Strange Horizons publishes a large an interesting report on “The State of British Sf and Fantasy” which with the input of six authors does a fairly good job of reflecting many current trends. I take issue with Juliet McKenna’s opening essay The Market and Trade. Not because it is incorrect – it is well researched and has much useful information. But because it is myopic in its focus and unforgivably negative in tone.
Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.
An “increasingly” unlikely prospect? There are more writers than ever earning a living in the genre. It’s a much more likely prospect. Why the intense and inaccurate negativity?
What is missing from McKenna’s purview? Digital, ebooks and most critically the indie author revolution. There’s nothing to gain from bemoaning the problems in traditional publishing without paying detailed attention to the context giving rise to those problems. WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE CHANGE IN KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION SINCE THE PRINTING PRESS WAS INVENTED. The publishing industry as you know it is an artefact for of the pre-digital era, there is absolutely zero chance of it continuing in its established form in the face of digital technology, and yes of course writers trying to shelter within the collapsing infrastructure of that industry are going to have an increasingly hard time.
Where are writers earning a living wage today? In self publishing. How are writers protecting their intellectual property from publishers contracts? By self publishing. How are writers profiting from their backlist? By self publishing. When are short stories making unexpected profits for writers? When being self published. How does McKenna characterise self-publishing? As the “man bites dog” outlier of success. No doubt many writers and publishing professionals continue to see it that way. They’re likely to continue on the same downward spiral McKenna describes for as long as they do so.
Hugh Howey once again shares another interesting perspective on the indie publishing revolution, in this case a refutation of the frequent criticisms of the Author Earnings reports methodology, from the unnamed Data Guy behind those reports.
I do apologize to those whom this information proves troubling, but it is a fair view of what is happening in the world of ebooks today. And all the trends we’ve seen point in the same direction.
Howey’s brief quote there interests me, because it raises the simple question, why are so many in the industry so vindictively determined that indie publishing can not exist? I see the same fatuous counter arguments placed against the existence of indie publishing again and again. The data is unreliable! Jesus H Christ folks just spend five minutes on the internet looking at the hundreds of indie authors clearly doing very well with their work. They’re just a few needles in a haystack! All success in any creative field is like being a needle in a haystack. Do you use the very rare success of traditionally published authors to condemn the traditional publishing industry? Most indie authors sell no books! Most authors FULL STOP sell no books. They spend years making submissions and in slush piles and learn nothing. Yes, you might claim it’s better to publish nothing until an agent or editor approves you. Personally, I think its better to give that power to readers.
Indie publishing is real, it’s here to stay, and its tranformative effect on the industry is just beginning. So the question remains, why do you hate it so much?
The novel’s great strength is also its great weakness. A novel is (with a few rare exceptions) the work of one author. That can give it a depth, coherence and unity that is rare in our modern world. But it is also a challenge to our modern way of being. We’re creatures obsessed with social interaction. And we live in age when every conversation is now two way. If we expect to be able to answer back to film stars, governments and corporate brands on twitter, why would we sit still for a twenty hour lecture from a novelist?
The literary answer to this is voice. Shamelessly populate the novel novel with the words, perspectives and opinions of the author. The commercial answer is story. Strip mine the history of narrative for compelling story arcs, and put them down on the page in transparent prose that deletes any sense it was created by a human imagination. But there is a third option, currently under-explored, that I believe will play a very major part in the next few decades of literature.
Ergodic literature is defined as requiring non-trivial effort to navigate. If a traditional novel requires trivial effort to navigate – simply reading the words in the order written – then an ergodic text is handled in ways that demand greater effort from the reader. The term comes from the Greek words ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path. Ergodic fiction is the path that requires work.
The most famous and accomplished novel recognised as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Multiple narratives are presented to the reader as unordered fragments of text taking various formats. The story is there to find, but the reader has to work to construct it. The reader must be active in the creation of the story, which then becomes interactive.
