Towards the end of 2019, a well-regarded essayist expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of the SF novel. He went so far as to confidently assert, “I stopped reading novels last year. I think you did too.” Sweeping assertions are often wrong. This one is definitely wrong, at least where I am concerned.
What may have sparked his comment is burnout, of the form that might be called “reader’s block.” You want to read something, but can find nothing specific you want to read. I think most of us who read extensively have been there.
The best method I know of for mitigating reader’s block is to cast one’s net wider. Literary ennui may be simply be a matter of reading too narrowly. Consider the books you’ve recently read and ask yourself if they have any common elements. Maybe set up a spreadsheet? That’s what I do. If you’re not the sort of person who enjoys that sort of thing, muse on your recent reading in a vague way and ask yourself if there is something they share. Are all the authors of the same gender? Do they come from the same narrow cultural background? Have you been sticking to a certain sub-genre? If so, why not take chance on a book outside your comfort zone?
That’s easier than it used to be. While publishing is still less diverse than the real world, it’s more diverse than it was fifty years ago. The odds are very, very good that there is material out there that would scratch your itch, but from an unfamiliar angle. If you tend to read nothing but military SF, try some steampunk. Or read some military historical fiction, like the Horatio Hornblower series (which influenced a lot of MilSF). If you only read older works, try more recent ones. If you only read new works, sample some old ones. If you like urban fantasy, try detective novels. If you read only fiction by men, try books by authors of other genders. If your preferred authors to date have been white, have a look at the hundreds of authors of colour now publishing. If everything you’ve read was originally published in English, consider translated books.
I have just been handed a note that says, “You could also try doing something other than reading.” I am at a loss as to what that could mean.
Finding variety is not going to be a problem. Sifting the gold out of the dross may be; Sturgeon’s Law and all that.
Not all online review aggregators are necessarily trustworthy. Some authors and publishers have gamed the system, paying for favorable online feedback or asking fans to post five-star reviews whether or not they’ve read the work in question, for example.
You could go by covers (well, no; on second thought, there are far too many good books with bad covers) or blurbs (afraid not; could be taken out of context) or excerpts posted online. This latter route, though often reliable, might take time you don’t have. Also, if you develop skills that will allow you to accurately sort books into promising and less promising before fully reading them, you might end up a book reviewer.
Awards can be a useful aid in this matter. Any particular award might prove contrary to one’s tastes (still useful at least for eliminating work you probably won’t like) but there are many awards devoted to fantasy and science fiction. If one award’s preferences don’t match yours, try another.
Perhaps the most common (and efficient) method is to find recommenders you can trust. Friends and family in meatspace and online. Authors you like who can be trusted to recommend stuff that they really have read and really do like. Reviewers whose tastes are reliably like (or opposed to) yours.
What about you? Can you be a trusted recommender? Tell the rest of us in comments about your recent discoveries of new genres or subgenres, new authors, or old authors new to you.
A version of this essay was first published in December 2019.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.