Archive for December, 2010

Blah blah konrath blah blah

Posted by on December 31st, 2010

So. Just quickly, Joe Konrath has been making waves again recently, with his ‘You should self-publish‘ blog. I’m not going to say too much about the overall subject now, as I already have. Recently, other people have said more eloquent stuff. And other people have said perhaps less eloquent but no less pleasing stuff. All done, I think Konrath has some interesting points, and he’s almost certainly right that ebooks should be priced lower (though I understand why they often aren’t). None of them strike me as massively original interesting points, but that’s by the by.

Anyway, here we go. I posted a comment on that blog, and it hasn’t appeared for whatever reason. So I figured I’d post it here, as at least I get to expand on it a bit. It was prompted when Joe said:

So sales equals good?

That’s an old argument that has been ongoing on this blog for years.

In a nutshell: yes. Sales equals good.

Everything else is subjective.

And so, with reference to this, wherein we looked at Joe’s cavalier attitude towards judging a short story competition, I muttered this:

Does that mean you won’t be taking payments for judging any more short story competitions then?

After all, they’re unpublished and haven’t sold anything, so your judgment on them would be purely subjective, wouldn’t it? Presumably, you’ll be apologising to all the writers who paid to have their stories rejected by you on the basis of (say) “starting with the weather” too. If all you were judging was whether you thought they would sell well, the organisers should have just put them up for sale, shouldn’t they, and seen which did best? Your contribution was at best irrelevant, and the money you earned dishonest.

The overall point goes beyond that, of course, which is to say it goes beyond page one, paragraph one of Aesthetics 101, in which the apparent paradox of the subjectivity of art and the obvious reality of objectively valued art is set up as a puzzle to be solved, rather than a comfort blanket for the carte-blanche dismissal of the entire edifice of human culture. But, you know, it’s been ongoing on Konrath’s blog for years, so it’s probably been solved by now.

Regardless, it’s pissing in the wind. What really annoyed me – honestly – was this comment by Jude Hardin:

Bullshit, man. Joe has helped more writers than anyone I know of. Take your medication. Really.

To which I responded:

You might not care, but you normally seem like a smart man. As one of the one in four adults who suffers from mental health problems and – yes – occasionally has to take medication to counter it, and who has several friends in a worse situation who still remain far more creative, articulate and intelligent than anyone here, I object to the stigmatisation of mental health issues via insults like this. You might not care, or you might think it’s a joke, but maybe have a think about it at least.

Humourless, I know, but … I don’t care. Honestly. These things are worth calling out, and I’m happy enough to do so if nobody else is.

Fuck that shit.

Fuck it hard, and fuck it right in the ear.

Why Edward Docx is wrong about genre fiction

Posted by on December 12th, 2010

Oh – is it that time again? Time for the literary vs genre debate to rear its head? You might think we would all be weary of it by now, but perhaps not. This time it’s the turn of Edward Docx, writing in the Observer, to explain why genre fiction is not as good as literary fiction. His article is entitled ‘Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction?’ and you can read it here.

It’s worth exploring Docx’s particular argument to see what’s wrong with it. It centres on what he sees as the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction:

…even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

Okay, so what Docx appears to be invoking here is the novel as something akin to Borges’s garden of forking paths. We start with an infinite number of choices open to us about how to proceed. His argument appears to be that genre fiction is constrained: that there are some paths a crime novel, for example, must necessarily take in order to be considered crime, and this inherently limits what the form may achieve in comparison to literary fiction, where all paths are open.

At first glance, that seems reasonably compelling. Let’s comprehensively demolish it.

1) It simply isn’t true that literary fiction is unconstrained or that all story options are open to it. For example, the conventions of genre fiction aren’t open to it. On this conception, yes, a crime novel might need to follow certain paths to be considered as crime, but, by the same token, literary fiction cannot follow those paths and retain its identity as literary fiction. So when you set out to write literary fiction, “lots of decisions have already been made” too, in terms of what you can’t include without it becoming a genre novel instead.

