On Gender and Genre

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeI’ve been in a book club with some friends from college for a few years now, and a couple of months back we had a discussion about whether or not certain books could be considered “girl books” or “boy books”. The discussion was inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which my friend Aaron argued was more of a “girl book” than he would have liked to read.

Our book club – largely composed of women (and librarians, to boot) – ultimately did not agree with Aaron’s assessment, but the concept of books that are only appealing to a specific gender is not a new one. The romance genre, for example, is one that is traditionally considered targeted towards women, but it isn’t the only one. There are also sub-genres like books about shopping, cozy mysteries or anything involving quilts that are stereotypically female. Some, but not all, of these books exist under the designation of “chick lit”, a marketing term designed to simultaneously alienate men and patronize women.

However, when you try to turn it around and consider books “for men”, there isn’t a corresponding umbrella term. I would imagine that genres like military fiction, epic fantasy and hard scifi are considered stereotypically male, as are books about no-nonsense action heroes or middle-aged men reminiscing about sex, but I feel certain there are women who read and enjoy all of those genres. Surely even the “fond memories of vagina” genre has its female readers.

So what, then, does it actually mean when someone refers to a book as “chick lit” or “for women”? People have a habit of confusing genres with reading levels or target audiences. Young adult fiction is another case in point. Maybe what someone actually means when they say they think a book is too girly is that they don’t like or understand the book’s genre. More likely is that they haven’t read the right book or books in that genre. Ultimately, though, it all seems to come down to the marketing.

Literary fiction, for example, is a genre that likes to believe it isn’t one, and if a “romance” novel is marketed as literary fiction, it will probably reach a wider audience and gain more respect. In fact, I’ve read a number of books that were essentially romance novels sold under another name. For example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is sold as fantasy but has a very strong romantic/erotic plot line. It’s also a fantastic book that I would recommend highly to readers looking for something a bit different. The Time-Traveler’s Wife is sold as literary fiction but has elements of both scifi and romance.

My good experiences with young adult books and “stealth” romance novels lead me to believe that there must be books I’d enjoy that are marketed as romance novels. If it’s simply a matter of being embarrassed to be seen holding the cover in public, then reading the ebook is an easy solution. I’m starting to suspect that I could find a book I would enjoy in every genre if I just knew where to look.

Young Adult: Just Another “Dumbed-Down” Genre

Harry PotterRecently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).

The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.

Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.

The Catcher in the RyeWhen did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.

I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.

The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.

The Bad BeginningSee, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.

I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.

People who argue otherwise are assholes.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Underwhelmed by OverDrive

Digital publishing presents a huge challenge for public libraries. OverDrive is a service that proposes to address that need by offering a catalog of eBooks and audiobooks that libraries can offer online for checkout.

I heard about it from a few friends that work at a local library currently offering OverDrive books. According to my friends, it’s far from an ideal solution; one of the more onerous limitations is that eBooks can only be checked out a certain number of times before the license expires.

However, even knowing that the licensing terms were pretty heinous, I still wanted to give the system a test run. I’ve spent a lot of money on audiobooks this year, so it’s in my interest to find a cheap or free way to legitimately listen to more audiobooks.

In retrospect, I wish I’d just spent the money. I’ll never get back the intensely frustrating hours of my life I spent just trying to download one audiobook from the service.

I’ve included a blow-by-blow of my whole tortuous experience after the break. Incoming rant alert!

Read moreUnderwhelmed by OverDrive

My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.

Sadist or Romantic?

A few weeks ago io9 posted a list of series that put their characters through the wringer, and half of it is made up of series that are some of my all-time favorites. The other half sound like something I should check out at some point.

It seems especially appropriate to put The Dresden Files at the top of the list. I started reading it recently, and although I’m only three books in, Harry Dresden has gone through so much punishment that I shudder to think at what happens to him over the rest of the series.

The first book in the series, Storm Front, was decent but not great. It was entertaining enough that I wanted to keep reading, but nothing to write home about. It wasn’t until the third book, Grave Peril, that it felt like the series really hit its stride and started running on all cylinders.

The funny thing is that the quality of the books and/or my enjoyment of them seems almost to correlate directly with how thoroughly Harry Dresden gets the shit kicked out of him. Jim Butcher raises the stakes every time, and seems to enjoy throwing one horrible escalation after another at Dresden, usually just after he’s barely gotten back on his feet.

Although I absolutely enjoy series that occasionally punch you in the gut, there’s a flip-side to that darkness, too. The best series temper unrelenting punishment with an occasional moment of cathartic emotional release, usually of the romantic kind. Nine times out of ten, if they play that card right, it turns me into a blubbering mess. Butcher hasn’t quite pulled off this particular type of emotion yet; he’s great with mayhem and darkness, but romance doesn’t seem to be his strong suit. Awkward descriptions of sex scenes definitely do not work in his favor.

It doesn’t help matters that Harry Dresden is a self-admitted chauvinist, and the world of the books ends up being filtered through that lens. Women in the series are variously treacherous villains, one-dimensional crusaders for justice, or oversexed damsels in distress. I’m hoping that Butcher eventually works in a stronger female character, because I feel like the series can only have a real emotional moment if Dresden meets his match.

