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Intersectionality

Posted by on March 18th, 2014

I’m sure the last thing anybody needs is some straight, white, cis, middle class, able-bodied male giving his opinion on this subject, but fuck it. Over the past few months I’ve seen friends deride the concept of privilege and the basic idea of checking it, and intersectionality, and I’ve watched various online communities who share 99% of the same goals tearing themselves to pieces for no obvious reason, and finally I think: fuck it. Might as well throw myself to the lions and give my opinion. It’s the last thing anybody needs. Here it is.

Let’s start with privilege. It seems a really useful and obvious concept to me. Men and women – say – experience the world differently. They have different options and limitations, some of them intrinsic and some of them socially constructed, and we have different expectations of men and women as a result of those things. We might fight against them as individuals while interacting with each other, but on the level of a society I think they’re obviously there.

In the context of a discussion about, say, abortion, a woman telling some blasé male commenter to check his privilege is understandable. A man’s who’s anti- (or even pro-) abortion may well be arguing in the abstract; whatever the outcome, he doesn’t have to carry the foetus to term, have his body and career impacted, and so on. Telling him to check his privilege is another way of saying show some fucking empathy. That’s what it boils down to. Appreciate that things might well affect other people in ways in which they don’t affect you. Privilege is being in a position to argue about the weight of a backpack you’ll never have to carry. I’m not sure what’s controversial about that.

Ah, people say, but the idea that women have it tougher than men is ridiculous because I work in a supermarket, and just look at Naomi Campbell and Kate Middleton. They’re right – and that’s intersectionality. It’s the idea that certain characteristics exist more-or-less on lines. Man/Woman. Straight/Gay. White/Minority. Cis/Trans. Able-bodied/Impaired. Rich/Poor. Etc. Taken individually, the further you are to the left of those definitions, the more positive the expectations, the more society is geared towards you, the easier your life will be. But it’s not as simple as saying “I am a woman, therefore I am more oppressed than you”. The different characteristics, with their benefits and defects, all intersect: the clue’s in the name. A black woman will face the same negative expectations as a white woman, but also the negative expectations associated with her colour. A gay disabled man faces additional difficulties to a gay able-bodied man. And so on.

That’s all intersectionality means, and – again – it strikes me as a really useful and interesting way of looking at the world. We all know those power differentials are there. It’s an imprecise model, to be sure, and also a simplistic one, but it’s certainly not a bad attempt. It feels like an approximation of the truth, or at least a genuine effort at moving towards one. I think that’s a good thing.

A lot of the recent online arguments have centred around cis/trans issues within feminism. For what it’s worth, I saw Suzanne Moore’s (now ancient) comments about transgender people, and then her double-down defence of those comments, and what I saw was someone being told to check their privilege and baulking at the idea of doing so. That’s more-or-less what I’ve seen since too. It’s a very human response, I think; not only have I seen men do it on feminist blogs, I’m sure I’ve done it myself. When you’re attacked, you huddle – and perhaps even more so when you’re attacked with artillery you’re more used to deploying than receiving. But it’s not rocket science; it’s just empathy and openness.

Of course, while I might have my own opinions about the debate, I also have the privilege of not being affected by the outcome. So it goes. And like I said, nobody’s waiting for my opinion there anyway.

This report on author earnings by Hugh Howey has been creating waves today, which is understandable because it contains a fair few pieces of statistical dynamite: that self-published ebook titles on Amazon outsell traditionally-published ebook titles in terms of units; that ebooks account for 86% of the top 2,500 genre bestsellers on Amazon; that in terms of most income brackets, self-published authors are better off than traditionally-published authors on Amazon; … and so on. I mean, basically you should read the report. Read the report, feel the explosion. The usual suspects remain aflame. Konrath’s been quoting scripture.

I’ve downloaded the raw data and had a brief look, albeit with a four year old hanging off my leg. I’m not a statistician (and I await the opinions of those that are) but here are some quick thoughts. There will be no snark in this post, and for the record I have nothing at all against self-publishing, and I admire writers that pursue that path.

I’m going to assume that the data gathered is correct, which is to say that the rankings, price and publisher details are right. This still leaves one obvious problem in that this is a one-day snapshot, taken late-January. So a minor point first: people do give Kindles for Christmas, and people then play with them. I might be wrong, but I’d expect ebook sales to increase post-Christmas and then tail off a little. As I said, a minor point.

