The Tao Te Ching: ancient wisdom for modern times

Two thousand four hundred years after it was composed, we need the Tao Te Ching‘s lessons in self-awareness more than ever. Little can be said with absolute certainty about the origins of the Tao Te Ching. Consensus suggests it was written around 400BC by one Laozi. Laozi translates simply as “old master” – a hint that the author’s (or authors’) true name has been lost for ever.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Give Up The Day Job & Don’t Have A Backup Plan

The first mistake we all make is telling people – friends, family, lovers – that we want to be writers.

We all do it. And we all get the same advice…

…don’t give up the day job.

…have a backup plan.

And because those people love us, we listen to the advice.

That’s our second mistake.

Anything you do in life that is a) creative, or b) good for you is also always risky. Writing is a risk. And it only gets riskier the further you go down the path. When you tell someone you love you’re doing something risky, they get scared. We’re human beings, we’re full of empathy, especially for those we love. We want the people we love to be happy and safe, not out on their own doing creative crazy things that might get them hurt.

With writing, or anything creative, there’s a second factor at play. EVERYONE WANTS TO BE CREATIVE. Everyone has a dream of being an artist, or a writer, or an explorer, or an industrial tycoon. Creativity in the big sense is hard wired in to the human soul. When you tell someone about your plan to go and do your harebrained creative thing, it reawakens their long lost plan to go and do their own harebrained creative thing.

When you tell some one who loves you you’re going to do something creative, like write, they get scared for you. Then they remember the fear that stopped them doing their own thing. That adds up to a double dose of fear. And so, quite naturally, they give you cautious advice. Don’t give up the day job. Have a backup plan.

But when it comes to daring feats of creativity, a half-arsed commitment is the most likely thing to get you killed. At such times it’s worth asking yourself, what would Yoda say…

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But when it comes to writing, money and fear aren’t you’re best friends, they’re your only friends. Here’s why.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and you need to spend at least 4 of them sleeping. And there are no end of people willing to waste or exploit those 20 something hours of productive time. When it comes down to it, the question “how much do you pay?” is the only really objective way of deciding what to focus your time on. You can spend you’re life writing guest blog posts, publishing stories in small press anthologies and reviewing for the BSFA fanzine. But if they don’t pay, you’re likely wasting your time.

There are any number of things to write. Lots of them are fun. Writing fanfic and Cthulhu mythos stories can be as quick and fun as reading the originals. But where is this taking you? Are these things fun for you? Or do they make your stomach clench when you think about them. Fear is like a compass. It points dead-on at the things you’re supposed to be doing. Because these things matter, and hence can be fucked up. Find whatever scares you the most to write, and write it.

Give up your day job & don’t have a backup plan. I don’t offer this as an easy path. You will probably run out of money and have to get menial jobs to pay the bills. You will likely lose a few boyfriends / girlfriends along the way, but you’ll likely find better ones as well. You’ll certainly have to deal with family dinners and school reunions where you have none of the status symbols that people show off at such things. You might well spend some time feeling scared for the future, but nowhere near as much time as other people spend in misery mourning their unlived life. Seriously, if this is the worst that can happen, what are you waiting for?

Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a challenge to everyone who has ever had a creative dream to overcome resistance and live as there creative self.

Do writers write?

Because sometimes conversations about writing devolve in to carping about who is or is not a writer, some people find it necessary to draw a definitional line in the sand. The most common, and common sense, is that “writers write”.

So if you want to be a writer, you write. If you want to know if you are a writer, ask, are you writing? In many ways, this is admirable advice. Certainly if you want to write, writing is a very good start.

As someone who has made a good chunk of their living as a professional writer for their whole adult life, I can say that in almost all cases, writing professionally will mean writing every day. And for many long hours. Many, many more than you might want to in fact.

But as someone who has also earned a good living both as a teacher of writing, and as a facilitator who uses writing to help people with emotional and personal development, I am very resistant to the bullish advice dished out by professional writers.

I’m also a runner. If I breakdown the advice “runners run”, it sheds some light on the problem with “writers write”. Yes, there are professional runners. But no one would dispute that professional runners are in fact the outliers of running as an activity. There is a  spectrum of runners, with professionals at one very far end. Also on that spectrum are – fitness runners, children playing tag, people running from bears, gentle runners recovering from heart attacks, overweight people running to lose weight, obese people running to get down to overweight, people with severe disabilities, and so on. Some people run because it is their job. Some people run for improvement. Some run for survival. And some run because running it is so hard for them, that doing it at all is an immense personal achievement.

