Archive for genre writing/reading

Stephen King updates

Stephen King is active on the ‘ol Twitter, and Bustle was kind enough to put together a list of eleven books he’s recommended. My sister and I are busy reading and just finished A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, which I thought was pretty great.

In other related Stephen King news, he met the president! I also met the president before he was the president! So now we have both shaken hands with Barack Obama, which leaves us with only one degree of separation. Plus, we both got to shake hands with Barack Obama.


And finally, my six-year-old daughter said to me this past weekend, “I think Stephen King should write his books in cursive. That way, people who aren’t old enough to read his books won’t be able to read them. You should tell him that.” So, SK, there you go.

Reading like a writer who is reading like a reader


Tim Parks, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has some great advice about how to get the most out of reading and examples of how he reads. I assigned these articles recently in my Advanced Fiction Writing class and thought they were very helpful in thinking about how we prepare for workshops. Some highlights:

“Always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. . . . We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.”

“But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it.”

“As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?”

“I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to [these qualities].”

“Getting a sense of the values around which the story is organizing itself isn’t always easy; I might chnage my mind two or three times. But let’s say that the mere attempt to do that gives me something to look for. After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these [qualities].”

Students had interesting responses to these articles. While they recognized they didn’t want to be “passive consumers,” they were concerned that reading a book too critically would suck the fun out of it. I get this, I do, and have talked about it briefly here, but these articles brings me to two conclusions: the books like the ones you want to write are the ones you need to read most closely and critically, and that reading critically brings its own kind of pleasure.

1) So many of my students want to write popular genre work because they love to read it, and I think that’s great, but the problem here is that these works are the ones they need to read the most closely. They know they need to read Jane Eyre critically, but if what they love is Dean Koontz and they’re not willing to read this critically, are they understanding how it’s really put together? Which is a better model for them? Charlotte or Dean?

And while I understand that they don’t want to lose that excitement of gobbling up a novel, isn’t it a different kind of pleasure to read critically? Think of a child shoving in tater tots versus an adult with a more sophisticated palette enjoying a meal bite by bite. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they provide a different kind of pleasure.

That said, sometimes I want to shove tater tots blindly into my mouth until my pants don’t fit and my eyes are glazed by carbs. Go for it, I say, but just make sure it isn’t the only thing you’re eating.

High fantasy reading list

I was talking with Lucy Snyder at the Ohioana Book Festival about how I wish I was better able to respond to students’ high fantasy stories since so many are interested in writing them, yet with a background in realistic literary fiction, high fantasy just isn’t something I’ve read a lot. By god, Lucy was kind enough to put together a reading list for me. I think it’s awesome that someone as busy as she is (she has eight stories to write by the end of the year–all of which are solicited by editors–and that’s only the top of her to-do list!) would take the time to put this together. Thanks, Lucy! She gave me permission to share it on the blog, and again, I note her generosity in opening this up to other readers. Here it is, verbatim from her email so I can include her wonderful notes:

I suggest starting with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien; if you don’t read any other high fantasy, read these four books, because so many other works are derived from them.

Background books (not fantasy, but lots of fantasy novels were inspired by these):
Epic of Gilgamesh
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Greco-Roman mythology
The Old Testament

More novels, in order of importance (IMO):
The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin (book one of his A Song of Fire and Ice series)
The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany
The Once and Future King – T.H. White
The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey (science fiction, but “feels” like high fantasy and has influenced lots of fantasy authors)
Lyonesse – Jack Vance
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe (also actually SF, but never mind 🙂
The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan (Book one of his Wheel of Time series)
Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake
Conan of Cimmeria – Howard, Sprague de Camp, Carter (or other Conan books written by Howard)
Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
Any/all books in the Oz series – L. Frank Baum
The Black Company – Glen Cook
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – Fritz Leiber
Nine Princes in Amber – Roger Zelazny

More recent excellent epic/high fantasy, if you need a palate cleanser:
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
Range of Ghosts – Elizabeth Bear