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Mur Lafferty on Reading the Classics

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

Mur Lafferty, author of The Afterlife Series and Playing For Keeps, has kicked off an interesting discussion on reading classic SF and Fantasy on her blog:

earth-abidesI’m not quite sure how to read classic SF. You know the stuff that was groundbreaking with its expanse of ideas that hadn’t even been considered yet? But it was also the stuff that was very likely sexist, had cardboard characters, was completely lacking women or POC, used what we consider now to be hack tools (eg “looking in a mirror to describe the protag”), and may have protags that are total jerks.

I couldn’t finish The Stars My DestinationThe Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or the Book of the New Sun. I can’t root for a rapist protagonist. And I really wanted to read Stars and New Sun.

Recently I couldn’t finish Earth Abides (despite the wonderful intro by one of my favorite authors of all time, Connie Willis.) I got bored and annoyed with the elitist, “It’s the end of the world, but I’m CERTAINLY not going to hang out with whores and drunks,” attitude of the protagonist. And WTF is up with mentioning that a woman is “young enough” in her description, and leaving it at that? …how can I appreciate the classics when I run into such painful roadblocks like this? It’s hard to read things I’m not enjoying, even for academic purposes.

Speaking as someone with an unnatural fondness for pulp fiction, this is a problem I’m intimately familiar with. My last attempt to re-read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy ended in utter failure. And I dearly loved that book in my early teens. But I didn’t pay much attention to girls then, and I suppose a book that also pretended women didn’t exist just didn’t seem very unusual.

Comments are now closed on Lafferty’s blog (she notes they had “gone into unhelpful areas“), but you can read the original post and comments here.

27 Comments »

  1. There’s only one thing in there that I really disagree with her about. I may have a different opinion on most of that stuff, but de gustibus non est disputandum. The only thing I really disagree with is the argument that Book of the New Sun isn’t worth reading because it has an unsympathetic protagonist. Now, one might not want to read it for that reason, I can understand that, but having an unsympathetic protagonist doesn’t make it a bad book. You don’t have to root for the protagonist to read Book of the New Sun; it has many excellences despite having a rather vile protagonist. And I disagree more broadly with the idea that books are only readable if you can root for the protagonist. It seems really limited.

    Comment by Doug R - November 30, 2011 3:51 pm

  2. Nicely said, Doug.

    I’m not sure Mur was dismissing BOOK OF THE NEW SUN solely for that reason, though it appears that way on the face of it.

    More importantly, I think you CAN dismiss a book simply because you don’t like the protagonist. In fact, readers can dismiss a book for ANY reason. That’s the joy of being a reader.

    Others may take you to task for it, but really, who are we to judge another reader’s taste? If you don’t like a book, you don’t like the book. Implying that her tastes may be inferior to yours because you tolerate a broader range of protagonists probably isn’t going to win the argument.

    I think the real lesson in Mur’s post is for writers, not readers. Certain kings of writing (vile or sexist protagonists, a lack of women characters, etc.) will limit your readership.

    Blame the readers if you want — and many do — but that’s not going to change the facts. Reaching a truly broad audience is hard, and the first step is understanding what your audience wants.

    That’s why I think Mur’s post is valuable: because it very clearly states what she wants. So far many of the comments I’ve seen from writers blame her, rather than take her comments for what they are: a frank insight into the reading tastes of a well-read modern woman.

    Comment by John ONeill - November 30, 2011 5:13 pm

  3. John,
    Will the tastes of a ‘well read modern [Western feminist] woman’ matter in 100 years? Will they even matter in 30 years, considering demographic trends? I suspect Gene Wolfe will be read and enjoyed long after Ms. Lafferty is dead and forgotten. My point being that a writer should be true to his (or her) vision and not worry about how many people will avoid reading it because it upsets their sensibilities. The reasons for this are too numerous to list.

