Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an update here. I’ll try to do a proper one soon – although in truth there isn’t much to say. I’ve mostly been working on Book Ten (still due for publication in February 2017) and plotting out ideas for Book Eleven (more on which anon). In the meantime, I wanted to write something about the EU referendum, which is taking place in a few short days.

Not so long ago, I’d no doubt have been chomping at the bit to have my say, but I feel a genuine sense of weariness right now – and also, is there any real point in adding to the noise? But I wanted to write something. With that in mind, here are some links to posts and arguments that I’ve found articulate, insightful and persuasive. These are short extracts. In each case, the whole is very much worth reading.

Nicholas Barr of the LSE calmly addresses the various practical arguments and presents the reasons he’ll be voting for Remain:

“This article, written for many friends who have asked for a reasoned view of why I will vote Remain, summarises a longer article which sets out the supporting arguments more fully. I include links to evidence from credible sources, none (with the essential exception of the Financial Times) behind a paywall.”

Nick Harkaway writes a quiet and sensible letter to a friend thinking of voting Leave:

“From where I stand, it seems that we put a tiny fraction of our annual national spend (and get back more) towards membership of a vital trading bloc which is also a landmark project in the effort to prevent neighbouring countries with a history of violence from warring on one another?—?and that bloc, that project, is not an exogenous given. That is to say that it’s not guaranteed to continue to exist if we Leave. Our departure could bring it down. I think that would be a tragedy?—?the end of something that was begun in fear and hope, that is supposed to be about making a better world, its demise coming in response to a sustained campaign of aggressive hectoring whose positive side I cannot find.”

Laurie Penny argues – back in 2015 – that the real threat we face isn’t immigrants but creeping fascism:

“The behaviour of the British and wider European elite towards migrants is not simple inhumanity. It is strategic inhumanity. It is weaponised inhumanity designed to convince populations fracturing under hammer-blows of austerity and economic chaos that the enemy is out there, that there is an “us” that must be protected from “them” … All of this has happened before. All of this, in fact, is precisely what the European Union was established to prevent.”

John Rickards discusses the various arguments and explains why he’ll be voting to Remain:

“If we vote Leave, I think it’s widely known Johnson will challenge for the Tory leadership and will likely win. This will give us a prime minister than no one, other than about 20,000 people in Uxbridge, voted for, representing a party that a vast majority voted against in the last election, passing policy in a system which requires no vote in Parliament so long as no laws or national budget allotments are changed, in which the cabinet producing those policies is not subject to parliamentary approval or vote in the first place, and in which one entire house?—?the Lords?—?is completely unelected and over which we have no influence at all.

Tell me, what control do we get exactly? And how is that less than we have by working in Europe? What extra representation do we have in an isolated system with so much that’s unrepresentative by default?

No, it’s not us that will get control if we leave the EU. It’s those fronting Leave.”

Nick Cohen talks about the poisonous and anti-intellectual tone of some of the Leave campaign:

“As so often in the past, those who claim to be fighting the elite on behalf of the masses are the most manipulative of all. Baffled broadcasters, who do not understand the new world, have politely wondered why Johnson and Gove are claiming pensioners will be left to suffer as the NHS is overrun by 77 million Turks, when there is absolutely no prospect of Turkey joining the EU. The answer is simple: they do it because they know that playing on racial fear works. They do it because they are confident that any “expert” the BBC can put on air to contradict them can be dismissed with Govean scorn as a liar and a fraud.”

And J.K. Rowling discusses stories and monsters here:

“In a few days’ time, we’ll have to decide which monsters we believe are real and which illusory. Everything is going to come down to whose story we like best, but at the moment we vote, we stop being readers and become authors. The ending of this story, whether happy or not, will be written by us.”


Look, I wasn’t going to write anything myself, but I will say something. As a Labour voter, I don’t see any real point in blaming Cameron, Gove, Johnson, Duncan-Smith and Farage – or any of the rest of that shower of shit – for where we are now. But I do find myself, rightly or wrongly, blaming Labour a little bit. In the run up to the 2015 election, as Ukip shifted the debate to the right, Labour failed to argue that austerity was an ideological choice rather than an economic necessity, and they failed to present the positive case for immigration. On those two absolutely key issues, they failed to offer themselves up as a coherent opposition and ended up presenting themselves as Tory-lite. Cameron then found himself with an unexpected majority and was thus forced to follow through on a promise he’d only made – massively ironically as it turns out – to dampen down a division within his own party in the run up to the general election. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s infuriating.

But anyway: here the rest of us are now – forced to deal with a referendum that has not only proved divisive, stupid and ugly on both sides but which is wholly unnecessary. On Friday, we’ll have a result one way or the other, but that won’t be the end of it. It really does feel like we’ve pulled the cork out of a particularly hate-filled bottle right now, and I doubt it will go back in easily any time soon. And whatever the ultimate decision, it won’t be any of the high-profile politicians currently arguing so passionately for either side that feel the full force of its consequences.

And on that note, I’ll end with a link to this piece by Chris Brosnahan, which basically sums up how I feel right now.

