I still don’t really like books with fighting in them, but I _did_ love Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda

books_FloraSegundaI am a fairly late convert to literary fiction. I didn’t read any of it until college, but even until maybe the summer of 2009 (when I was 23), almost all of my reading was science fiction and fantasy. That summer, I realized, “It’s absurd for me to want to be a writer; all the famous writers that people talk about are just names to me.”

I think I started by reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise and then Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And then I became a little bit more systematic and made a list of classics and started going through them.

But anyway, from that point up until now I’ve read about 750 books, and I doubt that even 40 of them were SFF novels. It just didn’t make sense to me to read more science fiction and fantasy. Anyway, the shift in reading habits was purposeful, but it was also, slowly, accompanied by a shift in tastes. I lost interest in fiction involving violence and combat and heroism. Even if the novel is incredibly sophisticated and well-written, I find it difficult to get excited about someone saving the world.

Honestly, even literary war novels (the Catch-22s, the War and Peaces, etc.) don’t excite me that often (although there are many that I’ve read and enjoyed). War is such a tiny part of modern life (and growing tinier every day, according to statistics!) and it feels like we devote a disproportionate amount of attention to it.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction. I started by reading mostly contemporary YA, but I’ve started to get a little bit into the (massive amount of) SFF YA as well. And I still do have that resistance. The Hunger Games is one of the more sophisticated exploration of the “Teen-As-Savior” trope: it’s clear that Katniss isn’t really the savior because of her combat prowess or personal charisma; it’s because she’s a symbol. To me, that seems a bit truer to life than the Harry Potter model of the teen who goes out and actually defeats the primary antagonist. The latter has no real life analogues, but the former does have a few: Joan of Arc; the Tunisian martyr,  Mohamed Bouazizi, who kicked off the Arab Spring; and (as someone noted on my Facebook) Gavrilo Princip.

But even there, it still doesn’t stick well with me: I cannot believe in a world where one person can have so much importance.

Despite my inability to suspend disbelief, I have found myself enjoying these novels. I read the first Hunger Games book over a year ago (maybe two years ago?) and held off on reading the second. But after reading the first few pages of a dozen books, it was Catching Fire that ended up drawing me in. I read it in four hours straight. It’s a gripping book. I absolutely see why it’s become a best-seller. It’s not something that you can break down in simple terms, but the book does have a kind of charisma.

However, I have given myself permission to skim the fight scenes. Fight scenes strike me as a bit pointless. They’re all just bodies being moved around and fitted together like pieces on a gameboard. I can usually manage to grasp whatever is the clever thing that the fighter is doing, but as for the specifics: who is punching who and who is getting wounded and who got an arrow in the face…I just let it elude me. And it doesn’t really seem to harm my comprehension of the book much at all. I do the same thing when reading Dickens. Actually, I give Dickens a little more credit: I assume that when I can’t understand something in Dickens, it’s because it’s meant to be incomprehensible.

The other action-adventure YA series that I’ve found myself enjoying is Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda* series. I just finished the second book, and I’m about to move on to the third. It’s basically a YA sword-and-sorcery series, in the same vein as Steve Brust’s Vlad Taltos books or Martin Scott’s Thraxas novels. And it’s really fun to read. The thing here–the nugget of novelty that powers the series–is Wilce’s interesting use of language. For instance (from the first page of the first book)

Before, [during Crackpot Hall’s time of glory,] when you entered a room, the lights flickered on and the fire rose up to greet you. Before, when you reached for a towel, it was clean and fluffy and smelled of lemony sunshine. Before, delicious dinners appeared on command and dirty dishes disappeared. Before, rooms shifted with your desire, so it was only ever a short step away to the potty, and you had dozens of potties to choose from. Now, all gone. That’s the truth about Crackpot Hall.

For a prose work, this paragraph displays an unusual amount of attention to sound. For instance, look at the parallel structure and alliteration of “flickered on and fire rose up.” Or the similar penultimate ‘n’s in “lemony” and “sunshine.” Or the alliteration of “delicious dinners” and “dirty dishes disappeared”. Or how “Crackpot Hall” is repeated at the end of the paragraph to echo its use in the beginning. Or how “Now, all gone.” is a very short sentence after quite a long sentence.

