On reviews and reviewing – a few thoughts.

A surge of opinions on this perennial debate has followed recent heated exchanges over on Strange Horizons. I’m not discussing the specifics of that case, nor do I plan to, here or in comments to this post; I haven’t read the book in question, and the reviewer and the commenters’ words can speak for themselves over at SH.

But reviewing is a subject that interests me, as a professional writer and also as a reviewer myself. Because reviews are important, arguably even more so now that changes in bookselling mean the days are long gone when a customer could expect to see a fully representative selection of lead, midlist and classic titles in the shelves of their local bookshop, all on a level playing field as regards price. For an author, if anyone is going to buy your book, they have to know it exists in the first place. On that score, all of us in SF&F, readers and writers, are very fortunate indeed to have so many good-quality online resources.

It may surprise you to learn that negative reviews don’t have the negative impact you might expect. According to academic research

“while well-known authors suffer from negative reviews by decreased sales of 15%, “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%.

it’s better to have your book attacked than ignored. Over time readers will forget the mean stuff said about you, and will only remember your book’s name. After buying and reading the book, however, they might remember again—but that’s a topic for another study.”

This doesn’t change my mind about writing negative reviews; in general I don’t do it. Personally I would much rather offer that vital oxygen of publicity to a book that’s worth reading and thereby hope to bolster a fellow writer’s success. No, I absolutely don’t expect any kind of reciprocation but I do know what a tough life this writing gig is and would rather offer a colleague a helping hand than a kick in the teeth. After all, there will be plenty of other people ready to say if they don’t like a book.

And anyway, if I’ve enjoyed a book, I want to share that enjoyment. That’s what most readers do and I was a reader long before I became a writer. On one level, it really is as simple as that.

As far as more complex considerations go, I also appreciate the need for a publisher’s list to offer a broad selection of books to maximise profits. I’ve read a fair few books that don’t work for me personally in the least but where I can see both the commercial justification for publication and the writer’s skill in crafting something in that particular style. Fair enough; book-selling is a business. That said, I see limited value in me saying ‘I really don’t like this kind of thing but those of you who do, probably will.’

Besides, once again, my own decades of experience as a reader have shown me how subjective personal opinions can be. I’m sure we’ve all had the same experience; we’ve really loved a book and pressed it on a friend, only to find when we ask them later, that it left them completely cold. In the same way, I’ve been given or loaned books by friends whose judgement I trust, only to find I completely fail to find whatever so enthralled them.

Which isn’t to say I’ve never published a negative review. I have; one of a small-press/self-published book and one of a mass-market commercial paperback. In both cases, my displeasure at the poorly written, shamelessly derivative and uninspired material tipped over into active annoyance that this rubbish could get into print when I knew of far better books languishing unpublished on hard drives. No, I don’t propose to identify either book because that’s not important and please note, all my criticism was directed at the books themselves; focusing on the quality (or lack of it) of plot, characterisation etc. I stand by everything I said.

In both cases, I ended up with more arguments to weigh against the value of negative reviews. In the first case, the outraged author bombarded myself and the editor with increasingly personally abusive emails, castigating our idiocy for being blind to his staggering genius. Okay, I paraphrase but not by much. No, I’m not taking this personally, especially not when I know how common such a response is from such amateurish authors – one reason why self-published writers still face such a major credibility problem with reviewers.

But I don’t have time to waste on such nonsense, so see no need to invite such vitriol into my inbox by pointing out such an arrant amateur’s deficiencies. Which is not to say I consider all unpublished/self-published/aspiring authors to be amateurs by the way. “Professional” is an attitude and an approach, not some badge only ever awarded by a publishers’ contract.

As far as that commercial paperback went, it was followed by two sequels and for all I know, there may be more to come. Did I manage to warn anyone off wasting their money on such cynical, exploitative tosh? That was my motive in writing the review but I have no idea if I succeeded. Indeed, I’m now wondering, in light of that quoted research, did I inadvertently help bolster sales? That’s a nasty thought.

Overall, with the benefit of hindsight, I reckon my time would have been better spent offering a positive recommendation to whoever was spending their time reading my opinion. Which is not to say I won’t ever offer a damning verdict on a book again, if one crossing my path really provokes my ire.

I also consider this debate a distraction from the most important issue in current reviewing. As authorial visibility and sales encouraged by reviews are so important in the current, frankly brutal marketplace, it is all the more vital that the balance of reviews reflects the gender and ethnic balance of writers. The current situation where books by white, male writers get a disproportionate percentage of reviews is unacceptable.