But it is not interactive in the common sense of that word. The reader is not interacting through the trivial device of selecting a path through a branching storyline. This is not a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book, or an action video game with cut sequences. Books already demand a far deeper form of interaction from the reader than trivial plot dynamics. Novels require the reader’s imagination to bloom in to existence as stories. And ergodic literature works with, not against, the extant interactivity of all novels.
But an ergodic text kinks the reading experience in a way that can reengage readers disenchanted with a 20 hour lecture from a novelist. All readers are already deeply engaged with ergodic texts. On today’s internet we move through a webwork of blog posts, news articles, social media statuses, annotated memes, video clips, podcasts, forum posts and comment threads. The challenge of constructing a personally meaningful narrative from this effectively random barrage of information is compelling to us. Our minds and imaginations are now wired for that deep interaction with out texts. And it’s that behaviour ergodic fiction can use to re-engage the reader.
I’m sorry I can’t point you to more effective examples of the ergodic fiction in action. Many have tried, most have failed. But then, that’s exciting right? It means the challenge is there for the taking. Go to it.
Online meme factory Flavorwire published a list of the 35 most influential writers on the internet recently. It’s a…questionable list at best. I know most of the names on it, and I’ve read many of those who have books published. But it reads in large part like a list of the authors friends on Twitter, which I imagine with some research it would prove to be.
The list inspired some of the Sci-Fi writing world’s rooting, tooting, gun shooting right wing authors to come up with an alternative list of writers that also look rather like the author’s friends on twitter. Hmmm…I sense a trend here.
You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today.
The internet and social media have a fracturing effect. The grand narratives of mass media are shattered in to a thousand small stories, each playing to their own niche audience. This is even more true in literature than other media. Books have always attached to niche audiences and sub-cultures. But that fracturing multiplies with every new technical advance in publishing.
Looking at the online world of books I see many strong communities. There is the traditional literary world, still surfing the momentum of its former mass media dominance. As the strong online discussion around today’s Booker prize list demonstrates, it is translating well to social media. Genre fiction has a massively strong presence online, especially Sci-Fi which has become the de-facto mainstream literature of online geek culture. But crime, romance and other genres also have their fanatical followings. The politically affiliated literary communities are interesting. As mentioned, right wing conservative science fiction is a thing, but so also is liberal science fiction, and both are relatively removed from mainstream sci-fi (which is largely apolitical). The Flavorwire list is really a list of bloggers and social media gadflys who publish books as an almost secondary activity. But again, that’s another perfectly valid literary community.
What powers these niche communities is participation. Who wants to be a passive consumer of culture when you can start making your own? The internet is now stuffed full of communities of self-published writers. Or largely unknown writers who have banded together to form their own publisher. Some of these also have a readership beyond their immediate circle, but most are more of a circle jerk, creating the impression of an audience when really no one is listening.
Where audiences do exist though, the multiplicity of online literary worlds is a new paradigm for writers. You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today. In fact a much more viable career option is to find a niche community you love and become a writer for that community. And with so many literary communities co-existing online, that’s a more viable career
Independent author Susanna Shore expresses the bottom line on the state of independent publishing in a well thought out post on Kindle Unlimited.
As a KDP author, it’s impossible for me to remain completely neutral, even when keeping outside the dispute. Generally, I tend to favour the opinion that all big companies look for their best interests. For now, Amazon’s interests are favourable to me, but that doesn’t mean they are on my side, or that their interests will continue to be in my favour. Moreover, I don’t have to be on their side to benefit from their desire for profit. In this, I’m firmly on my side, which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sorry for the authors affected by the dispute.