More serious are the sales numbers, which are calculated at 7,000 sales for a #1 Amazon ranking, 4,000 for a #5 ranking, 3,000 for a #20 ranking, and so on – all the way down to 1 sale a day at a ranking of #100,000. As far as I can tell, and despite the links in the report, these are arbitrary numbers. The problem with calculating the influence of self-publishing, and also of ebooks, is the lack of hard data (especially from Amazon), but while the report gives the illusion of providing hard data, it appears to be as built on guesswork as anything else we’ve had. The guesswork may actually be reasonable – and the snaphot interesting from a particular angle – but it’s a hell of a thing to then extrapolate from a book’s estimated one day’s sales to a yearly income for writers that then drives an ideological conclusion. Let’s recognise the foundations might be suspect before we stand on the tenth floor shouting and stamping too fucking hard. This data may be sound but I’m not 100% convinced that it is.

The major problem I have is with Howey’s conclusion.

“But as marketing falls more and more to the writer, and as self-published authors close the quality gap by employing freelance editors and skilled cover artists, the earnings comparison in our study suggests a controversial conclusion: Genre writers are financially better off self-publishing, no matter the potential of their manuscripts.

Consider the three rough possibilities for an unpublished work of genre fiction:

The first possibility is that the work isn’t good. The author cannot know this with any certainty, and neither can an editor, agent, or spouse. Only the readers as a great collective truly know. But what we may simplistically, and perhaps cruelly, call a “bad” manuscript stands only a slim chance of getting past an agent and then an editor. To the author, these works are better off self-published on the open market. They will most likely disappear, never to be widely read. But at least they stand a chance. And those who fear that these titles will crowd out other books are ignoring the vast quantities of books published traditionally—or the fact that billions of self-published blogs and websites don’t impede our ability to browse the internet, to find what we are looking for, or to share discovered gems with others.

The second possibility for a manuscript is that it’s merely average. An average manuscript might get lucky and find an agent. It might get lucky a second time and fall into the lap of the right editor at the right publishing house. But probably not. Most average manuscripts don’t get published at all. Those that do sit spine-out on dwindling bookstore shelves for a few months and are then returned to the publisher and go out of print. The author doesn’t earn out the advance and is dropped. The industry is littered with such tales. Our data shows quite conclusively that mid-list titles earn more for self-published authors than they do for the traditionally published. And the advantage grows as the yearly income bracket decreases (that is, as we move away from the outliers). It is also worth noting again that self-published authors are earning more money on fewer titles. Our data supports a truth that I keep running into over and over, however anecdotally: More writers today are paying bills with their craft than at any other time in human history.

The third and final possibility is that the manuscript in question is great. A home run. The kind of story that goes viral. (Some might call these manuscripts “first class,” but designations of class are rather offensive, aren’t they?) When recognized by publishing experts (which is far from a guarantee), these manuscripts are snapped up by agents and go to auction with publishers. They command six- and seven-figure advances. The works are heavily promoted, and if the author is one in a million, they make a career out of their craft and go on to publish a dozen or more bestselling novels in their lifetime. You can practically name all of these contemporary authors without pausing for a breath. We all like to think our manuscript is one of these. And from this hubris comes a fatal decision not to self-publish.

Why is that decision fatal? Our data suggests that even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”

There are a number of obvious issues with this (for example, where in these definitions do we find the traditionally-published author who doesn’t get dumped but doesn’t hit the stratosphere? He or she exists in good numbers, but is a bit lost or ignored between the second and third scenarios posited here). But what bothers me most, even more than the importance of sales and money over quality, is an implied argument that I see again and again – that the experiment of publishing a book can be repeated with hindsight. “Look at your sales figures! If you’d self-published, you’d have earned x% more!”

The reality is that publishing anything is a unique path. If you have a book, and you’re trying to decide whether to self- or traditionally-publish, there is only the apparition of help for you in these figures. It might be that you traditionally-publish and sell 100 copies, and would financially have been better off self-publishing. It may be that you sell a million copies through traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that you’ve left money on the table simply because those million sales if self-published would have netted you more. You can’t say what might have happened had you chosen a different route – whether you would have got those 100 or those million sales or something different. This is one problem I see with Howey’s piece (and numerous others). The number of copies a book can sell is not some intrinsic part of its make-up. The way you choose to sell it, and what happens along the way, will play a huge part and can’t be discounted.