2) Docx assumes that people set out to write in a particular genre. This is, of course, sometimes true, but some people also write what they want to and then find genre labels imposed on their books retrospectively. In the latter case, his point about genre fiction simply doesn’t apply. The author would have made decisions freely, not had them imposed on the book in advance. It’s not entirely clear to me how Docx proposes to tell the difference just from reading the book itself, and his argument implies that learning the author’s intentions afterwards would mysteriously alter the merit of the novel.

3) This leads into the final point: that Docx’s argument does not compare like with like. He is effectively comparing a completed genre novel with the infinite possibilities he (incorrectly) imagines open to an unwritten literary novel. In reality, we judge completed works, and every story has been entirely constrained by the act of writing it down. Every novel is a single, set route through this garden of paths. It is ludicrous to judge a book by the choices open to the author before the book is written, rather than by the choices made while it is. We judge a novel by the scenery the author chooses to show us, not by what they might have shown us instead.

The rest of the article is a greatest hits for this sort of discussion. We get our old friend, the burger vs fine dining analogy (honestly, the literary equivalent of Godwins Law). It’s a decent enough distinction, but I’d argue it applies more to ‘writing as pure entertainment’ versus ‘writing as literature’, and it’s not clear that genre and literary fiction map neatly onto that distinction without a fair bit of question-begging. We also get poor or average crime fiction contrasted with the best of literary fiction. We even get some fair-enough dissection of Lee Child, who admittedly does say some bullishly dumb things on occasion (although Nick Mamatas skewered that particular quote far more deliciously here).

We also get this:

We need to be clear-eyed here because although there is much written about this subject, there is also much theatricality to the debate.

Well, yes.


Posted by on December 8th, 2010

There’s a (fairly) new crime website called ‘You’re Booked’ attached to the Harrogate Festivals site. It already looks really cool, with features, guest blogs, and so on, and is well worth a look for anyone with an interest in crime fiction. I’ve contributed a piece today as part of the ‘authors’ bookshelves’ series. There are a couple of photos of my shelves, and I pick ten books that have meant something to me over the years and explain a bit about them. You can read the piece here.

(And yes, there was much tidying done in advance).

I believe in Harvey Dent

Posted by on December 7th, 2010

At this point it’s nigh on impossible to say anything about WikiLeaks that hasn’t already been said far more eloquently by somebody else. While the debates about the rights and wrongs of what the organisation are doing are interesting enough in themselves (and here is a fascinating analysis of one of Julian Assange’s essays), the reactions of various governments – principally the US – are even more so. On that level, Clay Shirky’s post is probably the most astute:

The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Well, exactly.

It’s also worth reading Assange’s piece in The Australian today. One key quote out of a choice of many:

Every time WikiLeaks publishes the truth about abuses committed by US agencies, Australian politicians chant a provably false chorus with the State Department: “You’ll risk lives! National security! You’ll endanger troops!” Then they say there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes. It can’t be both. Which is it?

It is neither. WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the US, with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone.

Also very good is Anton Vowl’s post, in which he draws the necessary distinction between Assange as an individual and the organisation he fronts. One of the dangers of putting a face to an idealistic organisation such as WikiLeaks is that the individual then ends up imbued with those ideals and becomes a symbolic target, so that an attack on one can be used as an attack on both. In some ways, that’s one of the main idiocies about the calls for his assassination: it would achieve nothing – or worse than nothing in terms of the fallout. But that works in both directions. So, as well as being attacked on the basis of those ideals, Assange also appears to be being defended.

And on that note, there’s been an interesting series of discussions on the Liberal Conspiracy website (summarised at length by Cath Elliott, one of the participants, here). You’ll be aware of the pernicious and deeply unpleasant narrative of women making up rape accusations in order to smear men. I’m not going to go into that, but suffice to say it’s something the liberal left would usually stamp down on fairly quickly. In the case of Assange, however, some people seem very quick to suggest the accusations against him are politically motivated or frivolous, which is buying into that exact same narrative using a slightly different currency. Obviously, there are genuine concerns here. The accusations of rape are entirely separate from other possible charges that might be brought, but it’s reasonable to worry that the former could be used to facilitate the latter. It’s also true that we might expect Assange to be ‘smeared’ at some point, so it’s perhaps more justifiable to be suspicious of what’s happening here than it would be in a different case. Nevertheless, he needs to face the accusations, and I think Cath Elliott’s points are generally well-made.