Writers also exist on a spectrum. There are professional writers. There are people who write for improvement – who keep a journal or write morning pages. There are lots of people who write because they have to, because it’s the only way they know to quiet the voice inside. And there are people who write because it is brutally hard for them – because they didn’t get an education when they were young, because they’ve worked 25 years as an office administrator that doesn’t leave a lot of space for the imagination, because they have four kids and the half hour a month they find to write is really all there is.

Like running, writing is only secondarily a profession. It is primarily a fundamental human capacity. We write primarily because we can, because exercising our language is as fulfilling as exercising our legs. And in exercising our capacities, we grow. Run every day and you’ll become a better runner. Write every day you’ll become a better writer. Become a better anything, you become a better human. Professional writers write every day, but they certainly didn’t start out doing so. Maybe they had the good fortune, as I did, to be born to a parent who read and wrote with a passion, so picked up the habit very young. But I know writers who only came to it in their 20s or 30s. Who when they started could only write a few times a month, and only focus for a few minutes at a time. Like anything, these capacities take practice. As professional writers it’s gracious to remember that we stand at the end of a long path of growth and development. It’s our duty to help others along that path, not denigrate them for not having yet made the journey.

Jonathan Franzen is an easily understood genius

freedomAt some point Jonathan Franzen decided to write easily understood works of literary genius. It was likely while writing his 1994 essay Perchance to Dream which tries to find some purpose for the novel in the technological consumer culture of the late 20th / early 21st century (alternate title “Why Bother?”) It’s a decision that has made Franzen the most successful literary novelist of recent decades. And also one that has won me as a reader.

*There may be some spoilers ahead. It’s not the kind of book that is easily spoiled. But if you worry about such things, you have been warned.*

Freedom is a big book about…freedom. It’s a family saga, although in truth while it appears to follow the Berglund family over a number of decades, it is actually all about one pivotal relationship at the heart of that family’s life and identity. The Berglund’s are a midwest American upper middle class family, which is so much Franzen’s societal stomping ground he’s now frequently called on it as a limitation by reviewers. Lots of the story unfolds during the college years of the central characters, so Franzen can also enjoy writing a campus novel. There’s a love triangle, and at heart the book is a very moving story about the relative value of love, marriage and commitment.

And, of course, freedom.

Franzen tips the reader off that this is a book about freedom by calling the book Freedom. He’s trying hard to make sure you don’t miss this, because without having it front and centre in your mind, you’re not going to enjoy the many clever ways Franzen explores the theme of freedom. This is of course an American novelist, writing an American book about American culture. Freedom is the foundational myth of America, the “home of the free.” So literally any observation of contemporary American life an also be re-tooled as an observation on what it is to be a “free people”.

The large but not sprawling cast of Freedom – Walter and Patty Berglund, their two children Joey and Jessica, their oldest friend and rock musician Richard Katz, their relatives and in-laws and – pivotally – the supporting chorus of neighbours Franzen employs for comic relief – all represent different approaches to living a free life. Or not. In response to their freedom The Berglunds choose a not very healthy but very common form of codependent relationship – marriage. Richard Katz chooses total independence, and all the loneliness and craziness that comes with it. Neither is vindicated in their choice, they are merely different responses to the existential problem posed by freedom.

We know Franzen is doing this, because whenever he is done illustrating the conundrum that is freedom in a particular character, he slips in a sentence or two about being free, or living freely, or having freedom.

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

OK. The instances of free and freedom aren’t actually highlighted in the book. But they may as well be. How stupid would you have to be for the word freedom not to come flying off the page at you while reading a book called Freedom? Which is precisely the point. Franzen knows how stupid we are, and he knows how much he has to compensate for the stupidity of the average reader.

Franzen occasionally confuses his argument by using the word freedom in an entirely literal and non-thematic context. And I’m confusing my argument by being a person regularly guilty of extreme snark who now sounds like he is being snarky when actually he’s being 100% sincere. We need writers like Jonathan Franzen who can say intelligent things and aren’t too proud to highlight them in neon markers for a readership who simply aren’t very good at reading. I’m a professional book reviewer, and *I* need this, so I hate to think what the average bloke on the street needs.

