Wed
Jun 3 2009 4:56pm

Something old, something new?

Graham Sleight has an interesting article on the Locus blog about the utility, or otherwise, of discussing old books. (This is slightly recursive, as he mentions my reviews here, but never mind.) I’m mostly in violent agreement with Graham about this: science fiction is a genre where it’s good to know where you’re coming from, how people do this, where the cliches are. All the same, I don’t think it should be entirely born out of its own head. I think there’s a set of SF used furniture that it’s possible to use to write science fiction that references nothing but other science fiction, and I think this is a terrible idea.

My brief for Tor.com, what Patrick Nielsen Hayden specifically asked me to do when he first asked me to blog here, was to say smart things about books that nobody else had thought about for ages.

I agreed to this because I love talking about books but I hate reviewing. When you review, they send you books that are sometimes awful. I hate trashing things, and I think there’s a weird ethic about it when you are yourself a writer, not just because you may know the writer, but because they will read it and cry and say “Why does Jo hate me?” in a way they wouldn’t have when I was the exact same Jo on rec.arts.sf.written but wasn’t yet a published writer. I think it’s that they may feel we are in competition, and that I am saying mean things about them to try to get ahead of them, and wouldn’t do that if you stuck pins in me, and I hate that anyone could think I could. Or, more reasonably, they feel we’re peers, and one should be polite to peers. But if I’m going to be polite then I can’t be honest, and there’s absolutely no point in lying about books, in any circumstances. Everything I say I think, I am saying because I genuinely think it. But I don’t have to say everything I think about everything. If I don’t like your book, I won’t mention it.

Even worse than that problem, though, is that when you review, they keep sending you perfectly worthy books about which there is nothing whatsoever to say. There are a lot of books in the world about which I can only say “This is one of these, and people who like this kind of thing will like it.” And that’s useful information to those people, who will say “Yay! A new one of those!” but it’s incredibly boring to slog through the books that aren’t my kind of thing, and to write the review so that it isn’t dull enough to put people to sleep. I’m not doing that any more.

By writing about what I’m re-reading, I’m limiting myself to books that I like, or anyway, books about which I have something to say.

For very good reasons, reviews generally concentrate on brand new books, books which are sometimes not even out yet. From a writer’s point of view, this is a really good thing—you want everyone to buy your book in the first week, before the shops have a chance to return it. The more attention it gets in that first week the better. But from a reader’s point of view, a review of a book that’s just out gives me the “Yay! A new one of those!” information, but that’s all, because I haven’t read it yet. I read Locus with my eyes shut, because if I know I want to read the books, I don’t want the spoilers. The only time reviews are useful to me if when I don’t know I want the book, when it’s a new author, or an author I don’t know. So normal reviews, the kind that, as Graham says, really are the vast majority of all reviewing, are good sales tools, but aren’t all that conducive to discussion about the book. It’s too new, nobody else has read it yet.

However, the posts I’m making here are mostly about books that have been out for a while, that I like, that I’ve thought about, and that I’m re-reading. I have done a few reviews of new books, but mostly they’re anything from a year old to a hundred and fifty years old. (I think Middlemarch is the oldest book I’ve done.) Some of them are classics—and it’s the classics that Graham is reviewing in his terrific Yesterday’s Tomorrows column in Locus. Classics get attention in science fiction, for the reasons he talks about.

But a lot of what I’m writing about here are books that came out in the last couple of decades, that I really liked, and that haven’t necessarily got all that much attention. They might be in print, they might not. I love it when people say things like “Another book to look for!” I doubt I’m doing much for the author’s sales short term—though the number of authors I’ve started reading in the library that are now favourites I buy in hardcover you wouldn’t believe. But the absolutely best thing is when other people remember a book and we can have an interesting discussion about it, when they have smart things to say about it, new perspectives. I love it. When I’m talking about a book that’s been out for a year, or three years, or twenty years, other people have had a chance to read it. Some of the books I’ve talked about here are incredibly popular—Bujold’s Miles books won a whole slew of Hugos. Others are pretty obscure—I was thrilled that several people I don’t know have actually read King of Morning, Queen of Day.

So I’m going to be going on with my usual eclectic mix of reading and talking about books, some fantasy, some science fiction, a sprinkling of things that are neither, some older, some newer, just as I feel like picking them up, and it’s not at all because I think the old stuff is better than what people are writing right now. I’ve just had longer to think about it.

