Archive for March, 2012

genre vs literary (again)

Posted by on March 27th, 2012

One of the debates that comes around quite often is the literary versus genre debate. It can take the form of “which is better and why”, but it can also take a step back and look at things from a higher level. Such a post has been discussed a bit today, in which Dr Sanjida O’Connell, accepting that “literary fiction” is a genre, then attempts to define what its parameters might be.

A few points in response.

1.

The suggested parameters – intellectual content, depth, character and style – are familiar but lacking. For one thing, there are too many “Y-genre might sometimes do this too” caveats (whether spoken or unspoken) for the overall definition to be worth much. What’s required at the end is really a fifth point, “… all the above, and the book isn’t recognisably genre”, rendering the whole enterprise a tad futile.

2.

The fourth parameter – style – is especially problematic. Are we to interpret this as poetic prose? It’s a hard thing to pin down, because – obviously – the language used is just the medium for the message, and should, on an artistic level, be appropriate to or revealing of the subject matter its describing. None of it is real, after all; whether you use a thousand words or ten, it is still just words designed to create a particular effect. It is not clear to me why a swift, plain and bare-bones description of a gun-fight, for example, should not be considered an effective and appropriate use of style for that subject matter.

At best, it doesn’t seem to me that style (what style? used where? for what?) can be used as a parameter without an enormous amount of expansion. What angle should the photo be taken from, and with what lighting? Well it depends what the photo is of, surely, and what you want to say with the image you’re creating.

3.

Here is a list, on Wikipedia, of some recognised genres and subgenres. (Wikipedia, like literature, can be edited by anyone). Good luck with all that. Synchronise your definitions! Get, set, go!

4.

So how do we categorise individual works?

Leave “literary fiction”, with all its cultural baggage, out of it for a moment and think of the other genres. Is Work X horror or crime? Is Work Y SF, Fantasy or crime? A lot of the time, we’re happier for the matter not to be settled, aren’t we? Within the genres, in fact, we see these as intriguing questions and encouraging quirks – examples of cross-pollination that can only benefit everyone involved. Writing at the edges of genres and subgenres finds both common ground to explore in new light, and perhaps even new ground altogether. Of course, there are issues of jurisdiction (crime with a hint of SF is more likely to be categorised as SF, for example), but I think the basic principle holds.

5.

I think that, within genre, we broadly use these definitions in an inclusive rather than exclusive way. So Work X might meet the criteria for both crime and horror, and we simply recognise that it can be (and in fact is) both at the same time. But it seems to me that one problem with attempts to define literary fiction is that the definitions most commonly given are intended to be exclusive: “this is why Work X is literary fiction and not genre-Y”. And such definitions inevitably run into trouble.

6.

While we might speak of “literary horror”, say, I don’t think by that people mean “this is at once both horror and literary fiction” so much as “this is a particular style of horror”. Similarly, literary fictions will be discussed as using SF tropes or ideas, but there is a reluctance to simply say “it is literary fiction and it is also SF” in the way we would naturally say “it has elements of horror and also of SF, and it could feasibly be described as either”. These endless discussions of what makes literary fiction literary fiction generally tend towards the exclusive: here is what makes it x and only x.

7.

A related problem is that while those defending literary fiction might wish to distinguish it utterly, they’re reluctant (understandably) to concentrate on the fixtures and fittings that would most easily make it a describable genre, so they turn to issues of quality instead (such as intellectual content, depth, theme, character, prose, etc) even though those are obviously not distinguishing if-and-only-if characteristics that will stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

8.

In the second paragraph, O’Connell claims “In a tautological definition, literary works are often defined as those that win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction”, basically dismissing the idea. I’m not sure that is, strictly-speaking, a tautology, although we might extend the definition to all of what a certain shifting literary culture, with all its pieces of framework, decides is literary fiction just to be on the safe side. It’s no more nebulous a definition than any other, and it seems to place the cultural weight of the term fairly realistically. It doesn’t help anyone, of course, but does any of it? *Gets on with writing next book face*.

