Category Archives: Essays

Short and longform explorations of interesting ideas.

The battle for geek culture

As a fan of fantasy fiction, it’s been entertaining watching mainstream cultural critics’ baffled responses to Game of Thrones, which has surprised many by becoming the biggest show on TV this year. Gina Bellafante of the New York Times was among the first to come a cropper when she made the rash statement that no woman could ever enjoy the show, only to find herself hounded across the internet by legions of female fantasy fans.

Read more @ Guardian books.

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Look after your brain. They don’t issue new ones.

Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player of all time. American chess champion at 14, grandmaster at 15, world champion at 28. A brilliant but brief career cut short by schizophrenia. By the time of his death in 2008 Fischer was a ranting, anti-semetic caricature of insanity.

There are a number of possible reasons why Bobby Fischer went mad. Genetics perhaps. An unbalanced upbringing. The pressures of celebrity. The possibility his paranoia regarding CIA and KGB plots to control him was less than 100% paranoid. But the idea I find most credible is put forward in the documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World, that Fischer’s insanity was intrinsic to his greatness, both caused by diving too far in to the near infinite complexity of chess.

It is estimated that there are the same number of potential moves in chess as there are atoms in the entire solar system. “Look in to the void, the void looks back in to you” as Nietzsche said. And the infinite complexity of chess is a void of a kind. The mind can contemplate it forever and never reach a conclusion. Which raises the very real possibility that the mind and brain will work themselves in to states of madness in the attempt.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy suggests that many mental health disorders including depression and schizophrenia can be caused by cyclical rumination. Thoughts turn over and over in the mind, literally overworking the brain which becomes physically exhausted, running out of receptor chemicals which support neurone communication. In the short term this produces negative mental states. Over time it can cause irreparable damage. Thinking too much can literally drive you insane.

A complex system like chess or a hard math problem can do this. But so can your emotions. Intense unhappiness, anger or traumatic experiences can drive the mind in to downward cycles of rumination. There is often no answer to be found to these emotions intellectually. All the thinking serves to do is exhaust and possibly damage the brain, and exacerbate the problem. Which is why not thinking about a complex problem or emotional situation is often the first step to finding the answer. The brain recovers its chemical balance, and unconscious processes that do much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of cognition provide an answer.

A novel, or any sophisticated work of art, can be thought of as both a very complex AND emotion centred problem. Your mind is trying to track all kinds of patterns on levels of plot and theme, whilst also experiencing the heightened emotional states common place in fiction. It’s worth considering that if, as many writers do, you find yourself affected by depression or other mental health problems, while they may have many extrinsic causes, they may also be intrinsically related to the writing project at hand. And it’s also worth considering ways of looking after your mind and brain whilst working on any major project.

A few ways of avoiding mental exhaustion whilst writing:

1. Write on the page, not off it.
If you find yourself thinking about the story at all times of day and night, try putting these thoughts on hold and keeping them for the periods when you are actually writing

2. Take regular breaks.
And actually stop thinking about the story during them. Experience some real life instead.

3. Is the project too difficult?
This can be a hard thing to admit. But our intellectual powers grow with practice. If you are struggling to write the project, you may just not have the technical or intellectual skills for it yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Game of Thrones. George R R Martin had decades of experience in fiction and screenplays before he tackled an epic work. If he hadn’t, he might well now be a gibbering wreck now too!

4. Sleep
One of the things about sleep deprivation is that it masks its own effects. Chief among which are bad judgement, which can persuade you you’re actually practicing good judgement. Quality of sleep is also important. Hence why that coffee is a bad idea, as stimulants interfere with your deep sleep patterns.

5. Meditation
A useful practice for a healthy mind in general, but particularly if practiced immediately before you write. We all bring an immense amount of mental clutter to each writing session. Learning what it is can help you put it to one side and focus on the task at hand.

How to bend the masses to your will with words alone

The internet, being composed of 50% text and 50% raw naked ambition, is full of how-tos and guidelines on ways to manipulate the written word to achieve your raw naked ambitions. They are called things like How to Write Compelling Content for the Web or 73 Ways to Manipulate the Weak Willed With the Power of Your Words.

But if you really want to push people around with the pure force of language then I suggest turning to a true master of the medium, the ancient philosopher Aristotle. We tend to think of these long dead philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the fathers of all things democratic and hence good. But Aristotle’s version of democracy was mostly about the Greek nobility voting to decide what to do with the latest batch of slaves or which tribe to conquer next. One thing Aristotle did well was give his wealthy patrons advice on how to use the power of rhetoric to bend the uneducated masses to their will. And if you wish to do the same you could do worse than follow Aristotle’s three part structure for truly persuasive text…Ethos! Pathos! Logos!

Join the Rhetoric of Story and learn the 7 foundational skills of persuasive storytelling.

Ethos!
This is where you establish your credibility as a speaker. It is the foundation that your whole argument rests upon. Logically, it shouldn’t actually matter what the credibility of the speaker is if their argument is correct. But in reality it is often more important than anything else. Experience, qualifications, expertise. Just a few of the weapons you can deploy to prove that you are, in fact, the Man. (Or the Woman.) But don’t overdo it. There’s nothing people hate more than a smart-ass.

