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What Makes This Book So Great

January 23, 2014
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In his publication celebration of Jo Walton’s book What Makes This Book so Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Patrick Nielsen Hayden says “these aren’t the kind of books Serious People talk about.” Walton herself has a little frisson of concern in her afterward, “Literary criticism vs talking about books,” when she characterizes criticism as necessarily detached and objective—having never, as she herself confesses, studied it. I would disagree about the necessity of trying to be “objective” about texts, but not about the fact that “for decades now there have been SF authors who are treated respectfully, who are studied, who have books written about them by academics.”

Walton’s strength, as Hayden points out, is in her ability to get her readers thinking and talking about books, and so I can only guess that the little bow to the tradition of defensiveness in talking about genre fiction is mostly a reaction to the book appearing in print. Originally these were blog posts at Tor.com. Anyone going to that website to read them wouldn’t need the “this is not serious criticism” disclaimer.

I’m interested in the defensiveness because I think it’s largely situated in the historical moment. I am of Walton’s generation, one that grew up reading paperback SF novels and are now reading about new SF on the internet. Some of us read more on the internet than others–since I write here, I necessarily read here a good bit, but as discussers of re-reading continually lament, my time is limited. Also, most of my paying work requires me to read and write on a screen, so I usually wait for a paper book when I want to read something for fun.

Blog readers get one little provocative piece per day, or week, or however often the blogger posts. A book like this could, conceivably, be read in one big gulp over a couple of hours. One of its many charms is that the blog posts are still up and she’s still writing more, so if something Walton says provokes you to comment, you can still do it: “interaction remains a possibility.”

But “these are not reviews,” she says. “Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions.” Perhaps, especially in the past. But since the internet is changing the way some of us talk about books, I don’t see why bloggers can’t co-opt the word “review” and use it to mean “going over the things that make me think a book is great.”

As with Among Others, one of my favorite things about this book—and there’s lots more of it in this one—is the recommendations of things to read. I discovered a number of books that sound interesting, and many of them have one thing in common—they were published from 1993 to 1996, the years my children were born and I was still (perhaps foolishly) commuting and teaching classes. Here are all the books I could have been reading—and it’s not too late!

Another thing that makes this book great is that it feels like having a conversation with someone who loves some of the same things you do. For instance, Walton says the plot of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is “perfect, “ observing that “thinks that look like jokes and asides are actually all setup.” Yes, I exult. She gets it! She calls Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer “incredibly readable,” which is definitely is, and even when she makes fun of the parts that don’t work, you can still feel how much she loves it because she’ll say something eventually like “it doesn’t stop the story working.”

She gets what fascinated me as a teenager about the John Fowles book The Magus and what made me wonder why I loved it so when I re-read it later. It wasn’t “the suck fairy,” but something less defined, and she puts her finger on what bothered me, the sense that “the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense.” But she also recognizes that “it’s beautifully written. The characters are so real, I’d recognize them if I saw them at the bus stop.”

I had to read the first paragraph of her piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit out loud to Ron, because it struck me as something I wish I could have said:
The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle Earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.”

There are lots of things here anyone would wish they could have said, because Walton is good at getting to the heart of the matter. Her explanation of “SF reading protocols” is clever and succinct. One particular highlight is her explanation that readers can understand some SF as metaphorical, symbolic, or allegorical, but that
“what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything, that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.”
She discusses techniques like “infodump” and “incluing” (a term she originated) and then compares them to techniques used by literary writers, Trollope and Byatt.

Talking about a specific book or issue, this writer puts on a virtuoso performance, and she makes it look easy. It’s only in the introduction and conclusion that she seems to surface, look around her at the looming shadows cast by literary critics–those black-mustachioed figures cast as villains even before Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub–and finger her virtuoso writing fingers gingerly. It makes me think that if all bloggers spent more time trying to convey more of the personal reactions that make the books we love “so great,” we could begin to review the reviewing situation.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2014 5:22 pm

    This book sounds great, too. Too bad Walton still feels defensive about the word “criticism.” She is writing criticism.

    Is Walton interested in style at all? It sounds like she has plenty of useful things to say about structure and technique, at least.

    Outside of a fairly small group, practically all I see on book blogs are people conveying their personal reactions, and implying or stating directly that their love makes a book great. So I don’t think we need a lot more of that! I would love it if more bloggers wrote less about whether and why they love a book and more about what they loved. Dig into the text and show me the part that inspired that love. This is itself a type of objectivity – move the attention to the object.

    But of course I want that, since I do not believe that my personal reaction makes a book great. Books can be great without my help.

    • January 23, 2014 5:38 pm

      Tom, you are absolutely right, as usual. I feel like I meant what you said, however disingenuous it seems to say that after the fact!
      Showing WHAT you love is what I think feels personal, to some people, and so they shy away from it, trying to hide behind the stuff they know they should admire or the stuff they’re proud of themselves for understanding.
      And yeah, books can be great without our help.
      I don’t know if Walton is very interested in style, although she does comment on it occasionally. She talks a good bit about readability.

    • January 23, 2014 5:46 pm

      I have been browsing in the book on Amazon. I will definitely ask my library to get it. “The worst book I love” – that is a good title for a chapter. Or “Who reads cosy catastrophes?” Good question!

  2. January 23, 2014 6:51 pm

    >>I don’t see why bloggers can’t co-opt the word “review” and use it to mean “going over the things that make me think a book is great.”

