Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

A shelf of Great Books.

Ever since I learned to read at the relatively late age of 6, books and I have been inseparable. I’ve read 944 books since I started tracking about ten years ago, and I read more often and more extensively than almost anyone I know who is not required to read as part of their job.

I read fiction and nonfiction; I read novels, short stories, and comics; I read books for children and for adults (and for everyone); I’ve tried most genres (but strongly prefer speculative fiction); I can also read in Russian (but rarely do, because I’m too slow at it to satisfy my own impatient curiosity); I’ve read works in translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Yiddish (and have many others I still want to try); i do, however, have one glaring fault as a reader: I have a very hard time with most of what could be considered Good Literature, and a resulting insecurity about my ability to grapple with difficult (fictional) texts.

It would be tempting for someone with my set of political beliefs to write off the entire idea of Good Literature, of classics. I do think that the way we determine what’s Good and what Isn’t is deeply flawed and subject to our own biases, just like everything else we do. The reason it looks like a bunch of white Western men certainly isn’t because nobody else ever wrote anything of value (although they probably didn’t do as much of it as they do now, because access).

But I don’t believe that there’s no distinction between literature that has something complex and important to say about our world and ourselves, and literature that doesn’t, not because it’s Bad but because that’s just not its purpose. Even as a teenager I recognized that there was a difference between the pleasure I got from reading The Catcher in the Rye and the pleasure I got from reading the Gossip Girl books. Yet I read both, and loved both.

I also think there’s a difference between literature that fades from memory once it goes out of style, and literature that stands the test of time and is called “classic” for that reason. Those Gossip Girl books are already almost forgotten, but Harry Potter hasn’t been and probably won’t be for a very long time. Those of us who lived through the anticipation and the midnight release parties and the fanfiction got to witness the birth of a classic. That’s one of the most incredible literary experiences I’ve ever had.

And yet, actually reading classics–not of the Harry Potter variety–is something I have a very hard time convincing myself to do. All the classics I’ve read were either required for a class (to be fair, some of those were college classes I chose to take) or strongly suggested by my parents in a way that made me want to just get it over with.

With a few exceptions, such as the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger, I couldn’t stand most of these books. I especially hated Grapes of Wrath, An American Tragedy, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, and every single Dickens book I ever picked up. I couldn’t get more than a chapter into Three Musketeers and hated all the excerpts of Moby Dick I had to read in English class (thankfully they didn’t make us read the whole book).

Some of these I’m convinced are just really bad writing (Dickens comes to mind). But I also think that a big part of the problem was my own failure to grasp the writer’s intent or find any other reason for that book to exist. What’s this trying to tell me? Why was this written? I’m a writer, so I know how much blood, sweat, and tears must’ve gone into these books. What made that effort worth it? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

And yes, there’s no Correct Answer there. That’s not the point. The point is I couldn’t think of any answer at all.

I started thinking back to my high school English classes, which were formative in many ways. My teachers were great when it came to encouraging enthusiasm for literature, but they were ultimately stuck in the framework that most high school English classes use: assigning books and then testing us on our understanding of the plot, the overall themes, the new vocabulary words, and, of course, what all the symbols meant. (You can imagine the authors rolling in their graves.) We never really learned how to think about the bigger questions: what do you think the author was trying to do with this book? How well did they do it? What could they have done better? If you didn’t know who wrote this book, what clues might help you guess? How is the author’s perspective informed or limited by their social position? What did you get out of reading this book? How did it change you?

I got to college hoping for some better instruction in critical reading, but “instruction” was mostly lacking at Northwestern, which is a research institution where undergrads are an afterthought. Professors expected us to already be able to do the kind of analysis they made their careers on, and I had no idea what that was. I got A’s in those classes mainly because nobody else could really do much better than me, and none of us knew what we were doing.

Most of what I know about literature comes from discussions with my parents and from reading other people’s essays about literature in magazines or online. My parents had a very different experience with books; they say that they were never taught to think about literature in school either, but only because in the Soviet Union, the skill of analyzing and critiquing books was something you just absorbed from your surrounding culture. They learned it the way children learn to speak. They can impart some of that to me by doing it with me, but they can’t teach it because they were never formally “taught.”

