Category Archives: Writing Journal

What is geek culture’s big problem with criticism?

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Or if a regular donation isn’t possible, you can purchase my short story collection.

I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.

“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”

Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.

The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.

Jean Baudrillard's classic Simulacra and Simulation.
Jean Baudrillard’s classic Simulacra and Simulation.

Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.

The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.

“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”

Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.

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Very angry.

When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.

The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.

You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.

But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.

Coming soon in “Geek Cultre”: A Meditation on the Male Chest. You can help make this essay happen by becoming a backer.

I answer questions on digital marketing for Leicester Writes

My old home city, the wonderful multicultural metropolis of Leicester, has a festival called Leicester Writes. Despite being far away on the Indian sub-continent I will be taking part, with a live Q&A on Twitter about indie publishing and digital marketing. Join in!

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Twitter Q & A with Damien Walter

JUNE 25, 2015 / 8.00 PM – 9.00 PM

Join us on Twitter for a Q&A with writer and columnist, Damien Walter. Walter was the first professional reviewer to dedicate attention to indie authors in his regular column for The Guardian. He helps indie authors and major publishers market their work in the digital world. Please use the hashtag #AskDamienW to join the conversation and put your questions forward.

Writer as Wise Friend

When I pick up a Discworld novel, it’s not because I want to know what happens in the story. I likely know what happens, unless it’s one of the few I haven’t read (these are being saved for emergencies). Most times I pick up a Discworld novel it’s beacause I want to spend some time with Terry Pratchett. I’ve been able to hangout with Terry since I found his books when I was eleven. And so have, I would guess, about 200 million other people. That’s a lot of friends to keep in touch with.

This is what novelists do. Some of them. The really good ones. They tell a story, and something of who they are sings through that story. I’m tempted to call it their soul. But I think it’s more likely their heart, which is the place where true wisdom lives. We all need wise friends in our lives, but sometimes they are hard to come by. So some people spread themselves out by writing books.

I wonder about social media sometimes. I spend perhaps too much time on it. Twitter is like catnip for writers I think. And then today, for a quite unexpected and private reason I can’t share, I realised that I turn on Twitter for much the same reason I open a book. Because there are writers there I consider friends, even if I only read their tweets. And with Twitter I also sometimes get to talk directly with my wise friends. The medium changes, but the role of writer as friend remains the same.

Don’t stop writing books though, I want those as well!

I’m writing essays on Geek Culture, and you can help me!

How hard is it to go from traditional publishing…to self publishing?

Josh Powell is a successful non-fiction author making the transition to self published fantasy author. In this guest post Josh answers the question…what is it like to transition from traditional to self publishing?

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Buy The Berserker and the Pendant on Amazon.

In a word… tough! I’m an acknowledged expert in web development; I didn’t need to shop around to find a publisher. The first one I went after scrambled to land the book. I found an experienced co-author to help out and two years later a book popped out. The publisher, Manning, put it in all the right places, it was an excellent book so it took off. It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment and ego boost to see my work in a bookstore.

But I have stories I love to tell, and non-fiction doesn’t scratch that itch. There is so much to learn when writing and self-publishing fiction about pacing, dialogue, world building, editing, cover creation, avoiding common writing pitfalls, killer openings. There is also a sense of control, the work is mine and I get to do with it what I please. I’ve written the first book in a fantasy series, The Berserker and the Pedant. It’s out in physical and ebook form on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N and all the usual places.

The next trick is getting the word out. My traditionally published book had a built in audience looking for how to do what that book taught them to do and people already sought out that publishers books. If the topic hadn’t been spot on or the writing was terrible, the book wouldn’t have sold, but the publisher knew how to get people to look at the book.

When self-publishing, it’s on you to get people to look at the book. It’s hard. People have many things competing for attention: tv, movies, blogs, articles, and other books. Why should they pay attention to your book long enough to discover how great it is? Being a great writer is only the beginning, you must learn to market as well.

As part of my strategy to convince people to read my work, I’m having the book turned into an audio book and graphic novel, and working with some very talented people. This lets people experience the work in whatever format excites them. I have a professionally created cover I reuse in posters, bookmarks, websites, and business cards. I’m also hitting the convention circuit, going to Baycon and later, Worldcon and Con-volution.

Self-publishing is hard, but it’s worth it to maintain ownership and control over my work.

Buy The Berserker and the Pendant on Amazon.

Update on a Patreon

I’ve been promoting my new Patreon page for the Geek Culture essay series and the response is making me pretty happy. At this point I have 13 backers at $36 a month. That’s great, and I think I’ll likely get a couple more before I start the essay series.

