Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
[…]
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.

2 Responses to “Reading it Right”

  1. Gary Couzens Says:

    This does beg a question, not specifically about Roberts (nor about Diana Wynne Jones for that matter). To what extent can a book be “not quite like other books that were being published” so that we have to learn how to read them? How far can that be taken before the question becomes academic, as the publishers won’t publish such books because they don’t know how to sell them? How many fine novels, at least as good as those on the shelves, can we not read because marketing can’t fit them into their lists and the author isn’t famous enough in his/her own right?

  2. Niall Says:

    How far can that be taken before the question becomes academic, …

    Heh, I really thought the end of that sentence was going to be “…and the book becomes so different that it’s bad”, or something along those lines. The answer to the question you actually asked is, almost certainly, “some”, but until someone comes up with a better system, it’s the price we pay for having some kind of filter.


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