books ranting

Of Literature and Genre Fiction

The other day Richard Geib, who’s website musings I have followed for the past two decades [], posted a new blog entry: My Jane Austen Problem []. Before diving into Jane Austen specifically Mr. Geib recounts a period of time in college when he had a voracious appetite for all the famous literature I had heard about but never read. I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on.

The insatiable desire to read, during college, is something I can relate to, along with the fact the Mr. Geib was not a literature student, he was reading out of love for reading.

I never had a late night boring desk attendant job like Mr. Geib but I was nevertheless a voracious reader during college, with the mindset of “so many books, so little time”. I was never a fast reader but I read whenever I could. In and around my college days I devoured a lot of time to literature. I read Dostoevsky [], Sartre [], Nabokov [], Mann [], Camus [], Eco [], Rushdie [], Marques [] and more. Reading was my escape from classes, homework and work. I even forced myself to finish James Joyce Ulysses, a book I disliked almost from beginning to end, every critic sings it praises It must be great, right?

As with Mr. Geib my reading slowed considerably in the years after college. Work and, later, family inevitably reduced my reading time. I also struggled for a while in Singapore because there were only a few bookstores and books were much more expensive, to say nothing about having little room to store books. Eventually I move to reading mostly ebooks. I agonized over culling my physical book collections several times, it’s down to only the favorites or those that I have some sentimental attachment to.

Despite all that I have managed to work my way through many of the novels of Hemingway [], Faulkner [], Murakami [], Cormac McCarthy [], Truman Capote [] and I even read Cervantes []’ Don Quixote [] for it’s 500th birthday. Over the past few years I’ve been reading short stories: the complete shores stores of, the complete collections of Chekov [], Turgenev [], Flannary O’Conner [], and the short story side of Nabokov and Hemingway. As well as select works of more authors.

That’s a lot of big, famous names, and the list of yet-to-be-read is infinitely longer. I’m listing these names not as a brag but to provide a counterpoint to other books… Because, one thing those names all have in common is they are all Literature in the sense that excludes most genre fiction [] (a term I just learned from looking for the opposite of big-L Literature); sci-fi and fantasy and horror as well as comics and manga. Things that stuffy old Columbia Literature Professors would look down on.

Why do I read so much Literature?

First, a bit of history, I was not always so, I started my reading journey firmly in genre fiction. Specifically in fantasy. Way back in the fifth grade, in Ms. Venning’s class, where I read The Hobbit []. I liked The Hobbit and I got a copy of The Lord of the Rings [] shortly after we finished it. After a couple of false starts on LOTR I revisited it in sixth grade because I had an hour long bus ride in the morning and afternoon and reading became my escape. Since first finishing LOTR when I was 12 it has never not been my favorite book and I have re-read it almost every year since.

Like the dwarves of Moria I dug deep into middle earth. A few years later I read The Silmarillion [] and the entire History of Middle Earth series released by Christopher Tolkien. Fantasy was my thing in middle school and high school. At the same time I read LOTR I discovered Dungeons & Dragons (thanks to the Boy Scouts and being snowed in on a trip to Fort Eustis) and I got sucked into the new TSR Forgotten Realms novels that came out around that time.

Sci-fi and fantasy ran in the family. My dad was a big sci-fi and fantasy reader (and comics reader), we had a library full of Isaac Azimov [], Sir Arthur C. Clarke [], Edgar Rice Burroughs [], David Eddings [], Robert Jordan [], Mercedes Lackey [] and many others. Shelves full of Star Trek novels, X-Men comics, Spider-Man, and so many more. So, sci-fi and fantasy were ‘normal’ for me I guess.

Like most American teenagers I had to read a lot of famous literature in school. And like most others I knew it was read-and-forget after the test. A few books stand out, I remember reading Where the Red Fern Grows [] and To Kill a Mockingbird [] as books I, grudgingly enjoyed. But for the most part I had not time for anything but my fantasy books.

