One would expect a writer to be an avid consumer of her own genre. Not so. I’ve been burned too often. Now I am afraid to attempt an unknown book unless I’m reasonably sure it won’t burn me. Sometimes I’m intrigued enough to risk it. Sometimes I luck out. More often I get indigestion.
Great books are supposed to shake you up, challenge your preconceptions, make you think. I have no problem with that. Unfortunately, it seems that for a story to qualify as “great” it must also be profoundly upsetting. For many people, the highest praise they can give a book is that it caused tears to pour down their cheeks. No pain, no gain. Like Real Life.
Well, yes. Real Life can be profoundly upsetting if one is paying attention. It pushes me out of my comfort zone. It is filled with moral dilemmas, challenges, horrors. I don’t need a book give me that.
For me, good fiction gives me what Real Life doesn’t. It is an antidote for Real Life. It is under control. It poses exciting questions, and offers possible solutions to moral dilemmas. If there are injustices, they are satisfyingly resolved by the end of the book. It acquaints me with intriguing characters, gives me access into the inner workings of their minds and explanations for their motives. A good book tells a whopping good story, and leaves me feeling like I do after a really good meal.
I don’t run into a lot of books that do that, ones that don’t insult my intelligence, try to shock me senseless, or insist on offering up all the gritty details of the characters’ sex lives. Humor is cynical, dark or slapstick, with heavy reliance on gastric accidents or The Poor Schmuck. And when did use of the word “fuck” become mandatory in all adult fiction?
Warmth, charm and happy endings are regarded with sneering condescension. That’s for kids. And yes, there are some very intelligent and well-written YA books, but I want my main characters to be adults, not children or (spare me!) teenagers. Been there, done that, don’t want to go back again.
So I tend to read non-fiction. Science fascinates me. I can’t always grasp the really geeky depths, or keep up with the galloping pace of technology, but a thought-provoking essay delights me. Among my favorite authors are Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Lewis Thomas. Stephen Hawking. Michio Kaku. Instead of reading science fiction, I poke around for the latest in good science writing. Or I call up a TED talk.
And I write science fiction (and other stuff). The kind of stories I wish I could find. It’s safer. It doesn’t give me nasty surprises. And when I finish writing one, I feel like I do after a good meal, one I’ve cooked for myself, precisely to my tastes.
I just wish someone else would cook for me now and then.