Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

do you even fisk, bro?

Posted by on July 12th, 2014

There has been a lot of debate recently around self-publishing and traditional-publishing, Amazon vs Hachette, and so on. Certain people in the debate seem hell-bent on ‘fisking’ as the be-all, end-all of discussion, and I thought it was worth throwing out my thoughts on that particular issue here. This will be long. It will be dry. Run away now, while you have the chance.

1. What is fisking?

Fisking is named for the journalist Robert Fisk, after various conservative bloggers began dissecting Fisk’s posts in the early 2000s paragraph-by-paragraph, rebutting each and every single point. It’s a technique that basically quotes the entirety of a piece, interspersed with passages that refute each paragraph, or even sentence, with the aim of utterly obliterating the argument in the original.

2. What is an argument?

Yes, let’s backtrack a little. Bear with me. At heart, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone that a particular conclusion is true. Arguments take various forms, which we won’t explore here, but at heart every argument is a variation of the following: here are some points, and here is what they mean. The connecting tissue, in formal arguments, is a kind of logical glue that is recognised in various familiar argument forms.

For example, one kind of argument form is known as modus ponens. It’s a very clear (and to my mind – forgive my inner logic geek here – rather beautiful, and don’t get me started on its skewed relationship to modus tonens) one, and it takes the form:

(1) If X then Y

(2) X

(3) (Therefore) Y

Here’s an example of modus ponens in action:

(1) If self-publishing makes you more money then you should self-publish.

(2) Self-publishing makes you more money.

(3) You should self-publish. (MPP, 1, 2)

The bit in brackets at the end is just a courteous note to the reader that the conclusion – premise (3) – isn’t being stated outright like premises (1) and (2) are, but deduced via modus ponens from them. We call an argument like this valid, because if the first two premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well; there is no other option. If those first two premises happen to be true as well, then we call an argument like this sound. If a premise is false then a valid argument can have a conclusion that’s bollocks. A sound argument is valid, but because its premises are true, it has a conclusion that is necessarily true as well.

So is that example above valid? Yes, the logic is solid, so it is valid. Is it sound? Well, that depends on the truth of premises (1) and (2). I suspect we could all question the truth of those: (1) because there might be considerations other than money; and (2) because we might wonder whether that’s necessarily the case. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, is making as simplistic an argument as this. The point is, there will be room for debate even about the premises of the most basic and straightforward of arguments.

Here are two more examples of MPP in action:

(4) If self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one then you should self-publish many books.

(5) Self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one.

(6) You should self-publish many books. (MPP, 4, 5)


(7) If self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money, then you should self-publish books as quickly as possible.

(8) Self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money.

(9) You should self-publish books as quickly as possible. (MPP, 7, 8)

Again, these are both valid, but not necessarily sound. Again, the only thing to attack is the truth of the first two premises in each case. Again, there is obviously room for debate on each one.

Let’s complicate this with one final premise:

(10) You should self-publish many books as quickly as possible (Conjunction, 3, 6, 9)

Sticking all the premises together, the whole argument (1)-(10) is completely valid. But is it sound? Is the conclusion (10) true? That depends on the truth of premises (3), (6) and (9), which themselves depend on two different premises each. We can’t attack the logic; the logic is valid. But if any of the underlying premises aren’t true – even a single one – then conclusion (10) falls. It is built on perilous foundations.

I’m not – again – suggesting anybody is explicitly making this particular argument; I’m just picking examples vaguely relevant to the subject at hand.

Now, obviously, arguments are rarely stated as formally as this. Blogs, petitions and letters – even when presented with apparent conclusions, given with extreme conviction – are often rambling things, without polite notations given in brackets for people to follow the thread. People don’t think; people don’t express themselves well. From such a morass, it can be difficult to extract the premises the conclusion is resting upon so as to challenge their truth or the logic that connects them. But however informal the argument, however messy the piece, all those premises and logic are in there somewhere, and I’m afraid extracting them is what you have to do.

3. Is ‘fisking’ some kind of gold-standard for debate?

No, it isn’t. Fisking works reasonably well when you’re critiquing a short argument, or one that contains (and relies upon) lots of facts that can be shown to be bogus. It’s a ‘shock-and-awe’ debating technique, but there are various problems with it. Here are some.

a) Length

If you truly want to engage with an issue then it is an act of intellectual generosity to state your argument as succinctly and simply as possible. (And it is almost always possible to do this). Fisking makes this very difficult. A 1000 word essay, when fisked, can run to 3 or 4000 words. That makes it very difficult to address (never mind fisk in return). Eventually, if everybody responds in kind, the heat death of the entire universe occurs around the fifth fisking.

b) Concision

A fisking of the above argument (premises (1)-(10)) would address every premise, obliterating each in turn. We could do that, but it’s not necessary. If you understand the argument, then carefully demolishing one premise (and explaining why) is enough. Doing them all is overkill, and probably ensures that your opponent (if we must see it in such terms) will begin defending the strongest link as though that will secure the whole.

c) Missing the Point

Arguing paragraph by paragraph is generally pointless because, as stated above, the argument will not usually be laid out paragraph by paragraph. The premises and logical connections will often not go one-two, one-two: they will be dispersed and scattered throughout the piece. As such, by addressing single paragraphs you might refute points individually, but miss the overall point they’re building towards. You might take down some of the scaffolding, yet there are still ladders and walkways to the top.

d) Distraction/soapbox

You might miss the overall point, either deliberately or accidentally, and make an argument in response that – while valid in itself – takes the discussion off on a tangent that favours your position rather than honestly engaging. Issues can be addressed in ways that have different repercussions, which don’t necessarily engage with the substance of the point being made.

e) Aggression

Fisking encourages people to disagree with everything someone says, no matter how sensible or banal. It’s overly-aggressive. People enter into it with the idea that “I must crush him! Every single point he makes!” – and so they attempt to do so. It’s not reasoned discussion; it’s not an attempt to see both sides of a debate, understand nuance, talk like adults. It’s debate as scorched-earth warfare, and consequently it often becomes about an individual’s ego rather than the issues. All-too-often, in fact.

f) Boring

It’s often fucking boring. It’s often very fucking boring.

