news & reviews


Rather Disappointed

I read this and felt it was a great shame indeed. M John Harrison has provided one of the best blogs on the Interwebs. It was like a writer’s notebook, and a great insight into the head of a very important man in the industry, although he’d maybe hate me for calling him ‘a man in the industry’. But at least he’s going out in some style, a wonderful, almost stream-of-consciousness coda. I felt it was important to have MJH blogging. He represented one essential end to a spectrum I was never quite sure about. He provoked, as if he always had a smile on his face. He pointed an awkward mirror on the genre.

At least we got a great year out of it. Some good recommendations.


Pre-order Goodness


The Reef is now available for pre-order… Rather chuffed at this. Page doesn’t yet have cover art, but will do very shortly. It does however have two very nice pieces of blurbage. Hurrah for that. I’m also hoping that a piece of short fiction may well be accepted too, so maybe this is the start of things. You write every day for years and only when you see pictures and links online does it begin to feel even slightly real. If that.


The Alexandria Quartet—Thoughts

This isn’t going to be a coherent review, because, for me, it wouldn’t suit the book. The Alexandria Quartet comprises of four novels, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. The first two are the most tightly linked, for everything you know in Justine is looked at from another angle, although still from the same narrator. Mountolive is more distant, and Clea certainly moves the three novels forward in time. But, as Durrell intended, they are all meant to be read as one.

The books follow a group of individuals based in Alexandria, Egypt, up to and including the Second World War. That’s about as general as I can get. There is sexual tension, and release; political tension that gathers throughout the story arc; there’s a whole wealth of Middle Eastern history. There’s religion and philosophy. There are momentous descriptions of place and time. The characters are the most complex and layered in any kind of fiction that I’ve read. From our often naive narrator, Darley, who is not really an ‘unreliable narrator’ because we have no reason not to rely on him. Then, the seductive and outrageous Justine, and her husband, the dark-hearted Nassim. There’s Pursewarden, who is one of the greatest fictional creations, layered with metaphor, representation of art, a dose of wit, and some incredible aphorisms. Perhaps my favourite character in any book, even when he wasn’t on the page. There are more, but a sentence here would to no justice.

I am in awe of Durrell for so many reasons. Firstly, for his experimental approach. For showing the relativity in his narrative, and how important that is to fiction—because it is real life. Not merely ‘point of view’, but showing us how one can never be certain of anything, in life or fiction. Secondly, the man brings alive Alexandria to be a character in her own right, a changing, liquid, grand place. (By the time you read Clea, the city has gone, as it was. A construction in the first place, only in words, when revisited after many years, it just isn’t the same place. It isn’t the same character.) Third, is his ability to carve a character to be just as unreliable as real life. In fact, more than any other novel, I was thinking, Here is the truest representation of existence.

This isn’t really a review, is it? I’m just gushing thoughts onto the page. Maybe I can’t really summarise it. Maybe, you just can’t? There are faults, perhaps. Some of the passages of text can make you sweat with their headiness. But that’s an aside. There’s so much to discover here. A history, a philosophy, a poem. I’m using very grand phrases, but you can’t do anything specific with a book like this.

Just get it. Read it. Take your time and enjoy it luxuriously. Feel the dust of those Alexandrian streets. Feel that warm air blowing off the ocean. Hear the palms fizzing in the breeze. Durrell will show you the rest, but go at his pace.

As a side note, when playing with Technorati, to see who else comments on Durrell, it was nice to see how these books stir up thoughts in those who can put things more eloquently than I can.


Lawrence Durrell, Some Thoughts

I’m currently working through one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of recent times. (This year has been a good year of reading for me.) Durrell is a phenomenal talent. He makes you pine for an age you never knew, as much for the quality of writing if nothing else. His ability to bring character and place alive are unchallenged. A thoroughly de-constructive narrative, too, the kind of thing to destroy the formula of a novel and rebuild it, brick by brick. And he often delivers some punching sentences.

  • ‘A city becomes a world when one loves one of it’s inhabitants.’
  • ‘There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.’
  • ‘A woman’s best love letters are always written to the man she is betraying.’

I wish I’d jotted more down as I’d gone through. I shall put down a more thoughtful review—if it’s possible with such a text—in the coming weeks.


Essays In Love

Now here’s an interesting one. Essays In Love, by the talented young philosopher Alain de Botton. Ever the one to expand my emotional and intellectual range (being only in my twenties, I feel perhaps there’s much to experience in life, so here’s a quick short cut to understanding), and it being some years since I last battled with a philosopher, I was drawn to de Botton’s simple “philosophy for everyday life” approach.

And what a delight it was. De Botton writes with a non-patronising, simple, humour-filled prose, so you never realise he’s holding your hand through some deeply insightful concepts. It’s written in the form of a novel, with numbered paragraphs that cover key points to take on board (much like in more dry philosophical writings). This is useful, as you’re walked through a fictitious relationship, but also through the feelings, the primitive urges, the contradictions of the human condition, the sufferings. I like the way he makes philosophy relevant, but is never talking down to the reader. You immediately feel at ease when he brings up Socrates and Kant. He’s educating you, forcing your mind to wonder about the delights and despairs of relationship from that first moment you see someone, to the sex, right the way through, pointing out most of the sensations we go through, deep analysis of our actions, and explanations about our possible motives.

