Reading outside the lines

Just flew in from Reno, and boy are — ::slaps self::

Sorry. Punchy from the jetlag, hangover, sleeping on airplanes, and oxygen deprivation. Just got back from Worldcon, which was in the quite lovely town of Reno, Nevada. Unfortunately it was in an unlovely series of spread-out, smoke-filled, noisy-with-many-blinky-lights casino hotels, which I might’ve enjoyed more if I was a gambler or a smoker. I’m neither, so I spent much of the weekend trying to fend off sensory overload, watering eyes, and potential emphysema. (On a completely different level, I can’t help but admire the social engineering of casinos like that. They’re elaborately designed to get you lost — but steer you inevitably towards the slots floor — and to keep you from noticing the passage of time outside. The bathrooms and restaurants are next to impossible to find, but the ATMs are right there in your face. The bars are too loud to talk in — but that’s fine, because every seat has built-in electronic gambling to keep you occupied. Fascinating.)

Anyway, the con itself was nice, as was the delightfully smoke-free convention center. Didn’t win a Hugo, alas — but I’m OK with that, as I hadn’t really expected to win given the slate I was up against. Congrats to Connie Willis and the other winners!

Anyway, since I was scheduled for five panels, the writers’ workshop, a reading, and all the Hugo stuff, I didn’t get nearly as much time to socialize as I would’ve liked. Most of my conversations were conducted while walking from one end to the (very far away) other end of the convention center, often with me fumbling with my smartphone in one hand and balancing a much-needed cup of coffee in the other. But I had one very brief, and very interesting, conversation that I think I’d like to continue here.

What was the last book you read that fell outside the range of your usual stuff? How often do you read such material? Do you consciously, intentionally seek it out, or happen onto it and read only reluctantly?

I ask because someone challenged me with that one at the con, after I’d challenged her to read something she said she hated but had never actually tried — a romance novel, specifically. We were discussing the benefits of trying new things, in part because in the previous panel I’d mentioned being bombarded at Worldcon with people saying that they “didn’t usually like fantasy” (and in fact only read my book because it was in the Hugo packet) but they liked my book. I wondered whether the experience had helped make any of the non-fantasy readers less rigid in their resistance to fantasy, or more able to see the value in something they’d previously scorned. I’d also made the statement that I thought it was crucially necessary for SFF fans to try reading outside their own identities — race, gender, etc. –in order to eliminate some of the genre’s most aggravating and nonsensical cliches.

My conversation partner then asked what I’d done lately to step outside of my own comfort zone, and I did have to stop and think about it it. Because, well, I haven’t, not in the last six months or so. That’s partly because I barely have time to read at all these days, let alone read outside of my preferred areas of fantasy, science fiction, economics, food activism, history, and other stuff I read for worldbuilding chewiness (e.g., The World Without Us). But my lack of time is no excuse; I’ve found time for other good books recently. So I’m overdue for a dose of reading diversity.

Maybe I’ll pick up a mystery; it’s been awhile since I read one. Possibly an American comic book? Something classic, perhaps; haven’t read anything more than 20 years old in awhile. Dunno.

But what about you? How long’s it been since you mixed it up a little in your reading list?

29 thoughts on “Reading outside the lines”

  1. Funny you should post this today. I just last night started reading Mindy Klasky’s new romance novel, partly because it’s a book by someone I know, and partly because I know there are things I can learn from reading other genres. But I definitely don’t read outside my comfort zone as much as I should, and it’s something I need to consciously force myself to do more often.

  2. I read what I don’t write all the time. I’m in the thick of Richard Morgan’s THIRTEEN right now and it’s one of the many books that have me thinking, “No way in HELL, Keri, will you ever pull something like this off.”

    But…I don’t read outside of my preferences very often. Romance, fantasy, speculative fiction. Nonfiction for specific research purposes only.

    It’s just too easy not to. Reading is my downtime/drained mind activity after writing work and getting-paid work gets done, and faced with a TBR stack of stuff I love, I’m not inclined to skip over to something I need to open my lazy, tired mind for.

