Another Word: On Reading, Writing, and the Classics
In many ways I’m glad that I didn’t have the Internet when growing up; among them is the effect it had on my reading. I was a rapid reader and I read all over the place, frequently re-reading if it was something interesting or I was driven to it by boredom and lack of other reading material. (Kids, this is the #1 thing to love about the Internet—you can always find something to read nowadays. I even have The Canterbury Tales on my phone nowadays for textual emergencies.)
I went through most of my parents’ (both educators) shelves, including some oddities like the complete Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Faulkner as well as all of Thurber and Perelman. At my grandparents, I read five gazillion Reader’s Digest Abridged novels and a bunch of antiquated children’s books that included Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Little Black Sambo at one house while at the other, I found a mess of modern literature and my uncle’s boxes of pulp fiction, primarily Doc Savage and Remo Williams.
I read everything I could find. At the library, after they finally, reluctantly allowed me down into the adult stacks at twelve, I terrorized myself with H.P. Lovecraft. Then, there were the extremely limited books available the year we spent in Mexico: a mixture of a tiny lending library and the spy and military fiction already there in my bedroom, left there by the owner.
A set of World Book encyclopedias as well as an encyclopedia of animals and a coffee table book on wildflowers that taught me how to identify wild trilliums by leaf alone. Gifts from grandparents included the Lord of the Rings in the original bootleg edition. I read it all—the wonderful offerings plucked from the pages of Scholastic, the tiny school library with its somewhat outdated collection, and finally, fantasy & science fiction from the Griffon Bookstore.
I read everything the Griffon had, I think, in the F&SF section, particularly since when I was working there it was kosher to sit during slow times and read at the front desk. I also went through a number of the Penguin classics, which were displayed on the shelves closest to the front desk—all of Dickens, Hardy, and a lot of Trollope for one—and a great many Greek and Roman texts. I’m sure many of the nuances escaped me, but I may have also run the only D&D campaign with references to Aristophanes in it.
I was lucky. I read fast and omnivorously. We had basically three TV channels (plus the religious ones). At some point we got Pong, but that was it for video games. When we got one of the first Macintosh computers, it was a revelation and a half.
Later on in college, someone came through and told a bunch of fellow English majors and myself that Notre Dame English grads usually had crappy GRE scores, so I got a basic overview of literature (I remember the title as being A Biography of English Literature but I haven’t been able to track it down) and used it for my reading list, reading or at least skimming every work the author referenced. That lengthy list included things like George Orwell’s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is the only reason why I know what an aspidistra is. (I ended up doing well on the GREs, sufficiently so to satisfy my highly competitive soul.)
Despite the fact that the Internet was starting to become a force, I logged a lot of reading time during work hours in college, primarily at the hospital computer lab where I worked and where the long night hours left plenty of time for reading with little other distraction other than the need to change a computer back-up tape every twenty minutes.
The point I want to make about my perspective on the “classics” is that I’ve read a substantial portion, both of the F&SF variety and the larger set, and made some of them the focus of study in grad school. (Again from both sets, since that focus was an uneasy combination of late 19th/early 20th American lit and cultural studies with a stress on comics/animation. You can see me here pontificating on The Virtual Sublime or here on Tank Girl. I’m not sure I could manage that depth of theory-speak again, at least without some sort of crash course to bring me back up to speed. But I digress.)
So here’s the question that brought me here: should fantasy and science fiction readers read the F&SF classics? And the answer is a resounding, unqualified yes, because they are missing out on some great reading in two ways if they don’t. How so?
- They miss some good books. So many many good books. At some point I want to put together an annotated reading list but that’s a project for tinkering with in one’s retirement, I think. But, for example, I’m reading The Rediscovery of Man: The Collected Stories of Cordwainer Smith right now (in tiny chunks, savoring the hell out of it) and they are such good stories, even with the occasional dated bit.
- They miss some of the context of contemporary reading, some of the replies those authors are making to what has come before. The Forever War, for example, is in part a reply to Bill the Galactic Hero; read together, both texts gain more complexity and interest.
Beyond that, they run the risk of accepting regurgitations instead of originality—and I will argue that regurgitation is not a process that makes things better, but simply more digestible by even the simplest and most inexperienced digestive systems. There’s a reason we lay aside children’s books and move onto more complicated things as our tastes become more sophisticated.