A superb study of the mechanics of human relationships.


Why Do People Read? Or, Entertainment vs Art

Apologies for the incoherency of this, but it’s coming over as strands of thoughts…

Following up certain debates doing the rounds, I can’t help but think of one essential question at the moment. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but I suspect it’s central to most debates.

Should people read fiction for entertainment or for art? (By the way, Art doesn’t mean impenetrable stuff, merely something with a little more to it.)

There is a huge proportion of audiences that are demanding entertainment. Action, jokes, raunchiness, familiarity etc. On the other hand you could have deep investment in emotions, investigations into the human condition, being forced out of a comfort zone, innovation, a more striking arrangement of words in a sentence. Or (very generally) Art. Likewise, the amount of people I’ve heard slagging off literary novels for being too dull is something that frustrates me. They’re using a wrench to tackle a screw in their analysis, so to speak. “Nothing happened.” Or, “I couldn’t understand the way they wrote.” They want characters they can empathise with (likeable characters—see Adam Roberts’s blog for a fun mention of this through his reviews), rather than try to understand someone who might well be unpleasant on the surface, and complex to follow at first.

And readers speak with their wallets, which means publishers will skew their lists towards demand, which might have a long term effect on readers’ tastes. As I’ve said many a time, this is a business after all. The rise and strength of chick-lit, for example. Is this a good thing? Sure, they’re not the most intelligent things in the world (yes, I’ve read a few actually…). Take this to the extremes, and we have ‘glamour’ model Jordan, outselling the Booker Prize shortlist. Now we have the most shameful low yet. I doubt Coleen, girlfriend of footballer Wayne Rooney, had always aspired to be a writer, or indeed understands the joys of Don DeLillo, but surely this is taking reading for entertainment to the limits. This has been signed not for Art but for sales, plain and simple. She maybe won’t even write them herself. This, at the expense of other more innovative novelists. (And there’s a separate discussion to be had on celebrity status and books). What does this mean for the industry? And I want to state again that the industry reacts to consumer demand. I’m not saying one is better or worse, but those last two links are the natural conclusion for that area of fiction. I predict more trends like this. It will mean more money spent on these deals, and for a while it will limit variety. (On an optimistic note, it was fun to see so many monster publishers fail with celebrity biographies after the bubble sort of burst. Maybe the same will happen here.)

So ask yourself again, should we read for entertainment alone if this is what happens ultimately? Does people wanting entertaining books forecast lower quality in the long run, given how the market adjusts?

Personally, I’d like a happy medium in the industry, and in realistic terms, that’s where we are, although things are definitely skewing in recent times. Having read so much Fantasy and Literary Fiction, when I read in my spare time I need there to be a solid plot, and I also need to be wowed by prose and what’s going on underneath the surface of it. I can understand that not everyone will get good prose. The thing which I can’t understand is why some people don’t want to be challenged at all? Why don’t they want to think? Reading has generally been an active pastime. You are required as a reader to do some of the work. But things have become progressively passive these days, like sitting back to watch a blockbuster, having everything constructed visually for you. Maybe the industry leaning in these directions is one reason why we’ve seen such discussions across many blogs in the last couple of weeks.

Now don’t go lynching me, I’m just asking questions from a macro perspective. I’m not saying dry literary self-indulgence should take centre stage, because people spend hard cash on books so there’s a kind of contract between author and reader.

All of this: it’s just something readers should be aware of.


Heady Stuff

Jeff VanderMeer has a few things to say about the state of fiction today.

I was reading through an old batch of Interzones and New Worlds while Ann and I selected stories for the New Weird anthology, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something different. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s a myopic nostalgia for some golden age that never existed, but just bear with me for the sake of argument.

What I seemed to find in those old magazines sometimes overreached, or crashed into and sank on the rocks of evangelical experimentalism…but, at its best, that fiction was altogether more adult than much of what I’ve read recently. It seemed sharper and more balanced between intellect and emotion. There was ample intelligence behind it, sometimes a cruel and frightening intelligence. It was often bracing, unexpected, and jagged.

Read on.

I feel that I should comment on the subject, but can’t seem to bring myself into it. Do I think he’s right? I probably do. Do I think we live in the age of sales and marketing and supermarket shelves of books and massive publishing houses with massive sales expectations? Surely we all know that, yes? When I worked in bookselling you could see this happening in slow motion across the whole store, every section, a kind of post-modern destruction that J.G. Ballard could write a good book about.


Interesting Book Trailer

He’s not the first author I think of when someone mentions book trailers. I think it’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it just doesn’t seem very… him. Not that I know him, only his books. Maybe that’s it then. It just doesn’t seem something you’d do with his books, something you could do with his books. (Something inside says, ‘You didn’t sell out, did you, Mr H?’ But then I know it was probably thought up by some marketing intern hyped up on chai-lattes screaming, ‘I don’t care what it’s about, what is its essence?’ Still, that would be the final irony for me: if this suddenly went commercial.)


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.