In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan discuss what happens when books make you work. How does a reader know whether to persevere with a book when at first they're not sure of it? How can we decide if a book really isn't working on its own terms—or whether we're missing something and need to pay closer attention? And how can a critical reader check their own expectations to assess a text fairly? Expect discussion of Susannah Clarke, Yuri Herrera, Christopher Priest, Catherynne Valente, and more.
Critical Friends Episode 5
Aisha Subramanian: Welcome to Critical friends. The Strange Horizons SFF Criticism Podcast I'm Aisha Subramanian.
Dan Hartland: And I'm Dan Hartland. In every episode of Critical Friends, we'll be discussing SFF reviewing: what it is, why we do it, how it's going.
Aisha Subramanian: In this episode, we're talking about books that make us work. What happens when we don't at first like a text? How do we test our initial reaction to get a fuller understanding of it?
Dan Hartland: How does an author, how can an author, win our trust? How should we approach a text in order to find it on its own terms? And should we even try?
Aisha Subramanian: We began by talking about where to start with the text, and by trying to talk over the builders next door. Sorry, everyone ... that's my next door.
Dan Hartland: Can I ask a question? Are you a throw the book across a room person?
Aisha Subramanian: No. Don't have emotions that are that strong. I have no emotions. [laughter]
Dan Hartland: Neither do I. I have no emotions, either! But no, I've never thrown a book across the room in anger. I do have a rule that, I try to have a rule that, I finish a book if I start it, even if I'm not enjoying it or feel somehow that it isn't achieving what it should. I must say that this rule ... although I don't throw books, I do vocalize against them. So if I'm reading a book and I'm going to finish this book and I'm not enjoying it, I do tend to narrate my experience out loud! And the people in the room with me often complain then about my rule about not finishing books.
Aisha Subramanian: That is fair.
Dan Hartland: But I don't ... I finish the book. I insist on, even if it's not working, I keep going with it. Do you do that or do you give up more sensibly than me?
Aisha Subramanian: I am fundamentally a quitter.
Dan Hartland: So at what point would you quit? Because I feel like we're having this conversation about “when do you let a book make you work for it and when do you give up?” But I never give up. I just keep going! So when do you give up?
Aisha Subramanian: That sounds really unhealthy! I think it depends for me what level of commitment is involved. So if I've committed to review a set of books for some reason, I will probably power through them, even if I don't like them. And then I will have to do the work of trying to understand how they work, why they're worth reading, et cetera. Whether or not I actually enjoy the experience. If it's just for my own personal enjoyment, if it's just, “Oh, this looks interesting,” or a friend recommended this, or, well, any of the normal reasons that people read books, then if it's not grabbing me by quite early on, I will either put it aside to try it later, or I'll just put it aside. I think for me, there'd have to be quite a high level of “I am really, really not enjoying this” if I was actually committed to something and ended up not finishing it. It's definitely happened a couple of times. I've definitely had times when I've had to give up on a review because I just cannot get into this book no matter how much I try. But that's quite rare.
Dan Hartland: So what is this process then? By which, as I'm reading a book that I'm not enjoying but insisting on finishing it because I'm, I agree. unhealthy, and as you are maybe putting the book aside and maybe coming back to it or reviewing it later, and we're trying to figure out: “okay, we didn't enjoy this experience or this book didn't immediately grab us, or there are things about it which we were surprised by in an unpleasant way.” What is the process of figuring out whether that initial reaction that we've had is the right one, right? As reviewers or critics or just people trying to understand their experience of a book? How do we think ourselves outside of our initial reaction? What does that process look like for you? How do you think your way into a book that initially you might not want to?
Aisha Subramanian: So, for me, I think a big part of it is, okay, “obviously I don't like this, or at least my initial response to this is one of dislike, but clearly this exists, it was written this way.” So presumably some choices have been made, and presumably there were reasons behind those choices. So what is this doing? What do these choices that I dislike allow this book, maybe, to do? And that isn't necessarily going to mitigate the dislike. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my reaction is going to be, okay, I still dislike this, but at least I understand why it is the way it is.
