The experience of reading

So, I’m curious. I know what I read — I mean, I’ve kept actual track for several years, so I really do. So I know I read a lot of different genres. But just stating the genre tells one almost nothing about the book. So let’s break down “what you read” a little differently for a change. How about these categories, and then let’s look again at breadth of reading taste:

1. Adventure stories that are tightly focused on one or a couple protagonists, in a setting that is more or less contemporary. Examples that I’ve read so far this year would be, oh, I don’t know, let me look at my reading list. Okay, SEVEN DAYS OF LUKE by DWJ. And CUCKOO SONG by Hardinge. Personally, I like this category, but not as much as the stories with a more secondary-world kind of setting. Urban fantasy and paranormals might work in this category depending on how much the setting departs from a real-world contemporary setting.

Also: Non-adventure stories like the above. I don’t read a lot in this category, but Florand’s romances fit the bill. My guess is The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak by Brian Katcher will also fit in this category, but I’m not sure because I haven’t read it — it just came out. It’s on my Kindle, though, and I hope to get to it this year some time.

Also: Mysteries in a contemporary setting. I do read mysteries, though not a lot so far this year. I read A VEILED ANTIQUITY by Rett MacPherson recently. (It was okay.)

Also: All the same categories in a familiar historical setting. Those Regency romances by Theresa Romain, I like those. Maybe Gillian Bradshaw counts for me. Classical Rome and Greece feel familiar to me because of her books, mostly. The Death of the Necromancer counts, too, because the setting feels familiar.

And one more, a big one: Adventure stories with one or a couple protagonists in a secondary-world setting that feels familiar. The stories draws on a so-called “normal” fantasy setting; or one or another of the “normal” types of SF setting. Or a post-apocalyptic or zombie types of novels, that’s the same because again those are settings that the reader is basically familiar with. There’s no need for the author to explain to the reader that zombies eat brains; this is assumed from the start. I read a ton of adventure stories with settings that draw on normal tropes. MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess, for example. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by MR Carey. WRITTEN IN RED by Anne Bishop. INFINITY HOLD by Barry Longyear.

All of the above have a huge advantage: the setting may be different enough to be fun and interesting, but it is familiar enough that I can get drawn into the story easily. I would say that all of the above are meant to be read — or at least, I read them — as immersive experiences. You — or at least I — fall into the story. (Everyone generalizes broadly from one example. At least, I do.) (As the joke goes.)

2. Stories with settings like the above but lots of pov characters. These are harder to get into and stay in because you’re kicked out every time you switch from one pov to another. You can get back in, but it’s harder. It’s *work*. That being so, the story is necessarily less immersive. That’s fine if you’re not reading for an immersive experience, but it’s not likely to be as appealing if you are. I can and do like stories like these — RANGE OF GHOSTS by Elizabeth Bear and a lot of other epic fantasy; LEVIATHAN WAKES by Corey and other epic SF. But not as many, not as often. I can get awfully tired of the epic style of writing and quit in the middle of a series. I mean, that’s not unusual for me, actually, stopping in the middle of an epic. That happens to me with Daniel Abraham, say, and speaking of Daniel Abraham, I never went on with the LEVIATHAN WAKES series even though I like the first book quite a bit. (You probably recall that James S A Corey is a pen name for the collaborative writing of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)

3. Stories with difficult settings. Settings can be more or less difficult. WHEEL OF TIME THE INFINITE by Martha Wells has an unusual setting, but I would say that it is unusual in usual ways, so to speak. Her setting adds to the pleasure of the book without making it noticeably more difficult to fall into the story.

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, with its unfamiliar diction and strange, uncomfortable names, and unfamiliar ultra-formal ceremonial lifestyle, is clearly harder for some readers to get into. Or look at A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Monette and Bear — again with the names, and then they are trying to bring to life a culture that feels — and is — quite unfamiliar.