Admittedly, styles of writing change, and old patterns run the risk of alienating readers. I gave a young friend the Lord of the Rings and was dismayed when he bounced off it. Despite being a fantasy fan, the long sentences and formal prose put him off. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is very early SF (and a charming early example of Mary Sue fiction) but difficult to read because of the antiquated prose style. Here, for example, is a single sentence:
The Lady now finding her self in so strange a place, and amongst such wonderful kind of Creatures, was extreamly strucken with fear, and could entertain no other Thoughts, but that every moment her life was to be a sacrifice to their cruelty; but those Bear-like Creatures, how terrible soever they appear’d to her sight, yet were they so far from exercising any cruelty upon her, that rather they shewed her all civility and kindness imaginable; for she being not able to go upon the Ice, by reason of its slipperiness, they took her up in their rough arms, and carried her into their City, where instead of Houses, they had Caves under ground; and as soon as they enter’d the City, both Males and Females, young and old, flockt together to see this Lady, holding up their Paws in admiration; at last having brought her into a certain large and spacious Cave, which they intended for her reception, they left her to the custody of the Females, who entertained her with all kindness and respect, and gave her such victuals as they used to eat; but seeing her Constitution neither agreed with the temper of that Climate, nor their Diet, they were resolved to carry her into another Island of a warmer temper; in which were men like Foxes, onely walking in an upright shape, who received their neighbours the Bear-men with great civility and Courtship, very much admiring this beauteous Lady; and having discoursed some while together, agreed at last to make her a Present to the Emperor of their World; to which end, after she had made some short stay in the same place, they brought her cross that Island to a large River, whose stream run smooth and clear, like Chrystal; in which were numerous Boats, much like our Fox-traps; in one whereof she was carried, some of the Bear- and Fox-men waiting on her; and as soon as they had crossed the River, they came into an Island where there were Men which had heads, beaks and feathers, like wild-Geese, onely they went in an upright shape, like the Bear-men and Fox-men: their rumps they carried between their legs, their wings were of the same length with their Bodies, and their tails of an indifferent size, trailing after them like a Ladie’s Garment; and after the Bear- and Fox-men had declared their intention and design to their Neighbours, the Geese- or Bird-men, some of them joined to the rest, and attended the Lady through that Island, till they came to another great and large River, where there was a preparation made of many Boats, much like Birds nests, onely of a bigger size; and having crost that River, they arrived into another Island, which was of a pleasant and mild temper, full of Woods and the Inhabitants thereof were Satyrs, who received both the Bear- Fox- and Bird men, with all respect and civility; and after some conferences (for they all understood each others language) some chief of the Satyrs joining to them, accompanied the Lady out of that Island to another River, wherein were many handsome and commodious Barges; and having crost that River, they entered into a large and spacious Kingdom, the men whereof were of a Grass-Green Complexion, who entertained them very kindly, and provided all conveniences for their further voyage: hitherto they had onely crost Rivers, but now they could not avoid the open Seas any longer; wherefore they made their Ships and tacklings ready to sail over into the Island, where the Emperor of the Blazing- world (for so it was call’d) kept his residence.
The field moves and changes; our men of Grass-Green complexion change to crimson-skinned Martians and silvery-eyed androids. It is not the same thing over and over again and that is, at least to my mind, a very good thing indeed. And part of that is why writers, even more than readers, should be reading the classics, or at least trying to pick some representative stuff, should have read at least that which includes a solid smattering of works by Isaac Asimov, Lois McMaster Bujold, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Samuel R. Delany, Carol Emshwiller, P.K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Zenna Henderson, Robert E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Joanna Russ, Cordwainer Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Vance…I need to stop listing names or I’ll be here all day, but all of those are voices that have shaped the genre as we know it. And when you hit problematic stuff—because you will, in one form or another, find something tailored to your particular triggers, it’s okay to love it if you like.
Can you read everything in the field? Of course not. And you’re falling behind in that task even now. But one could, for example, pick up a Nebula Awards collection and get a sampling of that year. Looking at the first one, for example, I see stories by Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Gordon R. Dickson, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, James H. Schmitz, and Roger Zelazny.
That’s an exclusively male line-up, despite the fact there were women writing at the time, and that leads me to suggest that it’s useful not just to read representative works but to get some idea of the context—both the publishing picture at the time various pieces were published and also the larger forces at work in determining what gets remembered and what doesn’t. (There’s an interesting piece in the most recent Uncanny Magazine talking about one of my favorite such books, Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, that is well worth reading and very applicable to today.)
If you tell me you are an F&SF writer who can’t be bothered to shape their reading around a greater understanding of the field, particularly one that will enhance both one’s reading pleasure and writing ability, then I am saddened by what I perceive as a poor choice of priorities on your part.
There are plenty of lists out there. I even helped curate one a few years ago. Sometimes I try to hit at books worth sharing with my You Should Read This posts. And I think it’s important to read all over the place, too and not just the same thing over and over again. Mine past centuries for their gems as well as the current bookstore shelves and make it a project idiosyncratic to your interests, your love.
Do we really need a prescribed reader route into learning to love F&SF? No. What we should focus on is creating as many ways into the genre as possible, looking for the shiny lures currently coaxing new readers into the genre and making lists like that—If you liked the Hunger Games, here’s five titles you’d enjoy. Love Star Wars? Here’s some space opera. Think the Avengers were awesome? Check out From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.
Life’s too short to deny yourself good reading. Try reading something you wouldn’t normally, something from at least two decades ago. See what you think. You may find it ends up creating a way into an entirely enjoyable labyrinth, lit by the torches older writers ignited, leading the way inward while managing to expand your horizons all at the same time.