The high emotions engendered by the transition from print to digital publishing often cloud the basic facts. As Shore bluntly states, that transition, lead by technology innovated by Amazon, has fallen firmly in favour of writers, and particularly those writers with the energy and skill set to publish independently. Digital eliminates the entire print, distribution and retail chain that once sucked so much value from the wealth generated by publishing books. Now a writer can write and then publish a book to one of a half-dozen ebook marketplaces, Amazon Kindle being by far the largest, and keep hold of most of the wealth the book generates. Even after a substantial cut has gone to the marketplace, the author still gets a far higher percentage return.
But we live in fast moving technological times. The model of a few centralised ebook marketplaces is likely to disappear as fast as it appeared. I personally doubt it will last beyond the end of this decade, 2020. But what might replace it, and will the next wave of publishing technology continue to favour the author?
One way to understand the success of the Amazon Kindle marketplace is as a byproduct of the limitations of internet search. What do I mean by that somewhat jargon heavy statement? We need a central marketplace for ebooks, because Google search doesn’t quite fulfil that function. A Google search can help you find an author or book, but it quickly hands you over to anther information source that actually holds more extensive meta-data on that author or book. Amazon, or the Amazon owned Goodreads, are nearly always the top returned result for any ebook search. And of course it’s in the Amazon marketplace that you actually buy the book, and download it to your e-reader.
But the next stage of internet search has the potential to entirely bypass the Amazon marketplace, and other similar marketplaces for digital goods like ebooks. The semantic web is a simple idea made complex by a somewhat off putting name. In brief, it is the idea that every piece of information on the internet is tagged with the meta-data that describes it. For example, my name “Damien Walter” would also be tagged with my place and date of birth, web address, email etc etc and thousands or millions of other pieces of “meta data”. An ebook, let’s say Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, would be tagged with all the meta-data relevant to it. For instance, it’s current sales data, recent related tweets, reviews, and all kinds of other useful information. Once you have extensive semantic data on most ebooks, Google can effectively displace Amazon as the marketplace for ebooks.
Why? Because when you search, say, for “Science Fiction” on the semantic web, Google will return a far more useful result to you than the current Amazon science fiction category. It will be able to show you bestselling titles, top authors, most talked about books on social networks, and a huge amount of other data tailored to your needs. And all of this data will be decentralised. It will be provided directly, by publishers, by authors, and by readers. And of course, with it’s own robust payment systems, Google will happily deal with the translation to buy this product directly from the author, again without the involvement of Amazon. Instead of uploading an ebook to the Amazon marketplace for a 35-70%, authors might instead upload their new book to their own website, tagged with all relevant semantic data, and sell it via google for 97%, minus only Googles 3% transaction fee.
This is of course speculative. But given the current trends in our technology, there’s every reason to believe that the next technological developments in publishing will give even more power to authors than the Amazon marketplace has done already. Authors are, until computers start writing fiction, the only essential worker needed to create novels. As such the tendency of technology to automate all kinds of work will also tend to shift more and more power away from publishing professionals of all kinds, and towards the author.
The Think Buddha blog features a charming essay on the necessity of time wasting to creative life by Tory Syracuse (it’s a three year old essay but, self-evidently, time wasting is a timeless subject) and it has some interesting things to say about the flow state of writing.
One of the great gifts of writing—and, though I don’t have much experience in other areas, I imagine this is true of most forms of art-making—is that it is not a linear process. Too much structure and focus on the end goal will, at least for me, derail the entire creative act.
Writing cultivates flowing, associative thought, the loss of time, and the spontaneous yet concentrated creation of something from nothing.
I have general writing goals, and I certainly have to impose discipline on myself to make room for writing in my day, but the generative process itself blessedly un-goal-oriented.
Goals and outcomes are all well and good for strategic planning, career paths, and athletic feats.But to similarly structure every aspect of life is to lose the art of it
That flow state is what I am in writing for. I can get it in other activities, but in the same way a heroin addict isn’t satisfied by a methadone hit, it’s writing I come back to for the most powerful hit. (Drug addiction isn’t a frivolous comparison either, it literarily is the escape from self that we go looking for in narcotics.) Non-fiction can take me to the flow state consistently, but it’s fiction writing that really rings my bell.