That changed in the spring of my senior year of high school. I’m not sure why exactly, but I was home for an extended period recovering from Mono, I had almost a month laying around the house with little energy and for some reason I picked up and read the complete Shakespeare… A onion paper used copy I got from a shop in the basement of The Hardware Store on the downtown mall in Charlottesville (there I got a lot of used books, including the History of Middle Earth series). I don’t even remember why I had this book other than it was a massive leather bound red book that looked cool on the book shelf.

Maybe it was because Shakespeare was in the air that year. The senior class put on Macbeth as a school play that fall and many of my friends where in or involved in the production. We read Hamlet in my senior English class. Of course we had read Romeo and Juliet earlier in high school but more importantly Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet [] came out that year too. And I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Othello [] movie with a bunch of my drama-room and coffee shop friends that year too.

Whatever the reason I had an epiphany reading Shakespeare. At some point when you read a lot of Shakespeare you get into a groove and you can really read him, it flows and you don’t need to think about the verse, you don’t need to read and re-read the same passages over and over to understand, it just works.

Shakespeare was my first taste of literature for pleasure and it set the stage. But there was a second incident that triggered my pivot away from fantasy. This was more about the literature of “the western canon” being the basis of so much. And all these references and influences in popular culture going over my head. Someone pointed this out on a car ride back from a Rage Against the Machine concert where Rage played a song I’d never heard: The Ghost of Tom Joad. Long story short: I didn’t know who Tom Joad was, despite having, supposedly, read The Grapes of Wrath [] a few years before in school. But as with most books that were part the curriculum it went in one ear and out the other… At some point these incidents triggered a shift away from fantasy to “literature”, what else had I missed?

A lot, but set that aside there is too much to go into the myriad retellings of different forms, the quotes, the nods, the rebellions against. But beyond all that there is a reason that people are referencing these books all the time: They are good, many of them are great. Crime and Punishment [], The Age of Reason [] and Invisible Man [] are, just behind The Lord of the Rings my favorite books today.

So I spent more then 10 years reading almost exclusively big-L Literature. I never completely left fantasy and sci-fi, I continued my annual tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings and regular re-readings of Dune []. But I was working my way through such a backlog of great books and authors.

And then at some point I came back around to a more balanced diet mixing in a healthy dose of genre fiction with my hoity-toity literature. Moderation in all things, right?

Over the past decade or so I have read (or re-read in a few case) things like Leviathan Wakes [], Wool [], Old Mans War [], The Dark Tower series [] by Stephen King, The Nexus trilogy [] by Ramez Naam, The Hangman’s Daughter series [] by Oliver Pötzsch. The Watchmen [] and V for Vendetta [] by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman [], Akira [], Fables [], Locke & Key [], and many more. For good measure I read the complete stories of H. P. Lovecraft [] (skip the essays, don’t sully yourself with his racist drivel any more than you have too in the stories themselves.)

OK, I need to stop listing books… there are so many, too many to list, but i recommend everything linked here (except Ulysses, of course 😉, read Moby-Dick [] instead). I have not posted reviews of most of these books here on Confusion. I started back in the day, reviews of books was one of the original reasons for the site, to share my thoughts on these books with my college friends when we were apart, over summers and during my long-strange-trip in Europe. There is a whole category for my book reviews [], but I’ve only written one review in the past decade – fittingly it was for Lovecraft Country [] a fantasy-horror book recommended by a friend who lives in a foreign country. Which, along with The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe [] helps to redeem a small corner of the H. P. Lovecraft mythos from his misogyny and racism. I highly recommend both books.


Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff

I first heard about Lovecraft Country from a friend, a friend who lives in Sweden. He recommended it wholeheartedly, saying he read it several times. I picked it up a week or so later, just as the COVID19 pandemic was taking off. It was not long after I finished Lovecraft Country that the George Floyd protests started. Given the nature of the book it was a very timely read.

On Goodreads []

Before we get to Lovecraft Country itself, it’s worth noting that I have read all of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction [], and I enjoy most of it. I am aware that he was a massive bigot, racist and anti-semitic, and many other -ists. I didn’t read more than a few of his non-fiction writings, is “essays” or letters, there is not reason to read it beyond a reminder of how nasty a person can be with their words. Good fiction, if lacking a lot of representation, but a nasty author.

