Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Readings, They Are a'Changing

Scott D. Parker

What do you do when you see change coming? Do you silo yourself within your existing infrastructure, making sure the ramparts are safe from The Outside? Do you peek outside, wondering what the strange new thing might be, curious, but cautious? Or do you throw open the floodgates and let forth the flood of newness, willingly succumbing to the outside influence?

No, I’m not talking about the happenings in the Middle East and Africa, although those events are much more important than what I’ll be writing about today. I’m talking about reading habits and, by extension, writing habits. What do you do when you realize that the types of books (movies and TV, too) you consume show signs of changing?

I’ve been mulling that question over for a few weeks, starting late last year. Unlike a major milestone, I cannot pinpoint the moment things began to change. Only later do I realize that they are. Yes, I’m using the present tense because this is a flux time where I don’t know the ending.

If you look at my bookshelves here in my writing room--shelves culled from a larger collection now in storage--you’ll find a pretty consistent theme: SF, hard-boiled fiction, with some good noir thrown in for spice. Every book in storage is a book I’ve read. The remainder, the ones visible to me everyday, are the ones I haven’t read and want to and to which I will get around.

Someday. Right now, I just don’t want to read them. At least, not in the past couple of months. Their spines stare at me, but I don’t respond. Other books and television shows, however, have called, and I’ve answered.

Television’s a nice, visual example. My favorite shows on TV are “Castle,” “CSI: Miami,” and whatever is playing on Masterpiece Mystery/Contemporary. Common elements to these shows is a lower level of violence shown and little, if any, language issues. One of the things American network television has to do is captivate an audience for an hour without the overt use of violence and language. As much as Kate Beckett or Horatio Caine want to talk like the cops in “The Wire,” they can’t. Instead, the writers have to rely on other elements of a story to keep viewers engaged. The British do this kind of thing exceptionally well. The current Masterpiece Contemporary program is part 1 (of 2) of “Place of Execution,” a film based on a Val McDermid novel that is exceptional in its complexity of story and lack of visual violence. In one scene, officers find photos that are so bad, half of the men can’t look. Given the modern de-sensitivity to violence, some filmmakers would show the images, either as stills or as hazy flashbacks, replete with blood and whatever else those images were supposed to show.

The *not* showing is important. I’ve realized the obvious in recent weeks: my favorite TV shows focus not on the easy violence but of the crucial points of a good story. The same is true for some of the books I’ve read (and am reading). The second Richard Castle book, Naked Heat, is an excellent mystery story with nary a bit a foul language and very little violence. And, yet, it’s a page turner. I flew through it so fast and effortlessly that I did something I rarely (and loathe) to do: I re-read it, taking note of structure and pace.

Naked Heat was a darn good mystery. Another good mystery is fellow Do Some Damage scribe Joelle Charbonneau’s debut novel, Skating Around the Law*. It’s such a fun romp that it made me wonder why I overlook an entire section of mystery fiction. While the book doesn’t fall within the strict definition of a cozy, it’s clear that Joelle’s book isn’t a nihilistic noiry tale like many of us (including myself) enjoy. My latest book from New Mystery Reader is a full-blooded cozy while the third book I’m reading is a traditional mystery set in France. Couple that with the current book my SF book club is reading--a tiresome bore with death and destruction that I’ll probably won’t finish--and I’m questioning the types of stories I like to consume.

Right now, some of y’all are saying that I’m just getting old and my tastes are changing. That’s an argument I’ll grant you. At the end of the day, what will likely happen is that these new-to-me types of stories will become assimilated into the broader scope of my reading landscape. Besides, I’m the type of person who used to watch the latest episode of “Monk” and then follow it up with a full DVD of “The Wire.”

All of this pondering raises another question to go along with the ones I posed earlier: do you ever get tired of definitions? British crime dramas are “traditional mysteries” and, while some are defined as cozy (Miss Marple) others are not (Foyle’s War), they both have the same limited use of violence and language. You ask a group of ten writers the definition of “noir” and you’ll get ten answers. Our definitions of story types can probably be reduced to marketing terms, the better to sell books. I’m cool with that.

It goes without saying that this change in reading habit has also changed the types of stories my mind sees and that I write. That, however, is another post.

Of the questions I posed earlier, I think I have my own, personal answer. I’ve opened the door, curious and intrigued to see what’s out there.

What do you do when your reading habits change?

*Check my personal blog this Wednesday where I’ll be reviewing Joelle’s book for Barry Summy’s monthly Book Review Club.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good point about how when a show can't rely on violence per se the writers have to come up with more creative ways to hold the viewer's interest. Hadn't really thought about it that way. I don't watch much TV except for football, and they've sure toned the violence down there.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

My reading habits change depending on what is going on in my life. I admit that I tend not to read a lot of mysteries when I'm knee deep in writing one. However, the minute I'm done with a manuscript I take a couple of weeks and go back to reading them. The same can be said for Thrillers...if I'm writing something 'thrilling' I tend not to read in that genre. I have no idea why.

Being a writer has serious cut into my reading time, which is both wonderful and sad. I used to read at least 100 books a year. I'm down to about 30-40. But I think that just means I take more care with what I choose to pick up.

Thanks for reading SKATING AROUND THE LAW, Scott. You are the best!