Reading for Fun: The Effect of the Written Word

According to NY Times columnist Gail Collins, the reality-challenged Tea Party leader Michele Bachman left the Democratic Party in college after she read Gore Vidal’s Burr.

Now in many ways, this is a blessing. Given the amazing things she says, I’m glad Bachman is not on my side of the political fence; I don’t want to be allied with such stupidity.

Plus I have to confess that this anecdote shows me one area of agreement with Bachman: I don’t like Gore Vidal’s work either. Granted, I didn’t abandon the Democrats over anything he said, but I did stop bothering with The New York Review of Books after reading one of his reviews.

Back when I lived in Wichita Falls, Texas, in the pre-Internet era, I relied on magazine subscriptions to keep me informed about the real world. Wichita Falls, located at the heart of Tornado Alley, is not one of the most interesting spots in the universe. While I was living there, a feature in Texas Monthly on the worst jobs in Texas included being a full-time resident of Wichita Falls (it sparked both outrage and agreement among the residents). And I can’t say I treated the city all that kindly in my novella Changeling, either, which probably explains why I spent a lot of weekends driving the 280 miles to Austin and subscribed to a lot of magazines, including Rolling Stone and the NYRB.

This was back at the time when I was first starting to read a lot of science fiction. I had always read SF/F as well as other fiction, but I was getting extremely bored with literary fiction, which seemed to focus exclusively on dysfunctional relationships. Science fiction, on the other hand, was full of ideas.

Some literary writers agreed. Doris Lessing began a series called Canopus in Argos, the first book of which was called Shikasta. And Vidal had dipped a toe into the genre himself with Myra Breckinridge.

So the NYRB got Vidal to review Lessing’s Shikasta. I’m sure the editor’s reasoning went something like this: Lessing, a literary writer, has written a science fiction novel. Vidal, who at least thinks of himself as a literary writer, has written a science fiction novel. Therefore he’s the perfect person to review Lessing.

I didn’t actually have to read the review to know that Vidal had trashed the book; the moment I saw that he was the reviewer, I knew he wasn’t going to say anything nice about it.

You should know that I think Lessing is a great writer. The Four-Gated City makes my all-time best books list. And I never thought much of Vidal’s fiction — I know I read one of his novels once, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one. I was familiar with his snarky criticism and general world view, and I knew he was bound to hate Lessing’s work.

And hate it he did. He ends with a suggestion that she leave Sufism for Scientology:

Doris Lessing would do well to abandon the woolly Idries Shah in favor of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, who has already blazed that trail where now she trods—treads?—trods.

I didn’t cancel my subscription to the NYRB, but I didn’t renew it, either. Instead, I moved to Washington and started reading the The Washington Post’s Book World, which was for many years the best book review publication in the country. (They seem to have cut it way back recently, but the Post still features Michael Dirda, the best book reviewer I have ever read, bar none.)

How much effect do writers have? Think about the books you’ve read and the ones you’ve thrown across the room. How have they changed your life? You may not have changed your political stripes as a result, but I’m willing to bet you can think of some books that upended your world.
ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.



Reading for Fun: The Effect of the Written Word — 14 Comments

  1. I agree that Doris Lessing is an amazing writer who more than deserved her Nobel. The Martha Quest (Children of Violence) series, the short stories, The Golden Notebook… each amazing. The former also ends up as science fiction in the final volume.


    I also read all of Canopus in Argos, and Shikasta is really poor — simplistic and clunky. When I first read it, I thought “This can’t be the author who wrote The Golden Notebook!” The rest of the series get better, especially the second one, but they still remain rather wooden “novels of ideas” (the term used to cover many writing sins). I haven’t read Vidal and I’m unlikely to do so. But snarkiness aside, I have to unhappily agree with him about Shikasta.

  2. I like Dirda because he seldom poses as the arbiter of taste the way Vidal and Amis do. Dirda talks about his relationship with the book, and he also indicates what readership it might have.

