Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Aren't games and comics for dumb people? If they were smarter, wouldn't they read novels?
    (From my old blog, November 26, 2008.)

    Hell, no. What's so special about novels? They didn't even exist a few centuries ago.

    I don't read novels. Can't stand them. I'm very poorly read - ask my buddy Farah, who can gauge these things because SF novels are her professional area - and I get my entertainment from movies, comics, and TV. I've been pretty public about it.

    I mention this fact because I'm getting mail from Gearheads ( noble tribe!) about being turned on to reading by ASPHO FIELDS. I get very similar mail from a section of my SW readers too, who are more into games or movies or whatever, but pick up the Republic Commando books and suddenly decide that reading can be enjoyable, not a set task of misery. If there was a template for this kind of response, it would read as follows: "I hate reading and I've never finished a book before, but I enjoyed reading your novel, and now I want to read all kinds of stuff."

    This is the kind of mail that editors love. We all want more customers. And it's great for my personal rep, because the writer who can get at the non-reading demographic (and younger male audience) is good for business. But it's also seen as some kind of much nobler grail - the ability to turn folks on the Holy Written Word.

    If reading my books opens a door for someone and helps them find a wider medium they enjoy more than they thought they could, that's fantastic. I'm in the entertainment industry. And I love happy customers.

    But remember something; I'm a writer who doesn't read novels, and not just because of time, or fear of ideas contamination, but because I just don't like doing it. And I resonate with readers who don't otherwise read, as well as the book-devourers who get through a library a week. I pondered on that, and I'm going to vent some heretical steam.

    If you become a born-again reader because you've enjoyed one of my books, that's genuinely wonderful. But if you don't - it doesn't matter a damn. Because books are not sacred.

    Yep, you heard right. There's nothing special about novels, or reading them. Provided you've mastered literacy skills - you can read, in other words - then books don't matter half as much as we're told they do. They matter to me, of course, because I earn my living mainly from novel-length fiction. But they're not the benchmark of civilisation.

    Books have huge emotional impact. The image of a pile of burning books from the Nazi era sums up the end of human decency. Parents wish that their kids would sit down with a good novel instead of watching movies or TV. A book is culturally iconic, conjuring up all that fuzzy, vague, feelgood stuff about quality and intellectualism and wisdom.

    But it's all underpinned by the quasi-Victorian ethic of improving yourself, because the middle classes read novels and the oiks didn't. They could lift themselves a little above their station (not too far, mind) by aping their social superiors. We're talking about reading novels here, by the way, not newspapers or text books. This isn't about literacy. This is about the worship of the novel as the purest and holiest form of fiction. And I can't think of a single reason why novels deserve that crown, other than the fact that the middle classes made the cultural rules that we still live by and that are still reinforced by the western education system.

    Look, pulping a few trees and smearing ink on them has no inherent value. Marks & Spencer rose-pattern toilet rolls fit that broad description too. Worshipping the novel and sneering at comics or games is as devoid of reason as arguing that a mouse is better than a keyboard for inputting. Writing - the written word - is an input device that creates something in your head, just like sounds or images do, and it's the experience in your brain that counts. Writing is just another medium. People forget what "medium" actually means - and, to plunder the homily chest, the medium is not the message.

    Books are just a different way of getting your fiction. They aren't any better. Just different. You can get the same pleasure and have your brain stimulated equally by playing a great game with fabulous, emotionally resonant cinematics and discussing it with your buddies as you can by reading a book related to it.

    I'm actually disturbed by the idea that tie-ins are valuable gateways to reading, a view expressed as some sort of validation by some of my colleagues, because it implies that the Other Stuff is more worthy. The dummies will read like civilised folk if we can get them to look past the bookshop door, by tempting them in with shiny stuff they already recognise. Then, glory be, they shall be converted to Real Books.

    Bullshit. Sorry, but I don't accept that.

    Franchises become franchises because they strike a chord in people and create a following, not the other way around. Many have tried to manufacture blockbuster franchises, and failed completely because the core of it just didn't fly. There are franchise customers who want to explore their universe in various media, because they get a range different experiences that enhance their enjoyment. (Yes, the S word - synergy.) Some don't, though, for a huge range of reasons from cognitive variations - maybe they respond better to images or sound - to being turned off reading by bad teachers. It's not about "quality."

    We're trying to connect things that aren't connected. Reading novels per se is not some pinnacle of brain activity that you have to climb towards from the pit of games through comics to movies to reach enlightenment. It's not a vertical ladder. It's a horizontal shopfront. Take your pick.

    So next time you decide you're happy reading my Gears of War or Star Wars work but don't want to try my other books, let alone tackle Atlas Shrugged and the Booker prize list - it's okay. My motive for trying to get you to read more is to make money. It's not because I think you're now ready for bigger words and cleverer ideas. (Actually, my Wess'har books are written exactly the same way as my tie-in stuff. ) And it's not because I think reading generally will improve your mind or any patronising crap like that.

    If you play Gears of War and can't face reading the book, because you just don't like books - that's okay too, although it would make me happy if you just tried a few pages. I'm a big fan of a certain TV series, and I'll mourn when it's over, but I've never picked up its licensed novels, and I never will. Not because I think they won't be of the same standard - I know the guys who write them - but because I just don't respond to reading fiction or enjoy it. I'm a person who needs visual and aural input. And I like venting what aural and visual inputs create in my head in the form of writing novels.

    It could just as easily be in the form of a comic or a game or a poem.

    Me writer. You reader. Or not, as the case may be. Books are not compulsory.

    Posted on November 26, 2008 at 12:35