It’s been a discouraging week, overall. First there was the article about SF writers coming into the genre without reading the classics of the genre. Then, when I started working on a list of classics available free (or very cheap) online to suggest to potential readers, I got a comment to the effect of ‘classics suck, they should die in a fire, and why should anyone read them?’
In the aftermath of that, which left me wondering why I was trying to make this list… I don’t make the lists to force anyone to read anything. I can’t – who am I? I’m not the teacher, or the… anything. I’m just someone who likes to create these lists of recommendations with input from others, and then they generate even more suggestions in the comments. I make lists to be beginnings, not endings. The hope is that someone will see a title they had never read, or had forgotten, and that strikes mental sparks in folks who have favorites they want to share, and so on. It’s about building up the genre, not tearing it down. I’d never say ‘you must read these books, and only these books, all others are anathema.’
As I was saying, I was still mentally mulling the whole ‘classics suck!’ thing over in my head, when a minor controversy erupted over writing book reviews. When, if ever, is is ok to be critical in a review? Should we put ourselves in a position where we say ‘well, that author is on my side, ergo I must never say a bad word about his work?’ Well, no, I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the occasional critical review is a bad thing – as long as the review is analyzing the work, not the author, and leavened with the good along with the bad. That’s how I do it. But it’s discouraging to be told that we can’t present a critical view of a work, simply because of who the author is.
There are times you just have to carry on, even when it feels like the light has gone from the day and it’s unseasonably dark and cold. To remember that with every generation there is a rebirth of wonder, and a rediscovery of what came before. Classic reads, in the original sense of the word, weren’t the unpalatable stories that get forced on the unwilling, but the tales that resonated through the years with readers of all ages, sexes, and persuasions. Classics were the books that endured, and attracted new readers long after their authors were dead and gone. A book can be immortal, living on in reader’s imaginations as they keep the world alive – like Tolkein’s works, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Heinlein’s – I could literally make a list as long as my arm. But I won’t. I’ll let you, my readers, offer options to the new arrivals on the scene.
And for me, I’ll keep remembering that not everyone loves to read. Some have had sour experiences, and now they flinch when presented with a book. It’s a classic case of conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs salivated when their bell was rung, anticipating tasty treats. Some people have learned that certain cues in books will result in… bad things. Having been forced to read message fiction, they start reacting to any fiction that contains those ‘bells’ the same way. Strong female character who is oppressed by the patriarchy? Yip! There’s another reader running with tail tucked in fear. The writer may not even be writing message fiction, but the bell cannot be unrung.
The writer would be wrong, in the above example, to blame the reader for running. As a writer, we must be aware of how our readers will react to certain things. Kill a puppy in your story? Prepare to get hate mail. Don’t even think about harming a kitten (I did, once. It was totally part of the story, but when my daughter came to me in tears, I hastily re-wrote that part to make sure they survived and then all was well). Protection of the young and innocent is a visceral response for most readers, and if you violate that once you might never be forgiven. I have an author I used to enjoy who I won’t ever read again because of that. I know it’s irrational, but I just don’t want to poke an open wound and rub salt in it for no good reason other than to ‘see if this book is ok’ because there are other books, by other authors I trust.
Which is what I had to remember when I was writing the title. I might be tired, discouraged, and feeling like my little voice piping in the wilderness doesn’t matter, that at best, I’m a mascot. But this isn’t, as I was tempted to write, the long dark twilight of the soul. It is merely an eclipse, and there will be light again soon. There are always good stories to read and enjoy. If you find that an author is making you flinch, no-one is forcing you to read their books. And best of all, there is a whole ocean of reading material available at our fingertips on the internet, most of it for very little or no cash expenditure so even the poorest of beginning writers can read what came before, and get a glimpse into what made this genre truly amazing from the beginning. Read more, and the more light you’ll shed on your brain. Read enough, and that conditioning to start running when certain words like ‘classic’ are spoken can be broken and remolded into a new appreciation of good stories that transport you from the cold into the warmth of other worlds.