4. Of course…

There’s an easy way around this. Well – maybe not easy, but certainly simple. When you want to argue with someone, you look at their argument and decide the best way to address it. In a small number of cases, fisking will be the way forward. In most cases, it would be better to attempt to extract the skeleton of the person’s argument and deal with that. It’s hard work, and it won’t win you easy points with your crowd, but it’s the intellectually honest thing to do. Assuming – and, I admit, this is a big assumption – that something as banal as intellectual honesty is what matters to you. 

I just got back from a lovely weekend in Bristol attending this year’s CrimeFest. It was blisteringly hot, and I had a lot of fun catching up with the usual batch of great people, along with a few new ones.

I also managed to attend a handful of panels for once, all of which were interesting. One of them was about the perennial subject of violence against women in crime fiction, and I found that one more of a mixed bag. It was successful in that the panellists were excellent and articulate in person, argued their corners well, and didn’t end up shouting at or physically attacking each other; it was less successful in that I think the subject matter rarely lends itself well to a panel discussion – it’s just a difficult topic to roundtable – and this instance was no exception. For one thing, it’s hard to argue when individual titles aren’t being named. We’re all too polite to do that, of course, but few authors admit to using gratuitous violence in their work, and without specific works to critique it can all seem a bit nebulous, untethered and theoretical.

But The Times have covered the subject today(£). I’ve blogged about it a few times in the past. And it’s been on my mind a lot lately anyway because The Nightmare Place is about rape. Throw the panel and the subsequent article into the mix, add a warm, sunny day with little to do, and I figured I’d set down some of my thoughts about the topic.

So. There are three questions I’d ask when presented with the purported rise of a particular phenomenon, which in this instance is an increased amount of graphic violence in crime fiction, particularly directed against women. The first question is is it actually happening? Because, you know, people claim things all the time, and we shouldn’t forget that a degree of confirmation bias can creep in – that just because you’re seeing more of something, it doesn’t mean the actual amount of it has increased. That said, and despite the burden of proof resting with the claimant, and the undoubted existence of a few historical outliers, I’d say it probably is true. Or at the very least, that it is in my own limited experience.

The second question is why is it happening? And I think there are a number of connected explanations for it.

Crime and horror fiction have always had their links (for example, and I might be a bit weird, but I see a lot of the existential horror and emptiness of Lovecraft in noir, just without the monsters), but for a couple of decades now crime fiction has been purloining more and more of the horror genre’s luggage, with the rise of the serial killer subgenre being an obvious example. Many serial killer novels could and perhaps would have been marketed as horror a few years ago, and of course some still are. But the clue’s in the name: serial killers have more than one victim, so a book about them probably will have too. In addition, their motives are usually sexual, and the things they subject their victims to are generally fairly unpleasant. Draw the curtain or don’t, but something bad is happening there.

In terms of the curtain, there is also the fact that society as a whole has become more explicit, by which I mean a number of things: that our access to all types of material has increased; that the material we can access – and indeed in some cases are exposed to whether we like it or not – has become more graphic; and that censorship has at least somewhat relaxed its grip on artistic output. And of course, artistic output often feeds on and reacts against its back catalogue. You could argue that ‘torture porn’ (a subgenre of horror) arrived as a result of all those things, especially the latter two. It’s an apt term for some films, where the point seems to be – forgive me – the money shot: an explicit amping up of stomach-testing violence, culminating in the final gross-out moment – the point of it all – mirroring the traditional porn narrative. And of course, once you’ve blowtorched one eye, in the next film you’re going to have to blowtorch two. I’d argue you’d be hard-pressed to find a true equivalent for torture porn in crime fiction, because however explicit the violence, it’s almost always supplementing a narrative rather than acting as an explicit substitute for one. But even so, for the above reasons, it doesn’t really surprise me that an increase in violence has occurred, in crime fiction as elsewhere.

Why women in particular? Well, I don’t believe the vast majority of readers and writers are getting off on this material, as such. I mean, I don’t think it’s the result of some emerging grotesque thigh-rubbing misogyny. For one thing, most of the readers and many of the writers are women. And while women can – of course – be either directly or indirectly misogynistic, there’s probably far more weight in the idea that it allows a vicarious exploration of personal fears – especially when, as opposed to all too often in the real world, the bad guy gets caught in the end. I also think there’s something in the idea that men as victims attract less sympathy. I might be wrong, but there remains a notion to some degree that men should be capable of sticking up for themselves, whereas women are more in need of protection and saving. This is misogynistic, of course, but it also points to the truth that patriarchy constrains and hurts us all. Narrative is hardly immune to the expectations of gender roles, however wrong-headed they may be. And look: I am guilty here. For example,  when I watched The Silence of the Lambs, I remember having huge sympathy for the plucky girl in the pit, but considerably less for the innocuous security guard who gets beaten to death by Lecter. You may not remember him. He was a gruff, burly, professional man, visibly quite close to retirement, who inexplicably allowed himself to be overpowered by the elderly Anthony Hopkins, and who then had the skin of his face removed and his corpse dumped improbably on top of an elevator so everyone’s favourite antihero could contrive a fairly unrealistic escapeHe is mourned by few. He should have got to his baton quicker.

Anyway, putting all that together, my answer to the second question would be: because it can happen, and because – like it or not – there’s very clearly a market for that kind of story. Shock horror: people appear to enjoy reading it. The monsters.

The third question is does it matter?

And seriously, why should anyone give a fuck? I genuinely don’t mean that in a dismissive way. I think it’s fine for Jessica Mann to say she doesn’t want to read or review that kind of book, or for Ruth Dudley Edwards to say she doesn’t want to write them. But that kind of subjective decision is a matter purely of personal taste, and it’s a world away from arguing that the rise of this particular phenomenon is some kind of objective problem and something the rest of us should be worried about.