This is the second recent book I have read that attempts to deal with Lovecraft’s bigotry by authors, who would have been on the receiving end of his bigotry, co-opting him. The other book is The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. Johnson []. That book takes place inside one of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds, the dream world, and aims to address Lovecraft’s sexism. Specifically the lack of female characters by populating the dream world with female characters, including the strong female lead.

Lovecraft Country on the other hand takes place in the “real world” where Lovecraft’s books exist, and so does Lovecraftian cosmic horror. So Lovecraft Country addresses Lovecraft’s rabid racism by casting as it’s protagonists a group of Black Americans living during the height of Jim Crow America. Lovecraftian cosmic horrors alongside the everyday, real, horrors of American racism.

Lovecraft Country is a collection of linked stories, focused around a the protagonists and their repeated encounters with the members of a secret society. Magical rituals, cosmic portals, potions and spells abound. There is even a monster or two. But there are also racist cops, racist shop owners and racist random strangers. The racism is both active; vulgarities and violence perpetrated sadistically, and passive; condescending tones, stares and casual disrespect and disregard. I can’t imagine how true it is, what it was —what it is— like to experience this type of bigotry in real life. It was oppressive and ever present in the story.

The climax of the racism is a flashback to the events of Tulsa Race Massacre []. An event that I first remember hearing about a few years ago. I don’t remember being taught about it in high school, not in American History class or even in Ms. Reynolds African American Studies class. Maybe my memory fails me or maybe it says something about American racism that the trauma of an event like that is not a shared public memory, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or Kent State.

Another aside: this is the second work I’ve come across this year that includes reference to the Tulsa Race Massacre as a key background event for the characters. The other being HBO’s Watchmen series. So maybe in the future what happened in Tulsa will be part of the collective American psyche.

I won’t spoil the Lovecraftian aspects of the stories, only note that there is a lack of cyclopean masonry and eldritch horrors. Lovecraft Country is more the The Colour out of Space and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward than The Call of Cthulhu or The Shadow over Innsmouth. But the real horror remains the ever present racism.

I really enjoyed Lovecraft Country, I will read it again, and I hope the upcoming HBO series is as good. I would put Lovecraft Country up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man [] in giving me some vague understanding of how racism affects people through literature.


Unfinished Tales

Christopher Tolkien
On Goodreads []

Until the publication of The Children of Hurin a few years ago, Unfinished Tales was the third piece of the Middle-earth trilogy. Paired with The Lord of The Rings and The Silmarillion [] it was a bit of a third wheel; comprised of various stories in different states of completeness with some editorial comments by Christopher Tolkien needed to bridge the gaps and contradictions left by the myriad versions Tolkien authored of most of these stories. Also, check out these new self help books available online.

Unfinished Tales actually includes my favorite of all of Tolkien’s writing. What I consider the be the best high fantasy ever: “Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin”. Versions of this story date back as far as 1911 and it is the birth of Middle Earth. It is an ultimate tragedy that Tolkien never finished the tale – “Of Tuor and The Fall of Gondolin” – to his satisfaction. I wish Christopher Tolkien could piece together a completed tale as he did with The Children of Hurin expanding the story in Unfinished Tales of “Narn i Hîn Húrin (The Tale of the Children of Húrin)” a related story to Tuor’s.

If you enjoy the window into Tolkien’s mind and the development of the Middle-earth “legendarium”. Then you can dive off the cliff into the massive 12 volume History of Middle Earth that Christopher Tolkien published in the late ’80s and early ’90s. An impressive read which I should attempt again as I’ve forgotten more of it than I remember.


The Hamlet

William Faulkner
On Goodreads []

I enjoyed The Hamlet more than The Sound and The Fury. Fury just required too much work on the readers part. The story was brilliant but the payoff was not worth the work over all. The Hamlet, while still requiring some work on the readers part to dive past the colloquial language of the dialog, appreciate the setting and, to some extent, deal with the modernist [] style elements.

