A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Literary Edition

Here are a few books that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

Cover of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Finally read this in April 2020, and it was as delightful as you might expect, given its author and its awards.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. An outstanding 2020 first novel that I still find myself thinking about, for its politics, humor, and most of all its characters.
Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians has been nominated for and won a bunch of awards. And well it should! This book did new things. Scary things.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is an award-winning novel that I couldn’t put down. It draws from all sorts of topics she’s researched at length. This book felt to me like the definition of a book that springs from an author’s interests & perspective in such a way that no other author could have done the same book justice.
A couple years ago, I picked up a psychological thriller called The Kind Worth Killing, by a guy I’d never heard of: Peter Swanson. It was compelling! I’ve since gone on to read most of his books and enjoyed every one. Eight Perfect Murders was no different: a mystery about mysteries, and thoroughly Hitchcock.
Though I’ve probably read more by Stephen King than any other living author, I never got around to Doctor Sleep until recently. I’m glad I did! While it’s billed as a sequel of sorts to The Shining, it’s simply a different book, and very good.
I tore through Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. Ware specializes in modern turns on Golden-Age tropes and techniques, revitalizing them for the 21st century. If you liked Knives Out, but you just can’t plug in to Christie, Sayers, March, and kin, try this. I’m making my way through the rest of her books, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway is also prime reading.

Pleasurable Reading, Shaded Giants

The best thing I did as a reader in 2018 was intentionally refocus on reading what I like. For too many years, I’d been reading a blend of things that I thought I should be reading as a writer, trying to expand my horizons and do right on multiple counts. In the process I purchased books to support various authors, causes, etc… and developed a 100+ title TBR pile. Some I was more eager to read, some less, and I’d find myself “sneaking” books from the public library. Also, thinking longingly of re-reading old faves (I’m an inveterate book-revisitor).

Reader, something really had to give. This was more than vaguely clear in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it was no longer vague. Last year I finished reading 69 books and 37 graphic novels/trade collections, and I set aside unfinished maybe 10 books. Some months I was tearing through books, others limping. The slower months were overwhelmingly those when I was reading “shoulds.” Part of the slowness was lack of interest, part frustration at seeing weak writers praised or succeed, part simply a lack of desire to read.

That last part should have been a big clue. Many writers read quite a lot, outrageous quantities compared to the average American, and for a very long time I was one of them.  For a whole bunch of reasons, however, I reached a point in this decade where I was barely reading 2 books per month. Last year, giving myself license both to chuck books I wasn’t enjoying and to seek out authors and books likely to square with my interests, I read more like 6 books per month, 9  if you include comics.

Social media, the blessing/curse (blursing?) of our time, has been a blend of good and terrible in all of this. On the one hand, I’ve heard of books and authors that I wouldn’t otherwise have, some wonderful! One example of this is Matthew Bartlett, author of a host of genuinely strange neo-Decadent fictions. He can write, is a mensch, and is justifiably something of  a darling in contemporary weird fiction… but much of his work is self-published, or from small presses. And so, like many authors these days, he’s almost entirely absent from libraries. Without social media, and Facebook in particular, I would likely never have heard of him (check out Gateways to Abomination).

On the other hand, the literary market is beyond saturated, leading to endless PR and social media touting of “brilliant,” “important,” “essential,” “vital,” “outstanding,” etc. authors, and while I realize people want to help their friends and sell their own work, too often this is false advertising. (Ditto blurbs, in which I no longer place any stock whatsoever, as guides to whether I’ll like a book.) Whether it’s the literary fiction community, the weird fiction community, the YA community, or whatever, people ride high horses all the livelong day about this shit, and as someone wisely pointed out to me in 2018, literary communities are endlessly incestuous and precious. Paying too much attention to them can be fatal to taste and joy.

I thought about this much more this past year as I read and re-read various popular authors. These are folks with well-developed chops for carrying a narrative along: Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, John Sandford, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, etc., and of course I’m continually dipping back into Lovecraft, James, Machen, etc. Newer authors like Paul Tremblay or John Langan, or newcomers like Christine Mangan, have plenty of firepower in this regard, too. These are folks who have honed their craft and developed stories that work in the contemporary market.

marcus aurelius statueThere are so many different kinds of “good book,” or course, and the lists of authors you find in quality writing books like Delany’s About Writing include a host of different modes and styles. That’s a good thing! That said, as I focused in on heavier hitters, in terms of sales, reviews, etc., I likewise have been more apt to notice the green-eyed monster lurking under the faces of friends and writers I follow online, some bigger and some smaller.