I can think of three obvious ways to argue that violence against women in fiction is a bad thing. The first is that it reinforces the patriarchal attitudes I mentioned above. Which … well, okay. Yeah. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely a relatively minor contribution – reflective as much as causal – and more importantly it’s an argument that’s about narrative tradition rather than explicit violence, in that the argument would apply equally to a cosy crime novel with a female victim and a male detective and no explicit violence at all. I’m not saying the argument has no legs, but I’m really not convinced it’s running in the specific direction of the matter at hand.

The second is that the material corrupts. Here, I feel the burden of proof really does apply. It’s a charge that’s often levelled at violent material in many different genres and formats, and the evidence for influence remains distinctly flimsy. I’d raise objections to the likelihood of violent crime fiction in particular influencing an individual – but you know what? It’s really not necessary. This second argument is strong, and it would genuinely demand a counter, but it’s impossible to do so until the argument has actually been made.

The third argument is that many people don’t like this content, and that those readers and writers who enjoy less explicit fiction are being pushed to the sidelines. To which the answer is: if that’s the case then that’s just kind of tough. Of course, there’s truth in the idea that readers will see and buy the books that are promoted most heavily – but there’s also truth in the idea that those books are pushed because a market for them exists. Welcome to the industry; it can sometimes suck for lots of us, in many different and unique ways, but business is business. You remain able to read and write pretty much anything you want to, and if your publisher insists on including a dead woman on the cover when there isn’t one in the book, then either argue for them not to, or else accept that they’re trying to market your book the best they can and blame the readers – who may well be predominantly women, and who for some reason like that kind of thing.

“[Jessica Mann] recounted a story of a fellow female author who had quarrelled with her publishers after they insisted on putting a naked female on the cover, despite the book’s victim being male. “The notion that to sell a book that you have to have a tortured woman on the cover is very strange.”"

Well, for what it’s worth, I actually can’t remember the last time I saw a bestselling crime fiction title with an image of a naked, tortured body of either sex on the cover, especially an explicit one. I don’t want to doubt Jessica Mann’s anecdote, and yet it sounds vaguely apocryphal to me. So on this, at least, we come full circle. As per my first question above, I’m happy to be corrected on the existence of such covers (and indeed, on any of the above; my thoughts remain a work in progress on this the same as they do on most things), and comments are open and welcomed.

Tony Parsons has written a crime novel, The Murder Bag. It came out last week, and while on the publicity trail, he gave an interview to Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian. It caught people’s attention, at first due to that inflammatory last line about him voting UKIP – dropped in there so delightfully casually that you can almost imagine Aitkenhead walking away afterwards whistling innocently – and then more recently for his remarks about crime fiction:

“The thing is, he explains, he wanted to write a thriller “with a heart”. He loves crime fiction, “but what it tends to lack is the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy”.”

Now, as Alison Flood points out, both writers and readers of crime fiction don’t like to see their genre denigrated, and a degree of outrage has followed. Some of it has been very abusive. As Jake Kerridge pointed out on twitter, it’s interesting that similar opprobrium wasn’t heaped on John Gordon-Sinclair when he said much the same thing – but then, as a personality, Parsons is arguably better-known than Gordon-Sinclair, certainly more divisive and comes to the party with considerably more baggage. The UKIP stuff also ‘helped’, because it both gained the interview a large audience and perhaps predisposed many people to a negative reaction.

In general, though, most of the criticism has expressed incredulity, often with an accompanying sigh (because both writers and readers of crime fiction have been here many, many times before). This response is best summed up by Stella Duffy’s tweet: “Please someone send Tony Parsons some Brit crime writing from past 30 years so he can stop STUPIDLY saying ‘thrillers lack heart’”. The wonderful hashtag #tonyparsonscouldread followed swiftly, with various tweeters suggesting authors that, as it says on the tin, Parsons could read.

I’m not going to cite examples of my own in order to make the counter-argument that crime thrillers really are full of heart for three reasons. The first reason is that hashtag. There are already lots of excellent examples there, and others are arriving beneath Alison Flood’s article as I type. The second reason is that it would actually be far more useful to start with if Parsons provided examples of crime novels without heart and emotional power in order to back up his initial claim. We could then debate whether he is correct…

Oh, but wait. That’s actually ridiculous, isn’t it? Because if it turns out that a novel I personally find full of heart and emotional power (oh, go on, then: let’s say Green River Rising, by Tim Willocks) leaves Tony Parsons cold then we’re no closer to resolving the issue, are we? Of course not. And there’s a very simple reason for that. “Heart”. “Emotional power”. These are terms that describe subjective responses to a work (albeit perhaps acquiring a degree of permanence through a gathering intersubjective consensus). Look closer at Parsons’s comments, and you realise they actually say nothing at all even about the crime thrillers he’s read, never mind the genre as a whole. All his comments point to is his own emotional reaction to those works, which in turn suggests the things that move him or don’t.

An example. The comments were made in reference to the similarity between The Murder Bag and his earlier books. Parsons’s detective, Max Wolfe, is a single father raising his daughter after his wife walked out. Their relationship provides the heart of the novel – or more accurately, it provides the heart of its main character. It’s fairly obvious (and understandable) that this subject matter has weight for Tony Parsons. For me, not so much. I liked The Murder Bag, as it happens, but I can’t say I found more heart or emotional power there than in many of the other crime novels I’ve read. That scenario gives a degree of additional depth and motivation (to an extent) to the character, but it didn’t, for me, make Wolfe more alive than other fictional detectives with, for me, equally rich and resonant backgrounds. In fact, knowing what I know of Parsons, the single-parent and boxing elements felt a little heavy-handed, a little forced and try-hard. The problem was that I saw the author peering out from between the lines. Other people may disagree, of course. And as I said, I liked the book well enough. But let’s not pretend it’s reinventing the wheel, because it isn’t.

Anyway. The third reason is that – and let’s be honest and generous here – many things are said in the heat of a verbal interview. Your mouth runs, sentences babble out. There’s not the same precision that you get while writing; it’s impossible to consider every nuance of your words, and so things can easily come across entirely differently from how you intended. What I imagine happened is that Parsons, a savvy media-operator, had anticipated being asked what he was bringing to the genre and had come up with the obvious response that his earlier work was emotional, so he was bringing that. The rest just tumbles out if you’re not careful. Even a sentence or two later, you can find you’ve accidentally talked yourself into a pile of bullshit. We’ve all said stupid stuff in interviews we didn’t necessarily mean quite like that, and my guess right now is that this is one of those instances.