The author (and President of the Authors Guild) Scott Turow caught a fair bit of flak recently, for releasing a statement about Amazon and the current legal battle involving the ‘Big Six’ publishers. That statement, and his follow-up comments to Salon, have been dissected at various sites, most notably in an irredeemably lengthy essay by Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler who, perhaps unsurprisingly, find absolutely nothing right with it whatsoever, and use eight thousand words to say so, and then in a follow up by Joe.

I’ve not seen many people step up to defend Turow’s comments. Despite a few mis-steps, I agree with much of what he has to say. So I figured that I would, belatedly, post about this. What follows is partly about Turow, mostly about my thoughts on the overall situation, and occasionally about why I think Konrath and Eisler are wrong (whether deliberately or not).

It might be a bit long. Familiarity with the issues and posts helps, but I’ll do my best to make it accessible as I go. And I’m dividing it into numbered points to make the whole thing easier to fisk and disagree with for anyone who gives enough of a fuck.

1.

There are two main models of ebook distribution: the wholesale model and the agency model. In the wholesale model, the publisher basically sells the ebook to Amazon for a fixed price, and then Amazon sells it at whatever price they want. In the agency model, the publisher dictates the final sale price, and Amazon takes an agreed cut. Amazon favours the wholesale model. The legal dispute is over whether 5 of the ‘big 6’ publishers and Apple colluded to force the agency model onto Amazon.

2.

Amazon favours the wholesale model because it wants to increase its market share. Amazon wants you reading on a Kindle (not, say, a Nook), and it wants you to be buying your ebooks through its store. To achieve that, Amazon’s desired strategy is to price low, often below-cost (for both ebooks and the hardware on which to read them). It would like to sell the ebooks readers most want – the most popular books – as cheaply as possible, undercutting competition from physical stores and ebook competitors to drive customers its way. In the short term, Amazon can afford to lose money to secure market share by attracting buyers with ebooks that are priced artificially low.

3.

It costs a publisher only slightly less to produce an ebook than a paper book. While it might appear that the cost of an ebook is close to zero, it isn’t; that’s an illusion, based on the idea that printing and distribution are the most expensive parts of the process. The difference in costs comes down to format-specific typesetting, printing, warehousing and distribution, which are substantially smaller costs than you imagine. More important are the various stages of editing, the typesetters, the proofreaders, the cover, the admin, the promotion, etc.

You will have your own opinion about these costs – but that is not what is at issue, because we are talking about what it presently costs to produce a traditionally published ebook. Right now, a realistically priced ebook would actually be only a few pounds cheaper than its print counterpart.

4.

The market for books and ebooks is elastic but finite. The more books sold through Amazon, the fewer will be sold elsewhere. If Amazon is selling below cost, other stores, whether online or not, will be either unwilling or unable to engage in a long-term price-war of attrition. Let’s be clear: this is not innovation; this is the ability to operate at a loss. What is the fear? That physical stores, ultimately, will close due to lack of trade. That online outlets that have to charge realistic or just break-even prices for the exact same ebooks will be sidelined and gradually vanish. That Amazon will gradually approach effective monopoly status.

5.

What happens then? One of the fears Turow states is that if Amazon were to become an effective monopoly, it would raise prices for its customers. I understand why he plays this particular card, but I imagine he knows that’s not what would happen. (Joe takes the idea apart here, and he’s likely right in much of what he says). Clearly, Amazon would and could not continue to operate at a loss. But having established an artificially low price point for the goods it sells, it would more likely seek to maintain that price while passing the losses up the chain to its supplier.

So the fear is that publishers would be forced to supply their goods at an unsustainable price. And of course, at that point, there is no alternative. Nobody else is left to sell to or through.

6.

None of the above is really contested, by the way. Following an apparently smashing conjugal visit by Joe, Barry and Blake Crouch to Amazon in February, Joe tacitly acknowledges it all, in a post titled- subtly – “Amazon Will Destroy You”, in which he says:

“Amazon is going to destroy the Big 6, destroy bookstores, destroy 95% of all agents, destroy distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor), and revolutionize the publishing industry by becoming the dominant force…

Amazon is going to eat you all for lunch because they aren’t thinking about how to make money tomorrow. They’re thinking about how to make money in 2018.”

Let’s disregard the fact that the concentration of smug that day must have been visible from orbit. And let’s concentrate on the essence. This is about business. This is about making money.

