news & reviews


The Quality Fantasy Debate

So, there appears to be some debate around the Internet, about ‘quality fantasy’. Firstly, there was this from literary guru, M John Harrison.

Substitute imagination for exhaustiveness, and inventiveness for research. As a reader I’m not interested in a “fully worked out” world. I’m not interested in “self consistency”. I don’t care what kind of underpants Iberian troops wore in 1812, or if I do I can find out about it for myself. I don’t want the facts about the Silk Road or the collapse of the Greenland Colony, sugared up & presented in three-volumes as an imaginary world. I don’t want to be talked through your enthusiasm for costume. I don’t want be talked through anything.

Then there was Mark Chadbourn’s call to action, against the threat of RPG saturation.

And it’s all been summarised, for now, on Ariel’s Genre Files site.

Essentially, fantasy literature is being challenged from all sides. I thought that since I’ve worked in bookselling, work in publishing, and am a mere babe at putting pen to paper. So perhaps I’ve got quite a well rounded knowledge on some of this.

The problem isn’t simply commercial vs art. My angle is one of economics. Over the last few years, large publishing houses have merged to become conglomerates, and there are few major genre houses left standing. This has meant that their sales expectations have gone up. Publishing is a business, let’s not forget that. But marketing departments have increasing input, some might say too much, in acquisitions of novels. What that means is editors face sales people and are asked the question is it commercial, will it sell x,y,z? If not, it’s unlikely to be taken forward. This doesn’t mean that nothing truly artistic will ever be published. But even at the front line, in bookselling, chains have to face supermarkets for market share of title. If less people go into bookshops, more into supermarkets, this means that sales expectations go up. There is less room for midlist authors. There is, generally speaking, less room for artistic experimentation. And yes, that means those pushing boundaries are less likely to see publication.

However, from the reader end of things, it means they are being presented with a certain type of novel. It means they have less choice at the mass market. The real question is that if they are presented with an innovative book, would they buy it? What type of innovation would they purchase? And we’d be very rich if we knew the answers to that. Also, it’s important to say this: not everyone wants innovation. Some people want a steady, easy read. Whether this is good or bad is something as wide open to opinion as you can get, and is another blog posting entirely—why people read in the first place.

What this does mean is that the small or limited edition presses can have a good deal more fun publishing experimental fantasy fiction, that which isn’t of a certain shape and form. They have creative freedom, and produce some wonderful books. If we want to see more innovative fiction, we must look to the small presses, and we must support them. This goes for any creative industry, surely, that the indies can produce more innovation. Or at least look a little harder, past the multi-buys, and spend more time browsing. Large publishers do take risks. Just look at Hal Duncan’s Vellum, for a recent example. Or indeed for mass market success combined with innovation, look at Sir Steven Erikson.

On Ariel’s blog:

David Hebblethwaite wonders: “…how many writers of unchallenging fantasy actually do make a comfortable living from their writing? Are there any writers of good quality material who make a living; and, if so, what differentiates them from writers of similar stuff who do not?” Good questions. Any writers out there care to comment?

Speaking from a publishing angle, of course it is hugely more likely that unchallenging fantasy authors can make a living, but it is the rare exception for any author, or at least 90% of authors, to make a comfortable living. I would never advise an author to give up working for a living to write, because of the uncertainties of the book industry. Unless in very rare circumstances. For example, in US publishing it is harder to publish a book by an author who has had an unsatisfactory sales record, as buyers for the chains will buy the new book based on how the last book sold, and order in to that level. So there is a risk of a downward spiral in an author’s career.

It’s not a pretty picture, but be happy that SF and Fantasy writers are in a community, which is far friendlier and greater than any other genre. Look at the amount of blogs out there. The amount of conventions. If anyone is in this for the money, whether they want to be the next M John Harrison, or the next be$t$eller, be prepared for disappointment, is all I say. You might be lucky, you might not.


Writers’ Networking Evening

As blogged by Alex, organiser of the fine Alt.Fiction convention, there’s a Writer’s Network Evening, at which I shall be spouting my opinions.

Sunday 14th October

A chance for local writers to get to know one another, as well as a local publishing panel featuring Mark Netwon (Solaris), Adrian Buckner (Poetry Nottingham), Sean Woodward (Dragonheart Press) and Alex Davis. You’ll also get to see Atonement for £2.50 at 8:30pm.

Metro Cinema, Derby
FREE, places limited
Booking—01332 340170


Book Review—FALLING MAN, by Don DeLillo

A performance artist hangs in statuesque pose. Knee bent. Upside down. The pose of the famously pictured man on 9/11. And this artist is effectively frozen in time. Which is the metaphor at the heart of Don Delillo’s latest novel, Falling Man. That of a moment in time so frozen, so embedded in characters minds, that they are unable to move on. They, too, are frozen in a moment.