Regardless, as much as the comments still rankled – that sigh, yes; in my case more in sorrow than in anger – I still find a small part of me admiring Tony Parsons. Because he has a new novel out! And, hey, we all know about it now, don’t we? Job done.

In a similar spirit, I will mention that Tony Parsons is appearing at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. And I will repeat my contribution to #tonyparsonscouldread by saying: all of these brilliant people. 


Edit to add. Tweets like this…


…probably don’t help matters. Because that’s a monumentally stupid question, and I don’t believe he’s stupid.

thoughts on vox day and the hugos

Posted by on April 29th, 2014

The shortlists for the Hugo Awards were announced ten days ago and were controversial for a number of reasons, not least the surprise appearance of Vox Day in the ‘best novelette’ category for Opera Vita Aeterna. Vox Day rode in there on the popular vote as a result of Larry Correia posting a suggested voting slate to his readers, which was in turn based on the idea that right wing writers are ostracised by the SFF community and under-represented in award lists, which was in turn based on a perceived split between ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ SFF, which in turn plays on the arguments about misogyny, racism and inclusivity within the community, which in turn … but come on now, we bore ourselves to tears, and we stop. You know all this.

The point about Vox Day is this. He’s a sexist who believes women shouldn’t work but should stay home and have kids, that there’s no such thing as marital rape, and that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. He’s a racist who believes ‘vibrants’, immigration and multiculturism signal the decline of civilisation. He’s a homophobe. To give him his due, I also think he’s intelligent, generally articulate, and perhaps not quite as extreme as some of his detractors suggest (as in some of the more awful stuff is taken a little bit out of context), but let’s be clear: most people, including me, wouldn’t want him anywhere near their party. Probably.

But anyway: he is at the party. So what happens next?

It has been pointed out that voting on the shortlist allows for ‘No Award’ to be placed above an individual writer on the ballot. Some people have pointed this out in a faux-innocent, oh-my-what-can-I-possibly-be-saying? manner (which actually strikes me as oh-my-that’s-more-than-a-little-fucking-weak), while other people have been explicit about their intention to make sure Day comes in not just last on the list but behind the option of no award being given at all. Regardless, it’s not a protest vote based on the low literary quality of the novelette in question. It’s a political action motivated by a dislike of the author’s beliefs and published views.

There has been some debate as to whether this is fair. There has been talk to the effect that a work should be judged on its own merits rather than with reference to its author. It has been suggested that voters should be evaluating the novelette as though they were scientists and the work a point of data in some kind of imaginary double-blind trial. That they should attempt to form an unbiased opinion of the text, irrespective of their feelings about Vox Day or his politics.

This, I feel, is bullshit. For a number of reasons.

For one, most of the people I’ve personally seen suggesting this have been straight white males, to whom the majority of Day’s attacks are basically toothless. All right, he might call you a gamma rabbit, or some equivalent stupid shit, but that hardly has the same impact on you as being on the receiving end of racism, sexism or homophobia, where the effects have real-world repercussions, and are long-lived, and extend far beyond the parameters of a blog post in Day’s little corner of the sad-sack manosphere. For example, when he argues that women shouldn’t be able to vote, or that there’s no such thing as marital rape, he’s not directly insulting, belittling or threatening me. So maybe I can ignore that when I’m judging his story. Would I suggest that a woman who actually is being insulted, belittled and threatened discount all that and read Day’s story impartially? No, I would not. It would be too easy for me to say.

Secondly, it’s very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to judge art separately from politics. After all, a story is basically an idea or series of ideas or world view communicated obliquely through a string of narrative events. Unless a writer is faking it, their politics will be there to some extent, and whether a reader agrees with it will automatically colour their evaluation of the text, because a reader inevitably brings their own politics to the story. Likewise, knowledge of a writer’s politics invites different readings of the text. When you know about the writer, you’re not just being invited in through the front door anymore. Knowledge of their background opens windows, so you can peer in at the story from fresh angles and find new meanings.

Take Day’s novelette. Read superficially, it’s the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between a human priest and a long-lived elf, as the latter attempts to understand the religion of the former. Many of Day’s defenders suggested this was hardly the work of a racist, and on first reading I agreed: the writing itself was clunky (first draft stuff, although nothing a redraft or editor couldn’t have helped enormously with), and the story more than a little meh, but I found nothing overtly offensive in there. And yet, knowing Vox Day is a fundamentalist Christian with racist views, that initial reading is undermined. The elf has no soul; it is othered from the human characters; it inadvertently brings ruin and murder on the abbey; even with its powerful magic, it is still confused by and drawn to the religion of the priests as though it senses a superiority there … and so on. What is really going on here?

In other words, you can read a text in isolation, but why should you? That reading won’t be any more correct or definitive, will it?

Thirdly and finally, you might be more compelled to judge the work and not the author’s politics if you were on, say, the jury for an award that was attempting to find a ‘best’ work, where ‘best’ was defined in some way. The Hugos calls its awards ‘best this’ and ‘best that’, but of course it’s a popular vote with certain constraints, and so the awards are basically for popularity, or for a bunch of nebulous interpretations of ‘best’. Best book. Most popular book. Best story where you like the author’s blog. Best of a bad bunch. Best author you’ve actually heard of. Best haircut. Best author who isn’t a disgusting fucking bigot. And so on.

And you know, they’re all perfectly valid reasons for voting, because that’s all that’s happening here. I suggested earlier that most people wouldn’t want Vox Day at their party, and then doubted myself, because clearly at least a handful of people did up until now. So what happens next? Voting happens next. And voting is a political act. Does that need repeating? It really shouldn’t. Voting is always a political act.

pulling teeth

Posted by on December 6th, 2013

I discovered this article today, written by everyone’s favourite Creepy Old Rich White Man Living in Thailand, in which I am name-checked. Here are a few choice quotes:

“Writing should be fun. If it isn’t fun, you really shouldn’t be doing it. A horror writer by the name of Steve Mosby recently complained on Twitter that he found writing like pulling teeth.  My reaction to that – if it’s that painful, you shouldn’t be doing it. Mosby spends a lot of time tweeting about how hard he finds it to write his books, and how much effort he has to put into rewriting them.”