So, in short, I’m on my own. I don’t like feeling like I missed out on learning an entire mode of thinking that could help me appreciate even more books than I already do, so I’m going to teach it to myself, using this blog and the books themselves.

My idea is to choose classics that I consider challenging and read them chapter-by-chapter, posting my thoughts on each chapter as a blog post. I won’t limit myself to “analyzing” them in a particular way; I expect that I’ll blend thoughts about writing style, authorial intent, philosophy, and social criticism with my own ramblings about the characters and their annoying flaws and my frustration with the bad decisions everyone is making. (So many bad decisions. No, don’t go fight in the war, wars are bad. She’s not interested in you, dude. You probably should not talk to your kid that way. Stop arguing over this petty bullshit.)

To make things a little more interesting, I’ll open up the comments on those posts (and on this one) so folks can read along and join the discussion. Keep in mind though that all the reasons I closed comments still absolutely apply, so please do me a huge favor and focus your comments on your experience with the book and your thoughts about it rather than on criticizing and nitpicking my experiences.

I don’t have any sort of real process for choosing books right now other than “things my parents think I would benefit from reading,” so my first book will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Others I may read include Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’d like to suggest books, feel free to do so in the comments of this post. I’m looking for stuff that’s classic and challenging, but not impenetrable. (If you’re wondering what I’d categorize as impenetrable, I’d say probably something like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I got approximately nothing out of.)

I’m calling this a book club because that’s the closest term I can think of for what I’m going to do, but it very well might end up being a book club of just one and that’s totally fine. I wish it were easier to discuss books with friends, but the reality is that most people in my social circle who enjoy reading do not prioritize it and do it rarely. That’s something I hope will change as I get older or meet new people.

I do hope that this encourages at least a few people to read some new books. If you have a hard time motivating yourself to read, I put together this list of suggestions last year.

Hopefully I’ll start yelling about Brideshead Revisited by next week at the latest, but knowing myself, I can’t make any promises.

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Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

How to Motivate Yourself To Read Books

I read a lot.

A lot of my friends have recently been asking for advice about reading. Specifically, they say that they really value reading (books, generally) and have always seen themselves as people who read, but lately they can’t seem to motivate themselves to do it. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Usually people have one or both of these problems: 1) motivating themselves to actually pick up a book and read it, and 2) maintaining their focus on that book rather than getting distracted by other things, such as social media or articles online. Although these are slightly different issues, I’m addressing both of them here because some of the same suggestions might help for both.

Some people cite various factors that they think have contributed to the problem with reading, such as: 1) the prevalence of distracting technology, 2) being out of school and no longer being required to read all the time, and 3) being more used to reading short articles online rather than books. While I think that working out what causes difficulty with reading can be useful for you, I also think that the problem can be resolved without that. (See also: solution-focused brief therapy.)

Since I’ve had some of these issues myself and have developed a few practices that help, I decided to put together a blog post for reference for folks who have these issues. I also asked friends what’s worked for them, since this is such a common problem in my social circles, and incorporated their recommendations.

This isn’t “advice” per se; some of these might work for you and some of these might not. If you already know that the problem isn’t [thing] and a given suggestion addresses [thing], there’s no reason for you to try it (except curiosity, maybe). Some of these cost nothing to try, and others cost money. Some address the activation energy problem, and some address the focus problem. Some may feel bad to you, like you’re “giving up” on something important. If it feels awful, you don’t have to do it, but also consider that it might be worth readjusting (at least temporarily) your expectations for yourself.