There does seem to be a danger of people defending Assange the individual on the basis of the ideals they’re associating with him. Ultimately, he is, or should be, irrelevant. All together, it reminds me a little of the end of The Dark Knight, where Batman decides to take the rap for Harvey Dent’s crimes as Two-Face. He does this so the people of Gotham can still believe in Dent as a ‘white knight’: an unimpeachable figure of hope for the city. Which is pretty patronising to the people of Gotham when you think about it. But then it is, of course, just a film.


Posted by on December 6th, 2010

For a couple of months now I’ve been using tumblr instead of the blog here. It occurs to me, finally, that I don’t see the point, as there’s nothing I can do there but not here, and it wasn’t making me add updates any more frequently. So I’m moving my asinine and intermittently provocative comments back to this fine establishment, where at least it’s possible for people to comment back and tell me what they think.

Expect to see a handful of the tumblr posts appearing here shortly – all time-stamped entirely wrong, of course. I’ll also gradually reintroduce all the old posts that warrant it.

That’s the past. The future? Who knows. Expect occasional service in the very short-term, followed by an upswing as I become more focused and disciplined and full of work ethic. There is a new book – Black Flowers – due out next year, which I am quietly proud of. There are appearances planned (already). There are opinions to be aired. There is praise to be given to other people. There is bile and vitriol to be given to other people. There is bile and vitriol to be given to myself. Above all, there is a new book to plan and write. There is all of this and probably more.


Posted by on December 6th, 2010

Here’s something random that I thought I’d write a little about. I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but not gone into it any depth. So here you go: I suffer from dysphagia.

Basically, that means I find it very hard to eat food, because I can’t swallow it. The condition manifests itself in different ways for different people. For me, when I try to swallow stuff it often doesn’t go down. It just ends up sitting at the back of my throat. The thing about half-swallowing something is that the food ends up beyond reach, at the exact place inside your head where swallowing is about the only sensible solution to the problem. Except swallowing hasn’t worked, and it continues not to work, no matter how hard you try. The muscles simply fail.

Because the mechanism is unconscious (I’m watching Zack learning it now), you don’t really know what to do when it freezes up. Panic ensues. I’m pretty lucky not to choke more often than I do – which is rarely these days, because I’ve got used to the whole thing and have my workarounds: I use water to help; I know my throat muscles inside out; I know the danger areas in my mouth; and I’m scrupulous about the amount of food I take in, and how to control it.

This started about three years back. There was no obvious reason for it. After a couple of incidents, it accelerated – perhaps simply because of how scary it was. Whatever, within the space of a week I couldn’t eat much of anything at all. One month later, I’d lost nearly two stone in weight.

I was, as you’d imagine, enormously unimpressed with the world.

After consulting a doctor, I had various cameras thrust fairly urgently into my head, because dysphagia can be caused by loads of different, underlying conditions, and some of them are very serious. But it turned out I didn’t have any of the obvious, imminently life-threatening ones. The most likely explanation is that it’s psychological, which sounds like it should help, but doesn’t, as it remains very real. In the years since, the condition has waxed and waned. I have periods where it affects me less, but it’s always there to some extent.

It’s a fucking depressing thing because eating is something you take for granted. Not the ‘having food’ part, but eating food you have. Hunger is your stomach hurting – quite painfully, actually – three or four times a day, but you don’t normally think of it as pain because you can deal with it relatively easily, and, for the most part, it’s pleasurable to do. I used to love food. Preparing, cooking and eating it. I used to love that.

