I have good news and better news. The good news is that if you click the following link — yes, this one right here — you’ll be taken to a witty rumination on literary taste and knowledge. The better news is that it’s written by Dan Swensen, who has apparently started a brand spanking new site called Surly Muse that looks like it will be updated with some regularity. And the peasants rejoice! At the end of his post, Dan asks some direct questions that are probably intended to provoke comments and discussion on his own site. (Unfortunately, what he’s going to get from me is a lousy pingback.) He challenges us thusly:
So tell me, reader. What are your genre gaps? Any trashy series that you unabashedly love? Any classics you unreservedly hate? I’d like to know.
My literary knowledge gap runs roughly from the beginning of the written word to the present, with momentary intrusions of literacy consisting of Jane Austen and the ranting of pretentious Internet film geeks. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve been pouring over The Norton Anthology of English Literature (currently on the William Hazlitt headnote in volume two!), and what I’ve concluded is that I know virtually nothing about the literary history of my own language, which has sent me into a spiral of self-pity and flagrant abuse of my wife and sister’s library privileges. (Between the two of them, they have supplied me with a further seven Norton volumes, which, given my deficiencies, may actually be insufficient.) Regarding genre lit specifically, I drew up a list last week based on a recent re-read of a collection of C. S. Lewis essays, Of This and Other Worlds. Lewis fluently discusses both contemporary and earlier modern fantasy (as well as the classics) in clear, insightful, and brilliant prose that elicited a few hearty laughs. I didn’t recognize most of the authors he cited or their works. Here’s the list of authors whose work I will make it a point to check out sometime in the next couple years:
Walter de la Mare
Now, I have at least heard of a few of them. For one thing, I regularly check in with the The Warden’s Walk. Also, I’m a nerd. The likelihood that a nerd like me would make it to age 30 and not hear about any of them is, well, unlikely. But still. That short list in itself demonstrates a few decades of ignorance on my part. Lewis did discuss Tolkein, of course, and I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I’m a confessed philistine in that I much prefer The Hobbit to the more popular and ambitious Rings. I did read The Worm Ouroboros — another favorite of Lewis (and, I believe, Tolkein) a few years ago, and I thought it was quite good, but it was a bit of a slog at the beginning.
Most of the authors Dan cites make their dwelling in vast realm of Matt’s Cultural Ignorance as well. The only reason I’ve read any R.A. Wilson or James Morrow is because he specifically recommended them. I particularly liked Cosmic Trigger II as a form of artful self-interrogation. Morrow’s The Philosopher’s Apprentice demonstrated an utter and bewitching command of language, though I was a bit discomfited by my inability to determine where the narrator’s contemptible arrogance ended and Morrow’s mastery of character delineation began. Perhaps Morrow was even better at his gamesmanship than I thought; Nabokov skirted the same boundaries with Humbert in Lolita, though it was ultimately clear that we were not meant to sympathize with the monster at the heart of that book; I wasn’t so sure about that in Philosopher’s Apprentice. That said, one my priorities for the next year is Towing Jehovah. If the prose in there is anywhere as accomplished as that in Philosopher’s Apprentice, it will be a mighty pleasure.
As for the trashy stuff, I’m not sure if there’s anything I need to be self-consciously unapologetic about in my recent genre reading. In the space of a little more than a year, I’ve become a huge fan of Jim Butcher, but I think he’s a great writer, and I certainly would not classify his work as anything even remotely approximating trash. I guess I’ll have to look further back. In my childhood, I was a fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, as Dan was. The one I kept re-reading had something to do with the ghost of Rasputin, but I never made a chart of my possible paths, so I’m not sure I never found him. For some reason, I think I always ended up dying in the same scenario, whatever path I took. Clearly, my memory for this kind of forking-paths problem solving is horrendous. For this reason, I pray to God that I am not reincarnated as a lab rat.
Somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, an uncle got me hooked on the Dirk Pitt books by Clive Cussler. I haven’t read any of them in more than a decade, so I have no recollection about the quality of the writing, but there was certainly a lot for a young man to enjoy: rampant objectification of hot, independent women (who somehow always needed to be rescued in the end, no matter how many Ph.D.s they had), ultracool marine gadgets, breathless chases, exotic locales, and an alpha male adventurer who ran an officially-sanctioned privateering organization exclusively staffed by his quirky, rabidly loyal buddies. Then there was the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford. Even when I was thirteen years old, it boggled my mind that so many murderous perverts would congregate in Minneapolis. Eventually, it occurred to me that I found the book’s lavish detail on the stalking/killing scenes was very uncomfortable to read. Perhaps that’s just a testament to how effective a stylist Sandford is. It could also be that I just don’t dig reading book after book sweaty, feverish rapists meeting their demise at the hands of quasi-vigilante justice.