Writing challenges us to do something that we are, as humans, terribly bad at doing. We’re trained by our culture and our schooling to be organised, productive, focused. We learn that if we want to achieve something we need to concentrate. All of these things are about asserting our self in the world. But writing demands the opposite. To write brilliantly we must forget ourself. We have to let go. And for most of us, letting go is haaaaaaard.
We want to make writing conform to our need for focus, productivity, organisation. We set word-counts. We aim to write a book a year. We try and top the bestseller lists. But it’s all nonsense to make ourselves feel like we’re in control, when really the whole of writing is letting go of control. We want writing to not be a waste of time, when really the best thing about writing, is that it always will be.
My friend and fellow word-herder Will Buckingham has something to say about the pleasure – and pain – of writing. In short Mr. Buckingham believes writers like to big up the misery experienced while writing in order make ourselves look all brooding, dark and mysterious, instead of the shallow pleasure seekers we truly are. Well, Mr Buckingham I have only this to say to you.
The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun.
I’ve been listening to The Second Machine Age recently (audiobooks while jogging are my primary non-fiction consumption opportunity) It’s an interesting book on the far reaching effects of workplace automation and the exponential growth in computer power. Boiled down the book’s message is that the few remaining “jobs” in the near future will go to super intelligent, super creative workaholics while the rest of humankind malingers around in poverty. It’s an argument somewhat undermined because The Second Machine Age is a book that understands machines much better than it understands people.
People don’t hate work because it is hard. We hate work because it is routine and repetitive IE it is easy. The “hard” part of most jobs is that they are done for exploitative corporations and bureaucracies intent on stripping value out of workers. As Mr Buckingham makes clear, humans actually love doing difficult things. And a writer is defined by their love for the difficult, complex and sometimes murderously frustrating act of writing. We don’t need to worry about people sitting around watching TV and eating pies if we liberate the from work. Most people who slob around in that way do so because their creative spirit has been crushed by work. If we took the burden of uncreative, exploitative jobs from the shoulders of humans, they would actually work much harder, at truly creative work like writing.
We talk a lot about success even when we don’t use the word. Who has the best job. The biggest house. The handsomest lover. I’d make a poetic list but you get the idea. As humans we waste most of our time chasing after success, in one form or another. Who has the most? How did they get it? And how do we get our own?
That fearsome beauty is the buddhist Wheel of Life. With its demons, ghosts and gods It may look supernatural, but in fact it is all about the real world that we live in. It illustrates what buddhists call Samsara, the cycle of material existence. If it looks familiar, that’s because Samsara is what we in Western christian culture call heaven and hell. But in buddhist culture heaven and hell aren’t somewhere else. We make them here on earth, as part of the cycle of Samsara.
It’s a cycle because the Wheel of Life never stops turning. Buddhists divide Samsara in to six realms, the lowest are pretty hellish and the highest are rather heavenly. Living creatures struggle to progress around the wheel so they can escape hell and live in heaven. But the cycle is an illusion. Once living creatures have rested in heaven a while, they are sent back to hell, to begin the cycle again.
At the heart of the Wheel of Life are a pig, a snake and a rooster. Imagine a hamster wheel, but instead of a hamster you have these three animals, and they are always chasing one another, so driving the Wheel of Life forever. Remember Tom and Jerry and their bulldog pal Spike from the Warner Bros cartoons? These animals are a lot like that.
Of course the world isn’t literally turned by a pig, snake and rooster. These are symbols for three basic human behaviours. Craving, aversion and delusion. I prefer to call them greed, hate and delusion. Those are better translations for Western minds. We act out these behaviours all the time. When we see cake we get greedy for more. We hate the cold and try to escape it. And we fall easily in to delusions, like obsessing about how our hair looks. Who cares? We do, because we’re deluded.
