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Recommending Nothing.

This morning bought an email from ASif, the Australian speculative fiction review site. They're doing a recommended reading list in the Locus fashion and were offering me the chance to participate, which is very nice, really. I mean, who doesn't like being asked to participate? I love being asked to do things. Sure, I might have to turn it down, but getting asked sure beats all the other options in this area.

The problem, however, was that I've got nothing to recommend. A very large reason for this is simply that I didn't read much of anything for pleasure last year, and what I did read wasn't Australian. In fact, if I were being quite honest, I'd have to say that I don't really read much Australian speculative fiction stuff at all anymore. Maybe a book here and there. Some short fiction if it catches my eye. An author if he/she begins to do things that sound interesting. Part of my desire to review the Aurealis Award finalists was because I wanted to check out what was being called the subjective best of the year. I was just curious, mostly, and I like to keep up with what's going on round me. The Snapshot in April was part of that. That said, I've had fuck all time to read for pleasure. I've got a copy of Kaaron Warren's The Grinding House from May and I just haven't opened it and it's not a slight on Warren or her stuff, because I like her work most of the time. I even like the cover of the book, so I'm all good there.

But I won't read an Australian book just because it's Australian. It's a bit of a ridiculous idea, really. There's support the local scene, which I do, and then there's support the local scene, which I do not. The second of those is the idea that you buy everything put out, that you read all the Australian work, that it is, somehow, your duty as a suffering independent press author to do this. At the same time, you should read other things. Read till your fingers bleed, but read the local world first. I don't actually reckon anyone does this, but when I first entered the scene, it was the impression I was given. I did it for a couple of months, till my shit meter was filled for a lifetime.

All the Australian work I read this year didn't grab me in the way that fiction must for me to recommend it. This doesn't mean that I didn't encounter well written, well crafted work and that I cannot recognise this, but rather that I didn't find anything fresh or new, which is what I need to recommend it. I didn't get that snap of energy I get when I find something I really dig. This is an across the board thing with fiction, by the by, so if you think I'm slagging on the local scene, you need to chill. For example, a couple of weeks back I was standing in a bookstore with S., and we were talking about Jeffery Eugenides The Virgin Suicides, which I'd read a few years back, but which she had not, and was considering. It's not a bad book, really, but its flaw is that you never connect with anything going on. The dead girls, the loss of innocence in connection with learning about life... you're distanced for it. There's no connection. It's just pretty words. Now, for me, that stops me recommending the book, and I said so to S. To recommend a book, a short story, anything, I've got to have that snap that makes me keep reading. And I mean makes me keep reading. Whatever that connection in my brain is, however fiction and me link, to the point where I have to keep going back, this is what I need to recommend it. This connection doesn't always happen the first encounter with a work, either. It took me a second attempt to get into Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, for example. I'd just begun reading it at the wrong time, the wrong place, and I wasn't connecting with it, and a part of me nagged at the back of my head that I was missing something, so I restarted. I don't always get that restart inkling, however. I read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys over Xmas and, y'know, once was enough. I'd seen this all from Gaiman before. There was no connection, such as with some of Gaiman's earlier work, and I didn't hate the book, but I'd been there, done that. It was just the same old footsteps. So, in case you think I'm slagging locals, I'm not. This is how I judge fiction. There's a lot of work out there, so I don't feel the need to find excuses on why I should read a particular piece--which is often what, "I'm reading an Australian book" is. When someone says that sentence, it's easy to notice how they're not mentioning the author, the genre, anything about the book itself. If you're doubting me (which is fair enough) ask yourself how many times you hear anyone local say "I'm reading an American book". Just because a book is written by an Australian--or American or anyone--doesn't make a book unique or special or anything like that. That's just some author's nationality and a nationality doesn't make a book better or worse.*

And with that said, with the majority of the fiction I read this year, I was bored. I was especially bored with things published this year. There was nothing fresh. No snap. No energy. Maybe it was just what I read, maybe not, but it is quite clearly not for me to say. I can only judge what I encountered.

Which was not much. So, no recommends outside what I've already said.




* It does occasionally make a subject matter, however. And a subject matter can make a book more interesting or not to the individual.

Comments

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bodhichitta0
Jan. 4th, 2006 12:06 am (UTC)
I don't recommend the Virgin Suicides but I'm glad I read it. And I thought it was brilliant in a way. There was definitely distance and massive creepiness but I think that was supposed to be a part of the point in a way. The curiousity, the detached narrator, the decaying trees, the decaying family.

But no, I don't think I've ever recommended the book. I've recommended Middlesex a ton. Someone who can accomplish something with the tone of Virgin Suicides and the scope and passion of Middlesex has it going on, IMO.

And Anansi Boys was okay. I'm not sorry I got it from the library or anything and I don't resent the time I spent reading it... it was sort of like popcorn to me, I guess.
benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 12:46 am (UTC)
yeah, ANANSI BOYS was popcorn, but it was--well, it was popcorn we've all seen from gaiman before. sure, you can pass the time with it, but after that, does it stick?

didn't for me.
ataxi
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
I felt that way about American Gods. It had a great fantasy premise, but turning a great premise into a humdrum pleasant read is a far from impressive result.
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frogworth
Jan. 4th, 2006 12:41 am (UTC)
I get this with music - because I'm a local muso and sometime critic (for Cyclic Defrost, electronic music mag) and have a radio show, I'm suppose to engage in affirmative action every time I mention great music; play more Australian music on my show even if there's not as much of my type of music made here, and not all of it's brilliant; mention more Australian music in my top 10s of the year etc.

