The book-trade press is reporting that hardback celebrity biographies aren’t selling at all well this year. Folk with long experience in the writing and retail bits of the book trade will read this with a massive sense of deja vu. Such books are highly discretionary purchases mainly aimed at people who rarely buy books. They might buy five books in a good year, often as gifts, and who won’t buy any at all when times are tough. And times are very tough, as we all know far too well. Even with these titles heavily discounted in the supermarkets, potential purchasers may well be opting for a box of chocolates or a favourite drink as a cheaper and more immediately cheering present.
Has high staff turnover in publishing seen this sort of institutional knowledge lost? Along with other information which surely could prove useful for boosting sales in the short as well as the longer term?
Far too few titles are now offered to the 5-12 books a year readers of mass market fiction whose major contribution to the publishing bottom line used to keep the midlist viable. Here’s an idea for the Big Five. Why not try offering a choice of fiction for all tastes across all genres, varying authors month by month, in WHS and supermarkets? Start building readerships again. That’s where future best-sellers with sustained sales will come from, not the latest pop-culture trend/personality.
Meantime, let’s raise a cheer for the smaller presses who are working so hard and publishing great books. Don’t forget them when you’re doing your seasonal shopping.
Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.
However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.
Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.
In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.
Regular readers will recall me flagging up the Books on the Hill project last year, aiming to publish quick reads specifically intended for dyslexic adults, to encourage them to explore and enjoy the great range of fiction available these days. I wrote about that here.
I’m delighted to say the initiative has been a great success! Alistair and Chloe are running a second Kickstarter this year, offering another tremendous selection of stories to give readers a taste of different genres. You can find Open Dyslexia: The Sequel here. You will note that names from the bestseller lists and TV adaptations such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James are supporting this splendid initiative. I was naturally most honoured when Alistair asked me – or rather, my alter ego JM Alvey – to write a short history mystery (12,000 words) for this year’s line-up.
What you may well not know – because I certainly didn’t, and yes, I am embarrassed by my ignorance – is that making a read dyslexia-friendly is a case of formatting and layout and similar. For an author, the writing process is exactly the same. I’m aiming to challenge, entertain and intrigue with this new Philocles short story in the same way that I do with anything I see published. The only difference is more people will be able to read it – and I love the thought of that.
This project really highlights how much new technologies can do to make books more accessible for people with dyslexia. And that makes the absence of such initiatives by the mass-market publishers glaringly obvious. The book trade needs to take a long hard look at this situation.
Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.
I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)
They say three things make a blog post. Here’s one. A few weeks back at the World Fantasy Convention, as part of a good programme with respect to diversity discussions, courtesy of the hosts, the Baltimore SF Society, I sat in a packed audience for a ‘Gender 401’ panel. Trans, non-binary and gay writers discussed approaches to better representation in SFF, and recurrent mistakes – like worlds where dragons or sentient computers exist but apparently there’s no one who’s gay, nor ever has been… It was a very informative panel, and the room was full of authors like me who want to get this stuff right, but don’t have lived experience to draw on. I’m not going to recap the discussion – the panel recommended checking out Tiptree Award winners and recommended books, so start there if you want to know more.
Two was the recent Trans Awareness Week here in the UK, highlighting the issues that trans people face, as well as showing positive instances of trans lives for those who might be unaware that trans people are pretty much the same as the rest of us. The third thing followed soon after – Trans Remembrance Day, highlighting how persistent ignorance and prejudice leads to the appalling deaths of trans people who just want to live their lives in peace like the rest of us.
All of which underscores just how much representation matters – as we have seen over the decades as fictional portrayals in print and on screen have helped tackle sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism etc. Sometimes these portrayals tackle that central issue head-on, and that’s important work. It’s not the only option though. Time and again addressing prejudice is done very effectively by making a key character female/black/gay/disabled etc, and having no one remark on it, as that character plays their part in the story on equal terms with everyone else.
So here’s the thing. If I want to write a story with a diverse range of characters when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation or disability, that’s straight-forward at the most basic level. There are women around, and character descriptions make passing reference to skin tone as well as hair, eyes, clothes etc. A male character mentions his husband, or a female character refers to her wife, or people being poly or non-binary is apparent. Someone is deaf, or has mobility issues, and that’s accommodated rather than being an issue for them or anyone else. Yes, as the author, I must then do the necessary work to make these characters ring true for readers who have the lived experience I lack, but simply having them present on the page is easy enough.
How do I do this with trans characters in a book? Because a trans woman or man living their life in an accepting society is going to be unremarkable. As we increasingly see with trans actors in film and TV, until the fact that they’re trans crops up as a plot point, it’s impossible to tell. I’m thinking in particular of recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med. I’ve also had people in real life tell me with absolute conviction that they don’t know any trans people, when I know for a fact that they do. They’re just not aware of it.
