Tag: and another thing…


Old Bloggers’ Retirement Home

Pat’s debating giving up SFF blogging:

After 6 years, a couple of millions of visitors from over 100 countries, 263 book reviews and counting, many fun and interesting interviews, and countless giveaways and related SFF material, maybe it’s time to hang ’em up. . .

It would be sad to see Pat’s blog end. I paid close attention to the blogosphere over the years, from my days setting up Solaris. I’ve seen so many reviewers come and go. Back then, it was easy to see the potential. We were a smallish publisher who relied upon people power, since we couldn’t afford massive marketing campaigns or to spend thousands of pounds on advertising. Without getting too quixotic, I liked to think of blogging as a bit of a grassroots literary community. It was about a few people who loved the genre and loved talking about it, who did not have an agenda. More importantly, it was not influenced by publishers – they were busy courting print reviewers. At Solaris then, we wanted to be part of that debate. We happened to be fans in a good place – fans in charge of an imprint. There existed a mere handful of bloggers, not many more. As editors, we got to talk to most of them, got to know them a little too. To chat about books with others was a wonderful job.

The difference these days? As I said on Twitter:

I think the difference in book blogging is that 4 years ago publishers ignored you. Now they realise you can make them money.

Whether you like it or not, bloggers, all publishers now want to make money from you. Whenever you mention their books, there is a chance they will sell more copies. While for the most part publishers love being in the community and probably would anyway (don’t forget, many are geeks too), it’s also ridiculously simple to see the awkward corporations blunder about to focus debate in their court (they’re the ones that use terms like “networking” and “building communities”). They started to realise this potential only a couple of years ago, and who can blame them for trying to get you on their side? Their business depends upon it. Margins are tight. Supermarkets are screwing them for discount. Life is tough on the frontline. So free books started being sent out to bloggers – to this new reviewing middle-class, in order to monopolise word-of-mouth publicity. And more people realised they could join the debate and start their own blog. Some did it for the free stuff, and they kind of fell away quickly because they couldn’t keep up with the sheer volume of demand from publishers.

Why I am waffling on like an old man? I don’t know. Twitter was abuzz last night with people commenting that the community wasn’t what it used to be, and that there was a growing distance, even growing rudeness. Also, people seem to find it increasingly difficult to find things to talk about, and I understand that.

Some random thoughts on those points:

1) You are not a slave to your blog. If you want to talk about other things, then that is perfectly fine. I’ve had stacks of people contact me in one way or another to say they’re glad I talk about other stuff – politics or the environment. There’s a whole world out there, and if you ignore it constantly then you’ll become tired of blogging. Also, it’s a helpful reality check. We do quite often blog in a bubble.

2) Don’t worry about hits. When you start worrying about hits, you’re not doing it for the love of reading. You’re doing it for the attention, and these days, you’ll likely be disappointed – because there is more white noise out there than ever before. You will possibly never achieve the level of hits Pat achieved – because he got there early and maintained it solidly for years.

I suspect the blogosphere is having another growth spurt. Soon it’ll settle down again, and cliques and niches will form naturally, but I’m afraid it still won’t be that cosy little place of a few years back.


A Catch-Up / Other Business

I must admit, it was rather nice to be away from the internet for a week. As you can see in the previous post, the weather and landscape and cottage were splendid. Highlights included rescuing a pipistrel bat, deserted beaches on the Isle of Bute, and the incredible Mount Stuart. And also straying into The Old Bookshelf, a charming little second hand book store, which boasted a tremendous SF and Fantasy section – so much so, that I was forced to strike up a conversation with the owners. It just so happened that this was the store local to Lisa Tuttle and Colin Murray, who would occasionally drop off stock. This solved the mystery of why there was such a good supply of genre books.

I got only a little reading done. Firstly, I confess to abandoning the splendid Downriver, by Iain Sinclair. It was too rich, too treacly a prose for me to cope with at the moment. I’ll maybe come back to it at some point in the future, but I made it halfway through. The prose was sublime, but it was quite literally pages and pages of (occasionally abstract and omniscient) description. Sometimes my mood would suit such a read; being tucked away in a rural cottage did not generate such a mood. Or maybe it was the whisky.