But I don’t get any pleasure from it anymore. At its worst, it’s like I have to take a pill three times a day – or actually sixty pills each time, over the space of an hour, nearly choking on each and every one of them. (With normal pills, it’s just one terrible moment). At its worst, food is now just a means to an end, a complicated way to stop my stomach hurting or me fainting. The most delicious tastes in the world are totally wasted on me, now, because every meal is just a challenge: something to get out of the way. At its worst, to put things in perspective, it will take me about two pints of water to help wash down a bowl of soup.

So, in real terms, my life involves a lot of careful planning, and a lot of protein shakes. Going out is tricky. If I’m hungry when I’m out, it’s pretty difficult: I can’t easily just go to McDonalds, for example, and I can’t grab a snack and walk around eating it.

The worst thing is professionally, because cooking for someone or taking them out to eat is – or should be – such a wonderful, celebratory thing: an act of kindness. I did a week’s tour in Germany this year, and every night, after the readings, we went out for dinners where everyone was happy and laughing, while I was concentrating on some tiny bit of food and hoping nobody asked me something while I was eating. Lovely people – how can you explain? Embarrassing silences when someone’s waiting for a reply that takes a minute or more to come – trust me, those silences are embarrassing. People start talking again; the question gets forgotten; you look like a fool. I went to a famous actor’s house, where his wife had cooked us a fantastic meal, and I couldn’t eat it. I signed a film deal in Paris (maybe this cancels the rest off due to karma) and went out with the producer and a well-known director, and totally humiliated myself – and probably them, more to the point – by not being able to eat the very expensive and exquisite food they’d paid for.

Irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but even at conferences, with closer friends, if you choose to eat alone then you look a bit strange. I was okay at Fantasycon this year, and generally at Harrogate too, but less so at CrimeFest in May, where I know some people were surprised when they discovered I’d gone for a meal by myself even though they’d asked me to join them at theirs. Looks insulting. Really wasn’t. Sometimes it’s just easier to do it without company.

Anyway, that’s probably my motive in writing this. It’s hard to explain at the time, in the moment – most people haven’t heard of it and wonder what the fuck you’re on about. But if I ever seem like I’m being an arse, food-wise, I’m probably not. Food is just an arse, no matter how nice that food might be, and no matter how nice you are.

Some thoughts on A Serbian Film

Posted by on December 6th, 2010

A lot of people wouldn’t have heard of this picture if it hadn’t been pulled, eleventh hour, from the FrightFest 2010 programme. The pull came as a result of the BBFC demanding over forty cuts, amounting to over four minutes of running time, pretty much at the last minute. The film-makers decided that would be impossible to achieve in the time given – and also: it would compromise the overall vision of the movie; the whole thing had been shown in full at festivals before; and the audience had full access to the Internet, knew what to expect, and were grown adults capable of making up their own minds.

Anyway, I’ve seen it, and I thought I would give some random, uncoordinated thoughts on the picture as a whole.

The director has made various comments as to the violence being either a commentary on, a metaphor for, influenced by, a result of, or a reflection on the violence in Serbia’s history. It’s always tempting, in the face of such pronouncements, to think “you’re a pretentious twat”. (For example, while viewing a documentary on A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager, an onscreen commentator argued Freddy’s glove was scary because it played on a shared genetic memory of a tiger’s claw reaching into a cave, whereupon my grandmother tutted and said “you pretentious twat”).

However, upon viewing the film, it’s very clear it’s intended to work on this level. It could be far more gory, exploitative and full-on vile if all it wanted was a medal for those things. The film is full of borderline-impenetrable symbolism and imagery, and couldn’t more clearly be trying to mean something. More on which in a minute.

The visceral content aside, it’s wonderfully lit, framed and filmed. I mean, it’sbeautifully shot. You could, as the cliche goes, probably take a frame at random and find an effective screenshot. In comparison to absolute trash like the August Underground films, it’s in a whole different cinematic league – undeniably. And the acting, especially from the main character, is very good indeed.

Unfortunately, points 1 and 2 aren’t really enough. Even though the references to the Serbo-Croatian war are there, they appear so deliberately specific that most will be wasted on a woefully under-educated international audience (including myself), so it’s impossible to judge how effective they might be. I could tell the links were there. The problem was that, having no real idea what they meant, I had no choice but to follow the plot literally on its own terms, which, I suspect, is how most people will come to it. (Although, obviously, I hesitate to presume everyone is as ignorant as me).

