Science fiction and fantasy

It's Not Your Story Any More

15th July 2013

Musings and rants

La Revolution: A Series For Our Time
In the television series La Revolution, French aristocrats are afflicted by a mysterious disease, whilst peasants go missing in suspicious circumstances.

Pandemic Reading
As the Covid pandemic rages, it has affected the way we read in a number of ways.

Reading Resolutions For The New Decade
Here are seven reading resolutions suitable for the 2020s.

Mastodon For SFF Fans
Where to go in the Fediverse to find the best speculative fiction and literary discussions.

Nine Political Books That Change The Conversation
Following news that Simon and Schuster plan to publish an inflammatory commentator, here are nine political books that deserve more attention.

Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
Penguin Random House have decided not to recognise Unite and the NUJ as a result of staff negotiations, leaving the publisher with a stain on its reputation as an employer.

Authors Support Stop Funding Hate
Some authors have had enough of divisive and xenophobic elements in the British press, and are willing to make an ethical stand.

Women In SFF: Indie Edition
A list of indie and self-published women writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres.

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists
The new per-page payout for the Kindle Unlimited subscription service makes it a much better deal for authors of longer novels.

Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
The Sieghart report on libraries missed its mark by miles. Yet the real cause of the decline of the UK library network is depressingly obvious.

A Shout-Out For The Good Guys
When nastiness dominates online conversations about books it is time to appreciate the well-behaved authors.

Critique Circle: Shaping Fabulous Stories
The appeal of a certain writing critique website. Or, why I have neglected this blog.

Where Shall I Point This Pitchfork?
Some thoughts on Jonathan Ross, Loncon, and the twitchfork mob.

Reading Is Not A Race
Why I will be abandoning annual reading challenges in 2014.

What Book Discovery Is Missing
The current state of book discovery is narrowing our reading choices and squeezing out midlist writers. How can it be fixed?

So Ben Aaronovitch has made a faux pas (warning of spoilers for the Rivers of London series). In the history of author-reviewer conflicts it's far from the worst example of an author laying into a reviewer, but it was a breach of etiquette. Ana Grilo later explained that she objected to "the tone of the comment and the fact that he tried to direct a certain reading of his series".

This issue of trying to explain how a book should be read is problematic, because it assumes that there's a right way and a wrong way to experience a story. It's release day for The Secret Eater, so for a while I've been on the receiving end of reviews, and it's been interesting. What's been particularly revealing is the times people have posted opinions that are in conflict with another blogger's, or when they have picked up on aspects of the story I hadn't intended to emphasise.

The story I thought I wrote isn't always the story people read. In fact it never is, exactly. And that's a good thing. Otherwise all authors would be striving to create the One True Book that will please everybody, and once somebody wrote it, it would be game over. We could all go home and listen to the One True Song, stare at the One True Artwork, and then snack on the One True Food. For that to work, we'd have to be automatons with identical life experiences and no capacity for imagination.

Thank goodness we're all different. I'll take civilisation in all its rich variety, thank you, even if it means some people won't get my deep insights into the nature of life, the human condition, and chicken sandwiches.

The alchemy of stories

Authors aren't in a privileged position with regard to reading a story. We don't have special insight because we know what we meant to say, because we're just as likely as anyone to miss the implications of what we wrote. Sure, hopefully an author will have read the text very closely several times during edits, and that does confer an advantage. But we are also blind to our biases in many ways. Everyone makes assumptions about the way the world is or should be, and it often takes someone with a very different perspective to point out where these biases lie and how they affect our narratives.

So stories aren't set in stone. Each time a new person reads them they change and become something entirely new, in response to that person's unique set of experiences. It's like pouring liquid into a different mixture each time, sometimes you get something safe to drink and sometimes it blows up in your face. For an author this is scary, but it's also exhilarating.

What value ratings?

If everyone's assessment of a book is going to be different, how can we square that with making good, useful recommendations? I've been thinking about this a lot, with regards to the British Fantasy Awards that I'm involved in judging this year.

I've noticed that a few of my favourite books don't seem to be rated very highly on Goodreads, whereas a few I've hated have quite high aggregate ratings. Whilst Goodreads isn't a perfect proxy for public opinion, and it does occasionally get gamed, it does have a lot of users and the books I'm looking at are ones with plenty of reviews. So I'm left wondering whether I'm an outlier, or if this is a normal experience. Is it possible for anyone at all to pass judgement on a book's quality with any reasonable expectation of mirroring the typical reading experience?

However, the kind of people who get asked to judge book awards tend to be heavy readers such as book bloggers and other writers. In other words, people who see books differently. We may be used to looking at stories more in terms of the craft of how they're put together. Or we may be jaded by having read thirty zombie novels recently, so the next one had better be something very different if we're not going to dismiss it as derivative.

I think awards have to be taken as the informed opinion of a certain type of reader. In the case of juried awards, that's the selection of the awards administrator. That's not necessarily going to be an infallible echo of the tastes of individual readers, even within a genre, but it is useful for helping people discover great reads.