Most books, even very well-written books, are not well-written in quite this way: they’re written for the eye; not for the ear (another example of a book that feels like it’s written for the ear is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.)

Anyway, this example is from a not particularly special paragraph. Any paragraph of the book would reward this kind of acoustical examination. And it’s really fun to read.

(On a sidenote, I really don’t like it when reviews say that “the prose” of a book was beautiful. Unless the reviewer can explain how the prose was beautiful, then I feel like they’re just saying that they enjoyed reading the book. Books can be good even if they’re not well-written [example: every Constance Garnett translation of a Russian classic])

But I still found myself skimming the fight scenes.


*Other fun parts of Flora Segunda: the author lives in San Francisco, and the book’s geography and place names are obviously based on the city’s.

In which I write about the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy

            I finally read the Hunger Games. I started reading it and then, three hours later, I was done. I read it because I love Woody Harrelson. When I heard that he was the drunken mentor in the HG movie, I was like, “I really want to see that.” Normally, I don’t particularly care about reading the book before I watch the movie, but in this case, I decided to. It was pretty enjoyable, but I’m not too sure about whether I’m going to read the next few books. (Hey, umm, some HG spoilers are gonna follow, so beware).

The book is about a teenage girl who’s dispatched to fight to the death on television for the entertainment of an audience of jaded sybarites (in a futuristic dystopia, of course). It has hints of Rollerball, Battle Royale, The Running Man and “The Most Dangerous Game”.  The only innovation of the novel is that the protagonist realizes that she needs to have the audience’s good will in order to survive. This is because the audience is able to dispatch gifts to help their chosen kid, and those gifts can (and do) mean the difference between winning and dying.

However, because this contest has a sort of reality show flavor, what really matters is building some kind of credible storyline. A kid needs to feel like flesh and blood; someone the audience can empathize with and root for. In order to this, the protagonist of the Hunger Games (whose name is Katniss) fakes that she is falling in love with one of her fellow contestants Peeta. While she’s running around killing other kids in a series of moderately gripping action sequences, she also learns how to inhabit her role as a starstruck lover (which is made much more poignant by the fact that she might possibly have to kill her ‘lover’ in order to win the game). I thought this was a neat conceit. It sort of came out of nowhere about a third of the way into the book, and it slowly grew to dominate the whole story. This whole reality show / playacting part of the story was by far its best part.

And I don’t really trust any of the other novels to have good parts that are as good. I mean, the author can’t use this reality show conceit again, right? And even if she did, it wouldn’t really be fresh. I don’t know why I am so suspicious of a series whose first entry I enjoyed so much, but I think what it comes down to is that I just don’t trust Suzanne Collins enough. Pretty much every series starts out with a few good ideas and then slowly exhausts them until eventually the later books of the series turn into pitiful self-parodies. When a series starts out with one good idea, it becomes really hard for me to believe that there is a lot more stuff lying underneath.

On a side note, my problems with the book were exactly the same as everyone else’s problems. Collins manipulates the situations in this book to exculpate her heroine of any of the moral guilt from killing a bunch of other kids. The other kids are either psychopaths or they get killed by the psychopaths. Katniss’ hands remain clean. To me, that seems like a waste. If you have a book where innocent kids are forced fight each other to the death…then some innocent kids ought to actually fight each other to the death!

As a writer, I do kind of understand why Collins did that, though. The audience for stories with moral complexity is a lot smaller than the audience for stories without moral complexity. Even a lot of the series that people claim have a lot of moral complexity are actually just standard Good-and-Evil narratives dressed up in gray clothing. A prime example of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. People claim that this series is very dark and gritty, but actually, from book one, you know who the heroes are and who the villains are. Sure, some of the villains turn out to be likeable and some of the heroes turn out to be stupid, but very little occurs to make you question the original good/bad classifications.

Even in my own stories, I sometimes step back and am like, “Whoah, no one is going to like this main character” and then I change around some stuff to make him/her more likeable. Because that’s what people want.

This reminds me of the section in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway criticizes Fitzgerald for altering his stories to make them more saleable:

I thought of [F. Scott Fitzgerald] as a much older writer. I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before, but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into saleable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring.

When I read this passage, I was shocked. Since Fitzgerald’s stories are pretty sublime, I wondered what in hell it was that he was changing in them? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe if I read the unchanged stories, I wouldn’t like them very much.