Why I’m a genre snob

I have a long and sometimes not-so-amiable history with reading. Or rather, with reading certain things.

You see, when you present at age eight reading books of 300 pages within a day, people are impressed– for about 12 seconds. (Sometimes this period of “impressed” takes longer, as people refuse to believe that you are actually reading the book you’re holding in your hand.) However, shortly after the people get over the shock at your feat, they immediately try to better you by suggesting you stop reading whatever trash you’re putting into your brain currently. You should read CLASSICS! You should read LITERARY works!

You may be able to gather from my tone that this attempt to better me didn’t work out with 100% success.

I mean, when I was little I was an avid devourer of adventure stories. I still really enjoy reading them. I wanted peril, physical drama, and last minute saves! I wanted witty jokes and sarcasm! I wanted happy endings. (Seriously, I had almost no tolerance for any kind of darkness until about four years ago.) And I wasn’t always very forgiving when I didn’t get this.

On one notable occasion I read Oliver Twist somehow under the impression that I was reading an adventure tale. Everything was going along well until the end, when suddenly people were dying left right and centre. After reading in vivid detail about a guy who beat his girlfriend to death and then hanged himself accidentally I wasn’t really open to seeing the end as a “happy ending”. (Trauma R Us, instead, I was kinda under the impression the ending could be filed there…)

I think, on reflection, while my language comprehension was very high, and my technical reading level was quite precocious, I wasn’t always good at picking up subtext. I focused on details, to the exclusion of the big plot picture. After all, I was reading for fun– I mean who wants to have to WORK to pick out who the bad guys are when you’re reading for fun? Moral ambiguity is hard stuff!

And then I grew up, and spent four years writing approximately six hundred thousand words of fiction and thinking a great deal about story structure, while simultaneously spending a year and a half reviewing every single book I read. Better with subtext now, thank you.

So now I’ve eschewed all my adventure books and happy endings, and I’ve moved on to reading wonderful classics and delicate, nuanced literary fiction, with refreshing jaunts into magical realism for the relaxation?

Not– quite. (Yes, my friends who know my reading tastes are laughing a lot right now, I’m sure, at the idea that I willingly read litfic.) Now I read primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Young Adult/Middle Grade section. But why would I restrict myself so, you ask? Why don’t I read books for adults? What is the point of this blog post anyways?

The point of this blog post is that I think I am finally able to put my finger on why I keep reading a certain type of book. I can finally identify what it is about a story that makes me go “YES, this is AWESOME. THIS is why I read.”

It comes down to a matter of tone, of (dare I say it?) subtext. I realized this in English class, where we were discussing magical realism. I asked what made that genre different from urban fantasy. (Protip: Do not mention urban fantasy in an english lit class as though you’re familiar with it, unless you’re aiming to be hilarious.) There wasn’t an easy definition of urban fantasy handy, but magical realism is typified by nostalgia.

It harkens back to a “more simple,” pre-moden time, when the lines between magic and science were fuzzier, and things could be simply accepted at face value. There is an underlying discontent with the world as it is, and, depending on the author, the statement is either that things used to be better, or things used to be simpler, but were never better.

And then because there wasn’t a definition of urban fantasy handy, I made one. Urban fantasy (at least the stuff I like to read,) looks at the world and says “things are awesome. But you know what would be more awesome? If we added DRAGONS.”

Firefighters with WINGS.

The basic tone is hopeful, saying that things are cool, and okay, there’s a monster outside my door that wants to eat me, but I can totally beat him with the help of my friends and my endless stubbornness and some ingenuity. There is an underlying fight against despair. (Sometimes the monsters are literally despair-inducing and need to be fought.) The message is that there are monsters, but they should be and can be fought, and can and should be defeated.

"I may have been bitten by a genetically modified spider which actually messed with my DNA and made me semi-human, but I'm gonna use that to help people! Also, I don't need glasses any more-- this is the best day!"

This also applies to straight up fantasy, with terrible costs and eventual bittersweet endings and ALSO DRAGONS. And it also applies to Science Fiction, which gets adventures, peril, and also ROCKETS. And ROCKET TRAINS.

No big deal, we're just living in a science fictional universe.

Of course, not everything in these genres fits those tone categories. *looks sidelong at all the “edgy” dark stuff with “edgy” nihilistic endings*  *goes back to frequenting the YA and MG sections* *pointedly eschews the Dystopian section* But overall, I feel like my odds of coming up with a story I actually like are higher if I stay with stories which embrace the world and imagination hopefully, not despairingly.

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Poem Of The Day #30

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection
Gerard Manley Hopkins

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ‘ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ‘ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ‘ wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ‘ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ‘ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ‘ treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ‘ nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest ‘ to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, ‘ his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig ‘ nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Poem of the Day #ALL

The Thing Is
by Ellen Bass

To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

“Life has never been normal.”

Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon, but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature.

— C. S. Lewis: Learning In War-Time

Poem of the day #29

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
William Wordsworth

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Poem of the Day #28

Elegy for Jane
Theodore Roethke

My Student, Thrown by a Horse

I remember the neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidling pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing;
And the hold sand in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure
depth,
Eve a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw;
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not there,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in their matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Poem of the day #27

Planetarium
Adrienne Rich

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
astronemer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman    ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces      of the mind

An eye,

‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
from the mad webs of Uranusborg

encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us

Tycho whispering at last
‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is chaining

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

I am bombarded yet      I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep     so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me     And has
taken     I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images     for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

from The Facts Of A Doorframe