I’m fond of reading. In fact, I recommend it. There’s no better way to avoid talking to weirdoes on the bus. Reading is good for you and everybody says so, even LeVar Burton, and he should know. Despite a visual impairment, he rose to the rank of chief engineer on a starship. I know these things because of how much I read.
Since the day Shakespeare ghostwrote the Bible for King James, we Anglophones have regarded reading as big stuff. But there’s no way you can read everything. Scientists calculate that it would take twelve hundred clones of Burgess Meredith—with fully functioning spectacles—a minimum of four hundred years just to read all the Count Saint-Germain novels.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of time. So it’s only natural that if you wish to present yourself as a well-read person, a certain degree of complete bullshit is required. There’s no shame in lying about what you’ve read. There’s only shame in getting caught. Then you look like a doofus, and an illiterate one at that. And there are few things upon which the literate world heaps more scorn than doofi.
When dealing with science fiction and fantasy fans, it’s especially crucial to avoid accidental self-doofication. As a general rule, one must appear to have read everything ever written. Fail to do so and you’ll instantly be bombarded with statements of disdain. “Oh my fucking god, you haven’t read Cryptonomicon? What are you, Amish?”
And so, lest we be tarred with such stinging epithets, we must learn to lie. Allow me to teach you my five simple rules for lying about books.
Rule #1: Change the Subject
When engaging in the secret art of literary bullshittery, the goal is to change to subjects as quickly as possible to something you actually do know a lot about. It’s not necessary to appear to be an authority on everything in a sustained dialogue. If you’re talking to someone who wrote a doctoral thesis on the use of Platonic philosophy in Ubik, but you’ve never read it, don’t start jabbering on about the Theory of Forms. Your chicanery will be exposed like a senator in a public restroom. Mention instead that you once saw an image of Philip K. Dick on a tortilla.
Rule #2: Be a Psychologist
While waiting for the opportune moment to steer the topic toward something you know about, pretend the person you’re talking to is your patient and you are an analyst. Say “Hmm” and “Really?” a lot, and “Why do you say that?” and “How does that make you feel?” This is called active listening but could just as well be called, getting ready to hijack the conversation. When a salient point comes along, pounce on it. “I see what you’re saying, and that’s exactly why I always wanted to be a cyborg.” Presto, the conversation is yours.
Rule #3: Don’t Be Negative
Some folks get the notion that ignorance is best camouflaged by aggressive displays of being a dick. They think the best thing to do is to gesticulate madly, yelling, “Watership Down? I wouldn’t wipe my sphincter with Watership Down!” This is the literary equivalent of a cornered lizard unfurling its neck frill and hissing. It doesn’t mean the lizard has read the book.
Rule #4: Carry a Picture of a Kitten in Your Wallet
You’re at a room party at a convention and find yourself in a totally indefensible position, surrounded by unyielding fantasy experts perseverating on Anne McCaffrey. They all want to know what you think of Rengades of Pern. You begin to sweat. Should you jump off the hotel balcony or punch one in the face and jet down the hall? Then you remember the picture of the kitten in your wallet. It’s a tabby covered in spaghetti. You whip it out and they all go “aww.” Every one of them has at least four cats at home. It’s going to be OK.
Rule #5: Remember Titus Alone
Sometimes your only recourse is to out-lit-nerd your opponent, to bring up something they haven’t read. For this, there’s no better ammunition than the third book of the Gormenghast series. Why? Because no one has ever read it. Not even Mervyn Peake himself. He wrote it while drunk in the late 1950s and couldn’t remember a word. His editor supposedly cut big parts of it, but the truth is he just didn’t read it. They printed it anyway since there was a paper surplus that year. The person who wrote the wikipedia page is guessing. (I’m sure someone in the comments section of this post will claim they’ve read it. It’s all right. I won’t contradict you. Your secret is safe with me.)
These five rules will cover up your ignorance in most cases. A little additional help is required to bullshit yourself out of a conversation about a few particular authors, though, so I’m offering more specific information. Feel free to add your own suggestions.
Sir Terry Douglas Pratchett Adams: Rumored to be two people, Sir Terry D.P. Adams is a British humorist famous for Hitchhikers Guide to Discworld and posthumously granted knighthood for his ongoing work with endangered monkeys. Influenced by P.G.K. Wodechesterhouserton, he is a confirmed atheist who might believe in God.
Isaac Asimov: If you stack all the books Asimov wrote end-to-end, bring a parachute. The best thing about such a prolific author is you can just make up a book. People mostly talk about the Foundation series, but you can invent your own. Call it The Subatomic Monster. No, wait, that’s a real title.
Octavia E. Butler: Conversations about Butler generally revolve around vague references to race and gender issues. The vagueness, here, is a clear indicator that they haven’t read her either, so you’re safe. If you come across a serious, specific and detailed discussion of Butler, which may or may not include race and gender, just nod a lot and wait it out. If you don’t know anything about race or gender, you’re probably a sentient Dixie cup and whom you have or haven’t read is the least of your concerns. Your kitten photo will be of little use.
Neil Gaiman: Make up a humorous anecdote about the time you met him. This method is readily accepted because everyone knows someone who claims to have met him. Talk about how nice he is and how he’s fascinated by whatever it is you actually want to talk about. “There I was, in the hotel bar of the Atlanta Sheraton, practicing my Tuvan throat singing, when along comes this British guy and he busts out a perfect Dumchuktaar. It was Neil Gaiman. Turns out he’s half Mongolian. Nice guy!” This also works for Tim Powers.
Frank Herbert: My brother would be repulsed to learn that I’ve never read Dune. I’ve gotten around this gap in my reading by watching the movie and proclaiming that it was nothing at all like the book. No one has ever questioned this statement.
Ursula Le Guin: She’s won more awards than you’ve had hot mistakes. She’s most famous for A Wizard of Earthsea, which I may have read. She also writes poetry. Memorize this one and recite it to anyone who doubts you’re a big fan. Crows are the color of anarchy / and close up they’re a little scary. / An eye as bright as anything. / Having a pet crow would be / like having Voltaire on a string.
H. P. Lovecraft: The basic idea is that what you don’t understand will drive you insane and/or devour you or mate with you and it’s probably wet and gibbering and full of tentacles and this is also what he thought of Black people and Jews.
Neal Stephenson: If Stephenson comes up in conversation, ask the people around you if Stephenson is cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk. Let them battle it out while you eat corn chips. Also, sometimes Stephenson has this really amazing beard. It’s like a wizard beard. It’s the kind of beard you could defeat Flash Gordon with, or yell “Alakazam!” in all seriousness. Sometimes he trims it, which is disappointing.
J. R. R. Tolkien: You saw the movies, right? All you need to know is there’s no dwarf tossing in the book and no Tom Bombadil in the movies. Tom Bombadil is a sort of immortal hippy. For extra credit, mention that the loneliness of the Ents makes you sad.