The subject of 9/11 is a risky business. Not because of the content, but the weight of the content. It is difficult to avoid the more tabloid angles. But DeLillo takes a sidestep of this. That is, after his much quoted opening:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.

The full weight of the events of 9/11 are there, of course, but secondary—as much as they can be—to the effects on the every day routines of our existence. Those routines that will never quite be the same. Keith is a survivor, a lawyer in his late thirties, having walked from one of the towers before the collapse. His relationship with his wife is reignited in some primitive level, a focus on the needs we don’t really understand. But Keith soon has an affair with a black woman who suffered in the destruction of that day, forms a kind of therapy with her in their intimacy, a way of coping with the events. They never connect in any other context than the discussion of that day.

So where are the Big Issues that DeLillo has usually tackled in his books? The grand conspiracies?

I think I understand DeLillo’s intentions from the passage during a writing class:

From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss. We’re dealing inevitably here with diminishing returns. Their situation will grow increasingly delicate. These encounters need space around them. You don’t want them to feel there’s an urgency to write everything… The writing is sweet music up to a point. Then other things will take over.

He’s not after the obvious. Why do that when he’s done it before in his career, long before other people approached the subjects? He wants to focus on the effects. You get the idea he’s looking for that moment that we become human, in this almost inhumane (un-human?) situation we find ourselves in post-9/11.

And so the characters don’t really develop, they undevelop, peel back to some level before, searching for whatever it is to fix their lives since the destruction of the towers. Keith becomes heavily involved in poker games, for example, detached from the mechanisms of reality. His wife has flirtations with art and church. All the time his son looks towards the sky for more planes. This isn’t quite normal DeLillo territory. Gone are the almost claustrophobic paranoias that featured in his earlier works. There is a search for openness, perhaps honesty in things. But people seem unable to move on. They see the representation of the Twin Towers everywhere.

There is some questioning to be found, of the motives behind the suicide bombers, but this feels detached form the other sections. I wonder if it is there as a framework, or perhaps even to remind ourselves that the bomber had a human side too, once?

A more wonderful analysis can be found on the New York Times. But I applaud DeLillo for not doing the obvious thing, for not looking for headlines, and maybe this will surprise some.

Oh yeah, his prose is on sparkling form too. When DeLillo steps into third-person, he really riffs like a god.


A Thing I’d Do If I Had Too Much Money, No.1

Buy an Ent leaf.

Tolkien fans everywhere will soon be able to buy into a legend by subscribing to the public appeal to finance a sculpture celebrating the internationally acclaimed author and his Birmingham roots. From October 1st, courtesy of eBay, fans can bid for a metal leaf with a personalised dedication and associate themselves with this most famous of writers.

A mere snip at £500. No matter how much I like Tolkien, I think this is a bit too extravagant. Now if it was a real Ent, we could be talking business.

While I was on UKSF Book News, I see the British Fantasy Awards were announced. Nice to see a) a Pendragon novella winning b) Mark Chadbourn winning—a fine writer.


Book Review—THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem

This is an interesting one. The Fortress of Solitude is a book that’s difficult to catagorise. With brief genre moments, and certainly many nods towards SF / comic book fandom, it describes the lives of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. One white, one black, both growing up in Brooklyn. Not a simple friendship.

The first and largest chunk of the novel is in third person, following mainly Dylan’s family as they move into the area of New York populated mainly by blacks, a decision spurred on by his Bohemian mother. It is here that Jonathan Lethem gets in full prose swing, clearly echoing Don DeLillo, in mood, pace, sentence structure. And for me that’s not a bad thing at all, considering Mr DeLillo a deity. I still think so little is ever discussed of style, it’s worth making a point here how talented a stylist Lethem is.

Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong… The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.

One such sentence used to describe the poor quality education that Dylan must go through, and ultimately rise out of. Lethem’s voice is perfect to capture 70s America, with all the music, the language of the street, the graffiti, then the drugs. Lethem shows with warmness the racial tensions of the period, the yoking, the “yo, mama“, the social challenges of the area. When he bursts into those stream-of-consciousness style sentences, he’s poetic. Never quite riffing like DeLillo does, but still up there.

Dylan being one of the only white boys in the area suffers, inevitably, but not without making friends along the way. His relationship with Mingus is distantly affectionate, and Dylan does his best to blend in with black culture. But his geek side is too strong for him to remain bound by Brooklyn. Of course, a magic ring is thrown into the mix, granting invisibility, something Dylan appears to have craved, and the powers of flight. This ring came from someone who was on the way out of society, who seemed relieved to be rid of it.