This is the basic plot [contains spoilers, and triggers, as does the following section].

The first thing to note about the Wiki description is that it’s basically a description of atrocities, and is actually far more salacious in tone than the film itself. Having its cake and eating it, you might say (look at this sick filth!), much as many newspaper reports did around the time of the FrightFest pull.

The second thing to note is that it doesn’t really describe the effect of the film at all, because it renders all the horrors in the same monotone palette. A man being killed by an erect penis thrust into his eye is about as convincing on screen as you’d imagine it would be in real life (ie not at all). Some of the other scenes aren’t as they are described, and the most infamous part – while undeniably horrible as a concept – appears on screen for a second or two, and even then is mostly implied. I can understand the BBFC wanting cuts – and, in my opinion, it would genuinely benefit from a few – but I actually can’t see four minutes being necessary.

That isn’t to say it’s not a horrific film. It most certainly is. But it is to say there’s a fair amount of hype around it. These things are impossible to quantify, but I would watch A Serbian Film again before I sat through Grotesque (banned entirely last year, and a dreadful piece of work) or Irreversible (freely available, and, in its own horrible way, a shattering masterpiece). It’s probably on a par with Martyrs, as these things go.

Actually, Irreversible is a significant comparison here. Both films share similar production values and levels of artistry. Noe’s film, despite being much more distressing to watch than A Serbian Film, is ultimately a much more rewarding experience because of its transcendent ending. A Serbian Film is genuinely nihilistic and pushes you ever further into the filth – witness the description of the last scene on the wiki link – whereas Irreversible does the opposite, if only temporarily: rewinding you to sun-lit happiness from a much darker point you’re going to reach, like it or not.

Whatever the director’s intentions, it works far better for ne as a horror film about the porn industry than it does about Serbia’s past. As (horrific) commentary on the processes, impacts and escalations of pornography, the film is actually very effective indeed, give or take. The central message of human beings as meat, following instincts, authority and instruction, in ever-intensifying scenarios, fits that narrative better than it does one around a specific war, or a country recovering from that war.

(It doesn’t quite work, of course, because retro-fitting a narrative onto a film this precise is always going to end up a little malformed. For example, the main character is too much of a misogynist from the start. The sexual violence isn’t handled carefully enough to justify that point. And so on).

Why are you watching this?

Well, first of all, let me say my favourite film in the world ever is The Princess Bride. That’s an absolute. Possibly followed by About A Boy. (No, really). Or else Stand By Me. Last night alone, I had a conversation on twitter about how wonderful Labyrinth is. And it is. I would watch all of those again a hundred times before watching A Serbian Film again once.

That said, there’s a place for horror. Today, the Guardian published its top 25 horror films (here), and, while there’s nothing wrong with that list, it’s ultimately very safe. If anything, it sort of begs the question of what horror is for. I like a lot of the films on that list, but I’d happily watch all of them again, and might even put them on for fun. Should horror be fun? Sometimes, maybe. But in a world where commercial horror films contain mindless atrocities to be cheered along at (I’m looking at you, Saw franchise) or where top ten lists favour films you can stroke a beard to, there’s something to be said for a film you never, ever, everwant to watch again – but are still, weirdly, glad you did. Because it managed to be challenging, discomforting, confrontational and genuinely disturbing. A serious film – or, indeed, a book – that you want to throw against a wall – and would do, except you know that won’t make it go away.

A Serbian Film doesn’t manage to be that worthwhile, but it’s not half as terrible as you might have been led to believe. And unlike the vile-as-fuck The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, it’s not available in Asda with Danny Dyer’s face on the DVD cover. That said, it is – obviously – very much not for everyone.

Joe’s ebook sales

Posted by on December 6th, 2010

Some random thoughts about Joe Konrath selling 100k ebooks.

