“The internet is a powerful tool for communication, but it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. As most of us have seen or experienced, the internet can bring out the worst behavior in people, highlighting some of the cruelest and most hurtful aspects of humanity. Issues such as bullying online and trolling have garnered a lot of attention recently, prompting questions about who does, and should, regulate the internet, and what free speech means online.”
I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.
I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:
And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.’
I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).
Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.
But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.
A couple of book-related pieces. First, UK book chain Waterstones has decided to get into bed with Amazon and sell Kindles and Kindle eBooks in its physical stores:
As well as selling the Kindle device, Waterstones will allow Kindle users to digitally browse books and take advantage of Waterstones’ special offers.
In a statement, James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said: “The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop.”
It seems only yesterday, James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said this about his digital strategy:
“We’ll be different from Amazon,” he says, with characteristic ebullience, “and we’ll be better.”
Actually, it was yesterday. Make of that u-turn what you will.
I’m not quite sure what to think of this just yet. The merging of corporate power is always worrying, especially since publishers will be the ones to suffer: they’ll have to stump up even more for promotions and they’ll be made to offer even more discount to this monopoly-to-be. It’s amazing just how much Amazon charges to send out promotional emails. This also means consumers suffer through a lack of choice.
On another level, this could nudge-out self-published authors and smaller presses from a crowded marketplace. Such smaller presses had free reign for a while, but if customers significantly enter Waterstones to browse for books, then they’ll be under the influence of what publishers have paid for in terms of positioning (you think those books just get put in visible places for no reason?), before downloading onto their devices. This means those publishers who pay the most money will probably get what they want; but then again, that’s how the industry has always worked.
All ifs and buts and contradictions, of course, but I do wonder what Mr Daunt is up to. He’s clearly a clever chap, so why the epic u-turn? Is there some unbelievable footnote that we’ve all missed? Are Amazon funding some of the refurbishment and so on? Is it short-termism or a clever long-term strategy? Are Amazon using this as a way to get into physical stores and sell books from their own publishing imprints? Will we see a rebranding as Kindlestones?
Personally, I’d actually quite like to be able to browse and download to my iPad (not Kindle) – but whether that’s possible or not, whether other formats are supported or not, I don’t know. Let’s hope this doesn’t mean DRM is flavour of the month again. I’m still bamboozled as to how Amazon’s shit device can possess such a large share of the market.
Speaking of small presses and self-published authors: this is the perfect example of how a writer should not go about publicising their own books:
I hate to further bring attention to what has since been called: “Mathias’s Meltdown”, but I think his aggressive advertising tactics and willingness to bring negative attention to himself warrant discussion.
It’s worth following. Chuck Norris has nothing on this guy.
Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’ …
Via Brain Pickings.
From the introduction of his 1977 book Picked-up Pieces, John Updike offers six rules on good reviewing (which, unfortunately assume the author is male):
My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio- fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:
- Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
- Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
- Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
- Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
- If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
Whether or not it’s a good or bad trend (and being an author I’m bound to mention this point), I suspect too few reviewers of science fiction and fantasy fiction really seem to put much effort into point 1. Perhaps that’s because genre critics are fascinated with taxonomy and heritage, and end up trying to compare the book to others, rather than examining it in isolation. Maybe that’s just the nature of genre, though.
Expertise. An editor making a choice. Having someone who knows their shit put things in front of you, rather than you hacking through the vast swathe of content online to find something that interests you; or having to trawl through customer reviews that look as if they’re written by people with as many IQ points as letters in their name (iTunes, LoveFilm and Amazon – I’m looking at you).
It’s a subject that’s been on my mind recently, as I’ve recently started using the Band of the Day app for the iPad. It’s pretty nifty, built on the simple concept that a bunch of people who know their shit harvest a bio, samples and videos and present them in an appealing way. It’s rekindled my interest in music, which I’ll admit I’ve lost recently. There’s so much nonsense out there, that it’s nice to find some sincere people who clearly love music and have taken the time to present it well.
I guess that it’s the same with book editors, too. Sure they’re there to sell stuff, but book editors have to trawl through lots of submissions to put what they think is decent stuff out there (of course, on ‘decent’ your milage may vary). They think it’s good. They want you to like it too. Editors of review sites, too, also play the same game (though in some quarters I’d like to see more editorial opinion and consistency). The gatekeeper still has a role to play.
