Ways of reading

In conversation with a colleague today I stumbled upon a new way of looking at a problem I’ve been pondering for a while now: the hierarchy we ascribe to different genres. It’s not a constant hierarchy, but it’s a pernicious one in my opinion, since I write one of the less respected ones. I’m sure it’s a very arguable hierarchy, but the specifics are less important than the overall shape.

I’m finding myself more and more of the opinion that the way we read is what separates “difficult” from “easy” work. It goes back to my earlier thoughts on metacognition: whether we read aurally or visually is surely a factor. Where’s the attraction of genre fiction if you’re just hearing a story in your head, told blandly, one word at a time? On the other hand, if you’re right there with Reacher as he crushes someone’s windpipe with his bare hands or something, it’s a bit of a thrill–but you can do this much more easily when your brain is gulping down entire sentences or paragraphs and converting them into experience.

Where I find the greatest fulfilment, of course, is in speculative writing that also lives up to a high literary standard: innovative forms, strong word choices, and above all, a commitment to truth: never taking the easy way out, never letting the conventions do the work for you, always exposing truth about the writer’s world and the way we all live; at the same time, offering a pipeline to the world of archetypes, and painting everything in vivid colours. It feels more true to me than kitchen-sink fiction. I do have a kitchen sink in my home, but I also have a threshold and a basement and a skylight. And I have a self who walks in her sleep, and I have a lover, and I have friends of other species. All these are served very well with metaphors of wonder.

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