    Comment by Tyr - November 30, 2011 9:20 pm

  4. Hi Tyr,

    > Will the tastes of a ‘well read modern [Western feminist] woman’ matter in 100 years?

    I’m not sure I follow. They certainly matter today, and that was my point.

    > My point being that a writer should be true to his (or her) vision and not worry
    > about how many people will avoid reading it because it upsets their
    > sensibilities. The reasons for this are too numerous to list.

    Tyr, here I agree with you completely. A writer should follow her muse. But my point had nothing to do with the inherent value of a work, only with its acceptance.

    Mur did a fine job of explicating why some classics aren’t palatable to some modern readers. Wise writers will absorb her comments, and it may help them understand how their own work will be well received by the same audience.

    You don’t have to agree with a critic to realize that her comments give you a fresh perspective.

    Comment by John ONeill - November 30, 2011 10:53 pm

  5. If we were discussing a book whose entire cast was female, or was nearly all female but for a few highly stereotyped men, and the female protagonist was casually misandristic, no one be surprised to find that the book:
    1) aged badly,
    2) repulsed readers generally,
    3) repulsed male readers specifically,
    4) failed to accomplish its own goals, because mindless stereotyping of any kind will inevitably mar any work of fiction where it appears prominently.

    The book you imagine or remember when reading that description might be a classic work of feminist sf of, say, a 1970’s-1990’s vintage, but it could also describe quite a lot of books on the romance shelves, or (as Theo often likes to point out) the paranormal romances in vogue among fantasy imprints right now.

    The author of our hypothetical work of 1970’s feminist sf might have been following her vision, and the authors of contemporary paranormal romances are certainly doing well in the marketplace now. Fortunately for me, I’m at liberty to decide they’re not what I want to read.

    Somehow, I slogged through the first six Thomas Covenant novels, despite loathing the protagonist. I wish I had could get that time back now, or just retcon my adolescence and swap six better books into the hours those books took up. I’ve never yet gotten around to Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books, which I gather feature a heroic and far-from-stereotypical male protagonist. Sight unseen, I’m still quite sure I’d rather spend six books with Miles Vorkosigan than with Thomas Covenant.

    For what it’s worth, I think Milton’s misogyny mars Paradise Lost, not only by making it a bad reading experience, but by demolishing Milton’s own intended argument from within. (I won’t rant about the evidence for that assertion here, mostly because I could go on for several tedious hours.) I’ve assigned the first few sections of Paradise Lost to students anyway, but only so the students could see its influence on Neil Gaiman, who is, in my opinion, a better writer. Yes, than John Milton, innovative enjambments notwithstanding. So there.

    Hm. Mur Lafferty might reasonably consider that wandering into unhelpful areas. Well, here goes, anyway.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - November 30, 2011 11:21 pm

  6. Very nicely said, Sarah.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 12:07 am

  7. John,

    I agree that Ms. Lafferty articulated her view quite well. The point I was trying to make is the qualities that inspire people to label a book ‘classic’ transcend, often contrast with, and will outlast the “tastes of a well-read modern woman”. If a writer is only concerned with selling books or catering to a narrow audience, then I agree with you. However, if an author seeks a broad and lasting legacy, then catering to that audience seems counterproductive.

    Also, I’ve previously not heard anyone describe the Thomas Covenant novels as ‘classic’ so that is a straw man anyways. Fortunately, I only wasted time on the first book and a half and not the first six.