    I confess my laziness.

  3. I tend to get bored as a reader if I don’t read a wide variety of stuff; the fact that we’re close to an excellent public library and that I get sent so many different kinds of books make it easier than it might be otherwise to stay out of ruts.

    That said, I still have holes. I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as I used to–er, at least outside of magazines, now that I think of it–and I don’t feel well read at all in certain subgenres like, say, space opera… which, yeah, I should get on that. But otherwise I wonder if I even have a comfort zone these days, because I’ll read just about anything if I have a reason to believe it’s good.

  4. Doing research for my current trilogy caused me to read some things I most likely not otherwise ever have picked up. The prize among them, which I completely loved, was C.L.R. James’ novel Minty Road (written in the 30s and, to my mind, unusually feminist without perhaps deliberately meaning to be).

  5. I normally read fiction written by Black women and poetry. The last books I recall that are outside of those realms were The People of Paper by Salvador Plascentia and Light Boxes by Shane Jones and I liked both books.

  6. Ha! The very last two things I read were way outside my usual fare (a “mainstream” novel and a memoir), but I loved them both. I think the secret is just to be open to whim in choosing your next book. I don’t have a “to read” stack, linearly moving books through a line – I have a “to read” shelf, as well as a huge library a mile away, a Bookmooch account, an Amazon budget…

    As a younger reader I definitely had a comfort zone, and tended to sneer at anything that wasn’t science fiction because I felt I could only catch up and keep up with the genre if I devoted all my time to it. But now I’m finally experienced enough to be able to recognize and enjoy good writing in all its forms. (And the opposite – to put down a bad SF book if it’s bad, and stop punishing myself! Life’s too short!)

  7. I actually picked up a non-fiction book recently, which I never do. It was Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, a history of the rise of modern horror movies. It was riveting and it made me wonder why I wasn’t reading more stuff that was, you know, real. Real can be cool, too. Now I’m going to try to work in a non-fiction book each month.

  8. I tend to shift genres depending on my mood, and sometimes depending on where I am in my writing. I was reading a lot of mystery for a while, after a long hiatus from that genre, and am still semi- on that kick; since I don’t write mystery, it’s like a vacation.

    I always have several nonfiction books going, and sometimes I almost abandon fiction altogether because I get caught up in one or more of those. I tend to do that more when I’ve been writing a lot of fiction.

    When I want something different, I usually go for something old and/or “classic.” Fanny Burney’s EVELINA has been in my queue for a while, some Henry James I haven’t yet read, some Wilkie Collins, Angela Brazil school stories, etc.

    There are also random books friends have recommended to me, usually more recent literary novels that, otherwise, I wouldn’t look at.

  9. Loved talking to you, albeit briefly, at WorldCon! As for books, I recently have started reading the Thomas Harris books, starting with Red Dragon. I don’t read a lot of real-world crime thrillers and am interested in the mind-messing of a villain like Hannibal. This is part research but also due to watching The Silence of the Lambs and being curious about the books- especially since I realized I hadn’t seen SotL since college and I had missed a lot of the subtle bits.

  10. I like to think I’m a pretty diverse reader as I enjoy a pretty wide range of genres, but one thing I haven’t been reading that I really ought to read more of is non-fiction. I always feel so rushed for time researching I try to drill directly down to what I need, and online is easiest for that, but I forget that I actually really love learning! Every time someone has “forced” me to read a non-fiction book I’ve actually quite enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll go prowl the poor plundered halls of the Borders near my house and see if there’s anything that catches my eye. (And, ooh, worldbuild-y chewiness! Any recs beyond the book you linked? I’m actually trying to bulk up my sf world right now…)

  11. Oh yes, and a couple of years ago a friend twisted my arm to read Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, starting with Tender at the Bone, and her writing has made me want to put good food writing into my fiction, and I have been considering rereading them. (just, uh, never, ever, read when you’re hungry and your only option for food is anything less than awesome)