So finally to me. My latest book, Dark Room, is currently available on Kindle at £3.99 and is ranked around 30,000. I have six other books at around the same price, and they’re generally ranked a lot lower: in the hundreds of thousands at best. That’s fairly standard for me. My Amazon rankings have generally been shit. It’s been used against me in arguments before: Leather’s made a few barbless barbs; Konrath himself has said “Just noticed your Kindle sales on Amazon. Ouch. No wonder you’re so bitter.” (He also called me an anonymous coward, before banning me for signing off with my name).

But listen. I’m British and it’s vulgar to talk about money, so let me take a deep breath. I’m traditionally published, write slightly less than one book a year, and I’m not a big name, and those are my shit Amazon rankings, and yet my average earnings from writing for the last five years have been £72k a year. Not huge, not small. It’s a comfortable living: one I doubt very much I would have had if I’d self-published. You won’t find me on Howey’s spreadsheet. As intriguing as the data is, it’s worth considering what else you might not.

The Deadly Percheron, the 1946 noir novel by John Franklin Bardin, has what can only be described as an audacious beginning. The first person protagonist – Dr George Matthews, a psychiatrist – receives his last client of the day, a young man named Jacob Blunt, who believes that a number of leprechauns are paying him to perform bizarre and trivial tasks: give away money; whistle in public; wear very specific flowers in his hair; and so on. Matthews decides Jacob is most likely delusional, but accompanies him to a bar that evening, where the pair meet one of the leprechauns, who appears to confirm Blunt’s story, and gives him a new task: give away a horse – the percheron of the title – to a famous actress. The next morning, that actress has been murdered, and Jacob Blunt has been arrested at the scene, in possession of a horse. After some discussion, Blunt is released into George Matthews’s custody – except the man who comes up from the cells is not the man Matthews met the day before…

… and there you are. You’re already sold on that, or else you aren’t. Reading the story is a little like taking a seat on an aeroplane, which ascends into the clouds in a way that suggests it won’t ever be able to land in a satisfactory manner. As the book progresses, up and up that narrative plane keeps going. You continue reading, confident that this is a book – it was published; it is renowned, however quietly - and so the narrative must eventually land. And yet up and up you seem to keep going.

Actually, once that astonishing opening is out of the way, a substantial portion of the book hinges on amnesia. Our narrator, George, loses his identity and, according to the calendar, nearly a year of his life. These sections are nicely written (and far more vividly so than his previous everyday existence). But amnesia it is, and however realistically it is rendered, there’s still the sneaking suspicion that the revelations as his memory gradually returns are more at the narrative’s convenience than that of realistic psychology. The story of those missing months is fairly straightforward, but amnesia turns it into plot. I was reminded of L Ron Hubbard’s Fear, in which the amnesiac main character receives the warning: ”If you find your hat you’ll find your four hours. If you find your four hours then you will die.”. Tantalising, but it runs the risk of suggesting to the reader that the story has already happened, and that what’s happening now is the author withholding it to maximise drama. Regardless, as dramatic and bizarre as those clouds might look, the story still has to land.

In terms of that cumbersome metaphor, The Deadly Percheron does land – although the last quarter might be described as a series of sudden, slightly jolting drops. Perhaps it would be difficult for it to be otherwise. But it works overall, and the whole is clearly both lovingly and carefully written. Everything is coherent and makes sense; I mean, it’s a good book. And I suppose the plots of many crime novels are superficially convoluted, unlikely, and equally ridiculous at heart. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Bardin, at least, has a horse outside.

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

Posted by on January 4th, 2014

Quick note! In an effort to a) read more this year and b) post more here this year, I decided to blog a bit about the books that I read. I can’t promise it will be weekly (although there’s no reason it shouldn’t be), and the things I write might vary in length, but this is basically the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series this year.

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

I’ve seen this book described a number of times as being like a John le Carre novel with superheroes, and in some ways that’s a fair enough description, but it’s also a simplistic and slightly grasping one, and points to how hard the book is to summarise. The story posits that in the early 1930s, a German scientist named Vomacht performs an experiment that unleashes a quantum wave of possibility on the world’s population.  Most people are unchanged, but some become Ubermenschen – superheroes. They have wildly differing powers. While they do not age, they can be killed like anyone else.