“I have enjoyed writing every single Spider Shepherd book – not one of them has been the equivalent of pulling teeth.”

Well, bully for you, sunshine. Let’s leave aside the obvious retort – that just because writing them wasn’t the equivalent of pulling teeth doesn’t mean reading them won’t be – and move onto the meat of the issue. Did I say that I found writing to be like pulling teeth? Yes and no. I actually remember this, as I noticed Mr Leather making one of his standard passive-aggressive references to it shortly afterwards, and what I actually said was that writing on that particular day had been like pulling teeth. An exaggeration, of course, but not a massive one.

And that happens quite a lot for me. I imagine it’s the same for many writers (certainly, anecdotally, I believe that to be true). After all, writing is not just typing, not if you care about it. You’re trying to convey the idea of what you have in your head through words, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. That applies not just at the level of sentences and scenes, but across the entire story, which at book length is likely to be structurally complicated, thematically intricate and difficult to hold in your head as a whole and coherent narrative. There are going to be good days and bad days. I have far more of the latter, especially in the end stages where the slightest tug on one narrative strand can dislodge another from the knot.

All writers have different approaches – and congratulations to Mr Leather for enjoying his work so much, as nobody would wish him ill – but mine is a more complicated affair. As I’ve said before, I usually write with a vague outline, and at the end of my first draft I realise what the book should have been about all along. So I rewrite, and I refine. The book goes through various iterations as I add, delete and shift scenes about. Characters vanish and reappear. Things get dropped and things get added. Other writers are more straightforward, but that’s the way I work: my books tend to begin as exceptionally blurry photographs, and then every draft sharpens the image a little more. For me, this tends to exacerbate the good day/bad day problem I mentioned above, but the bad days don’t make me any more unhappy than the good ones. That’s because I know they’re both equally important to the process. I work hard at my writing because I care about it.

So, do I spend “a lot of time tweeting about how hard [I find] it to write [my] books, and how much effort [I have] to put into rewriting them”? Well, not really (although I wouldn’t be ashamed if I did). My tweets are generally about my mundane life and opinions, mixed in with retweets to left-leaning articles and dick jokes. I don’t tweet about writing much, but it’s a social media channel, and I am honest when I’m using it. If I’m having a good day, I say so. If I’m having a bad one, likewise. Because I’m a writer, writing will crop up. I don’t tweet because I’m trying to build up a false image of myself, or sell things to people. Although obviously – in social media as in writing books – other authors will have very different approaches.

“I think the fact that I enjoy writing so much is reflected in the quality of my work – I do very little rewriting and my publisher generally has little to do in the way of editing.”

And this is interesting, simply because it seems so obviously, palpably false. It’s not even the faux machismo (“I don’t need any editing! I’m a machine!”) but the general thesis. I would actually say the opposite is true in my experience: that the enjoyment I take from a writing day is utterly unconnected to how good the work that day really is. How egotistical and solipsistic to think otherwise. I’ve done good work on subjectively bad days and vice versa. Why should my enjoyment in writing a passage necessarily translate to someone else’s pleasure in reading it? How naive and self-centred to imagine that might be true. And I welcome editorial input and suggestion, as it has – with no exceptions – improved all my books, and caused me to raise my game. But then, as we’ve probably realised by now, other authors have very different approaches. So it goes.

Amazon, Kobo and freedom of speech

Posted by on October 16th, 2013

At the time of writing, the WHSmith website remains down, Barnes & Noble are “removing” material, Waterstones are “investigating”, and Amazon, characteristically silent, are culling titles. The reason for this is a proliferation of self-published pornographic ebooks dealing with incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality and rape. You’re probably aware of the background by now, but here is a potted history of the ongoing situation, along with some relevant links.

Following the revelation that there was such a thing as dinosaur porn online, we all laughed a bit and vomited a bit. Having tweeted about that, the writer Jeremy Duns began looking into related material, on the basis that: a) werewolf porn is basically bestiality, so what else is out there; and b) this kind of shit has darkened the corridors of the left room before, and Jeremy was involved with that. This led to a Kernel article about the offending material, along with a (then) list of some of the grimmer titles on offer (trigger warning), which was then picked up by the Daily Mail, and other news outlets. Everything then basically caught fire and exploded. Online ebook sellers have been scrabbling to get rid of the titles, with varying degrees of both success and proportionality. A lot of perfectly ‘innocent’ erotica (and non-erotica) appears to have been caught in the crossfire, Kobo have indicated they’re temporarily removing all self-published ebooks, and many people are furious.

The two most important questions about this whole issue are fundamentally boring. The first question is: “Are these books against the law?”. The second is: “Do the companies want to stock them?”. These are  boring questions because they have fairly straightforward yes/no answers that completely resolve the issue. In the first case, a yes would mean a responsibility to remove the books in question, while the latter would allow it regardless.

The End. Nothing more to see here.

A third question is whether a company’s approach to removing the material is sensible, reasonable and proportionate. In an old job, I would occasionally build databases, and it was always a nightmare when you were required to add to them on an ad hoc basis, because you invariably ended up with an unwieldy beast of a thing. From the front end, it might do everything it was supposed to, but you were only ever one urgent change, one addition or subtraction, away from having to say: “No, sorry. It simply won’t do what you suddenly want it to, because you didn’t build that feature in at ground level”. I get the impression that certain companies may have charged into the digital fray equipped with the equivalent of such a database. Certainly, has been offline for several days now (and will have lost millions of pounds as a result), all to remove a small handful of titles; you imagine that’s not by choice. Equally, Kobo’s removal of all self-published titles, however temporary, inevitably comes across as a kind of desperate and ill-prepared flailing, as though they only remembered to start installing delete buttons from the fifth floor up.