So that was high school. I read a lot of thrillers back in those days. One straight-up “genre” series that impressed the hell out of me was an adaptation of a little-known video game called Doom. The novels were written by Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver, and the best one of the quartet was the first, Knee-Deep in the Dead. A title like that, you expect certain things. A scene, for instance, in which the protagonist literally stands knee-deep in a pile of corpses. That happens. It’s awesome, because the corpses are pink demon dogs. The hero’s name is Flynn Taggart, which is also awesome. As in the game, he spends half the book wandering around, killing hellish fiends, until he meets his best bud (a tough-as-nails hottie, natch), and then they spend the other half of the book wandering around together, killing hellish fiends. The lesson here is that I want to name my future kid Dafydd ab Taggart. The fact that this will essentially end the Schneider family line (in name, anyway) doesn’t bother me, because my kid will be ideally situated for killing genetically engineered hellspawn when he grows up.
My wife hasn’t yet grasped the genius of this plan. She’ll come around.
I tore through quite a few sci-fi/fantasy novels besides that in those days. One that sticks out in my memory was called The Whims of Creation, and in this novel, the human race was traveling through space in a giant ark run by a super-advanced A.I. that everyone on board trusts implicitly. (Yup. Apparently they never saw any space travel movie made after 2001.) Instead of simply tricking everyone into going for a spacewalk to “fix” a radar dish or something like that knob HAL 9000, this ship’s computer comes up with a more ingenious, convoluted plan. Since everyone passes the time on board the ship by living their lives through a VR simulation, the computer starts dragging people into an elaborate RPG, thus seamlessly uniting both hard science fiction and D&D style epic fantasy. Again, I have no idea if the book was actually good, and I don’t remember why in the blazes the computer did this (something to do with fixing society’s ills by giving them something imaginative to do), but it enraptured me as a teenager, and if I ever come across a copy in a secondhand store, I might just pick it up.
As far as hated classics goes, I’m not sure there are any genre works that I outright hate that everyone else loves. There are a few that didn’t hook me the way they did others. I’m not a terribly huge fan of the first couple Narnia books. I loved them as a child, but they didn’t do much for me when I got older. The Silver Chair is by far my favorite, and always was (except for a brief period of misguided allegiance to Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Partly because I love Puddleglum, partly because I loved how Eustace matured from an insufferable prig to something resembling a proper hero, partly because I think I identified more with Jill than any other character in the series, and partly because I think the atmosphere in that book is all-consuming; gothic, even. Narnia is a surprisingly versatile place. Lewis managed to cover quite a wide range of milieux over the course of the books, and the one that always clung to me like a dank mist was that of the stagnant, fallen Narnia we see in The Silver Chair. Even moreso than the snowbound winterland of the first book, it feels like a land in need of rescue. There’s little “enchantment.” Since it’s the fourth book, I know that so much of the wonderment of the magic of the land has seeped away, and the book is a masterful exercise in negative presence.
Generally speaking, I have a hard time thinking of books I hated, because the chances are good that if I’m not enjoying a book, I won’t finish reading it. I’ve never finished reading Rendezvous with Rama. I simply lose interest. I recall quite hating Beckett’s Endgame when I read it in college. Probably because I was too ignorant and impatient to get everything out of it that was there. Actually, I read quite a few plays in my contemporary drama class that I did not particularly enjoy. For instance, I’ve never understood the appeal of A Doll’s House. It’s so didactic, so schematic; a puzzle box that leads inexorably to a supposedly liberating denouement, but all I can think of in those final scenes, paraphrasing the lovers in The Who’s 1921 is, “What about the kids?” They’re totally screwed. Sure, Nora got out while the gettin’ was good, but that doesn’t break the cycle, does it? Her kids are going to be raised by the boor that abused her and they’ll be inculcated with all the same boorish, antifeminist values. They’ll probably be even more screwed up in their attitudes toward women by remembering that their own mother abandoned them. She’s an Ibsentee parent. (Sorry.)
I realize that I’ve stepped outside the genre box again (apologies), but as long as I’m ranting about non-genre stuff that I hate, I’ll dial it all the way back to high school once more to bring up A Separate Peace, one of the required texts from my American Lit class. Dreadfully dull stuff, made all the more dull by the humorless exegesis of going through the damn thing page by page. I’d also like to go on record as declaiming Romeo & Juliet as the worst Shakespeare play that I’ve read. Two dumb kids fall in lust and kill themselves when their parents tell them to hit the brakes. Boo-hoo. Get thee to an apothecary.
Despite my disdain for a couple of the world’s great tragic plays and my misspent youth indulging in sadistic paperback thrillers, I don’t consider myself to be functionally illiterate. I also maintain that I’m a fan of genre fiction, despite my knowledge gaps. Among my very favorite novels are Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Following the Christmas season, I will return in earnest to my summer reading list (only 200 more pages to go in The Tale of Genji!), as well as to several science fiction and fantasy titles that have been on my radar for years. I’ll be dipping into the pool of references from the Lewis collection, but I’m also intrigued by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the John Carter books, Assassin’s Apprentice, and I have yet to finish reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and the collected stories of Poe. Anything else I’m missing, besides everything? ☕