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”
If by Rudyard Kipling
So this is success. It’s acting in greedy, hateful and deluded ways to get the top job, the big house, and lots of people pretending to be your friend so they can get at what you have. It’s being the King, the Boss, the Star. And it’s the illusory belief that these things will last when they won’t, and that they are better than the alternative when they aren’t. Take a look at the world around you. How many people are on the treadmill, running the rat race, climbing the ladder, and walking the eternal cycle of Samsara? How often do you find yourself making the greedy, hateful or deluded choice to get ahead?
That’s most of us, most of the time.
Siddhartha Gautama – an Indian prince who gave up the family trade to become a bum, then later taught some cool ideas about being free and living well – suggests an alternative. Instead of acting with greed, act with generosity. Instead of acting with hatred, act with kindness. And instead of being deluded, try and see the truth. Your haircut doesn’t matter. It truly doesn’t.
Buddhism calls this being skillful. because it’s hard, and requires skill. Greed is your trained response, so to be generous you have to catch yourself in the moment, and choose to share that chocolate with your friend instead of snarfing it all down your gullet. That’s hard, and even the most skillful people fail at it all the time. We’re only human, after all.
Rudyard Kipling finishes the poem If with the two lines: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.” Kipling and Buddha both have the same message. If you can skilfully control your behaviour, you’ll be a man. Which is to say, a human.
The real measure of success isn’t your place on the Wheel of Life. It’s the quality of you’re humanity. So you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Fine. But when you make that $10M bonus do you hoard it away, or give it away? A skilful person can pursue worldly success, it’s a fun thing to do. But they won’t do it at the cost of of their humanity. It’s our skilfulness that makes us human. And it’s being human that is the greatest success.
Humans like stories. In fact, it’s fair to say we are obsessed with stories. And never has our society been richer in stories. Today we have access to all the books, films, TV shows and other story media ever made, with more being made all the time.
Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.
But if you wanted to lose yourself in a story in 17th century England, where did you go? Most likely to the church or to the Bible, to have biblical myths read to you. Or you might read them yourself if you were among literate minority. Theatre of course, in cities or when a troupe travelled on tour. Possibly to a storyteller to hear a folk tale or two, or maybe some some bawdy stories told in drinking holes. But all said and done, your options were somewhat limited.
When novels began to arrive in the 18th century, as the costs of printing decreased, they arrived in to an environment starved and hungry for stories. And they provided stories stories that were far more complex, original and engaging than the competition. Unless you had a very good vicar, it’s unlikely his storytelling held much a candle to the serial fictions of Mr Charles Dickens. Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.
Novels allowed the telling of more sophisticated stories. And novelists quickly innovated new tools for the telling of stories. Novelistic techniques that we simply take for granted today, such as limited 3rd person point-of-view, simply didn’t exist in the early days of novels. Stories were told either by the writer as omniscient narrator, or through formats like the epistolary ‘novel of letters’ that allowed the characters to speak for themselves. A large part of the work for students on a creative writing course is to learn all of these novelistic techniques, so that they can write novels to the standards expected by readers today.
The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel.
Examined from a technical perspective, a novel like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an amazing storytelling achievement. It doesn’t simply tell one story but many, weaving through multiple points of view over a timespan of many years. It chronicles major events in human history, and illustrates them through their human dramas. It leads the reader to ask the big philosophical questions that underly the events. What is war? What is peace? How do we best live in either circumstance? There are other comparable literary achievements – Homer for instance, although the Iliad’s poetic form makes it a tough read for most – but the novel made this kind of complex storytelling widespread. And hugely, hugely popular.
Film took the development of story in a different direction. Filmic narratives are highly compressed, simply to fit in to the typical 120 minutes of time a feature film occupies. The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel. Film also has an immense capacity for spectacle. You aren’t just watching a cowboy story, you’re seeing a real man firing a real gun. In the modern era of CGI, that spectacle has grown to epic proportions. The kind of slow, subtle character development novels thrive on is hard to achieve in film, and rarely tried today, when explosions and superheroes are so much more profitable.