7.

Some thoughts on business. Giving the customers exactly what they want is not a realistic premise for business. If I wanted every single ebook by Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, maybe with Blake Crouch’s thrown in too, all bundled together for 10p, it is not the duty of a business to fulfill that particular desire of mine, and a business that does so is not admirable in and of itself. The purpose of a business is to sell its products at the best rate a competitive market can bear.

This misunderstanding continues. In this post, Joe asserts: “A retailer should be able to sell whatever they want to sell, for however much they want to charge”. Well, that’s a foolish statement, and demonstrably false. A retailer can only sell what they have to sell. Another business is not required to supply them with its goods, and in fact can negotiate the terms for supply as it wishes. I mean, Joe and Barry would presumably expect some input on what their own self-published ebooks are sold for, no? If Amazon changed the prices of their books in a way that disadvantaged them in the long-term, I imagine they would rediscover their rights to withhold their goods fairly swiftly. No supplier wants to be driven out of business, after all.

8.

It’s just business. That is all it is. Joe and Barry are keen to stress this when it suits them, and not when it doesn’t. For example, they praise Amazon for taking a gamble, for having balls, perhaps even for doing jiu-jitsu (Barry does martial arts, by the way – has he mentioned?), but they don’t acknowledge that for a business move to be a gamble it must, by definition, be possible for it to fail. And yet what Amazon’s competitors do in response to its actions is pretty much painted as de facto unfair. How dare they? Haven’t they seen the writing on the wall? Boo hoo!

We should also remind ourselves: what is at stake here is simply the legal issue of collusion. If all these publishers had agreed the terms with Amazon separately, there would be no issue and nothing bad or unfair would have happened. And whatever happened at the time, since the imposition of the agency model, Amazon’s share of the ebook market has diminished from c90% to c60%.

9.

It’s just business. It really is. And everybody is biased.

People who have done well from traditional publishing (I am one) will feel one way. People published by Amazon imprints, or who have done well through self-publishing to Kindle, may feel another. If you’d been personally invited to Amazon HQ, you might feel even stronger.

Even if you’re just a reader (as though there is such a thing as “just” a reader; as though we are not all readers), you’ll probably have feelings about the kind of society you want to live in, the kind of books you want to read; where you’re happiest buying them; the particular gatekeeper structure that works for you, and so on. You will have opinions on pricing and methods of publishing. My own view is that ebooks seem great, and that self-publishing is cool, with caveats, but that’s all part of a different, wider argument.

All this is fine. Let’s just make sure we acknowledge our biases and opinions while we discuss things. For example, when Joe responds to one of Scott Turow’s comments by paraphrasing it as “I’m rich, bitches!”, anyone familiar with his blog posts of late might hear some vague alarm bells ringing. But then – from the online silence – perhaps by that point most people have already heard as much as they want or need to.

I am a 140-character person

Posted by on March 8th, 2012

I’ve never had any pressure from my publisher to have an online presence, but I hear it happens. I’ve probably escaped it for two reasons. One, I was published slightly before all this took off (and already had a website and blog when I was). Two, I have enough of an online presence as it is, and perhaps more of one than some would wish. On my Amazon page it says you can follow me on Twitter “if you’re not easily offended”. Basically, that means I swear a lot. And I don’t talk about my own writing much either. Aside from the @-conversations, my Twitter feed is mostly links to interesting articles, Left-ish politics, mundane happenings and observations, occasional incandescent fury at those first three things, and knob gags.

What should you do as a writer if you’re told you ought to have a more active online presence? Here’s what I think.

First off: if you don’t want to then don’t. Whatever you don’t want to do, in fact, don’t do it. I’m not massively convinced that being active online shifts noticeable numbers of books in and of itself. A website’s always nice, of course. But if you’re tweeting, facebooking, blogging or whatever out of a sense of duty rather than because you want to then it will most likely  be immediately obvious to the locals that your heart’s not in it and that you simply want something from them.

Drop straight into Twitter, say – naked but for a sales agenda and a smile – and you’ll both look and feel like an absolute fucking idiot. It’s counter-productive, so just don’t do it. Same with blogging. If you have nothing to say, you have nothing to say. Don’t say nothing anyway. It will achieve nothing positive for anyone.