25 comments
Chris C.
1. Chris C.
Jo, your reviews of older books are the main reason I keep the tor.com feed in my RSS reader. And it's exactly for the reasons you describe here. Being only 24, I've had a chance to read most of the classics but simply wasn't around or reading sf yet when a lot of the other stuff you mention was new and cool. I love to read what you have to say about the ones I've read and I love even more finding out about older books that aren't on my classics radar, but which seem like they'd be great fun. Keep up the good work.
scott hhhhhhhhh
2. wsp_scott
I am one of the people saying "another book for my reading list". I am in the process of moving, so I can't say how many of your reviewed books I have bought. The one that jumps to mind is "Black Wine". I bought that entirely based on your description, haven't read it yet, but it is on the shelf. "Downbelow Station" (pretty sure that was your mention) is going on vacation with me next week.

I have added a ton of other books (Bujold, to my amazon wishlist for future purchase. Long story short, you are putting a hurting on my wallet and I am grateful. Thanks for a lot of future reading.

P.S. Don't know if you get paid for this gig, but you deserve a raise :)
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
I feel vaguely like I ought to say something about the LotR re-read, since it's also mentioned in the linked post, but all I can think is that it wasn't part of some grand scheme to turn Tor.com into retrospective central--it was a personal project that I wanted to re-start and thought here would be a fun place to do it. In other words, I solicited Tor.com, not the other way around.

The subsequent large-scale re-read/re-watch projects did come later, but I don't know how much blame/credit the LotR project can take for that.
Hugh Arai
4. HArai
The subsequent large-scale re-read/re-watch projects did come later, but I don't know how much blame/credit the LotR project can take for that.


Definitely credit not blame considering how much enjoyment I and a lot of other people are getting from them.
David Spiller
5. scifidavid
Jo, I love your articles about older books. As you point out there is a ton of information available about brand new and forthcoming books. It is much rarer to find interesting articles about books that came out 5, 10 or 15 years ago. There are a ton of great books that are not in the 'canon of science fiction', that everyone is familiar with even if they havn't read, that deserve to be remembered and enjoyed. I think you are providing an invaluable service by shining a spotlight on these books. I especially like when you do this in a spoiler-free fashion like you did with 'Dread Empire's Fall'. Please keep these articles coming. They are a joy.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
Jo, thanks to your posts, I have resurrected memories of some old favorites and I've become interested in books I've either never heard of or have seen and never picked up. Your recent post on "The House on the Strand" made me put it on my list for my next library visit. I had never heard of it before. Keep it up, I'm enjoying your reviews very much.
Chris C.
7. Wayspooled
Love your column. I just came across it today, first time I've been to Tor and I've had a page open on your stuff all day, reading off and on. Excellent stuff, very useful, very interesting. I like your writing style but it's very reassuring we seem to like the same things about the same books, lol. David Eddings death today put me to making another top 10 list and now I have to go find this old trilogy I read a long time ago by Susan Dexter to see if it was as good as I remember, hehe..

You're a good read :)
Chris C.
8. Heloise
Seems like a good occasion to say what I've been wanting to for quite a while, i.e., how much I enjoy your posts on this site, both as inducing re-examination of and offering insights into books I've read as well as a reliable source of new reading material - I think everyone reading your posts regularly will have added several new books to their reading lists, and maybe even read some of them.

In short, thank you ever so much for writing those entertaining, insightful and all-round inspiring posts; I will continue to look forward to each of them.
René Walling
9. cybernetic_nomad
For mainstream fiction, the school system makes sure you've read at least some of the classics (from Hamlet to Catcher in the Rye). This is not the case for genre fiction (there are exceptions). I think this is just one reason it is important for the SF community to look at what's been done before.

We also often talk about how non-genre writers attempting to write SF fail at it because they are not familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre. This is another reason why being in the SF community and taking part in these kinds of discussion is important if you want to write/create/read/appreciate groundbreaking works.
Chris C.
10. ArabiaTerra
Just to say, I love your column, keep it up.