We are a culture of surface and sensation. The cultural activities we actually do willingly are things of immense visual spectacle – stadium sports, blockbuster movies, widescreen home video games etc etc – and they in turn are experiences of intense sensation. We like food that burns our mouth with spice, drinks saturated in sugar and acid, news that soaks us with fear sweat and dramas that make us shriek and weep at the villainy and heroism on screen. We fill our real lives with fast cars, high power careers, extreme sports and hallucinogenic drugs. All of it, all of it, every last shred, to escape from the mundane life we would have to live if these things did not distract us.

Literary fiction does none of these things. It is, arguably, the antithesis of surface and sensation. It is the stripping away of fantasy and delusion to take us back to mundane reality. And it does this to help us see that it’s in the actual lives we are living that all the most valuable things are to be found. Love. Relationships. Emotion. Meaning. Hope. But to get there we have to re-engage with all the mundane stuff we’ve been avoiding. Lost love. Relationships gone sour with lack of care. All the emotions of grief, fear, hate, anger and the rest that we try so hard to avoid feeling. But without feeling them we can’t find any meaning or hope. It’s why literary fiction so often seems gloomy and depressing. It’s taking us back to our own gloomy depressing reality, without which we can’t find any true joy or happiness.

This is the first reason why literary fiction is a hard sell. It’s so much easier to escape in to a fantasy than to face reality, and there are whole genres of fantasy for readers who would rather do that. The second reason is somewhat more prosaic. As a culture of surface and sensation, we simply aren’t conditioned to look at the subtle internal life that literary fiction directs us to. In fantasy grief is solved when the hero kills the villain and saves the princess. In reality, grief is never solved. Things and people lost generally stay lost, and every time we lose something else the grief gets worse. That’s reality. It’s hard. Literary fiction can help show us – as Freedom does beautifully – how grief can be transformed in to redemption and renewal. But for those of us conditioned to look for a comforting fantasy, following the subtleties of real emotional experience and human behaviour is hard.

Franzen understands that for the potent medicine of literature to get through to readers, it sometimes has to be blunt. It’s tempting for literary writers to make the subtleties of emotion and experience ever more subtle. Maggie goes to the kitchen and washes a mug, and from this we’re supposed to divine that Maggie has found piece with the loss of her elder brother some years before. Well, frankly, most of us aren’t going to get that. We need writers like Franzen who’ll already have told us repeatedly that this was Johnny’s favourite mug, and will then have Johnny’s pet pitbull enter the kitchen with a note tucked in its collar from Johnny that he wrote as a joke just before dying which ironically lists all the things he finds annoying about his kid sister. Now, some of the audience at least are following along.

Freedom is one long series of well placed notes strapped to pitbulls. It’s a highly engineered work of fiction about important and subtle realities of life that almost anyone will be able to read with pleasure and take at least something from. In a world that seems to have fewer meaningful stories, and ever more escapist fantasies, that makes Freedom a book of immense power and value.

The Death of Advertising

Autoplay video ads are popping up all over the internet. Facebook will be putting them in your feed soon (yet another reason to vacate Facebook for any serious purpose) But don’t take this as a sign of behemoth advertising dominating the internet. It’s the last gasp of a dying industry.

The real money in advertising isn’t in selling products, but in selling brands. Mass production and automation mean that, with the exception of only a very few items, most products are available very cheaply. If you need a pair of decent running shoes you can get them for around a fifth of the price of fashion statement Nikes. And the same is true across our weirdly out of whack consumer culture.

To keep the appearance of scarcity and hence value in their essentially valueless products, corporations employ branding. The Nike brand attaches sublime and transcendent value to crappy running shoes. Buy Nike and you aren’t just buying shoes, you’re buying an identity in the better world of the consumer culture. Buy a Breitling watch and you’re rubbing off just a little bit of World War 2 fighter pilot glory on your sad ass mid-level sales executive life.

Advertising exists as an industry only because of branding. It’s the talented creatives in advertising agencies – and one must concede the immense creative talented wasted in the flogging of consumer goods to the easily lead – who create the fantasies that establish brands in our imagination. Which is the only place they exist. And for five decades or so advertising has flourished on the back of the most powerful fantasy fulfilment device in human history.

