The TBR Pile

- by Laura Resnick

As a fantasy writer, I was asked recently by a popular sf/f/h blog to name all the sf/f/h fiction that was currently in my TBR pile. (This translates as: What Science Fiction, Fantasy, and/or Horror novels are currently in your To Be Read pile?) Readers are sometimes curious about what writers read–and perhaps even more curious about what other books or authors we read in our own genres.

As it happens… my towering TBR pile currently contains no sf/f/h, and this is pretty typical for me.

One reason for this is that I’m not a fan of science fiction or horror. There’s nothing wrong with those genres (and I have many friends–as well as at least one relative, my father–who write books in those genres); they just don’t pair up well with my personal tastes as a reader. So I seldom read novels in those genres.

Meanwhile, although I love fantasy (or I’d certainly have trouble making my full-time living as a fantasy novelist!), I seldom read fantasy anymore, because it’s too much of a busman’s holiday for me. When I’m reading a fantasy novel, I feel as if I’m still working. A big part of this is because when I read fantasy, I often am working. Although I’ve picked up a few fantasy novels in recent years just because I wanted to read them, most of the time now, the reason I pick up a fantasy novel is professional; I know something about the book which, as a professional fantasy novelist, has made me curious, and I’m reading it by way of investigation.

For example, maybe I’ve heard the acquiring editor say it was the most exciting manuscript to cross her desk in years. Or maybe I’ve heard other editors say they wish they had acquired a certain book, and they wish others would send them a book that good. I might be intrigued because a book is making an appearance on every awards-nomination list in the genre, or even winning every award that year. I might be curious about what’s making a particular book, author, or series so incredibly popular–bestseller lists, front-of-store displays, a Hollywood deal, etc. I also occasionally hear such negative gossip about a book, I’m curious to see why it’s so reviled. And sometimes, I just want to make sure that a story I’m working on or researching isn’t too similar to books already out there, so I’ll read any novel that I’m concerned may have already covered the ground I want to cover.

All of which is why I rarely relax when reading fantasy fiction, which is why it doesn’t get into my TBR pile much anymore.

As a professional writer, most of my TBR pile on any given day consists of research books for my own work. My current TBR pile, for example, contains piles of books about my current WIP (Work In Progress), which is set in New York City and involves urban explorers, vampires, underground Manhattan, vampire groupies, and Lithuanians. So I’m reading about all of these things. A recently-completed manuscript required me to read quite a bit about voodoo and other syncretic religions of the New World, Harlem, and natural drugs and poisons. Over the years, I’ve read stacks of books about volcanoes, prostitution, boats and seafaring, treasure hunting, horses, traditional weapons and combat, nomadic cultures, gladiators, alchemy and alchemists, demons and demonology, guns, poison, cops, various religions, shapeshifting, historical costume, life in Georgian country houses, and sanitary technology through the ages. To give a few examples.

So there’s always a lot of research in my TBR pile.

When it comes to relaxation, I usually prefer to read books that have nothing to do with my work. In fiction, I mostlly read outside my genre. My current TBR pile includes a thriller by a writer whose work I really like, a couple of mysteries from Poisoned Pen Press that were recommend by my mom, and a few historical novels. Most of my pleasure-reading in the past decade or so is nonfiction, and most of the rest of my TBR pile is nonfiction. This nonfiction selection is always varied and includes history, politics, art, travel, humor, biography, food, culture, etc. And whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, when it comes to pleasure-reading, I won’t stick with it past Chapter Two or Three if the writing doesn’t capture my attention.

Although I’m a wholly eclectic reader, rather than a fan of any genre, I otherwise choose my reading material pretty much the way that non-writing readers do: I’ll almost always try a book if it’s by a writer whose previous book I liked; I’ll usually try a book based on personal recommendation from a friend or relative who knows my tastes; I’ll often try a book because an interview with the author (on the radio or on the internet) got me interested in trying it; I’ll try books (particularly in nonfiction) based on subject matter. And sometimes, when browsing in a bookstore (which I love to do) something simply catches my eye, and I’ll try it because of that.

So my current TBR pile, while void of sf/f/h,  includes research and pleasure-reading, fiction and nonfiction, in a wide variety of sujects and genres. And it’s so high that I have virtually no chance of working my through it by the end of the year. Especially since I keep adding to it all the time!

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