The book I did finish was Six Degrees, something I’d been meaning to read for ages. I enjoyed this, but the content was a little too similar throughout (depressingly so). It was also just a fraction too accessible, too casual a read, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A few interesting comments came in response to the mass market cover art for City of Ruin.

“But the Harlequin dude must go. It’s not as bad as the infamous Patrick Rothfuss gay cover”

“It looks absolutely dreadful, almost like a Harlequin Romance mated with and Urban Fantasy novel and got spat out in the regular fantasy section…” [In the comments]

Upon seeing an attractive man on the cover of a novel, rather than a hot woman, epic fantasy fans (men, usually) seem get most annoyed. Why is this? I’m not against people simply not liking the design, the quality of the art, the colours, featuring characters in general, whatever. But do men really loathe seeing fit men on covers, only to say bugger all upon seeing attractive women on books? It’s not as though this character in particular was dressed for Men’s Health magazine – he’s kitted out for war, and just happens to be fairly handsome. Brynd is a good-looking guy, and I’m not going to insist the cover features some swamp donkey that not even the tide would take out.

And contrary to a couple of other curious comments – yes, I genuinely do like that cover art. I would let people know if I didn’t.

A final note of congratulations to China Miéville for jointly winning the Hugo for The City & The City (which I sort-of reviewed in March last year). Thoroughly well-deserved.


Portrayals & Influence

The BBC reports that gay and lesbian characters are not portayed well on television, and that it has cultural consequences:

Young people rarely see positive portrayals of lesbian and gay people on television, according to Stonewall.

A survey for the gay equality charity monitored more than 120 hours of programmes watched by the young. It said gay people were mainly portrayed as promiscuous, predatory, or figures of fun. Stonewall said homophobic bullying in schools was unsurprising when gay people were so often depicted on TV in a derogatory or demeaning way. The report, called Unseen on Screen, says ordinary gay people are almost invisible on the 20 programmes most watched by the young…

I’ve mentioned it on panels and previously on the blog, but I’m not sure I’ve been as explicit about the thought. I don’t want to harp on about it, or even sound sanctimonious, so this is probably the last time I’ll raise the subject.

So for those of you writing novels now – and I know there are plenty of you out there – do you contemplate about how you represent your minority characters and the effects that might have? Because I think writers do have some kind of collective responsibility not necessarily to write radically, but certainly not to help enforce bad stereotypes.

As seen above, people who create television programmes influence our culture. People who create any form of entertainment can do so. At a general or subconscious level, people will be influenced by what is written in a novel. The more we writers portray minorities (sexuality/race/gender) in a bad way, or even just a blind way, then the more we will slow down rates of tolerance and equality.

Is it as simple as I’m making out?

Edit: For further reading Paul C. Smith points to this great chat between Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville where, about a third of the way down, the “Terror of anal penetration” is discussed.


Nuclear Unclear

The government wants to go nuclear to go green.

Nuclear power. It’s low carbon, right, and we’re up against the clock to reduce our emissions. You can’t see the smoke billowing into the sky, so it must be clean. And it’s one of the most efficient forms of energy generation, so the theory goes.

But there’s a little bit that needs to be done before the theory can begin. First you need your uranium ore, which at current capabilities of mining and milling is “uneconomic and uses more energy to recover than it will ultimately produce”.

You have to inefficiently hack it out of the ground – foreign ground, in fact. And that’s all right, because the Western world is used to exploiting foreign lands in this way, so once we’ve ruined some communities we’re good to go. We’ve taken nimbyism to a whole new level. This is the future.

Here are the World’s biggest uranium producers, if you’re interested. Notice that none of them are local, which means you have to ship the ore across half the globe and back to Blighty, also generating an environmental impact. And if you free marketeers are worrying about oil price fluctuations, then once the world converts to nuclear, you better start thinking about leaning so heavily on uranium prices, which is – gosh! – a finite resource, too.

Once all that is over, once we’ve done the high carbon bits, the cultural and environmental destruction, we can preach how marvellous and clean it all is. Apart from when we need to dispose of the waste, but that’s all right – we’ll put it in a hole and let the next few thousand generations of children deal with that. Simples.

Nuclear power: all you’re doing is moving pollution elsewhere.

(So what is the solution to all our energy problems? I hear you cry. Why not read this thorough document for a start, which makes some stunning conclusions based on very conservative predictions.)


