The Slow, Dark Eclipse of the Soul

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.ย 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.

Leigh Brackett
Ah, yes, classic science fiction, where the women were fierce…

72 thoughts on “The Slow, Dark Eclipse of the Soul

  1. I can only think someone who thinks history has no relevance would say, who cares about the classics. As to writing reviews I hope you continue onward and upward. Not reviewing certain authors crosses over into the PC mindset. I abhor PC since it paralyzes thought and openness about our world. Don’t be discouraged. Think of the source and continue to pour out your thoughts on the world and the written page. The pendulum must have started back in the opposite direction by now.

    1. I do write (on average) a review a week on my blog. It’s very rare that I do a negative review, if only because I can’t bring myself to finish a really bad book. I was really taken aback to be told that I shouldn’t do reviews because I’m an author and it looks bad for an author to say bad things about other authors.

        1. I have no problem promoting other writers – heck, I do that weekly with the Eat This while you Read That! series. So the occasional review that isn’t wholly glowing is not about me tearing down other authors so I look good. I’ll keep reading and reviewing honestly.

          1. You’ve also got to think an honest review, even if you didn’t love the book, would be helpful because things you didn’t like about it might appeal to others. Lets say an old guy bashing a fantasy book for having romance. It’ll make people who like romance go, “Oh cool, romance some guy didn’t like, probably for me.”

              1. Okay, I have to admit that Pixie Noir threw me because it was a guy POV from a female author. Not a bad thing, but it did make me do a double take and check that I had the right book because I’m not used to authors writing main characters of the other gender outside of kids’ books.

                1. Fortunately my name is ambiguous that there are readers who don’t realize at first I’m female. And I know it’s different, in my defense I never expected Lom to just… take over like he did ๐Ÿ™‚

                2. Andre Norton wrote books both with male and female main characters. Weber does as well. Heinlein. And so on. It doesn’t seem odd to me at all. But then generally I don’t care about the sex of the author (or the main character) if the story grabs me.

                  1. There are a lot of men who write female POV. So I really didn’t think much about it until I was working on it and realized I needed male input to do it right.

                    1. I don’t recall anyone criticizing my stuff for having a male POV. Perhaps because I’m further from the urban fantasy/paranormal romance mainstream.

                3. Of my two novels, one is mostly told from a guy’s POV. True, unlike the other, he’s not the only point of view.

      1. Yeah, I remember everyone telling Noirman Spinrad, Ed Bryant and Spider Robinson that.

        Oh, wait, no, I don’t.

        But then again, you’re a gurrrrrrl, An inauthentic reichwing mascot gurrrrrl. So of course the Best People (you know, the ones who are afraid to compete with an Asimov or Leiber or Anderson reprint) can tell you what you shouldn’t do.

          1. Sometimes gurls are much harder on other gurls than guys. Especially those gurls who do and are things they are afraid to do or be.

  2. I have a friend who wrote a fantasy novel, basically message fiction about governments and sound money but with magic. He refused my suggestion that the various rules of magic had all been explored and that he should check it out in order to avoid various traps.

    Naw, he didn’t want to contaminate his unique and compelling inspiration.

    What can you say to that?

    Don’t let the marching morons get you down.

    1. I’ve had times in my life where my book budget was nonexistent. Also, the library tends to stock more ‘new and popular’ while weeding out the older books. So online and free are the choices left.

  3. It may be a reflexive recoil after being forced to read “Classics” in school. I hope. My own kids? One of the loved the classic SF, the other was a GRRM fan. Readers all have their personal preferences.

    As to reviews, the bad ones have been, mostly, the most useful to me, in seeing where I need to expend more effort on the best one. I’m just glad I have so few, and they said _why_ they didn’t like it. Even the diatribe about my anti-Christian bias was useful in reminding me that I have blind spot that I need to be aware of in my writing.

      1. I really don’t see that. You do a better job of allowing for religions than, say Anne McCaffrey. Including Christianity. I’m a Methodist Youth Group leader: I think I know something about Christianity–maybe not much, but something!
        I think you’re doing a pretty good job for someone writing characters that are mostly agnostic. Expect you got someone who’d be just as or even more unhappy about a different sect of Christianity than their own.