  12. There’s a lot to be said for moving outside your normal zone. The latest thing I’ve tried outside my comfort zone was a thriller by David Morrell (The Fifth Profession). He’s probably best known outside afficionados of his genre for having been the author of the book on which the movie Rambo was based. I picked it up mostly as market research – I’m working on a book that might be better marketed as a thriller than as SF/fantasy, so I figured I should sample some, I happened to have the Morrell book in my garage in a box of books I’d inherited from a friend who passed on a few years ago, along with a whole batch of thrillers/”men’s fiction”. I was surprised to find that there was more there than just car chases and shoot-outs. I finished it and and said “Wow, that was really good.” Sufficiently good, in fact, that I’ve been picking up his other books.

  13. I tend to jump genres a lot and have no problem following recommendations to books outside my comfort zone. One genre I do find myself having to make a conscious effort to read is modern non-genre fiction, stuff like Jonathan Franzen. I forget it exists, which might be the disadvantage of mainstream fiction, but considering how few people read it’s not like any fiction can be called “mainstream”.

  14. I don’t stick with any genre exclusively, but the last book I read that just felt like it wasn’t typical for me was Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a sort of dark thriller. As it happened, I loved it, although it’s definitely not for all tastes (it’s really quite dark). I do like a little jolt of gritty reality once in a while.

    Classic American comics…ever read Maus? Or A Contract With God? Also, this is very recent, but Fun Home should not be missed.

  15. Funny, I was JUST thinking about this today.

    I’m actually terrible about this. I *never* read outside of a few genres, namely spec fic and dabbling in political or social commentary (meaning I usually don’t finish these). It probably doesn’t help that I’m in an MFA program where I’m required to read in my own genre, BUT…as it happens, my current advisor gave me a bunch of stuff that I would’ve never looked at otherwise. Like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. And a few craft books, which, as a genre, are the death of me. I hate them.

    I steer clear of “the classics”, because I have an old high school aversion to them that never went away, and which was only reinforced in my adult years around issues of homogeneity and exclusion. But I did start reading Peter & Wendy, just as a frame of reference for Brom’s The Child Thief, both of which I’ll be annotating.

    There are certain writers whose names keep coming up, like David Sedaris who I think I should read just to be able to have a conversation with his legion of readers, but…the premises of his books don’t interest me at all.

    I seem to gravitate towards two poles: non-fiction books that reinforce my cynicism, and books that provide me an escape from it. So should I look towards middle? Non-fiction books with a rosy outlook? =) Actually, I think Sherman Alexie is in that middleground too, but at this point he’s become one of my regulars.

  16. James Davis Nicoll

    I read a stack of teen romance novels aimed at 14 to 16 yr old girls. Fantasy but still.

    The book where the lead clung to her hunky ex (because another girl was after him and she could not bear the thought of him dating someone else) while pushing him away (because he’s an untrustworthy drug-addict borderline dating-raping SOB and she could see how dating him might not be a good idea), sometimes *in the same speeches*, was probably horrifyingly realistic. It did seem to me like there had to be a more efficient way to handle crushes and so forth.

    It actually gets worse in the next book but that isn’t out yet.

  17. I read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ by Jodie Picoult. I loved it. I generally read almost exclusively science fantasy (as a broad genre which for me includes urban fantasy).

  18. This might be strange to say, but since I’ve only just recently redefined what my comfort zone is, I’d like to settle in it and explore it for a while, rather that pulling myself right back out of it again.

  19. I tend to be a lazy reader. I light on what is easy, fun and enjoyable to read. For me that tends to be: written by women, fantasy, SF, manga, or 19th-century lit. Otherwise, it’s non-fiction on topics that I’ve become interested in, which I wouldn’t call a stretch. I’m psyching myself up to read a Stephen King, The Shining or It, which is the closest I’ve come to stepping outside the comfort zone in the last few months, and it doesn’t count ’cause I haven’t done it yet!

