Friday, June 17, 2011


A cursory glance at the Amazon rankings for Stephen King's books suggests that his 1981 non-fiction title DANSE MACABRE may be the King title least likely to have been purchased by the horror fan.  I was still working at Kroch's & Brentano's bookstore in Chicago when the book was originally published, and DANSE MACABRE didn't sell nearly as quickly as King's fiction.  Understandable -- if you're looking for a horror novel, will you really want to read a survey of horror in film, fiction, television and radio?  But for even the casual horror fan who isn't interested in studying the field but just wants a good book to read, skipping DANSE MACABRE is a mistake.  Most readers of science fiction and fantasy probably never picked up an issue of LOCUS or FANTASY NEWSLETTER.  Readers who never miss a novel by Dean Koontz may never have bothered to read a copy of his earlier non-fiction title HOW TO WRITE BEST-SELLING FICTION.  Fans of any particular writer may read the novels and short stories, but ignore interviews with them.  In doing so, they may be missing acts of generosity by those writers.

Some of the best money I ever spent was at the 1969 World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis.  Three dollars bought a copy of THE DOUBLE:BILL SYMPOSIUM, a small press pamphlet that collected the responses of science fiction and fantasy writers to a number of questions on writing and books and reading.  The writers generously took time to answer questions from Bill Bowers and Bill Mallardi.  One of those questions asked about their formative reading.  The answers introduced me to writers I hadn't read, and pointed me back toward writers I'd read in school without really paying sufficient attention.

When I was following science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery fiction more closely than I do now, one of the best things about the genres was the number of fan and specialty journals that printed interviews with the writers.  And at some point in the interviews, the writers were usually asked which writers they themselves enjoyed reading.  And the writers were always happy to recommend books and writers they thought worth seeking out.  This is why anyone who checked out those interviews, who looked over books like DANSE MACABRE, or HOW TO WRITE BEST-SELLING FICTION, or THE DOUBLE:BILL SYMPOSIUM has probably never been in danger of running out of things to read.  If anything, there's always been so much worthwhile material recommended that there's no way to ever get around to all of it, or even a majority of it.

Their generosity steers readers not only to other works of their own, but to writers who may not yet be household names.

Just a couple of examples.  Harlan Ellison's long interview with Comics Journal in 1980 steered readers to writers like Jorge Amado, V. S. Pritchett, Jose Donoso and Mario Vargas Llosa.  Comments and blurbs from Stephen King pointed to the work of Jack Ketchum, Don Robertson, Thomas Williams, Ernest Hebert, Ron Carlson, and more; the lists at the back of his books DANSE MACABRE and ON WRITING are gold mines of recommendations.  And note that most of the recommendations mentioned in this paragraph weren't for the work of fantasists, but for the work of general fiction writers.

If there's a writer you like, do you read interviews with them as well as their fiction?  If you run across an article by that writer in which he talks about his reading and the influences on his writing, do you read it?  You should -- if a writer you like mentions a book he likes, there's a good chance that's a book you'd like too.

Blurbs can be a little trickier.  Far too often, the blurb on the paperback will consist of glowing commentary from a magazine or newspaper rather than an individual.  But if you check all the blurbs, not just on the front or back cover but on the blurb pages preceding the title page, you'll usually find some individuals quoted rather than just periodicals.

The interviews, and articles, and blurbs are often acts of generosity by writers who may be among your favorites.  Watch for them as well as for new books by your favorites, and you'll never run out of books or stories to read.  Your problem will be finding a way to keep up.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Attention Span

    In a new book called THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS, Nicholas Carr argues that the internet, in changing the way we search for information, is also changing the way we absorb and process that information.  That change is not for the better.  Specifically, the capacity for sustained concentration on lengthy or difficult material, the ability to stay focused on arguments and exposition developed at book-length, suffers from our growing tendency to take in our information in bite-sized bursts.
    At this time, I've read only Carr's opening chapters, though the book has joined one of about eleven gazillion on the to-be-read pile, a pile that I'll be getting around to One Day Soon...  But Carr's view of this harmful effect of the way we use the tools offered by the internet doesn't strike me as something new.  The same phenomenon was noted years ago in connection with television by McLuhan, Neil Postman, and others, if memory serves.

    Ever wondered why we had to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  That's not as great a leap into off-topic irrelevancy as it may seem at first glance.

    Before I hit the eighth grade, I'd read a number of books by Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Haggard, Verne, Stevenson, Defoe, and others.  Not all of their works by any means, but a respectable number for a kid of twelve or thirteen.  In eighth grade I discovered contemporary science fiction and fantasy books and for nearly twenty years almost all my pleasure reading was in those genres, with generous dollops of mystery and suspense fiction as well.  I didn't neglect my school work, but any reading I did that wasn't required was in work by contemporary writers, and most of those writers came out of the science fiction and mystery pulp magazines.  So heavy was my concentration on this material that one of my high school English teachers (Edith Nelson at Lindblom Tech in Chicago -- hello, if you're still out there) tried constantly to steer me back into more of the classics, to no avail.

    Fast forward a bit.  High school was 45 years ago.  There are a lot of books on hand, on my shelves and on my Kindle (and as I noted last week, that stack is more aspiration than accomplishment).  Among them: Montaigne's essays, Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Powell's DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME, Samuel Johnson, and yes, George Eliot too.  All of these writers, dipped into, but not read in any systematic way.  Some of their books read, but not nearly all and not nearly all the ones I know I should get around to before I'm planted (and these are books I'd like to get around to because I expect to enjoy them much more than I would have in high school or college, and not out of any sense of obligation).
    And why are so many of them still unread?
    Call it the Carr effect if you like, but it predates him.  The internet can lead to atrophy in our capacity to concentrate on demaning material?  So can spending too much time on less demanding material regardless of the medium.  I'd never go so far as to say that good popular fiction is a waste of time -- I don't regret a moment spent reading the work of Theodore Sturgeon, for instance -- but an overemphasis on it can, I think, cause the attention span to shrink to the point where it becomes very difficult to stay focused on lengthy and demanding material.  The mental muscles, like the physical, atrophy if they don't get enough use.

    Why did we have to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  Call it mental gymnastics.  If you actually did the assigned work, you knew that you could read a long demanding book, you could focus on intricate problems; you knew you could concentrate.  That's something you don't get from reading a lot of contemporary popular literature.  That's my experience, anyway, and I'm probably not unique.

    How about you?  Finished BLEAK HOUSE, WAR AND PEACE, and Montaigne yet?

    If you have, my hat's off to you.  If you haven't, don't feel like the Lone Ranger -- I haven't finished them yet either.  But they're on my list.

And bests to all,