British Fantasy Awards 2012 Results

The British Fantasy Awards have been announced. I was happy to be invited to be a judge this year. It was fun, and I got to read a bunch of good books. or re-read in many cases! Here are the winners:

Best Novel (Fantasy): Jo Walton’s Among Others

Best Novel (Horror): Adam Nevill’s The Ritual

Best Novella: Lavie Tidhar’s Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God

Best Anthology: The Weird (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)

Best Collection: Robert Shearman’s Everyone’s Just So, So Special

Best Short Story: Angela Slatter’s “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter”

Best Independent Press: Chomu Press

Film: Midnight in Paris

Best Comic: Locke and Key

Best Non-Fiction: Grant Morrison’s Supergods

Best Newcomer: Kameron Hurley

As they have only just been announced there’s been limited chances for response. The Pornokitsch reviews blog make a valid observation about the lack of winners ‘in the room’ at the award ceremony. Perhaps a more relevant critique when one thinks about the controversy surrounding last year’s awards. A controversy which I responded to at the time with a suggestion for a unified SF/F award in the UK.

It’s worth noting that none of these issues were in the mandate of either judges of BFS voters to consider. We set out to award the best fantasy in each category, and I feel very happy we achieved that.

No doubt there will be further debate about the role of both the British Fantasy Awards and their relationship to other awards in the field. As previously noted, the internet has made the SF community much more interconnected across international and genre boundaries. It has changed the role both of fan societies and awards. I’d love to know what people think awards in the field generally need to achieve and how we get there from here.

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Social media only makes critics more influential

Here’s a not widely discussed fact. Some of the established publishers we now recognise were set up in part as elaborate tax dodging ruses by wealthy people whose real business interests were elsewhere. A little publishing house could run at a loss and still help make a profit by reducing the tax bill. And if you could give your wife an advance for her little novel…or your friends wife…or possibly your mistress…well all the better.

Extreme examples perhaps. But it’s an unfortunate truth that for most of its history the novel has been the plaything of the rich. And while great writers aren’t often born from wealth, middling ones more than often are, and the ranks of the publishing profession are dominated by people with at least a little wealth behind them. As the publishing industry has professionalised, and as society as a whole has become more meritocratic, access has widened considerably. But it’s still dominated by people from a small number of universities, and hence a rather narrow background.

The great leveller in this equation is the internet. Without blogs and social media I can say with certainty I would never have had any of the opportunities to write and publish that I have had so far. So it’s hard for me to interpret the attack by Peter Stothard, chair of that bastion of literary snobbery the Booker prize, on blogging as harmful to literature, as anything more than an entitled whinge. Stothard’s rhetoric is so one sided and ignorant that we might suspect he is out to troll the blogosphere as a publicity exercise for an award that barely generates any significant publicity beyond the book world itself. The Booker increasingly relies on the book bloggers it is attacking to generate any buzz at all. But however calculated the trolling, it reflects a real agenda.

The meat of Stothard’s argument – that blogging is drowning out the voices of professional literary critics – is demonstrable nonsense.  Critics who understand how to communicate in the new social media sphere are more influential than ever – I’d put forward Lev Grossman as a prime example of a critic who straddles old and new. The noise generated by the internet means we need effective signal boosting from curators of all kinds, a role critics are ideally suited to fill. But that role has also diversified. Neil Gaiman is a more influential taste maker than any single critic. The roles of writer, editor and critic are increasingly different hats worn by the same people.

None of this is communicated in Stothard’s argument. Likely because Stothard is simply blind to it. And perhaps wilfully so. The literature he sees under threat is a lovely walled garden, for those privileged few allowed to play in it. The online literary world is a vast complex jungle that demands an entirely different mindset from all those navigating it. Stothard is used to a world where a small handful of people could dictate the agenda for everyone else. Now literature is diversifying, becoming thousands of interrelated conversations that no one person or powerful clique can control. That jungle is more competitive and perhaps less friendly than the old literary world, but it is much more open to anyone with the drive to be a part of it. The critics who succeed in that jungle will be the ones worth hearing, not the ones who rely on an entitled background.