Dan Hartland: So I'm thinking of a book that we have spoken about on this show, A Stranger in Olondria, which, when I first read it, I didn't bounce off it, but I really had to, at first, work to get into the way in which it was telling its story. And the way I did that was, I guess, try to imagine things from the book's perspective, that is, meet the book halfway and then kind of cross over into its territory. I think that's what the reader is trying to do when they engage with a book. But if I hadn't done that imaginative work, I can imagine it would have gone in the maybe try again later pile, which I do not have because I am unhealthy.
Aisha Subramanian: In general, having a sense of where the book is coming from, who's writing it, what kinds of traditions they're writing into, what kinds of styles they're writing with ... that can be a useful way in. It's not always entirely useful, because, again, there can be things about those choices that I fundamentally dislike. But at least that way I have a sense of what this object is and what it is trying to achieve. Which I realize means that I'm speaking about the book as if it had agency, and obviously it doesn't, but presumably the author had some agency and presumably these choices were choices. There was intent and art, hopefully.
Dan Hartland: Of course, sometimes there isn't. [laughter] And I suppose as readers have to be open to the idea—and maybe with my rule of always finishing a book, I'm not sufficiently open to the idea—that sometimes the book, maybe it did make choices, but they were the wrong ones. Maybe our initial reaction is correct. But we spoke about those kinds of books with Abigail, so I'm really interested in this process of figuring a book out.
At the moment, I'm working with some of our reviewers on a roundtable on the novel Goliath—which will be available as a tier on the Strange Horizons fund drive, so there you go, there's some motivation, everyone—and it's an excellent discussion. And it revolves around this because Goliath—and we've reviewed the book before so people can go and read the review—Goliath is a book which kind of challenges its readers to meet it. And what you're talking about, Aisha, it seems to me is this idea that the author and the reader are in a kind of dialogue where they have to meet—and the reader needs to kind of trust the author at some point and try and figure out what they were trying to do rather than necessarily the initial effect that the reader is experiencing.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. And I think, as you say, sometimes the author possibly isn't worthy of that trust. It is possible for an author to write a terrible book that is objectively terrible, where either no choices were actually made with any particular level of meaning, or the choices that were made were actually all the wrong ones. But on the whole, I like to assume that if I'm reading something, some thought has gone into it at some point, and some thought by a reasonably reliable person whose judgment can be, not necessarily agreed with, but respected.
Dan Hartland: It's a nice thought, isn't it? [laughter] I wonder whether we could think about how that happens, how we sift through the authors that deserve our trust, even though they're kind of not trying to win it—they're not pandering to the reader, are asking for some investment, some work, some effort from the reader (almost deliberately, in some cases, they will try to alienate the reader)—and those authors that aren't doing that in as thoughtful a way. Is there an example of a book that you've read recently, or that I've read recently, that sort of felt at first as if it was doing something that we didn't expect of that book or didn't want to necessarily experience, but which proved in the reading and in the working to have virtue.
Aisha Subramanian: Okay, I think you're going to need to come up with examples here because everything I've read recently has been great, but it's also been great in ways that I thoroughly expected.
Dan Hartland: See, that's interesting because I do think, and we've spoken about before, that, to some extent, genre literature is or can be a literature of comfort, right? So one of the things that people come to for, from genre literature, is the familiar this might seem a counterintuitive thing to say about science fiction, which people often say is the literature of estrangement; but I think in reality, sometimes people just want to read about cool starships. And that's okay, that level of comfort. But sometimes books don't want to give you that.
For example, I recently read Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest. This was his book from last year, which is a very Priesty book: there are twins, and there are parallel timelines; and there is sort of a clarity of prose which also somehow doesn't offer clarity, by which I mean a sort of very finely wrought prose which kind of doesn't sometimes tell you anything about how the characters are actually feeling. And all of that is very Priestian and very, very deliberate. And we know it's deliberate because we've read Priest novels before and they all do the same thing.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, if you like Priest, you will love this Priest book.
