Literary Blog Hop: a brief reading history

Literary Blog Hop

The latest Literary Blog Hop question asks: How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction? This is an interesting question for me, because, for a long time, I didn’t – or, perhaps, I did, but didn’t think of it that way.

I’m not sure that my school studies put me off the idea of ‘literature’, but they certainly got me out of the habit of reading it: closed-book exams were my principle reason for not studying English Literature at A Level (though I did study English Language, and went on to read History at university, so I didn’t drift too far away). As a result, there was – and remains – a big literary classics-shaped hole in my reading history.

What I was reading as a teenager was mostly fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, science fiction). A key turning-point came at the age of seventeen, when I found a cheap copy of the Clute-Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy in a book sale; it changed my reading world, because it advocated a different conception of fantasy from the one to which I was used, one that cut across types of fiction that looked dissimilar on the surface – one that emphasised imaginative quality. I thought, yes, this is describing what I want to read.

Fast-forward several years to university, and my dissertation on Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy as a source for the history of childhood, where I tried to apply some of the theoretical concepts that I knew from reading the Encyclopedia. Looking back at that dissertation now, I can see the seeds of my style as a reviewer. I started reviewing books online in 2004, again mostly (exclusively, to begin with) sf and fantasy, now with some horror added to the mix. My guiding principle was that these genres deserved to be taken seriously (I must acknowledge the influence of John Grant’s reviews for Infinity Plus, which had a big influence on my approach and style).

In 2006, I began writing for Laura Hird’s website, my first venue as a reviewer that didn’t have an sf/fantasy focus. I barely had to change my approach, and that should have been the first hint of what I’ve only really come to realise in the past couple of years, since I started this blog: that what I value most in my reading is not a particular type of work, but a set of qualities – good writing, a strong sense of craft, something out-of-the-ordinary – and that I can find those qualities in many kinds of books. That’s my idea of ‘literary’, and I wouldn’t want it any other way now.

9 Comments

  1. Exactly! Lovely post, David. I think it’s only as you grow older that you realise that genres don’t really matter and that what keeps you coming back for more is the quality of writing:)

  2. I love your set of qualities for a literary work :). That’s how I feel. I still add to what I read sci fi/fantasy genres and I think they can be as literary as other books.

  3. Great post, it prompted so many responses in me! Firstly, apart from 7 set texts for A-Level English, I can honestly say I have never read a novel written before the 20th century (other than Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”), so I am ignorant about the entire classical literary canon. And yet I write literary novels myself. Have I missed out? I don’t believe so, because I am an avid reader of contemporary novels. I want to read about my world and my times (and write about them). Like you I studied history for my degree, which in my case has probably exacerbated my prejudice against novels set in the past.

    I do despair that books are marketed, displayed and sold by genre. I think it diminishes both the book, the writer and the reader too. Readers are intelligent enough to make their own choices. Kafka wasn’t writing fantasy. Austin wasn’t writing Romance. Burroughs wasn’t writing Science Fiction and nor does Margaret Atwood. Literary Fiction seems to be those books that aren’t neatly pigeonholed into other genres. No one has satisfactorily defined literary fiction yet. To my mind there is only fiction and non-fiction. And that’s it. But I’m kicking against the pricks on this one, because publishing is increasingly about commerce and less about any art, literary or otherwise.

    marc nash

  4. when young, you just devour anything with a hunger, judgement comes later, and not always wisely.

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    8th January 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Sakura: Quite right — my reading taste has definitely broadened as I’ve got older.

    Dragonfly: It makes more sense to me to treat ‘literary’ as a kind of umbrella term than as a category that’s separate from everything else.

    Parrish: I think it can work both ways — there are plenty of books I wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole when I was younger, but that I’d happily read now.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    8th January 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Marc: Thanks for a thoughtful comment. I guess the most important thing is not what a person has or hasn’t read, but that they feel happy with what they have read. Myself, I would like to read more pre-/early 20th century work. As ever, so many books…

    Personally, I don’t mind genre classifications, because I can accept or reject them as I see fit (for example, I’d argue that some of Margaret Atwood’s novels are indeed science fiction, even though they may not be shelved in that section). I also find genres (to an extent, at least) a useful framework for beginning to make sense of and articulate what I think a book is doing — though, of course, different readers will find them more or less useful than I do.

  7. I love this post. I read very ecclectically but I only read (well, I only finish) the good books.

    My friend told me yesterday that they are now saying that whole milk is better for you than 1% milk. It tastes much better, doesn’t it? she said. That’s one way you know it is good for you.

    Here is my post for the Blog Hop.

  8. I’ve branched out to reading many more styles of writing as I’ve gotten older, and it is because–like you said–what is important are those certain qualities, not necessarily are certain topic or genre.

  9. Fantastic post….

    Sadly, my sisters and I were about the only readers in our family….my brothers didn’t want any part of books. 🙂

    What wonderful answers and stories from everyone.

    My story is at:

    http://silversolara.blogspot.com

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