On a related note, it’s interesting to read Selena Kitt’s post, which mentions another ‘new’ way in which epublishing platforms are effectively being gamed. From sockpuppetry to review factories and beyond, I’m increasingly reminded (perhaps appropriately) of the brave new technology of Jurassic Park, where all the dinosaurs are the same sex, so they can’t possibly breed, and so everything will be fine. Except of course, someone didn’t do their research, and in reality you generally can’t predict the flaws and problems in a new system until they appear and you’re forced to deal with them.

All that aside, if those are the boring questions, what are the interesting ones? Well, I’d say they revolve less around “is it” and “do they” and more around “should it be” and “should they”.

Let’s take the latter first. Any company is free to choose the items it sells: there can surely be no argument there. If Amazon don’t wish to sell pornographic titles then there is no obligation for them to do so. Certain considerations aside, any supplier is free to choose its stock, so Kobo is no more obliged to provide self-publishers with a platform than your neighbour is. A fruit-seller shouldn’t refuse to stock your oranges on the basis that you’re a woman or gay or black, but they’re also not compelled to alter their business model and start selling your mushrooms.

Freedom of speech and censorship are terms that are often abused online, and they have been here, but I actually think censorship is an acceptable term to use in this instance, albeit only in a small, everyday sense: one that doesn’t involve government intervention. Censorship is morally neutral as a term, as is prejudice. So in the same way that we can talk of self-censoring our outbursts, and might be personally prejudiced towards a particular flavour of ice-cream, I think we can use those terms here, so long as we’re careful not to purloin the moral weight and import of wider definitions. Ebook platforms are prejudiced against certain subject matter and are censoring it from their catalogues. That’s totally okay.

It’s much the same with freedom of speech. As the fundamental underpinning of an equal and democratic society, the term has no real place here. That said, if (theoretically) the places where 99.99% of ebooks are sold refused to stock you, and the places where 99.99% of online transactions are carried out refused to handle your money, I could see the point in tentatively employing the phrase. It would, again, be in a lesser sense, but if there is both demand and supply for a legal product, and yet the two can’t meet, we might reasonably begin thinking in those terms. At the same time, transaction could still be completed by cash in some back room somewhere, and while that might not be ideal for sellers and buyers, it’s still preferable to forcing products on retailers that don’t want them. Tough shit, in other words. I’m far from being without sympathy, but life goes on.

As to illegality, I imagine it’s safe to say that some of the material being removed would be classed as such. As this (excellent) blog points out, fictional material can still be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act. And in light of the BBFC’s refusal to grant classifications to entirely fictional films such as Murder Set Pieces and Grotesque, it would be a brave individual that risked either supplying or procuring those titles in the UK. But that, of course, is not the same as saying that should be the case, and here we do finally encounter the debates around freedom of speech in its purest form.

In my opinion, the default position is that all speech should be considered acceptable, and that it requires evidence of damage to disallow it: damage in the production or damage in the consequence. The former is easiest to deal with. In the case of genuine child pornography, say, a real child has been hurt, and the observer is both retrospectively complicit in that and also instrumental in creating demand for more children to be hurt. There is real damage there. If the piece in question is a work of fiction, then things appear less clear-cut. No real person is damaged, and no real person will be. In the case of film, it’s acted; in the case of written fiction, it’s entirely invented.

In terms of damage in the consequence, we’d be looking at someone being incited by reading or viewing this material to commit harm, but the evidence for this occurring in reality is sketchy and inconclusive. There are obvious problems collecting and interpreting the data on this. For example, if every convicted child killer in the world was proved to have watched relevant violent pornography, it would still only really tell us about child killers, not violent pornography itself. For the latter, you would need more. If lots of harmless people read or watch rape porn, then the connection becomes less and less meaningful. In other words: without evidence, don’t mix up cause and effect. Of course violent rapists will likely have viewed that kind of pornography at some point; that is, by definition, the kind of thing they are likely to seek out. But logically, that doesn’t mean it creates, causes or even influences violent rapists and what they do in real life.

Bottom line: this stuff is grim. I don’t want to read it, and however harmless you might be, a prejudiced part of me doesn’t particularly want you anywhere near me or my child if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy wanking off to. But when it comes to freedom of speech, we pride ourselves on it as a society, and we’re always aware that in theory there may be something awful waiting in the wings we have to approve without necessarily approving of. But we’re rarely ever called upon to do so. This seems like one of those times. So: I really, really don’t like what some of you are writing and reading. And yet I defend your right to do so.

different degrees of desperation

Posted by on August 31st, 2013

Richard and Judy have launched a competition to find a new bestseller.

Richard Madeley says:

“It’s become a big thing culturally – people want to write. So we just thought we’d channel it. And I know we’re going to get a bestseller. People who have been desperate to be heard, to be read, will submit their writing.”

But from here, term 1.4 of the competition rules reads:

“(you) have not previously submitted your partial novel (the “Extract”) or any work to a publishing company or literary agency and have not been previously published in any format, or released into the public domain, including but not limited to the Internet”

I’m sure there are various sensible logistical reasons for these limitations, but the two statements don’t sit well together. If you’re “desperate to be heard, to be read” then chances are you’ll have posted a short story online, or unsuccessfully submitted something to an agent or publisher at some point, and are consequently ineligible. The only possible alternatives are that: a) you’ve never written anything before; or b) that you’ve decided to leave your prior body of work utterly unobserved by others on your own hard drive until now, like a modern day Henry Darger.

Over the years, Richard and Judy have done an enormous amount to help writers (and vice versa). On the face of it, this could be an admirable undertaking. But if you’re aiming to support writers who are “desperate to be heard, to be read”, then don’t forget that many great writers will have been published in various capacities, only to be lost along the side of the road for reasons outside of their control. Others might have  been rejected by an agent just once so far. I appreciate it might be difficult – logistically – to handle entries, but if you’re going to do this shit, then do it right, or don’t bother to do it at all.

some thoughts on internet porn filters

Posted by on July 26th, 2013

So, David Cameron is keen to crack down on access to online pornography. Some people are thrilled about this. Others, not so much. Here is some detail from the previous link:

“Every household in Britain connected to the Internet will be obliged to declare whether they want to maintain access to online pornography, David Cameron will announce on Monday.