“I wish I had a more hopeful point to end this on. Maybe tomorrow, I will. But right now… right now, I’m out of hope. I’m just scared.”

Posted by on January 4th, 2016

In the weeks before Christmas, this site about me finally went live.

I say finally because the web address was bought some time ago, but the site itself has only just been populated. It’s a site dedicated to exposing my bad language on Twitter, and encouraging people not to buy my books on that basis. I am “a vile and unpleasant little man”, apparently. To which I can only say: look – vile and unpleasant I may well be but, at six foot three and over fifteen stone, you’ll forgive me for taking umbrage at that “little”.

But no, seriously, I swear a bit on social media (although not nearly as much as that site implies; it’s all been culled – amazingly; almost psychotically flatteringly – from tweets going back to 2009), and I make no apologies for my language. Picture me shrugging right now – it’s a fucking enormous shrug, trust me. I swear. You swear. He, she or it swears.

Anyway. It’s reasonably clear that bestselling author, ebook superstar and fellow Hachette author Stephen Leather is responsible for this website. I won’t say how I know that; I’ll save all the screenshotted internet incompetence for later potential laughs. But I’m amused that, following his vague baseball bat threat last May, he promised to ignore me (as I then did him) and yet, clearly, he can’t. I’m also amused that he still doesn’t have the courage to attach his name to his activities. How pathetic. Three and a half fucking years ago, it was revealed how he cyberbullied a writer named Steve Roach into submission. Three and a half fucking years later, he’s still imagining the same tactics will work on me. They won’t. When I saw the obsessive content of the site, I laughed. When it was briefly replaced by an advert for acne cream, I laughed even harder.

It was actually a wonderful Christmas present. I’m looking forward to a lot more laughter in 2016.

How quickly love can turn to hate. Less than three years ago, bestselling Hodder & Stoughton author and “eBook superstar” Stephen Leather was admiringly telling me “you’ve a lot going for you … you could be selling tens of thousands a month”, and now … well, we all know where we are. In addition to bragging foolishly on stage about using sock puppet accounts to promote his books, Mr Leather has been revealed as a bully and a creepy stalker, and oooh, he has not liked being called out on it. There are numerous accounts detailing his behaviour. Here’s one, by Nick Cohen, which also includes the Press Complaints Commission’s outright rejection of the objections Mr Leather raised to a previous article.

I actually had no intention of blogging about Mr Leather again – it’s very boring; he’s very boring – but circumstances compel me slightly, as we shall see at the end. In the comments below that two year old Nick Cohen article, I noticed he had recently replied to an ancient comment of mine. Here are both:


Which is interesting on a few levels. If anybody’s interested, the interview where Leather talks about the Thai bar girls he was meeting not being as pretty anymore, it’s here; it quite clearly makes no sense for him to be referring to my mother in the reply he made, although I’m genuinely not sure why he would consider that any better. I’ll just note that he accepts his own ‘Tick tock’ comment is a direct reference to me, or at least some member of my family.

Most bizarre of all, of course, is the time lag, which I was surprised enough by to mention it on Twitter:


Well. He did not like this.


This may be entirely coincidental, of course; he may not be meaning it in connection to me and my tweet. But it does tie in with the content of comment on the Cohen piece, and it’s difficult to imagine who else he might be replying to.

It’s an interesting approach, incidentally. One of the things that narcissists find difficult to do is to avoid personal projection in their attacks on others. In terms of the overall argument, what has been in dispute is Leather’s personal and professional behaviour. His sales, looks, writing talent and the number and quality of his sexual partnerships have never had any bearing on the matter. But it is reasonably clear from his attacks on myself and others that he cares very deeply about these things. A psychologist I am not. But: he is vain and insecure about his looks; he worries about his status, particularly with regard to other men; he views women as objects and trophies; he derives self-esteem from external and often random means of validation rather than any sense of inner confidence. And because the comments he makes would hurt him, he assumes they will hurt others. Even after numerous failed attempts, he remains unable to understand that I am completely oblivious to these lines of attack. He simply can’t comprehend it.


Because I directly name and link to people, I am somehow passive aggressive. And because he subtweets snide little asides without mentioning names, he is not. Which is obviously nonsense – it’s the opposite of the truth – and again, it’s likely projection. He associates passive aggression, correctly, with cowardice, and so is unable to accept he is guilty of it, whereas I very clearly am not. I have never written anything I would not say to his face. He barely dares to write my name.

Anyway. He did not like this. Read from the bottom up.


To which I responded:


As you can probably guess, he did not like this.


That’s a link to a website for acne cream … oh, please don’t look at me with those eyes – I’ll survive. But it ties back to his initial comment below Nick Cohen’s article. Despite still being too afraid to mention me by name, it is perfectly clear that he is directing these tweets at me. Which makes the follow up, a few hours later, all the more disturbing:


From the chronology above, and the correlation of the “you” in his various tweets with the comment on the Cohen piece (amongst others), and the direct reference to “Tick tock” (which he has admitted is a specific response to me, and which he may well be regretting placing on the end of that tweet), his tweet is clearly directed at me. It very likely falls foul of Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act:

“A person who without lawful excuse makes to another a threat, intending that that other would fear it would be carried out, to kill that other or a third person shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.”