Good for him, obviously. I’m not a huge fan of his writing, but lots of people who I’m not a big fan of are successful, and this isn’t a zero-sum game (or at least not yet). So a brief – and genuine – round of applause is warranted, and duly given. May he and his continue to do well. May we all.

In itself, it means nothing. Joe is a pioneer (more brief, genuine applause) but beyond that, I remain unconvinced on the subject – much as, if James Patterson advised traditional publishing as a route to success, I would also take that with a pinch of salt. We should always be wary of drawing universal conclusions from extreme samples of one. Or even from lists of 30 or 40 people who are successful in a particular field. It’s easy to find success stories, after all (in this case, Amazon handily ranks them for you), but the most useful information here will never be a small list of names and the sales numbers attached to them, but some form of percentage.

Joe is a fine salesman and always has been. Without commenting on his unrealistic, highly individual and now generally discarded advice on promotion in the past, I see his entire website – and all its advice, past and current – as a piece of self-promotion. Taken as a whole, it’s effectively a ‘how to sell books’ book, written purely to sell his books, like all ‘how to sell books’ books ultimately are. It’s meta-advertising. And that’s fine, even if it’s devolved recently into a series of repetitive ‘must provide content, must provide content’ entries that all say more or less the same thing.

As you’d expect, it’s staunchly defended in its comments threads, largely because Joe is telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to, and people really, really like that. The fact is that some good writers do get missed by the industry, and – particularly in this flux phase – maybe those people would benefit from self-publishing straight to ebook. There are always exceptions. As a random observation, the exceptions are more likely to comment than their opposite number. Even the few people who comment ‘I’m not selling much’ are usually filled with hope: ‘… but, following your example, I believe I will!’ (Job done, I suppose – see 3).

But most unpublished books are shit. (I know mine are). They’re rejected and unpublished for very good reasons. The filters the industry has developed can sometimes seem a little haphazard and reactive, but many of them have evolved over time into something approaching efficiency. I submitted eight novels before being published – and you know what? I’m so fucking thankful that I never had the chance to e-publish them directly. I would have done. Honestly, I was cocky as shit. But with a bit of space, I see how bad they were; you don’t see that when you write them, or else you’d have written them differently at the time. Without rejection, I’d never have learned a thing; without rejection, I’d guess, few people do. Rejection – and accepting rejection – is so valuable. 800,000 words down the pan for me, and every one of them was worth it.

‘The market will self-regulate’. Yes, but how? When the entire slush-pile is on sale, how will that happen? Yes, we can download samples, but that’s not remotely the same experience as browsing in a shop (a joy, never a chore), and what samples do we download anyway? The reality is that filters will always need to be in place – filters that put certain titles front and centre – and I can’t think of a single one that that will be much more effective than what we have now. The idea that ‘readers will trawl and find the goods’ is only appealing to writers who’ve not been caught in the existing nets. It’s not in readers’ interests to have access to everyone’s unwanted masterpieces. There are already far too many books to sample, never mind to read. After the imagined death of ‘the big six’, we’re talking about there being another five thousand sitting either side of every existing title, every year, with no immediate way for anyone to differentiate between them. Someone’s going to need to sieve fifty metres of shite to find a nanometre of diamond. What’s going to do that better than the existing system of agents and editors? Kindle forums? Word of mouth? Really? I think whatever evolves will resemble what we have now – and readers will be monumentally relieved. Writers it fails will, of course, be unimpressed by it.

Random and subjective. I’ve had kindle apps on various devices for about six months now, and in that time I’ve downloaded 15 ebooks. That’s a 1500% increase in ebooks purchased in my household so far from the year before (1 on Sony). A few were re-purchases; some were fresh books I wanted; others were just … random. And I’ve finished reading 3 of them. I haven’t bought any more in a while. When people buy a new content-device, there’s obviously a desire to acquire content for it. The bigger the leap in Kindle sales, the less you can infer from any sudden leap in ebook sales. For what it’s worth, I’m halfway to hating mine. It’s an almost infintely huge TBR pile. The easier it is to buy a new title that catches my interest, the more I resent the ones in the way.

