Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Love Me, Love My Author?

I have a confession to make: I've never read a novel by Dorothy Dunnett. I've never even tried. I do, however, have a copy of King Hereafter in my book annex, otherwise known as my garage. But that's the closest I've come to reading her.

One reason I suspect I've let King Hereafter sit forlornly in the garage is the overzealousness of some of Dunnett's readers, who take the decided opinion that if you don't care for Dunnett's works, you must be simply too dense to grasp her wit and subtlety. I saw this phenomenon recently on a Yahoo group where an avid fan declared loftily that those who like historical romance will not like Dunnett, whereas those who like historical fiction will. In other words, if you don't like Dunnett, it must be because you're an intellectual lightweight who should stick to reading novels with lead characters named "Vixen" and "Blade." Or maybe just to coloring books.

Now, it's natural, I suppose, when one is wildly enthusiastic about an author, to try to win as many converts as possible. But deriding the tastes of those who don't share yours doesn't have the desired effect. In fact, it can even backfire on the hapless author: if a writer's fans are jerks, it's too easy to suppose that her books appeal to jerks, and to pass them by accordingly.

This sort of zealotry is by no means confined to Dunnett admirers, of course, and it's by no means confined to fans of authors either: readers who dislike an author can be just as intolerant of differing opinions. In this case, a unsuspecting reader will offer the name of an author for discussion, only to be greeted with a curt "Ooh! How can you like her? She's awful."

But it's getting late and Boswell is getting tired, so let's get back to Dunnett. Tell me what your favorite Dunnett novel is. Tell me who your favorite Dunnett character is. Tell me what you like about her novels. Tell me why I might like her novels. Quote some good bits to me. But don't tell me that if I read her and don't like her, it means my brain is full of mush. Because stubborn cuss that I am, all that does is make me reach for a novel by someone else--and goodness knows, there's no shortage of alternatives.


Meghan said...

Um, I'll be honest here; my first Dorothy Dunnett is lying at the bottom of my TBR pile with a bookmark halfway through. In other words, unfinished. I found it a serious struggle to get through, mainly because I don't know Latin or French. I know Latin now and I've come across enough French that I can probably guess a little better, so I might try it again. I was astonished that I didn't like it given all the praise she gets in historical fiction circles, but there it is.

Kate said...

King Hereafter is a good one to start with - for a start it is a stand alone book instead of a series. I find you have to persist for a while - they don't grab you from the first page. Once you are into them though, they are powerful books with characters you will remember for years. King Hereafter had me in tears at the end. Dorothy Dunnett has a way of starting with someone you don't understand and probably don't like, then taking you on a journey with them so you gradually know them better, begin to understand what makes them tick and end up so tied up in their life you can't bear the book to end. At the same time there is a huge amount of historical background that gives you completely new insights into the places and times without ever feeling that you are being given a lesson. I hope you will try them - people sometimes get carried away in their enthusiasm, but there is a good reason people feel so passionately about them.

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

I have all of the Lymond Chronicles (I think that's right?) but haven't read a one -- not because I don't want to (or why would I have them?) but because a full set of a series, staring me in the face, is daunting. That's what happens when you discover an author later on and can get all the books at once, instead of one by one. The "snobbery" aspect you mentioned is a valid one -- while my favorite type of novels are historical in nature, I flit between genres -- and I enjoy them all. It just depends on my mood at the moment, as to what I want to read. Eventually, though, I am going to read Dunnett. I am.

Marie Burton said...

I have most of the Niccolo Series except for two. I haven't read a word of them yet. I hope I am not too disappointed, but happy that I did not spend a lot of money on the books in the first place.

And I agree, Susan.. that categorizing readers into groups that you outline is silly. I enjoyed the chick-lit Janet Evanovich stories as well as something different then those, such as Historical Fiction author S. Penman; so it really is pointless to categorize people as to what they read. Because it just depends on my mood as to what I will enjoy at any given moment and it has nothing to do with my mushy brain.