Gaiman, King, Rowling, etc. are common targets for these complaints, and I get the frustration about the stiff competition to publish, but many people publicly and privately say boneheaded shit about authors who are titans in the field, as if the ability to win over readers is a bad thing. Part of that’s art-community nonsense, and building of various kinds of social capital, but to state the obvious, popular authors are successful in publishing. Luck, connections, family money, and so on do play into many literary careers, no question… and a lot’s been justifiably written about racism and sexism in publishing… but beloved authors are beloved. That you, Struggling Author, are not beloved does not mean that your favorite target is a literary shyster.

Reader, this blog post has grown unwieldy, and I’ve excised the 20% of it that would bring the wolves howling, in so far as anyone reads this blog. That, as a fellow writer I know who’s rarely online says, is part of the problem of talking about reading when you’re a writer. Anything other than glowing praise is at best going to result in silence. I offer no slings or arrows for anyone in particular here, but take it as you will that I no longer see “hidden,” “overlooked,” “obscure,” or “little-known” as signifiers of anything other than historical or market success.

On Liking Popular Things

Past a certain threshold of popularity, artists, musicians, writers, and other creators leave obscurity and enter the zone of public judgment. While it’s not quite celebrity, there are parallels, and whatever rules of decorum and reticence come into play with new or minor artists tend to wane. Fandoms emerge, worship and denigration blossom, stalkers slowly emerge (or not) from the woodwork, and online commentary metastasizes and sprouts hairy tendrils.

cover for the ocean at the end of the lane by neil gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Such is the case with authors on the scale of Neil Gaiman. His new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a wistful morsel of delight. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, to judge by some of the 1800+ Amazon reviews, but certainly to mine. The incantatory tone of the opening is as clear a call to rich veins of myth and Story as you’ll read this year. The plot and characters are somewhat familiar types, if you’ve read his work before, but so it is with things mythological or Jungian. On finishing it, I felt a sense of readerly satisfaction at hearing a tale well told.

My reaction as a writer was rather different. Now, I’ve written previously about my deep affection for Gaiman’s work, particularly Sandman, but also American Gods, Coraline, et al., back to Don’t Panic. It’s not hard to like Neil Gaiman, and his thoroughgoing presence in the worlds of F/SF/H and comics has long since passed into a richly deserved and truly broad-based popularity.

Even while reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, though, I couldn’t help but remember the dozens of pot-shots I’ve heard or read taken at the man, the bulk from other writers. The green-eyed monster has a share in this, to be sure. Gaiman is beloved, well-remunerated, has actually influenced the culture, is a topic of continued popular, genre, and scholarly interest, and by all reports is also an exceedingly decent human being. And yet, whenever the topic of him or his fiction arises in discussion with other writers, the knives come out. Critical judgment, or personal preference is one thing, but I can hardly remember being party to a discussion of Gaiman’s work with other writers that has not incorporated at least a token amount of insecure posturing.

To digress, I recently made a minor decision about my grammatical comportment. Thenceforth, I decided, I’d happily reply to such inquiries as “How are you today?” with either “good” or “well” as the mood took me. I’ve passed some sort of personal Rubicon, perhaps due to aging, that means I’d rather be disliked for my preferences than liked for toeing the linguistic/Party line. Since then I’ve been on the receiving end of more sour looks than one would think a predilection for the popular, if improper, response could elicit.

When it comes to Neil Gaiman’s work, I’ve never denied, or even tacitly omitted, my regard, but here is the thing (news flash!): on some level, witting or unwitting, the Mandarins of writing do not much like popularity. From collapsed backlists to Barnes & Noble death-spirals to almost intentionally unprofitable academic fiction, the landscape for writing fiction ain’t what it used to be. Self-publishing, e-books, the Web, etc. have all brought new freedoms, but also new problems, and making a buck as a writer of fiction is tough stuff these days. Seeing the success of anyone else, let alone a cheerful-seeming fellow like Gaiman, well…

This isn’t a review, obviously, but still: go read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Read it because it’s a delight and will make you grin. You’ll hear about others reading it, and you’ll hear the eye-rolling from the jaded corners of coffee shops, but that’s all right. If its author’s literary reception is hindered in any quarters by popular success, I doubt he will much mind, nor should he. It’s a good book that deserves to be read, and I’m glad I had the pleasure.