The novel follows several of them from the events of World War 2 to the present day. The main character is Fogg, a bullied and subdued young man gifted with the ability to control fog, smoke and mist – to hide himself – recruited by another changed individual, the Old Man, in the 30s, to work for his country. In the present day, Fogg has been found by his old friend and colleague Oblivion, a man who can make things disappear, and brought back to the Old Man to account for an event that occurred in the war many years earlier. That account takes us to many important places: Minsk, Leningrad, Romania, Berlin, Laos, Afghanistan, New York in September 2011. As readers, we observe the events that occur there from a distance; they’re familiar, but this time there are superheroes present. The whole time, the present day scenario builds to a conclusion that may or may not tie everything together.

There is much to admire in this novel, but a few things to dislike, and to get this out of the way, chief among the latter is the prose style. For much of the story, Tidhar gives us clipped, fragmented sentences, reminiscent of bare stage directions, or – and you imagine this is deliberate – the words written in a comic. Dialogue is often mixed into paragraphs. Nothing is ever unclear, but it certainly takes a bit of getting used to. Fortunately, once you do, it works exceptionally well – and it enables a vast span of huge events in modern history to be covered (effectively) in a relatively short amount of page space. Despite the terse prose style, everything ends up vividly rendered (in your head, if not explicitly on the page). This also has the effect that, when Tidhar does write more expansively, the scenes stand out and feel more real, adding emotional impact. It makes us, as readers, suddenly focus and concentrate.

It’s also inevitable that, given such a wide tapestry of time of characters, some of the latter end up short-changed. In a sense that doesn’t matter (at the level of character, this is Fogg and Oblivion’s story); and in another sense, well, that’s part of the point. What we see on a broad level is superheroes that to some degree symbolise levels of national involvement over time. In the first instance, for example, American heroes wear brash costumes, and are as much pieces of propoganda as human weapons, while the British contingent skulk in the shadows – observers, we’re told, but of course (as per the quantum nature of the Vomacht wave itself), to observe is to change. And so on.

What makes a hero? It’s a question the book asks on more than one occasion, and no easy answer is provided. Having superpowers, here, certainly doesn’t make you a hero. The alternative history described in The Violent Century is all but indistinguishable from our own. The same wars – and more-or-less the same events – occur. The Ubermenschen on different sides of the various conflicts effectively cancel each other out, the way that smart men and women and ordinary ‘heroes’ would. In the aftermath of World War 2, instead of scientists, it is superheroes that scurry (or are scurried) off along the ratlines via Operation Paperclip. It’s the same thing that happened in our reality, it’s just that here some of the people have capes rather than IQs.

Late on in the book, Oblivion meets Osama bin Laden, who stares through him “as if he’s not there”. He might as well not be. There’s also a point earlier in Laos when Oblivion smokes opium:

“He feels his world shrinking, the room compresses around him, becomes two-dimensional, a frame; it traps him inside it, and he tries helplessly to flee, the square like a window squeezing him inside …

…Is bitten by a radioactive spider, falls into an acid vat, is trapped inside an Intrinsic Field Subtractor, is given a power ring by a dying alien, he is strapped to a table and experimented on by military scientists until he becomes the ultimate warrior, he is sent as a baby from his dying planet to Earth, he sees  his parents murdered in front of his eyes leaving the opera, he is bombarded by cosmic rays, he dials a number in a telephone box, he is exposed to a gamma-ray bomb as it detonates, he eats spinach, he discovers a strange meteor, he finds an ancient mask that belonged to a god, he … he … he…”

The implication being that only in a drug haze are things ever that easy or simple. And it’s that conflict between the idealised, simplistic notion and role of the superhero in our minds versus the actual reality and disappointments on the ground that earns Tidhar one of the best lines of the book, about 9/11:

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s –

It’s a plane.”

Because of course that’s what is – not a hero to save us. When you have superheroes in real life, they don’t save us. They’re just like the rest of us. Nobody ends up getting saved.

Regardless of the title, The Violent Century does focus primarily on World War 2, the implication being that it’s the conflict that acts as its own Vomacht wave on the 20th Century: the repercussions spreading out, changing many people, and feeding inexorably into the conflicts that follow over the years that come after. That’s fair enough, I think. But the book is actually a love story. The Ubermenschen don’t age externally, but they do inside, and The Violent Century is ultimately a love story, not between a man and a woman (although there is that, and more besides) but between a man and an ideal. It’s a story about a man living through the absolute worst humanity has to offer and still maintaining a belief in innocence.