Pathos!
The bit where you establish an emotional connection to your audience. You know like in X-Factor where the wannabe pop star tells you they wannabe famous so their dead second aunt Petunia will be proud of them? Pathos. Of a blunt and obvious kind. But even more sophisticated appeals to the emotions all come down to the same basic technique, whereby the speaker establishes that he is just like the rabble he is speaking to. This is why you see politicians doing things like rolling up their shirts sleeves, or telling you for apparently no reason about the summer they spent working in a shop before they became part of the social elite. They are just like you and me, see? If you can establish pathos effectively the battle is as good as won.

Logos!
This is the logical bit where you explain why what you are saying is correct. Ironically, it’s by far the least important part of the argument. If you have your ethos and pathos down, you can get the mob to do most anything. So the real purpose of of the logical bit of your argument is to tell your audience what it is you want them to do. Or, if there are critics in your audience, provide some bullet proofing against their accusations that all you’ve done is stand up and say what a great bloke you are (ethos) and that your aunt Petunia just died (pathos). In fact, if you provide a bit of wonky logic your critics will focus their efforts on pointing out just how wonky, which they can do to their hearts content because it won’t actually impact the brain washed masses under the spell of you ethos + logos.

WARNING!
Be careful with this, it’s some powerful shit. It might sound great to have a brainwashed mob obeying your every command, but I can assure you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Also, if you do it too transparently the ignorant masses will notice you are manipulating them and turn on you. Ideally you need a good Public School (Private School for American readers) education to teach you the nuance of social manipulation. But hey, even without that you can have fun bending the unwashed masses to your will!

The Unspecified Reader

[pullquote]I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running

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So a captain is married to her ship, and a novelist is married to her readers. Earlier this week I wrote about the social artist in my column for The Guardian, and collected some irate responses in return. What about the loner artist? What about us guys and gals who want to sit alone in our bedrooms and explore the inside of our own craniums in intimate detail. I feel certain there are any number of writers who just want to do this and nothing and I raise no objection to their doing just so. But when we talk about what it is that takes a writer from their bedroom, in to the minds and imaginations of thousands or millions of other people, it has to be some intense fascination with that unspecified number of readers. Social media gives that fascination form. Writers can’t leave Twitter alone because it provides 24 hour access to the unspecified reader who in the dark ages of print were only available through books. There has to be something in the psychology of a writer that makes the unspecified reader more important to them than any other relationship.

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Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.

Why English culture is bewitched by magic

From Merlin to Harry Potter, English magic has a long tradition. But what does it say about today’s culture?

English occultist, bohemian and author Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”. Crowley’s will was aided by the inheritance age 11 of a tidy fortune, and took him on a hedonistic ride through a life of sex, drugs and occult practice. Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, founder of the mystery religion of Thelema, self declared spiritual master and Magus and, significantly, accomplished chess player, Crowley revelled in his notoriety as “the wickedest man alive”. The Great Beast’s polyamorous lifestyle would barely contend for such a title in today’s more liberal and permissive world, and the philosophy of ordering your world in line with your will is one that seems entirely accepted in our individualist society.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Aleister Crowley
Cover of Aleister Crowley
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The value of reading, and the cost of ignorance

Yesterday I watched the great Bali Rai read a story aloud to twenty-thousand people at the Walker’s stadium at half-time of the Leice

ster vs. Scunthorpe match. I’m not sure what the people of Scunthorpe made of it, but the football fans of Leicester loved it, and took away thousands of copies of the story to read at home after the match.

This was all part of the Everybody’s Reading festival which I, along with a team of committed and hard working people from libraries and elsewhere, have spent much of the last three months organising. We like direct project names here in Leicester, so when we set up a festival to get everybody reading, we call it Everybody’s Reading.

It is a real honour for me to have spent a good part of my career to date working on the cause of getting people reading. Some of that work has focussed on basic literacy, but more of it has been about encouraging a passion for books and reading, and a love of learning. I have organised festivals of reading, world record reads, teen reading awards, reading days, reading groups and even done the odd thing here or there with writing and writers. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.

Like many people who dedicate their time to encouraging reading – librarians, teachers, writers, to name just a few – books and reading have had an an enormous, positive impact on my life. Growing up with just my mum, in a small flat on a big housing estate, with very little money or options, the horizons of life seemed very limited. But my mum had a real love of books and reading that she passed on to me. And it was through books that I got access to a whole wide world of knowledge and experiences that would otherwise have been completely closed to me. Even when my mum passed away when I was in my late teens, books carried on providing a route through life. A path towards university, a Master’s degree, a career, and even to discovering my own identity as a writer.

The value of reading – the knowledge, learning and growth it unlocks in us – is incalculable. The cost of ignorance – the hole that we fall in to when denied the chance to learn and grow – is seen every day on our streets and in our communities. An estimated 1 in 5 adults struggle with reading, and it is no coincidence that those people are also more likely to have worse employment, poorer health, greater chance of mental illness or imprisonment and are likely to die younger. Reading is not just a pleasurable activity for middle class intellectuals, it is a fundamental life skill without which we can not grow and reach our full potential.

It is all too easy to take for granted the access to books and the levels of reading we have achieved in our society. Less than a century ago, very few people were able to access books, and it is only in the last few decades that almost everyone in our society has gained both access to books and the chance to develop a real passion for reading and for learning. It is also easy to be complacent about this achievement, and forget that without continual effort, we could easily lose the schools, libraries and other social institutions that have opened reading to everyone.

Everybody’s Reading is really a very tiny drop in an ocean of work needed to support and develop reading culture, but it’s a drop I’m quite proud of. If you are in Leicester or nearby, then I hope to see you at one of the many great events during the festival.