Of course I listen to Australian music, and try to keep up with all the good stuff made here. But if I get a promo in and it's not that great or not that appropriate, it doesn't matter that it's also Australian. And if the ten best CDs I heard this year were all from overseas, so be it.
I was lucky this year - there was quite a lot of really good local music.

I also got the email from ASiF, who I am ostensibly reviewing for but haven't gotten around to reviewing anything! Eek!
I am having the same trouble. I actually read *heaps* this year, but bugger all from Australia, and can't think of anything much to recommend. But there must be stuff - I'll do a bit of a search around in the next few days.
benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 12:53 am (UTC)
i'm sure there must be stuff out there. i heard that the peter raftos (?) book is cool, but i've not even got a copy of that. likewise, you can move through the short fiction that's online easily enough, but none of it that i've read is real strong. still, worth doing a tour, maybe?

but the affirmative action stuff on the local scene is just damaging, in the long run. sure, we should support it, play it, publish it, read it, the last two in my case, obviously, because new artists need to find voices and get out there. but its got to stand up with the rest of the world's creations. in the case of the spec fic scene, it's not like we're coming from a non-english speaking background, where our voices have been maginalised by language and culture.
girliejones
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:19 am (UTC)
You do remember how the whole ASif! project got going right?
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benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:18 am (UTC)
veiled?! where's the veil! heh.

it just seemed like a flat year for literature to me. everyone treading water, even the authors i like, such as murakami. course, that said, i still have a bunch i bought but didn't read, so that's probably way unfair to say.heh.
ex_benpayne119
Jan. 4th, 2006 08:28 am (UTC)
I've had those years... this year was a good year for me reading-wise but some years I just don't read anything that really speaks to me...

Re: local fiction. I *do* take an interest in local fiction for its own sake, for reasons which I blogged recently so won't repeat here. Basically I find it fun and interesting to follow the scene.

Of course I also want to read great fiction, some of which I do get locally and some of which I get overseas.

Re: affirmative action, I personally think it's important to nurture the local scene and promote local writers, not out of some belief in "Australianness" as a collection of cliches, but more as a buffer against the potential homogenising effects of globalisation. But that's just me.

The ASif list isn't really about affirmative action, though. It's an attempt to point toward those stories which *might* (all things being subjective) stand up against the best stories published elsewhere. And as a starting point for people who say "there are good australian writers?" with a genuine tone of surprise.

cassiphone
Jan. 4th, 2006 09:41 am (UTC)
I agree with all these points. I'm interested in the Australian scene because I'm part of it, and I like to see what's around. And I'm very interested in the idea of identifying and preserving the Australian voice within speculative fiction.

But in the words of a recent meme: life is too short to read substandard books. That's why I use tooks like the Locus recommended reading list, and reviews in general, to help identify books I will enjoy. I'm really looking forward to seeing the ASif list coalesce.

I don't see reading Australian books as embracing the substandard. I'm not saying all of it is good, but a lot of it is. Some of it is great. And I don't want to miss the good and the great fiction that also ties in with my hobby of observing the Australian spec fic scene.
benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 10:53 am (UTC)
And I'm very interested in the idea of identifying and preserving the Australian voice within speculative fiction.

how would you describe this voice?
cassiphone
Jan. 4th, 2006 11:27 am (UTC)
I can't describe it - yet. Identifying the Australian voice is an ongoing process, and it's something I've only recently developed an active interest in. If I had an easy answer to the question, I probably wouldn't be interested any more.

But I also agree with Ben Payne about the importance of preserving our own culture and literature against a general global homogenisation. I don't know what the Australian voice is, but I don't want it to vanish before I find it!
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benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
Re: local fiction. I *do* take an interest in local fiction for its own sake, for reasons which I blogged recently so won't repeat here. Basically I find it fun and interesting to follow the scene.

i do take an interest in the local scene for it's own interests. i've always got an eye on it, just as i do with a lot of other scenes.

affirmative action, I personally think it's important to nurture the local scene and promote local writers, not out of some belief in "Australianness" as a collection of cliches, but more as a buffer against the potential homogenising effects of globalisation. But that's just me.

i would agree with that if, spec fic wise, i didn't think the genre had itself become homogenised. his is at its core, i might add. there will always be parts of it that aren't, but i find that one of the results of globalisation is this, i dunno, cultural emptiness (?) that fills the centre of spec fic... least, it's my take. i personally don't find this local scene much different to any of the western scenes int he fiction it produces.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 4th, 2006 09:56 am (UTC)
Well, why don't you do a NOT recommended reading list?

I dare you :)

A passerby.
benpeek
Jan. 4th, 2006 10:54 am (UTC)
like i need more hate...
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