As to how you behave when you’re on a particular platform, it’s personal, and there’s little else to say aside from that. For example, I dislike lots of online self-promotion; it will make me not read or follow you, and most likely not buy your book. But others will feel differently. For example, on Twitter, I’m sure I’ve been unfollowed by as many people offended by my bad language and attitudes as I’ve unfollowed for my various reasons. That’s fine – that’s totally the way it’s meant to work. What I think – and it’s not original, but it bears repeating – is that you should just be yourself. Use the online social media platforms that you would be using anyway. Use them in ways that feel natural. That way it will feel right and it will probably work for you.

Two recent examples that vaguely illustrate this point.

The author Julian Ruck left Twitter recently. His publicist allegedly told him he should be on it, but his presence and online personality ultimately proved as welcome as a fart in a lift. If you’re thinking of any social media platform as simply “something you should do” then you’ll most likely go in without any clue to or understanding of the unique character and personality of that medium, and – as Ruck did – make a prize cock of yourself. Ruck harrassed and insulted people, made mild but inappropriate sexual comments to strangers, was provocative for no obvious reason, argued that he was just being colourful and everyone else was boring and staid – and eventually flounced off in a huff. (His original post was called ‘Twattering’, by the way, but he changed that, making a vague mockery of his defence of causing offence).

One problem here – obviously there is more than one – is that Ruck attempted to bend an existing medium to himself, rather than work out where or if he might fit into what was already there. He marched into an extensive existing community with a megaphone. That’s a surefire way of making a fool of yourself.

Then there’s Jonathan Franzen, who recently said this:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose … It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters. It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’ … It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

Yeah, well, fuck you too, sunshine. This kind of thing is precisely why people think it’s funny to steal your spectacles.

The hyperbole aside (everything he opposes?!), all it really means is that Twitter isn’t for Franzen. That’s hardly a surprise. Reading that quote, it’s easy to imagine that every single thing Franzen says is full of insight and wisdom, and that he never talks about anything normal people do, and so, yes,  it would be a waste of everyone’s time for him to be on Twitter.  It’s clear: he is above such things. Which is fine. The problem in this case is that we’re apparently expected to care what he thinks. Let’s put this in perspective: he’s written four books. That doesn’t make his every pronouncement on anything and everything worthwhile. And in this instance, despite all the gravitas and deference a Great American Writer commands, I’d sooner ask a virgin for sex tips.

He’s wrong about Twitter by the way, on every point. Anyone who’s spent any time on there knows it’s possible to have elaborate discussions, via either conversational threads or else, more collaboratively, using hashtags. (The latter actually creates a constantly updating stream of filtered online consciousness, fascinating in itself: a form of discussion without an obvious real-world counterpart). Even single tweets can, in the end, create a dialogue or narrative that expands through Twitter and beyond, becoming a kind of social performance: just look at the Twitter Joke Trial. As to the apparent triviality of Twitter – well, it is what you make it. For example, many of the people I follow do tweet what they had for breakfast. The crucial thing is they manage to make it funny. Imagine! But anyway, is it so wrong to be interested in such things? Is there not room, amongst all those profound discussions, to enjoy hearing little details from the ordinary lives of people you like?

It’s also not a terrible thing to condense your thoughts into as short and clear a formulation as possible. (89 characters there).

But even without all that, I would still be a Twitter person. The simple reason is that out of all the possible social media platforms, it suits me the best.

I used to blog a lot more, and I still do a bit (right now, obviously), but there doesn’t seem much point saying stuff for the sake of it. One danger of blogging is that you settle into a rhythm and feel the need to fill these constant spaces at constant intervals, regardless of whether you have the content to do so. To me, blogging feels like giving a speech on a street corner: fine if you’re impassioned and have something to communicate; not so much if you aren’t and don’t. So my solution is to write things here when I want to, but I couldn’t describe myself, entirely honestly, as being a blogger or even having a blog.