1. Try reading something easier/simpler/more fun, at least at first.

A lot of people say they have trouble motivating themselves to read books, but what they really mean is Big Serious Books. If you really wish you could just pick up a book already, forget about Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace for now, and pick up a YA novel, a comic book, or something else that’s easy for you to get into. Online fanfiction works too. Saga is an amazing comic book series with big political themes, lots of diversity, beautiful art, and an engaging, suspenseful story. Peeps is a YA vampire novel, but it’s nothing like Twilight. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is, well, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

This seems to work for a lot of people. My friend Nicole says: “When I can’t motivate myself to read, I approach it like I approach exercise–start off with some easier reads to get the momentum going. Definitely doesn’t work for everyone, but when I pick up some Harry Potter or even a Sweet Valley High book (only Judy can judge me), I’m at an easier entryway for reading than if I went 0 to Dostoyevsky.”

This is in some ways one of the hardest suggestions to implement because, I’ve noticed, a lot of people have a lot of shame and stuff around what they read. It’s difficult to feel like you’re Really Reading if you’re reading a comic book or a teen vampire story. But are you comprehending words on a page? Are you making predictions and feeling empathy for a character and wondering what made an author write it the way they wrote it? Then you’re reading.

If you really can’t get past the potential embarrassment of being seen with one of these books, you could buy a protective cover for it, or use an e-reader (more on that later).

You might find that as you (re)develop a reading habit, it becomes easier and easier to read harder and harder things. Tolstoy will always be there for you when you want him.

For me, this suggestion translates as reading fiction rather than nonfiction. Like quite a few like-minded people, I often feel that reading fiction is “silly” and “useless” compared to reading nonfiction, but I often find nonfiction difficult to get into and focus on. When I can’t get myself into nonfiction, I try to overcome that feeling and read some fiction instead. First of all, reading something is better than reading nothing. Second, it’s not even true that fiction is silly or useless; I absolutely learn about the world from it and get writing ideas from it and such.

Although most of my friends say that they have no trouble reading things online and feel that they have replaced books with blog posts and articles, if that’s not the case for you, then blog posts and articles might be a stepping stone to more “serious” reading.

2. Get comfortable.

When I’m having trouble focusing on a book I want to be reading and I can’t figure out why, I do some body scanning. Often I realize that the problem is that I’m physically uncomfortable and it didn’t even make it into my conscious awareness.

Note that this might be true even if you think the problem is that you’re getting distracted by your phone or whatever. I often automatically check my phone when I’m physically (or mentally) uncomfortable as a way to cope with those feelings in the moment. While this can be extremely useful when I have to be there and need to distract myself from my discomfort, it’s not as useful when you need to focus on reading, and when it’s actually possible to resolve the discomfort.

Figure out which reading positions are most comfortable for you. I like to have back support and a surface that is neither too hard nor tries to swallow me. My favorite places to read are hammocks, couches, armchairs, and those lounge chair things they have at the pool, as long as it’s not the hard plastic ones. Unfortunately, reading in bed is not usually something I can make comfortable for long periods of time, and neither is reading at a computer while sitting in some sort of chair. Regardless of what your favorite reading positions are, if you’re doing it for a while, make sure to get up regularly and stretch. Otherwise you’ll find yourself getting stiff and cramped and therefore distracted.

Other factors play into comfort, too. One friend says she reads on her computer using Kindle for Mac, because reading on her computer means that she doesn’t have to turn the lights on–and lights trigger her migraines. In college, I had a Snuggie so that I could stay warm while still being able to flip the pages.

3. Remove distractions.

Assuming that you do have a problem with getting distracted by things, see if you can remove them. If it’s noise, find a quiet place or use earplugs (they’re pretty cheap at any drugstore). If it’s technology, put it in another room or turn it off. I like to go outside with my books and leave other stuff inside.

Sometimes people don’t do this because they assume that if they “really” wanted to read, they’d be able to do it even with the iPhone right there. But that’s not really how motivation/focus works. Most humans like to move in the direction of least effort, at least when we let our automatic impulses take over. You love reading, but you also love Facebook, and Facebook is just easier. That doesn’t make you wrong (or Facebook evil). It’s just a thing that you might need to acknowledge and plan around.

