So I have some vacation time. And there are bookstores. And I spend maybe three or four hours of said vacation time just browsing the shelves, picking up books that I've heard of, or whose authors I've heard of, and checking them out: is this the kind of book I'm in the mood for?
Answer: no, not really.
Long story edited down to much shorter story: by the time I was done with grad school, I never quite managed to get back into the habit of reading books.
This isn't to say I didn't, and don't, read for pleasure. I read the newspapers (online). I started reading fanfic (online, obviously). I started writing fanfic. I continue to work my way through a stack of non-fiction books (printed on actual paper) because there are some excellent non-fiction writers out there, and some of their work ties in with my work in cool and interesting ways.
Here's my problem: none of the fiction on the shelf holds all that much appeal for me anymore.
I don't want to come off like I'm super well-read; I'm really not. But — and I'm sure you're the same — I usually know from thumbing through a book for a few minutes whether I'm going to like it. I don't care about plot: stories are usually pretty compelling on their own merit, once you're into them. I care about the use of language on the page, how you're going to tell the story. And the writers of the stuff on the shelves in the bookstore aren't giving me what I want.
Below is some poorly thought-out and incoherent speculation as to why I'm so damn fussy. I don't think this is an exhaustive list, though.
* A surprising number of novels are written in the first person. I'm okay with this if the book is autobiographical (for example, works by David Foster Wallace or Elizabeth Gilbert), but the second the author starts writing in the first person as a fictional character, for some reason this seems to be a license to toss out gratuitous adverbs and produce acutely self-conscious prose (these two things are not unrelated, IMO). I'm talking here about the protagonist and narrator writing something like "Oh," I breathed heavily, surprised. Honey, if you were truly surprised, chances are you weren't thinking at all about how you were breathing. This is probably personal taste, but I find this kind of writing really, really hard to stomach.
NB: very occasionally, I've read fanfic written in the first-person that has not sucked (though evidently I didn't bookmark any of it; make of that what you will). But I think this is something that takes real skill to do well; Sturgeon's (second) law may apply here.
* Maybe related to this, there's a solid authenticity to journalism, essays and autobiography that I find largely lacking in published fiction. For example, I adore David Foster Wallace, Will Self, and Martin Amis as essayists (go read about David Foster Wallace's time on a cruise ship. Just go. NOW.), but I've browsed their fiction in the bookstore and it doesn't do much for me. I'm really struggling to say what this is about; again, maybe the self-consciousness thing. I ran this past my husband, and he suggested that perhaps being at least partly constrained by reality made it easier to write in an authentic voice (sort of. It was more complicated than that, but that was one of the strands). I could buy that, I think.
Even if your story and characters are entirely of your own invention, I don't think having realistic dialog or narrative voice should be too much to ask. For instance, if your characters are supposed to inhabit the real world, but don't talk like real people talk, I'm going to have as much trouble with them as I do with the people I've met in real life who talk as though they're in books. I say again: self-conscious. (NB: if you have invented a world for your characters to inhabit, they can talk however you want them to, as long as it's all self-consistent, and I will applaud you; I can't seem to muster that kind of creativity at all.)
It's also possible that I find reality more interesting than fantasy— certainly it's often a lot more detailed and strange.
* Lots of fiction seems to be deliberately provocative and/or contrived. I'm not saying I want all my fiction to be based in cold hard reality — for example, I like the slipstream genre, and what used to be called cyberpunk, back when we were still talking unironically about the 'information superhighway'. And I have an enormous soft-spot for the superhero story, though that's not something that gets much serious novel time. But also, some novelists seem to be in it — in terms of plot, themes, and/or language — purely for the shock value, and I find that rather wearing. Which is interesting, because I have often enjoyed fanfic that contrives a shocking or overly dramatic event in order to explore the characters. My best guess here is that when I already know and love the characters, I want to see what they do under duress (the writers of TV shows do this to their viewers all the time), whereas with novels, there's no guarantee I'm even going to like the protagonist(s) when all the drama is over. Maybe I just prefer a sure thing.
* Lots of books are either old, or set in the past. I'm not above reading either, but I much prefer contemporary writing and dialog in book form. (I don't have a problem with period drama in TV or movies, though I don't actively seek it out.) Much of the stuff I watch on TV is set in the present day, and the stuff that isn't but which I adore anyway (Deadwood and Firefly, for example) is written by word-ninjas who could make the phone book work as character-driven dialog.
* The TV I consume is often written and produced by whole stealth committees of word-ninjas. Yes, stuff can go wrong when designed by committee, but I think we are living in a golden age of television right now: there's some extraordinarily good stuff out there, and all of it is the product of collaboration. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Dexter, The Wire, Generation Kill ... this is some truly great writing, producing and directing. Likewise, the fanfic I consume, while generally a single author's work, is usually the product of a community of sorts — a community that serves to dissect the work, agreeing (explicitly or implicitly) the themes and tropes, establishing fanon, etc. Because fanfic authors are usually creating work within such a community, they get the opportunity to watch, and talk about, other people doing it, and they get feedback on their own writing, and usually, IMO, they become better writers as a result. (More, that is, than one might expect if they were just writing for and by themselves.) My point is, sharing the making of something with others can produce really good work, and novelists don't do this very much. I don't offer this as a criticism so much as an observation.
(In case it comes across here like I'm some kind of congenital team player, most of the sports and hobbies I've enjoyed in my life have been solitary — but I'm beginning to realize that creative endeavor is a gazillion more times exciting, and often much longer-lasting, when it's a shared experience.)
* My default mode of consuming the stories that someone got paid to tell has shifted from book to TV, and most of the shows I enjoy are fairly dialog-heavy. The West Wing is a good example of a show where the dialog almost never stops, but shows like Generation Kill and The Wire do this too; someone's nearly always talking. I love these shows, and my own preference when reading (and writing) has gradually swung towards narrative and plot that emerge largely from characters just talking to each other. (This, incidentally, is how I usually write: the characters start talking in my head, and I write it down.) Some novelists are genuinely good at naturalistic dialog that manages to sustain my interest (Nick Hornby comes to mind), but few novels I've encountered are predominantly dialog-based. Really great dialog achieves that perfect goal of show, don't tell; I prefer to be shown, not told, which is maybe why novels that are narrative-heavy don't work so well for me.
Yes, it does occur to me that perhaps I should be reading screenplays instead of novels.
* When I read fanfic, these are familiar characters with whom I don't have to try all that hard, because I love/hate/love to hate them already. This is completely lazy, but why struggle to make new friends when you have such good ones already? Novels can't offer me that (though sequels can). As it happens, I don't think I watch any shows/participate in any fandoms where there are spin-off novels. Though thinking about it, isn't there a Heroes novel? Has anyone read it? I have difficulty believing spin-off novels are much good as writing in their own right, since I'm 99% sure they exist purely to make money, and not because someone couldn't sit still another minute without telling character X's back-story.
* Outright novelty is daunting. Again, this is probably just laziness; my friends C and W have both written novels that I adored. Whether I would have picked said books off the shelf and taken them home, I don't know. So maybe sometimes you just have to trust in your friends' opinions, and dive in anyway.
To which end: what should I be reading?