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Today’s guest is Jessica, who runs the extensive and informative blog Sci-Fi Fan Letter!  Jessica has reviews of a lot of science fiction and fantasy books, as well as quite a few others (mostly horror and graphic novels). In addition, she has an impressive number of interviews with authors, including Joe Abercrombie, Carol Berg, Guy Gavriel Kay, and N.K. Jemisin. Other features include new author spotlights, fantasy artist spotlights, movie reviews, and reading lists. I’m particularly fond of the large number of reading lists which range from general categories like space opera and steampunk to more specific lists like books about fantasy on the high seas and superheroes. Her newest one is science fiction written by women. There is so much to read on Sci-Fi Fan Letter I could spend hours browsing it. It is like SFF heaven!

So I was delighted when Jessica said she would write a guest post for today, particularly when she told me her choice of topic!

On Expanding Your Reading Experience

Everyone knows the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, but what about judging a book by another author’s work?  I work at a bookstore and part of my job is to fit books to each reader’s taste.  But it’s hard to do when so many people have limits on what they’re willing to read.  I’ve had people tell me they don’t like: teen fiction, books by women, hard sf, urban fantasy, books with romance, books with dragons, etc., etc., etc.

When I first started at the store, a manager suggested skimming the backs of books to learn what’s in each section.  Because of this practice I’ve read subjects and genres I would never have considered reading otherwise (business, self-help, cultural studies, thrillers, romance – and I used to be a HUGE anti-romance snob).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

In fact, during my life I’ve been a snob regarding quite a lot of books.  When I was in grade 9 I got to pick a book to review for English class.  I chose Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  I hated it.  Not only that, I somehow got the idea that I therefore hated ALL regency and Victorian books, even though that was the only one I’d read.  It took 8 years for me to try another book from that period, Pride and Prejudice.  I loved it.  I’ve now read numerous books by authors from this period.  It turns out that I do like regency and Victorian literature, I just don’t like Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, David Copperfield…  In other words, there are certain books within that body of literature I don’t like and others that I love.

I’ve had a few instances where men have told me they don’t like books written by women.  I’m just using this as an example since the topic of men not reading books by women is big on the internet right now.  I could also use the reaction of horror I’ve had by some adult women when I tell them the book club book they’re after is in the YA section, as if YA somehow equaled childish writing.  Or any number of other examples.  I can understand men not liking most urban fantasy written by women due to the prevalence of romantic elements (though if that’s the case try Rob Thurman’s Nightlife), or not liking a particular book or author, but to say you don’t like any and all books written by women just shows an ignorance to the wide variety of different fiction written by women.  For example, if you like hard SF have you tried Joan Slonzcewski (Brain Plague), Syne Mitchell (Changeling Plague) or M. J. Locke (Up Against It)?

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski Up Against It by M. J. Locke Changeling Plague by Syne Mitchell

If you don’t like particular elements in a genre (romance, mystery, stupid adults, brilliant kids, difficult SF concepts, lack of character development, elves) then find people whose taste you agree with and ask them for suggestions that are a bit outside the genre, or that use those elements in creative ways.  For example, Chris Evans modernized elves by giving them guns in his Iron Elves trilogy.

Indeed, finding someone whose taste you agree with is a good step in broadening your reading.  And you’ll probably be surprised by how many great books are out there that you’ve been missing.

And don’t limit yourself to novel length fiction either.  I’ve always believed that, with a few exceptions, I don’t like short stories.  Well, the last few months have proven me wrong there too.  I’ve been combing Manybooks.net for out of copyright classic SF stories and, again, while I haven’t liked everything, I have enjoyed the majority of the stories.  Not sure where to start?  Try “This World Must Die” by Horace Brown Fyfe (1951), “Time and Time Again” by Henry Beam Piper (1947) or “Keep Out” by Fredric Brown (1954).

So I challenge you to take a subgenre/format you’ve avoided, find some good recommendations, and try reading something outside your comfort zone.  Even if you don’t end up liking the book, you’ll still broaden your horizons and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of why others do like it.  And don’t let one bad story or novel turn you off an entire genre, author, or gender forever.

Jessica Strider works once a week in the SF/F section of a major bookstore in Toronto.  She posts author interviews, themed reading lists, book reviews and more on her blog.  She also posts three times a month on SF Signal.