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#TOPCrime2014 Feedback

Posted by on July 24th, 2014

This post is intended to be a compendium of posts reflecting on – or riffing off – this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It’s probably a long way from being exhaustive, so if I’ve missed anything obvious then let me know (either by email (my address is up above) or preferably in the comments below) and I’ll keep updating the post with new stuff as and when.

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At crimefictionlover, Craig Robertson lists 16 wonderful things about the Festival.

William Sutton has his say here (and includes possibly the most rock n roll photo of Stav Sherez I’ve ever seen).

My Yorkshire Post interview now includes a video of various authors talking about the Festival at the Festival.

Naturally, a lot of the coverage has focused on the J K Rowling event. Here is Vicky Newham’s write-up. Here is Erin Mitchell‘s report on the evening. And here is Julia Byers with an enthusiastic and totally lovely description of the event. Her excitement is contagious.

Here’s Mari Hannah’s take on the weekend, which includes the somewhat unnerving phrase “Steve Mosby cake”.

Alexandra Solokoff describes the differences between Harrogate and a US convention.

Rebecca Bradley has done a few posts about the weekend. Here and here and here.

Lots of papers covered the Thursday night award ceremony. Here’s the Guardian, in which I call Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker “a really special book”, because it totally is.

Two posts at Strange Alliances so far. There may well be more. Here and here so far.

Helen Smith’s take on the Festival.

Susi Holliday enjoyed the weekend, and had an additional reason to be excited about being there.

L M Steel has a comprehensive take on the Friday and Saturday here.

Graham Smith has a round-up of the Festival here, which includes interviews with John Harvey and me.

Lucy Cameron also had a thoroughly excellent time this year.

As did K A Laity.

And here‘s a round-up on acrimereadersblog

Tamsyn Murray reports on the weekend here.

Fenris Oswin was the official photographer at the Festival, and has made lots of wonderful photographs of various events available online here.

Pam McIlroy has an excellent summary of the weekend here, and also manages to sum up exactly how I felt the whole time!

Eileen Wharton had a fantastic weekend, and (like a great many people) especially enjoyed the brilliant Lynda La Plante.

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The weekend also resulted in a few ‘debate’ pieces in the media, which I’ll list separately.

Here (again) is my initial piece about using real life crime as the basis for fiction. And here is a BBC follow-up.

Charles Cumming talks about technology and the modern spy thriller.

In addition, Jake Kerridge penned a piece about whether crime fiction is misogynistic at heart. (And Leigh Russell takes issue here).

And Rosie Claverton makes some good points about crime fiction’s attitude to mental health issues here.

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Again: if I’ve missed something, feel free to let me know – either by email or below the line. Cheers.

Harrogate!

Posted by on July 21st, 2014

There’s a familiar comment people often make that a Sunday roast takes hours to prepare and then about fifteen minutes to demolish, although in this case, it’s probably more appropriate to talk about the brewing/drinking time for a pint of Theakstons Old Peculier. Regardless, I’ve been helping to work on the programme for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival for about a year and a half, on and off, and the weekend itself seemed to pass in a heartbeat. It always does, but in this case – for me – it’s especially surreal to realise it’s all over.

And yet it is! It seemed to go very well, I think. Certainly, there seemed to be a real buzz around the hotel this year, and I lost count of the number of people who came up to me to thank and congratulate me, and to say “well done” and tell me how much they were enjoying it. Which was lovely – obviously – and we’ll come back to that at the end. But first, I figured I’d list a few of my my personal highlights from the weekend.

1) Happygate!

There have been various incidents over the last few years, and it’s common currency (and I don’t think this is by any means unique to Harrogate) that there’s usually at least one ‘controversial’ panel. While a little controversy can be fun, it’s also nice once in a while to have panels that are just enormously entertaining and informative without anyone actively falling out. And I think we achieved that this year. Which is mostly down to the fact that every single panellist was great and interesting and sensible. In fact – without exception – for every single panel I had somebody come up to me afterwards and say “that was really, really good!” And from what I managed to see of each of them, I completely agree.

2) Romance!

There’s a young couple called Scott and Jo who come to the Festival every single year. Honestly, they’re probably as familiar to regular attendees as many of the authors. So it was a huge pleasure to arrange for my afternoon panel that, after I’d thanked the panellists and wound things up, there’d be time for one more question – whereupon Scott proposed to Jo in front of an audience of nearly 500 people. (She said yes). It was a really lovely moment – and the whole Festival team was totally into it: there was music and champagne and everything. I can hardly imagine how nervous Scott must have been, sitting there for the hour beforehand, but hats off to him, and massive congratulations to them both. Happygate.