Storytelling on television was hobbled for decades by that medium’s dependence on advertising, and the advertisers demand that television shows appeal to the lowest common denominator. Episodes of television drama were relatively short, sometimes only 20 minutes when advertising was removed. And networks did not allow producers to advance the storyline across episodes. The TV miniseries – often adapted from novels – allowed some great TV drama to be made, in particular shows like I Claudius and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the UK.
The HBO “box set” series is designed to be sold directly to the audience (as opposed to attracting advertisers) and consequentially aims for a far higher standard of narrative. It typically gives 10 hours of screen time in 1 hour chunks dedicated to telling one coherent story. Each 1 hour episode has its own discrete plot and subplots, but they all feed in to the over-aching series plot. They feature an ensemble cast of characters – as opposed to the single protagonist of most films – all of whom grow and develop (or die!) as the series unfolds. And they deal with complex human situations and relationships. They are, from many perspectives, highly novelistic. And in all honesty, the best of them leave War & Peace and many other great novels, eating their dust.
The Sopranos. Madmen. Band of Brothers. House of Cards. Game of Thrones. My new favourite, True Detective. Individually the best shows in the HBO format (there are now other producers) are the equal of any stories ever told. And in many regards, better. Taken as a whole, there is a strong argument that they are part of the most amazing flourishing of story in human history. They combine the complexity of novels with the spectacle and film. And they bring another element almost unique to television. They are written collaboratively by teams of writers and script editors. These shows aren’t just the product of one superb imagination, but many of them, working in unison.
The novel, having pioneered the complex high quality storytelling it is clear audiences hunger for, now struggles to match the best of that storytelling in other mediums. Novels can’t touch the spectacle of film or the new king of that hill, video games. And they’re outgunned in the sheer richness of storytelling the best television shows can achieve. Not because the novel can’t match that quality, of course it can, but because doing so is very difficult. And the number of writers capable of producing stories of that quality is very small.
It’s easy to set up shop as a novelist. It’s ridiculously hard to actually write high quality novels. Writing a great novel is an achievement on the scale of making a major scientific breakthrough or winning a significant military battle. That’s why in British history Jane Austen is remembered alongside Isaac Newton and Horatio Nelson. And yet very few writers seem willing to pursue the long, hard path towards that kind of achievement. Absurdly, there’s a common conception among writers that they don’t even need to learn to write before putting their work in to the world. How many scientific breakthroughs are made without decades of learning? How many battles won without years of collective experience being deployed on the battlefield? Why expect making art to be any different?
Among the runaway hits in recent publishing is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. It’s a novel in the epic fantasy genre, but its success is far more to do with its complex, high quality story telling than the presence of dragons. Martin was a Hugo award winning sci-fi writer at a young age, who then spent two decades working in the word-mines of Hollywood script development, before bringing all of that expertise together in his masterpiece. The books were already massive bestsellers, head and shulders the best books in their genre, before being picked by HBO, where they required little work to fit in to the new television format.
The response of publishers has been comically absurd. For the best part of a decade now publishers have been flooding their distribution channels with fantasy series in the style of Game of Thrones. But instead of seeking out the few writers who might have the chops to make a new work on the scale of Martin’s epic, publishers have paid peanuts to debut authors to make third rate clones that lack all the technical expertise to equal the original. And this is far from a unique scenario. The publishing industry, instead of nurturing quality writing, has turned itself in to a cloning operation. There are still quality books to be found of course, but they are buried amongst a swill of third rate clones of the rare bestsellers that appear. And this, more than anything else, is destroying the audience for novels. Imagine if HBO, alongside True Detective, also released 200 competing television shows that looked similar but nowhere near as good. They would quickly undermine their audience engagement, just as publishers have. If publishers want their business back, they need to be as obsessed with story quality as HBO.
