How to approach a new genre

How do you begin to explore a new area of fiction? Asking for recommendations is obviously a good idea, but that may not be as straightforward as it seems. Over at Savidge Reads, Simon is asking where he should start with reading Terry Pratchett; it strikes me that, with a writer whose work presents so many different faces to the world, there can’t be a single definitive recommendation for everybody. It depends on what you like to read – and the same goes for unfamiliar genres.

I’ve been reflecting on how I came to appreciate types of fiction that I hadn’t previously – even types of fiction that I thought I couldn’t appreciate – and thought I would share the process. I’ll use a hypothetical example based on what I read most often: how readers of ‘literary’ contemporary fiction might go about approaching science fiction. I’ll also talk about my own main reading evolution, which essentially went in the opposite direction.

Stage 1: the same, but different

To my mind, the best first step in approaching an unfamiliar genre is to choose something which belongs to the category of what you’d already read – but which can also be read as what you’re working towards. It’s then a question of viewing the book in that different light. For our hypothetical readers of mainstream literary fiction, Far North by Marcel Theroux would be a fine starting-point: that book wasn’t published as science fiction; as Theroux commented on its being nominated for the Clarke Award, it wasn’t written as sf, either; but it can certainly be read as such – not just because Far North is set in the future, but also for the sense of estrangement and disorientation which Theroux creates, for example. Recognising these qualities, our readers may begin to see aspects of science fiction in work they already enjoy.

In my case, it was reading books like Christopher Priest’s The Prestige – alongside the Clute-Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which inspired me to take a more critical, reflective approach to my reading – that made me start to value depth of craft in a book, even though it would be several more years before I realised as much.

Stage 2: exploration

As you move further into a new genre, it’s a question of finding the qualities you like and admire in the unfamiliar fiction. In our hypothetical example, our readers might now be turning to the likes of Geoff Ryman, Octavia Butler, Adam Roberts, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ… authors, in other words, who unequivocally write science fiction, but who do so with sensibilities our readers may recognise.

Dan Rhodes’s Gold would have been one of the first books I read which made me realise that mainstream fiction could give me some of the same things I valued in speculative fiction. In a very real sense, nothing happens in Gold, and that would have turned me off it at one time; but I loved it – it was quirky, wonderfully written, and insightful. Right up to books like Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, I’ve been able to build bridges between my old reading heartland and less familiar territory.

Stage 3: other aesthetics

From seeing similar qualities in different kinds of fiction, I think there’s one more stage, which involves recognising the value of different but equally worthwhile approaches. For our hypothetical readers, this might mean a book like Evolution by Stephen Baxter; this novel follows a single strand of DNA through evolutionary time, and hence transcends character, plot, and some other characteristics we might normally look for in fiction. But the episodic structure of the narrative could be said to mirror the process of evolution itself; so Baxter’s strategies work aesthetically for this particular book, even if they might not for many others.

I’m not talking here about a journey towards the ‘best’ or the ‘most difficult’ of a given genre; but towards whatever is furthest away from what a reader would normally appreciate – and that, of course, will be different for each of us. There was a time when I wouldn’t have contemplated reading a book like Agnes Grey, for instance; but not only have I now done so, I’ve also been able to approach it on its own terms and get something from it.

Of course, this is not a recipe for being able to appreciate everything – that’s not going to be possible, and it’s probably not desirable, either – but it’s how I expanded my reading palette. Do you have any approaches of your own?

3 Comments

  1. Great advice! I dipped my toe into the world of science fiction almost exactly as you describe. I loved Marcel Theroux’s earlier books and so automatically read Far North. I can’t imagine it is the best of the genre, but agree it is a good introduction.

    You introduced me to Christopher Priest and for that I can’t thank you enough. Amazing author. I really should read a few more of his books.

    I think your approach to a new genre is a good one. I have since tried to read some more mainstream science fiction and felt I’d thrown myself in too deep – I know a lot of the references went over my head. I’m happily dabbling in the shallow end and perhaps one day I’ll be able to fully immerse myself in this genre.

  2. I got into SF as a teenager reading John Wyndham at school – but I’d wager that I was the only one in my class who went on to read lots more. My personal approach to a new genre is to go for a classic – when I decided to try a western, I read Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey from 1912 and I was wowed by it – the only problem then is if subsequent tomes live up to it – luckily the Sisters Brothers did…

  3. David Hebblethwaite

    18th June 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Thinking about it, Jackie, someone like Chris Beckett might be worth trying next – and you’re right, you should read more Christopher Priest books (so should everyone!).

    Annabel, I think reading a classic is a good idea, but I think personally I’d want it to be a modern classic, because I’d want an idea of the contemporary scene.

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