On The End Of Publishing

Yep, it’s that time of year again, usually before the Christmas period, where people begin to cry out and lament the end of publishing as we know it.

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

Generally, it’s only ever the filthy celeb-obsessed end of the book world that tends to be affected by such nonsense, so I’ll sleep all right in genre tonight.


Fantasy And Revolution

I discovered this old article with China Miéville on fantasy and revolution, and there are some very good things discussed.

Fantasy’s of interest to me because I grew up on it, and–along with horror and science fiction (SF), three inextricably linked genres–it’s still the stuff that I love to read.
For socialists in general, it seems to me that there are three main reasons. The first is a question of mass culture. Look at a bestseller list: Stephen King, J K Rowling and Terry Pratchett are up there in neon lights. Tolkien is one of the most popular writers of the century. I think we should be interested in why certain artistic forms and genres are popular, and try to understand them.

The second factor is that fantasy, SF and horror are completely denigrated as vulgar and sub-literary by mainstream critics. I’d say that socialists’ antennae should be raised by counter-cultures, subcultures and alternatives to ‘polite’ taste. I’m suspicious any time the semi-official arbiters of ‘quality’ tell us, with thinly veiled snobbery, that something is beneath their dignity. (I’m not suggesting that marginality is an automatic badge of quality, of course.)

Finally, and most intriguingly, there seems to be an odd affinity between radical politics and fantastic fiction. There are a number of writers of fantasy and SF who have serious left politics of some stripe. Iain Banks is a socialist, Ken MacLeod and Steven Brust are Trotskyists, Ursula Le Guin and Michael Moorcock are left anarchists, and there are plenty of others, right the way back to William Morris and before. Look at Surrealism, arguably the high point of the fantastic in the arts, and a movement many of whose adherents saw systematic socialist politics as inextricable to their aesthetic. Of course, there are plenty of excellent fantasy writers who aren’t political, or who are right wing, but I think the size of the minority at least begs the question as to whether there’s something in the form of the writing that lends itself to radical or subversive aesthetics.

Of course, the essential thing to note is that even though it’s a few years old, to me it’s just as relevant, as are many of such articles at the time, but I’m trying to understand why exactly.

Perhaps it’s a little nostalgic on my part, but I often wonder, did the New Weird actually have a noticeable impact on fantasy after all, or has the quality of fantasy literature—and by that, I suspect I mean the ability for fantasy to be artistic and challenging as well as entertainment—not moved forward like we once hoped it might? (I’d still consider myself part of that ghost of a movement—or at least, believe I’m possessed by the spirit of it.) How many blogs really get into the meat of fantasy being a wonderful literary art form?


On Power

Quote of the day:

The point is that the problem of power is never going away. There is no magical system or set of institutions that will solve that problem. It doesn’t matter whether we have rule by private fiefdoms, or public states or anarchist communes or theocratic religious enclaves, the human being is still a predatory animal, most people are still creatures of the herd, and it is the wolves rather than the sheep that get to the top. So the question is how do we keep the wolves at bay? And this includes the police wolves, politician wolves, and businessman (or union boss) wolves as well as the common criminal wolves.

I actually think the polycentric / decentralist / federalist / subsidiarity principle is a helpful one, but I also think this can be reconciled with both the conservative and anarchist, libertarian and communitarian traditions. So we really don’t need to spend a lot of time arguing about it.


Future Of The English Language

Word geekery: the future of the English (American) language.

Predicting the future of the English language is rather easy, in the short term. The odds are, over the next few decades its New World dialects are going to gain increasing global dominance, accelerating the demise of thousands of less fortunate languages but at long last allowing a single advertisement to reach everybody in the world. Then after a century or two of US dominance some other geopolitical grouping will gain the ascendancy, everyone will learn Chechen or Patagonian or whatever it is, and history will continue as usual. Ho hum. But apart from that… what might the language actually look like in a thousand years time?

Via Bookninja.

Down my street, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this happened within a thousand years.


On Signings

I’ve yet to do a big signing, but here’s an interesting article on them.

To some authors, the book-signing is a curse. What could be more excruciatingly dull, to the sensitive creative mind, than to sit for hours in a festival tent or bookshop, inscribing your name on several hundred copies of your new masterpiece? This isn’t a proper display of your writing talent – a baboon scratching the dirt with a stick could do it just as well. To other authors, signing books for the public is a sacramental act, a talismanic ritual in which the bond between writer and reader, expressed in a few words of warm mutual stroking, is sealed by the seminal squiggle of ink. Between these extremes of attitude lies the truth: book signings are a repetitive chore, mitigated by the pleasure, for authors, of meeting their buying public, and the joy, for readers, of meeting the mind that dreamt up an imaginative creation which lives in their heads. But such is the demand for signed copies that authors often have to sign several thousand books in private, to be sold later.

They’re a great humbler, signings. When I worked for Ottakar’s, at one store I looked after events, and it could be terribly embarrassing when you had two people turn up for a signing (and that was if you were lucky). We had decent-selling authors have no one turn up for their gig. Other small-time writers have a loyal following, but you can tell a lot about a writer by how they react to having few people turn up. Many remain sanguine, which is wonderful. But there are some horror stories that I’ve heard in the book-selling network (my word, do booksellers gossip!) that I couldn’t possibly divulge on such a public forum.


Chick-Lit Cover Up

From the Guardian.

When we look at a book, its cover tells us what to expect. A pink paperback featuring a smiling young woman is most likely a female-centric summer read, whereas a gun on a black background is probably a murder story. A few simple aesthetic rules narrow our options, make life easier and ensure none of us has to wander Waterstone’s for hours, wailing in confusion. And yet the rules seem to be changing. Having cottoned on to the fact that chick lit books sell like cupcakes, publishers are now adding chick lit-style covers to any book written by a woman whether it fits the genre definition or not… books aimed at women are becoming increasingly homogenised, girly and bland-looking.

The first comment on the post sums it up for me: “It’s very simple, really. If women refused to buy books with patronising covers, the publishers would soon change their tune.”

True. Publishers respond to what sells, and try to capture the sales of popular books by making theirs look similar. And why wouldn’t you? You’re a business, after all. If customers don’t buy them, they won’t do it again. Otherwise, is it such a bad thing for an author if more people read their books because the cover is a particular pastel shade which doesn’t sit well with you?


No Myth

Took me ages to find this graph. I remember studying data from sources like ice-cores sediment at university. Now, I occasionally subscribe to theories of ol’ Friedman, but that does not mean I deny things like this:

Source: IPCC, Working group I, Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), Third Assessment Report (TAR), page 3.

Guess I should read up.


Serious About Genre

Michael Chabon gets serious about genre at the LA Times.

Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?

In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It’s impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon’s Law said that 90% of everything is crud.

Via Bookninja