Book Review: What Makes This Book So Great
by Jo Walton
The snarky and well-regarded science fiction/fantasy author Jo Walton started writing a personal-reading blog for Tor. com in 2008, and her beguiling new hardcover, What Makes This Book So Great (I love the lack of the question-mark) collects the best of those blog-posts from 2008 to 2011. And Jo Walton’s best can be very, very good: she’s an utterly unpretentious writer with unfeigned enthusiasm for fifty different aspects of reading – and especially of reading her own genre, for which she’s a fine and approachable champion.
Her column at Tor had a fairly open remit, nebulously gathered around revisiting older works of science fiction and fantasy rather than reviewing new books. This has the unexpected side effect of making these posts read almost perfectly as chapters in a book (and of course this effect is aided by careful pruning and picking too). And the book that ends up resulting from all that blogging is often very insightful and equally often ready to start a debate. Like many people who love genre fiction, Walton has countless times in her life attempted to convert the unbeliever, often with dismal results from the narratively timid. She’s familiar with the standard objections such people tend to make – to the jargon of the form, for instance:
There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun.
Or to the genre’s tendency to natter on indefinitely:
Some people find it off-putting to discover that a book is part of long series. Other people are delighted – if they like it, there’s so much more to discover. I’ve heard people say they’re not going to start A Song of Ice and Fire until it’s finished, but I think they’re missing half the fun … If you read the books now, you get to speculate about where the series is going.
Even a reader unfamiliar with Walton’s writing voice won’t need long to see how regularly that word “fun” crops up. Indeed, the playfulness that runs through virtually all of these pieces is the foremost reason to read the book (it’s what makes What Makes This Book Great great), and it can yield some very useful fancies, my favorite of which is this:
The Suck Fairy is an artefact of re-reading. If you read a book for the first time and it sucks, that’s nothing to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading – well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the suckiness the first time – or you can say that the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck. The longer the book has been on the shelf unread, the more time she’s had to get into it. The advantage of this is exactly the same as the advantage of thinking of one’s once-beloved ex as having been eaten by a zombie, who is now shambling around using the name and body of the former person. It lets one keep one’s original love clear of the later betrayals.
These collected pieces bristle with thoughtful recommendations for writers like Vernor Vinge, Howard Waldrop, James Tiptree, and Lord Dunsany; they’re filled with insights into fan favorites like The Hobbit (and, delightfully, Gaudy Night) as well as lesser-known gems like John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, and Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand.This kind of broadband eagerness is always welcome, although it’s seriously endangered in this collection by the fact that there are fifteen pieces on the various novels of Lois McMaster Bujold and a mind-staggering seventeen pieces on the novels (and the juvenilia, and the signed Tesco receipts) of resolutely third-rate fantasist Steven Brust. Every author is entitled to his enthusiasms, and it could only be intriguing if a writer as smart as Walton returned to Bujold or Brust a couple of times apiece. But fifteen and seventeen moves well beyond “intriguing” into the range of “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” Somebody who writes two or three appreciations of Steven Brust is somebody you can argue with and perhaps learn from; somebody who writes a an appreciation of every single book Steven Brust has ever written must be fled as from a bell-and-staved leper.
My own faith in Walton’s judgement was annihilated by such freakish over-indulgences, but it grew back. Yours will grow back too – or you could do what never occurred to me and simply skip those parts.