4. Try an e-reader.

Money permitting, e-readers (or e-reading apps on phones) can really help. That’s the thing that worked best for me, and the suggestion I got most often from my friends who say it worked for them. For some people, e-readers are physically more convenient and easy. For some, it’s that there aren’t other distractions on it (like there are on a phone). For other people, on the other hand, reading on a phone is great because it allows you to read in situations where you otherwise might not have been able to. I used to read e-books on my phone while waiting for clients to show up at work.

Those of you who commute on public transit may also find that e-readers/phones resolve a lot of logistical challenges. When I first moved to New York, I had a hell of a time trying to hold onto a pole on a crowded train and a bag or two and a book with pages I needed to flip. Within a few months, I got my Nook, which can be held in one hand and has conveniently-located buttons that flip the pages without a need for another hand. I happily read for hours each week while standing on trains and holding onto poles.

The cheapest current Kindle is $80, and you can even pay for it in installments. It’s probably even cheaper if you get it used. If that’s still not affordable for you but you do have a smartphone, Kindle and Nook both make free apps (and there are probably others). Your local public library might have e-books available for borrowing. Even the one here in my little Ohio suburb has that now. A friend also recommends BookBub as a way to find cheap and free ebooks.

5. If you have to drive a lot, try audiobooks.

Personally, I dislike receiving information in audio format, but some people say this works for them, especially when they have to commute by car a lot. This is also great if you feel like you can’t justify the additional time spent on reading because you have so many other things to do. This way, you’re not expending any extra time on it, just making better use of the time you already have.

6. Make it social.

Reading is generally a very solitary activity, and it’s difficult to spend hours isolated from other people doing something that’s not easily shared with them. So see if you can make it shareable.

Traditionally, people made reading social through book clubs. If that’s an option for you, try it. Note that book clubs need not be in-person/geographically proximate–online book clubs can work a lot better if it’s difficult to find people nearby who share your interests, or if going to in-person events is stressful.

However, there are plenty of ways to make reading social besides book clubs. For instance, you can post book reviews on sites like Goodreads or on Facebook. You can share what you’re reading on social media, and often friends will get excited along with you or discuss the book with you if they’ve read it too. I love to post quotes on Facebook and Tumblr, especially from nonfiction books (but often from fiction too). It helps me feel like I’m doing something good for people by spreading the knowledge I’m getting, and it also gets me some positive reinforcement from people for reading. Everybody wins.

I’ve written before (to a small amount of pushback) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using this sort of reinforcement to motivate yourself to do things you know are good for you to do. You are not weak or silly or shallow if the encouragement and positive feedback of people you care about helps you do things. Yes, there are downsides to this, but it’s also the way humans work. Be self-aware and use it to your advantage.

7. Take books everywhere.

Take books everywhere you go, even if it’s a situation where people might make fun of you for having a book. (When I used to hang out with friends who were slightly less cool than my current friends, they’d make fun of me for having a book. They’d be like, “What, did you think I’d be that boring?” I’d be like, no, but I thought, what if you were late and I had to wait for you? What if you went to the restroom for a while? What if you needed to leave earlier and I wanted to stay at the coffee shop by myself? That’s to say nothing of public transit.)

If you always have a book, you might find yourself turning to it in those everyday boring situations. In line at the post office. In the doctor’s waiting room. In the train. On your lunch break. At the bar, waiting for your friends to show up. Boredom can be a great motivator.

E-readers help with this, but I’ve been doing it with paper books for as long as I’ve been able to read.

8. Make a habit of browsing bookstores and libraries.

When you’re in a bookstore or a library, there’s really only two things to do: find books, and read books. As a kid I used to walk out of the library with huge towers of books because I couldn’t bear to leave such interesting things in place. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but the excitement of finding something cool in the stacks is its own motivator.

When you find an interesting book, try reading the first chapter (or part of it), not just the jacket copy. If you don’t like it, you haven’t spent that much time. If you do like it, check it out or buy it, and then you’re already hooked and motivated to keep going.

This is also very fun to combine with #6. Make it social. When I was in high school and there wasn’t much else to do, my friends and I made bookstore trips constantly. Nowadays, I like to take people I’m dating (or thinking about dating) to bookstores. You learn a lot about someone that way, and plus it’s fun, and plus it encourages you to read.

