Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Epic fantasy, as defined by Harry Potter

Adam Whitehead over at The Wertzone asks an interesting question: is Harry Potter epic fantasy? Reading the comments, opinions are various and varied. Everyone defines choice fantasy differently, looking at a number of popular fantasy epic-potentials and comparing their properties.

In Adam's points for and against Harry Potter's epicness, there are a few that rubbed off me the wrong way, perhaps in continuation of my struggle to accurately define fantasy books. The question comes down to how each one of us splits up the fantasy definitions. In my post from January, I proposed two general groups: high fantasy and modern fantasy. It's thus much simpler for me to ask the question of whether or not Harry Potter falls into the epic fantasy category: it's epic and it's fantasy, therefore it is epic fantasy. But this is easy for me because in my mind, Harry Potter is clearly defined as modern fantasy - anything else is an additional categorization, not the larger subgenre.

Let's take a step back, though. Adam, in his post, offers several arguments that could be used to justify (or dismiss) the epic qualities to Harry Potter. There's the silly one (that a lack of maps in Harry Potter could disqualify it from being epic fantasy...), but there are a few quite interesting ideas (that Harry Potter does not take place in a secondary universe, the lack of sword-fighting battles). In the comments, readers propose other arguments: the episodic nature of Harry Potter might disqualify it, but the presence of a "dark lord" with a noble hero out to fight him justifies the definition. That the young adult focus of the book doesn't fit "epic", but that according to the origin of "epic" (Greek epics), Harry Potter certainly fits.

Commenter Wastrel offers a few words of wisdom that I found particularly interesting:
"Epic Fantasy" isn't a definition, it's a family resemblance. I'd say core characteristics were things like:
- a battle that can lead to good or evil consequences for an entire world, or at least a very large chunk of it, and that is the focus of the story
- a secondary world
- improbably influential everyman characters.
Around that core, there are various other common features - but many epic fantasies may lack one or more of them.
I like this assessment because it falls in line with my own modern-vs.-high fantasy definition. That is, it allows for multiple definitions of fantasy, while placing the "epic" quality of fantasy as a possible characteristic of fantasy, rather than a genre. The list of possible features is where the differences between the commonly touted epic fantasies lie, but also the similarities. Even outside the simple question of Harry Potter's epicness, the list is certainly worth noting. For that matter, the whole discussion is worth reading. The vast range of opinions is impressive, but unsurprising - it really is that difficult to define most fantasy books.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dissmissing Némirovsky - the influence of the author's personal life

When my mother says she wants to boycott a specific musician for his politics, I find myself getting annoyed. "Separate the man and his art," I say, justifying my admiration for the man's talent. But place a book by Irène Némirovsky in front of me and chances are I'll say "No thanks". Why? Because the author made a pivotal choice in life that has since been endlessly touted... and I just don't feel like it.

I just don't want to read it
A few weeks ago, Sarah at Bookworm Blues raised the fascinating discussion prompt of how much an author's personal opinions influence our desire to read (or not read) his/her books. And while I wondered at what my own policy is, I realized how utterly inconsistent it is.

I'm using Némirovsky as my example for a reason - as a wildly popular and well-respected author, it would make sense for me to have read her novels. But one small blip on Némirovsky's biography makes me take a step back and say, "Wait, if I can choose... why should I choose her?"

There are two ways to look at it and it turns out I'm a hypocrite. On the one hand, I listen to musicians and composers with dubious backgrounds. On the other hand, I avoid authors who may have made specific choices that don't quite fit in with my personal beliefs. Némirovsky only vaguely attracted me as a reader the first time I've heard of her and the more I learned about her history, the less inclined to read her novels I became.

Ultimately, I think the difference between music and literature is in the presentation. When a pianist has a controversial opinion, it doesn't really come across in his interpretation of Beethoven's sonatas. Meanwhile, authors can (and do) present their own lives and opinions easily in literature. So much of an authors personal experience ends up embedded in the story, imbued in the personalities of the characters. I've encountered very few books that included none of the author in their characterizations, enough to realize that when I greatly disagree or sincerely dislike the author, I am far more likely to dislike the book as well.