The television is a spectacularly good platform for brand advertising. The vast glowing screen literally puts the viewer in to a state of semi-hypnosis, very similar to starring in to a flickering fire. In this suggestive state they (you) sit for hours watching channels of programming to induce specific emotional states – excitement, happiness, pathos and the like. “Interruption Advertising” can be inserted in to your mind at a time you’re must likely to be influenced. So, if that advertisement tells you young men are only attractive to young women if sprayed in Axe body spray, you’re likely to believe them and go buy some. Sex, fear, power and status are powerful components of advertising, but it’s the platform of television that carries them in to your subconscious dream state.

The internet is a shit platform for brand advertising. We look at it on tiny screens while doing other things, many of them also on those tiny screens. When we look at a big screen, we now usually have a tiny screen as well. Once audiences segue to the internet, they move to a medium where their attention may well never be singularly focused on one thing again. Worse yet for advertisers and their clients, the internet is a GREAT platform for product advertising. If I want a pair of running shoes I can find the ideal ones for my needs at the lowest price with a few google searches. And worse again, because the internet throws people in to extended social networks, it tends to keep people busy. The gaping void of need that brands cater to gets filled up with other things.

Advertisers and the brands they work for are getting desperate. That is the key message to take from the autoplay adds now populating websites. They are trying harder and harder to apply “Interruption Advertising” on the internet, and it simply isn’t working. The contest for your attention is being won by crazy cat videos, circular political arguments and checking your friend’s status updates. No one has time for brands any more, and the brands are starting to panic.

When brands eventually pull out of this model of advertising, which will happen much sooner than most expect, a large portion of the internet and the bulk of the advertising industry will implode. The legacy media brands are clinging on to reduced revenue streams from brand advertising, and you can expect many of the old TV networks and newspapers to snuff it when the internet advertising bubble bursts. And the effects of that bubble popping could reach very far indeed.

The answers to 4 questions

Today I reached 4444 followers on Twitter. I wish I could claim to have barely noticed noticed, but I do have a sneaky peak at my follower count at least a few times a week. I *almost* reached this milestone around a month ago, hitting 4443, close, but no cigar.

To celebrate I promised to answer 4 questions on any subject entirely honestly. Here are the 4 I chose from those put to me, with 100% honest answers.

What is your quest? Via @FredKiesche

For some years now I’ve been attempting to write a book. I’m fairly sure my motives for wanting to write a book are flawed IE I’d like it to make me wealthy and widely loved. However, around 18 months ago I realised that, as weak and materialist as my motives might be, this wasn’t something I was going to get over or grow out of so the only solution was to actually do it and then live with the consequences. I am now writing something that might at some point qualify as a book. Progress is slow because fiction writing is by far the hardest thing I know how to do, and there is literally no scale of self-constructed drama I won’t inflict on my myself to provide an alternative to actually sitting down and writing the book. (See below) On the upside my physical fitness is skyrocketing because running has become one of my favourite ways of not writing the book. You’ll notice I’m blogging prolifically at the moment, another trusty way of not writing the book. Should I announce that I’m running for political office or founding a religion, those will also be ways of not writing the book.

When can we read your interview with Neal Stephenson? Via @molosovsky

Over the course of some weeks over the summer I conducted a detailed interview with legendary SF author Neal Stephenson via email. Because this was for the UK launch of Stephenson’s non-fiction collection Some Remarks, I pitched the idea to a high profile technology publication, who were very keen. There’s a certain chemistry at work in any interview. Earlier this year I did a phone interview with Harlan Ellison. It went spectacularly well and the resulting published interview was really strong. The chemistry in the interview with Neal Stephenson was difficult throughout. I wanted to bring out his thoughts on current stories in technology and shaped my questions towards that goal. He was very reluctant to play futurist. There is some fascinating material in the interview, but the completed write-up was very different to the idea I initially discussed with the editor at the technology publication. The interview has now been re-edited twice for various reasons, and is still sitting with the editor. So. It may or may not appear at the original publication, although that seems unlikely now given the time elapsed. Or I might find an alternative venue for it.

What are you most afraid of? Via @AplhaChar

I think all humans are most afraid of dying, and whilst studying buddhism has changed my perceptions of death quite profoundly, I certainly can’t claim to have overcome it as a fear. However, I am at least equally afraid of not living. Somewhere in the tension between the two, life happens.

Will you read my work? Via @TattyAnn

As @TattyAnn is a student on the creative writing certificate I will certainly be reading her work for assessment. Beyond my teaching commitments, I’m only reading for my column and occasional paid review work, and a lot less of that than I was. So, unless I want to read your work for my own pleasure, the answer is currently no.