Yes, of course I keep my mouth shut in those situations, because it’s not my place to out anyone – and that’s going to be exactly the situation in our aforementioned accepting society that I’m writing about in my putative SFF novel. Trans people are going to be there. There’s going to be nothing to distinguish them from other men and women. No one’s going to remark on their presence because it’s unremarkable. Which means me mentioning it as the author is going to be so out of place that I might just as well add ‘LOOK AT ME BEING DIVERSE – GIVE ME COOKIE!’
So far I’m unable to come up with an answer here, but that’s not going to stop me trying to find a way. Because inclusion and representation matter for trans people just as much as these things matter for everyone. So if you have any useful thoughts, suggestions or observations I’m interested to know more. (Non-useful comments will be binned.)
This year I’ll be taking part in the “Read For Pixels” 2018 Google Hangout campaign (Fall Edition), in company with a veritable host of other authors supporting this non-profit fundraiser backing initiatives to end violence against women.
Google Hangout sessions will run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from September 1st to September 30th 2018. Each session will feature an author reading from one of their books and discussing women and girls in their books, why they support ending violence against women, and women in the media, geek culture, and popular culture. Each session will also include a live moderated Q&A session for fans and book lovers to ask their favourite authors questions in real time. My slot will be 4pm UK time, on Sunday 2nd September.
The first Read For Pixels Google Hangout live panel session will tackle Trashing The Rape Trope: Writing Violence Against Women in Fantasy. Martha Wells, Kate Elliott, and Jim C. Hines will be discussing violence against women in the Fantasy genre and techniques for tackling the subject without dehumanising female characters. There will also be a live Q&A segment for writers and fans interested in writing about female characters and approaching themes such as misogyny, sexism, gender, and violence against women with depth, empathy, and accuracy.
There are giveaways and gifts to be had from Adrian Tchaikovsky (with Macmillan Books UK), Aliette de Bodard, Ann Aguirre, Charles de Lint, Jodi Meadows, Ken Liu, Leigh Bardugo, Peter V. Brett, Steven Erikson, Susan Dennard, Juliana Spink Mills, and more. These include swag bags and book bundles, signed first editions or special editions of participating authors’ books, a chance to be a minor character in someone’s upcoming books, and more. Katherine Tegan Books at HarperCollins and award-winning NewCon Press are each donating a Mystery Book Box. Donations begin at as little as US$5 and the goodies are available to donors as “thank you” gifts and perks depending on the donation amount. I’m donating three book bundles; The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy, the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and my two Wizard’s Tower Press books, The Secret Histories of the River Kingdom and The Green Man’s Heir. I’ll cover the postage worldwide.
Fundraising will take place on Rally Up in tandem with the Google Hangout series over the month of September 2018. Authors involved include Alison Goodman, Brandon Sanderson, David D. Levine, Fonda Lee, Fran Wilde, Jay Kristoff, Julie Czerneda, Marie Brennan, Richard K. Morgan, Sarah Beth Durst, and Tananarive Due.
For more information about Read For Pixels, contact Regina Yau at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: http://is.gd/Read4Pixels.
I wasn’t able to get to this year’s Lady English lecture at St Hilda’s, but thanks to the marvels of modern technology, it’s available online. I’m hoping to get to it over the weekend.
Playwright and arts commentator Bonnie Greer discusses her adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in which she casts Hedda as an African woman,as well as why she believes many male adapters have got Hedda wrong, what she thinks Ibsen intended, and the notion of ‘Africa’ and people of African descent in the ‘West’.
In other news, I’m very busy! We’re heading into the final stages of preparing The Green Man’s Heir for publication. This is a modern fantasy novel that will be coming soon from Wizard’s Tower Press. I had great fun at last week’s Bristolcon, and am currently preparing for what promises to be an excellent weekend at Novacon. I also have my review column for Albedo One to write… So I’ll get back to all that.
I’ve written before about illuminating discoveries in local museums, such as finding the works of Rolinda Sharples in the Bristol Museum and Gallery, challenging the notion (among others) that women historically stayed at home doing nothing much. Our recent week in Wales turned up some interesting evidence to counter assumptions about traditionally masculine skills and pastimes.
We visited Swansea Museum and in common with many local museums up and down the country at the moment, they have a sizeable current exhibition on the local experience of World War One. The displays cover life in the trenches, and on the home front, looking at the full gamut of lives affected and the contributions of men and women alike, in fighting on land and at sea, in nursing and in war work in industry and agriculture, as well as the experiences of conscientious objectors. The updates on the later lives of those who survived the Western Front made for very interesting reading, including men who’d lost limbs or survived other appalling experiences. Some never recovered, mentally or physically. Others simply went back to their families and former lives working in the coal mines, on the docks and on the farms, with or without artificial limbs, or lingering shrapnel working its way out of their flesh for decades after.
Part of the transition from the unreality of war back to civilian life was what we would now call occupational therapy. The display cases had a fine range of decorative pin cushions, embroidered keepsakes and belts etc, made by wounded soldiers and those on active duty alike, sent home to wives and sweethearts. A few were a bit rough and ready but most were made to a very high standard, showing both craft and dedication.
