Lessons I’ve Learned from #95Books (and Graceling by Kristin Cashore)

Hey there, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!

Okay, so this week I’m going to wander off that beaten path and talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned from the 95 books challenge. And what does that have to do with Graceling? Well, Graceling by Kristin Cashore is a well-crafted young adult fantasy book with a vividly imagined world and a strong-but-flawed (not clumsy) heroine and a love interest who is neither rushed nor set up as a (false) conflict (or in a love triangle). It does tend to lack the awesome action scenes you’d expect given the abilities of its protagonist, but it’s forgivable and even refreshing considering that she’s trying to reject the violent narrative that’s been imposed on her. It also addresses the protagonist’s budding sexuality, which a lot of YA and even new adult books tend to avoid when they’re genre fiction. (The average age Americans lose their virginity is 17, so I find it curious how unusual it is to include or even sometimes address sex in YA genre fiction. General YA lit has a harder time avoiding it, since it tends to be about issues teens face—though some of it still does.)

There’s plenty to enjoy about this book, and I did enjoy reading it. (I’m a bit suspicious of any book that implies that the heroine doesn’t want children that then either has her have children or gives her a child to care for, but it ended up all right here.) But I didn’t love it as I thought I might. And that made me reflect on how many books I’ve loved so far, 86 books in (I’m reading 87 today). And it’s actually not that many.

Lessons Learned from 95 Books (and Blogging About It) So Far

#1. Reading a lot of books in not a lot of time makes me hella picky. It is not as if I have never been accused of being a critical person in my life (although for a critical person I like a lot of stuff that’s objectively kind of terrible), but I’ve learned this year that even if someone whose opinion I respect recommends me a(n objectively good) book, it’s not actually that likely I’ll love it. It’ll be better than almost any not-recommended find, and that keeps me working through my friends’ recommendations—plus it’s fun to learn more about people through what they like. But I won’t necessarily “get” it as much as they do. And while part of that is probably just simple taste, I think another part is just that, by sheer volume, it takes more currently for a book to impact me personally.

#2. The aspects of writing I value most have become extremely obvious. I knew going into this that I tend to value character and particularly character arcs above all else. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from my television preferences. (I’ll also forgive musicals a lot, but not everything. Screw you, later seasons of Glee.) But I’ve learned a whole lot more from 95 books + blogging. I find that I love reading a character’s backstory and seeing the complexity of their motivations, but ultimately if they don’t do anything or change in any way, it frustrates me almost as much as if they were a boring stereotype. If the writing is stylistically messy but the characters and/or story are good, I don’t mind so much. If the writing is stylistically lovely but the characters and/or story are static, it drives me up the wall. These things aren’t markers, objectively, of something being good or bad. These are personal preferences, and reviewing stuff when you have obvious personal preferences can be tricky. (Some characters and situations are static; I just don’t feel inclined to read books about them.)

#3. The books we love can be very personal. Following these first two: you can learn a lot from the books that people love, and even the most critical thinker has biases. Ultimately, no matter how objectively I try to describe the merits or faults of a book, a person’s favourite books are a personal thing, and mine no less so. I fall in love with characters’ stories, while some people are enraptured by brilliant settings or imaginative premises, or complex or unpredictable plots, or perhaps they’re only moved by truly exceptional writing on a stylistic level. And, beyond that, we are just more inclined to be moved by a story or character we can relate to, which means that books are filtered through our unique life experiences—and no two people experience life in the exact same way. Following this, the next lesson is easy to predict:

#4. Judging someone else for their taste in books is silly. To be fair, I knew this before I started 95 books, but doing this challenge has driven the lesson further home. While I’ve just said that the books that someone likes probably say something about them, that something isn’t “This person sucks because they aren’t into Cool Book That I Like.” Maybe you and that person won’t be BFFs, if you tend to relate to others through common interests (which is a thing I do as a geek, so I know that feel). But a lot of the book snobbery I found in English literature and creative writing departments had to do with valuing stylistic aspects of writing above all else. I was once told: “Write beautiful sentences, and the plot will show up eventually.” Well, maybe for people who are some kind of wizard, but speaking as a(n okay) prose-poet, writing beautiful sentences has never given me any kind of coherent novel plot. Those things are similar but separate skills. On a related tangent, valuing a novel based on how inaccessible it is to most people because of its lofty use of style is baffling; it calls into question what the purpose of writing—or literature, if you’re nasty—is. And sure, hundreds of years ago, it was only accessible to an upper class of nobility because of a general lack of literacy. But we live in 2016, so that elitism isn’t a good look. (Nor does it really dovetail with the narrative of “literary canon” that education has created: Shakespeare was popular culture, folks.) So while plenty of books that are difficult are undoubtedly rewarding and great (and I’m not trying to throw shade on the people who like them! I like plenty of poetry that’s inaccessible as heck!), liking a book that’s more difficult doesn’t equal better taste. Complex /=/ “objectively” best, unless your vision of literature is that it’s a puzzle only worthy of the few who can solve it.

If all of that sounds confusing (and as if we can’t then say that any book is just Bad), then yeah, I get that it is. Let’s think of it this way: some people hate pop music, but that doesn’t change the fact that some pop music is objectively better crafted, with catchier hooks and better vocals, than other pop music. Same with death metal, or country, or Alpine yodelling. And yet still within those objective measures, some people might be more swayed by one thing or the other: are you more concerned by how dirty the bass is when it drops, or does it matter to you most that the lyrics seem more profound than formulaic? Criticism (and “taste”) is complex, and boiling it down to “good” and “bad” using any measure (commercial success included) is an oversimple impulse. Art is hard.

#5. Boredom is the mind killer. I switch genres and authors as often as I can to avoid getting too mired in reading one type of thing and losing it in repetition. You’ve probably noticed that I talk a lot about tropes and story patterns; they’re obvious if you’ve examined a lot of writing and media as part of your previous work, but they’re also really obvious when you’re looking at the same stuff over and over again. And this is probably another one of my biases: while undoubtedly some paint-by-story-numbers books are superior to others, I’m really only going to be able to have a good time (especially this year) if something notably above and beyond is on offer. Sorry, Red Queen. Sorry, dystopian young adult heroine/Chosen One novels with love triangles.

And let’s then bring it all back to where it started: part of where Graceling let me down, personally, was that the necessary steps in the character arc of the protagonist (Katsa) were made obvious early on and were taken with a minimum of conflict. She needed to feel less lonely in her power; she needed to stop being used as a tool for violence; she needed to realize her power had more than violence to its nature. And each of these things happened without too much struggle (she did need to learn to open her heart to romance, but companionship she realized without much trouble) and little effort on her part. Instead, Katsa’s conflict was a quest against a villain who necessarily had to be avoided, so since we were in the perspective of a protagonist who didn’t really know this guy, there wasn’t that much pathos for the reader in the notion of defeating him.

Still, I can’t help but feel like a lot of my issue with this is personal preference, since overall it was a very solid book. What I wanted was mired in the character arc; what the book offered was a cool world with a cool character having an adventure (not without growth) in it.

So these have been some of my lessons so far—and how I felt about Graceling, subjectively. And I’ll talk to you again soon!

Leave a Reply