I mostly use Twitter now because it better reflects my personality. I’m not ashamed: I am a 140-character person at heart. Imagine a real-life social gathering. I am not the life and soul of a party. I am not the centre of attention. I am not an alpha-male personality. If I’m at a get-together, I’m unlikely to be the person holding court. It’s entirely possible that if you meet me for the first time in a group of people, you won’t hear much from me at all. That’s because I genuinely enjoy listening to other people and would much rather do that than say something myself, especially if I have nothing interesting to add. I am the person who says the occasional thing – as and when it comes up – but doesn’t expect or want to dominate or steer the conversation.

To me, Twitter seems to embody that attitude perfectly (Facebook does too, to an extent). You can join in, however briefly, with the ongoing conversations that interest you. You can chat with the people at the party that interest you. You can say something off-the-cuff without any real expectation of it becoming a subject matter for discussion, although it’s possible it will. You can point to someone else at the social gathering and tell people “they’re cool, you should listen to that person, or read this that they’ve written, etc”. It doesn’t have to be all about you. In fact, as Ruck discovered, it doesn’t work if you try to make it so.

In short, it reflects how I like to behave in real life. That is why I use Twitter more than anything else. And I’d suggest it’s the only decent reason for engaging with social media at all, regardless of what you do for a living.

it’s so difficult to be straight

Posted by on March 1st, 2012

So says Cristina Odone in her latest article, “Heterosexual marriage: the love that dare not speak its name”. Well, obviously it’s tricky. The two heterosexual marriages I’ve attended in the last six months were shrouded in secrecy, lest the surrounding communities invade the venues with pitchforks. When Odone writes –

“Personally, I would like to think that we live in a world where preaching that heterosexual marriage is a good thing is not seen as a bigoted anti-gay propaganda. I’m not sure we do – and neither is the PM.”

– I feel little – aside, of course, from amusement – beyond bitter recognition of the terrible social predicament she’s describing. If only it weren’t like this. If only straight people could get married without condemnation or ridicule. Fuck even that – if only their relationships were recognised as being equal. It’s all love at the end of the day, isn’t it? Just people being nice to each other. Straight people shouldn’t be ashamed of loving each other – of being nice to each other, of wanting to get married –  and twenty – perhaps even thirty – years from now we can only hope society has evolved to the point they no longer need to hide their…

Ah, I can’t do it anymore.

Odone has form, of course. Here she is, a couple of weeks ago, sneaking in and hand-smearing another ‘article’ onto the galleys of the same newspaper. Why should gay people get such special treatment, she wonders. She raises that story again: the gay couple refused accommodation by the Christian Bed and Breakfast. Special treatment, indeed.

What is discrimination? It’s making somebody feel less, and treating them as such, on the basis of an irrelevant factor, such as their race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. We’re all citizens. In your day to day life, you can probably get away with discriminating – if, for whatever sad reason, you’re that way inclined. But once you have a business, for what should be blindingly obvious reasons, you can’t. If you’re a Christian with a B&B, for example, you can’t refuse to accommodate gay people; you can’t treat them as less than others simply because they’re gay. Making you accept gay guests is not discrimination against you, because you know what? Everybody else has to as well. You are being treated the same as everyone else. Nobody is being discriminated against. It’s great! Round of applause. The fucking end.

This is basic stuff, and you imagine Odone knows it, although she gives no clue that’s the case. The argument she employs is so embarrassing you want to cover your screen with a sheet to spare its blushes.

“This argument has a huge flaw. If a Christian couple running a B&B were to turn away a ménage a trois (one man and two women, say), would they have been brought to court for abusing the threesome’s human rights? I doubt it: campaigners for threesomes, like those for polyandry, have failed, so far, to convince the majority of their victimhood.”

Imagine for a moment that you were Logic itself. So. What would you say, when presented with this? Would you stare, stutter? Would you laugh, look troubled or simply weep? I mean, what is that thing? Here is a simple formulation of discrimination and the underlying problem: it is wrong to treat x differently from y solely because of z, where z is an irrelevant characteristic that x has, such as x’s race, religion, sexuality, gender, etc. How do we fit a threesome into that? Which variable is … are they? How does it … even … it doesn’t, does it?

It doesn’t. It’s tempting to break it down further, but it’s too soul-destroying, too pointless, too awful. This woman writes for a national newspaper. Bleurgh.