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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.


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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.
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.
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.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:07 am (UTC)
i liked AMERICAN GODS. i thought it was the first time gaiman pulled a novel length story together strongly, equallying the promise he showed with STARDUST.

his strongest book, though, is GOOD OMENS with pratchett.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:52 am (UTC)
Hmm, well, American Gods was definitely pretty good reading, but it was still a let down. The idea, turning the divinities of American migrants into refugee/invader/migrant gods themselves, was really good, but the book suffered from "poison elf syndrome"* IMO.

* "Wouldn't it be cool if we had elves like in Tolkien, but they were savages who lived in a forest and used blowdarts and had lots of swirly tattoos ..."
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:57 am (UTC)
i don't reckon it suffered from that. if anything, i think it suffered from a weak climax, and it could have focused on the immigration side more strongly. but, hey, taste is taste.
Jan. 4th, 2006 02:13 am (UTC)
Yeah "poison elf syndrome" is a bit harsh. I guess it was more just I felt Gaiman's thought process was "what would Odin be like if Odin had to appear in a sort of American avatar manifestation. Hmm, I think Odin would be a sort of sinister beefy good ole boy with a cowboy hat, called 'Mr Wednesday'" ... and then not much more than that. Plus it had major guess the twist issues.

I kept asking myself "When's he going to delve?" ... cf your comment "it could have focused on the immigration side more strongly".

The absolute creepiest and best bit of the book was the body horror bit where the guy gets "swallowed" during sex. That was neat, if a fairly cheap shot in itself.

But yeah, taste is taste.
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.
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.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:19 am (UTC)
You do remember how the whole ASif! project got going right?
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:22 am (UTC)
sure do.

and it is important to have places to promote things. to have a hub where people can find it. but at the same time, you can't expect people to read it just cause it is australian, or just cause it is the independent press. but even where that stands, the position of asif is an important one, and brings awareness of local press and underrated authors out, which is good and important.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:31 am (UTC)
Well i guess that would be why only a certain group of people were asked to contribute - a group we thought would be a good bet to have read Australian material ie reviewers on the site, AA judges, editors, publishers etc. Its not asking people to only read Australian or to read Australian because its Australian. But if you come to ASif! and see a lot of reviews there, a recommended reading list is a good shortcut to get around the problems you list above.

And for those of us who did spend the year reading Australian material, I'd say telling you what you shouldn't miss would be helpful. I know it meant the material I took on my holiday was all good stuff.

Jan. 4th, 2006 01:35 am (UTC)
oh, sure. i got that, and i'm not slagging on the site or the idea. this year i'm just the wrong person for that. most of my reading was academic books and what i did read, as i say, didn't grab me here. this was more about the idea that you should read something cause it's australian, which you run into round here a lot. it's why we have the little 'australian authors' section in shops, after all.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:38 am (UTC)
It kinda felt like slagging.

I don't know what to say about the you should read something cause its Australian - the entire point of the site is to be the central hub for small and big Australian press so the recommended reading list directed that way. I'm not sure you clearly separated the two points.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:46 am (UTC)
nah. it's not slagging. it's just the thought started with the email.

and yeah, the site is central for something cause it's australian, and it promotes an australian scene that doesn't get much press, so this is good. however, there is a difference between this, and actually sitting and recommending people read something written by an australian because it is good, for an australian, if you follow me.

it's a bit like what peter hollo said about affirmative action. i want to keep up with the scene and what's going on, and the site is a huge aid to doing that, and bringing people in. so it's all good. but if i am going to recommend things to people, i'm not going to find a couple of australian things just because they are australian, and say here you go. what i like, i like it no matter where it's from.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:52 am (UTC)
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People always hate affirmative action until they sre actually a minority themselves - but that's a separate discussion.

I don't think that's what the email was asking nor the purpose of the recommended reading list. I get the difference between recommending something because its good and because its good for an Australian. We just thought it would be cool if all our reviewers pulled out what they enjoyed from what they'd read and put it in a list and since the site is not extensive enough we thought we'd extend the invite to others who may have read more.

Jan. 4th, 2006 01:55 am (UTC)
People always hate affirmative action until they sre actually a minority themselves - but that's a separate discussion.

i actually have no problem with affirmative action. i think it's a good thing. it was just what hollo used and i thought it wasn't a bad term for it.

like i said, i wasn't slagging on the site or the email. i just used the email as the start of the post, a sort of follow my logic, this is how i went. if it came across that i was slagging the site or idea, i apologise. not how it was meant.
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:58 am (UTC)
if it came across that i was slagging the site or idea, i apologise. not how it was meant.

Thank you.
Jan. 4th, 2006 02:23 am (UTC)
I agree with you re Australian sf. It has to stand on its own merits. Of course a taste for specific types of lit is usually acquired through habit, so if there is a particular "taste" to Australian sf, it may be worth acquiring. One thing I really love is when people write the Australian landscape into their books (by landscape I mean the way our cities are, as well as the way the "outback" is).

But there's no reason whatsoever not to just read whatever you want to read, even if that happens to be Mongolian cereal packets. If you can get satisfaction from them, go right ahead.

I'm a distant satellite of the Australian sf fandom scene at best, but whenever I do get involved with it, there does appear to be a lot of mutual self-congratulatory ego-boosting and back-slapping going on (as well as a lot of back-stabbing).

I'm all for semipro/unpublished/hopeful writers encouraging each other, and a "supportive scene", but not at the expense of actually reading the best of the fiction and art that inspired people to become part of that "scene" in the first place, most of which comes from overseas via the overwhelming force of population ratios.
Jan. 4th, 2006 02:50 am (UTC)
i don't know if there is a particular taste you can get for the fiction, and maybe you shouldn't have a blanket one. diversity is good, after all, and in spec fic, you don't have to have real environments.

i am all for a supportive scene, but the fact is, it's not a critical scene. there's a lot of ridiculous back slapping. a lot of ridiculous things that get praise and which deserve, instead, to be hidden or lost or never begun.

which is why i'm critical of things like that here.
Jan. 4th, 2006 07:04 am (UTC)
except of course that was why we started ASif! which attempts to sit outside the scene and not backslap - I think you'd find there are quite a lot of critical reviews on my website
Jan. 4th, 2006 10:43 am (UTC)
you are. i got no problem with that. but that comment was just about me and what i do here, since i'm not associated with the site. just this one.
(Deleted comment)
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.
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.

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.
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?
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!
Jan. 4th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
could you identify any writers you think have a uniquely australian voice? i'm just curious, is all.
Jan. 8th, 2006 01:03 pm (UTC)
Sorry, got distracted & didn't get back to this before now.

I wouldn't dream of attempting to name a single writer with a uniquely Australian voice - I don't think anyone is more or less Australian than anyone else, within reason (ie people who don't and have never lived here probably aren't overly Australian). That way madness lies. For instance, I think of myself as very Australian, but I have a strong English heritage too - and this led to me being criticised as a writer for not being 'Australian enough.' (WTF?) This was probably due to my tendency to populate my fantasy worlds with hedgehogs, but that's hardly the point... I am Australian, but I happen to have a lot of English culture in the back of my brain.

The 'Australian voice' I'm interested in is more of a collective thing - the sum total of all the Australian voices putting spec fic out there into the universe. I find this interesting to muse on from time to time - I can't really locate the cultural identity of any fiction other than Australian, because this is the only culture I have even a vague idea of.

Apart from Ancient Roman culture. But they don't have enough women authors to interest me in their literature. :)
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.
Jan. 4th, 2006 09:56 am (UTC)
Well, why don't you do a NOT recommended reading list?

I dare you :)

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