        1. I think I hit trigger in the first book. How could I think Christians would take offense at genetically engineered people being referred to as gods? And then wind up a part of the anti-genetic engineering cohort?

    1. And I have had some critical reviews that gave me a glimpse into what I could make better the next time. Reviews that simply say ‘you suck!’ are no good, of course, but a thoughtful insight into why the book didn’t work for that reader is invaluable.

    2. There are worse authors than you for “anti-Christian bias”. [Polite Smile]

  4. Well, I didn’t come in by the classics. I only started reading SF when someone loaned me Tim Zahn’s “Conqueror’s” Trilogy. That led me to a book called “Fallen Angels”, which took me over to the Baen Free Library, where I discovered Weber, Drake, and Ringo. It was a slippery slope from there.

    1. I think Fallen Angels was my entry to the Baen Free Library as well. I’d been reading Project Gutenberg books, which are wonderful, but the stylistic changes to modern writing were a welcome change for me.

  5. We’re arguing the read classics topic at home. Not for science fiction–those aren’t an issue, but for regular classics. “Yes, it doesn’t move the speed you want. Yes, it’s different stylistically. You need to read it so you understand literary references. It’s schoolwork, so don’t whine that it’s not fun.”

    Classic science fiction is more fun, apparently, though I think a lot of it’s the language–classic science fiction being rather younger than other classics.

    1. I’m going to suggest something weird for me, since I don’t listen to audiobooks much at all, but you may try finding them as audio, or even better, the old radio plays.

      1. In theory, I like this idea. But in practice, after five hours of music practice straight I just really want everyone to shut up and read. (That’s five hours between five instruments, six people, from four to however old I’m supposed to be.) There’s no practical way (how I hate open floor plans) to isolate any area of the house from sound.

        I wonder if there’s a pair of headphones the girls haven’t gotten yet? That might work . . .

  6. It’s an article of faith among progressives that history is irrelevant. Everything NOW is better than anything THEN, so the past can be dismissed as irrelevant.

  7. When it comes to classics, it’s well to remember Sturgeon’s Law. I just finished re-reading A Gun for Dinosaur, and I defy anyone to say that story sucks. I liked it when I first read it in junior high, and re-reading it it I like it even more.

    There are others, though, that do suck. Usually they’re not mentioned among the classics because, well, they suck, just as 90% of everything published then sucks, just as 90% of everything published now could substitute for a Hoover vacuum. Some even wibble wobble over wooftops.

    1. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the tidal wave of, ah, Sturgeon’s Law candidates. You’re absolutely right that it applied as easily to work a century old as to work published yesterday. But that’s part of the reason I do the lists, to glean the wheat from the chaff. And the reason I usually call on the groupmind to help me out is that I’m only one person, so my taste is particular to me, while a group of people can produce a more well-rounded list.

      1. Precisely so my dear. Of course 90% of SF&F is crap. The thing is none of us see exactly the same 10% as worthy. Some classics are such simply because they were the first to present a new concept, but due to age and changes in language and technology just don’t read all that well. Others will remain excellent entertainment forever.
        Side note, I’m with your daughter. You didn’t just kill those kittens, you blew them up. I’d probably have never forgiven you if you hadn’t brought them back. I read the second book a while back and picked up the first when you put it on sale last week. Now going to read the second again while waiting patiently for you to finish the sequel as well as the next Pixie book.

        1. Yes, Uncle Lar ๐Ÿ˜€ My son wants me to write another in that series now, even though he wasn’t even reading when I wrote the first… I want to write. Finding the time and mental energy right now is difficult.

  8. There was an author that I loved, would buy (back before electronic books) everything that author wrote, then in a new (then) collection of short stories were two stories that I found viscerally unpleasant and I couldn’t read another book or story by that author (didn’t even finish – or keep – that book). I’m sure that there were lots of readers who loved those particular stories, but for me they were a complete turn-off.

    It happens.

