What Makes Jo Walton So Great

Today is publication day for Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), a selection from her posts on Tor.com written between 2008 and 2011. So Tor.com management asked me if I’d like to write a post called “What Makes Jo Walton So Great,” and of course I agreed. What I forgot was that I’ve already essentially written this piece, once for Boskone in 2009 and once again, revised and expanded, for Wiscon in 2013.

So I’ll just go ahead and repeat myself, because Jo Walton is, in fact, so great. As I said before:

“She’s a terrific writer, but she’s also an even rarer thing, a truly gifted salonnière, someone who starts conversations that other people want to join, and makes it all seem as easy as breathing. In person or online, where there’s Jo Walton, there’s good talk, often between people who would never have otherwise known or appreciated one another. Jo is herself a great appreciator and a tabulator of who ought to get to know whom. In the best sense of the word, she is the most naturally fannish professional writer I have ever known.”

All of which is fully on display in What Makes This Book So Great. Her brief essays aren’t works of analytical criticism; they’re far more personal than that. Jo isn’t trying to establish a canon, or boost an agenda, or put forth a theory about what SF and fantasy should or shouldn’t be. What she does, over and over, is invite a conversation, and set forth some insightful starting points.

Mind you, What Makes This Book So Great does include thoughtful, well-considered assessments of some of our most widely-acknowledged peaks of literary achievement, inside the genre and outside of it. Novels by Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin; the short fiction of James Tiptree, Jr.; and also non-genre novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, John Fowles’s The Magus, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It’s got essays such as “The Suck Fairy” that have already contributed useful language to the world (Jo is good at that), and passionate advocacy for ambitious novels that haven’t been read by nearly enough people, like Candace Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine and Susan Palwick’s Shelter.

All of which is to the good. But one of my favorite things about What Makes This Book So Great is a pair of long, multi-essay considerations of a couple of important multi-volume works—fifteen posts about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books, and eighteen about Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos/Dragaeran Empire novels. Both Bujold’s and Brust’s series have been growing since the 1980s, and both are works, now literally epic in scope, that (1) use superficially conventional genre forms to (2) tell stories of subtlety and moral complexity, to the (3) engaged delight of innumerable intelligent readers, (4) unfortunately not including the vast majority of the field’s critics and reviewers, (5) most of whom seem to have decided long ago that these aren’t the kind of books Serious People talk about.

Fortunately, like tens of thousands of other readers, Jo Walton gets that Bujold and Brust are actually producing works of considerable depth, complexity, and nuance, rich with scenes and stories that take up residence in our heads and inform the way we think about life. Almost as if they were (whisper it) literature. Perhaps Jo’s extended considerations will lure some of the high-minded to give these books a second look. But that’s not really what Jo cares about.

Because Jo isn’t here to reboot old arguments about what is and isn’t literature. She wants to talk with you about books. And about what makes this book—perhaps flawed, perhaps wrong in some ways, but totally worth reading for other reasons, especially for this one thing it does better than almost anything else—what makes this book so great.

We’re re-posting some of the essays from the book this week on Tor.com. Follow the What Makes This Book So Great tag to see keep track of them!

Patrick Nielsen Hayden is a senior editor at Tor Books. Read more about him on the Tor.com About Us page.


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