Highly recommended.

my favourite books of 2013

Posted by on December 16th, 2013

At the beginning of the year, I was aiming to read more in 2013 than I did in 2012. As usual, my good intentions amounted to nothing. I went through stages when I was reading a lot, but also dry spells when I barely got through anything, and the end result was much the same as last year. Leaving aside the small handful of books I abandoned, and also non-fiction, I read 29 books this year. There’s a nice display of all the covers here. It will actually end up being 30, assuming I finish the book I’m reading now before the new year, but I’ll just sneakily include that in the list for 2014 to give myself a head start. Cheating, of course. But it’s hardly life or death.

Anyway, my first thought was that I’d pick my 5 favourite books from that selection. My second thought was holy shit, how am I going to pick my 5 favourite books from that selection? Because in truth, that’s a pretty good selection of books. If I were using a 5 star system, there’s nothing there I’d rank below a 3; and certainly, there are more than 5 books I want to mention. But from a meagre total of 29, 5 feels like the most I can get away with, although I might do a few honourable mentions at the end just to have my cake and eat it.

So with a heavy heart, and without further ado, here are my five favourite books of the year. Actually, just a little further ado, as these are my favourite books of the year – the ones I’ve enjoyed reading most – not necessarily the ones I consider the best. Is there a difference? Yes, there is. They’re also, with the exception of #1, in the order I read them rather than ranked. Oh, and they’re also books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. Which brings us nicely to…

 

5. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

amonstercallsThis is the story of a young boy, Conor, struggling to deal with the heavy emotional and physical burdens of his mother’s terminal illness. One night, as the title says, a monster calls on Conor – an astonishing, primal tree-like creature that comes to his window and shakes the house. Refreshingly, Conor – a realistically difficult and therefore extremely likeable character – isn’t particularly frightened of the monster. Why would he be in the circumstances? But the monster promises to return and tell him three stories, and does. In between those tales, we see Conor’s home and school lives becoming harder and more complicated. It is obvious, to an extent, what we are heading towards, but the power of the novel comes not simply from the journey but the fact we don’t end up quite where we might be expecting – that the truth Conor ultimately has to face and accept is in some ways much harsher than bereavement, and all the more human for it. A Monster Calls is a beautifully-written and extraordinarily moving book. There are no prizes just for making a reader cry, of course, but Ness’s novel eschews cheap manipulation in favour of emotion that may well be raw and painful, but which always feels insightful, true, genuine. This is a very, very special book indeed.

 

4. Poppet, by Mo Hayder

poppetIt occurred to me earlier on that one of the (many) interesting aspects of Hayder’s series of procedurals involving DI Jack Caffery is that, at least on a grand scale, the reader is ahead of the main character. After taking a break from Caffery following The Treatment, and then returning to him a few books later in Ritual, Hayder has spun gold from Caffery’s search to discover what happened to his brother, abducted when they were both children. But if you’ve read The Treatment, you know – and in fact, that novel ends on such a powerfully bittersweet note, it’s easy to imagine the story was only ever conceived as spanning those first two books. I get comments from my agent if the reader is ahead of the main character for more than half a chapter, and yet here we are, four more books into the Walking Man series, and Caffery’s quest remains utterly compelling.

It’s far from Hayder’s only talent, of course. She has a knack – perhaps more so than any other crime writer working today – for the disturbing scene: the chilling little details that cause a passage to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The setting here is a case in point. Caffery is (eventually) called in to investigate a series of disturbances at a secure hospital. There are rumours of a ghostly dwarf – the Maude – stalking the corridors, and a vicious killer has recently been released and vanished into the community. In the background, Caffery is pursuing the truth about his brother, while also dealing with the ongoing fallout of a … well, that would be telling. You can read this as a standalone, but it probably helps to read at least Ritual, Skin and Gone first (Or at least, reading the series backwards might spoil the earlier books slightly). But read them you should – and then this too, because Poppet is chilling and disquieting, and builds to an unforced climax (cough, sorry, twelve years old, cough) that is hugely satisfying, not only in terms of resolving the various crimes in the book but on a quietly emotional level. Dare I say it’s moving? I do. I dare.

