Five Books & Speculative Horizons

Worth wasting a few mintues over at Five Books:

Become an instant expert. Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject. From Einstein to Keynes, Iraq to the Andes, Communism to Empire. Share in the knowledge and buy the books.

Also, congratulations to James at Speculative Horizons, who is now joining the editorial team at Orbit.

I’ve wanted to work in publishing for a fantasy imprint ever since I was a teenager, so this really is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. A dream, even. And I can’t wait to take on the challenge.

Of course, this means I can’t continue with my blogging here. I’ve always tried to blog with honesty and integrity, and there’s just no way I could continue blogging while working for a major genre publisher – it would bring my personal and professional credibility into question.

James’s blog is one of a few I’ve followed for years. You could often find a good rant there; his opinion was always confident in itself, he never navel-gazed, and he would not shy away from controversy. It will indeed be sad to see him go, but wonderful to see him step into the publishing inner sanctum, where we have secret handshakes and late-night cocktails.

He was also a big supporter of my first book when few others really cared, and I’m still grateful for that.


Shakespeare Shake-up

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been given a revamp, and look how pretty it is. I imagine it is a remarkable moment when an actor/actress is presented with this view. (Click on the image to view the whole gallery – it’s rather impressive.)

When the renovation of the Royal Shakespeare theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon was first announced, someone asked why the number of seats was to fall by 400. Surely this was against the notion of “accessibility” or “art for all”? Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, boomed: “This isn’t football – you’re meant to be able to hear what the actors are saying.”

Not a bad way to spend £112million. I remember being in awe of the Royal Opera House when I watched Don Giovanni (featuring Anna Netrebko) a couple of years ago, but where that was a contemporary building, the Royal Shakespeare theatre seems to be all about the heritage.


The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Before you go any further: spoilers.

You can file me safely in that category of people who wished things weren’t down to psychology, or eeriness. I’m one of those wishing the Big Horrible Creepy Thing turned out to be a Genuine Nasty Gribbly instead of human psychology / implied horrors – or then again, that could ruin the tension. Even the sort of weirdness you’d get in The House on the Borderland seems preferable in my mind, and generates a real fear. I found myself trying to explore why this might be, but I didn’t find a satisfactory answer.

Though, back to this novel: I love the mood, the suspense, the human interaction, the general teasing and cleverness of Shirley Jackson’s writing in The Haunting of Hill House. Over to wiki for the plot summary, kids:

Hill House is an eighty year-old mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain. The story concerns four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; two young women, Eleanor, who is shy, resents having lived as a recluse who cared dutifully for her demanding invalid mother for years, and Theodora; and a young man, Luke, the heir to Hill House, who is host to the others.

Things happen. Lots goes bump in the night. The events are given the ‘scientific’ treatment, in order to give the reader buy-in that this is ZOMG really happening. Jackson certainly has a deft way with characters, a soft and subtle touch, which is something to be admired. She creates a wonderfully evocative mood here, building up the layers of anticipation and dread. The gothic manor house – Hill House – is described wonderfully, in all its multi-dimensional glory, with a good deal of foreshadowing – and perhaps my problem was that it felt almost too calculated a description at times, something very much by the recipe book. I liked the fading away of Eleanor, her gradual disconnection from the group and her eventual madness, but sometimes you just want a weird monster to come along and sort things out.

So it’s a classic haunted house tale as an analysis of a young girl going steadily mad. I wasn’t hugely impressed, but then again I wasn’t disappointed either.


Process, Other Forms, Slowing Down

Sometimes, it’s nice to go back to the roots, to think about the process of writing.

During high-speed motivational movements like NaNoWriMo, we may well forget about the simple joys of writing. Sitting down in whatever conditions suit, establishing those weird little routines (I know you all have them: that favourite chair facing towards the South). That’s where the pleasure lies for me – not in bashing out however many words I need to each day, but the simple explorations, the feelings that the act generates. Even, you know, remembering that writing is an art.

I still find it fascinating to look at the processes used by other writers. I’ve often thought that, from the outside, it looks as though to get published you need to be in possession of a key set of secrets, and listening to other writers talk is some way into gleaning such secrets. Here’s Nigel Slater – one of the UK’s great food writers – talking about his processes (in what is a combination of art forms – cooking and literature).

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLhcHbKkU-k 500]

Food writing is an interesting form of literature – writing about things that are very personal and sensual. It’s reminded me how much, in the past, I enjoyed tinkering with other forms of writing – describing landscape or architectures, perhaps, and it’s something I’ve neglected of late. I used to think it good practice. Again, something has been lost by rushing, this time to reach deadlines.

Writing is a process that, for a writer, simply has to be enjoyed. Struggling to think about what to write all the time, or constant frustrations about never being published, will bring you down. You may never be published; but that won’t stop you from being a writer if you enjoy the process.


Things We (Authors) Get Wrong

A bit of a meandering post, this one.

