This month’s Reader Request comes from my extremely helpful and supportive fiancee, B. If you’d like your question answered in a future edition of Reader Request, hit me up!
What kind of books do you like to read?
I was lucky enough that I grew up with shelves and shelves full of books in the house, a family who was enthusiastic about reading, and a lot of variety. I never really encountered the disdain for genre fiction that a lot of people talk about overcoming. My mom reads serial killer murder mysteries to feel better about her life; my dad went through so many category romances that I remember an extra bookshelf of headstrong Texans and aloof doctors and lovers on the run had to be squeezed into the bedroom I shared with my brother. And everyone read science fiction and fantasy.
So I grew up on a lot of Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, Laurie Halse Anderson, Patricia C. Wrede, and Orson Scott Card (which, yes, was an abrupt and unpleasant awakening). I am probably singlehandedly responsible for holding back cover design twenty years, because in my heart there is nothing more exciting than a mid-90s DAW paperback cover with, like, a lovingly embossed illustration of a woman in plate armor atop a rearing, bloodied horse.
My comfort food, and in my opinion the best narrative possible, is “[Ideally a lesbian] goes on a harrowing adventure and along the way finds life-changing true love.” When I first developed intractable migraines and spent about two years bedridden with the attention span of a gnat, I checked out Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters books two at a time from the library.
(This was also the time in my life when I got my hands on a copy of Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword and, with the enthusiasm of every small gay teenager who spends the first 100 pages of a book saying “Don’t get your hopes up, they’re definitely straight” and then finds out she’s wrong, typed up at least a 10,000 word passage by hand so that I could force my then-girlfriend now-fiancée to read it immediately and have feelings with me.)
My favorite book, the one I read the way that my brother used to read The Art of War every day, is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. My copy assures us that it is “as fine a novel as the subcontinent has produced in recent years,” which is unbelievably faint praise, and “an expression of liberation not to be missed,” which got B to read it because Alice Walker said so. It’s a brilliant work of feminism and anti-colonialism, a fascinating study of the women in a family and their contrasting strategies for surviving oppression, and a great litmus test for a stranger’s skill at literary analysis. If anyone ever tells you that Nervous Conditions is a heartwarming, inspirational tale of a girl who succeeds despite the odds, you can safely assume that anything else they say is equally misbegotten.
I grew up very much in the world of fanfiction, and it took me a while (and a lot of really good books) to start to feel like I could write anything I wanted, no matter how silly or gay or self-indulgent, and have it still be “real.” There was a huge difference in my head between the Real fiction I was trying to write (character-driven, contemplative pieces with demographics as close to Real Life as possible and only respectable speculative elements, whatever that means) and the type of storyline that, honestly, I preferred to read – you know, “A decade after finalizing their divorce, Kirk and Spock are forced to work together on a diplomatic mission to save their old crew – but when an administrative mistake forces them to live as man and husband, will the power of their emotions compromise the rescue?”
I don’t think I realized I could do both until I was reading a certain book, which had come highly recommended and which nobody had warned me had so much sex. I looked up from a particular passage, which was full of claws and shadows and a lot of canoodling, and read it aloud to B. “Could I do that?” I asked.
She frowned. I think she was still getting over the claws. “Uh, yeah, if you really wanted.”