While I highly doubt that Mr Leather is physically capable of carrying out such a threat in person, Steve Roach made reference to Mr Leather’s powerful friends, and Mr Leather is certainly both a very strange and a very wealthy man, and apparently very proud of both things. So yes, I absolutely believe he intends me to “fear it would be carried out”. For what other reason would he say it? And so I shall be considering my legal options with care. In the meantime, I’m still not so much of a coward as to avoid naming Mr Leather and calling him out for what he is.

more problems with amazon reviews

Posted by on November 18th, 2014

The conventional wisdom has always been that authors should never respond to reviews. It’s good advice. I replied to one once. My first ever review was long and brutal, and included the implication that I was a misanthropic young man who had issues with women. On the grounds that the book is not the writer, I emailed the editor asking for that single line to be removed. He replied by nailing the flag of integrity to the mast of his publication and gesturing pointedly at it. They would publish a response, he told me, but warned that it seldom looked good. He was right, of course, and I left it there. These days, I wouldn’t have bothered emailing in the first place, but this was back in 2003 or so, when I was still young and naïve.

Fast forward a decade or so, and we come to the various scandals and problems with the Amazon review system, which, given the enormous number of titles available, has become increasingly important as some kind of filter, however flawed and inadequate it may be. From sockpuppetry to bulk-buying positive reviews, the star system has always been, and remains, eminently gameable. Two years ago – back when this all flared up briefly in the news – one suggestion was to do away with the star system altogether and rely purely on the written reviews, which would require more effort to fake and game. Obviously, that was never going to happen. But in truth, it wouldn’t solve much.

One of my novels has an Amazon review (average, star-wise) that details the main plot beats for about three quarters of the book, giving away at least two major twists. Someone (not me) has commented under it, complaining about spoilers, and the original reviewer has replied, saying simply “Wrong”. Well, sorry, it’s not wrong. Those are spoilers. I wrote the fucking thing, and I ought to know. They’re developments I didn’t reveal until about 75% of the way through, and I didn’t do that by accident. Knowing them going in means you’ll get an entirely different reading experience from the one I intended. And yet I’ve never complained about or reported this review. I’m no longer quite so young and naïve, and ultimately, any damage done is relatively trivial.

But this is not about me. An author friend of mine has recently received a review on Amazon that’s somewhat more problematic. Since it’s possible the book might be on your to-be-read pile, I’m not going to identify the author or title – or indeed, the reviewer. It’s a three-star review, and the full text is exactly as follows, beyond me redacting the character name:

“Fascinating at times especially the Television background part of the story .Too early I realised the villain was [xxxxx].so the conclusion left no surprises ,really.”

And nor will it now for anyone else. The reviewer has sixteen other reviews, most of them equally short and oddly punctuated, and at least one other also contains a spoiler (again, name redacted):

“Thrilling,a good mystery and a good read.Plenty of suspense until the end .however it was obvious [xxxxx] was the good guy.”

I tend to differentiate between reviews and criticism, in that reviews are intended for readers who haven’t bought a book, while criticism is a deeper discussion and analysis for people who have, and so may well include spoilers. Obviously, this distinction is a tad inadequate; there is overlap between the terms, and there’s no reason a review won’t often involve careful critical analysis, or a lengthy critical essay influence a purchase. But I think it’s clear that the Amazon review system is geared towards the former: readers giving a rating, along with their thoughts, in order to help other readers decide whether they wish to buy the book.

Now, while reading a crime novel offers a myriad of pleasures, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by saying that revealing the identity of the bad guy is going to spoil the reading experience for many, and that in fact a large number of potential readers are going to decide not to bother. The details given in these reviews won’t help readers in their purchasing decision; they will effectively make that decision for them.

My friend has asked Amazon to remove the review, and Amazon have refused. There are a number of possible reasons for them doing so. The first is that they genuinely see the review as legitimate and useful and fair game, which I suppose is possible. The second is a stance based on some kind of spurious misthinking around free speech, which, given their removal of reviews in the past, is extremely unlikely. More likely by far is that the sheer number of reviews in their databases means that authors demanding this kind of specific attention en masse is a potentially huge ballache for them, and it’s easier just to tell individual people no. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that Amazon probably don’t care that much. After all, authors and publishers have a vested interest in people buying, reading and loving specific books, whereas Amazon don’t care so long as people buy something, and it doesn’t really matter what. If one book is spoiled, a browser will just buy another, and Amazon get paid regardless.

However, it should be obvious that a review like the one above is enormously disadvantageous to readers browsing the site, arguably even more so than all the fake five- and one-star fuckery. And while there is no reason to attribute malice to this particular reviewer, if Amazon’s policy is to not remove reviews containing egregious spoilers, there’s no obvious reason a malicious reviewer couldn’t sabotage the books of a rival in such a manner. After all, such malicious authors do exist. Reader beware, in other words. It’s one more reason not just to take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt, but to ignore them altogether. Assuming everybody with any sense isn’t doing so already.

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.