A Year Later

So, about a year has passed since Nights of Villjamur hit the shelves in the UK, and it’s now about to be launched in the US. What a learning curve this year has been. This blog has gone from being a quiet little corner of the interweb, to a gobby mouthpiece with a good-sized audience. I’ve made some interesting observations along the way; so here they are, in a full stream-of-consciousness splurge (well, with paragraphs), and with a little advice for any new kids out there.

You can’t control reader response. Believe me, I wanted to at the start – I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the text, and that kind of carried on to when the novel was on the shelves. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s nothing you can do about it. You cannot control the response of reviews or on forums, but the Internet tricks you into believing you can by letting you be a part of the community. In reality the best you can hope for is that your publicist has a good mailing list (mine has) and that you have a shit-hot book cover (I think mine has).

There is no such thing as a good book or a bad book, only what people say about a book – and this is all outside of our own heads, of course. I’m working on a bizarre theory about book culture and what is perceived as a good book, and it has something to do with having enough of the right kinds of people saying positive things. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that a book is just there, neither good nor bad, just there for interpretation. I don’t for a minute believe my books deserve any more attention/praise than another. (Edit: for clarity, the important thing to note is we’ll never find objective truths in a comments thread.)

It’s better to be talked about then not talked about. Every little discussion of your career, be it in hate or admiration, on forums or on blogs, will keep you afloat. Only when you’re not talked about is your career over. Every time someone moans about one of my blog posts, they send a few hits my way, and some of these new readers stay. (Best thing to kill a book? Silence it.)

Never reveal your age if you’re under thirty. I don’t get it, and in discussion with other youngish authors, this isn’t an uncommon trend – people rarely take you seriously when you’re an author in your twenties. It’s absurd that anyone under that age should have the right to be published. What were you thinking? Because it’s not as though you sacrificed years of your life to get where you are, youngster. Oh hang on.

Being compared to great authors brings out the freaks. In online debate, that is. If some newbie writer DARES to have their work compared to MY favourite author, then I WILL DESTROY THEM, is pretty much the style of response. I like to think upsetting a few people is a good thing, ultimately – it keeps the conversation going, at least, and shows that people care enough to complain, but many readers are hugely territorial over their favourite writers. I actually think a bad thing for me was when The Times made a vague Gene Wolfe comparison due to the dying earth thing – he has a very particular fanbase, and they expect that same dense writing style in any text that dares to receive such a comparison – in the 21st century marketplace, to have a career, that isn’t really possible. I’ve think I’ve disappointed more than a few readers after that.

Do not feed the trolls. Just don’t. Don’t get into flame wars. Don’t get into debates you can’t handle. There are more haters out there than there are of you. Following such debates, Joe Abercrombie once told me, brings only tiredness. He wasn’t wrong.

That said, a little controversy goes a long way. So long as a) you’ve got the chops to back it up and b) you don’t deliberately set out to insult people. Miraculously, internet debate can be a good thing, with pleasant exchanges. That particular exchange brought me several thousand extra hits for the month, and most of them seem to have stuck around.

Blogs are as important as the books, and authors are a brand. Just looking at these web stats, over 80% of searches are for my author name (frequently misspelt…) and only a small percentage are for book titles. That in itself deserves a full blog post. And in meatspace, so many people have complimented me on this blog – possibly as many as have commented on the books. I don’t know if they’ve read the books afterwards and, to be honest, that’s not actually important to me. Blogging is a fun, instantaneous activity. (Though it’s far from the notebook I originally wanted it to be. Maybe it will change in the future.)

You can’t complain about the industry to anyone other than another writer. Who cares about the fortunes of a poor published writer? Never mind that it takes a year to build something but just a few minutes to take it down to Chinatown. You can’t complain about that. And who’s going to understand such moaning? Certainly not people who would love to be poor published writers.

No matter what you do, someone will hate you. They’ll hate you for having a book out, being on the internet, looking like so-and-so, engaging in debate, not engaging in debate, whatever. And Lou Anders once told me that if no one hates your book, you’ve not got big enough distribution.


Flick Lit

Variety magazine makes some sweeping generalisations about a staggeringly small sample of films, suggesting that the “literary” novel is not being picked up as much as stories about explosions and bare-chested vampires.

