Reading Is Bliss
I am a girl who likes boy books. That is, I am a girl who likes to read fiction that are traditionally considered male - sci-fi, fantasy, horror and speculative fiction - to name a few. Many of my female friends also fall into this category.
I have covered the issue of gendered books in this blog before, so won't rehash it. But at the heart of it, my problem, and that of other readers like me, isn't so much girl or boy books, but that society still has those labels.
When I was younger, I also used to read romance, and felt that it was something I had to hide because it would make me seem far too soft and emotional. I have to admit that I read them for the racy sex scenes (hey, I went to an all-girls' Catholic school) more than anything else...though it certainly helped that all the heroes were tall, dark, handsome, brooding and filthy rich.
But I feel far more comfortable admitting that I love boy books now than I ever did when I had a secret fetish for girl books. I think the deeper issue beneath this are societal and cultural expectations.
Romance novel heroes are the perfect example of the strong, silent, self-controlled male trope. From Heathcliff to Darcy, Hamlet to Christian Grey, men have been encouraged since time immemorial to be emotionally reserved, to shun the idea of icky feelings.
"Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire."
I can't lay claim to this quote - it's by the great Roland Barthes, French literary theorist and a man who writes like he's making love to the page. One of Barthes' theories in The Pleasure of the Text, a book I devoured while doing my Master of Creative Writing, is the idea that what is sexy remains in shadow. The hint of skin, like in the above quote, can be far more alluring than full-body nudity.
This has made me ponder what makes a book sexy. What elements in a story turn readers on?
Barthes can seduce, but he can also be too much. There is something so cocksure about the way he writes. An element of arrogance that can make him seem distasteful and dare I say it, even a little pretentious. Or a lot. Depending on where you stand on the subject of literary critique.
I tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey about three years ago, and though I forced myself to plow through (har har) the books, I honestly found them enormously dull and the sex contrived. There was nothing particularly shocking about the BDSM lite and (spoiler alert) preggo sex at the end. It was like reading Mills & Boon as a tween, but a little more hardcore. I also thought that Christian Grey was rather emotionally abusive. If he hadn't been so wealthy, if he was some penniless pothead living in his parents' basement and surfing Tinder for girls, no woman would return for a second date.
I have just been unable to read lately. A series of life stresses have taken their toll, and I find myself stuck in that most unenviable of positions for avid readers - the reader's block.
What is reader's block, you might ask? Well, firstly, it's a completely made-up term. I thought of it just five minutes ago. But upon googling the term, I can see that other people are using it, so I take that back - it's definitely a legitimate condition, according to Urban Dictionary.
Though I've had time to read, I have not been able to muster up the interest or energy. It's a disturbing lack of enthusiasm that I haven't experienced in...well, ever. Sure, like all readers, I have days when I just want to fill my mind with trashy books and magazines, or roam the internet looking for interesting articles about cats.
But this time, it's serious. I just can't get into any stories. The last good book I read was Anna Smaill's The Chimes, and I've been trying to get into various things since then including Haruki Murakami (in preparation for his Auckland Writers' Festival visit this May), and the new Kazuo Ishiguro, but I have been unable to concentrate.
My attention span feels like that of a five-year-old child's. I read the same sentences over and over again, unable to comprehend what I'm reading or even follow the plot.
I love reading letters. In whatever format they now come in - emails, super long text messages, old-fashioned typed or handwritten letters posted in the mail, sealed with a kiss and a promise, letters are often humanity's way of either making sense of the crazy world we live in, or to make contact with the people who matter most.
I suppose I have been thinking about this because of two things: 1) the website Letters of Note, and 2), this tear-jerker of a letter from a dying father to his 1-year-old daughter whom he will never see grow up. I came across it at work and nearly burst into tears upon reading it.
The most powerful quote was the one from the end, where he reflects on his own mortality but also tries to envision leaving words of wisdom for the future 15-year-old he will never know: "When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing".
While I have many favourite letters by famous authors, one of the most powerful is this plea by Roald Dahl. I don't want to get into any bun fights on the matter of vaccination, but it is hard reading the emotion obvious in the opening to the letter by one of my favourite childhood writers: "Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn't do anything".
There's the fun stuff too, of course - like the letters that James Joyce wrote to the love of his life, Nora Barnacle. I won't repeat them here, but suffice to say that they're a little heavier than Mills and Boon, perhaps not so shocking in today's age of freely available soft porn.
Every now and again, as a reader, you come across a book that makes you sit up and pay attention. While I'm no cynic, it is rare for me to find the type of story where you think, the entire time you're reading it, that this is really something special - something that hasn't been tried before.
It's hard to describe Anna Smaill's The Chimes. I could try and categorise it as a sort of dystopian urban fantasy. You can see where David Mitchell, Elizabeth Knox, Angela Carter, Ursula LeGuin, and a whole host of other brilliant literary authors have influenced the writing - but merely to compare Smaill to other the greats would be doing The Chimes a disservice.
For it is an entirely unusual work, so dazzling for the most part that you can easily forgive uneven patches, perhaps even the occasional weakly sketched character. The story as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It is difficult to believe that The Chimes is a debut novel, and I would wager money that Smaill has unfinished manuscripts tucked in a dusty drawer somewhere at home, but I'm glad for her that this is her first published book. Because it's one to make readers and reviewers take notice.
The world of The Chimes is both strange and yet familiar, the hallmark of good speculative fiction. Set in a parallel London, humanity has been rendered docile by something called The Chimes - in my imagination it's an uplifting type of gospel music that flows out of a giant instrument resembling a church organ, and renders people unable to form new memories.
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