3) My panels!

I didn’t fuck them up! They were the only things I was really nervous about the whole weekend, because, while I enjoy moderating, you want to make sure they go well, and you’ve got enough questions, and so on. Fortunately, my panellists were uniformly ace. In the afternoon, I had Lauren Beukes, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar talking all things cross-genre, all with charisma and aplomb. My late night panel on plot twists was a more relaxed affair, with Alex Barclay, Simon Kernick, S J Parris and Nick Stone gamely trying to guess various famous twists. At one point, Simon was scrabbling on all fours for his dropped buzzer, and the audience were shouting “It’s behind you!”. Loads of fun. (Although I think that if the audience had had a collective buzzer, they’d have well won).

4) J K Rowling!

On Friday night, with a capacity crowd at the Royal Hall, I got to introduce Val McDermid from the side of the theatre’s stage, and then stand very quietly for a minute or so next to J K Rowling as Val introduced her. Which was kind of a surreal pinch-yourself moment – I mean, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to do anything like that again. (And J K Rowling is possibly very glad about this). It was the biggest event in the Festival’s history so far, and a real thrill for me to have played a small part in it. The event itself was amazing. 

5) Special Guests!

But they were all brilliant. It was especially nice to have Lynda La Plante winning the Lifetime Achievement award and then appearing at the Festival for the first time (and going down an absolute storm with the audience). But they were all superb, from the paired conversations to the individual events. And all such genuinely nice people. One of the perks of being Chair is that I tried to make sure I went into the green room before all the events, special guest and panels, to check if everyone was present and happy, and everyone was utterly lovely. The lesson? Crime authors are ace. But you knew that.

6) Chatting!

It’s often impossible to talk to everyone you want to for more than a few minutes, and sometimes not at all, but one of the things I look forward to most about Harrogate is catching up with people I’ve come to know, and I managed to do a surprising amount of that this year. I was also fairly sensible. There from Wednesday to Sunday, my bedtimes were approximately: 11pm; 2am; 2am; 5.30am. (It’s not Harrogate for me unless I go to bed after dawn on at least one night; and I did get to the green room on the Sunday for the first panel at 10am). I talked to so many wonderful people – old friends and new – and had so many laughs. I said crime authors are ace, but of course, it’s also crime readers, agents, editors, publicists, organisers – absolutely everyone. It’s impossible to describe or explain all those little magic conversational moments that have you laughing out loud for hours on end, but there were lots of them.

7) And finally…

I said at the beginning we’d come back to all those “congratulations” and “well done”s. Early Sunday afternoon, I gave a short speech to the audience. I think it got progressively shakier as it went on (I can make a green room on three hours’ sleep, but holding a mic and talking for five minutes seems harder), but this is the gist of what I said.

As lovely as all the thanks were, I can only take the tiniest amount of credit for how good the weekend was. It wouldn’t have been anything without the various sponsors, including Theakstons and others and the various publishers. And at heart, it was a good weekend because we had so many excellent, interesting authors, so a huge thanks to everyone who took part and made it what it was.

Harrogate International Festivals are just amazing. Onstage, I described the various members of the team as being like ninjas; they don’t assassinate you, of course, but you hardly notice them on the desk and the doors, facilitating everything, doing a fantastic job of making sure the whole thing runs like clockwork. I didn’t get most people’s names, but Naomi in the green room was brilliant (and good luck, if you ever read this, with your philosophy degree at Leeds; it can lead to interesting careers, honest!). Also thanks to the Old Swan: I watched everyone transform that huge hall from lines of chairs to tables for the quiz in less than 15 minutes, and I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it. Thanks to Ann Chadwick for telling me who I needed to talk to and when. And special thanks to the utterly awesome Gemma Rowland and Sharon Canavar, who I think between them could probably have dealt with a direct atomic strike on Harrogate and still kept the Festival running without anyone noticing.