There’s a bun fight about self publishing in the book trade at the moment. Half the trade are waking up to the reality that self publishing is the future, while the other half are looking for reasons why it shouldn’t be. The number one reason is quality. Self-publishing doesn’t provide a career path for writers, or police quality. But publishers abandoned both these roles long ago. The writers who achieve real quality in their work do so entirely under their own energies. And that small minority of writers are now turning to self publishing as an answer to the serious question, what value are publishers adding if they do not nurture quality? Because, if novels are to thrive as a medium in the 21st century, it is only an obsession with quality that will place them among the best storytelling on offer.
One of my very favourite novels hit the Top 100 bestsellers on Amazon Kindle tonight. I looked at the Amazon page for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and found my own review of the book glaring up at me!
‘By far my favourite book of of the year … There isn’t a wasted word, poorly considered paragraph or a single chapter in this high-concept fairytale that doesn’t deliver some new enchantment’ Damien Walter, Guardian
I knew Golem was going to be a big hit about three chapters in to my first reading of the book. I reviewed it initially for SFX magazine and then picked it as one of my titles to look out for in 2014 in my regular column for The Guardian. How could I be so certain after just three chapters? I’ll get to that in about a paragraph.
Golem was obviously not going to be an overnight hit. It was a debut novel, in a market where sales are driven by the name recognition of a “brand” authors. It wasn’t within any clearly defined, popular genre. No epic fantasy, SAS adventure or techno-thriller action here. And Wecker was largely unknown, unlike some debuts that pop out from authors who have 30,000 twitter followers or something of the kind. Nonetheless, I had absolutely zero doubts that this book was going to gather tremendous word of mouth and end up on all kinds of bestseller lists. And it has done just that, hitting the New York Times bestseller lists and picking up a whole bunch of award nominations including a Nebula along the way.
(As this post seems to be largely me boasting about my precognitive author talent spotting abilities, I may as well point out I’ve called the World Fantasy Award two years running with Osama and Alif the Unseen and I will be stunned if Golem is not on this year’s shortlist, and rather suprised if it doesn’t win.)
OK so two paragraphs later, how could I be so certain Golem was going to be a hit?
Because Helene Wecker can really write.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that writing and story can be separated. This idea gets touted a lot in genre fiction, and in sci-fi and fantasy writing in particular. Obviously people want to believe it. Good writing is hard, it takes practice, and it takes time to get on the page. It’s a craft. Genre fiction is often put out in a rush, to short deadlines. It gets pushed toward the a production line model. The product is touted for it’s huge imagination. The blurb will tell you there are dragons and zeppelins and robot armies and all the rest. The cover is often amazing. But then you open the cover and the writing just isn’t there to back up the promises. Because the writing and the story are one and the same thing.
“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” States Kurt Vonnegut’s 4th rule of writing. You may say you don’t agree. But pick up any of the thousands of genre novels published every year and see just how few of the sentences on a given page achieve this, in fact rather basic, measure of accomplishment. Then pick up any writer who succeeds in charming an audience in novel after novel, and I guarantee you’ll find at least 90% of their sentences do one of the above.
Writing as good as Helene Wecker’s is in fact pretty rare. There are a lot of ambitious prose stylists out there. But far fewer writers who can restrain the same level of linguistic skill and apply it to telling a really good story. So when you find writers who both have that talent and that restraint, you can bet money on the fact that their work will find readers. And if its readers you want for your work, I suggest working first and foremost on the quality of your writing above anything else.
Crime author John Connolly condensed down a popular sentiment in to a single tweet recently, that I think is worth unpacking and considering in some detail.
Something has gone very wrong if we'll pay $5 for a greeting card, $3 for gift wrap, but resent paying more than $2.99 for a book.— John Connolly (@jconnollybooks) July 04, 2014
There’s a fundamental problem with the logic underlying Connolly’s argument. And when you work it through you find that the problem sits, not with the people unwilling to pay $2.99 for a book, but with the industry that has devalued the book to that point.
