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Friday, January 08, 2010

Reading Resolution Redux: A Question For Readers

A couple days ago I wrote a post about my reading resolutions for 2010. In it I discussed my goal to read more international science fiction and fantasy, under the guise that intentionally doing so would not be as artificial as seeking out work by people of color. Looking back, I completely disagree with my original statement. But Dave B. from Robot Comics beat me to the punch with the following comment:
I don't know if "Read more international books" is more or less artificial than "Read more books by PoC." They're both seeking out specific types of authors, and nationality and race are by and large the same type of divide when speaking about sectioning people off into "groups".

Theoretically (though not at all absolutely), reading books by PoC gives you a different SUB-cultural voice/view, where reading international authors gives you a different cultural view/voice. But beyond that prefix, I don't see any difference in consciously seeking one out or the other. Same with gender.

It's good to keep your mind open to all three - keep aware that you WOULD like to read more of all three - but to actively seek it out in numbers will be artificial no matter which of the three you're talking out. Or so it strikes me.
The first section is absolutely true. The very idea of intentionally seeking out international SF/F makes the actual reading artificial (in the sense that I am no longer reading organically--by how I find the story--but instead by a systemic, probably well-researched, purchasing/selecting method). No matter how I try to spin it, there is no difference between seeking out international SF/F or works by people of color.

And this is where I have such a big problem: the end of Dave's comment hints to exactly how I read (I am open to all manner of writing by authors of various nationalities, genders, and races, with the exception, obviously, that the work be written or translated into my native and only tongue--English). I generally do not select what I read by any factor other than by what I happen to like (and those likes are changing dramatically these days due to exposure to all kinds of new forms of writing), but at the same time I am always on the look out for new and interesting stories from all over the world and often gravitate towards such things when they are properly advertised as such. Only, that rarely happens (for international SF/F or people of color), and in some cases probably for good reasons. I can see problems with publishers using one's gender or race as a gimmick for selling one books, which might be why many of them don't do it (a guess on my part).

So, do I simply take the artificial road and try to find these works where they appear? Is there anything wrong with an artificial method for selecting reading material? Am I reading too much into the notion of "artificial" and, thus, creating doubt within myself about the effectiveness of such a "habit?"

I'd really love opinions on this, folks. While I do not base my reading habits on one's race, gender, or nationality, I still am very uncomfortable with the gaps in my reading, not because I am guilty of anything, but because I feel like I'm missing something vital.

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  1. Hmm, interesting topic. I think that, yes, it does negate the organic reading experience, but foreign SF is just so different than American SF, far more than SF written by PoC differs from SF written by caucasians. International authors explore form, structure, and style in ways completely alien to the western palate. I dunno, I don't read organically, so it doesn't bother me.

  2. Adam: Well, I'm not terribly concerned about the differences. I want to read international SF more to broaden my horizons (to read more stuff). Thanks for your opinions on this. Needed some outside stuff to keep my head clear on the subject.

  3. Chiming in on this again - I agree that it's a somewhat Catch-22 scenario, and I've been mulling it over since my last posted comment.

    On the one hand, there's nothing actually WRONG with a little artificiality in selection so long as the artificiality is artificially moderated :P Think about it sometimes, try not to think about it too often. If you TRY for something, it's "artificial" in the sense that we're discussing here. Trying to accomplish a change/goal/evolution is necessary in life, so hey, don't philosophize yourself to a stand-still.

    That said, one way to moderate not just how often but to what extent you consciously choose books from writers of multiple ethnicity and nationality, is to try and frequent bookstores, online or retail, that you know carry a greater selection of these kinds of books than normal, maybe even ones that actively promote and showcase them. Definitely find bookstores that don't stick all their international sci-fi books in the regular "Fiction" section because foreign sci-fi is "cultural" and therefore somehow elevated from English sf/f.

    Also frequent blogs, forums, places where people talk about these kinds of books and recommend them. Start to build a list of recommendations or titles you find, just like you'd build a must-read list of any books. Slowly absorb them into your larger reading decisions.

    I think it's ultimately a question of expanding your awareness of the authors and books, what they are, which you're interested in, where you can find them, and then allow your reading of them to happen more organically - when you're actually in the mood for one you've heard of, go grab it.

    Learning about the books and authors has to happen the way most learning does: methodically. But your reading of the books doesn't have to be. Make sense?