  9. I think everybody who wants to subvert the REVIEW should be required to spend some face time with ME!
    It’s a process which demands integrity. Yup, it CAN get personal, but in those cases, SOMEBODY needs to pull back.
    My perspective on reviewing is two-fold: 1) It gives me a chance to provide feedback & a small amount of publicity to the author 2) It satisfies my own desire to create.
    So what do I do about the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ issue? Well, for one thing, “I refuse to join any group which would accept people like me as a member” (Groucho Marx, I think). I was 16 years old in 1969. Therefore, I rebel against EVERYTHING, including rebellion.
    And what do I do when I read something and don’t like it? In every case except for one, I contact the author directly and relate my objections, and offer to talk about what’s going on. In one those cases, the author withdrew the book, and I’d like to think I had a bit to do with that, but the transactions were aboveboard & honest. Since my PRIMARY goal is to provide feedback to the author, if I have done that by personal communication, I usually don’t write a review; I do offer the option of writing an honest review, if they are of the opinion that even negative reviews are a benefit, but that’s up to them. They don’t get to edit my reviews, though.
    In the single case where I didn’t like a book and didn’t contact the author, it was because he was catching so much grief from other sources I didn’t think he needed to be splashed from my puddle.
    Ill-health has absolutely sapped my energy in the past month. It takes a lot out of me to write a review, and frankly, I just haven’t had it in me. I had ten books I’ve read, and haven’t been able to review, but I resolved to get something done today, and I hit three of them. They are all lawyer books by Scott Pratt: An Innocent Client, In Good Faith, and Injustice For All. They are on Amazon, and I tried to post a link, but it’s three lines long. You’ll have to go to my Facebook page to get a link. Sorry.

    1. Good to hear from you, Pat! I’d wondered what you’ve been up to recently. Glad you are starting to recover from the Dreaded Lurgy.

  10. Thanks for the list! I admit to being aware of a few of those already. Might I suggest adding The Night Land by Hodgson?

    And if I may venture a suggestion on the kitten business, you should’ve thanked your daughter for her input but kept the scene.

    Speaking only for myself, I’ve run into a few ‘uncomfortable’ moments from my favorite authors, but I know when it’s necessary to the story as opposed to tossed in there for shock value and wouldn’t have them change the scenes.

    I’ve run into a similar situation with one of my beta readers. I thanked her for her input and told her her feedback was valued. Considered it. Determined the scene in question was necessary and kept it. I’m sorry if this will lose me readers down the road, but I hope they at least trust that the scenes serve a purpose.

    1. In this case, I was writing the story for her, it was much later that I decided to publish it, so it made sense to keep her happy. Also, in YA things are a bit different than ‘grown-up’ fiction. You’re right, though.

  11. I think (hope) that your “Classics Suck!” commentor misunderstood what you meant by “classics.”

    Now I can’t really comment on sci-fi classics since I’m still re-discovering the genre (learning to re-love Asimov, long story), but as for the “literary classics” I was forced slog through in my high school and college English courses, by and large I agree with that sentiment. I enjoyed the hell out of Shakespeare (still do), but I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a fork than be forced to read, say, Melville or the Bronte Sisters ever again.

    I could rant and rave about this for hours, but the International Lord of Hate actually wrote a blog post on this very subject a couple years back that mirrors my thoughts on the “classics” rather nicely:

    Long story short, if a story has endured because the *readers* love it, then I’ll give it a chance. If it’s endured because *English teachers* like it or think it’s “noteworthy,” then I’ll run very quickly in the opposite direction.

    1. I think he misunderstood what I was trying to make a list of. I wasn’t trying to say ‘all SFF writers MUST read these classics’ I was trying to generate a list of the books that people loved and which stuck with them through the years – which is how I define a classic.

      1. Oh agreed, absolutely. Heck, I read Robinson Crusoe, unabridged, back in middle school and loved it. Same with Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf (yes, Jack London was a racist and a rabid Socialist, but I still enjoyed his books). But I read all of them on my own time and, probably more importantly, didn’t have to analyze the ever-loving sh*t out of them.

        Oh, and Poe. I freakin’ love Poe. Though The Pit and the Pendulum still gives me nightmares.

  12. I’ve told many people before that I majored in Literature, therefore I don’t read literature anymore. I enjoy books for plots and characterization. I don’t care about symbolism or language as much. I also believe that a lot of books are forced upon us in high school when we don’t have the life experience to understand them. If I’d tried to read them as an adult I might not be as annoyed by them.