In the most dramatic step by the government to crack down on the “corroding” influence of pornography on childhood, the prime minister will say that all internet users will be contacted by their service providers and given an “unavoidable choice” on whether to use filters.”


“He will say:

* The possession of “extreme pornography”, which includes scenes of simulated rape is to be outlawed.
* The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is to draw up a blacklist of “abhorrent” internet search terms to identify and prevent paedophiles searching for illegal material.
* All police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help “close the net on paedophiles”.”

I’m sure the net on paedophiles is one we’d all like to close, and even though I suspect only the thickest of them use Twitter or insecure websites readily accessible via Google to circulate such material, it’s difficult to object. Simulated rape seems slightly trickier to me. While I wouldn’t like to meet an individual who finds such material sexually arousing, the emphasis should surely rest on simulated. If no laws are broken in the production of certain material, I’m unsure why laws should have been broken by viewing it. In addition, it feels like a very blurry definition. I don’t want to imagine somebody jerking off to rape porn, but I also think Irreversible is a masterpiece – albeit distressing and deeply upsetting. It contains an unbearable 9 minute rape scene. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could jerk off to that. Should that be outlawed?

On the subject of filters, I also have a heavy heart. I’ve had mobile phone contracts with cack-handed versions of this applied (and really, could any filter of the web not be cack-handed, by definition?) and it was intensely annoying. I presume it limited me from accessing porn while I was out and about. It also limited me from accessing several websites that have nothing to do with porn, but which had, for some vague reason, been classified as objectionable. I’d turn down universal filters on those grounds alone. I don’t want to be prevented from visiting a site because it has adult content, because, you know, I am an adult.

Deborah Orr has an interesting article in the Guardian today, basically saying that the filters are no big deal, at least theoretically, and there’s a lot in the article that’s worth chewing over. Certainly, it’s not a hugely prominent free speech issue, simply because you can opt in. Rape pornography aside (and, depending on how it’s implemented, I’m not sure that’s a hill many are willing to die on), nothing is being banned outright. But I still have reservations. From Orr’s article:

“In other words, the current situation is awkward for some people who don’t want a portal to porn in the sitting room, while the proposed one would be awkward for some of those who do.

Why should the convenience of the second group be so much more important than the convenience of the first? The implication is that it’s normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn. Yet it’s clear from much of the criticism that using porn is the sort of normality that people have some reservations about sharing with others, even the people most close to them. Why would someone hide a healthy fondness for porn from their sexual partner? The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”

This argument seems to pivot on the idea that it’s okay to restrict things if there’s no obvious reason to allow them. That is not how I would personally approach things. Explicit hardcore porn is not beamed directly into your home. If somebody chooses to search for it, then I see no prima facie reason – legality of material aside – why they should not be able to find it. Any argument in support of filters should be addressing why that should not be the case. Saying “I don’t want it” is not enough, because you can – you know – opt out.

In short: to ban or limit access to something, you require a reason for doing so; the default state should be unfettered access, and we work from there. Being able to look at something is not the same thing as being able to look at something if you say please, and we lose that distinction to our disadvantage – somewhere down the line, if not now. This is not trivial; it’s important.

The question then becomes: is it worth doing? Is it justifiable? On the face of it, restricting access to online pornography to save the children seems fairly admirable – simply on the basis that, upon being asked “do you want kids to be able to look at porn?” most people would say “No.” And yet both terms cover a lot of ground. While the internet has allowed easy access to the whole spectrum of pornography, it’s hardly a monolith. Yes, you can watch obnoxiously orchestrated and deeply unpleasant hardcore videos – but you can also watch amateur clips of fairly normal people having loving and fairly naturalistic sex. It doesn’t make sense to me to use the same term for both. As a teenager, I saw a fair bit of porn – most of it on grainy VHS, or in magazines found, bizarrely, abandoned and stuffed into tree trunks in woods – and yet somehow I managed to enter my late teens and early twenties without absurd expectations of what women were like, or how to treat them.

This is not to say that attitudes can’t be problematic. But I do think Orr brushes too briefly over things like Page 3, or – say – the Mail’s infamous sidebar of shame, which will not be prohibited by the filters. These things are more subtle and more pernicious, and I’d imagine that the existence of these, along with countless other examples, is more damaging overall to the collective consciousness than the ability to watch a couple (or whatever) of people shagging, however enthusiastically or unrealistically.

Of course, Cameron is never going to restrict access to those things, and never could. I’d suggest these current plans are similarly unworkable and ridiculous, if on a slightly different scale, and I’d be amazed if they are actually implemented. They strike me as gesture politics at best: a simple thing to say to appease people, but which can easily be forgotten and abandoned down the line. Or, to put it another way, a bit of momentary crowd-pleasing headline-grabbing to distract everyone from the people who are really getting fucked.


The original, and still the most revealing. Its profile claims the author is Maria James, and yet the initial post begins thus:

“Dear Jeremy,

My name is Emily James, and I am a human rights lawyer who campaigns against the surveillance society.”

Its initial focus is on Jeremy’s taping of a conversation with the author Steve Roach (made without informing him) about Roach’s experiences of being bullied by bestselling author Stephen Leather. You can read a storify about that here.

[It’s worth noting that Roach did feel maligned by the attention, not least because, at this point, he felt he had buried the hatchet with Leather. Leather’s own attitude to that rapprochement was to publish a private email from Steve Roach on his Facebook page, and make fun of him.]

Regardless, this is a blog that was clearly created in haste – hence the spelling error in the title – and one which was then swiftly, even cruelly, abandoned, like a wretch.


Also alleged to be by Maria James. Maria James 2. Ma2ia James.

[Actually, as a brief aside, no record appears to exist to support Maria’s existence as a human rights lawyer – or, indeed, as a human being. She does have a twitter account – here – which alternates between tweeting links to blogs about Jeremy Duns, and retweets of messages with feminist content. The feminist retweets may well be automated, based on keywords, as Maria has had at least one terrible misfire, involving posting an image of a blowjob. Another author who uses automated tweets is Stephen Leather.]

