I’ve been making an attempt to read more. Our power went kaput yesterday, and without electricity, I picked up one of the books I received for Christmas, Emma Bull’s Territory. It had been suggested by a listener a few months ago, who said my style reminded her of Bull’s a bit. I didn’t realize how large of a compliment that was until I picked up and started reading.

What strikes me about Bull is her ability to infuse the book with its own personality. It’s beyond narrative voice, something that Paul Jessup was talking about yesterday in his post about narrative urgency. It’s almost to the point where the book literally comes alive in your hands. And the best books do this flawlessly, bringing you in as sweetly and silkily as possible. With so little time to read these days, I just don’t have time for books that come off as under-confident or take a while to cut to the chase. If a book seems uncomfortable in its own binding, I’m just going to put it away.

My goal this year was to read some great fantasy from living writers that is not George R. R. Martin. It’s been three years since his last book, and I’m at the point that I’ll have to reread the entire series again when the next one comes out. When I was younger, I had time for that. These days, not so much. So I’ve read Cherie Priest, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, and now Emma Bull.

What strikes me about Bull is that her book is so balanced. Of course I haven’t finished it yet, but in comparison to the other writers I’ve been reading, Bull’s book just feels better. It’s a remarkable balance between the characters, the narrative voice, and her incredible talent for description that, while short, evokes an entire world. (As I’ve Twittered, too, I have a soft spot for cowboys and magic, of course, so perhaps I’m a little biased).

Now, I know, apples and oranges. It’s not fair to compare this to the other books, which include modern day gothic horror, epic fantasy, and urban fantasy. But I don’t think genre really matters when it comes to voice and bookish personality. Take Bear, for instance. I really enjoyed Blood and Iron, but the book’s personality shifts 3/4 of the way into the book. I know why Bear did this, it’s a choice a writer must make, and she chose to alter the way she was telling the story to fit the events within. But as a result, I put the book down for a few days and felt a little distanced from the story through the end

I can’t say what exactly makes that balance. It’s a combination of a hundred elements, likely, including dialogue, description, narrative voice–even font and production. I know that as a writer myself, its probably the hardest thing for me to recognize in my own work as I edit because, well, that’s my voice. Every character is a decision I’ve made, and I have no idea how it works as a whole. This is why The Aldersgate is currently lying in state. I want more distance before I do the final edit.

So, is this just me? Or do others notice book personalities, too?

What is your reaction?

In Love
Not Sure

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  1. Interesting question. I guess most books have personalities, since it’s very hard, as an author, not to put a big chunk of yourself into what you’re writing. There are lots of authors out there who have ever written only one book, regardless of how many volumes and titles they published – all of their volumes are, when you get down to it, the same book written a bit differently.
    The reverse is also true, but it happens a lot less frequently: books with altogether different personalities, by the same author. It takes real skill to accomplish that, I think.
    There’s also the case you mentioned: a book that changes personality as you read it.
    So to answer your question to the point: yes, I’ve noticed 🙂

  2. Can’t say I’ve ever really thought of it that way. I never really analyze books, simply read them for the enjoyment of the story.

    Okay, I have noticed that books are written in different styles and ways – just never thought of them as personalities.

  3. @readitonline I suppose what just gets me is how immediately a book can set itself apart, even when you (or I) have read hundreds of others. Bull’s book has done that to me. I read voraciously, then run away to write some more. Strange how they’re connected like that!

    @qorvus You are lucky, in a way. After Graduate School I’ve never looked at a book the same way. I’ve become jaded, picky, and prejudiced! Oh for the love of a good fantasy novel that I could read without rolling my eyes!

  4. If you had to single out one eye-rolling feature, which would it be?

  5. @readitonline Ugh! I don’t know. Usually it’s a combination of things. Orphans, stereotypical female characters, unexplained or inconsequential magic, silly magic items, talking animals, “nice” characters that are one-dimensional. I mean, all of these things can work if done well, but lately so many books I’ve picked up have unforgivable quantities of both.

    I understand there’s a fine line between stereotype and trope, and it’s important that fantasy follow guidelines; part of what appeals to me in the genre is the journey, etc. What I can’t forgive is a lack of creativeness, an unwillingness to answer the hard questions and simply rely on the expected to get a book done. I think fantasy literature has come too far for that.

    Gripe over. You said one thing. So I’ll say orphans. Seriously. No orphans!

  6. There is no way I can bring myself to disagree. As a last resort I compared orphans to wanton cruelty to small furry animals but orphans still wins.

  7. Not saying I don’t have opinions on what a bad book is, but I don’t actively seek to pull apart ever little nuance, line and thought. I just read it and if there are enough glaringly bad parts I’ll just look on it as a sign that if something so bad can get published then it sign that surely I have a chance..

  8. @readitonline Excellent! Not the wanton cruelty, of course, but our agreement. *nods sagely*

    @qorvus Consider yourself lucky. I’ve been known to toss a book after one chapter. Ugh! Since having a child I just don’t have the patience I used to to make my way through something that doesn’t catch me pretty much right away. Maybe I should be in publishing!

  9. I don’t think I’ve ever tossed away a book after one chapter (though there were a couple we had to study for English Lit I wish I could have.) There have been a few series that I’ve given up on half way through as I wasn’t interested in finishing them now that I think about it – too boring or just didn’t interest me.

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