On deciding what to read

I was working on a novel (questing in a strange world is not the same as anyone expects it to be, including the inhabitants of the city in which a group of people quest) and the obvious hit me over the head, hard. I’m going to hit you over the head with it, because I’m kind in that way.

Any novel contains world building. We, as readers, enter the world the writer has written.

That was not the head-hitting thought. That’s an element of my current research. A tiny one.

All writers build worlds. Some of us have worlds that look like our own world (for example, in literary fiction) and some have strange worlds where it’s unsafe to walk (in horror, in science fiction, for instance). Most writers find their place in between the extremes (for extremes are harder for readers – I’ll get to this, it’s part of the head-hitting) and their novels fit into a genre partly according to the nature of the world and how it’ written and partly due to the complex processes of marketing and sales.

The reader finds their favourites and devours book after book and everyone’s happy.

Except… that’s not true. Which bit of that last paragraph isn’t true? The ‘everyone’s happy’ bit.

When we don’t want to use too many tricks to lure people into our worlds or when we want the reader to feel comfortable in the world of the novel or when we want the reader to focus on the action and not the background to it, we draw from mainstream culture. We draw, mostly, in fact, white male US culture. It’s the easiest to draw from and it’s also the easiest to market.

Writers mostly don’t draw from the best and most interesting of white male US cultures (for there are so many sub-cultures in white male US culture that are not the ugly types we see on international news all the time) but from the canned versions. The ones where all the acceptable bits have been shoved into a tin and preserved so that all the subtlety is lot and the contents taste the familiar.

Not many publishers are trained to identify this canning. Their greatest strengths includes identifying good writing and selling it. Not spotting canning and saying, “Look! Canning!” Some can and many can’t. This helps canning stay at the heart of many successful novels.

Canned food is not necessarily bad food. It can be tasty. It can even be delightful. We all have favourites. How good is baked beans on toast in midwinter, for example? In fact, classics can come from cans, in literature as in food.

Now to the hitting. (The last two paragraphs were the warm up.)

When we eat too much canned food, fresh food comes as a shock. Literally. A physical shock to the system. Live on canned food for a year, then eat some lettuce. The body isn’t use to the lettuce. I know someone who had diarrhoea from eating lettuce after a diet of canned food – it too her stomach a while to adjust to the more varied diet.

Culture is the same. When we rely only solely on pre-cooked culture, then it becomes really uncomfortable to read books that are similar but don’t quite fit. Books with female chief protagonists, or without sexual tension as a major driver, or with characters who come from cultures we’re not so familiar with or… it’s such a long list because it’s 90% of the world that isn’t represented. A a lot of our fiction comes to us with those edges and differences ironed out, for our comfort. Most of us have been eating only canned food for a long, long time.

What we’ve muted in ourselves is the capacity to be comfortable with even small differences from our cultural norm. Differences between books have to fit within the canned range. Remember, that can be good food – it’s a type of food, though, and represents a limited range of culture. Those of us who are not American and not white and not male find ourselves having to include elements of this canned culture in our books if we want a wider audience. (Why I don’t have a wider audience – the simple reason.)

There are tools in novels that help explain cultural differences. This means that some types of novels are more open to telling stories from different backgrounds. In some genres (historical fiction, for instance) a certain amount of simple description is standard, because Medieval history cannot be depicted in US cultural norms… the modern US didn’t exist. In others, the explanations could be there, but aren’t. For example, in action fantasy with elves where the elves are not described in detail those elves become canned elves.

The action is still fine and the book may be awesome and I’ll read it. The next book I read after the action elves, however, will not rely as much on that same cultural base. It will be the novelistic equivalent of fine dining, or a picnic, or a salad. It would make me sick if I lived on a diet based almost entirely on the canned world those elves come from.

We (writers) construct the cultures in our novels from what we know. Publishers and, indeed agents, choose the writers that write material that most people are likely to recognise to know. That sells better.

It is also one of the causes of all the real nastiness that has been done to women and people from minority groups of all kinds and that’s erupting over social media right now.

Read the books you love by the authors who fit best into mainstream culture. Good writing should not be thrown out (baby/bathwater situation).

Read other things as well. Support the publishes who take that deep breath and say, “I can run a gourmet restaurant,” or even “I can publish something by this brilliant author. It has a trans-woman as lead character and it is wonderful.” Find out who is interesting (writers, publishers, critics who tell us about what’s out there) and use them as your private cookbook.

Did I hit anyone hard enough? Let me try again.

It’s possible to die younger from never eating fresh food,. Life is so much more fun and interesting if the food is delicious and healthy and tempting. When I cook (which is often), I go out of my way to discover new flavours that fit within my personal limitations, for that is me as someone Jewish, who’s allergic to so many things. I remain a foodie despite my limitations and it makes my life better.

I will read most genres happily (horror gives me nightmares, so I admire the darkest horror writing from a safe distance most of the time) and within each genre I read, I’ll look for a good mix of the old-fashioned (hot chips FTW) and something that intrigues me and excites me (right now that’s home cooked Korean food) and something gourmet that takes me out of my comfort zone (last week it was a Medieval dish).

My balance in reading is like my balance in cooking. Sometimes I need more comfort food, sometime I need a green salad, sometimes I need a strange and wonderful dinner with friends and sometimes I see a dish on TV and say, “I have to to try that.” My balance. My food. And, with books, my reading.

If all of us only eat canned food, there is no other food to taste. The supermarkets will have all canned food. No fresh. No dried. No precooked meals. Just rows and rows and rows of cans.

Every single one of us as readers (or as people who say “I’ll read sometime”) is part of the current literary landscape. Our choices can push the bigots and the bullies and those who benefit from bigotry and bullying into the place their works actually command, rather than them dominating the store.

We don’t all have to shout. We do all have to consider our reading and what it means.

We don’t ever have to give up reading or destroy the fun in it. Don’t self-immolate to save the world. Make things more interesting for yourself, instead.

(I use some US English there. Are you impressed with me?)

4 thoughts on “On deciding what to read

  1. I know you’re talking about books, but you’ve just explained my trouble with movies. So many are made from the same canned ingredients. This is particularly true of Superhero movies, with the only exception being Black Panther, which included a few very fresh items indeed. It also explains why I don’t feel any more deprived than usual during lockdown when it comes to movies: it’s quite possible for me to go months without wanting to see any of the available movies. The thing is, I like movies, especially on the big screen, but I’m so bored by the worldbuilding and so tired of sitting through 90 minutes of fast food (to take your metaphor farther) for that one bite of locally caught halibut with fresh-picked corn on the cob.

    1. It applies to all verbal narratives. If we’re telling a story there’s a huge range of possibilities.

    2. I agree, Nancy. Lately I’ve been reaching for books and movies by Black creators. They’re often uncomfortable, but definitely worth the effort. I’ve been going back and catching award-nominated offerings that I never got to before.

      1. It occurs to me that one of the reasons fiction matters so much to me is that it can change my perception of the world. These days I’ve found some nonfiction that does that as well — Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist is one example. So now I’m getting impatient with nonfiction that doesn’t push limits, even if I’m just reading it for information.

        That said, and as Gillian points out, we all need some relaxing reading. But I do find that I can no longer read the white-male (and very American or British) adventure stories that I loved in my youth.

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