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M. T. Anderson and Reading Widely: Half of a Manifesto, Maybe

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01 December 2011 | 12:31 am

So last night, I saw one of my favorite authors, M. T. Anderson, speak at Eastern Connecticut State University here in Willimantic.  Anderson is a children's/YA writer, but he's absolutely one of my favorites, maybe in my top five ever.  (Who else is in that top five?  Good question.)  I saw him speak at UConn back in 2008, but I couldn't pass up another opportunity, and I convinced Hayley to go along with me.  (Hayley actually really likes him too, so I just needed to tip the scales against going to her Tuesday evening class.) 

One of the things I like about him is his diversity of voice-- this is a guy who can write all sorts of things.  My introduction to him was Whales on Stilts, the first book in the Pals in Peril series, a satire on formula series fiction, aimed at 10-12 year olds.  But he's also written Feed, a gorgeous if slightly problematic dystopia aimed at teenagers, and the Octavian Nothing duology, set during the Revolutionary War and really capturing the prose style of the era (maybe too well) in what almost seems like a dark fantasy, but turns out to be something very different.  And he has other stuff I've yet to read, but even within the Pals in Peril books he shows a diversity of style.  But he's not just diverse-- he's very very good.  Feed is moving at the same time it satirizes contemporary consumer culture; it contains an extraordinary passage that recreates the drama, the facileness, and the beauty of teenage love.  (I actually taught Feed to my Freshman English class this summer, and some of them even liked it, but I completely forgot to pass on the announcement to them.  Whoops.)

He spoke for about 45 minutes and then took questions.  Some of what he said, I knew already, but that was fine.  Much of what he said was funny, and that was good.  He's also clearly very intelligent, and very imaginative, in the best of ways, able to take idle wonderings and transform them into universal sentiments.  Even Whales on Stilts, where mind-controlled whales on mechanical stilts with laser eyes invaded the continental United States, has one of my favorite statements on friendship.  He's had a good career, and he's one of those rare authors I just don't like or love; in some ways, I wish I could have written his books.  Hayley and I brought two books to be signed, and bought three more there.  While he signed all five to both of us (after a debate over whose books they were), Hayley talked with him about the beauty of Linnaeus's scientific writing while I tried to be cool and name-dropped Erasmus Darwin ineffectively.

One of the things he said that impressed me most, even though I've heard it elsewhere before, is that one of the best things an author can do is read widely.  I did like how he said it though, which was different: (paraphrasing from memory here) "Go into the bookstore and look.  Every book there is someone's favorite.  Read it and find out why.  If you don't like science fiction, read a science fiction book.  Read a romance novel.  If there's How to Play the Tuba, that's someone's favorite book.  Why is that?  What speaks to them?"

I think this is what irks me about some of the genre and tie-in fiction I read-- it reads like it's written by someone who only reads other genre and/or tie-in fiction.  (And one Shakespeare play, a Dan Brown novel, and a book of profound quotations.)  M. T. Anderson's work doesn't.  It's enmeshes in a large, complicated world, and this is shown in overt and subtle ways.  The third thrilling Pals in Peril tale, Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, is not just a send-up of children's books about people on adventures in dinosaur-infested "exotic" lands in Africa/South America, but it also exposes (subtly but very effectively) the way that European travel fiction can render the "other" and make a "foreign" landscape into something to be dominated by a colonial observer.  And then it makes fun of people who know about all these problems and try to seek an "authentic" experience in foreign countries!  He's not only read his Richard Burton, Frank Reade Jr., and Edward Said, he's read his Stuff White People Like, and he's engaged with all of the above in interesting ways.  Even if you don't recognize the references, I think you still absorb something.  And even if you don't, there's still a fight scene where pacifist monks defeat an army of gangsters with haikus.

I try to read widely myself, as best I can.  I can't say I read How to Play the Tuba or Harlequin romances, but this month I read:
- a cultural criticism Doctor Who episode guide
- two YA Spider-Man novels
- two Victorian writers, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins
- a Doctor Who tie-in based in part on Beowulf (someone else has read widely)
- a 1988 sf anthology
- a critical analysis of the philosophy of a Victorian scientist
- a Rudyard Kipling collection
- a graphic novel adaptation of The Canterbury Tales

Obviously some of this reading is more wide than others, and the requirements of coursework and my fetish for Doctor Who and serialized comic books conspire to constrain me somewhat, but I try pretty hard.  When I was writing the acknowledgements page for A Choice of Catastrophes, I briefly considered listing every author whose book I had read while working on it (I thought better fairly rapidly) because I knew and could point to ways in which David N. Wilson, Barry Unsworth, Jim Starlin, Doris Lessing, Margaret Wander Bonanno, Paul Cornell, and Geoff Ryman had all influenced what I had come up, large and small, positive and negative.  (Of course, it's a book in which Captain Kirk gets into a fist fight with an octopus, and a continuity conundrum about Mister Leslie's name is resolved by referencing a 1975 Peter Pan record, so let's not get too grandiose.)

One of my friends got to chat with M. T. Anderson for ten minutes about Cotton Mather and was invited to e-mail him, of which I suspect I will be eternally jealous.  But I forgot my copies of Burger Wuss and Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, so I will be seeking him down again for sure.  And you know, he might read Edward Said, but he's also the man who the Governor of Delaware called "buster" in formal correspondence.


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