Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Categorizing the reading experience: a second look

Okay, so, here’s a completely different way of categorizing books by how you respond to them. Again, sticking strictly to nonfiction. I thought of this different system because of a comment Sherwood Smith made in a recent book review, where she commented that there is a “thread of kindness” running through the novellas of Tales From Rugosa Coven by Sarah Avery, a comment which caught my eye because it immediately made the book sound more appealing.

So, how about these categories:

1. Books with an underlying “thread of kindness.” There is a warmth to the story, let us say; a generally positive feel to the book because characters — both primary and secondary, maybe antagonists as well as protagonists — show traits such as, in no particular order, honor, courage, kindness, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and so forth. And, of course, because the good guys win. Take, oh, The Death of the Necromancer. I think of it because Nicholas is a ruthless bad guy, except not really; Ronsarde is his antagonist, except not really; Reynard is acting the part of a wastrel but is . . . how did Ronsarde put it . . . “sound as a young horse.” Etc etc. Other than the necromancer and his people, only Rive Montesq is a real bad guy. And the bad guys lose, lose, lose.

Mind you, endings don’t have to be saccharine. Even ambiguous could work, but probably only ambiguous-in-a-good-way, so to speak.

All of the books I really connect with emotionally fall into this category.

2. Books where at least some of the characters are sympathetically drawn and at least reasonably likeable, but their efforts to save the world and/or become better people go nowhere. They flounder around — or maybe act decisively — but they don’t get an actual happy ending. If there is a really evil character, that person may wind up winning at the end of the book. If not, then the most important likable character may wind up committing suicide. The underlying message of the book is that you just can’t win against the force of human greed, stupidity, selfishness, etc. Here I’m thinking of Joe Abercrombe’s First Law trilogy and especially the related work Best Served Cold. Also of mysteries like Tana French’s In The Woods. Also of literary works like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Oh, another example: Jack Chalker’s Flux and Anchor series, where the ultimate conclusion is that the best decent people can do is create a bubble universe and shut themselves away from the rest of humanity, which can then go to hell without them having to watch. I read Chalker when I was a kid, and I still remember first realizing what it looks like when the universe is set up so the good guys can’t win.

Books like these can be brilliantly written, but quality of writing doesn’t matter: I loathe them. I finished all of the above books, but these days I definitely, definitely take a more emotionally distant stance toward a book like this as it begins to show signs of going in that kind of negative direction. Then, when it concludes in some awful way, I write off all other books by those authors forever. Them and me: not sympatico. At least, not in an author/reader way, I expect they’re all great people if you know them personally.

3. Books where all the characters are horrible. What could possibly come to mind here but Gone Girl? These are not books I would finish. I guess the underlying message of such a book could be perceived as People Are Ugly and Life Is Ugly. Both Ana and Thea found Gone Girl “compulsively readable.” Not that I’ve tried the book, but I’m almost positive, based on my history as a reader, that I would find it eminently resistible.

So that’s a quite different axis for readability from the familiar/unfamiliar setting axis and the single protagonist/lots of protagonists axis. At this point I guess I could set up a three-dimensional system on which to rate books according to their personal appeal; quite possibly a rating that would work for almost no one else in the world, but hey.

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7 Comments Categorizing the reading experience: a second look

  1. Craig

    It would never have occurred to me to classify books this way. The distinction between 2 & 3 is real, but since they’re both in the umbrella category “books I don’t want to read” it’s not a practically important line.

    There are books that are emotionally cold enough that I wouldn’t describe them as having a “thread of kindness” but still have reasonably positive endings: is that a worthwhile distinction? (I’m trying to think of an example I know you’ve read, but not coming up with anything; no doubt the block will end after I hit Submit.)

  2. elaine t

    Emotionally cold books for me are written by Delia Sherman, Roberta MacAvoy, and Elizabeth Bear. They have I I believe, positive endings, but I never make connections to the characters and never care about anything. I have yet to finish an Elizabeth Bear, but I did read Sherman and MacAvoy before I realized life was too short to finish books I’m not enjoying.

