Slow books: The ones we savor and revisit rather than gobble and toss.
I attended a session at Philcon on the subject, , and came away with a reading list.
The moderator was Victoria Janssen, an alternate-world erotic fiction and nonfiction writer. The panelists were Ty Drago , a YA author and editor/publisher of Allegory; Tom Purdom, a writer and lovely man who has been producing science fiction since I was six years old, and L.E. Modesitt, the author of more than 70 novels of science fiction and fantasy, who was one of the guests of honor at the conference.
Readers fall somewhere on the spectrum between gourmets and gourmands, between those who savor every crystalline sentence and those who skip great batches of text, following only the plot.* Writers all too often expect their readers to read every sentence. They don’t.
However, the demands of today’s market, the increasing impatience of the reading public, and the pace of life in a connected world all mean that a slow-paced piece of writing is a tough sell.
Tom Purdom quoted James Thurber, who said there were two types of writers: putter-inners and taker-outers.† There are, Purdom said, also two kinds of readers who parallel those types. The panelists agreed that readers often see what they expect to see, but that the pace they will put up with depends on how important the details are and how much the writer has set up anticipation.‡
ThE participants raised many examples of writers they considered slow but good. Patricia McKillip, for instance, was mentioned early on.§ Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book was another example of a complex, slow novel that rewards careful reading.|| The panelists thought R.A. Macavoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon was slow.¶ Mark Halperin’s Winter’s Tale was also mentioned, and of course, everyone agreed on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.# Other good slow authors mentioned were Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, Greg Bear, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and Modesitt himself. It struck me what a diverse group of writers were represented in the “good slow” category.
As might be expected, in a group of aficionados, many popular series were met with general derision. Everyone agreed that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy was way too slow, as was Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.**
Takeaways: Taste is a peculiar thing. I’m a taker-outer. ‡‡
Next: Who is your reader?
* I was always a gulper myself on a first read, but since I was also a re-reader, somehow much of the writing made it into my head.
† Thurber was actually quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote it to his friend Thomas Wolfe. But Wolfe hated Thurber and refused to read his writing because Thurber was a taker-outer.
‡ Here I would argue it’s not the reader’s anticipation, but the writer’s use of various forms of suspense. Which doesn’t necessarily mean action.
§ I love McKillip’s fantasy writing, but it is not exactly plot-driven, and if you don’t slow down to read her novels you end up wondering what exactly just happened. If you do slow down, you still don’t know what happened but it doesn’t matter.
|| Willis can also write fast-paced fiction (Bellwether is an example) but I gave up on Doomsday Book because it was too depressing. Everybody dies of plague. I have an inexplicable aversion to books that make me cry and get depressed.
¶ I disagree about Tea with the Black Dragon — it’s a slight book with lots of action, though it has a “cozy” feel to it because of its general optimism. That’s not the same as a slow pace. Macavoy’s later novels are slow, though.
# Pratchett is not slow for me, even though his series is vast and interconnected, and he makes side comments and adds footnotes. Hah. My kind of person. Give me snarky footnotes.††
** These series were all best sellers and prodigious money makers. But I agree, they’re bad. Donaldson’s hero, for instance, is a world-class whiner. I had students who liked to read books that were that slow and badly written; I think there’s a third class of reader that just wants to occupy their eyeballs with predictable prose. The panel, understandably, disdained such things, and I would discourage any writer from emulating them because any sane agent would reject them based on the first ten pages. But they are money-makers.
†† For snarky footnotes, if you go to a secondhand bookstore, see if you can find one of Will Cuppy‘s books. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is a gem.
‡‡ And then I put it all back in as footnotes. But not in my fiction.