 

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How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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Live-writing challenges the writerly ego…which is a very good thing

The rules were simple. Keep to the scheduled study hours, always wash your mug, and under no circumstances touch the coltan. So far Aidan had kept a clean sheet on all counts. Now he was planning to commit the only serious possible infraction. And that did not mean coffee rings on work surfaces.

Aidan’s Rock

Which is the first paragraph of my short story Aidan’s Rock, live-written on a Google document in response to prompts from friends on Twitter. You can read the full finished draft here. Writing a story with up to fifty observers not just looking over your shoulder, but directly at the words appearing on the page, definitely added something to writing this story. But what?

The Guardian pick up on live-writing here in response to a fantasy writer producing her novel live, also on a Google document. There’s certainly a potential car crash element to the live-writing experience, which writing an entire epic fantasy in the form might be playing to. Like the conversation around self-publishing, a lot of the conversation about live-writing is likely to be ‘look at how naff this is!’

Which, being a slightly perverse individual, is part of why I like it. Writers like to spin a myth around their work. They all want you to believe they are the authors of Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Genius. It’s part of the writerly sales schtick. And who can blame us? Writing is a tough profession. Cultivating the appearance of being just that bit clever than the common mortal is how you make it pay. But that doesn’t stop it being bollocks. I quite like the idea that someone looks at my half formed prose and thinks ‘hey this guy’s just an average schmo like me!’, because I am. So are you. So are all those other people. The only difference is that writers do the work of writing, and getting good at writing.

And yeah, I’m a bit of a show off and like attention. That’s the other reason.

That’s why Harlan Ellison made a habit of climbing in to bookstore windows and banging out a story. Because it was good publicity and he was a show-off, and because it showed people writers were mortal and what they did was write, and that writing was not and is not some higher thing. Its just writing. But it only happens because of hard work. So let’s show the writer working, faults and all.

My Apple iPhone 5 Prediction

I don’t often comment on tech issues, but I’m a real gadget buff and keep a close eye on tech news. The Apple event scheduled for 12th September is creating the usual vast storm of media interest, possibly even more than usual. Most people are certain a new iPhone 5 will be announced. Some people are predicting a new 7″ iPad Mini to compete with the Google Nexus 7. Some people are even predicting a revised iPod Touch and other iPod models. Here’s my prediction:

Apple will launch a range of iPhone / iPad devices with 4.5″ / 7″ / 10.5″ (approximately) screen sizes. All of them will be phone capable.

Why? There’s clearly a convergence point upon us where a phone and a tablet are becoming the same device from the perspective of consumers. Apple’s only serious competition are from Android devices which have demonstrated a hunger for a variety of screen sizes with devices like the Nexus 7.  By providing a clear variety of screen sizes Apple will dominate the entire sector for another 2-3 years ahead.

My two cents. What are your predictions?

Why Sense of Wonder sucks

Many writers of fantasy fiction describe their work in terms of its ability to evoke a ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the reader, and go out of their way to find sources of ‘wonder’ to energise their stories. This is self-defeating in the most serious kind of way.

Stories that attempt to create a ‘Sense of Wonder’ fall in to a variety of traps. They return to ideas and images that evoked the sensation at some time in the writer. So we keep writing about manned missions to Mars, long after the idea has gone stale. They enter the escalating arms race of weird ideas. A troll isn’t good enough any more, it’s gotta be a steam powered were-troll…with laser eyes! And this exacerbates an already problematic tendency in fantastic fiction. You can’t actually create that steam powered were-troll in the readers imagination. You can try, with paragraphs of descriptive prose. But they’re far more likely to evoke boredom than wonder.

Trying to create ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a reader’s imagination is like trying to make the rabbit actually materialise out of your sleeve. Or believing you really can psychically intuit which number I’m thinking of. (42!) Magic tricks exist in the mind of the audience. The magician doesn’t create the trick, he plays on the fact that we desperately want to experience it, and will overlook his sleight of hand to do so.

A boy looking at a daisy through a magnifying glass can feel a perfect ‘Sense of Wonder’. It’s not the daisy’s doing, it’s all inside the boy. The other thing we call ‘Sense of Wonder’ is awe. We feel awe when we see things as they really are. You walk past millions of daisies without feeling awe. But when you stop to look, to REALLY look, then awe arises.

The writers job is just to make the reader stop and look. Leave the ‘Sense of Wonder’ to us.