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, 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.


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