Monday, August 24, 2009

A Book Club Gone Bad

I have a bit of a dilemma. I'm sort of a member of a science fiction book club. It's a pitiful, limping creature and always has been. Only four or five people show up with any regularity, which would be fine if everyone read the books. They don't. I have gone to meetings where it was revealed that not a single person actually read the book. This is a common enough occurrence that our (for want of a better word) leader has taken to sending out mass emails saying, "The book we're pretending to read this month is ...."

Then too, there's the time that I showed up for a meeting and no one else did, as far as I could determine. I waited for half an hour and wandered throughout the place before giving up and leaving. It turned out later that there had in fact been a meeting, though I never worked out how the others managed to give me the slip. I found the experience disheartening, so much so that I haven't been to a meeting since, though I keep meaning to go. In fact, I have continued to think of myself as a member of the book club. I'm simply a member who hasn't shown up at a meeting in a while. I obtain the assigned books and don't read them, or I read a couple of chapters and lose interest. Because (and here's another problem I have with the book club) the books chosen represent a very particular taste, which I don't happen to share. The themes are either military, online gaming or space opera (a subcategory of military, come to think of it). The field of interest is so narrow that I think I can pinpoint exactly who is making the recommendations. This is not a good thing. A book club should represent as many literary tastes as there are people in the book club. That is, in fact, the advantage and perhaps even the whole point of a book club: the opportunity to experience a range of tastes, and read books you'd never pick up in the normal course of events.

Well, I'm certainly picking up books I'd never touch in the normal course of events, but they're all the same! And I don't like them. And the person who's making the choices is not experiencing anything new.

None of that is good. The lackadaisical nature of the club--not good. Book suggestions coming from only one, or at most two, of the members--not good. Said suggestions being consistently contrary to my personal taste--not good, at least for me. And yet none of those things is the reason why I am now saying to myself that it may be time to throw in the towel and drop out of the club for real. Because on top of all that, it seems that this one person (or at most two people) who is supplying us with all our reading material is not terribly discerning in terms of literary quality.

To put it another way, the latest book is pure cheese.

When I first held it in my hand and looked at its cover art, which consisted of space ships shooting at each other, I groaned and thought, "Not another bloody space opera!" Which was a bit unfair of me, since I hadn't bothered to read the previous one (New Space Opera, in case you're interested). That being the case, I decided to give it a chance. After all, I reminded myself, book clubs are all about being exposed to new reading material, and I am being so exposed, even if certain other people in the group are not. Let me then benefit. Let me open my mind.

So I began to read. The story is certainly action-packed, though convoluted as hell, what with all the faster-than-light travel through multiple dimensions. I read a lot of sentences twice, trying to figure out what was going on. Still, the captain of the ship is a woman, which is nice--it reminds me of Captain Janeway. The concepts are kind of interesting, and it certainly isn't boring. It begins with an enemy attack and hasn't slowed down for a moment. It is, in fact, paced like a short story, which is odd. But what really got my literary spidey-sense tingling was the second sentence of Chapter Three: "Fifty-three sleepless hours might explain her gaunt, hollowed cheeks, but not the ghosts behind her eyes."

Ghosts? Behind her eyes, of all places?

And things did not improve from there. Five pages later, I reached the paragraphs that stopped me in my tracks.

His face was blank for an instant, and then understanding flared.

"Of course." Life returned to his eyes--the blazing life of a man who has accepted the inevitability of something far worse than his own death and then been shown a possible way to avert it after all--and suppressed excitement lent his voice vibrancy as he nodded jerkily. "Of course!"

--from The Apocalypse Troll by David Weber

I shouldn't have to explain why this is terrible writing, but the sad fact is that this guy's a bestselling author, so I probably do. Note the melodrama, the pumping up of rhetoric in a flailing attempt to artificially excite the reader. Good writers know better. They know that if the story is exciting, they don't have to do anything extra to wring a response out of the reader. Not this writer. He follows up the flaring understanding with life--blazing life! Hallelujah! Also note that the character's voice is vibrating while he's nodding jerkily. This is quite amusing, as it was explained earlier in the book just how serious a problem conflicting harmonics can be when you're hopping dimensions in order to travel faster than light: "If a ship hit the wall just wrong or with the slightest harmonic in her translation field, she simply disappeared. She went acoherent, spread over a multitude of dimensions and forever unable to reconstitute herself..." I should think similar difficulties await the man who nods jerkily while his voice vibrates. Perhaps his head would explode.

Anyway, that's where I reached my limit. I'm sorry, but I'm not devoting hours of my life to swimming through such Cheez Whiz.

When did this happen? When did it become OK to publicly read and shamelessly tout crappy fiction, even to the point of suggesting it as a book club selection? Is this Stephanie Meyer's fault? Or did it begin earlier, without my noticing? Maybe Dan Brown is to blame? John Grisham? Danielle Steel? Sidney Sheldon? Should we have a line-up? Whodunit?

What ever happened to the good old days when reading crap was a private, guilty pleasure? Maybe they never existed and I only imagined them? Do book clubs read Harlequin Romances these days? Have I asked enough questions by now?

In any case, I realize that I'm beaten. I was going to show up at the next meeting and suggest Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, which Locus selected as one of the best first novels of 2008. But it seems so hopeless. The book is not even a mass-market paperback. It's a trade paperback, and therefore more expensive. I've already been told that price is a concern. On top of that, it contains no gaming, space ships or bombs. Just noncorporeal demons and excellent writing. No one's going to be interested in that. Why bang my head against a wall? With or without harmonics in my translation field?

That's how I feel right now anyway. Perhaps later, as I consider the possibility that I could help these literary innocents discover good writing, my hope will revive, much as hope revived for the crew of the TNS Defender. And when that happens, life will reignite in my eyes--blazing life. My excitement, which I will be suppressing for some unexplained reason, will lend my voice vibrancy and I will nod jerkily. And then my head will explode.