(And I own a first edition of King of morning, Queen of day.)
rick gregory
11. rickg
Jo,

I love your posts. Part of that is that we seem to like enough of the same stuff that I've gotten a feeling of how our tastes relate but that you read so much more than I do that I discover new things in your columns. Much of the appeal for me, though, is that you DO deal with older works. Too often great older books don't get the attention and we all move on to new stuff. New stuff is fine, but just as older isn't necessarily better, neither is newer.

I hear you on the “This is one of these, and people who like this kind of thing will like it” issue. I'm thinking that much of this activity can move over to sites like Goodreads where people can find affinity with others and see when things.
ennead ennead
12. ennead
"I read Locus with my eyes shut"

That's exactly how I do it, dreading the spoiler if it looks like I might want to read the reviewed book. I fight the unwanted spoilers by having a humongous "to read" list and a poor memory (I may have trained myself to forget spoilers).
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Kate: I was idly thinking this morning that I could do a re-read of the "Song of Ice and Fire" a chapter at a time, one every hour or so...
Hugh Arai
16. HArai
I'd read it! When does it start? :)
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Sandikal, Kate, HArai: Not until A Dance With Dragons is definitely out. Rereading the early volumes tends to make me seeky for the new one -- I can only contain my craving for a series by leaving it untouched until I know I'm sure of a new fix.

("I'm Jo," "Hi Jo!" "...and I'm not really a book addict because sometimes I can go for several weeks or even a month or so without checking the status of City in the Crags...")
Chris C.
18. John Adkins WV
Jo,

Add me to the list of folks who appreciate your reviews of older books. Even prolific readers cannot read everything and your reviews point out some of the stuff we may have missed. Thank you. Thank you especially for your recent write up of the Dread Empire's Fall books. I downloaded Praxis to my Kindle as I read your review and am now about to start the third book. Wonderful stuff and I would never have found it but for your review. I am eternally grateful!

John Adkins
Amy Young
19. ceara
I have a general policy of trying to read one older book for every new (or newish, I do get rather substantially behind) release I read. Your reviews have provided quite a few of my ideas for those older reads, either by reminding me of books I already loved, or by introducing me to ones I'd not yet heard of at all.
mm Season
20. mmSeason
I'd just like to agree with everyone who agrees with you that it's well worth talking about books other than those hitting the market this month. My journey through literature wasn't in chronological order of writing when i was a child and coming to things for the first time, the whole world opening up for me, and i don't see why i should try to make it so now. Thanx for these reviews, which are introducing me to much that i hadn't come across otherwise. And i agree, too, with those who have said your column is the main or only reason for subscribing to Tor's rss.
Chris C.
21. Mary Frances
Me, too. What everyone above has already said. You have reminded me of (and caused me to reread, and think seriously about) books that I first encountered years ago, and had almost forgotten; you have introduced me to "new" authors, whose names I would never have recognized even at the annual library used book sale, otherwise. I consider your column a public service to the genre--and an enjoyable, entertaining one--and never miss a review.
Chris C.
22. Quercus
I appreciate being reminded of books I may not have looked at in years: you've prompted me to go and reread The Compleat Traveller in Black and Hyperion, and I think I've lost my copy of The House on the Strand. Oh no, I'll have to go and find a replacement. Tsk. Any excuse to buy another book.
Chris C.
23. Peter D. Tillman
Jo:

The "See all conversations" feature at tor.com returns only one page of your retro-reviews, apparently those with recent comments.

Could you post an index to these reviews somewhere, ideally here? They're good reviews, and people should be able to find them. (Yes, you can get them all via Google, but not tidily.)

Incidentally, I've started posting links to some of your reviews at Wikipedia. Good stuff.

And I like your comments on the pleasures and perils of reviewing. I like book reviews, and I like yours.

Happy reading (and reviewing) --
Pete Tillman
--
"The want of books to read at our leisure moments has been a source of great annoyance since we first came into the country, a vexation which has to be experienced to appreciate" -- GR Gibson, on the trail from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, 1847.
Torie Atkinson
24. Torie
@ 23 Peter Tillman

There are a number of easy ways to access Jo's reviews. You can click her name from the "All Bloggers" link on the left side of the front page and it will filter the front page to only show her posts, going all the way back. Alternately, you can click on her tag "re-reading" and it will do a search for all posts with that tag (which should be all of them).
Kate Nepveu
25. katenepveu
(The re-reading tag also gets the LotR & WoT posts, though, which are fairly numerous.)

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