LadyDoc said...

Well, I haven't read any of her books either, and I don't even have any on my TBR list.

But I do understand the sensation of backlash against those whose "fandom", for lack of a better word, implies that stupidity is the only explanation for those who do not agree with them. Over the years of trolling the Internet I have seen such displays among fans of make-up, papercrafting supplies, you name it! My only reaction is that a) "these people need to get a life!" and b) I'll shop elsewhere, just because of them.

misfitandmom said...

I finally read the Lymond Chronicles after they languised on my TBR pile for a couple of years - I was terrified to read them. I really enjoyed it but I admit that much of the Latin and French went right over my head. I loved Francis, he was a very flawed character with good and bad and I have to say Dunnett can write some incredible scenes. The steeple chase race, wow.

That said, I doubt we'll ever escape book snobbery. I'm sure there's readers out there who look at what I'm reading and stick their noses up because they'd rather see War and Peace. To each their own - at least we're reading.

Daphne said...

I struggled through one of her books (Niccolo Rising) and couldn't make it through the second so I guess that means my brain is mushy! I decided there were too many other books I wanted to read to spend my time on something I really was not enjoying.

Anne Gilbert said...

Interesting that the comments on Dunnett are pretty much a "mixed bag". Some like her style, some just don't. Let me tell you my experience with Dunnett, and see what you think. Some years ago, having heard from somewhere, I can't now recall where -- that Dorothy Dunnett was a "must read" historical novelist, I started checking the Lymond series out of the local library. For the record, I'm pretty much a sci-fi fan(though some sci-fi writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, hate that term), but I like good, well-written historical novels, too.

But the Lymond series -- which I read all of -- began to annoy me. I have a pretty good vocabulary, and I can parse out French and some Latin if I have to, but her use of obscure words which you had to go to the dictionary for, really bothered me, partly because it seemed kind of condescending for an author to make you work thathard, and partly because doing this just interrupts the flow of the work, IMO. There were a number of other things, that I won't go into here, and there were times when I was reading along, and had no idea how I'd gotten from Point A to Point B in some of the books in the series. But I did read the entire Lymond series,from beginning to end.

A few years later, I came across King Hereafter. I remembered the Lymond series, and wondered if I should give her a second chance, simply because of the subject matter and the period. So I did. And I found exactly the same problems! When I later brought this up with avid Dunnett fans on various venues, and suggested that my problem with her was a "stylistic" one, I got the "snob" treatment too, even though I was careful to explain that I do have a pretty good vocabulary and actually understood some of her references, but again, thought them rather patronizing. I also was quite willing to acknowledge that tastes differ, and if someone is a fan of her writing, who am I to argue. But, by the same token, these "snobbish" Dunnett fans ought to acknowledge that it's perfectly all right to differ as to reading taste. BTW, yes indeed, Susan, these kinds of likes and dislikes and "fandoms" exist among readers of other genres as well. There are legions of sci-fi readers who dismiss Ursula Le Guin as "merely" a fantasy writer(but she's not, though her later work has tended to be aimed at YA readers). And that's just one example.
Anne G

Julianne Douglas said...

Susan, Dunnett is one of my favorite authors of all time, and I'll be the first to admit that a lot of her allusions and even finer plot points go right over my head. However, that doesn't ruin my enjoyment of her books--in fact, I know I'll find more to admire every time I read the books. It's probably a good idea to start out with KING HEREAFTER (which I myself have not yet read). The first volume of the Lymond chronicles is hard to get through, as you have to adjust to her style. I truly think that book suffers from being a first novel and that the author "tried too hard." The later volumes are definitely more engaging and easier going. If you can make it through vol 1 of Lymond, you're set (and probably hooked). My favorite scene of all time is the chessmatch at the end of PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE where Lymond and his enemy play chess, with their friends as life-size pieces, for the fate of a child who might or might not be Lymond's own. The tension is beautifully sustained and the outcome heartrending. I think that vol is one of her best, although there is much of her work that is exquisite. Don't refuse to indulge yourself because of a few snobs! It's a pleasure to read books that challenge as well as entertain, and you'll get so caught up in the story you won't realize you're working so hard!

bookreviewer117 said...

