The Sunday Salon: The Good Faith Effort

Last month, Linda Holmes, the head honcho over at NPR’s Monkey See, put up a post entitled “The Sophistication Problem”. The titular problem is modern audiences finding older works unsophisicated (not the problematic aspect) and dismissing them because of it (the problematic aspect). Holmes is careful to point out that we should avoid lionizing one response (ironic distance) over another (well, if you didn’t like it, you didn’t get it, man) and ultimately concludes that “The challenge is to rigorously interrogate your own responses again and again, whether you’re reacting to James Bond or Terrence Malick, and live comfortably in whatever critical space that leaves for you.” As you might imagine, I was quite taken with the post, and want to apply Holmes’ standards a bit more broadly.

See, I’m a fantasy fan. (I will also defend sci-fi to the bone, but that’s not why I picked up Sword of Sorcery yesterday at the comic book store. Women and swords and magic, people! I am easy to please!) Unsophistication is hurled at my home turf for the offense of existing, not the offense of aging poorly, so I’m well-used to being on the wrong end of this. I’m always astounded when I meet people who say that they don’t read fantasy (J. K. Rowling very much included); it really feels like a failure of imagination to me. Just because one or two or many aren’t your cuppa doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fantasy novel or two or many out there that are your cuppa. I think part of this comes from the fact I identity genre much more with setting and much less with formula, which is what people often object to, but that’s another subject for another Sunday Salon.

But, then again, aren’t I just as guilty? I don’t particularly care for mystery or romance as entire genres (yeah, I really need to sit down and hash out my thoughts about setting versus formula, stay tuned, fearless readers) myself; the tropes of each genre tend to make me either roll my eyes (mystery) or grit my teeth (romance), preventing me from actually connecting from the material. Despite my fantastical roots, I’m just like the audiences that giggle inappropriately at older films that Holmes points out, right?

Well, I think the difference lies in the idea of the good faith effort, which is something I sort of solidified while listening to Down in Front. (Seriously, go listen, it’s such an amazing podcast.) I’ve always held the belief that any book is worth a go if it sounds interesting—while my interest does exclude a lot of mystery and romance, I also hold out hope that there are good examples in each genre well worth my time and energy. But the gentlemen at Down in Front, while dissecting movies, talk a lot about what works in a film and keeps you engaged—about meeting the film halfway. For instance, as much as I giggle at and roll my eyes over my new favorite bad movie, Rock of Ages, there’s still something about the film that engages me, so I meet it halfway (laughing all the way). And that’s something I’m starting to bring to my other media consumption; I’m muttering “okay, I’m with you, you’ve got me” more and more as I read. And that’s the good faith effort—even when a book is bad, seeking out what works in and thinking about why it works. And, perhaps most importantly, continuing to try. I feel like some people feel that reading critically damages your ability to whole-heartedly enjoy books, but I’ve always found this much, much enjoyable.

Of course, there are some books that cannot be redeemed, but there’s the good faith effort again—one or two or many bad books does not spoil the medium! You gotta keep trying to connect.

It’s been… a week. School and rehearsal and work, what can I say? I’m slowly moving through Sarah Waters’ Affinity, and I have enormous amounts of work to do today. Yikes.

TheOneRing.Net is giving away five replicas of Bilbo’s contract from the upcoming films until this Friday. Pat at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is giving away a George R. R. Martin bundle until an unspecified date. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Good Faith Effort

  1. I couldn’t agree with this more. I find that I enjoy books a lot more if I go into them with a desire to enjoy them and an interest in seeing what others might enjoy about them, even if I end up not enjoying them so much. And thinking of what I’m reading (or watching) in that way doesn’t cause me to turn off my critical faculties, it just causes me to use them in a different way than I would if I went in looking to figure out what’s wrong with a work. That doesn’t mean I won’t notice things that don’t work–it’s just that I don’t make finding those things my priority.

  2. Yes to this post and to what Teresa said. Sometimes I see reviews, particularly of YA (though I’m sure it happens plenty elsewhere), where the reviewer seems committed to only touching the book with a ten foot pole from the very beginning. Usually they include sentences like “I don’t normally read this type of book”, “I picked this up against my better judgement”, etc – there’s a visible effort from the get-go not to be blemished by association with a kind of book they fully expect to be dumb and unsophisticated. And if you approach a book like that, it doesn’t really stand a chance of changing your mind.

    • Ugh, I hate that. I think I have a post in the works about what happens when reviewers decide that “well, this fantasy book is so good that we can’t classify as fantasy, that hurts it”, as if that’s not incredibly condescending.

  3. As an author, I’ve learned to meet books halfway in a way that would have astounded my formerly snobby self. I’m learning as I read and write what a tremendous amount of skill, commitment, and passion it takes to produce any story. This has made me more open to what works in all books — even those I wouldn’t have once considered as something I’d read.

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