Greetings cards and wrapping paper are consumer goods. You have an immediate need or desire, and purchasing this product meets that need or desire. You need to show a relative you care about their birthday. $5 on a greeting card? Deal. You want to relax for thirty minutes after your big meeting at work. $4 for a mocha latte? Deal. You’re hungry and want something easy to eat. $1 for a tin of beans? Deal.
Books are not consumer goods. What’s the consumer need or desire satisfied by purchasing a classic edition of Baccaccio’s Decameron right this moment? What emotional need is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt likely to serve? Where is the instant gratification in Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming To Dover? I’m not arguing that there isn’t any, but it might only appear in rare and splendid circumstances.
The are common situations where a book can become a consumer purchase. On a long journey a book serves an immediate need, so booksellers of “airport thrillers” do well at train stations and airports. But the further you move from a captive audience satisfying a consumer need or desire, to a free audience whose desires and needs are largely fulfilled, the stranger and more esoteric book buying becomes.
I bought a copy of Home At Grassmere by Dorothy Wordsworth recently. I was drawn to it on the shelf and after a few pages realised the narrative voice reminded me of an old friend. The first time I read Haruki Murakami was because I was sent Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Amazon by mistake. Now he is my favourite writer. I often fall in love with and buy books for obscure, indirect reasons that have nothing to do with the dynamics of consumer marketing. And I’m certainly not alone in this.
But there isn’t much money in selling books to people based on random, obscure chance. So publishers, as businesses, have done their damnedest to turn books in to consumer goods. Modern genres like sci-fi, crime, and horror are all about turning books in to products. Predictable, marketable products. Brand name authors like John Grisham succeed in this environment because they produce books that can be sold like consumer goods. Like a tin of beans, a John Grisham legal thriller can be stacked high and sold cheap.
And so here we are, at a point where books have been so effectively repackaged as consumer goods that consumers now can’t see the qualitative difference between them and a venti cappuccino. If you relentlessly devalue something, even something as intrinsically valuable as a book, it will eventually lose all value.
A whole group of authors including John Grisham, Scott Turow, Clive Cussler and James Patterson wrote a complaint letter to Amazon this week. All these authors have happily exploited the devaluing of the books as a consumer good to make their own personal fortunes. Now, like Connolly, they are wondering what is wrong. Well, sorry to break it to you chaps, but you’re what is wrong. Amazon is just the logical next step in the process of devaluing books you;ve been complicit in your whole careers. Call me a hard hearted bastard, but I struggle to find sympathy for people who are simply reaping what they have sown.
A good writer friend of mine is keen to point out that he does’t just sit around in a smoking jacket, dreaming away the mornings. But maybe he shouldn’t be so keen to demystify the writing life. The wonderful Brainpickings blog collates some of the odder behaviour of writers while they write, but notes that writers are sometimes guilty of embellishing the facts to engineer the myth of their own oddness:
As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:
“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”
There are whispered rumours among older SF fans that Philip K Dick’s spiritual revelations where at least a little exaggerated by the author, perhaps as part of the effort to move from sci-fi to mainstream literary writing. We like the stories writers tell, but in some ways, we like the stories about our writers even more.
Last year I explained to a group of writers attending one of my workshops that much of my writing begins when I am meditating. We got talking on the subject of meditation and how some people perceive their imagination as an external voice talking to them, maybe even the voice of god. Later one of my students asked if I thought my stores came from god. To which I responded, I hope they’d be less often rejected if they came from a divine authority. Jokes, you know. Some weeks later, it seems the rumour had spread, and I sat down with a colleague who asked me if I was really teaching my students to channel god in the classroom.
But maybe I should go with it? Yes, my fictions are the product of divine interventions! But I doubt I would be the first writer to engineer that particular myth.