I made the choice to do a Patreon because for the last 6-8 months I’ve been a little stuck. There’s been a lot of writing happening but I’ve been torn in a few different directions about what I want to do. Patreon is a motivator for me, one I’m planning to do a handful of writing projects with. At least one more essay series and a fiction project. The amount of money isn’t the key thing for me, but the support of readers who I know have some expectation of getting work from me really is. It’s hard to express how much each backer means to me, regardless of amount. If you’re inspired to help inspire me, the link is below.

Geek Culture essay series on Patreon.

The big story and the small story

Very few stories are only one story. The common writing exercise of encapsulating a story in a single sentence often shows this. Yes, Jack and the Beanstalk is the story of a boy who fights a giant. But it’s also the story of a giant pestered by tiny humans. And of a beanstalk forced  to early germination. And of what happened to a poor cow after it was sold to a swindling bean merchant. Much of the richness of storytelling comes from the many stories that are woven into one. It’s how the artifice of story comes to resemble the complexity of life. But amidst the infinite stories within every story are two that deserve special attention. The Big Story…and the Small Story.

The Small Story is, most commonly, the internal transformation of the story’s central character. In The Godfather we follow the transformation of Michael Corleone from a moral young hero to an ammoral old villain, all the more chilling as it’s a transformation driven by love of family.

The Big Story is the transformation of the world in which the story takes place. You have to pay attention to catch the Big Story in The Godfather, because it plays out in the narrative background. By the end of the second movie the Corleone family is no longer a gangster organisation. It and the rest of the Mafia families have become great powers in American society. You’re watching the story of how criminals become the government.

Weak stories tend to play out either the big or the small story without the counterbalance of the other. Genre fiction can spend ten books showing you the rise and fall of an empire without ever touching on a single real life. Literary fiction can immerse itself inside one human life while ignoring the very real world of politics and power that we all live in. Both end up failing in different ways.

The Big Story and the Small Story have to be deeply interrelated. Because this is how the world is. Sweeping arcs of history produce the circumstances that create dramatic lives and larger than life characters. Even the smallest life has some impact or consequence on the lives of those around it. It might be that your story’s Big Story reaches no further than a tiny village. Or that the Small Story has to play out between car chases and gunfights. But understanding the outer boundaries of the story in this way helps build a unified story. Any event that doesn’t belong either in the big or small story probably doesn’t belong in this story at all.

Are fantasy meganovels swamping the genre?

If, like me, you haven’t had the chance to catch up with John Gwynne’s ongoing four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen, then you might have greeted the news he’s landed a “six-figure deal” for another three novels with a shrug. But the arrival of yet another writer “in the tradition of George RR Martin and David Gemmell” has set me thinking about how the fantasy genre found itself overrun by multi-volume novels.

Read more @ The Guardian

Will I be doing paid reviews? Yes.

But it took a lot of thought to arrive at that answer.

A little while ago I opened a discussion about the ethicality of book reviewers accepting payment directly from writers. I got a LOT of responses, all of them well considered and constructive. They ranged from “yes, the more reviews the better” to “no, that would violate the relationship between reviewer / reader / writer”. And the truth is BOTH of these perspectives have validity, as do many of the positions expressed between those two poles. A better question than “should I do this” turns out to be “if I do this, what are the consequences and can I live with them?”

The outcome of the debate is that I’ve decided I will do a limited number of reviews paid for by writers on this site, accepting in advance that I will likely face some criticism for doing so. My first paid review is God Bless The Dead by Evan Geller, an indie SF novel with an interesting core concept that I’m looking forward to getting into. But before I do, I think it would be useful to get into why I’m making the decision.

There is an oft quoted and generally correct principle that guides many ethical issues in writing and publishing. Money moves towards the writer. A writer should never pay money to a publisher for anything, any more than you should be paying your boss money. This needs to be reiterated because vanity publishers and other borderline publishing outfits pretend to publish authors while taking money from them for various services.

The indie publishing revolution has created a new market of writers who are also their own publisher, and who are therefore buying services as a publisher. Money still moves towards the writer, but in their role as a publisher, money also moves away from the writer to other service providers. There’s now a substantial market for editorial, design and marketing services. I already offer a number of these services to my editorial clients.

But reviewing has remained a grey area. Not because writers won’t pay for them, I get offers of payment quite frequently. But because readers wonder how far they can trust a review paid for directly by the author. Would I as a reviewer give a stinking review to a book by a writer who has paid me for the review? Yes. I very definitely would. But readers walking in blind from the internet aren’t to know that. And that really arrives at the heart of the matter.

Because I have a long track record of book journalism with many high profile publications, I have a relatively strong audience of people who pay some attention to my opinions on new books. But. If I fill my blog and twitter feed with glowing reviews of terrible books, my opinion won’t be worth much for long. If on the other hand I do occasional, select reviews of interesting books that my readers will otherwise miss, that is providing a positive service. It’s not about whether I get paid, or who I get paid by, its about ensuring that payment doesn’t distort my review.