At the recent Alt.Fiction Otherworlds event in Derby, I had a fascinating chat with a young lady (Helen, who I think was a friend of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s) about minority characters and people who are poorly represented in genre fiction. I made a comment in one of the panels about defending quotas for minorities – or rather, people of different races, sexuality, abilities etc. Whilst I can see people saying all sorts of nonsense about this being positive discrimination, and making general noises of discomfort, as I said in the panel, that assumes it is a level playing field, but it really isn’t. Whether we like it or not, our genre’s output is still populated by straight white middle-aged male heroes, for whom women are merely plot points.

The conversation afterwards really hit home. Helen was a bit of a literary activist, but a forgiving one, and that was something I liked. I’m paraphrasing badly here, but she suggested that when it comes to minorities, authors nearly always get it wrong, no matter what they do – but the main thing is that we reduce the amount of errors we make. Does this matter? Yes. A lot of people read our books, and a lot of people are influenced by them. You may choose to pass off books as entertainment, but that is not an excuse for accidental misogyny or racism, because readers – especially younger readers – may think that such treatment of people is the norm. I do think authors have some responsibility to influence what the perceived norm can be.

So, facing up to these statements, I think I’ve got plenty wrong. I know I made errors in Nights of Villjamur – personally, I didn’t think I made any of the female characters truly, independent or outstanding. I could make all sorts of bullshit up about the world being a patriarchal society, but so is ours. I could say I was concentrating too much on getting the gay character right, whatever. But after I wrote that novel, I thought I should rectify that; in City of Ruin, I wrote a properly independent and central female character, without trying to turn her into a leather-clad fetish. I’ve written about a transgendered character in The Book of Transformations – which serves not only having a strong female lead, but also focusses on the issues of another minority. Race is something I’ve dealt with down the species divide, so I hope I’ve addressed some issues there.

There are probably a whole load of other problems with my books (quiet at the back!) but it’s interesting that now I’m at that stage of my career where I can really assess what I’ve done so far and what I should try to fix. There are other minorities I’d like to address: people with disabilities was one that cropped up in our conversation. How few books feature a disabled character in a central role that is not a villain?

Anyway, food for thought.

If you’re currently writing something, why not question the ethnicity of your main characters. The act of questioning is the important part, surely? Why not try to get things less wrong, too?


The Beauty Of Data Visualization

This is absolutely fascinating, if you’re a geek like me. If you’ve not the time, skip to the bit about 3:45 into the video, where he starts to talk about the visualization of our fears in the media (with reference to computer games).


On Honesty & Reviewing

The discussion of openness and impartiality of blog reviewers did the rounds on Twitter, and I realise it’s a storm in a teacup and hardly that important when the world is undergoing financial and environmental meltdown. That said…

First, here’s what I tweeted on the debate:

I like that bloggers are questioning how impartial they are. This is good, because publishing can be deeply nepotistic at times. Before blogs, the nepotism used to be behind closed doors. Now at least there is a discussion to be had.

@gavreads In my years in publishing, I found more than a few blog reviewers simply repeated the enthusiasm of a publisher… Which is, perhaps, to say the publisher can influence.

@Weirdmage I have big respect for bloggers. They are, largely speaking, honest and open. All I ask is that they don’t swoon to publishers.

@JonCG_novelist @gavreads Indeed, it isn’t the publisher’s fault; or anyone’s. Simply that things are regurgitated.

@Weirdmage @JasonBaki @murf61 Deep down it comes to: If a publisher invites a reviewer to dinner, would that reviewer give more coverage? … Because it’s not just the quality of coverage, it’s the amount of coverage.

Bloggers: forget the nonsensical debate of free ARCs. Publishers have been dishing those out for years, they’re just a marketing tool, hopefully you’ll shout about the books positively and everyone’s a winner, apart from the scummy dudes who throw them on eBay straight away before publication date (there is a special place in Hell for you).

No, this is the point of interest: you’re getting to that point where many of you should realise that you’ll be courted at parties and conventions with free booze and if you’re lucky a dinner or two, and some of you will be given guest post spots on their own blogs, or a little reviewing side-gig. How terrible for you. And this is in the interest of publishers, because (a) they want to thank you for giving free coverage and publicity to their books and (b) you’re probably helping them sell more books (not necessarily individually, but certainly as a hivemind). Also, don’t forget (c) it’s a small industry, so they probably enjoy speaking to you as fans, too. It’s not black and white. You have a mutual interest. Isn’t it lovely?

You just have to ask yourself the simple question: does a few free drinks or dinner, and a better relationship with a publisher, mean I’m more inclined to show more cover art or give better reviews of their books? Most of you will genuinely say no, which is a good thing.

And yes, I realise the same works with authors, too – I’m happy to admit that. If you like me as a person, I don’t expect you to like my books (and vice versa!), but don’t think I’m buying you dinner – I’m a writer, we have no money. Publishing is a small industry, and has been phenomenally nepotistic in the past. I realise that many of you are struggling writers, too, and getting close to industry people could possibly open up a dream career.

This industry is, and has always been, about relationships (apart from when it’s about money). Social media has just thrown a spanner in the works and no one quite knows how to handle the etiquette. The important thing is that you’re at least thinking about it, because this didn’t happen so much before we all aired our dirty laundry on Twitter.


