So I haven’t updated the gay fiction booklist in a very long time, and part of it is that I hadn’t (until very recently anyway) been reading all that much fiction, my time getting eaten by school and more school, but the other part is that I’ve become increasingly introspective about what the role of the critic should be, how to distinguish what I like from what is objectively good, and whether it’s even possible to quantify the quality of a book.
Because as I’ve gotten more analytical in my reading, it’s become clear that what I read for, what gets me hot and bothered, is emotional engagement with the characters. (To get technical about it: immersion in the protagonist’s subjectivity, usually achieved by heavy use of narrated monologue aka free indirect discourse.) That is what sends a book skyrocketing to the top of my list with a throbbing “top pick” icon next to it — regardless of what else it does (or, more damningly, doesn’t) have going for it.
But that isn’t what everyone reads for. Some people aren’t as enthralled by melodrama as I am, and what they want to see are new and mind-blowing ideas, not the umpteenth take on Ye Olde Medieval Fantasylandia. Some people want a tight and well-scripted plot, a roller coaster that takes off on the first page, drags them through a wild ride, and deposits them at the end, breathless and satisfied. (And from what I’ve gathered, some people just want dragons.) And while I’m certainly not opposed to excellent ideas or an excellent plot (or dragons), they’re not my priority. Emotional engagement is, and a book that can’t provide that is never going to rank above “s’okay” in my personal assessment. I can’t bring myself to wax rapturous it — but on the other hand, how is it fair to detract points for not giving me something that it never intended to?
The booklist got linked on Reddit a while ago, on a gay subforum so it wasn’t getting homophobic nonsense, just commentary from other gay readers who’d read plenty of the same things I’d read and had their own opinions on the subject. And a comment that jumped out at me was about Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand: I had described Delany as “like the James Joyce of science fiction — lyric prose, light on the plot, and frequently incoherent,” and given it 2/5 stars. Someone on reddit archly commented that I must be an idiot and deaf to irony to be able to compare Delany to Joyce and then give him two stars in the same breath.
To which I thought, Fuck you, plenty of people don’t like James Joyce either.
(I like Joyce in small doses, the way I like hard sci-fi and cold showers in small doses. Different, refreshing, but not exactly something that I do for pleasure.)
And yet — plenty of other people do like Joyce. The novelty, the artistry of what he’s doing is what does it for them. Meanwhile, I’m clawing my own eyes out because my kingdom for a character that I can give a shit about. How do you balance those conflicting demands?
The first step, I think, is to recognize that these factors are working on independent axes. There is no single scale with “good book” on one end and “bad book” on the other. You have to grade it on multiple criteria — but what should those criteria be? I tentatively propose:
– Plotting: how clever/original is the plot, and how well is it executed? Is it boring and meandering, or brisk and clever? Is it one you’ve seen in a dozen other books before? Does it come together for a satisfying climax, or does it turn into a muddle and leave half its threads unresolved? Does it even have a plot? Books without plots (hail, Anne Rice!) aren’t necessarily a deal-killer for everyone.
– Innovation/novelty: what do they bring to the table that hasn’t been done before? I, personally, am not a fan of novelty for its own sake — if I see the words “zany” or “madcap” on the back cover summary, that book is going back on the shelf as fast as I can get it out of my hands — and the only really novel writer who works for me is China Mieville. Me, I’m perfectly happy to see old tropes reworked (ideally, reworked well), so most of my top picks, sad to say, are not standouts for what they’re doing new.
– Prose: ideas and content aside, how good is the writing on a strictly stylistic level? Overwrought metaphor? Preponderance of showing vs. telling? Dizzingly beautiful, lyrical prose that makes your breath catch in your throat and brings tears to your eyes? Most fantasy books — and rightfully so, given the definition of “average” — I’d put at three stars: utilitarian prose that neither enhances the story nor detracts from it. Bujold, Flewelling, Huff, etc are 3-star prose writers, and no shame in it; their aim is to tell you a story, not to dazzle you with Their Precious Words. Sarah Monette is a cut above (two cuts above in her short stories), as is Jacqueline Carey, Gemma Files, and Jim Grimsley. Much below three stars, and odds are good I won’t even be finishing it. Life is too short.
– Emotional engagement: I can’t tell if this is the absolute most subjective thing on this list, or the absolute most objective. Because even though we don’t all like or care about the same things, achieving reader-investment in your characters seems to be a pretty straightforward matter of (1) increasing the subjectivity of your narration and (2) using more narrated monologue (aka free indirect style) than psychonarration. There are many strong candidates on that list, but the writer who brings home the goddamn gold for emotional engagement is Karin Lowachee; I defy anyone to read her and say otherwise.
– Characters: I’m dubious on this one, because it seems to have a lot of overlap with both novelty (are these characters whose ilk I haven’t seen eleventy million times before?) and emotional engagement (do I care in the slightest about what happens to them?), but for now I’ll make it a category of its own, one whose success or failure is determined by the terribly subjective question of, Are they interesting? Pluses: characters with a complex and well-depicted interiority feeding into their actions. Minuses: characters who are not people, but puppets acting in accordance to the demands of the plot. They’ll win points for being likeable, but not necessarily lose them for being unlikeable, as long as I’m still engaged enough to want to know what happens to them next. (Unlike, say, The Swimming-Pool Library, where I could not tolerate being in the protagonist’s vain, empty head for more than 20 pages.)
Taken altogether, I think it makes a much fairer way to evaluate fiction. By these standards, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand gets a 4 for novelty & prose, 2 for plot, and 1 for emotional engagement & characters. On the other hand, Sarah Monette’s books (perennial favorites of mine) are going to average 5 for characters, 4 for prose & emotional engagement, and 2 for plot & novelty. They’re not trying to achieve the same things, and these numbers reflect that — Delany isn’t trying to write drama, and Monette isn’t trying to write a post-modern novel. And you, as a reader, are likely to Know Thyself well enough to tell which stars you’re most interested in.
One Of These Days I’ll go back and revise the booklist; in the mean time, book reviews and commentary on my blog will henceforth be using the new system.