  3. Athena, I recall really liking Shikasta and not liking the second book. But it’s been 30 years since I read them and at the time I had just started to read SF seriously, so I might have a different take now. I should re-read it.

    The Four-Gated City, which is the fifth book of Children of Violence, is my favorite Lessing of all time. And you’re right: It definitely edges into SF/F at the end. (The first four books are grim, as I recall.) I respect The Golden Notebook, but as with many feminist books by women of my mother’s generation, I found it painful to read and yet was not personally affected by it. (I have the same reaction to The Female Man — I think it’s the best book of feminist fiction of the 70s in any genre, but it didn’t affect me emotionally the way it did a lot of other women.)

    Yeah, Sherwood, I think you’ve nailed what makes Dirda such a great reviewer. And Brenda, it might have been Myra Breckenridge I tried to read; whatever it was, I never bothered with Vidal again.

  4. Every “literary” piece of modern fiction I have tried to read is exactly like all the others. Dysfunctional middle aged males trying to make sense out their meaningless life with meaningless affairs and downward spirals.


    If a reviewer likes a book I tend to run the other way. More middle aged males trying to make themselves look more intelligent than mere readers by trashing anything of real interest.

    Now with the internet I can find review sites that actually talk intelligently about the kinds of books I like, with characters that intrigue me, and ideas that make me think. SF/F! some romance and historical fiction.

  5. Phyl, I started reading SF/F almost exclusively in the late 70s because all the literary fiction I saw was about dysfunctional families of one kind or another, while the SF/F was about ideas and well written to boot. Before that I read a little bit of everything — I never disdained SF/F and a lot of the literary fiction I liked was definitely on the magic realism side (Gunter Grass, Garcia Marquez).

    As for reviewers, it depends on who they are. Dirda loves Terry Pratchett, for example and reviews lots of SF/F. Basically, he’s a catholic reader — he likes almost everything that’s any good. And when he doesn’t think something is good, he says so nicely and politely, I think because he started out with high hopes for it.

    OTOH, I refuse to even read Michio Kakatani of The Times.

  6. The respect and admiration I have for the Martha Quest series only grows as time goes on and my grasp of political and social history deepens. The same is true for Vidal’s American Chronicles novel series. His criticisms of Hollywood and television, which he’s worked in extensively, and his political and social criticism are also strong, witty, well-founded, and for the most part what I agree with — not that it matters really, that I agree with him.

    The Conopus series though — I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and hardly anything more boring as a reading experience has come my way. Horse races!

    Love, C.

  7. I may have tried Lessing too young, but I bounced off hard and have never thought of going back. Maybe I should. And I remember reading one Vidal novel, but it says something that I cannot for the life of me remember which one it was or what I thought of it.

  8. Mad, I think Lessing’s brilliant, but her work is often dark and grim. But when I read The Four-Gated City in my 20s, I kept carrying it around, and to every observation someone made, I’d say, “You know, Lessing talks about that in The Four-Gated City. I recently re-read it, and find it holds up for me, though I don’t have the same passion anymore.

    And Foxessa makes a good point about political depth of the whole Martha Quest series; if you want to put current Zimbabwe in historical perspective, it’s a good place to start.

    BTW, Foxessa, I’m glad you stopped by to defend Vidal. I probably agree with him more often than not, but his style annoys me and I just think he’s snotty (that’s a technical term of literary criticism). I can’t get past that to his ideas.

  9. But compared to the — to put it mildly! — snottiness of some of our more contemporary commentators — Vidal’s at least witty, and he knows of what he speaks, which I’ve come to value more and more and more. Education, he had an excellent one since his family could afford him to have it so.

    Love, C.

  10. Oh, yes. Those people — I assume you’re talking about all those folks with the dreadful talk shows — don’t even enter the discussion. Vidal may be rude and arrogant, but he doesn’t lie. And he is very smart; there is substance behind his words.

  11. We also have in common reasons to (mostly) not read the New York Review of Books, though I probably came to this later than you did. 🙂 or, should that be 🙁 ?

    Love, c.