Such books — with their focus on characterization and ideas rather than plot — have proven awards fodder for decades, in both book and film form. The pics also helped give studios and audiences a balanced diet by offering quiet and thoughtful fare that was uplifting, enlightening — and entertaining. Pics such as “Greed” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” drew from literary sources in the early days of film. In the last few years, there has been a wide range of such prestige projects, including Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and just about any manuscript Scott Rudin gets his hands on.

But what was once a steady stream of bigscreen book adaptations has become a trickle. As one exec wryly notes, “Clint Eastwood is single-handedly holding up the adult drama at the studio level.”

Let’s put aside the spurious, non-defined rules of “literary fiction”, which I think the writers must assume consists of quiet little dramas, stuff that doesn’t get the pulse racing. You know, the things in which elbow-patched college professors agonise over some affair without committing fully to masturbation, yes, in an Oprah-stickered epic. Or something like that, the Hampstead novel gone global. I jest, of course.

The tone of the article is loaded with the subtext that quality drama and action-based films are mutually exclusive. For the sake of Variety, you can either blow shit up or rehash life’s big themes, but you can’t do both, no sir.

Are movie-goers really that black and white? Are readers that black and white, for that matter?

I think ultimately, this fictitious problem stems from classification on what qualifies as literary, or rather, the lack of such classification. It talks of “prestige fiction”, which is an implied slap-down anything that doesn’t fit this imagined criteria, yet somehow smuggles The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a staple of the crime genre, into their spurious end zone.

You’re all familiar with this kind of stuff I’m sure. It’s the kind of debate that has plagued Science Fiction and Fantasy readers for decades, which at it’s most extreme point asks: can you do the pulp and broad thematic / experimental stuff simultaneously?

What is clear to me these days – and it had never really occurred to me that it had moved from books to movies – is that “literary” is very much a genre of its own, and I’ve no agenda against it – one of my favourite writers, Don DeLillo, is often seen as a literary heavyweight, and there’s much to admire about contemporary writers (though I prefer mine with a hint of something else, like Jonathan Lethem). But just like crime, or fantasy, the literary genre exists with its own conservative forms and clichés, its own zones of absolute comfort.

The notion that, in any media, only literary media can be meaningful or prestige strikes me as absurd.


Writing Manuals

Amusing little article in The Atlantic:

no, I’m talking about straight how-to books, most of which claimed to offer shortcut advice, practical instructions on “writing your say the genre,” and even in some cases “secrets” of the novelist’s or story writer’s or poet’s trade. That day, with Delores, I stood among the titles, amazed. Stack upon stack of them.

“These sell really well,” she told me. “You wouldn’t believe how many people want to be writers out there.”

I said, “Damn.” That was what came out of me. We were looking at 50 different titles—a lot. More than I would’ve believed existed. And in the next moment, she offered me $10,000 to write one. “Really,” she said. “These kinds of books sell better than the fiction books.”

“Well,” I said. “Lordy.” I picked one up and put it down, picked up another and turned it in my hand and put it down. “Lordy.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” she said. “And I’ve heard you lecture. You could knock one of these off in a few days, I’ll bet.”

I’ll be honest with you. I am not a fan of writing manuals, and articles like this don’t make me want to change my mind. There’s nothing so annoying as having someone tell you the right way to write a book, right? Because I don’t think there is one, you learn by doing, and I’ve always suspected there’s some kind of exploitative subculture on the fetish of being a writer.

I guess there’s some kind of therapeutic, we’re all in this together kind of value to be gleaned from such books, but hey – when it comes to doing it, there’s just your way, and what works for you, so I say ignore all this distracting white noise. The more time you spend worrying about writing, the less writing you do. Having said that, James seemed to enjoy this one.

How many writers actually use manuals, out of interest, and how useful are they to you? I mean, I could totally rant about how useless I’ve found them to be, but I’m sure I’ve annoyed enough people by now. I’m happy to be humbled and proven wrong on their true value.

I’ve had a few emails recently asking about getting published, and I hold my hands up and shrug. I can only talk about the things you can actually write about, things to increase your chances, but there’s no golden ticket, just years of graft. Admittedly I did write this post a year or so back, but the more I get into writing, the more awkward I feel about giving advice.

Just write.

And enjoy it, yeah? That’s the fun part, the thinking-up-mad-shit.


Bloggers’ Frontlist Fetish

Some musings.