Everyone involved, from individual reviewers to magazine editors, online or in print, has a responsibility to offer equality of visibility to all writers. No one is asking for special treatment, just fairness. While all the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard over the years indicates SF&F has a rather better track record on that score than many other genres, there is still considerable room for improvement.

Yes, I appreciate that presenting a representative selection of reviews is not necessarily easy, particularly when some months simply won’t see a proportionate spread of male and female and ethnically diverse writers across the new releases from any one or indeed, all genre publishers. Any particular skewed selection cannot be taken in isolation to indicate deliberate bias. However, that still doesn’t make the unconscious and unintended biases revealed when reviews are collated on an annual basis any more acceptable.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – English language version

We – that’s myself, husband and Senior Son – went to see the English language version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ last week – and we all agreed it was very good indeed, both as regards the lead and the minor performances. I was particuarly interested to see that plot and character all hung together well for Husband and Son who don’t know the books nor have seen the Swedish original. I was also relieved to see it hadn’t been overly’Hollywoodised’.

I’ve read and re-read the books and have seen the Swedish cinematic releases – though not as yet the extended versions/TV mini-series – and thought this adaptation was well done, making allowance for a couple of very trivial plot tweaks which I thought so trivial as to be unnecessary. Overall, I reckon this film is both sufficiently distinctive from the Swedish as well as sharing that version’s strengths to have been worth seeing in its own right – though granted, I probably wouldn’t have gone if Husband and Son hadn’t wanted to see it.

While Mara Rooney simply cannot match Noomi Rapace’s screen presence, she brought her own take on Lisbeth Salander to the role, reflecting the books in a slightly different but equally valid way. Just as Daniel Craig brought other aspects of Mikael Blomkvist to the fore, compared to Michael Nyqvist. In particular, I did find the theme of male bafflement and fear at being placed in the agonisingly vulnerable position of abused women had all the more impact when it’s the 007 actor who… no, no spoilers.

Talking of impact, I can’t decide if That Scene was slightly underplayed compared to the Swedish version – or if my reactions weren’t as heightened, since I knew what was coming. What I was very interested to see was just what a shudder that all gave my 18 year old son – so much for endless computer games desensitising the youth of today to violence. No, not in this case – he’s well able to distinguish between pixellated fantasy and cinematic representation of reality.

I would also be very interested to know what he made of the 18-cert straight-forward, grown-up sex depicted, as opposed to 15-cert naked-limbs-montage-occasional-flash-of-tit cinema. But since that’s a conversation I can’t see either of us being comfortable having, I will just have to wonder …

Anyway, both Husband and Son are keen to see the next two books filmed asap – and Son has collared my copies of the books to add to his TBR pile.

As to whether a remake is necessary, and whether or not viewers should just get over subtitles, I can see that argument. Then again, I can see the likes of my husband, who really hates watching subtitled films. Having to concentrate on reading text means he feels he’s not actually watching the film – and he is a very strongly visually oriented person, so that really, badly, limits his enjoyment.

Since he’s of the generation that either did maths/science or languages/humanities at school with no overlap – and he did maths/science, he has no foreign language skills at all to help him out. Whereas, having done Latin, Greek, French & German, I can get the gist of an awful lot of languages I don’t actually speak by listening closely and just glancing at the subtitles. Apart from Danish for some reason – I *cannot* get my ‘ear’ tuned right for The Killing at all – and for the first time, I actually get an idea of what he means!

More Q&A, very entertaining for me to do, so hopefully for you to read.

For more insights into the writerly life, or at least my part of it, check out this interview with Bob Neilson of Albedo One posing the questions. He plans on making this a series of interviews, so make sure you bookmark the page.

Then there’s Dolly Garland’s Bookshelf Snooping over on Writer Revealed, where you’ll find a varied selection of writers sharing their book memories and current enthusiasms -er, mostly at more length than me, I now see.

right, back to work here!

On information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage

There’s been a fair amount of discussion here and there about such things, prompted mostly by the time of year – it’s time for nominations and/or voting on a good few genre awards; the Hugos, the BSFA Awards, the David Gemmell Awards.

I’ve been watching with interest, because, yes, I have a dog in this fight. I am on the long list for the David Gemmell Legend Award for best fantasy novel, with Dangerous Waters. I’m also an Arthur C Clarke Award judge this year and next, and judging the James White Short Story Award. While these are different in that they’re juried and judged rather than voted on, it’s fair to say I’m taking a closer interest in the whole awards business than has been my custom.

There are some very strong opinions out there about what level of mention an author may reasonably make of such things. There are those who seem to think so much as mentioning their own novel’s eligibility for nomination crosses some invisible line into the unacceptable. Other people seem to see nothing wrong in writers actively canvassing through their blogs and regularly tweeting Vote for Me! Vote for Me! Then there’s every shade of opinion in between.

