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.

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The Horror That May or May Not Be Horror

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsThis spring I gave a paper at ICFA37 about the life of horror fiction after the boom of 1970-1995, wherein I talked about different waves of authors, nomenclatures of horror, and about the appearance of books like Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. That paper has been revised and slightly expanded for publication as “The Life and Afterlife of Horror Fiction,” and you can read it over at Postscripts to Darkness.

Looking for a more cinematic flavor of horror, but text-y? Try Orrin Grey’s new book, Monsters from the Vault, which collects his monster movie columns from Innsmouth Free Press. I haven’t read it yet, but I did pre-order it, and Orrin on movies is always a pleasure.

Looking for a chapbook celebrating the bicentennial of Frankenstein’s conception? Coming June 18, Selena Chambers has you covered via Tallhat Press.

Looking for carnal fiction, penned by authors with the blackest of hearts? Molly Tanzer’s new mag, Congress, is alive and kicking.

A Head Full of Ghosts in a Very Busy Room

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsLast week I finished reading Paul Tremblay‘s A Head Full of Ghosts [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. Early praise for it was very good, and the reputation it has grown even in a year is suggestive of a book of quality. The subtlety of it can’t be emphasized enough, partly because the book grapples head-on with The Exorcist, reality TV culture, metafiction, and the epistolary tradition. It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book, and all the more so because it’s not a doorstopper. I love a short novel, and this one is a well-made UFC fighter of a book, rangy and able to use a bunch of different strikes, chokes, locks, and kicks to do its thing.  And all the while that it is doing those things, it is building with repetition, diction, and well-chosen details a subtle atmosphere of dread that is still with me, even now.

As it also turns out, I’m very glad I waited to read it. The Venn diagram of horror, literary horror, weird fiction, dark fiction, and literary-fiction-that-is-dark is larger than ever these day. Once upon a time, there was only so much of it in any given year. In a thread over on a publisher’s Facebook page the other day, the roll call of what’s coming out this year—in short fiction collections alone—was formidable in length, something like 25 books. Add another 25 novels or standalone novellas, and it’s past the number of books I generally read in a year, and that’s before even getting to the recent surge in weird/literary chapbooks.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a talk from Kelly Link at the University of Richmond, “A Vampire Is a Flexible Metaphor,” which covers some of the same territory as a 2013 interview with the author. Link is a living master of fantastic short fiction, so it was instructive to hear her talk at some length about the authors she has read and currently reads, and about the importance of returning to deep wells. To focus on fiction from 1960 or 1910 necessarily means that you won’t read all of the exciting books of 2016, but Link’s enduring passion for authors like Joan Aiken, Shirley Jackson, etc. is clear and instructive, even as she spoke lyrically about the strength of a number of authors writing today.

All of that to say, I think that A Head Full of Ghosts is a standout novel and worth reading. I felt something moving inside me as I turned the pages, perhaps the kind of unrest that will ultimately lead to deeper reflection, and that alone would make me want to tell other readers about it, even if it weren’t a pleasure to read. So, you know, go check out A Head Full of Ghosts, and see if you wind up with something unexpected taking hold of you as well.