The problem is that it's not at all clear-cut. There are authors who say dumb things who I still love (Philip Pullman, I'm looking at you!) while there are authors who I don't feel like bothering with because of footnotes in their histories. And then there are authors who have said completely controversial and idiotic statements (V.S. Naipaul!) who I still might consider reading. Why? Why not! It's my choice. At the end of the day, I don't have to justify it for anyone.

So in answer, readers can be influenced by whatever they want. Sometimes it's the fact that an author sounds lame, sometimes it's the fact that an author writes in a funky style that doesn't sit well with the reader, and sometimes it's because the author has expressed certain personal opinions that turn them off for the reader. In the end, we can't read everything. If this is another weird and inconsistent way for us to sort through all those books out there, so be it. And if I'm missing out on a brilliant writer in Némirovsky... well, I think I'm okay with that. For now, at least.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thoughts on a semi-literary week

During this final week of vacation, I finally got the opportunity to do two things I don't normally have the time (or the correct country code) for: buy books at Borders' "Everything must go!" sale and read.

I've completed six books this week, most of them short or easy-to-read young adult books. In addition, I acquired almost 20 books to bring back home with me in a few days. Among these books, the clear preference was for sci-fi and some fantasy. The remaining books are, for the most part, novellas in translation. These purchases are fairly in-line with my recent literary identity crisis.

I've been thinking for the past few months about how I'm an incredibly uneducated reader. Actually, I've been thinking that for years, pretty much from the moment I started reading in an organized and adult manner. I've read neither the famous books, nor do I have a particular niche that individualizes my literary tastes. When blogging (and reading other blogs), I repeatedly get the impression that I'm not "reading right". That I'm not reading enough. And then I start to get stressed and nervous. Then I stop enjoying the books I'm reading. I start over-analyzing books and whether or not I "understood them properly" and whether or not I'm "missing" something.

But this week - reading a wide variety of books, well-known and less - made me realize that it's all in my head. That is, the reason I haven't been enjoying books as much recently is because I've been building up unfair expectations. By mentally hyping every books I read (through the obsessive following of reviews and blogs and author interviews, etc.), I set myself up for disappointment. Meanwhile, when I stumble upon books with little fanfare or expectations I enjoy the experience much more.Set alongside this my ever-shifting literary taste (the pendulum swings back towards sci-fi...), I'm finding that it's harder and harder to "do it properly". Writing reviews and blogging and reading suddenly becomes too much.

So why not do it not-properly? I keep having to remind myself that reading is supposed to be fun - if I make work out of it in my free time, it shouldn't influence that original intent. Sure, I didn't read many books in translation this week... but do I have to? I read some very enjoyable books, as well as some very thoughtful ones. Isn't that what counts? And like my realization last week of the joys of the impulse buy, not knowing what lies in store, I'm learning that maybe my extensive research and analyzing tendencies are harming my reading experience rather than helping it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bad cover of the week

I read Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn years ago, swallowing the book in one go at the library one summer afternoon. The book surprised me for taking the side of the boyfriend in this boyfriend-hits-girlfriend story. It's a good book about violence and anger*, one that breaks out of the typical victim cliche and successfully conveys the inner turmoil the book's main character Nick is faced with. This was the cover I knew:

Shows the turmoil, right? A rather appropriate cover, if somewhat weird and also clearly more geared towards young men than women (and indeed, the content is also more guy-oriented that girl-oriented, what with the male narration and the male frame of mind repeatedly on display). It's a strong cover, one that stuck with me for many months after I'd finished reading Breathing Underwater, particularly the crudely drawn monster who shares a head with Nick.

And then I accidentally (unfortunately) came across this reissued cover:

If I knew nothing about this book, my guess would be teen romance. Heck, even knowing the story, my assumption is that this a book told from the girl's perspective (though this may be my own generalization... in my experience, when there's a girl on the cover, she's the centerpiece). Even the tagline is somewhat misleading: "He promised he wouldn't hurt her. Was his anger bigger than his word?" It again paints the picture that the focus is on the victim, the girlfriend.