I have a good deal of sympathy with those who think that an author’s work should speak for itself. That a book should prompt others apart from the writer to speak for it, if it is to have any claim on a nomination or votes. Personally I cringe at the thought of waving my new novel at people uninvited, still less urging them to buy it with the extravagant self-praise that I occasionally encounter, in person or online. I was brought up to consider such behaviour utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts. Besides, in today’s book trade, such behaviour is all too often associated, fairly or unfairly, with the most deluded of self-published no-hopers.

Except – how are people to know that an author’s book is eligible for nominations or long/short-listed, if no one tells them? It’s no answer to say that if readers are following an award they will already know. What if they’re not even aware of that particular award? Is it a publisher’s responsibility to tell potentially interested parties? Insofar as they can, yes it is, and they do (though I’ve seen that criticised as well). But what if an author’s fans don’t happen to follow that publisher’s website or Twitter feed? I am getting fed up, in this age of information overload, with being told I should/must follow dozens and dozens of feeds, blogs, social media manifestations and networks, that I have some sort of nebulous obligation to keep current with such things, if I am really committed. Sorry but there are a great many other calls on my time and the number of hours in a day is unaffected by my personal level of commitment.

The most effective and straightforward way for me as a reader to learn what’s going on with the specific authors I am interested in is to check their personal feeds and blogs. So why should they be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future! When, incidentally, publishers’ marketing departments and publicity officers for these awards will be encouraging those authors to share exactly that information, in keeping with their own job descriptions. When one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike.

What about what happens after that? If such self-promotion is acceptable, where does one draw a line? Is it acceptable to let people know your work is listed/eligible for an award? But not to openly solicit votes? But not to post, for instance, a short story online for people to read for free? But not for an author to privately email all their contacts who might be eligible to vote, offering to send them a copy direct, at once? Because I’ve seen all those things go on. And yes, I can see how the latter practises might well skew a vote, if one candidate’s material is far more accessible than another’s. But who’s going to decide these things, given subjective opinion on what’s acceptable behaviour can vary so widely between different people? More practically, who on earth is going to enforce any such rules that might be made?

I’ve seen similar hostility directed towards authors retweeting or linking to favourable mentions of their books. But why shouldn’t we direct potential readers towards information which might help them decide if our book is likely to be to their taste and is something they might like to consider buying? This is a business after all and authors operate in an increasingly hostile environment. Changes in bookselling have pretty much done away with the days when a reader could browse a shop’s shelves and expect to see the new releases and the midlist authors displayed on equal terms with the big names, for the reader to pick and choose on a level playing field as regards price and visibility.

I remember the first time I was on a panel at a US convention when the moderator blithely announced, ‘I’ll ask the panel to introduce themselves and plug their latest books.’ Everyone in the room stiffened, sitting up straighter on their chairs. Me with shock at this challenge to my Traditional British Reserve. The audience with keen anticipation, clearly eager to hear about new books and authors new to them. My fellow writers by way of preparation to inform potential customers about their work in a friendly and professional fashion, standing their books up on the table to show cover art etc.

Why should an author feel awkward or embarrassed about offering such information? But at UK conventions I so often see writers barely making mention of their own work, brutally self-deprecating if they do – and then I hear con-goers afterwards asking each other for more information on a panel member’s titles, where that writer’s work sits in the genre, trying to work out if someone whose contribution they’ve appreciated in that discussion is also likely to write books to their taste. If such information’s available in the programme, all well and good, but all too often it isn’t. How does such reticence encourage that broader conversation that keeps a genre vibrant and evolving?

When considering hostility to self-promotion, I think there’s a clue in that word ‘pimpage’, which grates on me like fingernails on slate whenever I hear it. I don’t care if it’s being used ironically, post-modernly, self-deprecatingly or whatever other justification might be offered. Writers are not pimps and our books are not whores. We are not sleazy money-grubbers demanding cash for something that decent, clean-living people otherwise exchange for free. We are offering our work-product and inviting the reader to purchase it, to give us a return on our endeavour. How is this different from any other commercial transaction, where goods and services are exchanged for a fair price?

