Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

06 Jul 2014, 11:23 a.m.

A Brief Foray Into Amateur Litcrit

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Some things I like in fiction:

  • closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity (China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh is great at this; also see "Tomorrow Is Waiting" by Holli Mintzer)
  • regular people living their lives, taking courses, changing jobs, dating, moving, feeling cold, talking to friends (especially against the backdrop of giant world-change) (McHugh again, and My Real Children by Jo Walton, "Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam, and "Daisy" by Andrew Willett)
  • graphical descriptions that infuse character, point of view, theme, mood, plot, or some other charge beyond "here are some pixels to render" (that awesome description of the run-down casino in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice)
  • detective stories (Columbo, "The Ambassador's Staff" by Sherry D. Ramsey) and procedurals in general (Michael Crichton, the shoe manufacturing bits of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth)
  • real (nonfictional) social milieus I don't ordinarily see or know about (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, "The Blind Geometer" by Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • people who remind me of me ("Immersion" by Aliette de Bodard, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" by Elizabeth Bear, "Jump Space" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran)
  • words I don't know (a habit of Thomas Pynchon's)
  • insurance fraud (Double Indemnity and the Society of Actuaries' annual speculative fiction contest)
  • point-of-view character outwitting or outworking a terrifying antagonist ("The Blind Geometer", "The Second Conquest of Earth" by L. J. Daly)
  • Quakers (am currently reading The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss and enjoying it)
  • empathy with the Other, especially if we get to see the struggle it takes to get it (The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, the "Demons" and "Terra Prime" episodes of Star Trek Enterprise)
  • utter silly farce (P.G. Wodehouse, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho, Arrested Development)
  • recognizing and even celebrating the work of underappreciated people (Expendable by James Alan Gardner, the Mrs Mahesh Kapoor chapter of A Suitable Boy, Lifelode by Jo Walton)
  • big grand speeches (By Blood by Ellen Ullman, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the unpublished novella Vanilla by Leonard Richardson)

Some things I don't like in fiction:

  • narration or plot implying that the author thinks I'm a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. There are authors whose writings imply that people like me exist to be NPCs, non-player characters. (I'm particularly thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Paul Graham here.)
  • abuse presented as though the reader's supposed to root for the abuser (as in the film M*A*S*H), or simply a lack of anyone particularly sympathetic (Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch)
  • incurious or incompetent harried people who realistically ought to take a moment to think and investigate, or perhaps delegate to someone else (Connie Willis makes a trope of this; also why I gave up on The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry) (perhaps this is a symptom of failed farce)
  • various peeves listed in Slush Pile Tips, Part I and Part II
  • describing women but not men in terms of their physical attractiveness (Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: Silent Weapons by David Mack)
  • giving men but not women agency (The Night Manager by John Le Carré)
  • long repetitive speeches (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand)
  • premises that just do not make sense (Neal Shusterman's Unwind)
  • paragraphs of graphical description that merely tell me what pixels I should be rendering in my head (the Tower of London prose blueprint in The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson)


20 Jul 2014, 0:21 a.m.

Belated comments:

Neat list!

What about meetings, process, project management, and general competence? I have a vague idea that you've said you like those things in fiction, but I may be misremembering.

I hadn't known about the SOA sf competition. Am amused that it exists; will take a look sometime, but not right now. Thanks for the link!

When you said "Words I don't know," I immediately thought of Camp Concentration, and then thought, wait, no, I think she didn't like that, and then was amused to see it show up on the list under dislikes.

What's your distinction between Big Grand Speeches and Long Repetitive Speeches? (I can imagine several distinctions; just curious.)

I think you're right that not pausing to think or delegate is a symptom of some kinds of farce (though I don't know if I would say "failed" except in the sense of "not working for you and me"), or to put it another way a symptom of screwball comedy; I think the wackiness, the humor, the fast pace, and the endearing (or at least quasi-endearing) characters are supposed to act as sufficient sources of reader pleasure to carry us through.

The title of the STTNG book makes me wonder what the record is for number of colons in a non-academic book title. (Shouldn't that be an awards category?)

The "graphical descriptions that infuse character, point of view, theme, mood, plot" bit is an excellent and timely reminder for me regarding my own writing; I too often leave out visual descriptions entirely, so I'm currently doing a pass through my book to add them, and having to remind myself that a recital of (for example) hair color and length, skin color, eye color, height, and weight are not actually generally good descriptions of characters. Metaphors! Analogies! Poetic stretches! All in character for the narrator(s), and/or revealing something about the person being described! I can do it, I think, it just doesn't come naturally to me unless I think about. So thank you for mentioning that.

20 Jul 2014, 0:38 a.m.

...And reading this led me to go back and revisit my very long list from 2008. Which, interestingly, has a couple of items on it that I wouldn't put on it today. But mostly it's still accurate.