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Personal Canons: All the Birds in the Sky

I had an informal rule for myself, at the start of this series. The rule was that I would focus on books written by people I don’t know and have never met, for all the socially-relevant reasons that one might do that.

But in the past several days, I’ve had ample cause to remember what the Dutch masters kept trying to hammer home every time they painted a skull in the midst of a pile of fruit: life is fleeting. The reaper is constantly hovering behind us all like an awkward guy at a party who wants to be part of the conversation but isn’t really sure how to break in. I’m clumsy enough that it’s possible I might fall into an open grave any day now.

So fuck it. I’m gonna talk about All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

This book fundamentally and permanently changed my approach to storytelling.

All the Birds in the Sky came out in January of 2016, about a week before I would start drafting my first novella, River of Teeth. That project would mark my first foray out of the world of short stories. Tackling something longer than 7000 words was thrilling and terrifying, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I made an alarming number of spreadsheets, wrote a pretty bad first draft, was rescued by beta and sensitivity readers, wrote a pretty good second draft, and sent it off to a literary agent I’d been talking to so they could tell me if it was anything. Around the time I sent that draft to that literary agent, I started outlining my debut novel, Magic for Liars.

In roughly that same timeframe, I read All the Birds in the Sky.

If you haven’t already read this book, you absolutely should. It is in many ways a love letter to both science fiction and fantasy; it simultaneously contains a tender critique of the foibles of each. Through two narratives, the novel weaves the two supposedly-distinct genres together into a truly masterful accomplishment of a story.

Reading All the Birds in the Sky was a revelation. I’d never read anything like it before. It engaged with tropes and conventions in ways that revealed a rich understanding of genre, without ever falling into cliché. The narrative was simultaneously sincere and playful, honest and elusive, sly and heartfelt.

Before I lost myself in All the Birds in the Sky, most of my understanding of and enjoyment of contemporary genre fiction and media was defined by brittleness and snark. This isn’t to say that sincere sentiments weren’t out there — but sincere sentiments weren’t what I understood to be successful. They weren’t what I understood to be the mode of the day.

The goal, as I saw it, was to refute the notion that genre fiction was unselfaware. The goal was to be cool and aloof and maybe a little mean to fans. To narratively acknowledge a trope was, by necessity, to make fun of the trope. It was a bullyproofing mechanism: nobody could make fun of us if we made fun of ourselves, first.

As I recall, there was a good amount of this in the first draft of River of Teeth. But as I read All the Birds in the Sky — and as I revised the weird little novella I’d decided to write — something shifted. I watched the narrative dance with preexisting literary conventions, instead of shoving them aside or stomping on them. I felt the palpable joy of a genuine love for genre fiction.

I realized, as I neared the end of the book, that for the first time I could remember, I was reading a story that loved me, the reader, back. At no point did the book make me feel self-conscious for enjoying it. It didn’t punish me, as the then-thriving genre of grimdark often seemed to, for wanting to read it. Even when the story was difficult, even when characters were hurting, I felt cared for and respected as a reader.

As I prepared to again revise River of Teeth and to pitch Magic for Liars, I thought of that shift. I thought of the feeling of being cared for as a reader. I thought of the skillful way in which All the Birds in the Sky connected with the intricacies of genre instead of dismissing them. I thought of how, for the first time, I had witnessed an enormously ambitious project being strengthened by sincerity. And in those few whirlwind weeks of writing and editing and brainstorming and planning, my philosophy of writing began at last to solidify.

This, I realized, is the kind of author I would strive to be. Clever, but more thoughtful than I am clever. Smart, but kinder than I am smart. I decided that I would spend my career trying to bring my readers caring, joy, and above all, respect.

I haven’t always succeeded, and I won’t always succeed. But I will always try, because if I can make even one reader feel the way I did when I was reading All the Birds in the Sky, the trying will have been worth it.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.

Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.