I think there’s a danger that editorial opinion online is lost to the subconscious yearning for an apparent choice. Editorial selections are, for me, becoming increasingly important once again. I don’t want to look through hundreds of opinions, which is probably why I find LoveFilm customer reviews to be useless. There was a time where I was all for having essentially crowd-voted suggestions on good music and literature, but I’ve found that my tastes seem to differ from the average ratings far more often than not. This is not at all to dismiss crowd-sourced opinion – it has it’s place, and for some it’s very important – but these days I want experienced people who have good knowledge to put what they think is the best in front of me, so I might discover something new and interesting, and maybe better myself in the process. It’s like trusting the person in a music shop who enthuses about certain bands, or have someone explain a piece of artwork to you. It makes, somehow, for a far richer experience.
Vaguely related to online culture, I noticed an interesting article in the New Statesman about not leaving comments at the bottom of articles:
When I give someone a book as a present, I don’t hand them a marker pen so they can scrawl “DID YOU GET PAID FOR THIS?” on the final page. So when did we get the idea that allowing comments on articles was a Good Thing?
The anti-comment backlash has been gathering pace for a while now. Every so often, a writer puts their head above the parapet to say that, actually, they don’t really enjoy every facet of their life, career and appearance being raked over directly underneath an article they’ve spent time crafting. Or that they feel slightly miffed that a drive-by “YOUR SHIT” or “FIRSSSST” gets almost equal prominence with their original work.
A few places have already taken the step of removing comments: one of them is the satirical Daily Mash website. “One of our well-worn catchphrases is: “I have no interest in your worthless, ill-informed opinion. And we’re not kidding,” the Mash’s editor, Neil Rafferty, told me. “What you don’t want is to write a piece of comedy and immediately below it, have lots of people trying to be funnier than you. It’s a tiresome experience and it detracts from the actual article. It was banned fairly early on; we tried it for two weeks and it was hellish.”
Roman Vindolanda is well worth your time. Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, it was a frontier fort and village, occupied for over 300 years. It’s constantly spurting archeological treasures, such as the famous Vindolanda Writing Tablets, which are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in the UK, and the oldest one written in Latin by a woman – anywhere. The museum is excellent, though doesn’t permit photographs unfortunately. I was so inspired, I very nearly bought a replica Roman helmet and sword. Very nearly.
I’ve recently discovered Day One, a journal app for iPhone, iPad and MacBook. And because of Day One, I’ve also rediscovered the joys of private writing.
One of the things that I lost over the years, as a novelist, was the pleasure of unpublished writing. Now, of course, the joys of being published far outweigh that – I’m not even going to pretend otherwise. Having an audience of people who actually want to look at the things you put down on paper, that’s amazing.
But there’s a lot to be said about writing solely for myself.
I downloaded the app as an experiment in nature writing. One of the books I enjoyed so much last year was Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was a posthumous collection of observations and reflections ironically not intended for publication. As a result, they were very raw and honest, which came together as an utterly fascinating piece of literature. Inspired by that, I’ve started making my own broad sketches, thoughts of the natural world and so on. Sure, I used to have a writer’s notebook, but these days I ended up just firing emails to myself as reminders of thoughts – hardly ideal. And if I’m honest, even then I was conscious and hopeful that my writing might one day see publication in one form or another, that what I was writing would find an audience. Not so with using the Day One app.
Perhaps I grew out of reflection to some extent – or at least reflecting in quite the same way as I used to. Publishing deadlines probably do that to a writer. But the Day One app seems to fit so nicely into a busy life – I can make notes on the go, sync it in the cloud with my other devices, so I can pick it up and continue that line of thought at home. It inspires inward thought, and I don’t have to arse about with pen and paper while I’m at it.
And the important thing for any of these pieces of writing is that they are not for publication. Unlike a writer’s notebook, I never intend for any of these sketches to be seen by anyone other than me. Unlike a blog or Twitter, they’re not out there in the hope someone stumbles across them. It’s very liberating. It’s something of a relief, in fact, to be writing without the angst or the worry. It even seems a brief countercultural statement in an age where everyone likes to punt out a piece of writing online. Sure, this is all self-indulgent nonsense, but isn’t that what private writing is about?