The story breaks into first person, as we join Dylan after college, then looking back on college, before revisiting Brooklyn. You can’t help but by this point be totally immersed in his upbringing, so engaged, that this section stands up on the supporting frame of the third person narrative. They wouldn’t work without each other. Dylan is now suffering from an uncertain relationship with his past, almost unable to move on fully, Brooklyn never leaving him. Lethem writes with such an obvious love for the area. And all the time in the background is Dylan’s father, the painter of SF novel covers whilst working on a film, painstakingly, over the course of his life, never quite being finished. A relationship that is distant in the first section, ever more powerful towards the end of the novel. And of course there is the ring, revisited.

It is complex in places, hazy in others—but never meant to be clear. Only towards the end can we understand where he was going, and even then it is more a feeling, something within ourselves, our own childhood and future concerns, perhaps, that is brought to mind.

For lovers of style, sharp dialogue, and cultural investigation, this cannot be recommended enough.


Good Things I Have Read This Week

Two books—one fiction, one poetry collection.

The first is David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Four, the first book in the Red Riding Quartet. Set in 1974, young crime correspondent, Edward Dunford, The Yorkshire Post, is on the story of the murder of a young girl. The murder is particularly brutal, with, amongst other things being done to her, swan’s wings were stitched onto the body. Edward gets caught up in a hideously dark plot, covering police brutality, corruption, blackmail—and those are the easy going subjects. He gets the kicking of a lifetime more than once. It’s a fast moving novel, with Peace’s staccato sentences, and an evocative and ultra-minimal style. It is truly violent, claustrophobic, with dazzling images and sharp northern dialogue. The atmosphere of a bleak Seventies winter is captured perfectly. Not often I say not for those of a weak disposition, but Richard and Judy Book Club this ain’t. And that’s a great thing. Read more about David Peace on this Guardian blog.

The second book is The Rush To Here by George Murray.

This is a fantastic collection from a cutting-edge Canadian poet. Based on the traditional sonnet structure, Murray uses a “thought rhyme” instead of the usual form. It immediately transforms the sonnet into a more three-dimensional piece, so you’re looking at it from several angles. There’s an urgent feel to his words; a directness, a covering of a vast array of themes but with a sharp contemporary edge. More than worth taking a look at.


Book review – THE GIRL IN THE GLASS, by Jeffrey Ford

Another one taken from the Solaris blog, but I loved this book so much I had to put it up here too.

The Girl In The Glass, by Jeffrey Ford.

Being in publishing, you read all day, and so reading for pleasure becomes a little difficult—you always feel you’re reading to learn more about the industry, or sometimes just can’t read any more. I can’t say how wonderful it was to relax with a book written by an author in full control—so I just kicked back, in safe hands.

The Girl In The Glass is set in the Long Island area of America during the Depression. It is a time where spiritualism is seducing what wealthy people remain. You get an idea of some people refusing to look inwardly in times of desparation—people with more money than sense. Wealth is a powerful thing, and this becomes more apparent later on in the book.

The tale concerns a band of spiritual mediums (in reality, con artists), led by the gentleman’s gentleman, Thomas Schell. He’s the best there is. We follow the narrative of his assistant, a seventeen year-old Mexican immigrant, Diego—who poses as Ondoo, an Indian mystic. I won’t bog you down with plot detail—there are many good reviews via the medium of Google—but essentially we follow a truly unusual cast, and see their involvement in a murder mystery. It’s all because of a seemingly real ghostly vision: the girl in the glass. It becomes the most surprisingly gripping narrative I’ve read all year.

Seemingly simple, filled with historical information (but not, as some authors may do, vomited forth to bury the reader in useless detail just because they researched it), it is a delight to read. It is rich in symbolism, full of charming characters, and took off in a direction I couldn’t see coming at all.

The prose is elegant, clipped, fast; the narrative pace is as perfect as you’ll get. The Girl In the Glass touches on the fringe of fantasy; but I’m not sure where, as a bookseller, you’d put this on the shelf. Is it crime or fantasy? Sometimes I’m not sure if the fantasy elements are more subtle than you think.

So just take it off the shelf and read it instead. And you may as well find out where the rest of Jeffrey Ford’s books are. You’ll want them, too.


Novel Sale to Pendragon Press

First press release:

Debut Novel Sale to Pendragon

John Jarrold has sold limited-edition rights in THE REEF, the debut novel by Mark Charan Newton, to Chris Teague at Welsh publisher Pendragon Press.

The novel, a fantastical story set mostly among the islands of an imagined world, has echoes of both Joseph Conrad and China Miéville, but is very much Mark’s own invention. Mark’s writing has already received this accolade from critically-acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer: ‘Mark Newton is a promising new writer whose prose is dynamic and whose imagination is often startling.’

‘Mark was one of the first authors I took on after setting up the agency in 2004,’ said John Jarrold. ‘I’m really delighted to have done this deal, and I have no doubt his reputation will grow very quickly, within and without the genre.’

Contact John Jarrold for further information by e-mail at j.jarrold[at]btinternet[dot]com or by phone at 01424 440652.