Tag Archives: John Scalzi

The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

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John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

Who is Chuck Tingle?

While I can only speculate on the identity of the cult erotica author, I suspect Chuck Tingle is the future of publishing.

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Hours after the announcement of the 2016 Hugo Award shortlists, one of the nominated authors published a book to express his feelings on the matter. Slammed In The Butt By My Hugo Award Nomination is the story of successful gay sci-fi erotica writer Tuck Bingle, whose quiet life is thrown into chaos when he receives an email telling him he has been nominated for SFs most prestigious award, an email actually addressed to successful gay sci-fi erotica writer Chuck Tingle.

Chuck Tingle is the author of successful gay sci-fi erotica nominated for the 2016 Hugo awards, for his successful gay sci-fi erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion. Wordplay is integral to Chuck Tingle’s success. Slammed In The Butt By My Hugo Award Nomination is an affectionate nod to Tingle’s classic, Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt, and its sequel, Pounded In The Butt By My Book Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt. In a sign of it’s commitment to quality, all Tingle’s books are exclusive to Amazon Kindle.

But how did a relative newcomer gay sci-fi erotica writer, however successful, come to be nominated for a Hugo, the sci-fi fields highest award? Don’t ask. Just remember that Chuck Tingle is a success. Every day Chuck Tingle sells dozens, maybe even scores of books on Amazon Kindle, making tens and perhaps even a hundred dollars on a good day. Do people read Chuck Tingle? Who cares! They gasp and chortle at his butt pounding book titles, share them on Twitter, and sometimes buy a copy for the lulz. For the people who voted Chuck Tingle onto the the Hugo award ballot, that is success. And good luck to them. If only all writers could set their ambitions so low, the literary world would be a better and more friendly place.

Who is Chuck Tingle? Any English author would of course have titled it Pounded In The Bottom By My Own Bottom, so I guess we’ll have to rule out the redoubtable Adam Roberts, who otherwise was my top guess. Could it be John Scalzi, target of so many Hugo award hi-jinx in recent years? Unlikely. If I know John Scalzi at all, any book he wrote about being pounded in the butt by his own butt would have his own name proudly on the cover. Maybe Theodore Beale, chief Rabid Puppy, is the real Chuck Tingle? But anyone who has read Beale knows that no amount of work could ever raise his writing up to the level of a Tingle.

It matters not who Chuck Tingle is. What matters is who Chuck Tingle could be. Which is the future of publishing. Writers and the people who publish them are still hanging onto the legacy concept of quality. Chuck Tingle is here to show us that disruptive tech start-ups like Amazon have made quality a thing of the past. Modern publishing is all about viral marketing. A book is just a LOLCATS gif that people will pay money for. A novel is just a Buzzfeed listicle with more pages. Who is Chuck Tingle? Nobody knows, that’s the appeal. Who is Chuck Tingle? You could be, if you can come up with a meme infectious enough. Who is Chuck Tingle? He’s the future of publishing, that’s who.

Read about how a Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay and FUCK YOU AMAZON! Fuck you for being right…again.

Critics aren’t your best friends, they’re your only friends

John Scalzi made a strange defence of the Hugo awards recently on his blog, that made me a little sad:

I do think there’s a core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom, i.e., “Oh, fandom. You’ve shown again why you can’t be trusted to pick awards, you smelly, chunky people of common tastes, you.” Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension.

I tried asking John on Twitter what these condescending critiques were, but he was reluctant to give any examples. I think the sound John interprets as condescension is more like a sigh of disappointment. Which will soon be replaced with the soundless vacuum of complete disinterest, because when people stop paying attention they rarely bother to even condescend to you any more.

It took me a little thought to realise why it made me sad. It’s because I am one of those people who has already stopped paying attention. I barely noticed either the Hugos or Nebulas this year. Even the teacup storm around the mormon whale rape story largely passed me by until a friend pointed it out some weeks after the fact. It’s not a deliberate shunning, it’s just that there are a lot of fascinating things in the world and neither the Hugos or Nebulas rated highly among them this year.

There’s a great scene in the film Others People money where Danny DeVito, as a ruthless corporate raider, gives a speech to the investors in the steel mill he is seeking to buy and dismantle. The business is being held together by sentiment and nostalgia for times past, which DeVito’s character brutally dispells with the now classic line “I’m not your best friend, I’m your only friend.” As far as I can see the critics of the Hugo and Nebula awards are among its best friends, because they’re among the last people who can even be bothered to pay attention to the things.

I haven’t been one of those critics. And given that I failed to even remember the awards existed this year, I may not be best placed to assess whether the criticism is valid. But there certainly seem to have been some serious problems. This year SFs major awards seemed to be decided by a few completely partisan factions of fans. That may well have been the case in previous years. That only makes it worse. Some of the writing that won awards was laughably and offensively bad. It’s hardly surprising that people take neither the field nor its awards seriously when writing that bad is held up as exemplar. As the awards managed to generate next to no publicity outside the echo chamber of fandom, so it’s hard to see what commercial purpose they serve. And the fact that none of this is actually surprising? Again, not good.

All of those seem like quite valid criticisms to me, that should be addressed. So I would be interested to know which are the invalid criticisms that should be ignored.

To self publish or to not

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about self publishing recently. I’ve been considering two projects that might be described as self publishing. And I’ve been looking at how self publishing fits into my professional life as a literature development worker. And I’ve just been following a thread incited by a Facebook status update from Mary Robinette Kowal on the brutal existence of self published authors at conventions. Basically, I think its time I put some of this into words.

Continue reading To self publish or to not