Saturday, September 24, 2016

Quick Thoughts - Essential

So recently at Nerds of a Feather we've been running posts that feature "essential SFF." Followers of Quick Thoughts know that I have some opinions about canon and about anything that seeks to create objective divisions between genres, books, and writers. And so when tasked with thinking about essential SFF, my first reaction was to balk. To want to step back and let other people more comfortable with the concept make their lists and leave it at that. But then… Well, it's not that I necessarily object to other people making essential SFF lists. It's that…it's that when I was thinking about what to include on an essential SFF list I looked at what other people put on their lists. At what was out there in terms of recommendations.

The answer, predominately, was novels. Pretty much every list out there about essential SFF was about novels. And yet the lists weren't necessarily labeled as essential novel lists. More often they were labeled as essential SFF books. And there was really no YA on these lists. Or romance. Or graphic novels. Or collections. Or poetry. These things got their own lists. Separate lists. And…and to me those are just as much books as any novel. I feel that often people think of amazing books and they think only of novels. Because how can you consider poetry next to short fiction next to graphic novels next to novels? They're apples and oranges and lemons and grapefruit. Mustn't we strive for specificity? Mustn't we first determine what is a great novel and then, elsewhere, determine what is a great graphic novel? Mustn't we first determine what is a great SFF novel, and then, elsewhere, determine what is a great SFF romance? Or SFF poem? Surely we can all agree that these things cannot share a space.

There is a reason that it is harmful to have a list of American Authors and a separate list of Female American Authors and have it mean being included on the second means you are not included on the first. I understand people who like to look at genre and want narrow definitions of what makes something SFF. I just don't agree with them. At all. I find such narrowing of genres and considerations to be harmful. For the health of the genre, for the writers trying to push the boundaries of form and meaning, and for readers looking to connect with books they love. It is a way only to catch people in an endless loop of the same boring, comfortable crap. And that does no good for anyone. So when I approached putting together a list of essential SFF, I wanted to do it in a way that reflected my thoughts on the matter but also…well, I wanted to try and define "essential" in a way that doesn't mean "should be part of a canon." I do not really find value in a canon. But I find value in book recommendations. I do find value in knowing what works spoke to people.

Basically, what I've enjoyed when many places have done lists of recommended stories and books has been the passion of those recommendations. The sense that here were books that shaped a person, that inspired them. That pushed them to try new things. That affirmed them. That saw them. And so when I thought about what is essential SFF I ended up looking at what has been essential to me. What has shaped me. So yes, I wrote it and it will out on Tuesday and everyone can check it then. It was, ultimately, a fun experience, because it made me think about the person I am and the person I want to be and how my reading has steered that internal conversation. How I've changed because of the books I've read. How I am changing still. It's a list that, for me, ranges all over the place, so SFF purists might want to avoid (though what SFF purists are doing on this blog I'm not sure).

Anyway, it would also be cool to know what other people's essential SFF lists would be. I love getting recommendations and if anyone has a list they've published on a blog or on goodreads or who wants to, I'd love to hear about it. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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