Saturday, June 11, 2016

Considering the Source: Handling Book Recs from Former Friends

 Hi, all! It's been too long. I graduated from University of Miami with my MBA and started a meaningful job where I can make a difference.

Right now I'm reading Red Queen, a Young Adult fantasy romp. It talks about a world where magical people oppress normal people, the way benders do in the series Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and a girl who instead of being shipped off to war ends up in the royal courts as a spy. Despite the good writing, the intriguing plot and the promise of moral ambiguity, I'm not enjoying this book. This is not the book's fault and I know it. The fault lies in who recommended the book.

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A few months ago, tragedy struck the How to Train Your Dragon fandom, and some anonymous trolls are trying to ride on the resulting shockwaves. In the meantime, a not-so anonymous user has been suffering problems, and he recommended Red Queen while I reached out to comfort him. Shortly after recommending it, he became verbally abusive, and I had to cut communication with him to not lose my temper. That was a couple of months ago; I only finished Red Queen today, but I'm associating each prose with the frustration and disgust.

This isn't the first time I've experienced such an association. My first beta reader and I had a fallout several years back when he recommend A Game of Thrones -- the book, not the show-- and The Gospel According to Christ, and I took issue with the fact that both of the books kill characters with glee and don't really relax the reader. As a result, though I occasionally check Game of Thrones updates I hold irrational resentment towards the franchise. I've also gone softer on my fictional characters, more reluctant to make them suffer.

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There are two explanations for this frustration: one is that the book recommendation shows the person's state of mind when they vouch for you to read it, or that you can't believe that the bad conversations will surge in full force, as well as the bilious emotions. 

The first explanation holds a grain of merit. Both Game of Thrones and Red Queen are similar in showing complicated politics and the villain gaining a massive victory, with infatuated characters getting screwed over in a bad way. While a person's taste doesn't necessarily reveal their personality, since author Hannah Moskowitz is a bubbly, cheerful person while writing about teen angst and pain, it might provide a few red flags. The red flags come from when someone defends the author's choices with verbal abuse and with assuming that another person with a different opinion is in the wrong. Red Queen takes a Hunger Games-like approach to a new fantasy world, without the hope that Hunger Games has for a better world and for people to survive their own mistakes and capacity to cause violence. It also incorporates a lot of political games that aren't really my cup of tea. Thus while I know other people who are fans of the show and the book, I make sure we can discuss other works appropriately.

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As for the second explanation, science would support that. Obviously the psychological associations need to be taken into account, in that we create connections with items based on experience. The other is that I read these books in the hopes of becoming better friends with these individuals. I like reading fiction in general, especially that which helps me escape to another world. When I don't enjoy a book, it hits me hard since I try my best to finish it despite any clunky prose or unwanted emotions. Sometimes when a book is too well written, it will strike nerves that are not meant to be struck and I react rather poorly. That is what happened with Game of Thrones, and why I didn't like the story at all. Instead of talking through why it's an upsetting book, my beta reader yelled at me for reading it too fast and for believing that all fiction needs to be escapist. Following a similar argument over The Gospel According to Christ, our friendship didn't survive past that summer. For that reason I associate what happened to Ned Stark and Joseph with those arguments. 

With all of this said, it seems the easiest solution lies in not accepting book recommendations from people that feel strongly rooted in their opinions. If someone else won't create a safe space to disagree, then a reader may as well not participate in intellectual exploration.  Even that solution is not so simple on the surface; sometimes people are fine with others having different tastes, and sometimes people are far from reasonable. Word of mouth is also the strongest means of spreading books to people, and I like to find new authors to read.

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I'm not going to reread A Game of Thrones, Red Queen, or The Gospel According to Christ due to the associations and the source material. When it comes to rereading, I choose the books that fill me with joy and contentment. Despite that, I won't disregard a book or give it a two-star review because of circumstances unrelated to the prose or the choice of narrative style. That would be unkind, and as an author I don't want to be unkind in that way. Someday I hope that my stories don't cause schisms, and instead bring people together.

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