    Comment by Tyr - December 1, 2011 3:13 am

  8. I’m a reader, unfortunately not a writer (I so wish that wasn’t the case). So I fall on the side that I shouldn’t have to feel like I should appreciate anything because its been declared a “classic” by supposed great intellectuals through some process that I’ve never been able to understand.
    I’ve found myself wanting to like many older, to classic books, much more than I did when I actually did l tried to read them. I used-to think this was due to the dated language and tendency for melodramatic or for the characterization that was almost always unbelievably too good pitted against bad guys just evil for evil-sake. For many classics I’m still convinced that reasoning holds true, at least for me. Granted I’m not a college grad, but it seems to me now that what categorized many books as classics was the pure novelty of their ideas at the time and this overshadowed bad writing.
    I haven’t yet read Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN -though I want to- or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, so I can’t really say I would like them or not, but Joe Abercrombie’s, and even more recently Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, have deplorable characters that commit horrible acts, but I loved reading their stories and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.
    I struggled through Lord of the Rings, and I’m convinced I would have loved them if I’d read them when those stories were new. (It took me seeing the LotR movies to appreciate the books.) There’s no argument that the fantasy genre would not be as we know it today without Tolkien. But if there was some way to reverse things so that Tolkien was new author today, I doubt his writing-style would hold-up next to today’s successful fantasy authors.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 1, 2011 9:53 am

  9. ONeill-

    We can’t say she is ‘well-read.’ Her comments leads one only to the opposite impression.

    Surely ‘modern’ though. Bingo. Boyo.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 1, 2011 6:15 pm

  10. My mom is both very well-read, and very modern, and she loved The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. She “stole” the books from me when I left for college. I’ve since replaced them, as they’re among my favorites (though where Donaldson really shines is in short stories and novellas–his two collections are amazing).

    Comment by awsnyde - December 1, 2011 7:09 pm

  11. Tyr,

    > the qualities that inspire people to label a book ‘classic’ transcend, often contrast with, and will outlast the
    > “tastes of a well-read modern woman”. If a writer is only concerned with selling books or catering to a narrow
    > audience, then I agree with you. However, if an author seeks a broad and lasting legacy, then catering to that
    > audience seems counterproductive.

    I think you lost me here.

    Are you saying that an author who “seeks a broad and lasting legacy” can do so WITHOUT appealing to modern women readers??

    And secondly, did you just say that, for those same writers, appealing to women “seems counterproductive”?

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 7:32 pm

  12. Kid Greg,

    > Joe Abercrombie’s, and even more recently Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, have deplorable characters that commit horrible
    > acts, but I loved reading their stories and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.

    Some excellent examples. Price of Thorns especially has seen a lot of recent press, much of it concerned with the criminal history of the protagonist. Mark Lawrence has proven very skilled at making his hero still appealing, for all his faults.

    But before we all start congratulating ourselves for being able to find excellent novels with tarnished protagonists, I want to go back to what Mur actually said.

    She said she couldn’t enjoy a book whose protagonist was abhorrent to her for multiple reasons.

    Sounds to me like you managed to enjoy Abercrombie and Lawrence’s novels just fine.

    So to find a real analogy to Mur’s experience, we need to find a classic novel whose characters were so personally abhorrent that we couldn’t finish the book.

    When I come up with my own examples (and I have lots), I find the reasons I found the characters abhorrent didn’t always match hers, but otherwise my experience was identical.

    So I’m in no place to throw stones at Mur. And when I watch those who do, what I mostly see are readers celebrating the fact that sexist and elitist heroes don’t bother them at all.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 7:56 pm

  13. John- Good point. I was drawn to the blog because I’m a well-read guy, especially when it comes to what’s in the SF/Fantasy shelves, and I really struggle to understand why so many books that seem so poorly written to me, if not downright boring, are considered “classics”, or at the least pivotal works for the genre.
    So I guess I kinda imposed my own issues with reading the “classics” with Ms. Lafferty’s, which I guess is different.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 1, 2011 9:18 pm

  14. *Are you saying that an author who “seeks a broad and lasting legacy” can do so WITHOUT appealing to modern women readers??*

    *And secondly, did you just say that, for those same writers, appealing to women “seems counterproductive”?*

    No and no. You are assuming her views somehow represent all women. I don’t think her views even represent a significant minority of women on the planet, now or in the future.

    To use an analogy, you are saying that a producer of goods for baseball fans can only succeed if Toronto Blue Jays fans approve of the products. I’m saying that you don’t need Blue Jays fans approval if your product has an appeal across the broader spectrum of baseball fans.