Take Off : 4 steps to going nomad

Before I made the jump to living and working as a digital nomad, I had been thinking about the idea for 18 months. As is so often the case in my life, I didn’t realise I was actually planning and preparing to go nomad, but on an unconscious level that’s exactly what I was doing. In retrospect I can see the steps I was taking that meant, when in early 2013 I made the decision to hit the road, I was ready to go just a few months later. I think these four basic steps are likely common among most digital nomads, in varying amounts.

Save Money – Even if everything works as planned in your transition to digital nomadism, getting to that point will mean front loading many of life’s expenses in to the period before you set off. Flights, insurance, immunisation, equipment and numerous other expenses will mount up before you start travelling. And almost certainly, your plans won’t work out. New ones will appear, and better ones. But you’ll always be glad of a financial buffer. Most nomads have at least 3 months living expenses saved, many a year or more.

Location Location Location – The most common early failure for many digital nomads is travelling to too many locations in too short a time. Travel is both exciting and time consuming. These are not good qualities for productivity. Slow travel is the key to combining work and interesting locations. Three months is a good period of time to stay in one location, enough time to complete some solid work and replenish your finances before heading off again. But which location? Low cost combined with high standard of living are the key metrics for digital nomad locations. Chiang Mai scores very highly in both, and now has the bonus of a bustling nomad community. But there are many other options.

Have A Business Plan – What are you travelling to these locations to do? As a writer I can take my work anywhere. My primary project is to finish work on my novel. Secondarily I’m continuing a range of freelance writing and journalism that in the short term is covering my living and travel expenses. I also have two other non-writing projects I want to complete in the next year. Many nomads are bootstrapping apps or business ideas which a year or two of living in a much cheaper location is facilitating. Whether your ambitions are business centred or more creative, a clear plan can help to keep you focussed while many things are changing around you.

Build Your Networks – You’re leaving behind many things to go nomad, not least friends and family. But the age of social media means you can stay in contact. My Facebook account is dedicated to close friends and family, and Twitter is also becoming very useful for close relationships. But these are also great tools for building new networks. For two months before heading to Chiang Mai I had open searches in Twitter for the city and related terms. By the time I got here I already knew dozens of people on the ground and have had fun getting to meet them in person. And of course, whatever business you’re building while travelling, set aside time and effort to get to know the network of people already involved in that area.

There’s a lot more to say about the different kinds of digital nomads, and the different kinds of businesses they are building, but I’ll keep those for future posts.

Your Government vs. Your Tech Provider

We might be facing the most largest tectonic shift in the power structures in the modern era since World War One finally ended the old empires of Europe. But this isn’t a conflict between the interests of nation states. It’s a power struggle over you, and the question of to who you owe your primary loyalty as a citizen. And it’s playing out between your government and your tech provider.

The NSAs invasive surveillance techniques may, on the surface, seem like a national security story. And in one regard it is. But the real national security threat is not terrorism. The real power struggle here is between the established power of the nation state, and the emerging powers of what we might begin to call the “technological state”.

Today Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL made a major counterstrike in this conflict by backing radical legislation to reign in the powers of the NSA. This marks a transition point. For at least the last two years the tech giants have conceded to government demands for their cooperation in surveillance. Now these companies are testing whether, in the ultimate measure, their power is greater than the NSAs. At least to determine who can access their user’s data. To have taken this step, they must already believe they are likely to win.

The history of human politics shows us forming ever larger political groupings. From family cluster to tribe. From tribe to kingdom. From kingdom to empire. From empire to nation state. From nation state to super national identities – the United States of American, the European Union, the Association of South East Asian States. But there is every reason to suppose that digital information technology will allow the next stage of this political evolution to transcend geographic boundaries. The technological state will not exist on any map of the planet. Instead it’s border are much more like to be plotted by shared economic interests and political ideals.

Today Google provides your information (search) and your communication (email). Tomorrow it could easily provide your transportation (self-driving cars) and your currency (bitcoin or some variation of the same). These are all major functions of government, quickly being filtered away to tech companies, for the simple reason that these organisations are structurally specialised to develop the needed technology. It makes perfect sense that these competing power structures begin to test one another’s boundaries. The NSA story is simply among the earliest and most high profile examples.