But we see an even higher difficulty level with some SF. A lot of SF is all about the worldbuilding. A DARKLING SEA by Cambias, to take a recent example. RINGWORLD by Niven to take a much older example. Those can offer something of an immersive reading experience, but the setting makes it harder to fall into the story. This is not a criticism; just an observation. In my opinion, a brilliant but unusual setting is going to interfere with the reading experience for some readers, and the more unusual the setting, the more it will interfere.

THE GOLDEN AGE by Wright is a perfect, perfect example. One protagonist, just one. I even like Phaethon and agree with him and want him to succeed, now that I know more or less what is going on. But the setting is so difficult. You have to pay attention to it every minute.

It’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong. Wright did an amazing, amazing job of worldbuilding in this series. But you can’t take your eye off it for a second. There’s something brilliant around ever authorial corner. It’s tiring, figuring out what’s important and what’s just clever-but-not-important detail. It’s work, figuring out the social role everybody’s playing when the author isn’t drawing on normal tropes. It is, oh, let’s say, anti-immersive. The idea of falling into the story is laughable.

I like it. But, yeah, I am not in the core audience for this trilogy. People who enjoy intellectual games would love this more than I do. You know who else comes to mind? Quite different but similar in terms of the reading experience: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. Granted, Robinson is a brilliant stylist as well as an amazing worldbuilder. Wright isn’t quite that good. (But then, hardly anybody is that good.)

So, setting aside nonfiction, I read fantasy and SF and mysteries and historicals. And some romance, and certainly UF and paranormal. And zombie novels and postapocalyptic stories and dystopias. But what I mostly read for is the immersive experience of the story, and nearly everything I read falls into that category, including 100% of my favorite stories — which does not entirely overlap with the stories I most admire.

How about you? Do you find these three basic categories holding true for your reading experience? If you wouldn’t describe your favorite books as stories you “can fall into,” then does that category even make sense to you? How would you describe your reading experience?

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4 thoughts on “The experience of reading”

  1. I don’t mind multiple POV’s so much. I thoroughly enjoyed RANGE OF GHOSTS and LEVIATHAN WAKES. Though i don’t like them enough to finish WHEEL OF TIME. (PS: Martha Wells wrote WHEEL OF THE INFINITE.)

    And I, too bounced off THE GOLDEN AGE. From the little i read, all i got out of it was “O tempora! O mores!”

  2. Pete, thanks for the correction! I had to really concentrate on reading The . . . Wheel . . . of . . . Time one word at a time before I realized what I’d typed. Don’t ask me, I haven’t even read The Wheel of Time, or plan to. My hindbrain does funny things sometimes.

  3. Sherwood Smith left a comment over on Goodreads, which I’m going to post here just because it’s interesting:

    “It’s always interesting to see how other people define their reading experience. Mine is so different that it would take too long to get into it, but my categories seem to run orthogonal to yours. One generalization: because I am a visual reader, I need clear visual clues (I repeat, clues, not a block list of details that micromanages what I see) and laughter, and I immerse. It can be a 500 character epic or a close-in one-person look at everyday life. I have to enjoy first, before all the other emotions are evoked. I’m too old for lugubrious.”

  4. This has sparked a bunch of thoughts that would need an essay to get out. Briefly, I seem to engage as a reader in several different ways — sometimes together, sometimes apart — and I’m not even sure what they all are. One of them is specifically keyed to “difficult settings.” It’s partly just enjoyment of the spectacle as it’s all revealed, and partly a more active style of building up the setting in my head from the side details in the book. I think it’s closely analogous to reading a mystery, and either being along for the ride or trying to figure it out before the detective tells you whodunnit. Interestingly, on the rare occasions I read mysteries it’s always in the first mode.

    I think piecing the setting together is a mode of reading that’s a specific appeal of science fiction, and now realize that one of the things I expect a proper SF writer to *do* is to cater to that. Clusing the reader into the setting without infodumps, by background details and plausible dialogue, is a specific writerly skill that not everyone has (or needs, really). I am fairly certain that whether the writer is doing that or not is a major determinant in whether a fantasy feels SFnal to me.

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