    1. This is a good point. There were a few books I tried to read and hated, then came back to them years later and they resonated. I’ve also had books I loved the first time, and loved differently when I came back to them as an adult and a mother.

        1. I had to read that for a Brit Lit class in college. Didn’t really enjoy it, but I chalk that up to the fact that we read it immediately after finishing Beowulf. Nothing, IMO, can compete with Beowulf. I should probably dig out the anthology it’s in (I think I still have it…) and try reading it again.

      1. PS just thought of it: I suggest adding Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the list. Its great and its free!

    2. Or because the authors wield the tools of their craft with all the finesse of swatting flies with sledge hammers, and they think it makes it easier to drive home the points. Had the distinct impression from The Scarlet Ibis that it was picked not only because it was dark and dreary, but because it hits you over the head with symbolism and foreshadowing.

    3. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who was passionate about the classics on their own terms, not for what ideology they could push. He had to walk us through the Oddesy and Ovids Metamorphosis to explain what was going on behind the scenes, but I was loving it before the end.

      I had to get the cliff’s motes for Conrads heart of darkness to understand it, and I had to get the audiobook by Scott Brick to fully get the experience. – love all the shades of emotion and irony he impues in the narration, and how he captures the feel of a guy verbally telling his story to pass the time – and now I probably reread heart of darkness once a year, I love it that much.
      So yeah, the classics can be tough to get into, but they’re rewarding.

    4. I chose my formal education to avoid studying literature.

      As I was reading for fun, I eventually noticed that it had layers and all that literary stuff.

      Kratman seems to always have the layers of story, instruction on military practice, and trolling.

      I started picking up a lot more on foreshadowing and symbolism while reading a fanfic by the lady who did A Net of Dawn and Bones.

  13. Confession. I love Larry C’s MHI books. Rather fond of the Deep Six series also. Got hold of Son of Black Sword with great anticipation, and could not get more than half way through it. I know it’s well written, but for me the whole sword and sorcery schtick leaves me cold. Just cannot get into the stuff. But then I felt the same about Conan and Fafyrd and the Gray Mouser as well.
    That said, I loved Niven’s The Magic Will Go Away.

  14. Tastes vary, so people like different books.
    I’ve also noticed that your enjoyment of a book can vary greatly depending on whether you’re reading it or listening to the audio version. I grew up reading Heinlein, but the audio version of Friday is not something that I would recommend. I’ve heard good things about Peter Hamilton, but I can’t make it more than 30 minutes into Judas Unchained. Oh the other hand, I never enjoyed HP Lovecraft before, but the audio book narrated by William Roberts was great.

  15. There’s a fellow doing a “Retrospective of Appendix N Author-by-Author”, which was Gary Gygax’s list of inspirational works here:

    They are -not- all classics, but it is interesting even if somewhat tangential. There are references directly to some free/cheap versions of some of these. (And I turned up most at Amazon without venturing into this-is-a-collectible pricing).

    I’ve also been working my way through the (free at Gutenberg/elsewhere) ‘Harvard Classics Library’, which is dominated by non-SF/F, but had a fairly solid block of fantastical, epic, fairy tale, and sagas. They would have a solid chance of being called SF/F … if their genre wasn’t considered “Classic Literature” ๐Ÿ˜€

      1. I’m on record as saying Jeffro is a frappen brilliant genius. He was able to make me understand his gamer articles, and I have near-zero gamer background.

  16. In keeping with the image you chose, I’ll once again plug the late, great Leigh Brackett. One of the stalwarts of Planet Stories and an accomplished screenwriter, Brackett wrote stunning SF/F hybrids in a style that was as beautiful as it was hardboiled.

    The story the cover depicts is collected in the Best of Leigh Brackett (Del Rey, 1977) but I don’t recall if the two-head mini-dragon is in it.

  17. There is a lovely little book called “The Man Who Was Magic” by a gentleman named Paul Gallico. (I’ve mentioned it here before.) His Alexander Hero stories are good but don’t quite touch the same chord that The Man Who does. (Though the Hero stories put paid that ‘paranormal’ is a new genre. The guy investigates paranormal happenings, and in each book there’s SOMETHING amidst all the fraud he exposes that makes him keep looking for the real deal.)

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