So many things that I enjoy cause me anxiety. I want to read more of Simon Ings’ Wolves, but I’m anxious about what’s going to happen. I want to play more of Alien: Isolation, but I’m terrified about playing a game where all my expected game agency is stripped away and I’m left mostly helpless inside an industrial hell. Last year, I was anxious about reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, with it’s harrowing final act. But for these things, that’s the point. They are meant to provoke discomfort, as without that feeling they’d toothless. The question that I face as I look at the closed paperback or hover the cursor over Steam’s ‘play game’ icon is, why should I feel like shit when reading a novel or playing a game?
With Wolves, as with Perdido Street Station, it’s the writing that makes me want to feel that way. With Alien: Isolation, it’s not the game play, or even a very strong attachment to the source material, but the quality of visual design that triumphs over ill-feeling. Do you know what I want in Alien: Isolation? A tourist mode. A way of turning off the demonic xenomorph and the pesky humanoids. I want to walk and crawl around the Sevastopol and soak in the atmosphere without distraction.
This can’t be done with prose or films. You can’t just remove arbitrary elements from a book and expect to still have something that’s mostly the same. Everything there is too tightly coupled. It’s not something that I can easily do with a game that I’ve bought off the internet and don’t have access to the source code for it. But more than just not being able to do it for technical reasons. The anxiety effect is cumulative in every sentence, paragraph, texture and sound effect that the thing has. If, somehow, the distressing elements were removed then the thing itself would be pointless. The writing wouldn’t be as interesting and the visual design would become sterile.
It’s a problem because I’m terrible at overcoming the initial starting discomfort and that stops me from getting into the things that I enjoy. I need to be braver.
Please sit on the other side of the confessional screen and listen to my sin: I’ve only finished reading five novels this year. I’m sorry, but I just haven’t had the time naturally occur. And because of this it feels that for most of the year something important has been absent from my life.
I have however not finished a bad novel this year. All of the books that I’ve forced myself through have been in their own way examples of excellence. I started the year with The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson and then moved onto the first Martin Beck novel Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, for something easier to digest. It was after this I started reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I only finished the crawl through it’s ~800 pages the other week, but it probably isn’t to blame for the limited number of novels, since I rattled through the last twenty-five percent in the space of a week. While reading Perdido I took a day trip to read Joanna Russ’s short novel We Who Are About To after hearing it being evangelised at Eastercon in Bradford. The most recent and last novel I’ve finished was The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, the second Martin Beck novel by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Again, something easier to digest after the heavy meal of Perdido.
The reason I’m sharing this dismal fact is not because I’m proud of it. And although I’m not sure if I’m utterly ashamed of this poor record, as it just happened, I don’t remember what I spent the time not spent reading doing. Yes, I’ve spent hours trying to write short fiction. And I’ve played video games and watched films and TV series, but not all the time. I don’t know where this year has gone. It has evaporated over the course of five novels.
Now I suppose that this is the point where I’m meant to share a solution to the current situation or raise a question from the audience/priest to find help, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing here. No, all I want to do is record my sin against literature that in the eleven months that have passed this year I have only read five novels.
It isn’t the worst crime, but I wish to remember it so that I will perform my penance of reading more next year.