Dan Hartland: Exactly. And so some of the things that are alienating about a Priest novel are not alienating if you are aware of Priest—because you come to that with those expectations. They're not expectations that you would necessarily go to other books with. But Expect Me Tomorrow has also a climate change theme whereby one of the characters discovers that, if all the glaciers melt, they will be cold in the water and that will lower global temperatures—and that's a different problem to have, but essentially we won't be hot anymore. And I'm deliberately simplifying what happens, but essentially that is the thing. And that feels, in 2023, or felt to me in 2023, an uncomfortable thing for a novel to be doing—because hopepunk is great and all that, but at the same time, I kind of don't want to let us off the hook in that way, by essentially a magical glacier doing the work for us. And so I kind of bounced off the book a little bit because ... almost because of its, I hate to say this, but almost because of its politics more than its prose. But as you read through the book and try and figure out why it is doing this, I think a project does emerge.
You might disagree with the project, but it's not that the book hasn't put thought into it. And it's not that there isn't a perspective by which you can defend the project as a kind of artistic one, if not as a sort of climatological one. And that did make me think because I did have to sit with the book for a while and imagine why Christopher Priest had done this! But the difficulty there is we're second guessing someone that we can't talk to, right? So we're talking about trying to check whether the author has put thought into this. But how do you do that? Because you can't ring the author up—well, maybe in some cases you can—but you can't call the author up on the phone and say, hey, why did you do this? What are the tools that we apply to figure out why the glaciers are melting in this novel?
Aisha Subramanian: Well, one of them is the one that you already mentioned, which is to some extent we know what this book is because we've read a lot of other Christopher Priest books, and it also gives you a kind of shield against certain things. So, you said that one of the things that initially got you was the politics of it, but again, you've read a lot of Priests, so there's a certain perhaps willingness that you have to hear him out.
Dan Hartland: You're right. So a preexisting relationship with an author will mean that we are more willing to sort of give them time or ...
Aisha Subramanian: ... space to develop the idea and see if we still feel the same about it once it's been further developed for us.
Dan Hartland: How does that work for an author that we haven't read before? So if if it hadn't been a Christopher Priest book, if it had been by an author, if it would have been a debut novel that had the same plot and mechanism ... how would I have figured out in the same way what it was up to?
Aisha Subramanian: You certainly wouldn't have figured it out in the same way, I think we can probably establish that. The uncomfortable answer is maybe you wouldn't have, because criticism is not an exact art and you are bringing what you know and your own personal baggage and your own personal biases to any kind of encounter with a text. I think though, that maybe you could also be thinking about what ... even if you don't know this author, are there things about the way this book is written that remind you of other things, that give you that sense of familiarity, that maybe allows you to hear this person out? Are there things that you know about this publisher that maybe give you that sense of trust? And sometimes, obviously, the answer is there are none of those things. But I don't think ... that's quite rare. I think especially now for people ... you and I end up getting so much marketing material in our inbox, for one thing, and the Internet exists and it's very hard to be completely unaware of it. I don't think any of us ever goes into a new book with completely no knowledge. So maybe some of that knowledge ends up being at least part of what you use to try and make sense of what's making you uncomfortable.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, that's a really good point: that a lot of the tools or knowledges that we're going to bring to a book in order to understand it are contextual, that the clues aren't necessarily in the text itself. I was thinking about as you were speaking, I was thinking about reading The Past Is Red by Catherynne Valente, which I did sort of late last year, I think, and I really enjoyed it, actually. But there was a structural issue because the book is a what we would once have called—maybe we still call them—a fix-up. So it has a previously published bit, and then it has a bit that has been tacked on to the previously published bit, and the join really shows. But I was expecting it because I knew the story of the book, and so it didn't disrupt my reading in the way that an irregular structure would have done in a book that I didn't know that about, or indeed did not have that—quote-unquote—excuse.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. No, I think it's possible. And if you were inclined to be generous in your reading, you would probably have thought that was an interesting structural choice, maybe a deliberate one, if you didn't already have that information.