Along with the rest of the committee, they made the whole programming thing an absolute joy from start to finish. So thanks also to Jane Gregory, David Mark, Val McDermid, David Shelley and Daphne Wright for that. There has been no stress; I’ve genuinely enjoyed every single second. I’ve got a small handful of career vague-milestone stuff I keep: my first acceptance letter; my CWA Dagger; my Theakstons shortlist tankard. I’ve now got an admin folder stuffed with random bits and pieces, cards with hastily-scribbled speeches, my ID, and so on. Not as ostensibly glamorous, perhaps, but equally valued.

And most importantly of all, thanks to all the readers who came along, because you’re the people who help to make it the most welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic weekend of the crime calendar.

I’ll probably do a post rounding-up some of the coverage, and after that, normal service here – cynicism, gratuitous swearing, impotent rage, moral panic, etc – will resume. Before it does: thank you all from the bottom of my heart for contributing to one of the best and most memorable weekends of my life. You’re an awesome community, and I’m proud to be part of it. 

do you even fisk, bro?

Posted by on July 12th, 2014

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

1. What is fisking?

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

2. What is an argument?

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

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

(1) If X then Y

(2) X

(3) (Therefore) Y

Here’s an example of modus ponens in action:

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

(2) Self-publishing makes you more money.

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

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

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

Here are two more examples of MPP in action:

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

Let’s complicate this with one final premise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

a) Length

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

b) Concision

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

c) Missing the Point

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

d) Distraction/soapbox

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

e) Aggression

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

f) Boring

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

4. Of course…

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

I’m reluctant to get into the whole Hachette vs Amazon affair. I’m a Hachette author (and despite what Hugh Howey might claim, they’ve always been good to me), so I suppose I have a certain bias, but I also recognise two corporate behemoths fighting when I see it, and I’m happy to leave them to it for the moment, especially when the terms they’re fighting over, while guessable to an extent, remain unclear. I have no desire to sign either an open letter or a petition. And if you’re a self-published writer, listen: I think you’re ace. I couldn’t do what you do – all power to you, seriously.

But I am interested, and I am engaged, and I’m increasingly seeing comments very similar to the following one on today’s Guardian article:

“Hachette wants to sell to Amazon at grossly inflated prices, and then wants Amazon to discount their wares, and take the loss, so their stuff will sell.? Amazon begs to differ”.

If you see that, or variations upon it, I think it’s fairly natural to assume that Hachette really must be the bad guys. (Side note: “bad guys”. Honestly, this is what the present intellectual level of the conversation reduces us to. Goodies and fucking baddies). The implication is that Amazon is being forced to buy stock at a certain price and sell it below cost price and take the loss, and Amazon aren’t having it. Who can argue that’s wrong?

Well, guess what: that’s what Amazon has been doing for a while. When you bought that Peter James book on the 99p promotion a couple of years ago? The author and publisher got the full amount. When you got that bestseller cheap? The same. Amazon didn’t beg to differ then; it was more than happy to eschew profit in the moment for a gradually increasing market share, building the ubiquity of its Kindle platform. And as it did so, it was misleadingly lowering expectations of what an ebook must cost to produce. Predictably, it now appears that it finally has the market share to not want to take that loss any longer.

That’s why the comment above is interesting: it’s true, in its own weird way, but it’s also gloriously spun, and the argument has a number of effectively suppressed premises. “Grossly inflated prices” implies that the natural price of ebooks is the artificially low one previously offered by Amazon, when of course the real price inevitably depends on the cost to the publisher – at least if we want the product to exist in the first place. And since publisher profit is based on an aggregate bet over a series of titles, with all the risk swallowed upfront in the form of advances, that’s no easy thing to calculate, especially in a world where digital is increasingly cannibalising paper. “Discount their wares … so their stuff will sell” ignores the fact that Amazon is the one that’s established that a price that amounts to a loss for someone is the effective price point for ebooks. They were happy for it to be a loss for them as they gained market share and leverage over their suppliers, and now suddenly – stunningly – it appears they might want to pass that loss up the chain. Who could have seen that coming? Honestly.