 

3. The Machine, by James Smythe

themachineAlong with Patrick Ness, James Smythe is an author I’ve read two books by this year. The first of those, The Explorer, I enjoyed a great deal, not least because everybody died a short distance into the novel, and I was intrigued to see where Smythe could possibly take it. (The answer: very interesting places indeed). But The Machine is better, I think. Many reviews mention Frankenstein, and that’s certainly a reasonable reference point. The Machine is the story of Beth, living alone (at first) on a terrifying near-future council estate, the community ravaged by poverty and punished by the (vividly-described) conditions of an environment in decline. Beth’s husband is a former soldier, confined to a care home after the machine of the title took his bad memories, and more besides, away and left him catatonic. The machines have been banned, but Beth acquires a black market version, with the intention of bringing her husband home and reinstalling the memories that were removed. However bad it was before, it is worse now, and she wants that damaged man back.

That won’t end well, we think – and of course, it doesn’t, although not necessarily in quite the way we might be expecting. Honestly, there is a huge amount to admire here: Smythe’s precise and evocative prose; the careful and elaborate but invisible world-building; the ominously rendered presence of the machine itself. But what stayed with me most is the character of Beth, engaged in a quest we know is foolhardy, but which is also so achingly relatable that we can’t help but understand and want her to succeed.

 

2. The Cry, by Helen FitzGerald

the cryThe Cry begins with an increasingly fraught long haul flight, a scene that will immediately ring awful bells of recognition, especially for parents. From the very start, we sympathise with Joanna, ostensibly the book’s main character, as she struggles to calm her crying, inconsolable baby, as she feels inadequate and insecure about motherhood, and as she faces down the increasing annoyance and impatience of the other passengers. Her husband, Alistair, sleeps most of the way. The family are on their way to Australia, to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter from a previous marriage. A short time after the plane lands, Joanna’s baby goes missing from the couple’s car, and the pair become the centre of an international media storm.

I’ve seen a number of reviews that disclose what happens to the baby, and in fairness, the reader is in on events early on in real time, but I have no intention of saying it here. In a more conventional thriller, perhaps that mystery would be central, but FitzGerald is far more interested in exploring the ramifications that unfold from an awful moral quandary. And through the eyes of the other main character – Alistair’s ex-wife, whom he left for Joanna – we gradually understand the wider moral culpability of everyone involved. Everything is portrayed superbly, from Joanna’s increasing mental instability to the blasts of social media following the investigation that occasionally intrude, and the book builds (you think impossibly at first) to a conclusion that manages to satisfy even as it breaks your heart. Brilliant stuff.

 

1. Like Plastic, by K

likeplasticWhat? By whom? And what the fuck is that cover supposed to be? Three eminently reasonable questions, and let’s take the middle one first. K is a pseudonym for the writer Kevin Wignall, who has written crime novels, such as the amazing Who is Conrad Hirst?, and also the YA fantasy Mercian Trilogy (as K J Wignall). The cover? Well, I can’t explain that – although this is a self-published book (you can buy it here), and if ever there was a case for not judging a book by its cover, then here we have it.

As to the what, Like Plastic is the story of London-based Russian gangster Alexei Shakirov, who has the unusual fetish – and bear with me here – of drugging young women and stealing a lock of their pubic hair for his private collection. His latest distraught victim – Megumi, a Japanese tourist – phones her cousin in Tokyo. Roku and his wife Yuko resolve to come to London to retrieve the hair and restore Megumi’s honour. The twist is that Roku is obsessed with (fictional) comic book character Brett Plastic, a James Bond-esque figure with the superpower of extreme niceness. Roku plans to resolve the situation in a manner of which his hero would approve, and sets about being eminently reasonable in a way that exacerbates proceedings through a series of misunderstandings.

And why is this my favourite book of the year? Put simply, because it’s full of affection and joy. Despite the subject matter, it’s constantly amusing and utterly, utterly warm-hearted. The prose is clipped and precise (and this is a very short book), yet it packs in a surprising amount of plot amidst the wonderful set-pieces (a food fight in a kitchen; the farcical pursuit of a woman shopping; fireworks). The characters come alive to the exact extent they need to, and most are endearingly drawn. Even better, the main story is interrupted with almost scholarly discussions of the Brett Plastic comics (which become increasingly dark as they go, as the effort of being nice begins to wear on the fictional crime fighter), culminating in a final passage that provides a priceless wink to the audience. It’s a wink that says: we’ve all just been having a lot of fun here, haven’t we? And the answer is: yes. Yes, we really have.