Dan Hartland: But those would be in-text clues, wouldn't they? If we didn't have the context, we would try and find clues for why this structural choice had been made in the text itself, maybe in the story it was telling, or the experience of the characters in the book.
Aisha Subramanian: And you might find some.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. So what books recently have you been reading that were great, that required no work whatsoever in order to get along with?
Aisha Subramanian: So I'm currently reading Yuri Herrera's Ten Planets—which, incidentally, so good. I'm assuming at some point we will be carrying a review of it. And I'm also assuming that at some point we'll both be yelling about it somewhere. But again, this is one of those things where I went into a book knowing that I was going to love it, that this is an author who I have an immense amount of trust and respect for, that this is a translator that I have an immense amount of trust and respect for. So it was very much a situation where I was fully prepared to love it, and the result is that I have fully loved it. Now, would I have felt this enthused by it if I didn't already think that this writer was great? I'm not sure. Probably. I think I would probably still really like it. I think it's really good. But I think that this works with enthusiasm as well as with dislike, doesn't it? That we are prepared to see greatness, and we're prepared to see brilliant choices being made, when we know that something is like what we have loved before and when we know that this is something that we are expecting to love.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. And there's this currently in-vogue style of criticism where critics read books explicitly embedded in their daily life, right? So they talk about reading an author alongside all their other things like bringing up the kids or making the meals or going on vacation or whatever, which I think can be overdone, but is interesting because I completely agree that sometimes when we read a book, we're reading a lot of other books at the same time.
Aisha Subramanian: I'm not sure if you mean that literally or not, because it's true both ways.
Dan Hartland: It is true both ways—yeah, you're absolutely right! My book piles would attest to this. No, what I mean is, even when we read a specific book, we are reading a specific book at a specific point, but it is evoking in us responses based at least in part on all the other books that we have read before, and that this helps inform the level of effort that we are willing to make with this particular book ... and, indeed, the level of effort we're able to make. I think that might be a conversation worth having. Sometimes a reader, for whatever reason, isn't able to give the time, space, or effort to a novel that it seems to be requiring of.
Aisha Subramanian: And again, that's one of the reasons why I sometimes drop a book and say, I'm going to pick it up later. And I think that's true of probably most people.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, I think so. And I think that obviously—
Aisha Subramanian: Well, I don't know about you. Obviously.
Dan Hartland: No, well, my rule about not finishing a book doesn't mean that I have to finish it quickly. I find ways to bend the rule!
Dan Hartland: Do we think, then, that to refer back to our conversation with Abigail about negative reviews, there is a point, isn't there, where we decide that this book is not good, that however much work we put in, it's not going to reward our effort? What does that reward look like? How do we decide that we are not being sufficiently rewarded for reading a book?
Aisha Subramanian: So for me, I think that's basically the moment where you sort of go, “oh, okay, so that's what this is doing. Or that's why this matters.”
Dan Hartland: Yes. And if the answer to the question, “What is this book doing?” emerges and we don't like it, we just go “No!” and move on.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah, but even that no can be, “Okay, I can see what this is doing now, and I can see why this author maybe thought it was worth doing this, but I don't agree that it was worth doing.”
Dan Hartland: And I wonder whether sometimes—because there are such things, we're talking about sort of how the context in which a book is written helps us to reach that point of, “okay, this is what this particular text is up to”—I mean, there are such things as literary trends, right? So there are moments where a lot of books try to do a particular thing, and that can be difficult if that thing isn't for you. It must be twenty to thirty years ago now that there was a real vogue for the big book, and I'm thinking of Crimson Petal and the White, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which were huge things with footnotes or dramatis personae or just lots of pages. And what's interesting about that is that since then and before then, both of those authors, Michel Faber and Susannah Clarke, have written really beautifully wrought slim books as well—Piranesi, Susannah Clark's recent novel, is just awesome. And the authors prove that they can do both, which again speaks to intent, right? That they have chosen to write this big book. It's not that, Dickens-like, they kind of just wrote a lot of episodes until they ran out of time or space or commissioning editors, and just it got bigger and bigger over time because they hadn't planned it. They had planned it to be large in the first place, partly because that was a trend, maybe not even consciously because it was a trend. They're part of a cultural moment, partly.