This reissue highlights one of the most frustrating trends in young adult fiction today, and that's the constant need to make everything a teen romance. Because publishers see little purpose in marketing towards young men (who, according to various studies, read far less than young women...), they try to market books as effectively as possible to girls. I guess they must think romance sells. A book with such strong messages about violence and rage like Breathing Underwater gets a bland, romance-oriented makeover. With a pretty bad cover photo, no less.

* To be fair... in my 15-year old review I wrote that the book was "too short, with not enough information and feeling". I think this was during my classics phase, when I expected every book to be like War and Peace. Whoops...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bookstores, here and there

This vacation has me seeing bookstores all across the world, and I have to say that the experience is quite eye-opening. Bookstores may typically have the same books wherever you are, but they almost always have their own personalities... and that even includes some of the chains. It's lovely, seeing the various types of stores and the different content. But more interesting than that is seeing the different takes each country has regarding bookselling and books.

I noticed, for instance, that in Spain blurbs aren't printed on the books, but are reserved rather for slips of paper that are placed around the book. The reader can discard the slips if desired, but those who like blurbs can always keep it on. Waste of paper? Yes. Brilliant way to avoid stupid blurbs? Definitely.

Or in Quebec. As is my habit, I walked into the bookstore, expecting to find a standard chain bookstore. I was impressed (though unsurprised) to find the small Quebecois fiction section, specially printed by various local presses (or so I presumed). Not being able to read particularly good French, it was difficult to figure out what the printing habits of this province but I noticed that several of the fiction and thriller titles seemed to be printed in France. Does this mean that the books are imported? Doesn't this make book prices unreasonably high? Anyone living in Canada who can shed light on this matter... please. I'm quite curious.

And now back in the U.S., in Boston, just about everywhere I walk I find myself passing a bookstore. Sometimes it's a B&N, sometimes it's a going-out-of-business Borders, but more often than not it's an indie with its own style and its own personality. It's nice, walking the streets and seeing the bookstores. Added to the pleasure of a calm vacation and the lovely sites, this is truly a great feeling.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What did people used to do?

When I first got a cell-phone at the ripe old age of 14, I found myself suddenly in possession of a great deal more freedom than I'd even known. Pretty soon, though, I was forced to use the phone. Leaving the house without it suddenly became "irresponsible". Walking around without any form of instant communication became unthinkable. Now, on vacation abroad, I find myself walking around without a cell-phone. When my family gets annoyed that there's no way to contact me, a common (and bitter) sentiment pops into my head: "What did mankind do before cell-phones were invented?!"

When I walk into a bookstore, I buy mostly based on reviews and author familiarity. Though I've begun to branch out in recent years, I'm still fairly adamant about only buying books I know I want to read and keep. I'll rarely buy a book that I only just discovered. First I'll research the book on Amazon, I'll read reviews and I'll try to figure out how worthwhile the book might be (and if there isn't maybe another book by the same author that would be better suited to start with). Even in the case of books I've heard of or authors I like, I do careful research before picking the next read.

But rather like cell-phones, I find myself wondering what it used to be like. I barely remember an age without the internet, without this marvelous tool that allows me to look up books and book reviews within minutes. I've been using Amazon since I was eight, and various other book-cataloging sites since I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, most of my reading life has been grounded in the internet and the research process it has enabled. It's hard for me to imagine anything else.

Yesterday, while browsing in a used bookstore, I came across A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. When I'd considered reading another book by Mantel (after being completely and absolutely blown away by Wolf Hall), I'd sort of pushed the idea to the side, not finding any clear indicators of what the next book should be. I'd heard of The Giant, O'Brien but that was all. Though Mantel wrote the best book I've read in the past two years (hands down), I never bothered to look for more. A Place of Greater Safety came as a complete surprise, having never even heard of the book*. At that moment, I had no form of researching the title and I was desperate to buy any book. It looked interesting, it was cheap, so off the shelf it went and into my hands.

Which leads me back to cell-phones. Today, with information almost always at our fingertips (particularly for those people who, unlike me, have smartphones), it's possible to know everything you need before making your purchase. But what did it used to be like? What did people do before there was the internet, before there was easy access to book review? Obviously newspaper book supplements were a lot more common, but was that enough for the masses? Was everything based on name recognition and bookseller recommendations? How would you know exactly which book to buy? Maybe my extensive research is my own bizarre little quirk...