Ah but TS Eliot had to work in a bank, we are told. We read infuriating articles like a recent one in The Guardian insisting that ‘real writers’ don’t seek monetary reward for their art. We see the enduring literary snobbery that insists a commercial best seller must self-evidently be devoid of true merit precisely because such popular appeal can only be meretricious (from the Latin, meretrix, a whore). Such snobbery then promptly inverts itself, insisting a ‘challenging’ or ‘important’ novel must be lauded, even if it’s sold under a thousand copies. Presumably because only the clever people can understand it. Sorry, but I cannot read these self-selecting, self-regarding critics without wondering if they’ve ever heard the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Such people have clearly never studied basic logic. A best-seller can indeed be devoid of literary merit. A chair can have four legs. A best-seller need not be devoid of merit. Something with four legs need not be a chair. It can be a racehorse. With all respect to Dr Johnson, I don’t know a single author who writes only for money. This is not in the least the same as saying we cannot justifiably expect for a fair reward for our writing.

To return to the subject at hand. Ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with. I have decided that am not going to be discouraged from offering useful information to potential readers, such as links to reviews online or a brief introduction to my work if I’m on a panel discussion. I see nothing wrong in letting people know that one of my books is eligible for consideration for an award. What readers choose to do with that information is then up to them.

On Irene Adler and outrage (and influences and Charoleia)

I’ve very much enjoyed both the movie A Game of Shadows and the series opener to the BBC’s updated Sherlock. Despite – and please do not underestimate the strength of my feelings here – the truly appalling way both stories ripped up (and worse) the character of Irene Adler as depicted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

NB: If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read on until you’ve seen the film/programme.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, she is beautiful, a supremely talented singer and – this is the crucial bit – she outwits Holmes and departs to live her own life on her own terms. Now she is a pawn of Moriarty, to be killed off in the first instance, and in the second facing death only to be saved by Holmes’ melodramatic intervention. Yes, in the original story, she is ‘an adventuress’ in her youth, but at this point, she is devoted to the husband of her own choosing. Not some dominatrix whose power over men and women apparently begins and ends with her naked body.

This really pisses me off and I am not the only one. See here for CE Murphy’s reaction – and please do read the comments as well . Also this from Another Angry Woman and from The Guardian, Jane Clare Jones on ‘Is Sherlock Sexist?’.

These are only the pieces that have caught my eye, I imagine there are more. What I’d be very interested to know is if there are any similar expressions of outrage from men. Because it’s women I see getting really incensed by this, online and in person.

Why is that? Why am I so thoroughly and lastingly annoyed, tarnishing all my other enjoyment of both film and TV programme? I’ve been giving that some thought. Well, I first read the Holmes books in my early teens. Looking back I don’t think I consciously noticed the lack of female characters with any authority and agency; the realisation of such absences in ‘classic’ fiction and the misogynist implications when such patterns are followed unthinkingly by contemporary writers came later. But I’ll bet I noted it subconsciously, because I really loved those stories. The classic teen response to beloved fiction is to identify with the particular character whom one imagines is most like oneself, maybe even imagining oneself into the milieu in fan-fiction fashion. That’s really hard to do for girls reading Holmes – until we encounter Irene Adler. The Woman. A Woman we can all aspire to be, even if we don’t yet realise it.

Not in these two recent stories. Not any more. And for no compelling reason in either case. Not for plot purposes that couldn’t have been achieved in some other way. Thus betraying the enduring and infuriating blind spots when it comes to male film makers and script writers writing women characters – the way in which even the strongest so often end up defined by their relationship to men. Grrrrrr.

And I’ve realised something else that reflects back on just what a lasting impact this one character, only appearing in one early Holmes short story, had on me and ultimately, on my writing.

I’ve been doing one of those email interviews where we swap questions and answers (and I’ll post a link when it’s available for reading). One of the questions is about influences and I’ve said how I always find them impossible to identify. For instance, a good while ago, when conversation turned to the works of Alan Moore, someone, I forget who, remarked on the clear influence of Halo Jones on my first female protagonist Livak. I looked at them in astonishment. Not because they were wrong. Because they were so right – and I would never have seen that for myself.

With that in mind, and thinking about Irene Adler this morning, I’ve just realised what a major element she is in Charoleia’s character-DNA. For those of you who haven’t yet encountered Charoleia, she’s an ‘information broker’; which is to say, she gathers and trades information about the rich and powerful, profiting handsomely in mostly unspecified ways, thanks to her extensive network of contacts from highest to lowest in political and criminal circles (especially where those overlap) across all the countries that once made up the Old Tormalin Empire – and beyond. And here’s something crucial; she isn’t a kiss-and-tell, pillow-talk merchant. Yes, she’s strikingly beautiful and will use her allure as and when that’s the most effective tool to hand. But she’s no whore, nor even a courtesan. When Charoleia takes a man to her bed, it’s on her own terms, of her own choosing and not for coin.

She and Irene Adler have a lot in common, in my writerly subconscious at least. So that’s definitely one element in why I am quite so cross – though by no means the only one.