This isn’t to say your government is going away. But it is almost certain to cede large parts of its powers to the emerging technological states. Will you one day have a Google passport? Will you be a citizen of Apple? Some might argue you already are. Perhaps the more important question is, which of these powers should you support? If your ultimate interest is in individual freedom, it seems at this time that the self-interest of the tech giants is more likely to provide the future you need. If your concern is more socially focussed, to the greater good of the community, the rhetoric of governments is a stronger siren call. But realistically, it’s only by keeping such great powers balanced against one another that most people will remain free and society will retain its cohesion. At the moment it seems government has accrued a little too much power, but no doubt sooner rather than later the tech giants will need radically reigning in. But not today.

Why stories compel the human soul

Stories don’t just distract us. Walk in to the average home and see how many ways we give ourselves to escape in to stories. Break down the 24 hours of the day and see how many of them we spend immersed in fictional worlds. Stories are a compulsion. For some, an addiction. If politicians ever looked seriously at them, we might have a War on Stories to add to the War on Drugs.

Why are we compelled by stories?

Hindu philosophy has a few things to say about stories. In Hinduism all you are is a story. A story being lived out by the super-consciousness of the universe which, given infinite time, will live out all possible stories. Hinduism calls that super-consciousness the Atman. The Atman – which we filter in to Western theology in bastardised form as god and / or the soul – is the creator of everything. Not because they make everything, but because they dream everything. After an eternity being super-novas or Emperors or planets or William Shatner gets boring. And the Atman, seeking variety, decides to be you. Or indeed me. Or your unremarkably dull housemate Colin who collects ring-binders. You might struggle to see why the Atman would dream itself the life of Colin, but given infinite time all things become more or less equally interesting. Even ring-binders.

We – that is the part of us that thinks we are who we are, rather than an aspect of the dreaming Atman super-consciousness – do not have infinite time. We believe our selves finite and we believe we live within constraints. In stories we can escape our constraints. We can be other people. Live other lives. Explore strange new worlds. We can be William Shatner. Or, at least, Captain Kirk. For the length of the story we are free of our self. Then we go back to being who we are. Wondering about Colin, and his odd affection for ring-binders.

We might feel a slight disappointment. A come down after the trip. But we shouldn’t.

When the story begins the Atman is FASCINATED. In some ways all the Atman is, the very essence of its being, is fascination with stories. That’s why you seem to disappear in to the story. The Atman, which is you, the part of you that is truly aware, is temporarily fascinated by the story unfolding on the screen, or stage, or in the book, or comic page. The Atman that once dreamed it was you, now dreams it is Captain Kirk. But. It has been Captain Kirk. It has been Captain Kirk a lot. And after an hour or two, it gets bored. It wants to be you again. Because you, of all the wonders of the universe, are the most fascinating story of all.

(This is, incidentally, why Hindu stories like the Mahabharat are so fascinatingly dramatic. And epicly long. They’re trying to tempt the Atman out of you and keep it forever.)

All our genres be broken

Take a look at this marvellous think piece by Gareth L Powell on the problems with defining science fiction by its Golden Age origins.

(I should add that the Golden Age isn’t the origin of science fiction any more than McDonalds was the origin of the burger. It’s just the moment it got reduced in to a commodity.)

I’m a far more severe critic of the genre than Mr Powell. If the twitching body of the SF genre was in the boot of my Cadillac begging for one more chance at life, I’d put it out of its misery and give it an unmarked grave in the desert. Most of what was most interesting about science fiction happened before the term was coined, and most of what was most of interesting since has been desperately trying to escape the choke hold the label has over imaginative literature.

But fantasy is no better. Fantasy is one of the most basic functions of human psychology. The debate about the the value of fantasy, or the lack of value, has raged across philosophy and literature. The novel, beginning with Don Quixote and running to the present day, is a form implicitly concerned with the interrelation of fantasy and reality. And from this the fantasy genre has coagulated as a faux medieval setting and a pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history.

Horror may be the worst of all. I enjoy reading some horror novels and there’s a renaissance of interesting writing in the genre coming up this year. But none of it is remotely horrific. Much of it is off putting, some of it repugnant. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don’t find unexpected interruptions of reality by the weird at all scary. In fact, I kind of enjoy them. I’d love to find a coven of occultists in my home town. Those are the kind of people I’d like to go for a drink with.

The three central genres of imaginative fiction are broken. They’re an albatross around the neck of writers naturally drawn to the imagination who find themselves shoved in to one or other of these outmoded marketing categories. Let’s be shot of them, and find better ways to shape the wonders of the imagination for today’s generation of readers.