I've never read Dorothy Dunnet either. My mother has read her and likes her, but says that it can take a lot of work to follow everything you need to follow (she mentioned having various textbooks open along with the Dunnet novel) and then recommended I get done with grad school and my thsis/dis before plunging into the murky world of Dunnet.

And though I love reading, I just don't have time for a book that requires side reading of textbooks right now. (I'm not sure I'll ever have time for that, frankly.)

Sari said...

"On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt." Is that not a great first sentence? It is from Disorderly Knights, third in the Lymond Chronicles.

Dunnett is my favourite historical novelist for many reasons. I think her grasp of the period is solid and I feel like I am in safe hands as far as "real" history goes.

I love her characters, not just the main characters, but I find even the secondary and tertiary characters interesting and worth knowing.

I think she writes a mean set-piece. Her books have many of them from the Papingo shoot in Game of Kings to mock theatricals leading to a character's realisation of being in love in Ringed Castle, and each and every one of them are vivid, exciting and gripping.

I love her complex plots. It has never occurred to me that reading her works would need textbook on the side, if there is something I don't get - and there is - I just skip over it and go on. This might be less of a problem for me because English is my third language, and so reading in English has always had an element of skipping over unfamiliar words, puzzling things out from context and often just having a surprise in store in the end because you missed something.

Of course, for us dedicated fans, the textbooks become part of the fun on subsequent reads when we are tracing her plots or historical factlets. I mean, I have post-its on my Game of Kings to help me trace some of her mcguffins, but that is just a way to get out something more from a beloved book.

Wether or not you like Dunnett or not has nothing whatsoever to do with how intellectual you are, and dissing readers who just don't like her allusive and dense style is both counter-productive and impolite.

I find Dunnett's plots sometimes too baroque, her character's sometimes too modern for their time and sometimes too opaque, and think that Niccolo ends with a bit of a whimper instead of a bang. But like Tolkien desierd dragons, I desire Lady Dunnett's historicals. They are among the very few books that have made me forget everything else except the next page.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, all (especially to the new names I see here)! See, you Dunnett fans here have convinced me to give her a try after all. (Now you just need to help me find some spare time.)

Susan A said...

Maybe I will give her a try as well. I have never finished any of her books except for King Hereafter.
Susan, I normally finish your books in 2 days...

Eigon said...

I've read some of the Lymond books (out of order) and I'm trying to read the Niccolo books in order.
Dorothy Dunnett certainly creates a world to immerse yourself in - and what I liked about it is that England is only incidental. Most historical fiction I've come across is firmly Anglocentric, but Dorothy Dunnett sent her characters just about anywhere in the world except England!

When I read the first Lymond novel, I also got out the Antonia Fraser book on Mary, Queen of Scots, to see how the fiction and the factual fitted together. Just about exactly, as far as I can tell - and DD's plots are so convoluted that she must have covered a whole wall with her timelines!

I love the set piece action scenes, too, like the Papingo shoot - and the chess game in Pawn in Frankincense had me in tears.
There are huge amounts of research in each one, as well - the sugar plantation in Cyprus, for example, in every detail.

Something to re-read to pick up all the details that weren't noticed (or the foreign language quotations I didn't get first time round), I think.

There is a companion to the books, which explains all the quotations and little historical details, for all those readers who need a glossary.

Marg said...

I haven't read any yet either. I borrowed one of the books from the library once but never even managed to read the first sentence let alone anymore!

I do have to wonder though, what happens if you like both historical romance and historical fiction - you will be left with a confused opinion?