Although there’s definitely something special to me about bookstores and libraries, browsing books on Amazon can have some similar effects, especially since it’ll show you similar books to what you’re looking at. I’ve definitely gotten lost in that particular rabbit hole for a while.

9. Graph it, chart it, log it.

This goes along with #6 (making it social) given how social media is these days, but for me, graphing and charting and logging things is also its own reward. I’d imagine the same is true for other nerdy types.

I like recording what I read with Goodreads, and I also use an iOS app called Hours to track how much time I spend reading each book (along with other productive things I do).

But my favorite book-tracking thing by far is this chart created by my friend Malcolm. Malcolm’s aim in creating and using this chart was to encourage himself to read more, but unlike other book-tracking mechanisms, this one tracks the time you spend reading, not the number of books you finish. Sometimes people start books they don’t end up liking but then they don’t want to put them down because sunk cost fallacy + it feels like you get no “points” for a book you don’t finish. This chart acknowledges all the time you spend on books (including audiobooks), whether or not you finish them.

You can see my own version of Malcolm’s chart here.

Some people also find success with HabitRPG, a cute webapp that treats to-do’s and habits as a game and also has an optional social component.

10. Do a little at a time.

For many people, motivation is all about that first push, and then the rest comes easily. Don’t think of it as “I need to read War and Peace.” Think of it as, “I need to read a chapter of War and Peace.” Or even a page. You might find that once you start reading you keep going naturally, or you might not. In that case, you can gradually raise your page goal rather than diving head-first into reading 100 pages a day or whatever.

DailyLit is a website that can help with this by emailing you installments of books each day. HabitRPG, which I mentioned above, can also help, because you can set a daily goal like “read five pages” and see what happens.

Mark Reads, which a few of my friends recommended, is another way to read in installments. In this series, Mark reads books out loud a chapter at a time and reviews them. My friend Suzanne says, “It’s like an online book club led by the kindest, most hilarious person who is never ever prepared for the next twist in the book he’s reading.

11. Shift your assumptions.

Reading is an act that’s all tangled up in things like class, race, gender, and neurotypicality. Sometimes we expect impossible things of ourselves, like reading dozens of dense books each year and being able to regurgitate all their plots or facts on demand, and that leads to a lot of shame that makes reading even more difficult. Sometimes we devalue certain ways of reading (audiobooks, ebooks, social reinforcement, with frequent breaks to check a phone) or certain types of texts (YA, “women’s” literature, fanfiction). Many of us remember our parents or teachers telling us to put that crap down and have held onto those ideas into adulthood.

Yes, I do think that there are ways to evaluate and judge literature, but I also think that what you think is “good” depends entirely on what you need. Recently I read a short self-published novel called Robins in the Night. It was not particularly well-written; it needed a lot of editing and a lot of the stylistic choices seemed stilted or incomprehensible to me. But it was a retelling of the Robin Hood story in which Robin Hood is actually a queer trans woman who stands up against the unjust treatment of a Black man, and at the moment, that’s exactly what I needed to read, “quality” notwithstanding. I recommend it.

As you pursue your reading goals, I recommend keeping some (re)frames in mind:

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good./Reading something is better than reading nothing.
  • Only you get to decide which books are “good” or “impressive” or “valuable” for you.
  • Work with your brain, not against it. If positive reinforcement from your friends helps, use it. If you can’t read for ten minutes without checking your phone, consider figuring out what’s going on with that, but in the meantime, read for ten minutes at a time and take breaks to check your phone.
  • Try to get rid of “should”‘s. Should you read long serious novels? Should you read without an e-reader? Should you be able to read for long stretches of time without taking a break? Should you read quickly? Should you remember everything you read? Should you find nonfiction interesting enough to hold your attention? Maybe, but who cares? Do what you can and what feels right.

What has worked for you? What engaging books do you recommend to someone who’s having trouble picking up a book and staying with it?


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How to Motivate Yourself To Read Books

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction