Category Archives: Publishing

Some thoughts on #readwomen2014

For those of you not familiar with it, #readwomen2014 is a campaign started on twitter by writer Joanna Walsh intended to get people reading more books by women.

#readwomen2014

The concept of the campaign is a simple one, female writers don’t get the same critical attention as male. That’s odd, women read more than men (proportionally and in aggregate) and they get published in much the same numbers. So if women are published equally and women read more, why are they reviewed less?

Part of the answer seems to be that a disproportionate number of professional critics are men, and men famously are much less likely to read books by women than women are books by men (which is both bizarre and frankly depressing). Another part is marketing and perception.Women’s fiction is often given “girly” covers with pastels and sometimes cute taglines. If you’re male those covers are profoundly offputting.

Equally, it’s sadly true that all too often when a man writes a novel of middle-aged depression and marital failure it’s considered a meditation on aging and loss. When a woman does the same it’s seen as a domestic novel. As Joanna Walsh said in an article at Berfrois:

It’s not whether women are published (because they are) but how they are published. Are men more likely to write what’s considered ‘important’ literary fiction, or could it be that more are regarded that way? I’ve heard female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing’s not, when reviews, even press-releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “playful” when it is experimental, “delightful” when it is satirical, “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim (none of these examples is made up).

So, one response to all this is women only literary prizes, which is deeply problematic for a number of fairly obvious reasons – it’s intrinsically sexist, smacks of women needing protecting from market realities, is arguably as logical as a prize for authors with red hair, there’s the question of how bad can things really be with authors such as Eleanor Catton and Hilary Mantel winning the Booker and so on. My response to all those commonly made points would be that prizes exist to focus attention on authors who might otherwise be overlooked, and with a few high-profile exceptions there’s a lot of evidence that women are disproportionately overlooked.

Anyway, back to #readwomen2014. Joanna Walsh wrote an article in the Guardian about her campaign, here, and it caught my attention.It got me thinking about the proportionality of my own reading. I haven’t gone back and checked through my past reviews here to do a gender breakdown, but it didn’t take long to look at my kindle and work out roughly what proportion of the authors on it were women.

14%.

When I first mentioned that I might write this piece, in the comments under my 2013 wrap-up, leroyhunter responded:

LibraryThing tells me I own about 1300 books by roughly 650 writers, of whom only 12% are women. That shocks me, as I percieve myself as reading in a more balanced fashion (certainly nowadays compared to when I was younger).

Leroy’s on 12%. I’m on 14%. Pretty much the same proportion for each of us, and like him I was surprised how weighted towards male writers my own numbers were.

So, what’s going on? I don’t discount the possibility of unconscious bias, but I don’t think it’s just that. I own a fair few classics and there are reasons one would expect a significant majority of those to be by men. Few women historically had rooms of their own, or in other words men had the financial independence needed to write far more than women did (if we looked at percentages of working class authors to middle or upper class I suspect the percentage would be even worse than 14%).

On top of that though there’s the systemic issues of the publishing and reviewing industries. If books are marketed in part by gender, and they are, and if professional critics skew heavily towards reviewing fiction by men, and they do, then serious male readers are likely to find themselves mostly reading books by men for the very simple reason that those will be the books that they’ll be aware of.

Critics are still essential for bringing new books to the public’s attention. Bloggers have a place, of course they do, but even the best and best known bloggers have a tiny fraction of the platform of the most mediocre newspaper reviewer.

So, what to do? Well, you could do worse than decide to read more books by women. In other words, #readwomen2014. I admit, I have mixed views on that because the idea of consciously letting author gender influence what I read suggests that the books I then choose need special treatment, that they wouldn’t otherwise be worth reading on their own merits. 14% though.

The other obvious concern of course is that if I spend 2014 assiduously reading books by women, 2015 will inevitably be the year of reading men, as I’ll have far fewer unread books by women and still a vast pile of unread books by men.

There isn’t a good answer to all of this, and certainly not a single answer. I don’t plan to exclusively read women in 2014, but I am being more aware of what I am reading and I have been looking to see if there are writers I may have overlooked perhaps because of their gender and perhaps because of how they were marketed. So, Eleanor Catton whose The Rehearsals has a cover that makes it look like a teen romance; Anne Enright whose The Forgotten Waltz has a cover that couldn’t make it look any more aimed at women if it had a sticker on it saying “men, not for you!”.

Anyway, there it is, #readwomen2014. I don’t ultimately think it’ll change much, but if it gets a few of us discovering some writers we might otherwise have overlooked then for me that’s a success. More importantly, if it helps raise a debate about the issue of women writers being pigeonholed and sidelined, that’s definitely a success.

We live in an age where increasingly we are an audience of one. Google filter our search results by our past search histories. We have news channels dedicated to our political perspectives. Amazon tailors recommendations by past purchases, leading us always to deeper exploration of what we already know.Children’s toys have never been more aggressively marketed on strictly segregated gender lines (leading in 2011 to the cancellation of the US kids show Tower Prep on the basis that too many girls were watching it and it was designed to sell toys to boys, see here).

This is part of that. I want to be surprised. I want to read what I haven’t thought of yet. That can’t happen in a world where we’re sliced and diced by race, class, gender, age, political affiliation, sexual preference, religion or lack thereof, people who viewed “x” also viewed “y”. That’s why ultimately I agree with #readwomen2014, because being aware of your own choices matters.

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Filed under Personal posts, Publishing

Waterstones and Kindle

Waterstones started selling kindles in their stores today. That’s not a surprise, the date’s been long-trailed, but it is still an important step in UK book retailing.

The offering is a fairly simple one. You can buy kindles in-store, and if you do you get points on your Waterstones’ loyalty card for the purchase. Soon there’ll be wifi in stores (it’s not ready at launch) so you can browse Amazon and buy books on your kindle while still in the shop. Staff will help set up kindles (not that most people will need much help, they’re pretty simple devices) and of course offer advice on which books to buy.

Interestingly, you don’t get loyalty card points for ebook purchases, even if bought while you’re in the store. You will though be able to browse books on your kindle while in-store, and as long as you’re in-store you can keep browsing to your heart’s content – you’re not limited to just reading a sample. You could, if time were no object, just sit there and read entire books in full.

Intuitively none of this looks like a smart move. Waterstones is providing shop frontage and promotion for its biggest rival, and selling a device which allows readers to buy books from the comfort of their own home and have them instantly delivered. Intuition though is often wrong.

Here’s how I think the Waterstones’ offering will progress, and how I think they’re looking to monetise this. To make this work Waterstones need to increase in-store dwell time. Basically they need to get potential customers to stop in the store, browse, and stay long enough that they either decide they like the book they’re considering and so buy it on the spot, or feel they should buy while there out of some vague sense of obligation given they have spent so much time in the shop.

To achieve that you need more of some things, and less of others. The more is chairs and coffee. The less is books.

Browsing physical books is a mobile activity (at first anyway). The reader wanders among shelves, picking up books, looking them over, putting some back. Eventually they may wish to sit down and look at a few in greater depth, but initially at least they’re walking and looking.

Browsing a kindle is a sedentary activity. Walking while reading a device is a recipe for collisions. The reader here will want to sit down immediately, to have some time in a comfortable place where they can use their kindle to look up books (which frankly isn’t the smoothest way to access the Amazon store in my experience) and to have a bit of a read of the books they decide to consider.

When most of your browsers are just wandering the shelves you don’t need that much seating. In fact, you can perfectly well get away with no seating at all (though in larger stores there’s usually some somewhere). When most of your browsers want to stay still for extended periods of time though it’s obvious you’re going to need a lot more places for them to do so.

Equally, if you want browsers to linger, to enjoy the e-browsing experience, coffee makes a lot of sense. US stores have long led on combining in-store coffee houses and books, but plenty of UK bookstores have followed that lead. My beloved London Review Bookshop even has a (excellent) cafe attached. With kindles you also don’t have to worry about customers damaging the books they don’t buy by putting them in puddles or crumbs (I realise kindles don’t do well in puddles either, but it’s the customers’ kindles as opposed to the store’s books and anyway, most people are careful what they put their consumer electronics down onto).

So, more seating and where possible coffee. The shops though aren’t magically getting bigger to accommodate all this – something has to go. The obvious thing is books.

That doesn’t mean Waterstones will stop selling books of course. It just means it will stock fewer of them. Likely fewer multiple copies of the same title, but also perhaps a greater focus on the books people are likely to buy in hardcopy. I’d expect in a year or so, perhaps sooner, to see more space devoted to gift titles, stationery, coffee table books and the like which the kindle doesn’t replace, and less to say the more obscure literary titles and back catalogue (though I could easily be wrong on what kind of books they’ll reduce stock of).

From a booklover’s perspective all this seems a bit depressing. If I’m remotely right (and the only safe prediction is that predictions are generally wrong) we’re talking about bookstores as places to hang out, to relax, drink coffee and use free wi-fi to check out titles on your kindle (again, a development of an existing US retail model). The shops will be attractive and will have helpful staff, but a larger share of physical product will likely be aimed at the non-reader, since the reader is online.

All that and it’s incredibly risky. The alternative scenario is people buy their kindles, maybe at Waterstones but equally possibly they’ll just try them out in-store, head home thinking about them and then buy them online from Amazon that evening. Those same people once they have their kindles may browse occasionally in Waterstones, but just leave books in their Amazon basket buying them later when they think they’re likely to get round to reading them. On that scenario Waterstones becomes just a large advert for Amazon, and eventually goes bust from lack of its own trade.

The problem is that there is no path forward that isn’t incredibly risky. Waterstones has a ton of expensive high street real estate. It’s business model is predicated in large part on selling physical books on a volume basis, but it’s plain to anyone paying the slightest attention that the mass market is moving online. Staying as they are is an option, but it’s not necessarily any less risky than what I’ve outlined above.

To survive Waterstones has to somehow adapt to the ebook. It’s made a start by selling ebooks through its own website, but Amazon’s market share in the ebook space is so overwhelming that there’s a real sense in which it’s the only game in town. If to the average reader the word ereader might as well mean kindle, then Waterstones’ choices are either to try to shift that perception (good luck) or to come to terms with it. They’ve chosen the latter.

Waterstones’ strategy is to become the cleaner wrasse to Amazon’s shark. That’s not the best outcome imaginable, but it’s a lot better than being eaten.

Anyone interested in this topic should also read this BBC interview with James Daunt, where he discusses some of the ideas regarding dwell time (not that he uses that phrase, it’s one I know from an airport investment I worked on) and coffee.

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Filed under Ebooks, Personal posts, Publishing

Rules and commandments

There’s been a bunch of guidelines and rules for writers published over the years. As long as people want to write (but don’t quite now how or what about) I guess there always will be. I thought I’d share my two favourites.

The first is here simply because it’s long amused me. Father Ronald Knox was a priest and crime writer who wrote a number of detective stories during the 1920s and ’30s. He also famously wrote a (admittedly slightly tongue in cheek) list of commandments that he thought all detective fiction writers should follow.

Here they are:

  • The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  • The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  • The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
  • You will note, of course, that every one of these commandments has been violated at one time or another in a classic mystery novel.

    I particularly like the no Chinaman rule, which seems so oddly bizarre. Sax Rohmer and Robert van Gulik would not have approved.

    Knox’s period saw a fair few other writers come up with similar lists and they capture why this genre has never much appealed to me. Ok, he didn’t really mean people to follow them, but there is a degree of truth to them all the same. The point in good detective fiction is a hard but fair puzzle, capable of solution by the reader, which is told via an entertaining story and protagonist. That’s not stuff that much interests me.

    Here a much more interesting list. Elmore Leonard’s famous rules of writing:

    Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
    Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

    from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series.

    By ELMORE LEONARD

    These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

    1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

    2. Avoid prologues.

    They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

    The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

    . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

    5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

    You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

    This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

    Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

    Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

    Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

    And finally:

    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

    What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

    “Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

    Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

    This is a more serious list than Knox’s, but it has in common that each rule can and sometimes should be broken. For all that though, they’re not bad rules. Leonard’s examples are well chosen. His explanations make a lot of sense. Following these rules would help a novice writer avoid writing a truly bad book.

    Naturally many of the greatest writers merrily ignore Leonard’s prescriptions. That’s fine. Those writers know what they’re doing. Leonard’s rules are pretty solid requisites for good writing. That doesn’t mean they’re requisites for great writing. Leonard’s a good enough writer to know there’s no formula for that.

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    Filed under Crime Fiction, Personal posts, Publishing

    Elif Batuman, the LRB and creative writing programmes

    Elif Batuman recently wrote a piece in the LRB about creative writing programmes. Ostensibly it was a review of Mark Gurl’s history of such programmes – The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. As so often though the review became not just a critique of the book but a critique of its subject matter too.

    I’m not going to rehearse the arguments in full. You can read the article online (even if you’re not a subscriber I think) here. That link also has the replies to the article in later issues of the LRB some of which make a very good case in rebuttal.

    By temperament, experience and if I’m honest prejudice I’m inclined towards Batuman’s argument. Why I’m inclined to it is best summarised by this quote; the penultimate paragraph of his piece:

    The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?

    It struck a chord with me because I recognise it. Time and again I read reviews of what appear to be finely written books, but books with little to distinguish them from many other similarly finely written books. Technique alone is not always enough, particularly where technique alone may not be that rare a commodity.

    Now, to an extent if I don’t read a book I can’t know if I was right not to read it. That’s a paradox all readers face: we can only really know if a book’s worth reading by reading it. It’s important then to occasionally push oneself and leave room to be surprised (as Maile Meloy is surprising me right now even though arguably hers is exactly the sort of work Batuman is criticising). At the same time it’s also important to recognise that we all only have so much time.

    If a reader decides that they don’t much like the sound of sf then there’s only so much value in them checking out sf titles to see if they’re right in that pre-judgement. I don’t much like the sound of paranormal romance, but I haven’t tested that by reading Twilight. Ultimately I only have so much time in which to read and that’s probably not a good use of it.

    Similarly, I only have so much time to read and there’s only so much value in spending it on the product of creative writing programmes. The problem is that while it’s unlikely I’d be a Twilight fan if I just gave it a chance it’s not so unlikely that in avoiding skilfully written tales of middle class angst I miss out on some books that I would truly love (Revolutionary Road after all is just such a book).

    Where does that leave me? Still hungry for something more than dull but beautiful books, but recognising too that my own instinctive dislike for that form is problematic for me as a reader in a way that another’s instinctive dislike for sf might not be. Caveat lector.

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    Holidays and Kindles redux

    I got back from holiday yesterday. I was away more than two weeks and the only reading matter I had on me was my new Kindle (a Kindle 2).

    So, how did that work out for me? I posted my initial thoughts on the Kindle here, and those still hold pretty good. But having now used it solidly I have some additional comments to make on it.

    Generally, it worked very well. I’ve now read on it two novels, two short story collections, most of a third novel and a fair chunk of a non-fiction work. I didn’t have any problems with any of them. Typos were rare (certainly no more common than in printed books) and I wasn’t aware of reading on a device as opposed to a page.

    That said, my Kindle crashed on three occasions. Rebooting isn’t hard, but I’ve yet to have a paperback crash on me. Another wrinkle was that air crews view it as an electronic device and as such as prohibited from use during take off and landing. That’s a fair chunk of time on a flight, and means that in future I’ll be packing the Kindle and a book of poems or short stories for reading during those parts of the journey.

    Battery life is good. It didn’t last the full period, which is far short of the month of reading advertised. It did last nearly two weeks though and given I was on holiday I was reading more than I would have been normally. When it gets to around the 20% power level it becomes less reliable and more prone to crashing, and at that level the power remaining display loses accuracy which led to it shutting down unexpectedly on me at a very inconvenient moment.

    I didn’t use wifi originally so as to conserve power. After it ran out and was recharged I did and downloaded a software update which has made the Kindle’s performance visibly quicker.

    Overall, I remain very happy with it. My only caveat is that I would now pack one backup book for use during take off and landing or at times when the Kindle is low on power and needs recharging. Other than that, when I travel in future this will be what I’ll be travelling with.

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    Holidays and Kindles

    I’ve recently received one of the new next generation Kindles (Kindle 2 I think they’re called, though I could be confusing models). It’s £109 from Amazon UK and wifi but not 3g enabled. There are 3g versions, I just didn’t feel I needed one.

    I’m also going to be offline from the third to the 20th of September inclusive. As I say in the sidebar, during that time it is highly unlikely I will be able to update my blog or read and post to other people’s.

    The Kindle is going with me. I’ve loaded it up with books and I’ve got a good third of the way into David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten since receiving it. I thought therefore I’d post a few thoughts on that while also letting people know I won’t be about.

    It’s very easy to use. The screen is a decent size, the resolution is much sharper than the previous version of the device and the pageturning is fast enough that it doesn’t bother me. I’ve found reading on it a breeze, sufficiently so that I’m not really noticing much difference between reading on the Kindle and reading an actual book.

    Of course, that’s partly the book. A good book should draw you into its world, or force you to engage with its language (or do lots of other things actually, but it shouldn’t generally leave you thinking at length about its physical form unless it’s something like The Unfortunates). Still, it’s interesting to me and in future when I’m travelling I’ll be taking the Kindle instead of my usual pile of books which then take up half my weight allowance.

    Also, I see myself going forward buying mass publications solely on the Kindle, and restricting my hardcopy purchases to people like Pushkin Press, Dedalus, Dalkey, Peirene and so on. Those books do give me pleasure to hold, and those publishers tend to publish books which are both interesting and often obscure making them hard to otherwise get hold of. NYBR may end up being Kindle purchases though in future.

    Which means, if in some future year a meteor hits me on my way to work that a good chunk of my then library will be in electronic form and access to it will be lost as I’m vapourised by tons of falling superheated rock. To the best of my knowledge (though I’m not an IP lawyer) electronic books are licences and can’t be left in wills. Equally, if that meteor passes me by but takes out Amazon’s head office causing them to go bust, that part of my library will go with them.

    Those are real concerns. Well, not so much the meteor part but the temporary nature of books I buy in that format. That said, there are benefits too in terms of storage and ease of access. No technological change comes without downsides.

    My other comment on the Kindle is that it’s easy to find yourself purchasing more books because you don’t see them accumulating on the shelves. That’s something to watch out for, after all whether in hardcopy or electronic there’s still no point to stacking them up and not reading them. The other is that as presently set up it’s far too easy to accidentally buy a book. So easy there’s a cancel this purchase option which triggers as soon as you make a purchase. So far I’ve purchased twice by accident, though the second time I was able to use the cancel option at least. Still, not a feature I’m fond of. The book I bought accidentally and didn’t manage to cancel was at least one I would have bought eventually anyway, Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling from NYRB.

    Other than that, I would comment that so far the David Mitchell is excellent, though it’s a touch unfortunate that the part of the book focusing on the life of a financial lawyer gets confused about the differences between investment houses and law firms – something that wouldn’t really matter save that I am a lawyer working in related areas and so I found it a bit jarring. A small complaint though for such an intriguing book.

    All going well I’ll be back online from the 20th, and posting and updating soon after that. In case of meteor strikes before then, my money’s on the Galgut for the Booker. Which probably means it doesn’t have a hope.

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    The situation seems to be deterioriating…

    The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

    The Fuller Memorandum is the first novel I have read entirely on a mobile phone.

    Amazon UK recently launched the new wave of Kindles. I placed an order for one, which should arrive next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d check out the Kindle software and the range of books on offer. To do so I put the Kindle app on my iPhone and then used that to download some book samples.

    The Kindle app is surprisingly easy to use. Good resolution, easy page turns, power hungry though. Anyway, I found I could read on it easier than I expected. I got curious about how it would cope with a full work, and decided to order something light and not-too-serious to test it out with.

    At the same time of course I’ve been reading Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude. It turns out though that there are many situations where one can read on a mobile but where reading a novel is impractical. The result is I’ve finished a whole novel on my phone while I’m still only half way through the (excellent) Hamilton.

    I’ll say a few more words about the phone reading experience and its wider implications, then I’ll talk about The Fuller Memorandum itself. For the curious, it’s a very geeky comedy-horror novel and most of the folk who read this blog probably won’t be interested in it. I’ll flag when I start talking about that so if it’s not your thing you can skip that part of this blog entry.

    Also, I still think Kindle is the ugliest name for an ereader I’ve encountered. Seriously Amazon, you named your ereader by reference to bookburning? Extraordinary.

    Anyway. The Kindle app is quite interesting. You can change font size, which for me means you I tend to have about two paragraphs per screen. You can bookmark “pages” (screens) and you can highlight words to check them in the dictionary (online and immediately) or to enter notes against them. That meant as I went through I was able to input notes directly against the text. A small number appears against the word you make the note against, and a menu option shows you all notes and bookmarks and lets you go straight to any of them.

    Pageturning is very fast, which meant that although each individual page was a small fraction of a real page in practice reading was still fluid. Contrast is good, and the lit screen didn’t weary my eyes as computer screens do (I don’t know why not). That lit screen though meant it was a battery life hog, which isn’t ideal.

    Overall, I was able to read the novel easily and without the interface getting in the way. Because it was on a mobile phone I was able to read it at odd moments in the day, with the result that I read it far faster than I had expected. All of this has implications. What it implies for me is that the killer ereader device the industry is waiting for isn’t a dedicated reader at all. Nor is it the iPad (for me a firmly transitional device). The killer ereader is the mobile phone.

    With better battery life/energy usage, there’s no reason one couldn’t read multiple novels in this format. Obviously I prefer physical books, and when my actual Kindle arrives I imagine I’ll prefer that too due to screen size issues. But this was a much better experience than I had expected. I’m still not sure I’d read a serious novel in this format (I have a sample of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling on it, from NYRB, but I’d rather read that on the full device or in traditional book form) but for light entertainment it’s arguably better than the traditional form.

    For existing heavy readers, indeed for any heavy readers, the phone is unlikely to be anything more than a supplemental device (if even that). For new demographics though who have grown up accessing news through smartphones, reading the internet on them, using them for chat functions and gaming and as a general purpose tool I think this is much more viable. The fact the same software allows me to read a book on my phone or on my full Kindle (and the software reconciles the versions on each device so that each knows where your bookmarks are and what page you’re up to) means that a book can be purchased electronically but read on a number of devices – potentially here iPhone, iPad and Kindle.

    Again, I don’t think that will be much of a draw for existing heavy readers. Going forward though, I think it will be irresistible for many casual and new readers.

    Speaking personally, there are books I buy that I expect to keep. I make an attempt to seriously engage with them, I hope for greatness. Those books I suspect I’ll still tend to want hardcopies of because I’m sentimental that way. Some publishers, Pushkin, Peirene, produce books which are attractive physical objects in their own right. That will still appeal to me.

    For me though there are also books I buy as light entertainment. That’s not knocking them, good light entertainment is tricky stuff. But I don’t want to seriously engage with them, I want to be amused and to have a little fun. For those, having a copy after I’ve finished isn’t particularly useful. I probably won’t reread them. They’re not treasured physical objects as a Pushkin might be. They’re just mass market paperbacks. Or, now, a file held remotely on a server somewhere which I can access on the off chance I ever want to read it again.

    I’m hopeful the full Kindle device will be useful and will work for me. Even if not though, going forward I suspect I’ll be reading books like The Fuller Memorandum more often on my phone than in a physical edition. In time, I think I’ll be far from alone in that.

    And while the literary market won’t be affected nearly as much as the market for lighter books, lighter books outsell literary ones by a vast order of magnitude.

    Interesting times. I’m glad I’m not in publishing.

    So, over to The Fuller Memorandum itself. If you’re not interested in comedy-horror-SF with heavy Lovecraftian elements and an ocean of geek references then you can probably afford to tune out now.

    Charles Stross is one of the best SF writers around today. He’s part of the UK’s renaissance of good hard SF writing, and he’s responsible for such landmark novels as Accellerando (great ideas and vision, lousy characterisation, hard sf in a nutshell really that description).

    Stross doesn’t just write hard SF though. He’s also written some cross-reality semi-fantasy novels that I’ve not read (so even that basic description may not be wholly accurate) and some Lovecraft pastiche novels known as the Laundry novels.

    The Fuller Memorandum is the third of the Laundry novels. The conceit of each is that the protagonist, Bob Howard, is an operative for an ultra-secret arm of British Intelligence which deals with occult threats to the UK (nicknamed The Laundry). The occult threats in question aren’t the usual ones of ghosts, vampires and so on but rather are entities out of the cosmic horror tales of HP Lovecraft. Aliens beyond our space and time that, when they intrude upon our reality, bring with them madness and death.

    We human beings live at the bottom of a thin puddle of oxygen-nitrogen vapor adhering to the surface of a medium-sized rocky planet that orbits a not terribly remarkable star in a cosmos which is one of many. We are not alone. There are other beings in other universes, other cosmologies, that think, and travel, and explore. And there are aliens in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and dwellers in the red-hot blackness and pressure of the upper mantle, that are stranger than your most florid hallucinations. They’re terrifyingly powerful, the inheritors of millennia of technological civilisation; they were building starships and opening timegates back when your ancestors and mine were clubbing each other over the head with rocks to settle the eternal primate diagreement over who had the bigger dick.

    The first Laundry novel is a crossover pastiche. It takes the monsters from Lovecraft, and then injects them into a story based on Len Deighton’s spy novels. The result works surprisingly well. It’s funny, makes a bizarre sort of internal sense and the whole thing hangs together better than it has the slightest right to.

    The second Laundry novel is in a similar vein, but instead of Deighton this time Ian Fleming is emulated. This worked much less well for me, possibly reflecting the fact the idea wasn’t as fresh or possibly reflecting the fact I rate Len Deighton and I don’t rate Ian Fleming.

    The Fuller Memorandum may be based on another spy writer, but if it is I couldn’t tell who.

    The comedy of the novels comes from the contrast between the horror and spy elements, and the drabness of British civil service life. As Bob Howard reflects in The Fuller Memorandum while contemplating a super-high-tech-jet-fighter at an air base he’s sent to:

    Life would be so much simpler if our adversaries could be dealt with by supersonic death on the wing – but alas, human resources aren’t so easily defeated.

    As The Fuller Memorandum opens, the arrival of Case Nightmare Green (the code-name for the moment when the stars come right and the elder horrors flow through to our world en masse bringing the apocalypse with them) looks like it could be mere months away rather than years as was expected. The end of the world may well be nigh, and that’s bringing out of the woodwork crazed cultists and possible former cold-war adversaries.

    Bob Howard has a new line manager, but his duties now are almost entirely for the strange and menacing figure of Angleton. Angleton is a major player within The Laundry, and an accomplished sorceror. Howard is a computer programmer by background, and since magic is really a form of higher mathematics the journey from mathematician to sorceror (or inadvertent sorceror, a usually fatal condition) is a short one. Howard is also, following the last two books, a highly experienced field agent.

    After an accident in the field, Howard is put on compulsory leave, but not before Angleton asks him to look into certain files in the Laundry’s archives. Meanwhile, cultists seem to be targeting Howard’s girlfriend and fellow-operative Mo, and it starts to appear as if the Laundry may itself have a mole passing secrets on to those cultists (suggesting a Le Carre inspiration here, though I understand Stross doesn’t like Le Carre’s writing and if that is an inspiration it’s not one worn heavily).

    The plot has a few twists and turns, but while it drives the action it’s not a novel one reads for that plot. What’s interesting here is Stross’s take on the Lovecraftian mythos and his contrasting of the frustrations of living in London with its malfunctioning tube system and muggy summers with the cosmic horrors that lurk in its shadows.

    I had a sense in this book of Stross hitting his stride with this series. As I said above, the second wasn’t wholly successful for me and I thought the Bond elements too large for the comedy which was about the smallness of much British life. The first novel worked better, but is essentially a short story and a novella bolted together to form a longer work that isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Here the novel is just that, a properly integrated novel, and the scale is better judged.

    The Fuller Memorandum is packed with in-jokes. So many that I very much doubt I caught them all. Many are gaming references. When Bob buys an iPhone his girlfriend mocks him saying “‘Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card…'” Later, when captured by cultists, Bob worries they might be vampire larpers and reflects “the prospect of falling into the clutches of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharoah is quite bad enough without accidentally crossing the streams with a bunch of live-action Vampire: The Masquerade fans”.

    I noticed a reference to an undead horde at one point forming an “abhuman pyramid” with their bodies, a clear reference to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories (which I’ve covered here in case you’re reading this and hadn’t seen that entry) and there’s plenty of other in-jokes. Essentially, if you’re not steeped in geek culture then you’ll miss a lot of this (and you probably won’t enjoy much the bits you do get).

    If, however, you are steeped in geek culture then this is a lot of fun. Stross’s take on Lovecraft seems to owe a lot more to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than it does HPL’s actual stories (though apparently Stross hadn’t read Delta Green when he wrote the first novel so those particular similarities are just coincidence), but I grew up with Call of Cthulhu so that’s fine with me.

    The computer, sf and horror jokes generally work well. The characters are straightforward (to be nice) and the writing not Stross’s best by a long way (there’s a surprising amount of repetition and some overly heavy handed foreshadowing, plus sometimes the gags get too obvious and get in the way of the story) but this is a 21st Century pulp novel – an electronic penny dreadful – and in that vein it works very well.

    Stross’s best work for me is his hard sf. That said, his Laundry stories are a lot of fun, for the ultra-geeky audience they’re aimed at. If you’re going to read a novel on your mobile phone, frankly I can think of few more apposite.

    All the more so since The Fuller Memorandum features a lengthy skit on the iPhone and it’s peculiar power to charm people into buying it even though it’s not remotely clear to them what they’ll use it for. It’s an irony Bob Howard would appreciate.

    While writing this, I found two Laundry short stories online, here and here. The Kindle version which I read is available here.

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    Filed under Horror Fiction, Publishing, Science Fiction, Stross, Charles

    Gloomy but fun

    On Sunday I went to my first literary event. I’m not as a rule interested in readings or signings and I tend to think that if a writer has something interesting to say to the public it’s probably already in their books. It takes a fair bit then to catch my interest.

    All that said, when the London Review Bookshop (my favourite bookshop) holds a panel discussion on Central European classics (another favourite) I’m there.

    The panellists were Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes, poet and translator Michael Hofmann, Czech author Tomáš Zmeškal and Penguin editor Simon Winder (responsible for publishing the Central European Classics range). Each of them spoke about one of the classics in the Penguin lineup and talked too about Central European literature more generally.

    I’m not going to repeat the entire discussion. It was 90 minutes long and I don’t recall every detail. I can say though that they made their cases well. I already knew I wanted to read The Cowards, but before attending I had no intention of picking up Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell or Bernhard’s Old Masters.

    It was interesting to learn that Simon Winder had wanted the range to include essays, memoirs, short stories and novels. He didn’t want it to be just a way of pushing some lesser known writers, but more an introduction to the range of Central European writing available. It was interesting too to learn how much chance played a part in who was selected. It wasn’t that anyone was undeserving, but for some authors there weren’t the translations available, for others another publisher already had the rights.

    Generally it was a good humoured and intelligent event. George Szirtes was on particularly good form, arguing that the resigned shrug was Central Europe’s great contribution to human civilisation and explaining that Krudy was so influential in Hungary that books with a nostalgic fin de siècle air are described as being Krudyesque.

    There wasn’t time for a lot of questions. I asked one on the links between Austrian and Central European fiction which revealed the cheering fact that Austria is increasingly looking to Central Europe to rediscover old literary links severed by the second half of the twentieth century. A question on the influence of English literature led to comments on the importance of Byron on the region (something I had no idea of), though current English fiction has much less impact (US more, probably because the US novel is in my view in better shape than the English novel right now).

    The last question was the only one that touched on Hofmann’s recent Zweig piece in the LRB – asking whether there were any authors in these countries so well known that they got in the way of discovering other and better writers. George Szirtes asked in return how many Hungarian authors the questioner knew. He knew two, and could think of a third but without remembering his name. I counted on my fingers (I’m an Arts grad, what can I say?) and got to four, but also counting one I couldn’t remember the name of. Szirtes had made his point. The literature’s not so well known it can afford to start jettisoning people just yet.

    Afterwards, I chatted briefly to Michael Hofmann. I talked to him about Arthur Schnitzler translations (I’m a fan after all); and he recommended to me Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel A Minor Apocalypse as being superb and made some favourable comments about Dalkey Archive Press generally. Hofmann generally seemed very likeable, not at all as you might imagine from his rather passionate LRB article.

    So, a bit of a departure for me, but a lot of fun. The crowd were mostly on the middle aged to elderly side, but that’s not really a surprise and doesn’t much worry me. As long as the literature’s good, there’ll be readers. And the literature is very good indeed.

    On a final note, the title of this piece comes from Simon Winder’s description of one of the writers. I forget which. I thought it summed up the literature of the whole region in a way, or at least what appeals to me in it. That’s the joy of Central European literature, it’s gloomy, but it is fun.

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    Filed under Central European Literature, Publishing

    What makes a good bookshop?

    A discussion over at John Self’s Asylum blog got me thinking about this question today. The answer of course is highly personal, but when I thought about the bookshops I tend to enjoy browsing and buying in there are some traits in common.

    So, here’s my thoughts on what makes a good bookshop, and at the end I’ll add some thoughts on what makes a bad one. These points aren’t necessarily in any order of precedence, just as they strike me.

    1. Breadth of stock. The London Review Bookshop carries a wide range of authors and usually has most of their back catalogue in stock, not just the most recent one. It holds though only one copy of each (as a rule). The shop’s not that big, so there has to be a compromise between breadth and depth. Chain bookstores tend to opt for depth of popular titles, there’s a lot of demand for Dan Brown for example so there’ll be multiple copies of each of his books. They often won’t bother stocking an author’s earlier works, there’s not the traffic to merit it.

    From my perspective though I don’t generally go to bookshops to buy the latest popular novel. I go to find something I don’t already know or to pick up a particular novel by a writer I rate. Depth isn’t that useful to me, breadth is. I don’t care if you have fifteen copies of Jordan’s new novel. I do care if you have a single copy of Hangover Square.

    2. Books in good condition. We can generally take this for granted in the UK (though Borders in London was often shocking in its care of the books). In Italy though I’ve often found books very badly cared for even when the shop was otherwise good. It’s a bit obvious, but it is important.

    3. A clean, light and airy environment. I know some folk love digging in musty corners among mouldering tomes. I’m not one of them. I like my bookshops to be clean, well lit so I can browse and unstuffy in the physical sense as well as the social one.

    4. Friendly staff. Simple really, staff should be friendly and approachable. Ideally they should know something about books, though on bookshop wages that can be a slightly unrealistic ask. It helps though even if they don’t know that much if they at least give the impression of liking books or of having read something other than a magazine. I don’t care if they share my tastes, but if they’re glowering or unapproachable then I don’t really care how good the stock is. It’s no longer a pleasant experience.

    5. Somewhere to sit. I don’t care about coffee, I don’t care about having a snack, but somewhere to sit while I consider a potential purchase would be nice. It doesn’t have to be grand or to look like a set from Friends. A couple of chairs is more than adequate. Even if they’re full of other people I’ll appreciate the effort’s been made.

    6. Display tables that display stuff I don’t already know about. If your display table features a bunch of popular thrillers, disposable light novels (as opposed to good light novels) or well known classics that doesn’t really light my fire. If though you’ve got a display of Italian fiction in translation, or books by Bitter Lemon press, or gothic novels then the chances are there’s something there I don’t already know about. There’s the chance of a surprise. Display tables are the chance to take something out of the anonymity of the main shelves and let people know it’s out there. Doing that for books people already know about is a waste (unless you want to make money of course, what I like in a bookshop and what’s profitable for a bookshop are not necessarily related things…).

    Basically, whether you do it through display tables or some other means, encourage serendipity. Amazon’s recommendations software isn’t great. What a good bookshop often provides is serendipitous discoveries, and display tables are a great way to do that. To surprise though, to give something more than the customer was expecting, there has to be something on the table that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves.

    I could probably go on, but that’s enough for the moment. I didn’t put tolerance for browsing on my list, as happily I’ve not really been to any bookshops that didn’t tolerate browsing. If this were a post about good comic shops on the other hand that would have been right up there…

    I also didn’t put in-store events down. That’s because I’m personally indifferent to them. Lots of folk love them though so they’re clearly a good idea.

    The essence of everything above is that the shop is a nice place to spend time in. The thing is, pretty much everything a bookshop sells (with only very rare exceptions) I can buy cheaper on Amazon. If that’s so, why should I pay more at a bookshop? Well, if the bookshop brings new writers to my attention, lets me browse a wide range of books and authors and is pleasant to be in then if I want all that to continue I’ll shop there. If it doesn’t do those things though, I’ll buy online.

    Essentially, the only thing a bookshop has that Amazon doesn’t is the personal element. For the bookshop to be viable, people like me have to knowingly spend more than we could and that’s not a rational response, it’s an emotional one. The best bookshops aren’t places we buy books, they’re places where books are loved and we buy there because that has value to us.

    Here’s a few things I think detract from a bookshop:

    1. A focus on stuff that isn’t books. Is it a bookshop or a stationers with a sideline in boardgames, Moleskin notebooks, wrapping paper, local area guides and some books tucked away somewhere at the back?