SF Books That Got Away & Interview

I know I’ve not talked too much about genre books recently. I guess I’ve been having a couple of months away from thinking about them and needed to get my head elsewhere, but I’m now suitably refreshed.

New Scientist magazine lists some of the best SF novels that never became legendary.

From The War of the Worlds to Nineteen Eighty-Four, some science fiction goes down in history. But what about the brilliant books that got away? We asked scientists and writers to nominate their lost sci-fi classics, and we’ve set a competition for flash fiction inspired by them – read on to find out more.

It’s an interesting little collection of novels. To their list, I’d probably add something by Michael Coney, who wrote top quality sociological SF, but never quite seemed to achieve huge recognition.

Now this, at From Bar to Bar, is probably the strangest interview I’ve ever done. I actually start answering questions about two thirds of the way through, and the rest is wonderfully bat-shit crazy.

I think what [the New Weird] movement helped do was define a darker and more surreal taxonomical branch of what is, by and large, a conservative genre – it’s a continuation of a line that stretches from William Hope Hodgson to Mervyn Peake to M John Harrison to China Miéville. I like to think that my work will sit on that side of the genre, which is something more obvious the further I get into my series, because those writers are the kinds who interest me the most.

Read the rest.


Travels & Embargoes

I went to London to have dinner the chap on the left, China (and rather randomly, Tony Blackburn was seated nearby in the restaurant). Then shortly after we met up with the lady on the right, who is covering her face. That’s our editor, Julie, who disappointingly did not turn up in her Halloween costume (she was going to a party later). I was also disappointed I couldn’t snap Julie in said evil-looking costume, because it denied me the opportunity to use the joke “That’s what she wears when she edits manuscripts”. But I’ve used that now, so that’s okay. Anyway, we drank lots of whisky, and converted China to the delights of Laphroaig, and it was one of those very creatively energising days, full of book talk and culture talk and random geek talk.

It wouldn’t be the blogosphere without a little tiff now and then. The big topic at the moment is embargoes, notably of them being broken and of complaints following.

When I worked in bookselling, embargoes came and went all the time (and were broken with astonishing predictability). Bookstores would be in touch with each other to see who broke it first – because as soon as the first one went, we all would start selling the book. Embargoes are a method whereby publishers can try to get a book to chart as highly as possible and make more money by doing so. By limiting the discussion – but more importantly the opportunity for sales – the theory is that everyone will go out and buy a book in that same week and therefore send the book racing up the charts. It’s nothing more than a controlled attempt to maximise sales.

Personally, however, I do feel that it’s bad juju to demand reviewers to follow strict guidelines – especially when a publisher has leaned heavily upon said reviewing community for publicity in the past. I’m just disappointed that a publisher can be in a position to ask for embargoes at all, because not that long ago, they were dismissive of blog reviewers entirely, then a little later they could not get enough out of Being Part Of The CommunityTM and threw out review copies at anyone who would turn their way.


The Man Booker & Things I’ve Seen Online.

So the Man Booker prize has been declared, and the world’s media for once a year pretends to be interested in books.

Author and columnist Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize for his comic novel The Finkler Question.

Jacobson, who beat contenders including double winner Peter Carey, received the £50,000 prize at London’s Guildhall.

Chair of judges, Sir Andrew Motion, described the 68-year-old author’s book as “very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle”.

As a genre award, I like what the Man Booker offers – once you put aside just how painfully middle-class it all is. This is an award where people put what they think are deserving books into the limelight and say, quite simply: discuss. Whether or not you’re disappointed that so-and-so didn’t make the cut, there is something about generating discussion which is integral to literature and also selling books, which supports the industry. I always think that the usefulness of an award shows in the amount of discussion of the books that ensues. It’s why the Arthur C. Clarke Award is good (though perhaps has a minimal impact on sales compared to the Man Booker). The other good thing about the Man Booker (and the Clarkes) is that it seldom seems to have cliques; that is, new judges each year keep things relatively fresh and stops the same old faces being involved. This is useful, and makes the awards more honest – and therefore serves the genre of literary fiction well.

Other things I’ve seen online today: Cheryl Morgan discusses the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s new report.

Also, this blog claims that Amazon’s astroturf campaign (regarding the Kindle) has been exposed:

And then there was this comment from Piper Stockton: “I like reading and at the beginning I did miss a bit on the feeling of reading books. But now I love to hold the Kindle, the e-ink seems to work very well, it is really like reading books…”

All of the messages came in within minutes of each other, although they all cited different authors, gave different email addresses, and came from different IP addresses. But there was one notable thing beyond their similarity: they all cited the same url.

Who knows why someone would go through such a laborious effort and then flag their fakery for me like that. More important is the evidence this provides that Amazon, as I have suspected all along, either fosters or more likely employs astroturfers — that is, people to conduct a fake grass-roots campaign in support of the company and its products and tactics.

And here’s the question: If Amazon goes to such lengths to plant disinformation at little ole MobyLives, can you imagine the scale of their efforts to misinform bigger, more influential media?