To that end, I’ll be doing a very limited number of reviews paid for by writes. Before doing any reviews I’ll be curating from a pool of possible books to ensure there is always something interesting about the few I choose, even if it has major flaws. Authors won’t have any editorial input to these reviews, but I will give authors the choice of whether to have the final review published or not. That seems the fairest balance to strike. I’ll also share some thoughts about these books as I’m reading on social media, so others can read along and see if they agree with my take.

Reviewing has always been something I both enjoy and find tremendously useful. I began reviewing a decade ago, primarily SF & Fantasy books, because I was researching the field for my own understanding. Getting paid for the reviews has never been so much about the money itself, as offsetting the time I was investing in doing that research. I’m hoping adding a few paid reviews to my schedule will help me stay in touch with the work of writers I might otherwise miss, as my writing schedule becomes ever busier.

I don’t have full review submission guidelines prepared yet, but if you’re interested in sending me a book just pop me an email on: damiengwalter@gmail.com

On resisting being just one thing

As I travel I write. I like to write on paper – every day I handwrite morning pages, and most of my ideas start life on paper. Paper is heavy. And for the last three months I’ve been lugging a fair weight of it in my backpack, through Sri Lanka and Kerala all the way up through India and now into the Himalaya.

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This week I am reading back though months worth of handwritten material as I photo-archive it (the notebooks themselves will then be sent back home). Oh boy. a) I’ve written a lot b) I’ve changed a lot c) What I’ve written has changed. I am not the writer I was two years ago. I generate a lot of ideas, both for fiction and non-fiction, and I’m careful to make a record of all of them. There are are fragments of stories that I read back, and don’t recognise the me who wrote them.

Which brings me to my point.

There’s a pressure for writers – and I know this because I feel it sharply at times – to be just one thing. It’s both an industry pressure and self inflicted. Publishers want writers to be a brand, and for your name to equal a particular kind of story that the readers can come back for again and again. The writers who inspire you as role-models almost certainly have an established, singular identity. It’s so tempting to try and adopt an equally singular identity.

It’s also a mistake. Firstly, because it will happen without you trying. Even the most prolific writer’s bandwidth is limited, and when you reach the point of publishing, you’ll inevitably end up writing and publishing within a relatively narrow spectrum. Your identity forms as a necessity. Secondly, no writer is only the identity projected by their professional work. Read up about the writers who inspire you and you’ll find they have whole creative lives you never necessarily hear about, that don’t fit with the public persona at all.

My first opportunity to publish a book came when I was in my late twenties. And a second wave of chances came when I was in my early thirties. I’ll never know if passing over those opportunities was the right thing. But I am glad I did. Because I look at what I would have published, what my identity as a writer would have been, and I can barely relate that person to who I am today at thirty-seven. Maybe I was fortunate that I’d been around writers long enough to see the damage that trying to force yourself into being Just One Thing can do.

Because here’s the thing, until it becomes a professional necessity, you can revel in NOT having to be just one thing. I like that I can write a high brow literary critique for The Guardian one day, then scribble out a chapter of swords & sorcery fan fiction the next, without worrying how these things relate to the Just One Thing we’re pressured to try and be. Once your work is being read, and readers have an expectation what Just One Thing you are, you’ll have to dedicate most if not all of your writing time to that. Until then, enjoy being many things.

5 Reasons Why 50 Shades Of Grey Achieved Literary and Blockbuster Success

British author E. L. James’ novel 50 Shades Of Grey, along with its two equally salacious sequels, may have just as many critics as it does devoted fans. But there is absolutely no denying that the adult literature series, after its first release in 2011, became a phenomenon the likes of which we have not seen since the peak days of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. The question is, why exactly did this happen? It would be fair to say that a number of different factors contributed to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, including:
1. Word Of Mouth
The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy owes much of its success to the power of word of mouth. The risqué subject matter of the novel proved to be interesting, inspiring conversation between friends, co-workers and even families. Before we knew it, every member of the office was picking up a copy so they could be in on the discussion. Sheer curiosity powered rampant made word of mouth for this series of books.

2. The Rise Of The E-Reader

It is no coincidence that the immense popularity of Fifty Shades rose in conjunction with the rise in mainstream E-Reader usage. Whereas twenty years ago a person may have been embarrassed about showing their fellow passengers on the bus exactly what kind of book they were reading, with the switch in preference to electronic literature, people can now sit back and read what they want, without having to worry about the opinions of others. Also, the ease of pressing a single button rather than having to walk in to a shop to buy a racy novel, also opened up the possibility of reading the book to people who had been too ashamed to read erotica.
 
