Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Essay: Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I don’t claim to be someone who’s well-read but these past few months, I’ve been reading more and more material (thanks in part to this blog—not just the book reviews but reading up on the works of various authors/editors/publishers I plan to interview) and it only edifies my belief of how ignorant I am. In many ways, I see this as a good thing. There are lots of people out there who are bored at what they do and expect no surprises such as the guy stuck in a monotonous job. For me, that’s not the case when I’m reading books—at least if I allow myself to explore the possibilities. I mean nothing’s preventing me from reading the same material I’ve always been reading and obviously, if that’s the type of reading habit that I nurture, the books I read will be formulaic. But if I’m open to exposing myself to new authors, new genres, new styles of writing, it’s a vast frontier out there.

Now most readers have a favorite book or two. There’ll be various reasons as to why certain books call out to us, everything from nostalgia (“this was the first book that I read…”) to quality (“Shakespeare writes in a way that I can’t explain…”). It’s like having a favorite sport or hobby: it’s not that we’re incapable of appreciating various other hobbies but we tend to stick to one or two because there’s something about that particular activity that resonates with us. Thankfully, reading a particular book doesn’t take so much time, at least compared to a hobby where you need to train your body or spend much time finding and collecting exotic material. There’s really no limit as to how many favorite books we can have. But for some people, they do limit their number of favorite books. Well, on one hand, it’s difficult to hold a conversation when all you’re doing is spouting off an infinite number of titles and authors. On the other hand, I think it has to do with making an impression on us. Many people remember the first time they tackle J. R. R. Tolkien, or H. P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson, or Ernest Hemingway, or Edgar Allan Poe, or Agatha Christie, or –insert established author here-. I think it has to do with paradigm shifts—the works of such authors makes us think: I never knew this type of fiction was possible! Taking my Tolkien example, that’s why some fans will constantly cite Tolkien (because of the new cosmology he establishes) but not other high fantasy authors. As much as they might enjoy Ramond E. Feist or Terry Brooks or –insert high fantasy author here-, the reader didn’t have a new outlook once they read such material. (This experience is all subjective of course; E. E. Doc Smith for example should be one of the must-reads of space opera but if you become acquainted with space opera through other mediums or a different author, E. E. Doc Smith will read trite and cliché even if that wasn’t the case during his era.)

For many people, the problem I think is capturing that “eureka” moment, especially in an era where the mass market publishers tend to take little risk (that’s not to say they don’t make the occasional experimental foray) and churn out formulaic material. So the real dilemma is finding those “eureka” books and perhaps a misconception is that they’re simply too few. Well, I’d like to qualify that statement. Those “eureka” books are too few when compared to the number of books and publications being printed every year but as far as a human lifetime goes, it’s my opinion that we have more than enough. Take the list of literary canon, both past and present, for example. That’s a long list of books to read (and I’ll be the first one to admit, I haven’t read a quarter of those books, much less all of it). Then slightly drifting away from literary canon are the literature of various countries and cultures, whether it’s Japan, China, Russia, Germany, Australia, Argentinia, or the Philippines. And then close to my heart are the various genres which have histories of their own. If all one did was read all the good books in the world (and that’s a big if!), I still don’t think one would get to read everything.

Now in searching for this treasure trove of reading material, there are two ways of approaching this endeavor. The most common way is to look back at literature’s history. If you’re tackling horror for example, it might mean going as far back as Edgar Allan Poe and going through Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, M. R. James, etc. Sounds pretty conventional and the progress of literature should be evident. (However, a caveat here is that it’s been my experience is that writing has changed over the years so one might not necessarily be a fan of an old writing style.) That's also why I value publishers who reprint previously out-of-print authors. I remember a time when I couldn't find any hard copies of Lovecraft's works and was wondering who the hell was this H. P. Lovecraft guy and why was he often mentioned by authors.

The other method--and what personally excites me--is reading contemporary authors. I mean it’s important to look back at history but we can’t neglect our present writers either. Who are the good writers and who are the not-so-good ones? Everyone will have opinions and I think this is the best time to find your own reading preference, especially when there’s no “canon” to rely on. A lot of writers out there are both acknowledged and unacknowledged. In previous years, I was impressed by the fiction of Banana Yoshimoto, Chuck Palahniuk, George R. R. Martin, Haruki Murakami, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Orson Scott Card, Patricia McKillip, etc. Now for readers of this blog, some of those names might be no-brainers (and I’m sure you’ll have your own list of people that impressed you but I didn’t mention). Just goes to show how much reading up I need to do. Of course in this year alone, I’ve also discovered some fantastic authors that sent chills down my spine: Tim Pratt, Ted Chiang, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Martin Millar, Paul Tremblay, Theodora Goss, Zoran Zivkovic, Elizabeth Ziemska, etc. Again, some of those writers have been writing for more than a decade while others have made their debut only recently. For me, it's fantastic discovering these authors and I know that this won't be the last time I'll be surprised by someone's writing.

And then there are the not-so-apparent situations which I'll attempt to describe. This week, we mourn the passing of a talented writer, Thomas M. Disch. I'll be honest: I didn't know who Disch was until various people started posting tributes to him. I've never read any of his books or poems or essays or video games. Or so I thought. And then one of the blog entries I saw had the poster of The Brave Little Toaster up. Now I have fond albeit vague memories of this animated feature and something stirred within me when I saw the poster. I wouldn't call The Brave Little Toaster one of my favorite movies but it's certainly a significant part of my childhood. Apparently, Disch wrote the book/novella and all I can say is wow. That's my eureka moment. I didn't know who Disch was yet he's had this impact on my life all these years. Now I know who to thank and this is a clear instance of awareness triumphing over ignorance.

For me, fiction is literally a place where every book has the possibility to surprise me. We've mapped out the continents of the world (well, perhaps not the seabed) but I don't think there's any one person who's familiarized himself or herself with all there is to read. There'll always be a book out there that'll expand your horizons and one of the biggest challenge is if we're ready to seek those books out.

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