  20. I use to pick up random books from the library or bookstore that caught my eye and read the back or a few pages. I give any book 100 pages. Since I mostly read on Kindle now, I don’t do that as much.

    Another good way to expand my boundaries is to read short story anthologies. I’ve found a very good way to get outside my comfort zone without investing a whole lot of time in a full length story.

  21. I dunno. I guess it depends on how far out one is thinking. Two friends and I have a blog called Triple Take, which I’ll use for my website URL in this comment, so you can just click my name. And on that, we’ve been reading things we all agree on, which does stretch me out of my usual zones, but it is something that has to interest me in some way, or I won’t have agreed to it. I’ve read more mysteries and historicals than I ever would because of that.

    We’re also reading all the Nebula books, regardless of their content. But of course they are all science fiction and fantasy, which are definitely my home genres. And some are even YA, which is pretty much my third genre. Unless you count manga as a genre.

    Things that would be a real stretch for me — straight up horror, Christian fiction, biographies, or Westerns. Should I really read one of those? *shudder*

  22. Hello Ms. Jemisin~ I couldn’t find a way to contact you by email, so I hope leaving a comment here is okay!

    I recently started reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Nahadoth’s description was just so intriguing that I made fanart of him even though I haven’t finished the book yet! Someone suggested to me that you might be interested and I should send it to you… so here I am? I haven’t seen much fanart for the books so I hope you’re okay with it! :]

    Anyway, here’s the link!

  23. Casey,

    Oh, that’s quite lovely and dramatic! Deliciously stark lines, marvelous use of light and shadow. I may have to create a new page for this site, given that I keep getting sent such amazing fanart. May I tweet it?

  24. Casey,

    Guess you didn’t see my question. But I’m guessing if you posted it here that your intention was to share, so I’ll tweet away. :)

  25. Oh, yay! I’m glad you like it! And of course, you may do whatever you want with it! He’s your character after all :]

    I’ve only seen a few fanarts, so if you have a collection going, maybe you should put up a gallery on your site! I would love to see more :D Oh yeah, and I meant to ask you, is T’vril’s hair red-red or more of an orange-red?

  26. Casey,

    No, thank you. I’m always humbled and amazed when people spend that much time engaging with my work, however they do it. I made a post for it because otherwise I’ll just keep going to your Tumblr to look at it!

    As for T’vril: surprise me. ;) That’s not me being coy — I’m just not a visual person; I don’t have clear pictures of the characters in my head. That’s what fanart is for. ^_-

  27. Pingback: SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 8/24/11

  28. With respect, this column contradicts some of your past statements. I recall your previous blog in response to the person who found your work in the African-American section of her library. You decried the presence (and need for) such a section. But wouldn’t you agree that in order for people to read beyond “the range of [their] usual stuff” (your words), it’s helpful to have a road map for doing so? And since FAR AND AWAY the most reading people do is of works by white men, doesn’t a map that directs us to work by people of colour do just the kind of work you seem to be supporting in the present blog post?

    I’m not trying to rile you. I’m just curious about how you negotiate between these two positions.


  29. Kevin,

    It’s not a contradiction at all. My objection was not to the existence of black writers, or to them being known as black writers. My objection is to their segregation by race — in other words, their confinement within the lines imposed by racism. I want to blur/destroy those lines, one way or another.

    And what you’re calling a “road map”, I call a holding pen. As I said in my old post, these racially-defined sections are career killers for all but a handful of lucky ones. Writers stuck in these sections get less marketing, have fewer publisher options (which means lower advances, less distribution, poorer treatment), make fewer foreign rights or movie-option sales, get less shelf space, and have a harder time escaping if they want to try something new. In the long run that makes for fewer, not more, good authors of color. So how’s that supposed to help anybody read more PoC?

    And again, in this day and age it’s unnecessary. Anybody can hop on a library computer — or ask a librarian — and find out who the authors of color in any given genre are. So readers who are looking to diversify their reading along racial lines should do that. And that way the authors in question don’t have to risk their careers being hidden away in the dusty corner of the bookstore.

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