01 December 2005

Blame the Reader

It's easy enough to blame authors for writing books that you don't like, and it's easy enough to blame agents for selling them and editors for buying them and publishers for publishing them, but I want to initiate something that most people are afraid of in this consumerized world: Blaming the reader. I'll start with myself.

I am a failed reader of David Marusek's first novel, Counting Heads. I loved the first 50 or so pages, which seem to be the excellent story "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy", if I remember correctly, but I don't have a copy of the story handy. In its second section, the book switches from first-person to third-person, and the viewpoint shifts from one character to another every few pages. As I read along, everything I liked, everything that had held my attention, everything that had been most fascinating to me about the book seemed to be disappearing. I went with it for a while, because this was a book I very much wanted to enjoy, but I began to resent having to read any more, and when that happens, I stop.

I could blame David Marusek for writing a book that didn't end up appealing to me, and I could blame David Hartwell for editing a book that didn't appeal to me, and on another day I might, but today I feel like blaming myself. David Moles liked the book, and Kelly Link recommended it to him. This is further evidence against me -- both are discerning, passionate readers, and I have benefitted from Kelly's recommendations a few times in the past.

In some ways, I don't think I'm a very good reader of pure science fiction anymore. This doesn't have anything to do with the old canard about "reading protocols", which tend to get trotted out by people who want to enforce their membership in a clan that has secret passwords and handshakes. If such protocols exist, I know them well, having learned to read by reading SF. No, this is about certain techniques of writing that I am not sympathetic to -- I can understand them, I can analyze them, I can decode better than your ordinary owner of a decoder ring. But such techniques make me indifferent and occasionally even hostile as a reader, while for other readers they are the stuff of wonder and addiction. I don't think either of us is better than the other, but the difference is interesting.

For instance, I didn't mind the neologisms in the first section of Counting Heads, and enjoyed the fun Marusek has imagining a deeply technologized future. The pacing of it all worked for me, and the first-person narrator was engaging enough to keep me interested in his fate. I couldn't get through the second section, though, because the shift to third-person and to multiple viewpoint characters eliminated the thread I had been interested in.

Contrast this to the sort of reader who is more interested in the speculation, the technology, and the twists and turns of a plot that for me became bogged down in discussions of political machinations that I was indifferent to. For a reader who had not attached to the first section's narrator as a character, but who had instead seen the character as a convenient vehicle for getting to the good stuff, the second section must be vastly more engaging than the first. I, meanwhile, was left trying to care about any of it, trying to find even one character whose actions interested me, trying to find concepts that seemed to benefit from being expressed as a narrative rather than a technical manual.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine -- a magnificent writer and very smart reader -- once said about Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, a book I adore and find more pleasurable with each read. She got halfway through and stopped. "The games were fun for a while, but then I just thought, 'It's all games, isn't it?' And I don't care about games." That wasn't Calvino's fault, that was hers. He'd written a book she couldn't possibly be sympathetic to, because very little of what he was trying to do was anything she wanted to pay attention to.

Attention is an important quality in a reader: What do we as readers want to pay attention to? So often the books that we fail are ones where the writer's attention is gazing in a different direction than we want to join.

This could lead to a slippery slope of gushy relativism, and I don't want to slide all the way down it. There are various levels of failed attention (see Nick Mamatas on "What is Bad Writing?"). David Marusek is a remarkably talented writer, one who pays careful attention to detail and nuance, to language, to -- well, you name it. It's an extraordinary book of its own sort, but it's unfortunately not the sort of book I get much pleasure from, and in this case, I think that's more my fault than anyone else's.