The Hamlet is about the invasion of a small mythical southern every-town; Frenchman’s Bend, by the Snopes family. Detailing a number of Snopes’ and their eccentricities while relying on the non-Snopes character of Ratliff to provide grounded commentary and continuity. The Hamlet is mostly a comic novel, in places laugh-out-loud funny, set against the not so funny experience of life in the post reconstruction South.

I think that, like most of Faulkner‘s [] books the Americana is more than a surface veneer. I don’t find Faulkner’s stories to be timeless, place-less classics. Rather they are a specific meditation on the times and situations of the post-reconstruction American South. I have a hard time imagining how anyone who has lived their entire life in New York City could come close to appreciating Faulkner’s writing, much less how someone from another country could appreciate them in any great depth. The fact that the books do sell and are liked by people from outside the South amazes me. But they are, and Falkner did win the Nobel Prize for Literature. So…

I have two tenuous connections to Faulkner’s South, one general and the other specific. Generally, I grow up in rural Virginia, the South lite, and spent time in my grandparents house in Alabama, the South by any measure. This helped me to penetrate the language of The Hamlet enough to allow me to read the book in a fluid, natural way without struggling over the language used by the characters, making back and forth dialog enjoyable (as opposed to the Sisyphean effort require to digest the dialog in Ulysses [].) More specifically, I grew up in Charlottesville, home to UVA where Faulkner was “Writer in Residence” twice in 1957 and 1958. How I managed to read so little Faulkner in school (just The Bear short story to my recollection) is a mystery to me.

Interestingly, and perhaps contrary to what I say above, my post-high-school re-introduction to Faulkner came in the form of a friend who grew up in New York City. After moving to C’ville and living in a ‘house-too-far-back-in-the-woods’, in his own words, he moved downtown (such as it is) and became obsessed for a time with reading about the old South. Faulkner was his main source. It did nothing to dispel his fears of being molested in the woods by some Deliverance-esque hicks. Despite confirming his worst fears about the nature of southerners, my friend enjoyed Faulkner immensely enough that his recommendation put Faulkner on my list of to-reads. It only took me 11 years to get around to reading any.


Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes
Edith Grossman
On Goodreads []

Don Quixote. Yea. Don Quixote. It’s been on the reading list a long time. But not always. Despite how famous Don Quixote is — a pillar of western literature and the first modern novel — I kept putting off reading it. I think it was because I had to read a part of it in Spanish when I was in school. And Spanish class was like a little taste of hell in the purgatory of high school.

Don Quixote reentered my sphere of consciousness in 2005, on the 500th anniversary of it’s publication. It took a few more years for me to get around to buying it in 2007. Then it sat around for over a year, staring at me every time I walked by the bookshelf. Then, once I did get started, I was reading it for almost two years. I started reading it in 2008 when I took time off for my daughters birth. And I just finished the last 200 pages on a 30 hour air trip to the US. I wonder how long it would have been if I didn’t have to make such a long trip?

I enjoyed Don Quixote despite the long struggle to actually get it read. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his squire, are memorable characters. Over all the story is good, it’s just not something I can read quickly, at least not if I want to actually understand what it is I’m reading. The language doesn’t flow, I suspect a lot of that has to do with being translated and written in a colloquial form from a time half a millennium ago. There were a lot of footnotes about changing meanings and wordplay in the original that doesn’t translate.

On thing that put me off early on in reading was the windmill scene. Everybody knows about the windmills; it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Don Quixote. But then, the whole episode is about a page, and it’s really early on in the story. It’s like the having the climax of the novel at the beginning of the story.

But after a long struggle to get through the later half of the first part the story picked up again. The second part, where Don Quixote‘s fame becomes the main foil, as people start to play with is madness and Sancho’s gullibility, was more fun to read than most of the first part. If Cervantes was prompted into writing the second part because of the less-than-good “false Quixote” that someone else published after the first part proved successful, then the author of the false Quixote did the world a favor. I doubt Don Quixote would be half as famous if it stopped at the end of the second sally. The third sally, which comprises the second part, is the best. Except for maybe the windmills.