    2. Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. I’ve bought in three for two offers. I don’t knock the concept. But when I go in and the first thing I see is a stack of Delia’s, Jordan’s and other people too grand for a surname I’m not enticed. Equally, if I’m wading past stacks of Dan Brown and Twilight novels then I’m getting the message the shop’s for occasional readers, not readers like me. There’s nothing wrong with shops for occasional readers, except that really there’s no reason for them to exist given you can get the same titles from Amazon next day for less.

    3. Music.

    And I’ll leave that there, because I like lists of things that are good more than I like lists of things that are bad.

    So, anything there anyone disagrees with? Anything missing?

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    Thoughts on the lifespan of genres

    I said in my post about William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories that I’d post shortly about the lifespan of genres. This isn’t a topic I know as well as I’d like to, but essentially genres are not the fixed things we tend to think them. New genres emerge, old genres gain respectability and cease to be seen as genre writing or lose popularity and cease to be read much at all. They ebb and flow.

    The Edwardians were fond of post-apocalyptic fiction. It was a vibrant genre (sub-genre more precisely), and a reasonably popular one. Today, those novels are almost forgotten and the genre with them. In the 1970s and 1980s in Britain horror fiction was big business, in the 1990s it almost went extinct. On the other hand, we have supernatural romance now which never used to exist at all and although often filed in bookshops with horror or fantasy really has little in common with either.

    I’ve seen it argued that genres have a natural lifespan, and I think there’s truth in that. A genre comes into being with a writer of group of writers (who may not be affiliated with each other) deciding to do something new. They write fiction set in a historical epoch featuring real people so as to cloak their fiction in the drama of the period chosen. They write fiction set in space in an imagined future so as to talk about situations on Earth in an allegorical fashion. They write romances aimed at teenagers and capture feelings of isolation and fear of bodily change in images of handsome vampires and werewolves. They experiment with form and possibility, and the result is something not really seen before.

    Others are inspired by the new fiction the forerunners create. They see a pattern to the new works, and set out to see what they can do themselves with this new vision. They push the boundaries of the new genre, and in doing so help create them.

    With any new genre, we can expect then a handful of early pioneers followed by an explosion as other writers see in the new form tools that they can use. The genre swells and becomes popular. Often it will become very widely read indeed, because the public have always been more sympathetic to genre conventions than the critics.

    As a genre becomes popular it becomes more rigid. Boundaries become set and innovation ceases to be encouraged. New writers who arrive at this point come onto the scene with at least two generations of predecessors in the field. There are decades of existing stories and an already present fanbase. The genre’s authors at this point may well come out of that existing fanbase. Where originally the genre spoke to matters outside itself, now increasingly it refers to itself. Stories play with genre rules in ways only a genre insider will recognise or care about. Fans form solid expectations of what the genre will deliver, and become unhappy with tales that don’t conform to those expectations. The genre is now mature, and sclerotic.

    With that sclerosis the genre becomes divorced from mainstream concerns. Increasingly it speaks only to the already converted. This divorce further emphasises the form’s insularity. It no longer has much to say to those who aren’t within the fold.

    The risk with any form of fiction which has nothing new to say is that people will stop listening to it. That whatever it appealed to in its fans is no longer something that resonates. With the Edwardian post-apocalypse novels that’s what happened. The genre ceased to speak to people, perhaps the real world horror of the second world war made it no longer entertaining. Perhaps people wanted something more cheerful. I can’t say.

    I can talk to British horror fiction though, because as a teenager I read a lot of it. Essentially, horror fiction in Britain became increasingly niche. It got nastier with writers using more and more blatant shock tactics and gore to gain effect. The hardcore fans responded, but general readers did not and the genre became dependent on a narrow fanbase whose tastes were distinctly at odds with the general public. As the fanbase went on to other things the genre struggled to survive.

    Historical fiction, like science fiction, is infinitely reinventable. There are always pasts, and possible futures, that can reflect interestingly on our present. Historical fiction is now almost not genre fiction at all and is peculiar in genre in being considered for mainstream literary prizes. Science fiction hasn’t done so well and to my mind is showing the signs of a mature genre whose best days may be behind it. The reason when I read SF I tend to read the contemporary British ultra-hard stuff is that I think that fiction has something to say about the world we actually inhabit. Most SF I don’t think does anymore.

    Contemporary fantasy fiction is the best support for my argument. Its fans are markedly hostile now to innovation. New books are marketed as volume four of an ongoing series, promising more of the same for many more pages. A genre which has, in the past, contained some extraordinarily fine writing now mostly produces works that could be generated by computer algorithm. Similar points could be made about romantic fiction. The vampires and werewolves became necessary because the fans of the existing field would permit no changes to it, and new readers do not always want just what has gone before.

    New genres I’ve seen in my lifetime include the supernatural romances (child of romantic fiction and the urban fantasy sub-genre) and of course chick-lit. The lifespan of genres is such that both may well outlast me, and genres have a half-life in decades anyway so that fantasy and romance continue long after they stopped having anything to say. My point however is that genres are not as they seem fixed categories that exist in the world and that remain with us. They come into being in response to individual creativity, fossilise around those early inspirations and sometimes die with their readers. The interesting question is whether naturalism (which is often interchangeable with the notion of literary fiction) is subject to the same rules.

    Some of the ideas in this post are built upon an article I read recently about genre lifespans in the context of science fiction. I forget the author and title of the article. If anyone recognises some of the concepts and can identify where I was drawing from I’d be grateful to know so I could provide an appropriate link.

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