Aisha Subramanian: Presumably because there are stories that benefit from that kind of telling.
Dan Hartland: I mean, sometimes there are, and sometimes ... yeah.
Aisha Subramanian: I mean, I'm personally not a huge fan of the big book, but in theory!
Dan Hartland: I mean, I'm looking at a big book. I've just cast my eye over to my bookshelf, and I'm looking at a big book now, which is The Overstory by Richard Powers, which didn't work for me as well as his more recent, very slim book. But The Overstory could not have been told without being a big book. The sort of expansiveness of it is part of the point. And that comes back, of course, to authorial intent and figuring out what that is. But the reader, I guess, has the right to say, “Well, I understand what the author intended to do, but I ... “
Aisha Subramanian: “... personally do not like big books.”
Dan Hartland: “I do not like big books, and I cannot lie.” Yeah, no, that's right. Sometimes critics can seem quite sort of forbidding characters, right, because we put down these strictures that we should read books and try to understand them on their own terms. But some people don't have time for that, right? Like, it's okay not to take a book on its ... well, is it okay not to take a book on its own terms? Is it okay to approach a book, not like it, and kind of nope out without even trying to figure out why?
Aisha Subramanian: I think that, for example, if you don't like big books, your criticism is going to come down to, “I don't like big books, and this was a big book.” A couple of months ago when we did a podcast with Abigail and we talked about negative reviews. One of the things that we did talk about was the idea that you can fundamentally disagree with a certain kind of literary project with a certain style of book, and still have valuable things to say about it. And I think that's still true. I'm not disagreeing with what we all said a few months ago. But I think that there are times when, if you know that you're not going to be able to settle into a book, if you're not going to be able to give it the space to do what it's doing and judge it on that basis, then it is probably a good idea if you don't read it—because you're not necessarily going to have things to say about it that are honestly that valuable.
Dan Hartland: Yeah. Obviously as commissioning reviews editors, we make these kinds of decisions all the time about who would be best placed to write most usefully about a given book. And yeah, you're right, if there's a thousand page epic, we don't give that or shouldn't give that to someone that prefers novellas. Although sometimes I wonder, is there a purpose to someone that doesn't like a particular type of book being asked to read it anyway? Is there value in understanding why you don't like a big book? Or is it just a fact of life and accept it and stop wasting your time on them?
Aisha Subramanian: I think it also depends on the critic. Because if you feel that you've got legitimate ... if you've got an argument for why you don't like this type of book, and you're willing to see whether this particular book falls foul of your theory about how books like this work, and you're willing to give it the space to do that—and it turns out that actually, no, this book has exactly the same problems as the rest of the genre—I think that that's a valuable thing to say. If it's something like, “I do not have the patience for long books, or I do not have the time for long book,” then maybe that space could be given to someone else who might have slightly deeper things to say about it.
Dan Hartland: Yes, I think that's right. And I think what we're getting towards is the idea that a book is not just a text that must be approached and inspected. It is a thing in the world, our reactions to which are affected by other things that also exist in that world.
Aisha Subramanian: Yeah. I mean, I can't—and this is a thing that most people around me know, because people keep recommending things to me and it goes wrong—I can't do long TV series. It's just not a thing I can do. I can't do that kind of sustained narrative over a long period of time. And so, anytime anyone recommends a TV series to me, that recommendation is not going anywhere. I will hear you out and then I will not watch the thing. For someone like me to decide, “Oh, I'm going to review, I don't know, Succession”: I don't think anything of worth would come out of that. I don't think I would have anything worthwhile to say except, “Why is this still going?”