I’m not interested in taking sides here; I dislike it, along with all the pointless rhetoric I see on both sides. But to be honest, I don’t know many traditionally published authors who look down upon their self-published counterparts as lesser, while I see a hell of a lot of the latter expounding with glee on the downfall of traditional publishing, as though in this economic climate the collapse of an industry and all its associations – from financial to social and cultural – is something to be celebrated rather than mourned. Fuck that, and fuck off. There will always be readers, of course. But I don’t want to live in a world where we all work in a warehouse just so we can order stuff from it. I want to live in a world where there are bookshops and libraries on the high street, and publishers and printers, and booksellers and distributors. It’s a personal thing. And on that level, although I wouldn’t sign either the open letter or the petition as things stand, I’d be far more inclined to sign the former.

ideas

Posted by on June 28th, 2014

I did a talk at the Gedling book festival last week about ideas and where they come from. I really enjoyed the event, but my talk was a bit painful: I had a bad cough, and found it hard to get a decent lungful of breath, so my voice was all over the place and I had to keep glugging water to be able to speak. Nevertheless, here’s some video from the event:

By the way, the story towards the beginning about Download Festival is true. At the event itself, I explained what had really happened, but it’s been edited out of the video. Which is fine. The mundane explanation isn’t as interesting as just leaving it hanging.

Quick update

Posted by on June 19th, 2014

As of today, The Nightmare Place is officially out into the wild! Hooray! I’m still at the stage where I’m not sure what I think about the book, but that’s fairly normal for me at this point – and of course, my opinion on it doesn’t matter so much anymore. There are a couple of early-ish reviews here and here. Both are positive, which is a relief. I’ll post more as and when. I’m so incredibly rubbish that I haven’t even updated the Dark Room page with review quotes yet; I really must get onto this.

In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote for the Guardian about using real-life crime as the basis for fiction. And here is another piece I wrote about the ideas behind The Nightmare Place. Here is me looking a bit annoyed (I wasn’t) at a recent event, which went really well. I’m doing another one tomorrow near Nottingham, and then obviously there’s Harrogate to look forward to in only – eek – a few weeks now.

All that aside, I’m also writing. If everything goes according to plan – and why wouldn’t it? when does anything not? – then a sequel to The 50/50 Killer should be coming out some time next year…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third question is does it matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________

Edit to add. Tweets like this…

tonyparsons

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

thoughts on vox day and the hugos

Posted by on April 29th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

general update

Posted by on April 27th, 2014

It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper update here about what I’m up to, and I figured now was as good a time as ever.

The first and most important thing is that I’ve got a new book coming out in June. I just finished working through the proof pages, so it’s all set, and I’m still not remotely sure how I feel about it. This is business as usual for me, though. When you’ve been working on something for so long, going over and over every single passage and plot point, the story inevitably becomes overfamiliar and it’s hard to imagine it with a fresh pair of eyes. So I’m looking forward to the reactions. Initial feedback has been good so far, but you can judge for yourselves when The Nightmare Place (more info here) is published this June. Hooray!

I’ve also been working hard behind the scenes of this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It’s been a real pleasure to be chair of the programming committee – and it hasn’t felt like work at all, because the expertise and knowledge of the rest of the committee and the team at Harrogate International Festivals has made the whole thing such a breeze. I’m very proud of the programme we’ve put together, which you can see in full here. A couple of the events are already sold out, and others are coming close, and I think this is shaping up to be one of the best years yet. Which is saying something. Hopefully I’ll see more than a few of you there. I’m moderating two panels on the Friday, but – obviously – I’ll be there all weekend. Please do come along and say hello.

I’ve got a few other events on the calendar (and really need to update my Events page). These are:

Thursday 15 May – Sunday 18 May: CrimeFest. I’m not doing any panels this year, but I’m attending and will generally be about from Thursday to Sunday. 

Saturday 7 June, 1-2.30pm:  “A Time for Crime”. Panel at Leeds Central Library as part of The Big Bookend. I’ll be there with Frances Brody and Chris Nickson. More info available here

Friday 20 June, 3.00 pm: Gedling Book Festival. Arnot Hill Park, Arnold, Nottingham NG5 6LU (in conjunction with New Writers UK). Vague details  available here. Basically, I’ll be talking about ideas and where they come from, and there’ll be a signing. I’ll post more direct information when I know it. 

And what does the future hold? Well, who knows? I’m still working out what the next book’s going to be, as I’ve got two plotted out relatively well (which is unusual for me), and one of them partially written. The latter is a sequel of sorts to The 50/50 Killer, while the former is a standalone in a similar vein to Black Flowers. I’ll continue blocking out the plots for a few more days, and then start writing properly in May. In an ideal world, I’d like to surprise myself by finishing a first draft of both by the end of the year … but I’m laughing at myself even now.

In the meantime, I’ve also written a brief appreciation of Lesley Glaister’s excellent Honour Thy Father, which you can read here.