    Comment by Tyr - December 1, 2011 9:41 pm

  15. Radiant,

    > We can’t say she is ‘well-read.’ Her comments leads one only to the opposite impression.

    Why do you say that? Based on the fact that she tried The Stars My Destination, Thomas Covenant, and Earth Abides in the past few months, she seems much more open to the classics than the vast majority of fans I talk to.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 10:20 pm

  16. awsnyde,

    > where Donaldson really shines is in short stories and novellas–his two collections are amazing

    I have to admit that I gave up on Donaldson for good about 80% of the way through THE MIRROR OF HER DREAMS, when I literally threw the book across the room.

    Good to hear his short fiction is worthwhile, though. If I ever try Donaldson again, it sure won’t be his novels.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 10:22 pm

  17. Kid_Greg,

    > I was drawn to the blog because I’m a well-read guy, especially when it comes to what’s in the
    > SF/Fantasy shelves, and I really struggle to understand why so many books that seem so poorly
    > written to me, if not downright boring, are considered “classics”

    Yeah, no kidding.

    There’s little doubt in my mind that the field had matured enormously in the past 5 – 6 decades, and drawn much more polished writers.

    But, at least in my case, I find it hard to completely let go of those pivotal works that drew me to the genre 40 years ago, even if they are weak in comparison to today’s SF and fantasy.

    Much of it is obviously nostalgia. But it also seems clear to me that modern SF and fantasy owes a huge debt to those books. Reading brings all kinds of rewards, and reading classic fantasy — even if it is little rough in spots — helps me understand the history of the genre in ways I really appreciate.

    Then there are those writers who stand up splendidly even today, such as Robert E. Howard and Tolkien. Both of them are routinely dismissed today, painted with the same brush as lesser pulp writers. And that’s just lazy.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 10:34 pm

  18. Tyr,

    > I’m saying that you don’t need Blue Jays fans approval if your product has an appeal across the broader spectrum of baseball fans.

    Well put.

    Everything seems clearer with a good baseball analogy.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 1, 2011 10:43 pm

  19. >>There’s little doubt in my mind that the field had matured enormously in the past 5 – 6 decades, and drawn much more polished writers.<>But, at least in my case, I find it hard to completely let go of those pivotal works that drew me to the genre 40 years ago, even if they are weak in comparison to today’s SF and fantasy. <<

    While I am sure we could go on for hours about what falls into the category…
    I find that some of the “modern classics” are just as clunky, and a chore to read, as the older stuff.

    Comment by TW - December 1, 2011 10:51 pm

  20. I have so much work left ahead of me before I can claim to have achieved a broad and lasting legacy, maybe I should just aim for a lasting legacy among broads.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - December 2, 2011 1:44 am

  21. john-I too am a huge Howard fan which brings up a question I have:
    Maybe this isn’t the case but it seems to me that Robert E. Howard may finally be getting some the recognition he’s deserves. I’m not sure if his work is considered “classic” yet but I think it’s safe to say REH stories are as much a “classic” as the titles Ms. Laferty mentioned.
    Much of REH’s work is considered sexist (although I would argue against that) and I’ve heard critics of REH (Again I take issues with those critics) make statements similar to those Ms. Laferty made against the books in her list. I wonder what her take on REH’s yarns would be?
    I’m just curious if the real problems she has, and other readers like myself have, isn’t as much the issues she mentioned, as it is just the boring writing, which is what I was kinda getting at with Abercrombie and Lawrence. I’ve quit books when I couldn’t stand the protagonists for doing the same things the protagonists have done in Abercrombie’s and Lawrence’s books. So that proves to me, it’s not the actions of the protagonists that made them so deplorable that I couldn’t stand to read their story anymore so much as how the author presented the character through the writing.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 2, 2011 11:42 am

  22. ONeill –

    I say she does not seem ‘well-read’ I say so because most well-read folks I know rarely ( like 1 or 2 in 100 ) quit books. Especially if the motive is ‘academic.’

