Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Should I be Reading?

A newspaper article, along with a couple of list challenges and a television show have me thinking about what I read.

To Read People Better, Read More Literature.

It started with an article in The Age with the intriguing title: If You Want to Read People Better, Read More Literature. The article was about a study that showed “reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious non-fiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

One of the authors of the study said: “in poplar fiction the author is in control and the reader has a passive role”. In literary fiction: “there is no single overarching authorial voice. Instead each character presents a different version of reality and they aren’t necessary reliable.” In other words, the reader has to work out who the characters in literary fiction really are, whereas in popular fiction the characters are more stereotypical and obvious in their actions and motives.

So anyone who becomes adept at working our characters in literature, should be more adept at working people out in real life. As writers, they might end up writing more complex characters too.  

BBC's The Big Read - Best Loved Novels of All Time

A few of days ago I did BBC's The Big Read - Best Loved Novelsof All Time list challenge. Of the 100 novels listed I had read 13. Not that great, but then I am Australian, not British. I bet I would beat any pom on a list voted for by Australians. I would probably beat most Australians too, because from what I have seen Australians don’t read a lot of their own authors. 

For example, a while back an Australian Google+ acquaintance, who hopes to become a published science fiction author, posted a link to an article called: Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Wonderful Wizards of Oz. The Guardian article was full of praise for Australian science fiction and fantasy authors. I agreed with the article and wrote an enthusiastic comment in reply to my Google+ acquaintance’s post, he replied he had not read any of authors mentioned in the article.

Of the last 25 books I have read, 15 were written by Australians, that’s 60 per cent.  And some of them are among the best books I have read, like George Turner’s A Pursuit of Miracles, Steve Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.

Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bragging Rights.

Jennifer Byrne had a recent show on the ABC called Bragging Rights. It was about books that are considered difficult reads. Of the twenty to thirty books mentioned during the show, I had read three, including the only one written by an Australian, The Tree of Man by Patrick White. The other two I had read, where A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, which also was in the BBC list.

One of the panellists said that an awful lot of people lie about having read books like Ulysses. I have had it sitting in a bookshelf for years and doubt I will ever read it (see below for the reason).

Each of the panellists had set themselves a difficult book to read for the show. One only got a few chapters into War and Peace. Of those who had finished reading their books, they nearly all said the book they read was hilarious. Perhaps their brains had all entered a state of delirium from trying to decipher what they were reading. I did not find any of the three difficult reads I had read hilarious.

What Will I Be Reading in the Future?

I won’t  be repeating the mistake of reading anything by Gabriel García Márquez. But I might take his advice - from a documentary on him - where he said he learnt nothing from reading the classics, and he felt it is much better for the aspiring writer to read what is being published now. And as I write science fiction, much of what I will be reading will be science fiction.  

I used to have a rotation going of reading a science fiction novel followed by literature then either fantasy, horror or non-fiction. But I have lost interest in fantasy, especially epic fantasy, and horror novels.

I will continue to read a lot of Australian science fiction as it rings truer to me than much of the overseas stuff. The Australian characters are more likely to be flawed and believable. They have usually been in a struggle to get where they are in life. American science fiction seems full of alpha males and females, who the author gives one flaw in an attempt to make them seem human.  

To study new writing techniques, I will continue to read “literature” that challenges me. If this increases my ability to read people, that’s a bonus for both me as a person and as a writer. Much of the literature I read will be written by Australians as I attempt to increase my understanding of Australian culture and history.    



graywave said...

I'm glad you mentioned George Turner. I only discovered him this year(!) I read The Sea and Summer not long ago and it was excellent.

I hate this pompous nonsense about literature versus genre (or "popular' in this case). There is plenty of excellent, beautifully-written sci-fi (crime, etc.) and plenty of turgid, ridiculous dross masquerading as 'literary' fiction.

I can't imagine what the author of that study might have been reading if he thinks that in lit. fic. “there is no single overarching authorial voice," certainly not Hemingway, Atwood, Palahniuk, or a hundred others I could name.

Graham Clements said...

Checkov and Dostoyesky were mentioned as literary fiction in the article. I haven't read either. But I have read Patrick White's novels Voss and The Tree of Man and I would suggest they lack a single authorial voice. In both books the characters were very difficult to unravel, and I am not sure I did.

But as you imply there are complex characters in popular fiction, it's just they can also be a lot less complex in popular fiction. But I got the sentiment behind the study, that if you are reading books with multiple complex, flawed and unreliable characters, who the author never defines for you, you might train your brain to read people better in real life.

I have been a great fan of George Turner for years. My favourite science fiction book is The Sea and Summer. I recommend you get a hold of hid Genetic Soldiers if you can.

A Pursuit of Miracles is a collection of about eight of his novella length stories, three of which he later turned into novels, including The Sea and Summer and Genetic Soldier.

Anthony J. Langford said...

I do agree that some literary fiction can provide depth not often seen in genre fiction. There are always exceptions of course.
I agree, Turner is a very good writer. It is possible to straddle both worlds.

Dostoyesky is quite brilliant and deserving to be read. Ulyssess was the biggest load of crap I've ever read - and I can't believe I actually finished it. Think it was more of a challenge to see if I could do it rather than any enjoyment. It's basically a huge experiment.
I've only read one Patrick White and I didn't like it. Some authors are way overrated, (Hemingway-good but..) yet such is their standing that any new critic doesn't wish to appear uninformed or not of taste, so they toe the line.

(Your BBC link didn't work. But checked the list, I've read 22. But funny how the same few authors keep popping up - definitely British centric. )

Graham Clements said...

Hi Anthony, the link works now. I have been trying to come up with some modern literary fiction to read that has characters, in much the same vein as they are in White's writing, who are hard to work out. I think the guy's who did the study I mentioned would put writers like Atwood and Franzen etc into the popular fiction lot, with their characters, although not one dimensional by any means, being well-defined by the authors. White's characters aren't. They are all pretty much emignas (well they were to me, or perhaps there was less to them than I thought) And that was what the study was all about. Where an author makes you work to try and figure out who the characters are, that effort has been shown to help in reading people in the real world. It was a very interesting article.