What other folk think about my book(s)

Publishers do like us writers to mention favourable reviews. Though this does clash rather with Traditional British Reserve, since custom and practise does rather frown on one blowing one’s own trumpet.

On the other hand, positive feedback from someone you don’t know in the least really is a great thing for writers. It validates what we’re doing and encourages us to do more and better, and that’s a big tick in the plus column on the first day back to work (officially) on a wet and windy January day.

So, for your consideration, check out the concise appreciation on page 31 of the Morpheus Tales #15 Supplement and then some particularly pleasing insights from Lady Fellshot

Goodbye 2011, Hello 2012!

I now realise I didn’t post my usual Christmas Eve sign-off for the holiday season the week before last. I still had so much prep to do, I just never got round to it – which sums up my last year pretty effectively. 2011 was remarkably hectic and not necessarily always in a good way, both personally and professionally.

I parted company with my literary agent back in the Spring since that working relationship was well, just not working. At least in part as a result of that, I certainly didn’t achieve all the things I had hoped to. In some instances that was down to factors beyond my control. Then there were a couple of happenings/wrangles which I could have managed better. So appropriate notes have been made and lessons learned and all that kindathing.

On the plus side, I did some things I hadn’t expected to, notably going to California, spending some days in the Bay Area as well as attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego. That was a fabulous trip. I’m also expanding my range and testing my mettle as a writer with some new projects of which more in due course.

I did far more guest blogging and I’m particularly pleased with the contribution my pieces have made to the vexed questions and on-going debate about equitable representation of women (and other minority) writers in the SF&Fantasy field as well as the challenges for all genre writers in the wider literary landscape. Being part of this conversation has also shown me that while very real issues remain to be tackled in our genre, there’s a lot worse goes on elsewhere!

We had a very pleasant Christmas to New Year break, including the seasonal slew of family birthdays. All told, it’s been a most welcome recharging of our mental and physical energies in this household – which has led to a degree of collective resolution not to let ourselves get as overscheduled and overtired as we did towards the end of last year. Not least because 2012 is Junior Son’s GCSE year and Senior Son will be finishing his college course in the summer and heading out into the world of work…

I say this, already committed to the SFX Weekender at the start of February, P-Con in Dublin at the start of March and Eastercon in April. I’m also deeply engaged in the Arthur C Clarke Award judging process and will be judging the James White Award short story competition. I’m chairing the Eastercon 2013 bid, EightSquared, and will be helping out with Congenial, the Unicon/BRS gaming convention in Cambridge, 10th-12th August, specifically on the book-related programming.

That’s all as well as working on an update and redesign of my own website and on publishing my backlist in ebook form. At least for those last two projects, I have the able and generous assistance of two splendid women with the talents and time that I lack.

On the writing side, I am in discussions with a new agent, of which more later. Darkening Skies, second of The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, will be published in March/April – precise date tba, and I have three assorted short stories in anthologies due this year, first of those being my contribution to The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity in March. Meantime, I will be getting on with writing Defiant Peaks aka Hadrumal Crisis 3, due for delivery in August.

So… time to draw up the first To Do List of 2012…

To Do List Update

So how did I get on with that list I posted on Monday?

Pretty well, actually. I have about a day’s work still to do on that steampunk short story but other than that, the rest is ticked off.

Which leaves the rest of the Christmas To Do List to be tackled.

Plus sundry essential domestic chores. Sigh.

Still, the lads have finished school and college and I’ve already given them fair warning that next week will see them doing their share, according to established custom and practise.

Now it’s time to cook dinner and open a beer.

The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity

Image

Some reaction to the anthology news in my last post goes along the lines of ‘but you don’t do steampunk, do you?’ To which the reply is rather, I haven’t done steampunk before now. The same is true of urban fantasy. No, I’ve not done it before and when I’ve been asked, I’ve said I would need a new and original idea since I have nothing to add to the current pack of werewolf/vampire stories.

That’s what I said when Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray invited me to contribute to this anthology. Ah but, they said, you might have an idea. You never know. Just see if something turns up. Well, it did, and there’s not a fang nor any fur involved, just so you know. My story, ‘The Roots of Aston Quercus’ will be there alongside tales from –

Seanan McGuire
Susan Jett
Kari Sperring
Avery Shade
Kristine Smith
Barbara Ashford
April Steenburgh
Anton Strout
S.C. Butler
Jean Marie Ward
Shannon Page & Jay Lake
Elizabeth Bear
Jim C. Hines

Stellar company to be in and all graced with this cover art. Pre-order your copy now or mark your diaries for March 2012