And that cover? Well, if it’s really putting you off, you can always go here instead. Like Plastic is in development as a graphic novel, and some much better artwork is there. I for one can’t wait.

(Honourable mentions? Go on, then. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest; First Novel, by Nicholas Royle; After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman; The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce. On a different day, any one of them could have graced my top 5. But today is not that day.)

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.”

and

“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.

10 books for Halloween

Posted by on October 30th, 2013

1. Haunted House, by Jan Pienkowski

Everyone’s got to start somewhere, haven’t they? I still have the copy of this I read as a kid, and I look forward to introducing my son to it soon. Maybe there are no real scares in it – it’s too friendly for that – but it remains magical. The ghost that appears above the bed is amazing.

2. Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann

One of the primary reasons I needed a light in my room when I was a kid. A lot of it is in the illustrations. The long-legged scissor man who bursts in and snips off thumbs is pretty much the epitome of horror for me, and always will be. I had so many nightmares because of this book. Wonderful.

3. Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

This is the most hopeless (in the best sense) of King’s work: a moving, beautifully-written, carefully-constructed car-crash of a novel, which has only taken on deeper resonance after becoming a parent. It pretty much takes my legs out from under me and breaks my heart whenever I read it.

4. Books of Blood, By Clive Barker

Six books in all, thirty short stories in total, compiled into two volumes, both of which I have signed from long, long ago. There is so much invention in these tales that it’s intimidating to look back at them now. An absolutely astonishing burst of terrifying creativity. In The Hills, The Cities is my personal high point.

5. Killing for Culture, by David Kerekes and David Slater

An investigation into the depiction of real death in film, debunking the myth of the snuff film while covering genuine examples of actual recorded atrocities. It’s comprehensive and authoritative – and of course utterly outdated now in light of sites such as LiveLeak and Ogrish. A callback to more innocent days, perhaps, when Faces of Death was as bad as it gets. You couldn’t write something like this these days, because it would require tens of thousands of pages.

6. The End of Alice, by A M Homes

An utterly soul-destroying account of the correspondence between an incarcerated fifty-something paedophile and a 19 year old girl apparently seeking his mentorship while she seduces a young boy. As the narrator appraoches his parole hearing, he unravels, and we learn the devastating truth about his crime. Compelling, horrifying and painfully convincing.

7. The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum

Inspired by the real-life case of Sylvia Likens, Ketchum relates the visceral, uncomfortable story of the torture and murder of a teenage girl by the community supposed to protect her, all told through the eyes of a teenage boy who perhaps could intervene but is ultimately too scared to. Heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and quietly shaking with moral outrage, the book challenges your own complicity with every turn of the page. It always reminds me of Haneke’s comment about Funny Games: that the people who walk out early are the ones who didn’t need to watch it.

8. The Treatment, by Mo Hayder

In some ways, Birdman is more horrific, but the conceit behind this novel is so uniquely awful. The novel as a whole is a clear example of crime not only taking from the horror genre, but then striding back into it afterwards, looking around – and levelling the surrounding land. About as unpleasant as a thriller can be, but so, so compelling.

9. Communion, by Whitley Strieber

An allegedly real account by Strieber of abductions he suffered by aliens, coupled with an examination of his own past, where such abductions and interactions begin to flower as horrifying extrapolations from suppressed memories. No, I don’t remotely believe in alien abduction. Yes, when I wake up in the middle of the night, the imagery from this story absolutely bloody terrifies me. Sometimes in daylight too.

10. 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

It’s not the most frightening collection, but it is superb, and in fact the most affecting stories here are the ones that aim for the heart as much as the gut. The title story is one of my favourites: frightening, and yet incredibly moving. The five loveliest words in cinema? Indeed.

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, WHSmith.co.uk 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.

Honestly, I say the stupidest shit when someone points a camera at me. I am also – despite appearances to the contrary – not four years old. But anyway, here’s a video of me being interviewed at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival:

Anyway. I’m also the Chair of the Programming Committee for next year’s Festival. This is tremendously exciting for me, and a huge honour. On a practical level, in addition to the amazing writers already announced, we have a number of brilliant people confirmed, who’ll be being announced in the near future. It’s going to be good, trust me. Book now.

In the meantime … I edit. I edit and edit and edit.

different degrees of desperation

Posted by on August 31st, 2013

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

Richard Madeley says:

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

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

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

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

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