For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading the science fiction novel ESCAPE FROM HELL by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's pretty bad. (Sorry dudes.) The idea of a modern Dante's Inferno is cool and there are some decent moments, but on the whole, it's pretty bad. It reads like it wishes it was a movie script instead of literature. The craft of writing on display here is substandard with dry, meaningless prose. The characters are lifeless dialogue delivery vessels that, together, have all the expository context to point out every celebrity cameo in hell. There is no driving tension, it's more like standing on an airport moving walkway, except this one's in hell.
But I'm still reading it. I'm willing to chalk up my dislike of the book to taste. It may be that I was hoping for Douglas Adams for religion & history, and couldn't deal with what I got instead. The person who let me borrow it was pretty enthusiastic, and the book that preceded this one (which I have not read) seems to be pretty beloved in sci fi circles. So it's entirely reasonable to assume that this book is bad because it's not my style. It does not speak to my cultural field. I'm going to finish it.
As I write this, I am just past the halfway point of this miserable 324 page hardcover. I've had several people tell me that I ought to just quit, that my time is better spent on other things, and that if I haven't had fun at this point, it won't make an about face later on. I agree with them on all of that. But a few months ago, I read Carl Wilson's 33 1/3rd book LET'S TALK ABOUT LOVE: A JOURNEY TO THE END OF TASTE and that ruined how I go about these things. Now I'm convinced that even the things I don't like have some value to me. Maybe as a learning experience, or to better understand those who do love this stuff. The remaining half probably won't sell me, but I might learn something about my tastes in the process.
While exploring the adored/despised cultural standing of Celine Dion and attempting to give her an objective review, Carl Wilson wrote:
"A few people have asked me, isn't life too short to waste time on art you dislike? But lately I feel like life is too short not to. ... In retrospect, this experiment seems like a last effort to purge that insularity, so that my next phase might happen in a larger world, one beyond the horizon of my habits. For me, adulthood is turning out to be about becoming democratic. ... This is what I mean by democracy — not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. ... Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves."
Now that book, I liked a lot. It's really the best 33 1/3rd book I've read and presents interesting challenges to criticism and fandom. I'm all-in. This enthusiasm only goes so far though, and it turns out it will always be tough to meet the vision of taste that this book advocates.
If ESCAPE FROM HELL isn't my bag, I should be able to express why. My college indoctrination into "proper" literary fiction has something to do with it, I'm sure. Yet there are passages in this book that make me want to scribble, this is objectively bad all over it, because there is no way you can just copy & paste whole sections from your first book and call it a flashback. No way a published hardcover book, by TWO writers who seem to have a lauded pedigree, should read like really well-edited high school fiction.
But this is what I've decided to do with myself. I don't have to like it, but I have to understand something about it.