Jo Walton, by her own admission, isn’t a literary critic. Remember that, it’ll be important later. She’s an out, proud, and in your face SF fangirl with a blog on Tor.com where she gets to write about the books she’s been re-reading lately: Heinlein, Tiptree, Tolkien, Willis, Clarke, Delany, whatever catches her fancy. (Walton’s street cred comes from the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards she’s won for her own novels.) Now she collects and fleshes out many of these entries in her new book What Makes This Book So Great, published by Tor Books, of course.
How deeply you get into these collected blog entries, posted between 2008 and 2011, depends on how you define a “classic” compared with Walton, which is the problem. Here’s Walton herself on what she’s mostly into reading:
“When I think of my comfort re-reads they all tend to be things where everything comes out all right in the end – children’s books, romances, and military stories. The characters in these sorts of books tend to be justified in what they do. There’s a certain black and white nature to everything. They tend to be series, so I can really soak myself in them, or if not series then at least a lot of books to the same formula…The other thing they have in common is that while the prose might be clunky, the characters might have only two dimensions and the plots when examined may be ridiculous, they’re really good on the storytelling level…they’re button-pushing, but they’re honest. They’re the author’s buttons too.”
So that explains why we’re treated to so many essays about C.J. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance novels, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan adventures, and Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos fantasies! Not that she doesn’t read these books insightfully, but there’s no real difference between the pleasure one gets from reading prose novels like these and reading X-MEN or JUSTICE LEAGUE or any of a dozen other long-running comic book adventure series. Same emotional investment, same thrills, fewer pictures. But for those who are into it, Walton spends a lot of time with SF adventure series, and always gives you fair warning before disclosing any spoilers.
Rather than define SF, a thankless task anyway, she comes up with an interesting distinction between SF and the mainstream (“mimetic fiction”): that the world is a character in one, and the characters are the world in the other. Her musings on SF reading protocols hypothesize that where good science fiction readers see incredible things – tachyon drives, dragons, zombies – as part of the story’s reality, people who don’t like or understand SF can’t get past seeing the incredible elements as metaphors for something else. That’s why academics and mainstream critics adore SF books that play games with metaphor and representation: it’s Philip K. Dick, she drily notes, “who has a Library of America edition, not Sturgeon or Heinlein.”
It’s literary critics that Walton has a real problem with. She sees them as too detached from the books they read, too high-minded, too joyless. She’s a compulsive re-reader and she wants to gush about the books she loves, whether they’re in or out of print, first- or second-rate, SF or not. I’ve nothing against re-reading books or gushing about them, but Walton and I have different ideas about what it is that literary critics do. A good critic can be an exciting, eye-opening guide to a familiar or unfamiliar text, but maintaining the proper critical distance for that kind of reading may not be much fun. A fan’s identification with characters in a book may be fun and satisfying, but sharing those sensations with an audience may not be very exciting at all. To some in the audience, it can be like hearing an acquaintance go on and on about bands they love that you have no intention of ever listening to.