after. Good good very nice

  2. Devdas11:22 am

    SF and not Sci-Fi please, that term is only used by wannabes who want to sound clued, but aren't.

    SF isn't only about robots and interplanetary persiflage. Good SF is all about taking today's mores and evaluating them in different contexts.

    Here's a bunch of references if you want to read them:
    The Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) series is about violence against children, and humans encountering other species.

    Asimov's laws of robotics are the rules that any good person should follow. And then he has a bunch of stories about situations when blindly following rules fails.

    Clarke deals with interesting hypothetical scenarios. What happens to a society where children are not born, but the same people are recycled over and over again?

    The Culture series (Ian M. Banks)is about a society which has advanced so far technologically that they have everything, and are now trying to civilise other backward races as their primary occupation. Pure space opera.

    Neal Stephenson explores a very wide variety of situations in his books. His style of writing is a bit baroque though, but it is a fun read. I would suggest The Diamond Age (nanotechnology, parenting) or Snow Crash (Sumerian tablets, Internet, hacking, overpopulation, media manipulation, full blown Hollywood movie style settings).

    Heinlein is another good read (Starship Troopers, The Moon is a harsh Mistress, the Lazarus Long series).

    There are quite a few good authors more out there, these are just the ones off the top of my head. I suggest you give them a try.

  3. Girly3:38 pm

    My problem with SCI-FI is it can be so theory driven (eg. what IF this happened) it becomes weak on characters and motivations and relationships (or what you might call 'compassion' and 'comedy').

    However, Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favourite authors and she IS great with characters. So, I'm not rejecting SCI-FI just yet.

  4. ah well, why one shud like/dislike science fiction I'd rather not go into, but I used to think I'd hate it, and then I read Asimov.

    a somewhat more interesting fact is that a reputed bookstore in Kolkata, I forget which, had LOTR in the sci-fi section! :D

  5. Since everyone is using this space to make science fiction reccos, you really must try The Martian Chronicles by Bradbury.

  6. menon6:06 pm

    COMPLETELY agree with you on the matter regarding john osborne. man, that guy was annoying.

  7. You know, the thing you write about compassion and comedy - this is one reason I love you sho much. Augh.

    Hetero male sexual angst - I think I go for dubiously hetero male sexual angst in music, though.

  8. Devdas1:06 am

    Kray, most bookstores have a science fiction and fantasy section. I haven't seen any bookstores with separate SF and fantasy sections.

    girly, if you like strong character development in SF, try Dune, Ender's Game, Red Mars. You could also try reading books/stories by Vernor Vinge.

    aishwarya, how about Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury? There is also Brave New World.
    Both the books present a dystopian fture instead of a utopian one.

    I don't know if a lot of people will like Gibson, but Neuromancer is an interesting story.
    is a decent thread on what makes SF tick

  9. @ imhunt: and how. :)

    @ devdas: thanks for the correction. however, i can be accused neither of being wannabe nor clued in. just thought you ought to know. recs, even in genres i don't like, are always always welcome, so many thanks. i'm prejudiced against orson scott card because i once read his series of articles arguing against gay marriage, and i thought if the man's inter-planetary persiflage is like his logic then that's definitely a few hours of my time saved by avoiding his work.

    asimov i will try again. i've liked some of his (very) short stories. of all your recs, the stephenson - who i was planning to read inspite of everything - and the banks sound the most promising. do leave a link or something next time if you can! :)

    @ girly: hi there! i've been wanting to read bujold, too. clearly this discussion is telling me not to write off SCI-FI.

    as for your other point, i agree, and i think it's true of most genre fiction. i suppose the lack is more evident in SCI-FI because of the bleeping robots.

    @ kray: HA. tolkien would die of horror if he knew he was being classified as SCIENCE fiction. (and really, now i feel like i must give asimov a second chance!)

    @ aishwarya: read it, went back to reading civil war novels. for some strage reason they were always arranged side by side in the american center library. but thanks anyway.

    @ menon: THANK YOU. osborne is stupid, throw rocks at his plays.

    @ HAMLET : see, in music it's inescapable. and at least they make it interesting. and the albums get done FAST. :x

    @ devdas: neuromancer is cyberpunk. don't blur my carefully-drawn narrow boundaries. :P

  10. Devdas9:24 pm

    I am not accusing you of being a wannabe. You sound like one even though you aren't.

    If you want to borrow books, feel free to coordinate a trip with me to Mumbai (yay! another excuse to go home). I'll lend you a few from my little collection. I recently dropped off another 50 or so books at my parent's place.

    Strand in Bangalore had a few Ian M. Banks and Stephensons. They have a sale going on, let me see if I can find anything interesting. Landmark does, but their pricing sucks.

    Stephenson goes across genres in his writing. And cyberpunk is a sub-genere of SF.

    Peter F. Hamilton is pretty cool too.

    You want to be very careful while reading Banks. He has a tendency to drop in an innocous looking sentence, and that suddenly becomes important later.

    "Money implies poverty"
    Ian M. Banks, "The State of the Art".

    PS: You have got mail

  11. That makes me a wannabe once-removed! Oh NOES. Who will marry me now?

    And of course I will let you know when I am next in Mumbai. Thanks again.

  12. Anonymous7:19 pm

    oh you should not have trashed Hardy. anything but that.

  13. Orson Scott Card...I read Ender's Game, loved it, and then read the note by the author at the beginning of my edition. I've never been able to read the man since.

  14. osborne!

    never have i seen a man s art reflect his life so much.

    i read abt his spiteful letters to his
    daughter in the guardian, and i was disgusted.

    cant expect him to have too much empathy for imaginary characters if he couldnt stand his daughter yelling in the yard!

    although, i would like to make one counter point about osborne. much as i hate his theatre, the time at which he staged Anger is lost to us.

    theatre historians have written that the very opening scene with a lower middle class attic room and alisno s ironing board evoked the kind of response that well built up climaxes usually do!

  15. @ anony: I know, I know, I was being unfair. I'm like that.

    @ viv: Bah, that ironing board. And Osborne thought it symbolised Jimmy's slavery rather than Alison's. I think it's as much a question of how symbols are used, as what symbols are used. It may have been a shocker in its time, but classic it is not.

  16. roswitha,
    of course, i wouldn't dare argue that Look Back in Anger is classic.

    my only contention was not so much about alison s ironing board as it was about the whole incongruity of Osborne s theatre with the time. in fact, Terence Rattigan walked out of the premiere of Anger proclaiming that the playwright was merely saying 'Look I'm not Rattigan.'

    fact was that Anger in a way articulated the frustration of the unemployed aimless young men between the world wars. and was a product of the earlier well made plays and drawing room comedies. in both the form and content (not much in the way of either, i concede), Anger was a product of a time lost to us.