Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway
1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press
In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)
While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.
by Richard Ellmann
2013, originally published 1987 • 736 pages • Vintage
How do you evaluate a biography?
Different books do different things, but few have so specific a goal as the biography. A biography seeks to illuminate one human’s life; any adaptive readings… well, that’s what historical fiction is for. Group biographies do require a thesis (why do these stories need to be told plurally instead of singularly?) but the singular biography, especially the singular biography about an Important Literary Figure, needs no such explanation for its existence. And if the biographer doesn’t make themselves known or makes themselves intrusive (which are both two sides of the same coin), then I never really feel like a biography is a product of a specific biographer—it seems like just the facts, ma’am.
When I read nonfiction, I feel like I turn into my friend Science Princess, who is so enchanted and fascinated by our world that fiction holds little allure for her. Whatever literary flaws they possess usually get a pass, because I’m learning! After all, I’m a fan—I’m well-used to stripping narratives down for spare parts and scant representation. At least reality has a marrow for me to strip down to.
Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack
Recently, Noah screenwriter Ari Handel told The High Calling that the reason a film based on the Hebrew Bible featured an entirely white cast was that “this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.” The concept of the white male as supposedly universal subject is disgusting enough, but such a precisely vague statement only brings to mind the various Old White Dudes screaming themselves red over people of color or women asking to be treated like people in the sf community. (I haven’t heard of anyone specifically protesting queer folk getting involved, but it’s only a matter of time.) Handel and men like Dave Truesdale are implying the same thing: marginalized communities and speculative fiction have nothing to do with each other.
The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal
Despite my family’s best efforts and how much shouting I do about my mother tongue, I do not speak French fluently. I was a very cruel and contrary child, and the pitiful rebellions of my youth (“I’m going to learn Gaelic!” is, hilariously, an actual tantrum from my past) deprived me of, according to modern linguistics, my prime secondary language learning years. But, nonetheless, growing up around French (and my mother’s Britishisms) has flavored my command of English.
Fic by Anne Jamison
I may not have been raised by fans, but I was raised on (and by) fandom. While I consider that first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 the revealing of my fannish destiny, I watched my first episode of Digimon in 1999. Add Internet access and the now actually lost Lost Temple of Ishida (a thousand blessings on the Wayback Machine, seriously), and I was reading and writing fanfiction well before I understood that I had the ability to wear different shoes on different days. I mean, I was nine years old when I got my first FanFiction.Net account. Given the shoddiness of my memory, I’ve practically never known a world without fanfiction.
Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers
As we’ve seen over and over again, I am helpless in the face of a beautiful book, to the point of reading some not so fantastic books just because they’re so pretty. I’m endlessly fascinated by the codex itself as a work of art. One of my favorite things to do at the store is to re-shrink wrap beautiful, expensive books customers have torn the shrink wrap off of (and, almost universally, stuffed into the book, which I guess is considerate? Just ask, y’all, I love using the shrink wrap machine), because I can have a moment to appreciate the quality of the paper, the printing, and, of course, the cover art.
Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe
Among the Janeites’ title is a bit misleading. It suggests a non-Janeite journeying forth to explore the alien world of the Janeites, recalling both the microgenre of year-long experiments and mainstream media rubbernecking at the strange habits of fans. Neither are particularly my cup of tea. Much to my relief, when author Deborah Yaffe says she is among the Janeites, she’s simply counting herself as one of them. She’s a literally card-carrying Janeite, having a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (or JASNA) since 1974. In her almost forty years in the fandom, she’s seen Austen go from obscure but beloved writer to a commercialized pop cultural touchpoint.
A Curious Invitation by Suzette Field
Last week, Liz Bourke tackled Sarah Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles, a YA urban fantasy trilogy that takes place in a world where the few women who actually exist are extensions of male characters, any character from a racial minority dies, and physical disability is linked to abusing magic. She is, understandably, unhappy. In the context of an SF community desperately trying to break the orbit of people who still don’t understand why we need to care about women or people of color or queer folk, it’s troubling stuff.
As Bourke says:
Prejudice can be loud or obvious, and it can be quiet, unmarked, part of the sea in which we swim. Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles uphold a biased view of the world, which is to say: they’re bloody sexist.
The Books They Gave Me by Jen Adams
I may have misrepresented my child self to you. Compared against my adolescence (or the Wombat Years, as they’re better known), my childhood outbursts can seem tame and downright civil. To this image, I counter my wanton destruction of my brother’s comic books. These weren’t comics like the ones in my longbox; these were hardbound copies of Asterix either my family brought from France when they moved here or my father brought back from his trips for my brother. With colored pencils and my tiny, furious fists, I ripped them to shreds, forcing my brother, my elder by nine years who considerably outclassed me physically, to call on our mother to make me stop.
Editors on Editing edited by Gerry Gross
As part of my homework for what I like to think of as publishing camp, I was assigned three books to read—I’ve already read and reviewed The Elements of Style, and I need to pick up a copy of the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Luckily, I recently earned a Barnes & Noble gift card for my collegiate years of service to the theater, and I’ve been measuring adulthood lately by being cheap and practical. (“Adults,” I tell myself, “buy pens in the giant packs of twenty.”) I was only assigned excerpts out of Editors on Editing, but I just can’t do sampling. I have to take the whole thing out for a test drive.