3. Loosening Of  Taboos
It would be fair to say that on whole, society today is the most relaxed it has ever been. Whereas generations ago it would have been almost unthinkable to imagine your grandmother eagerly turning the pages of E. L. James’ work, changes in social and cultural norms have lead to much more mellowed views on the topic. What was once seen as ‘damaging’ or ‘unsavoury’ content can now be seen in the manner it was intended; as adventurous escapism.

4. The Power Of Cinema

Though the books were majorly popular before the big screen adaptation was released, it should not be underestimated just how much cinema can increase a property’s reputation and popularity. Many people simply do not like to read, but having seen the movie version they may have been inspired to read ahead, and become more invested in the series before the sequels hit the theatres.

5. One Of The Few Recent Adult Phenomena
With Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games being recent examples of cultural sensations, which were mostly experienced by a younger audience. It would be fair to say the Fifty Shades phenomenon was set alight by a piece of work that was being consumed and enjoyed by an adult audience. The unique nature of this made the series almost something to ‘check off’, whether you enjoyed it or not; and this is evidence by the sheer amount of mixed opinion that the novels have garnered.

Image by Jules Holleboom used under the Creative Commons license

Image by alles banane used under the Creative Commons license

Should I charge money to review your book?

I’ve been reviewing books in a kind-of-professional context for a decade now. I say kind-of-professional because while book reviewing doesn’t pay a lot, it does usually pay a fair amount. But that payment always comes from the publication, not the publisher or writer.

I’ve developed a fairly high profile as a reviewer, with a regular opinion column for The Guardian that tends to use book reviews as a starting point for discussion of wider issues in geek culture. I was one of the first mainstream reviewers to put time into seriously looking at indie published novels. And when I fall in love with a book, I’ve been known to be pretty insistent that everyone who reads my blog or follows me twitter needs to love that book as well!

All this book reviewing activity means I receive dozens of review requests every week, from both mainstream publishers and indie authors. I like getting sent books (via email only, I’m a nomadic traveller so print books are a big no-no for me) and out of the hundreds I get each year, maybe half a dozen end up featured in my column in one form or another.

I’d like to do more.

Which leads me to the question I’d like your help with. I love to review one or two books a month on this blog, and share them with readers here and on social media. But, I can’t justify the time without at least some financial return. And that financial cost could only be paid (I presume) by the publisher / writer themselves.

So, if I open review slots here which publishers / writers pay for, am I crossing an ethical line? Money moves towards the writer is a diktat I believe in. But with books numerous, and platforms to publicise them limited, have reviews become a commodity that producers should expect to pay for? Maybe more importantly, would readers trust my opinion on a book I’m being paid by the author to review?

I’m open to any and all feedback on this, so please let me know your thoughts.

SF & Fantasy publishing needs industry awards

The controversy around this year’s Hugo awards continued to roll on through this week. Independent journalist Philip Sandifer added a small tome of research to the material on the issue, although it rather overestimates the importance of Theodore Beale as leader of the neo-fasicist revolution within sci-fi. Beale may be a fascist, but his actual role in this would be better described as attention bum. Beale hangs around the SF & Fantasy writing community, bumming spare attention off anybody he can harass, or who rises to the bait of whatever racist, homophobic bilge the attention bum has posted to his blog that day to score some attention. Poor Phil Sandifer has opened his wallet and given the attention bum his whole months attention salary. I imagine it made the attention bum very happy.

There is always some controversy around the Hugo awards, and one of the main causes is that the awards simply don’t fit the expectations that people bring to them. The Hugo awards belong to the World Science Fiction Convention or WorldCon, an American SF & Fantasy convention with a long history that gives the Hugos an immense cachet. The problem is that the SF & Fantasy community tend to treat the Hugos as an industry award, when they are not.

The Eisner’s announced their shortlists today which, low and behold, managed to be interesting, diverse and relevant to the comic book industry they represent. The Eisner’s are in actuallity what the Hugo awards are often assumed to be – an industry award. The main purpose of the Eisner’s is to serve the comic book industry in the ways such awards do, primarily by raising the profile of the industry’s best work and expanding the audience for the medium overall. On a much larger scale, the Oscars have been fulfilling this role for the film industry for decades. So why doesn’t the SF & Fantasy field have a proper industry award?

The main reason is that the Hugos, and alongside them the Nebulas, come very close to being an industry award without quite fulfilling that role. The Hugos could do, and many people seem to be working to get them there, but they won’t achieve that without becoming much more international and overhauling their voting system. The Nebulas are voted for by industry professionals, of a kind, in the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America. But the SFWAs membership does’t actually include the publishing professionals it would need to be an effective “academy” in the style of the Academy Awards.

I don’t know if or how this problem may be fixed. But it does need to be, The lack of a proper industry award leaves the SF & Fantasy writing industry without a centre that it badly needs. The industry’s major awards should be generating media coverage for the quality of their winners, not the intensity of the outrage they cause.