In praise of ignorance

By , 4 January 2007 9:02 pm

First, a happy New Year to all my readers. I hope both of you have a prosperous 2007. Sorry, that was a joke. Second, I got a nice mention by Shannon McNear in the Speculative Faith website. Yes, it would be nice to think that there was a bit of a buzz about my books. I can hear it now ‘There’s this British guy…’ ‘You really ought to read him…. .’ or (best of all) ‘this guy is weird, I think we ought to burn his books. Publicly.’ Oh please!

Now on to my main subject this week. I don’t know if anybody else does this, but when I browse the web I often come across fascinating sites, skim through them and then later on, end up thinking to myself. ‘Where did I come across that?’ Anyway on a site, a well-known SF author (I am pretty certain it was Orson Scott Card, who has written some jolly fine stuff in his time) suggested that it was an absolute essential that anyone writing within the genre of science fiction ought to read extensively within that genre and he gave a long list of titles that must be read.

Initially this produced in me the sort of embarrassed reaction normally associated with turning up in T-shirt and jeans to some function where everyone else is in suits and ties. Have I read this year’s Hugo Awards? Hugo who? And as I thought about it I began to imagine that there could indeed be a buzz about the name of Chris Walley; that quieter insistent whispering that goes ‘Apparently – or so they say – he hasn’t even read ….. Can you believe it?’ (But I have read Ulysses; yes, really, all the way to the end).

Then after I had stopped feeling incredibly ill-equipped I actually began to wonder whether it was true that to write successfully in a genre you had to have read all the great classics within it. A couple of points have come to mind.

The first is that I think you can over-prepare too much for almost everything in life apart from the Day of Judgment. We all know people who say they’re going to go camping or climb mountains, but spend so much time getting all the kit ready, buying all the maps and doing all the preparations, only to find that night has fallen, the rainy season has started or they have become bedridden with old age. We only have so much time, particularly those of us who are amateur writers. (By the way I’m happy to be relieved of that status: e-mail me for details of my bank account.) Isn’t one of the best ways to learn to write, just to write? Carpe diem!

The second thing is to wonder whether extensive reading within a genre might (and I only say might ) produce a tendency for a writer to produce just ‘more of the same’. Mightn’t it just reinforce some of the stereotypes and clichés? If you only ever read within a genre, are you ever likely to produce works that push the boundaries of the genre?

Actually, I never set out to be a science fiction author. This is not simply because there are more people who have flown in space than there are authors who have made a respectable living from science fiction. It is that I don’t care for much of what I have read – or glanced at in the genre. Confession time: I don’t like books that spend 300 pages working out the possible implications of one bit of science: I can get very unenthusiastic about tales of romance amongst the Yhyg’stail of Flaterwump 5 and I don’t actually like Star Trek!

The thing is I want to write about what might happen to real people in weird and extraordinary situations. In other words, I’m only interested in ‘science fiction’ as a genre in as much as it provides me with framework for dealing with things that I cannot deal with in any other setting.

In fact I not even sure that I liked the idea of ‘genre’ at all. Maybe the whole idea of genre is simply the effort of booksellers and librarians to try to keep things in some sort of order. Perhaps, really I’m a secret anarchist. There’s a thought!

6 Responses to “In praise of ignorance”

  1. theplainstate says:

    I am a big fan of Mister Card. Ender is one of my all tme favorite characters. But I think you should read all sorts of books.

    Asimov said that science fiction is literary prediction of where science will take us as a race. Really, in order to predict that you need to have a pretty good picture of the condition of our race. A picture that can only be experienced personaly, and through books that take place on a planet other than Terra, and a less exotic time frame.

    Just a thought. I love Orson Scott Card though.

  2. KB says:

    I read the same advice in Orson Scott Card’s book on how to write sci-fi. Initially I had the same reaction a you, then (feeding the anarchist bit) I figured that knowing common themes might be useful, but I’d rather write something fresh…. and I’d rather read what I actually like (again, as you said).

    So, all that to say, I agree. :)

    On top of that, yours is the most interesting sci-fi I’ve read in a good long while, so you’ve got to be doing something right.

  3. Benjamin says:

    I see there’s a bit of anarchists here, but I fear I’ll only be joining the routine approval with the statement that I, too, enjoy your refreshing works filed under the title, “science fiction.”

    I was troubled when they deleted the threads discussing your works on Tyndale’s forum…plenty of food for thought had accumulated within those posts.

    Anywho, yes, sometimes a person just needs to dream and strive to have that dream flow through pen or brush–that is how the greats drew out their masterpieces. A person may perfect the following of genre, but we’d probably see the tale either published into an archive as “How to write Scifi” or simply added to the forgotten lore that a poor man uses for fueling his woodstove.

    Thanks again for this insightful tale. May the Lamb reign in this current age, so that people to come may enjoy further tales of His enduring love.

    In Christ,

  4. Chris says:

    Hi Benjamin

    Welcome back; you were missed. Yes I lament the Thirsty website. But feel free to use this to bless, challenge or complain.


  5. WayneThomasBatson says:

    Hello, Chris. I’m a first time visitor here–just joined the CSFF Tour. I like what you had to say about perhaps not reading the classics b/c of the likelyhood of simply producing more of the same.

    I hate to admit this, but I have never read The Chronicles of Narnia. {He pauses to allow jeers and hissing.} I’d wanted to, but just never got round to it.

    But when I was writing the original manuscript of my book The Door Within, a friend of mine said, “Wow, Wayne, this is like an amped up Chronicles of Narnia.”

    Two immediate reactions: 1)I’m not sure I shall ever belong in the same sentence as CS Lewis.

    2)I was horrified that I could so easily be that similar to such a well known work. From that point on, I was mortally afraid to read The Chronicles of Narnia for fear that I might accidentally pirate that legendary work.

    I’m torn on this topic though, because there is a lot of wonderful fantasy (and sci fi) out there, and that’s what I like to read. And truly other works can legally give writers NEW ideas. I shudder to think of what Star Wars might have been without Arthurian Legend, know what I mean?

    But by the same token, there’s always the possibility that you might read another author and find that they pulled something off before you had a chance to.

  6. Chris says:

    Hi Wayne,

    Yes I can sympathise. I have refused to read Philip Pullman because I am sure I would bring in something as a reaction.

    Interestingly, I remember Lewis being very derisory somewhere about claimed influences on Tolkien. I think his point was that JRRT either hadn’t read the books, would have loathed them if he had and fundamentally couldn’t be influenced. (‘Might as well try and influence a bandersnatch’)

    But nice to hear from you.


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