Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Octavia Butler and the Artistry of Genre Fiction

Today is Octavia Butler's birthday. I've long been in awe of her talent. Her time travel book, Kindred, made me understand the horrors of slavery in the U.S. like nothing else ever had--until I read her book Wild Seed. Amazing stuff. My favorite of her books is Parable of the Sower, a book that I read several times a year for about a decade. She was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship.

I'm always interested in writers who try to infuse some artistic qualities into so-called genre fiction, like science fiction or the romance novel. I think that Stephen King has been able to do that with some of his books, and I look forward to seeing what Justin Cronin will do in the same vein (pun intended, the vampire vein) with The Passage, a book that I'll be reading in the next few weeks.

I just finished Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin. I What a chilling, yet compelling book.wanted to read more of her work after reading The Post-Birthday World. In some ways, We Need to Talk about Kevin also seemed like a time travel book, since it takes us back to the days of the late 90's, when it seemed like every other week, some teen-age boy was shooting up his school.

I tried to read You Are Not a Gadget, but frankly Jaron Lanier could stand to take some writing lessons from Octavia Butler or someone like her (someone who is still alive, obviously). He had some interesting ideas, but his prose was just too deadly. Perhaps it's because he's writing nonfiction. The ideas about machines taking on human characteristics, while humans become more machine like is just more fascinating when explored in fiction. Octavia Butler had real skill in taking something that we'd have thought we already knew all about, like the slave trade, and turning our understanding upside down and inside out. I remember reading Wild Seed on the Tri-Rail as I commuted down to teach American Lit survey classes at the University of Miami. I was like some deranged convert, as I went to class and implored my students to read the book. I said, "This book will teach you more about American Literature than most of what's in this Norton Anthology!" I was always gratified when several students wrote down the title and author when I'd make book recommendations.

So, here's my startling admission. I'm trying to get through Anna Karenina in the next few days (I figure that's about 200 pages a day, which I think I can do). I want to be free and clear to read whatever I want on my vacation, my vacation where I plan to read The Passage, One Day by David Nicholls, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I'm actually enjoying Anna Karenina, although I find myself skimming over some of the extravagant description. Even if I didn't know the basic plotline, I'd be saying, "Well, this cannot end well." It's one of those books that makes me happy to be born when I was. I'm happy to have work and art to keep me from the enormous boredom that seems to afflict the women in this novel.

In fact, most novels make me happy to be living my life, and not the life that I find in novels. Much as I like the apocalyptic plotline, I don't really want to live it. I like reading books about modern life that convince me that we're all struggling with our various demons. I like reading books about the past that make me grateful to be living right now. But most of all, I like having novels, so that I'm not forced to rely on the plotlines that translate into film or television. I'm happy to have novels that make me rethink the way I see the world, which is something that film so rarely does, and television almost never does. I'm happy to have books with which to pass the time during lazy days of summer.

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