The content here reiterates some of the concerns of the previous blog, before evolving into accusations of misogyny, the main evidence for which appears to be that Jeremy admires the novel Casino Royale. It also has a pop at me, and others. Logic is tortured; facts, brushed aside. This is not a blog prepared or fit for discourse; it will not survive well. And indeed, it appears to have fallen into a state of decomposition, with its penultimate flail at life an almost incomprehensible attack on David Hewson for writing adaptations of the (very famous) TV series The Killing:

“Note the use of the description of a ‘gaping wound’ that is ‘like a second sick smile’. I can assume that Hewson is trying to compare it to a vagina. Sick. Just a one off? Before that Hewson published ‘The Killing I’”.

Another writer that has criticised David Hewson is Stephen Leather.

David 1


It is an anonymous blog, and the content is mainly concerned with whether Jeremy is a journalist or not. (Spoiler: he is a journalist).

There is some junk DNA in this thing about Jeremy editing his own wikipedia page. Which, as I check it, yes, he appears to have done – openly, under his own name, with limited success, and with the aim of correcting the malicious attentions of numerous anonymous editors. For a while, the entry was mostly focused on his altercations with other authors and journalists: R J Ellory; Q R Markham; Lenore Hart; Nate Thayer. The present version – hard-fought-for; wrangled over – now also includes mention of an author named Stephen Leather.


More of the same, more-or-less. We look at these things and yawn, after a while, don’t we? The same dead eyes; a similar path worn in the dirt as the useless fucking thing circles, then circles again. But we press on. This blog is distinguished for two reasons. The first is its almost incoherent howl of plagiarism, which is based on the notion that the Telegraph republishing an article previously published (by them) by Jeremy constitutes self-plagiarism. Well, it doesn’t, obviously, but this is a blog, and it cannot possibly understand. Take this thing out back and put it out of its suffering. Wait, sorry. I get ahead of myself.

The second is this post, which is interesting only in terms of the screengrabs it uses to illustrate its points. At least two of them are clearly screengrabs made by Stephen Leather (they’re amongst the motley collection visible here). Perhaps these images have been absorbed by osmosis and incorporated into the whole of this blog-thing, this thing that not even a mother would love, and which should, undeniably, die. Leather should sue. But then, most of these blogs use photos and images they have no right to use, so perhaps he should not.


This ostensibly puny creation is a clone of the following site – but dislocated to a Swedish address – so we’ll just move swiftly on to that instead, and speak of it no longer.


Most notable for its false accusations of sockpuppetry. As any fule kno, it’s not sockpuppetry to use a pseudonym or an elaborate username online – and many people log into forums with names that differ from their given ones. The important thing is what you’re using that false name for, and whether you’re pretending to lack an interest while you do so.

For example, Stephen Leather admitted creating accounts to promote his work – accounts that readers might assume were other disinterested readers like themselves. They had no idea that the individual recommending Stephen Leather’s books was Stephen Leather himself. That’s sockpuppetry. Whereas, while Jeremy initially seems to be promoting his work under an alias, it’s clear upon reading the screengrabs that he has self-identified as the author of the book he’s discussing. He’s not being a conman. He’s not misleading anyone. He’s not using a sockpuppet.

This blog is also notable on a teeny, tiny level for using the same screengrabs of Jeremy’s reviews as the final blog to be discussed, but honestly, this blog would take anything at this point, and it’s best not to indulge it.


This stumbling, crawling one is notable for two primary reasons. There are two posts. The first attacks Jeremy’s sales figures, using a screengrab that resembles one Stephen Leather took to misrepresent my own. (Leather is obsessed with sales figures, by the way. See the comment thread here, and likely a zillion other places). You’re tempted to say “and how many books have you sold, anonymous blog?” and also “what does it matter, anyway?”, but to do so would only encourage the thing, and it’s better to leave it be.

The second – and come on, now; we’re nearly done – is the accusation that Jeremy exchanged reviews with another writer. The evidence is that they have both favourably reviewed each other’s books. There is zero evidence – as things stand, on the basis of that – that this is a “review swap”, rather than one writer honestly admiring another that works in the same genre. And the names are not hidden. And where is my shotgun, and where is the back of the motherfucking barn?

defending our good name

Posted by on February 11th, 2013

Not that this blog has much of one, of course – but still.

The Left Room was (briefly) used as a reference on Julian Ruck’s wikipedia page, which (again, briefly) mentioned his admitted plagiarism. It doesn’t presently, due to the attentions of an editor called Bagehot1, who has been carefully curating that page (and only that page). What interests me is a comment left by Bagehot1 in defence of one of the edits made:

“This ‘controvesy’ insert is both mailicious and libellous and is not credibly sourced. The blogger John Abell is presently under police investiagtion along with the left room blogger” (17.26, 10 February 2013)

The “police investiagtion” (sic) presumably refers to this, in which Julian Ruck, a man otherwise much concerned with taxpayers’ money being wasted on behalf of authors, has lodged a claim of harrassment against a clearly satirical website that jokingly threatened to have monkeys throw dog shit and his own books at his house. As absurd as that is, I don’t have any responsibility for that website, so can only assume I’m under investigation for the mentions I’ve given Mr Ruck here at The Left Room – which amount to two.

The first is of no consequence. The second is here. That’s the one where I accuse Julian Ruck not only of writing a pathetically sexist column – as such an accusation would be tautologous – but also blatantly plagiarising Christopher Hitchens. He is a plagiarist, I say. Julian Ruck is a plagiarist. “Step forward if you’re not a plagiarist – where do you think you’re going, Julian?” And so on. And shame on the Llanelli Star, which is still, as of today, hosting stolen content and continuing to publish his column. The only reasonable assumption is that Ruck has particularly embarrassing photographs of someone in charge there, assuming anyone is.

Anyway – if Dyfed-Powys police really are investigating my blog, the relevant links they’ll be interested in are above. Always happy to co-operate.