    Ah yes. I agree with this very much! And I’m excited to read the Jo Walton book — I like her, and particularly I love her for loving Mary Renault the way I do.

    • January 23, 2014 9:55 pm

      Yes, going over the things. Giving examples of the things, as Tom points out. Gushing over the things, where appropriate!

  3. January 23, 2014 11:05 pm

    I skimmed your thoughts because my copy still isn’t here. 😦 Snowstorm. Slow mail. 😦

    • January 24, 2014 8:32 am

      We talked to Eleanor in Iowa last night and she told us that every time she went outside yesterday she was “screaming with rage.” I thought that was the most rational reaction I’d heard to the continuation of this horrible weather.

  4. January 24, 2014 8:02 am

    This sounds like a book I would really enjoy reading parts of. Books of blog posts tend to wear thin after a while, as do books of essays, but I could always pick out the good parts.

    I do think that SF suffers some due to a lack of interest in style. It would be nice to see more focus on it.

    • January 24, 2014 8:39 am

      I think “style,” like “flow,” means a lot of different things to different critics and writers. I am usually not that interested in what they call style; if I notice the style, it’s often too much.

      Books of essays are meant to be read one at a time, I think. I do love essays.

  5. January 24, 2014 11:42 am

    The book is on order at my library and I am 10th in line for it. I can hardly wait!

    • January 25, 2014 12:18 pm

      If you want a taste, they’re all free online at tor.com!

  6. January 24, 2014 1:44 pm

    I can’t wait to read this! I might need to buy it soon, it is just begging to be on my shelves.

    • January 25, 2014 12:19 pm

      And if you read it, there will be a whole list of books also begging to be on your shelves.

  7. January 25, 2014 10:25 am

    The title of this book seems like a good mission statement for a book blog–to talk about what makes a book great (or not great, as the case may be). What those specific things are will certainly vary from reader to reader, which is where the subjectivity comes in. But to talk about what makes a book great (or not) seems to be different from talking about how great (or not) a book is. Like Tom says, it’s placing attention on the object of the love, rather than on the love itself.

    I continue to be flummoxed by the limited definitions some have of what constitutes a review. Because these pieces are about older books, they aren’t reviews? That just makes no sense to me. I agree with your definition. I’ve always used the term review for what I do, even though I know it wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for a newspaper review column or a literary review. Not all reviews have to be the same to be considered reviews.

    • January 25, 2014 12:24 pm

      I go back and forth about word usage. On the one hand, as in the movie Mean Girls, she was never going to make “fetch” happen. On the other hand, people change the meanings of words all the time. “Ice tea” is not a solid, for example. People in England “revise” for exams.
      But I do think that if you continue to do something and call it by a certain name, then the name will catch on if what you’re doing catches on. Think of the way Montaigne and then Samuel Johnson used the word “essay” as a trial of ideas from a personal point of view–that caught on!

  8. January 26, 2014 9:51 pm

    I caved and bought this, though heaven knows when I’m going to get around to reading it. I haven’t even gotten to Among Others yet. I’ve read a bunch of her posts on Tor as they’ve come out, but, even if this is silly in this day and age, I do still feel there’s something so transient about a blog post. A book is something I can hold and keep and it feels permanent, so I won’t have that awful sensation of wanting to go back to something and discovering it’s been gone for some time. Logically, I know the chances of that are low, and I can lose a book just as easily as those particular posts are going to disappear. But loving books isn’t just about logic, is it?

    • January 27, 2014 7:56 am

      No, it isn’t just about logic.
      My students have been laughing at me a little bit this year for using paper notes, rather than keeping it all on my google calendar or the notes function on my phone. So I’ve tried to keep a few more of my notes electronic. I’m part of a transitional generation, though, so I haven’t tried to teach myself all new tricks.

  9. Wendy permalink
    January 27, 2014 2:41 pm

    This book piques my interest, especially since I don’t think of myself as particularly drawn to SF and fantasy; however, based on the titles mentioned in your review, I suspect I will find many books that I’ve already read or will want to read.

    • January 28, 2014 8:49 am

      There is a good explanation of how a person learns to read like a science fiction and fantasy reader.

  10. January 28, 2014 1:49 pm

    When I saw this book was out, I thought it sounded interesting. I read Among Others last year and bemoaned the fact that the way books were talked about within its pages made me feel excluded, as I hadn’t read them and some familiarity was necessary to enjoy the heroine’s journey through sci-fi. I would probably read more sci-fi if I knew anything about it, but I seriously don’t. It’s funny that crime fiction is regularly the subject of academic conferences, but I don’t see that much sci-fi being discussed. Though French authors such as Maurice Dantec and Antoine Volodine who write on the borderline between literature and sci-fi are changing that in French circles now. I’m in complete agreement with Tom – my opinions don’t make a book great, and it’s understanding why something works so well that’s really satisfying to me when I’m reading reviews. Which can indeed be about any book from any time. Honestly, I do wish people would put any insecurity they feel about what they read to one side, and bin the endless and pointless arguments around value judgements. We end up doing such a disservice to books if we can’t get past our vulnerabilities about how things look from the outside, or the determination to make one opinion prevail.

    • January 29, 2014 2:56 pm

      Hear, hear!
      There are academic conferences in which SF is discussed. One is the annual International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. Eleanor went to that last spring with her friend Irene and Irene’s mother, who is a Hugo-award winning SF editor. That’s when Eleanor met Neil Gaiman.

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