    Lafferty claims this ‘… It’s hard to read things I am not enjoying even for academic reasons.’

    That looks straight up and down right lazy to me.

    Intellectually lazy people do not become well-read.

    It’s work sometimes, it’s painful other times, here and there it’s a real joy. Life can not be all joy. Neither will be reading. Just like in nearly everything the more you see and do the more crap you see and do. The more you read more ‘shit’ is gonna pile up. A person reads a lot of things they have problems with maybe not even 5 hours down the road maybe till they die it’s part of the whole mess to lose a few Hit Points.

    Get over it. There is not way out. Hit or miss. Pass or fail. Live or die.

    Good luck to her. She seems like a decent enough person. Maybe I can help her some day if I meet her at a Con.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 2, 2011 2:56 pm

  23. Sorry RadiantAbyss, but I couldn’t disagree more. I know people that force themselves through a book just because they started reading it, and I’ve never understood that.
    Unless you just have-to read something for work (and maybe this would fall under work) or academic reasons, it seems foolish to me to force yourself to read something you don’t like. SF/Fantasy is genre fiction and genre fiction ultimately is read for the sheer thrill of the good story. With so many good books out there; why waste time reading something that you’re not enjoying or inspired by? I know my
    By your own definition; reading is work sometimes. Personally, I get more than enough work and my leisure time Is extremely limited, so I cannot fathom why anyone would work through a book just for the sake of having read it.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 2, 2011 3:52 pm

  24. kid_greg –

    You don’t have to be sorry.

    Life is short.

    If you get ‘nothing’
    out of ‘working’ through a story, that’s your prerogative.

    I am not sorry. I do not suffer the ‘I don’t have the time to X, Y, or Z’ defense gladly.

    I won’t argue with you on it though.

    I might happen to have a go at clearing my PoV up a bit further down the road.

    Further Lafferty has the prerogative to get literary cramps from Book of The New Sun. I think if people were more honest they would sound like her.

    Happy reading one and all.

    Why, whom , how, what, when, where, never you do so!

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 2, 2011 4:42 pm

  25. No problem Radiant- It was just the statement about “intellectually lazy people” that put me on the on the defense, just a little bit. In my mind I don’t equate being intellectually lazy with not finishing a book, but of course I reading is something I mostly do just for fun. I hadn’t considered reading SF for intellectual reasons but I do sincerely see where someone else might just do that very thing. :)

    Comment by kid_greg - December 2, 2011 5:08 pm

  26. I can understand various possible reasons for someone not wanting to read a book with a rapist protagonist, though I think Mur may have phrased her argument badly – there are plenty of bokos it’s possible to read without “rooting for” the proagnoist (I’m guessing she hasn’t read any of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books?). As someone who has read both Bester and Donaldson, I feel that there’s much to be learned from those books and the way the characters do (and don’t) deal with their own pasts, how they approach morality and justification and so forth. In particular, while Donaldson has his detractors (he’s one of the most polarising authors in any genre, in my experience), I think that he has a huge amount to say about issues of atonement – while one may not agree with a main character’s actions and value systems, it’s still possible to learn a lot from reading them and trying to understand, if not fully empathise, with them. I certainly learned a great deal from reading Donaldson, which is why I still have a keen appreciation of his work despite an awareness of its many flaws.

    If reading for pleasure, by all means put a book down if it fails to appeal. If reading to learn, however, walking away from an unfinished book is a decision that should not be lightly taken. I’ve learned much from some books that I have not enjoyed, though likewise there have been others that have taught me not a whit (which I must point out may be my failing, not that of the book or its author).

    Comment by tchernabyelo - December 4, 2011 10:08 pm

  27. Please accept my apologies for not having proof-read that post. My typing seems to be exceptionally bad tonight.

    Comment by tchernabyelo - December 4, 2011 10:09 pm


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