Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Genre fiction

I read a fair amount of it, especially during the summer. Excellent genre writing can be excellent in different ways, but it always performs the same balancing act: provide the reader her fix of the formula she craves, while transcending that formula, if only modestly. And the writing must be superior. The greats get the job done time and again: P.D. James is a great storyteller and lovely writer in the grand tradition... unfailing powers of observation and a keen sensitivity to human psychology; Elmore Leonard is a poet of the vernacular, and a hoot; John LeCarre portrays the internal moral angst of modernity through the external mechanics of suspense. And there are newbies worthy of mention in the same paragraph, such as Tana French.

So why is it that so much science fiction sucks? One might think that being liberated from the constraints of reality would make it easier to entertain. Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod wrote glowing blurbs convincing me to read John Scalzi's Old Man's War. The writing is pedestrian at best, and the ideas are at the level of 12-year-old philosophy. But 12-year-olds usually have better taste in fiction. Say, Harry Potter. Even The Hunger Games provided more food for thought.

Here's what passes for description: "You average Whaidian looks rather like a cross between a black bear and a large, angry flying squirrel." Funny, huh? Can you picture it? Such lazy writing abounds. Thankfully there are still a few Alan Furst historical thrillers that I haven't read...

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