Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great is a collection of essays, originally published as blog posts on Tor.com. Familiar with Walton's fiction, I was drawn to review her collection of non-fiction essays partially because of what I'd heard of Walton's reading habits and what she herself reveals at the beginning of the book—Walton chooses what books to read the way some people choose which ingredients to cook with, relying on a mix of old, trusted favorites and exciting, untested novelties.
Walton is clearly a voracious reader. Her essays betray an enormous breadth of interests and books consumed. While most people may reread a favorite book at least once or twice in their lives, Walton's approach is different, at least in these essays. She's methodical and thorough in her analysis. In some ways she treats her favorite books as the opposite of comfort reading, using the rereading process to scrutinize the books anew, examine them through a new lens.
The above is evident in most of Walton's essays, but a few specific examples would be her piece on "The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein's Juveniles," in which she considers how Heinlein's cheery, upbeat stories are really rooted in dark dystopias, and "'A need to deal wounds': Rape of men in Cherryh's Union-Alliance novels," in which she ponders the form and function of sexual assault in the work of C. J. Cherryh. In both essays, she turns the established narratives around the books on their heads, examining thematic elements and marginal details in the backgrounds of the stories to bring to the fore their underlying, perhaps unconscious, assumptions.
Another interesting feature of the book is that Walton reviews single, standalone books as well as entire series in the space of roughly the same word count. Many reviewers find one or the other difficult. Either they're comfortable delving deeply into a single work and find reviewing a whole series at once makes their analysis shallow, or, rarely, they're comfortable reviewing books as a group and find reviewing a single novel forces them to pause over unnecessary details. Walton's Tor.com columns, however, allowed her significant freedom of tone and subject matter, and so her standalone and series reviews simply take entirely different approaches. An example would be her look at Kari Hulme's The Bone People, where she analyzes in detail the arcs of individual characters, versus another of those ruminations on Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, in the course of which Walton talks more broadly about world-building, tone, and Cherryh's artful use of happy endings.
Walton doesn't privilege books that have made it into the canon of science fiction over ones that have received relatively little attention, and in that her book becomes an unusual guide to SFF literature. What Makes This Book So Great contains musings on and reviews of everything from books "adjacent" to genre (such as Dorothy Dunnett’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’s) and books that have been seen to define what the genre is (such as Heinlein’s and Clarke’s). In every case, the strength of Walton's writing is her enthusiasm, her love and passion for her favorite works, or for works she's found important and influential. This shines through particularly when she chooses to spotlight books that have received little recognition, such as in "Random Acts of Senseless Violence: Why isn't it a classic of the field?" where she ruminates on why Jack Womack's experimental novel didn't get wider recognition.
Walton's reviews are mostly positive, by virtue of the fact that she writes frequently about books she's loved and reread many times over. She acknowledges the flaws in these books, but chooses to write about them to highlight new insights and analysis, or to ruminate on the question of the book's enduring relevance or relative obscurity.
Indeed, interspersed throughout the book are Walton's themed essays on various issues related to SFF literature. These include an essay on the differences in world-building and structure between single novels and novels that are part of a series ("Rereading long series"), one on how to handle a series in which the sequels diminish in quality over time ("Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill"), and one on the changing role of swearing in SFF books ("Knights who Say ’Fuck’: Swearing in Genre Fiction").
Despite all this exuberance and enthusiasm, Walton is not entirely uncritical or afraid to point out the flaws in her beloved classics. To me, her collection of essays fulfills all the requirements of good literary critique, in being honest and thorough, offering innovative analysis and being based on a general love of the subject matter. Perhaps my favorite insight offered by Walton in the book comes along early, in "That's just scenery: What do we mean by 'mainstream'?" In this essay, Walton considers the distinctions between "genre" and "literary fiction"—and what happens when writers largely familiar with the latter attempt to write the former. She concludes that there are various mechanisms SFF readers are accustomed to, certain conventions with which authors from the "mainstream" aren't familiar, and that this can lead to poorly structured and difficult-to-read books. My favorite quote is a succinct summary of Walton's analysis of the difference between the genres:
In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character.
In a mainstream novel the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world.
Although Walton uses this to explain where writers of mimetic fiction can go awry when writing SFF, her observations, like all insights which focus with precision on a single text or question, have wider implications. If mimetic authors fail in treating their world as a character, then surely some SFF writers fail to treat their characters as the world? Walton's words reminded me of the advice I once heard offered to SFF authors who were interested in writing better characters—read more romance novels. There are many more observations Walton makes throughout the book that raise bigger questions in this way, and are relevant for current discussions about craft, genre, and the nature of SFF.
Importantly, I found Walton's collection refreshing in how frequently she referred to and talked about women authors. Considering SFF as a whole has had documented problems with reviewing authors who weren't white men, a book ostensibly being about "older" books, classics Walton had loved for years, featuring women to such an extent is striking. Indeed, I enjoyed her introduction of "canon" female authors (who are still routinely left off "best of" or "most influential" lists) such as Bujold, Cherryh, and Tanith Lee, along with authors not as widely read or known, such as Kathleen Norris ("The weirdest book in the world"), Angelica Gorodischer ("The beauty of lists: Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial"), and Candas Jane Dorsey ("Something rich and strange: Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine").
So useful is this contribution, in fact that, as a book critic myself (if only by virtue of writing this review), I can't help but respond to the final essay in this collection, "Literary criticism vs talking about books." In it she says, "I'm talking about books as part of a different conversation [from criticism], with its roots much more in fanzines and Usenet than in periodicals." Walton in this way seeks to distance herself from "real" critics, as she aims to get readers excited about books, not offer objective judgment on their quality. While Walton justifies this with her lack of an English degree, I, perhaps coming from the same fannish roots, can't help but wish more literary critics followed Walton's example.
Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She holds degrees in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She currently spends most of her time working on her first fantasy novel. You can follow her on Twitter or email her to say hi.