A friend of mine mentioned that she thought it was funny that I’m both extremely dark and very optimistic at the same time. I firmly believe in the power of love, but I also enjoy love stories that have incredibly tragic endings. At the time, I told her I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that, but after some consideration I don’t necessarily think they’re contradictory. I think I just love operatic storytelling, the kind with big emotions and dramatic twists.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the Dresden Files books. I’ve already heard one spoiler about the very ending of book twelve, but I have a feeling it’ll be a wild ride getting there, and I’m curious to see what Butcher is capable of as a storyteller.

My New Reading List: The 2011 Hugo Nominees

I always look forward to the yearly announcement of the Hugo Award nominations. Unlike other awards (even the Oscars), the Hugos are almost always relevant to my reading interests, and for the past few years I’ve made an effort to read as many of the books nominated for best novel ahead of time so I can be well-informed when the winner is picked. One of these days I may even pay for a membership so I can vote for my favorites.

The 2011 nominations were released over the weekend, and the novel selections are an interesting bunch:

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Blackout/All Clear is a two-part novel about time-traveling historians who get stranded in WWII England. Cryoburn is the fourteenth novel in the Vorkosigan saga, a scifi/military/space opera series generally focused on the exploits of a diplomat named Miles Vorkosigan. The Dervish House is a kaleidoscopic story about the interconnected lives of six people in near-future Istanbul. Feed is (yet another?) zombie novel about bloggers following a political campaign in a future trying to recover from the undead apocalypse. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an epic fantasy about politics, racism, and gender roles in a world where gods walk the earth.

Of the five, I already own The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, so it’ll probably be first in my reading queue. I’m especially intrigued by The Dervish House, so I might pick that up next, then Feed. After that, things get a little tougher. I’ve recently started reading the Vorkosigan saga, but I’m not sure which is a more daunting prospect – reading all fourteen books this year, or jumping a dozen books ahead and reading Cryoburn. As for Blackout/All Clear, it has gotten some fairly mixed reviews, but I’ve loved all of Willis’ books that I’ve read so far, so it’s possible I’d still enjoy it.

In any case, I’ve decided that I’m going to make it my personal goal to read as many of the nominated works as possible, including as much of the short fiction as I can get my hands on. It seems like the best possible way to keep current on the state of modern scifi is to read as many of the nominees as possible. Also, it sounds like a fun challenge. Watch this space for my reviews of the nominated works!

A Selection of Books I Started But Never Finished

It seems like the bane of any regular reader has to be all of the books they’ve started but never finished. I know some people who refuse to stop reading a book even if it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read in their life. I am not one of those readers – and I don’t think I ever have been –  but I used to be a lot harder on myself about not finishing books.

A few years ago I forced myself to only read one book at a time, whether or not I was enjoying it. This is probably why The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me a good six months to read. Don’t get me wrong, I ended up loving it, but it’s an incredibly dense tome that I just so happened to be reading during one of my final semesters in college (instead of reading for class, naturally). After a while it seemed clear that all the guilt and recrimination I was laying onto myself was one of the main reasons I no longer read as much for fun. Even once I’d graduated and rediscovered free time, I didn’t seem to spend much time cracking open books. That had to change.

When I decided to rehabilitate my reading habits, one of the first things that had to go was this restrictive rule where I punished myself for not reading one specific book. I gave myself permission to only read books I was actually enjoying, and stopped stressing about reading multiple books at once. If I felt like putting down some heavy tome and picking up a goofy comedy instead, why not do it? It didn’t mean I couldn’t go back to the tome when I was in the right frame of mind.

However, even with this system, there are still books that I’ve started reading and then decided to officially put back on the shelf to try again at a later date. Whenever they’re library books, I send them right on back without a care in the world, but if it’s a book I own, they do tend to sit there on the shelf, staring at me accusingly with beady little eyes. I do my best to reassure them that just because I don’t finish a book doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Then it occurs to me that I am personifying inanimate objects and check to make sure nobody is watching me.

Here are a few titles that stand out in my memory as notable books that remain unfinished, most of which I fully intend to finish some day:

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney: I think I bought this book when I was a freshman in college 10+ years ago. I remember trying to read it one summer between semesters and only making it about 50 or so pages in. That isn’t too surprising, though; it’s a particularly intimidating 900 page tome full of all sorts of postmodern trickery. The first sentence is “to wound the autumnal city.” which is actually the second half of the book’s final sentence, and near the end of the book some pages have a second column of text off to one side. I’m sure it makes sense when you get there, but I didn’t quite have the attention span when I first gave it a try.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: This one is a much more recent purchase. It’s a comedy about the employees at an advertising agency going down the tubes. It’s narrated in a collective voice by all of the employees at the agency, and told in a generally rambling anecdotal style. It is definitely funny, but I had a hard time sticking with it, probably because of its style. I’d still like to try again at some point, but I’m not in a huge hurry.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: I may catch some flak for this one, I know. I read the first two books in this series back in 2008. Book two I remember finishing in a mad rush in about two weeks. I owned all four existing books back then, but I decided that I should hold off on reading books three and four until a firm date was announced for book five. Flash forward to three years later when a date is finally announced and it turns out I’ve forgotten everything about the series. I suffered serious narrative whiplash within the first few chapters and decided that it might be worth my time to go ahead and re-read all the earlier books. This one is probably my fault for waiting so long to finish the series, but I’d argue that GRRM doesn’t do the reader any favors, either. His books just throw you right in and assume you’ll keep your head above water.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: I actually listened to the audiobook of this one a few years ago just to try and figure out what all the fuss was about. I think I made it three-fourths of the way through before I decided that I couldn’t handle any more breathless descriptions of Edward Cullen’s beauty. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to those crazy kids…