  4. Of course you'll need to be purposeful about reading fiction by foreign authors or people of color (in the same way that you'd need to be intentional about reading fiction from other genres like mystery) - they are almost certainly marketed differently, and you've already identified that your "organic" process for locating fiction doesn't generate a lot of hits for PoC/international authors.
    So in order to get exposed to that genre, you'll need to be intentional about it for a while. After that, you'll either find that you like it and that your habits/plans for locating new books have changed enough that you are just picking these books up, or you'll find they haven't changed. That's when you can make a more intelligent choice about whether it's worth investing energy in locating these books, but for now, you know that you're unlikely to find them without making some changes.

  5. Dave B.: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, and that's probably what I will do. Thanks for the expanded comment!

    Jonah: I don't not read PoC/International authors because I don't like their work. I don't read them because for whatever reason I haven't stumbled upon them in my book buying (I have some books I haven't read yet that I bought, though). The bookstores I shop at clearly don't highlight these books, for some reason. I don't know if it's because they don't carry many of the books by such authors (they must, but since I only go to the SF/F section, I don't know; they usually have the big names) or they just don't feel like highlighting them at all. Whatever the reason, I know that I have to push myself to hunt these books down and figure out how they are placed on the shelves if I'm going to increase what I read.

    But you're right. I can't find them without a change. Looks like I'll do that.

  6. illukar8:56 PM

    My own statistics would be very different, but purely because around half of what I read is manga. Certainly one way to discover Japanese and Korean (and occasionally Chinese) culture.

    Finding 'international' sff on your local bookstore shelves would, I suspect, be a far greater challenge than overcoming any bias or artificiality surrounding making choices based on writer country of origin. Wanting to "broaden your horizons" is an artificial reading choice in itself. The only potential negative I can see in that artificiality is if you force yourself to read/finish a novel which in no way interests or attracts you, purely because of the writer's country of origin.

  7. Illukar: I actually left out all the manga I read over summer (not sure why) and all the books I read for school (which, combined with the manga, would skew my stats for work by PoC and international authors). Next time I'll count the manga (I love the stuff, actually; most don't know it around these parts, but I am a huge anime and manga fan, though not in the traditional otaku sense).

    I agree about your last point (forcing myself to read something that doesn't interest me). I likely wouldn't do that much anyway, but that's not a problem for international or PoC authors. I want to read their work. In fact, I enjoy those two kinds of authors as much as regular every day folks (sometimes more, because of the unique perspectives). It's just surprising how little of both I've read (neither of which I attribute to being my fault precisely because I have no bias against those kinds of things, and welcome them when they show up on my reading pile).

    Thanks for the comment!

  8. illukar11:22 PM

    You misunderstand me slightly - there is no 'forcing yourself' involved in the book choice - only if after you've picked up the book and started reading it and found that you don't like it (for whatever reason - offensive attitudes toward a particular group, bad writing, turgid, formulaic) and force yourself to continue to read it because you've made a decision to read 'international books' ... that's what I would consider a negative.

    The biggest hurdle seems to me to be language anyway. I've no idea how many sff books get published in non-English speaking countries, and I'm sure there's some interesting stuff out there, but how much of it gets translated to English?

    I will be interested to see what/if you find, just to find out if there is any markedly new or different types of fantasy and sf novel outside the English publishing world. The manga experience for me has certainly opened the door to a lot of interesting mythology, and certain preoccupations, but how different are they as types of stories?

    Minor cultural differences, that faintly skewed take, are often fascinating though.

  9. Ah, I got it. I generally don't do that for fun reading anyway (meaning non-school reading). If I don't like a book, I stop. I don't have enough time in the day to read everything that deserves reading as it is.

    There's a lot of stuff that gets translated, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is easy to find. Translated SF/F is generally dwarfed by SF/F in English. So, while there are certainly a lot of books translated (a lot in comparison to what a person reasonably could read in a year), there aren't a lot of translated books available in comparison to general English books, thus making it rather hard to find the stuff when it does exist. Sometimes translations do very well, though (like Night Watch and Day Watch, and the others).

    I don't know how different once could expect manga to be from Japanese prose. I know some big Japanese authors have been steadily translated over here in the states, but they tend to write a more "literary" brand of SF. There has been a slow push for Japanese SF in prose form through Haikasoru (correct me if I spelled that wrong). I've heard they're good. Never read them myself. Maybe I should this year...