Dan Hartland: Yeah, that makes sense. Just out of interest—and this is germane to the discussion, because sometimes we don't know that a TV series is going to be long, because sometimes we start with the first episode and we like it, and then it just keeps getting commissioned for more seasons; and sometimes we start a book and we don't know that it's a big book or something else that we tend not to like, we just start it and we realize we don't like it as the show gets longer and gets recommissioned for season 42—do you at some point say, “No.” Do you at some point say with the book? No. Or if we start a text without this contextual knowledge that we've said is so important to interpreting it, do we somehow short circuit our own prejudices? Do we just keep persevering because we haven't been given the opportunity at first to say no?
Aisha Subramanian: I'm not sure. Because I've definitely had the thing where I will read a book and I'll be thinking of it as a unit, right? It's a book, it had a plot, it did a thing, and my critical understanding of it is all in the context of it being this one thing and then—surprise!—it's a series. I think at that point I tend to just be more, if it's something I really like—again, if it's a question of I really trust this author, or I am genuinely curious to see what they decided to do with this—I will explore further, I will read the second book. But I don't think that the first reading of the book, the one where it was just a thing, necessarily becomes invalid. And I'm not necessarily going to let go of that reading to formulate a new one that encompasses the whole series, because I don't really think that there's necessarily a need to—unless, of course, the whole series ends up somehow magically hooking me into staying long enough.
Dan Hartland: Has that ever happened?
Aisha Subramanian: No. [laughter]
Aisha Subramanian: One thing that I did think about was ... So, we talked about context as a way in, as something that maybe gives you the kind of tools that you need to try and work out what a book is trying to do and whether what it's trying to do is worth doing. I think, though, that there's also a kind of potential disadvantage to having classified a book in its entirety before you start actually reading it, and before you actually sit with it. I have several English literature degrees at this point, as we know, and I think sometimes, as much as I like having context for things, the ability to purely take a book on its own terms, to encounter it as if it was something completely strange and then try to meet it completely on its own terms, is something that I actually really miss. And it's something that I don't think any of us has been able to do since the advent of the Internet. But it's particularly hard to do if context sort of takes over. And what this ends up doing is that thing where a reader—because they know what they're expecting from a book—ends up sort of projecting certain ideas and certain details onto it, rather than seeing the text and taking the text for what it is and taking what's actually there and building from that.
So, yeah, I just kind of wanted to undermine a thing that we said.
Dan Hartland: It's always worth doing. I encourage all listeners to undermine things we say.
Aisha Subramanian: So, yeah, take books on their own terms, except don't.
Dan Hartland: Here to help! I think that's the reality of reading books, though, right? That you're constantly balancing out those two things.
Aisha Subramanian: I think so. I think that there's the text, there's the thing in front of you that you're supposed to be having hopefully a relatively honest encounter with. And there's everything that you bring with you, both as a critic and as a person existing in the world who maybe has other things to do and has a day job and deadlines to meet and all of that.
Dan Hartland: Yeah, I think that's one of the themes that has emerged in this discussion: that we can't pretend that the text does not exist within a wider context or is not affected by other things we've read, other things we're doing just other demands for our time.
Aisha Subramanian: And yet at the same time, we need to treat it as a thing in itself and demand a certain integrity of it. So, basically, criticism is impossible.
Dan Hartland: See you next month on Critical Friends! [laughter]
Dan Hartland: At least one thing that we've realized in the course of this discussion is that our next gift for each other is sorted. I'm going to get you a box set of a twenty-four-season TV series and you're going to send me a novel that has dubious climate politics.
Aisha Subramanian: Can you even get box sets anymore? Is that still a thing?
Dan Hartland: Well, for you, I will make an exception. I will find it.
Aisha Subramanian: That's very sweet. Please don't.
Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast. Our theme music is “Dial Up” by Lost Cosmonauts. You can hear more of their music at Grande Valise dot Bandcamp dot com.