The older among us can shed light on this matter. Though I obviously have no idea what it used to be like, I have to say that almost every time I buy a book without extensive research and based purely on my gut feeling, I enjoy the experience that much more. Even when the book itself is terrible, it feels fresher and cleaner. I'm much less aware of the plot and of the characters and I have far fewer expectations, making for an overall more carefree and enjoyable reading experience.

Maybe I should also get rid of the cell-phone. Life is so much calmer this way.

* In retrospect, I see that A Place of Greater Safety was recommended in a comment left on my Wolf Hall post. My memory is truly terrible...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Earthsea early thoughts

A few months ago, when the idea of reading Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea cycle seemed distant and unrealistic, I came across a colleague reading the books. Flipping through a few pages, I noted the fairytale-like writing - it felt like Le Guin was sitting next to me and telling me a story in the most simple and straight-forward fashion. At the time, I concluded that the Earthsea books must be the kind that were best read in childhood. Despite loving Le Guin's writing and wondrous imagination, I felt that I had missed my opportunity.

This past Thursday, an old, clearly read copy of the Earthsea Quartet (the first four books, through Tehanu) was given to me as a stepping stone into the wider world of fantasy. On Friday I began to read, and by Saturday afternoon, I had completed the first two books and was ready to start the third.

The weird and wonderful thing about this specific edition of the Earthsea books is that it's a compilation. Normally, I dislike reading sequels one after the other (to avoid the stories blending), but with the Earthsea books, the time periods jump so drastically between books that there was no problem. I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, ate lunch, and immediately began to read The Tombs of Atuan. A few hours later I was done... and itching to read more.

My original assessment stands - I probably would have loved the Earthsea books as a kid. And yet even now as a relatively young adult, I'm completely into the story, appreciative of the characters, and enthralled by Le Guin's method of presenting it. I'm eager to find out what happens, excited and entertained. Yes, there's something childish, or child-geared to the writing, but this doesn't detract from my adult-mind appreciation.  It's just good storytelling.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spoiler alert expiration date

I recently saw that a few months back, Unshelved had a Friday comic which raised a rather interesting and relevant question. While reviewing a graphic novel version of The Odyssey, one of the characters calls out "spoiler alert". The response is amusing but also thought-provoking: "This story is thousands of years old. The statute of limitations for spoilers has expired."

It's a very interesting question... at what point (if any) does a story's main plot become part of the public domain? When does it become legitimate to tell the whole story, end included?
Original comic here

I have to wonder about the classics. Who doesn't know the end to Hamlet? Or Pride and Prejudice? There are modern books as well: are there very many people who haven't had aspects of Harry Potter spoiled for them? Many of the most popular stories inevitably get told and retold so often that it becomes almost impossible to avoid having it "spoiled". At the end of the day, though, we do try to avoid spoiling books. We keep our blurbs to a relative minimum (though we really need to instate the 10% rule) and we typically keep our reviews spoiler-free, or at least include a spoiler alert to ward off readers who might not want to know what happens.

There's a level, though, when the surprises in the story cease to be the driving force of the book. It's a bit like watching the movie after reading the book (or the opposite) - you already know the story, but you're experiencing it for the nuances and the way it's told. The plot - the actual occurrences - aren't the only reason for enjoying the story. By this point, you're expected to know what happens. You're reading the book (or watching the movie) for everything else - the writing, the character building, the clever one-liners, the complexity... whatever it may be.

I don't know at what point we hit that expiration date but I think it does exist in some form. It's not necessarily correlated to the age of the story, but perhaps to the popularity and the ubiquity. I'd never consider telling someone the development and ending of All Quiet on the Western Front, but no one really hides Lord of the Rings' ending - in fact, you're almost expected to know what happens (vaguely, at least). The more people discuss a good story, the more likely others are to be exposed and that exposure doesn't mean that you'll necessarily enjoy the story any less. Look at retellings, look at the classics.

I think there is a spoiler alert expiration date. For most books, at least (there are obviously a few books that hinge on certain surprises or lose some of their power once you know the end... All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind again). It changes from book to book and it isn't set in stone, but I believe it's there. What do you guys think?