I raised this concern as a comment on NextRead:

My main concern about the blogosphere is it’s fetish for frontlist titles (those released that period). Very quickly, great books of the last few years will disappear from discussion, unless they’re part of still-running series. And when books don’t get discussed (on and offline), they die. There’s precious little discussion of classic books as it is, which means a whole new generation of readers are missing out.

Blog reviews are great. Reviewers do a great job at publicising great numbers of new titles. Where there were once gatekeepers to determining what a good genre book was, there are now hundreds of people all championing whatever worth they wish to.

But there is a fetish for frontlist titles. Frontlist – those books which are going on sale now, the ones hitting the shelves this year. The Next Big Thing. (And no I don’t mean all of you reviewers; I’m prodding the general culture, not individuals.)

What about the backlist, the great books from four or five years ago, the ones that no longer sit on table displays or promotions. What about classic genre literature? How do novels compare over time? What lineage do certain novels take, and to what do they owe their inspiration?

Questions that will largely go unnoticed, especially if bloggers are entranced on a) finding the next big thing and b) free review copies (because these will be the titles the publishers want you to read).

Not so much of an issue for the first few years of genre blogging, perhaps, but I wonder how quickly great authors will have been forgotten in ten, fifteen years, unless they’re writing successful series? Bookselling is bad enough with its focus on frontlist – that’s where online reviewers could have helped with this situation. (And some bloggers do a very good job of covering older titles – Wertzone, Speculative Horizons, Larry, and also Pat.)

Then again, does it matter to you all if classic authors are forgotten? As the blogosphere grows, more and more people will look to blog reviewers to inform their buying choices.


Dear Stanza For iPhone

Dear revolution in reading.

Here’s a suggestion.

Don’t make it so bloody difficult for me to sync across files from my computer to my iPhone. I don’t want to go via some file sharing site. I don’t want to convert PDFs to epub, or an endless shitting list of FAQs to deal with. (And mail my own files to myself? Sod off. They’re ON MY COMPUTER AND I HAVE A CABLE.)

I use Apple computers – I just want to plug something in and expect it to work. Here I am, a crotchety young man on the brink of considering this ebook malarkey, and you go and spoil things. Books don’t give me this kind of shit to deal with. Now I am left with only Project Gutenberg files (though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

That is all.


Serious Fantasy Reviewing

I notice that Strange Horizons is getting to grips with some of the shortlisted titles from last year’s Gemmell Award:

The question that presents itself, obviously, is: how easily can any of these books be judged on their own merits? This, certainly, is what the DGLA administrators are aiming for, as noted on their website: “[P]lease remember the Award is for the Best Fantasy Novel of 2008—that one book that has been Nominated (whether or not it forms part of a series) and not the body of an author’s work as a whole.”

What do they mean by “in the spirit of David Gemmell”? According to the same web page, what they are looking for is something that grabs the reader immediately, with pace (“you know, books that you’re STILL reading at three in the morning!”), characters to root for, and convincing world-building. Stories, in other words, that take hold and won’t let go until the final page—the reason we all started reading fantasy in the first place.

Quality of prose goes unmentioned, but I’m afraid it won’t in this review…

This, it seems, is one of the only actual comparisons of the fantasy titles that were shortlisted. I made noises at the time that no one was talking about the content of the books, and so here we go at last.

I must admit to finding it bizarre that any award can have a shortlist where titles are barely compared to each other. How can you call a book the “best” without such an analysis? Getting as many people to vote online seems a spurious way to go about this, when clearly no one could have read so many titles.

I’m not being grouchy here – please don’t misunderstand.

This is where my arguments lie: we bitch and moan about why we – the fantasy genre – are not taken seriously. But when we’re not going to compare and contrast, and dig into the content of some of the big fantasy titles of the year, how can the fantasy genre expect to better itself year on year? How can it expect to gain more respect? (If you don’t care for respect, then I guess that’s the end to my argument.) But we all know that we posses rather self-conscious moments, we fantasy readers, if we’re honest.

As Niall Harrison remarked in an email to me, the UK fantasy genre is in dire need of at least one juried award. And, I suspect, separate to a convention (which is not something in itself that is a problem, of course) in order to make things interesting for the genre and for readers.

Still, at least it means people are talking about fantasy books, which is something. Right?