Fancy needlework? For manly men? Yes, and when you think about it, what’s so surprising about that? Every soldier’s kit included needle and thread, as making running repairs to uniforms would have been routinely required. This fancy needlework was a way of connecting with home, as well as occupying hands and minds amid the trials and tribulations as well as the extended periods of boredom that make up warfare. If books and newspapers were available, not everyone wants to read.
More than that, I remembered a piece I’d heard on Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few years back, about treating PTSD in soldiers suffering after modern wars. Therapists have been teaching patients to knit. They have discovered that patients benefit from talking through traumatic experiences at the same time as having their hands and part of their attention occupied with such a task. These memories become denatured, less intrusive, as the brain somehow reprograms itself in a way that doesn’t happen when talking without such activity allows the memory to replay awful events with undiminished horror.
It seems that the British Army may have cottoned on to this, whether or not they realised it, well over a hundred years ago. There were similar examples of embroidery from WWI and earlier in The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh Regiment in Brecon, as well as a very fine patchwork table covering made up of scraps from uniform tunics in scarlet, green and cream wool cloth.
Incidentally, while celebrating the heroic service of this regiment’s soldiers all over the world, and most notably at Rorke’s Drift, the particular museum wasn’t in the least bombastic or jingoistic about the ‘glory days of Empire’. There were clear and concise explanations of the short-sighted and divisive actions and decisions by British governments and generals which prompted local protests and unrest, resulting in the wars which young men were sent to fight across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. These days, such military museums have moved well beyond ‘My country, right or wrong!’.
There’s so much for the writer in all this. A reminder that what we might consider women’s skills and hobbies nowadays, weren’t always so. A reminder that life goes on before, around and after dramatic, traumatic events, both for whoever might be at the centre of it, and for their family and friends. A reminder that ordinary people cope in different ways with extraordinary events.
I’m not yet sure how these various things will work their way into my writing but experience tells me they will. Meantime, support your local museums!
A while ago I got an email from a Tales of Einarinn reader, enthusing about the wizard Shiv. This is not unusual; he’s a very popular character. Let me tell you a bit about him. As I’ve said many times since The Thief’s Gamble was published in 1999, I wanted to write a high fantasy adventure challenging the more tiresome clichés of the genre in the 80s and 90s.
So Shiv’s a wizard, and he’s a talented one, but not a pontificating greybeard who never actually does much magic. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done by whatever means might be necessary. He’s alert, intelligent and a loyal friend.
Oh, and incidentally, he’s gay. That’s because I encountered a conundrum in the story I wanted to tell. I was determined to avoid all those fantasy romance clichés of Our Heroine doing all her brave deeds for the love of A Good Man. I was much more interested in friendship and mutual respect as motivation. So Livak and Shiv were never going to fall into bed together. However, I did want Livak to have a sex life that wasn’t yet another romantic cliché. The thing was though, given the choice between Shiv and the alternatives…?
Okay, I thought, that’s not an issue if Shiv is gay. I’ve always had gay and lesbian friends, and I was aiming to make Einarinn a realistic world, so no problem there. Could I think of other gay characters in SF&F back then? Bear in mind I was writing the first draft of this book twenty one years ago. Not many and all too often that sexuality was coupled with unpleasant character flaws. So that was definitely an ill-thought-out and over-used cliché that deserved a kicking.
Okay but… how, as a straight mother of two, could I write an honest and emotionally realistic gay character without leaving my gay and lesbian friends wincing or giggling? As it happened, I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference in Oxford when I was writing the first draft of Thief, and the crime writer Val McDermid was there. Val happens to be gay. We’d both been going to this conference for a couple of years and became friends, so I asked her advice back then.
She said ‘make no more of this character’s sexuality than you would of any other character’s.’ Which is one of those things that’s so blindingly obvious when someone says it, but until someone says it, it’s can be very hard to see! It was the key to writing Shiv for me.
Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a character who’s had far more impact on people’s lives than I ever expected. Since The Thief’s Gamble was first published, I’ve had letters and now emails from readers, telling me just how much they have valued encountering a positive example of a likeable, loyal, quick-witted, and when necessary bad-ass man who happens to also be gay. Far more younger male readers than I could have imagined, found reading about Shiv offered them a helping hand as they came to terms with their own sexuality, amid all the other complexities of teenage life.
Then there are the others, far fewer but also significant. Young men who’d been raised with unthinking homophobia, who were prompted to rethink those ideas after encountering Shiv. Young men who decided to leave such prejudices behind, as they concluded someone’s positive personal qualities are what really counts.
This is intensely rewarding as an author and also genuinely humbling because I never set out to Do Good in my writing, but merely to write honestly about emotionally realistic people caught up in fantastic events. But that’s the thing. This isn’t about me. A book is never only about the writer.
Readers see all sorts of things in fiction’s magic mirror which the author never expected or intended. All sorts of readers should see themselves reflected there. This is why diversity and representation in fiction matters. This is why what I’ve learned thanks to Shiv continues to inform my own work.
I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.
We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.
Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.
I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.
So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.
I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.
So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.