Monday, July 06, 2009

We were on a long hike this past weekend, and there was plenty of time to talk about all kinds of things. I mentioned that I was re-reading the sixth Harry Potter (which does get considerably better after the first 100 pages, btw), and as it turns out, everyone who was in earshot--none of whom were under the age of 18--had read them. It quickly became apparent that I was the only one who had been disappointed with the seventh book. So, since I haven't read it in two years, I am eating my hat. I'll reserve judgment until I've read it again-- but since my summer reading list is chock full and I'm only about a third of the way through it, that will be at least a month or so.

I thought about some good stuff while hiking (one of the best reasons to hike is that it provides excellent thinking time), but my son and I are leaving to go out of town in a couple of days so I doubt I'll get to type it out before I leave. Maybe later.

(who dearly loves summer)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile that I am a fan of genre fiction. ("Genre" fiction being novels which fall into one of the genres--science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc-- as opposed to "literary" fiction, which I am in no position to define, but is generally regarding as being of higher quality and greater literary value than genre fiction.) I love all of it. In spite of being impossibly geeky, I survived junior high relatively unscathed because what was happening between the covers of the books I was reading was more important to me than what was happening at school. And the books I was reading were science fiction--Asimov, Bradbury, Andre Norton, Ben Bova. I devoured them, sometimes reading a new one every day. And I've had a lifelong fascination with fantasy, starting with the fairy tales of childhood and continuing on with Narnia, Ursula LeGuin and Edward Eager in grade school, Stephen Donaldson in college, and Guy Gavriel Kay and Tolkein in grad school. I spent nearly two years after the birth of my son reading nothing but mystery novels, in spite of having read barely a handful of mysteries before. And I've already confessed to my sudden obsession with romance novels last summer.

I like to think it's because I enjoy stories, and genre fiction tends to have good stories. Of course I've read dozens of literary novels that were terrifically good, but I've also read more than a few where nothing ever happens. Those books tend to be all about the writing, the Art, the construction of beautiful prose, but I keep waiting for a plot. At its best, literary fiction gives you that moment of recognition, that feeling of "I've had exactly that experience" but here it is so beautifully worded that it is both uplifting and appeals to one's inner sense of beauty, of things done/said exactly right. (And might I add that my own power of words --such as it is-- is escaping me as I'm trying to describe the experience.) But at its worst, it's downright boring.

Sometimes I just want to escape from my own boring life, or to be entertained, and if escape is what I'm after, I want a really good story in which to lose myself. One where you're turning the pages to find out what happens. I don't necessarily think that having a good story precludes good writing, or realism in the details of character development and experience. But the tidy endings and neat resolutions of most genre fiction are perhaps something that not many of us experience in real life, and maybe that's exactly what I enjoy, especially when I'm just reading for fun.

The book I read on our last vacation-- Maps and Legends, which is non-fiction-- has a number of essays in it that amount to a defense of genre fiction, so I've been thinking about this a fair amount recently. It seems to me that there are two levels of really good genre fiction: books that are the "best of" their genre but that probably still wouldn't appeal to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre, and then a very few that transcend their genre, that are just flat out good novels. In the "best of" category, it's easy to just list my favorite authors. In mysteries, P.D. James, Rick Riordan and Martha Grimes come to mind; in science fiction, the authors mentioned above plus Dan Simmons and Neal Stephenson; in romance, Jennifer Crusie, Loretta Chase, Elizabeth Hoyt and her alter ego Julia Harper. I should say here by way of apology that though I love genre fiction, I haven't read it very widely, and there are almost certainly other authors that should be on this list that I've never tried (particularly in mysteries).

But the list of genre novels that "transcend" their genre is really short, if you ask me. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons' masterpiece (published as two separate novels but really one book), would absolutely be in that category. I remember thinking at the end of one of Grimes' Richard Jury novels, "wow, that was just a good book," although I can't remember which one it was at the moment-- probably the fourth or fifth in the series (which seems to be where all series peak and where nearly all of them begin to fall off, if you ask me, although maybe that should be a separate post). And after months of reading romance novels, I've read only one that comes anywhere close to that level, Crusie's Fast Women, which reads like one of the British comedies of manners (Oliver Goldsmith, maybe? or even Oscar Wilde? It's been so long since I've read any of them I'm not sure which one is apt) with its witty dialogue, elements of farce, and snide, complex commentary on the manners and mores of the age. Though based on the reviews on Amazon, I'm not certain many other readers would agree--it has one of the least likable heroines of any romance novel I've read.

I've also started to think that young adult fiction (YA) is really its own genre, which brings me around to what prompted me to write out all these ideas after having them knock around in my head for several months now. I've been re-reading the 6th Harry Potter book before the movie comes out in a couple of weeks, and finding it somewhat disappointing. Of course, I'm only about a hundred pages into it at the moment, and it is well over 600 pages long, so maybe I'm just being impatient. But previously I would have included the Harry Potter novels in the list of books that transcend their genre-- books that could be read and enjoyed by anyone with enough of an open mind to give them a try. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe they are just good examples of the genre, but still unlikely to be appreciated by someone who isn't already a fan of YA lit. When we were reading and re-reading the series as they came out, I think I was at least partly enthralled by the ongoing mystery of what was going to happen, how all the little details were going to work out. Now that the 7th book is out and has been for some time, that bit of magic is no longer part of the equation, and I'm finding the series is a little flat. Partly because I found the 7th book to be a little disappointing-- it did a more than adequate job of tying up all the loose ends, but what can you say about a seven-novel denouement where the two main participants spend several pages circling each other and explaining in detail the magical theory behind what is happening? shouldn't we already know that? (I should definitely save this for another post, after I've read the 7th one more recently, which should be later in the summer.)

So what would I consider to be YA books that transcend the genre? "Best of" but not transcend is easy-- Tiffany Aching, Percy Jackson, and Harry, among recently published books. Of course there are dozens if you're going back over the years. Transcend?? I'll have to think about it, but I'm not sure Harry makes it.