    I avoid books with a full cast of unpleasant characters, or where the world is set up where no one wins anything – IOW categories 2 & 3. They don’t need to solve the main ‘problem’ of the story – I’ve run into people unhappy with Bujold’s TSK because the malice problem isn’t solved – but the world is better when we leave the story than it was when the story started, so I’m happy. The set up wasn’t one where the malice problem could be solved other than by killing them all until the last one is finally offed. But better protection and working together with each other Farmers and Lakewalkers will go a long way to improve everything for everyone. Those I’m fine with.

  3. Hanneke

    I completely agree with your categories, and my reactions to them are the same as yours.
    Like Craig, I think there’s a fourth category, where I don’t make such an emotional connection to the characters, but the story itself is basically positive in tone. These are stories which are not about the character development, but about plot puzzles or exploring an interesting idea, or just to enjoy a certain mood. I will sometimes read those kinds of stories, though I almost never reread them and they never end up as favorites.
    When I was 15-25, I read quite a lot of old-fashioned puzzle-type detectives (not thrillers), and Wodehouse when I wanted to laugh myself silly. I’d put those in this fourth category.
    I need to be in a certain mind-set to want to read something from this category; looking for easy relaxation but needing some emotional distance instead of connection. I haven’t often felt like reading from this category these last decades, but it does hapoen occasionally.

  4. Rachel

    Hanneke, you’re right. I forgot about the intellectual-puzzle type and about the light comedy type. It’s exactly the same for me, I may read puzzle-type mysteries now and then but they’re not *favorites*. Same with Wodehouse.

    It’s interesting how different Dorothy Sayers’ early Peter Whimsy books are from GAUDY NIGHT. GN is a favorite, but I’ve never been very much inclined to read the earlier ones.

  5. Rachel

    Elaine, interesting to me that you feel that way about MacAvoy’s books. About all of those authors, in fact. Well, people’s responses are individual.

    I don’t quite understand what people want with The Sharing Knife universe. It seems pretty clear that you’re not going to be SURE all the malices are gone except by waiting at least a few hundred years or so and never having one emerge. The massively better relations between Lakewalkers and Farmers — that I think we’re clearly en route to at the end — is satisfying for me. Though I would really enjoy going on with that series, in fact.

  6. Hanneke

    Yes to your remarks about Dorothy Sayers; Gaudy Night is a favorite while the early ones are intellectual puzzles, but I’ve also reread Busman’s Holiday a few times because I love Peter finally letting his emotions show, and the very in character way he chooses to do so by using quotations, and also like seeing Bunter as a part of that forming family unit.

    It’s clearly very individual, if one forms a connection with a book or not: MacAvoy’s Grey Horse is a favorite of mine (maybe because I love horse books that aren’t sad); and I just finished Wells’ Death of the Necromancer and won’t be rereading that. Even though I liked the characters, and the story ended fine, there were too many of the trappings of horror, which I don’t like, with all the ghouls and reanimated dead fay and people – I had to keep the night-light on for two nigtheo be able to sleep. The Element of Fire had more court intrigues and betrayals than I like, so it won’t become a favorite even though I liked Kade. The lack of integrity in Roger, while he’s the one an entire country full of people will be dependent on for the rest of his life (as well as my doubt abouts for a future in which he and his court will have the raising of the next king), seems to be a major part of my motivation for not liking the book better; which does rather confirm the importance of your first category to my reading enjoyment.

    The Sharing Knife are firm favorites of mine too, but I want Dag and Fawn to have some peace and a chance at an ordinary happy family life so much, that I don’t want them to have to suffer through more malice adventures. If she shifted the focus, maybe to Fawn’s brother and the Lakewalker boys travelling and spreading the new cooperation, or the next generation going exploring along the coast or across the sea, I’d love to read more in that universe; but I was quite satisfied with the conclusion of the quartet. It was a lot more real and thus satisfying for me than an unlikely deus-ex-machina solution for all the malices forever would have been.

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