Just a quick question. If you want to make money – I mean, if that’s your primary motivation – then have you genuinely considered, for your sake and for everyone else’s, doing something else for a living instead?


Posted by on December 6th, 2010

I don’t mind marketing, but I hate spam. What’s the difference? There’s grey area, but I’d say marketing occurs in vaguely agreed places, within vaguely agreed parameters, whereas spam explicitly intrudes, takes up your time without asking, and opportunistically nicks agreeably open and selfless space to turn it into a self-centred advertising opportunity.

An author giving a reading? Marketing. I can avoid that, or attend if I’m interested. An advert in a paper? Marketing. I expect ads and can turn the page easily. An email from a list I subscribed to? Marketing, obviously: my choice. An email from someone who just thought I might like their book? Spam. Intruding on my space without asking. Taking up my time without asking. An author approaching me in a bookshop when I’m browsing? Spam. If I want that shit, I’ll go to Dixons.

Don’t be rude, you know? That’s all it is. Don’t interrupt and make something that shouldn’t be about you into something that’s now about you.

But then, perhaps it’s not as clear-cut as that. The Guardian do their ‘Not the Booker’ prize, which is crowd-sourced. Nearly a hundred books made the longlist, and then readers were asked to nominate one from the list, with the top five making the shortlist. The resulting thread is here.

Predictably, it’s spammed to fuck. Not necessarily deliberately, mind. A handful of social-media-attuned authors and publishers just posted the link, and people went and voted. Nothing wrong with that in itself. And yet the result is clusters of votes that look terrible and which overwhelm the thread. It looks and smells like spam, and it has the same effect. The thread has been co-opted as a marketing opportunity by a handful of people. And sorry, and all, but it looks like multiple accounts. It might not be, but it looks that way.

The argument, basically, is it’s fine to do it because they can. It’s hard to call, because the initial act of saying “go vote” is reasonable enough, but the end effect is a totally skewed shortlist, which nobody would want apart from those on it. There is, really, nobody to blame and call an arsehole. Perhaps the whole thing is just a commentary on the futility of awards and the people who seek them so desperately.

I do think certain justifications are laughable though. Here’s the publisher of one of the books:

You pick a jokey title like ‘not the booker’ … and then you get all serious when we rally the troops behind our one and only title? I mean what is a tiny publisher to do? But try and get noticed anyway we can! … We canvassed for votes on Facebook to raise awareness. We took the time to rally support for our author. The people we contacted were our readers and supporters. We did this because we’re a small house and can take the time to do it. Promoting our titles in this way compensates for the fact that we don’t have huge amounts of money to spend on advertising…

Well, that’s great, and we all want to get behind small publishers. Unfortunately, everything Laurence says there applies to 99% of authors, whether they’re with a tiny publisher or a massive one. So join the fucking club. If we all behaved like that (I had no book eligible, by the way) then it would just be one big popularity contest and the initial ideal of finding a ‘best book’, however ill-conceived the concept is, would be rendered impossible in practice as well as theory. Initial well-meant idea co-opted as marketing opportunity by dicks wanting sales = spam. Result rigged. Worse, it’s disingenuous. In the justifications that follow, the “little book that should, with its big brown orphan eyes” morphs somehow into the “book everyone voted for, but only because they really liked it, honestly”. Makes you wonder why a similar overall proportion of the public didn’t buy the fucking thing in the first place.

Anyway. I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it, except a similar thing happened on the thread about Charlie Higson’s Top Ten Horror Picks. At best, let us say, it’s embarrassing for the author in question. Or it should be.

It’s unfair, I guess, but I just won’t read any of these people. None of them will care, I know, and I’m probably missing out on some life-changing literary experience by avoiding them – but still. More books are published than can ever be read, and we all need our own little ways to sieve. And that’s mine. Like said, I don’t mind marketing, but I hate spam.


Posted by on December 5th, 2010

Black Flowers is my sixth book and comes out in April next year. I had the original idea for it while watching this video when it first came out, 18 years ago.

Which means that: a) ideas often take a long time to figure out what to do with, or at least they do for me; and b) at 16, I was already pretty disturbed.