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David Hebblethwaite says “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight”. He is right.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.

Nina Allan says there is “a serious problem with the way the larger publishing imprints view SF in the current market”. She is right.

With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood – where the risk lies, in other words – aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?

I don’t have anything to add to these two posts – although I have in the past – but I’m glad that David and Nina are making these points.

Written by Martin

6 June 2014 at 13:23

Posted in genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

How To Be A Professional Author And Decent Human On The Internet

with 11 comments

Step One

1) Set-up a Google Alert for your name. It is important to know if someone is talking about you or your work on the internet.
2) Make sure you read all your reviews to see if anyone disagrees with your interpretation of the text.
3) If you see a blog review you disagree with, make sure you correct the reviewer’s misunderstanding immediately.
4) Do not under any circumstances:

  • Heed the widely held belief that it is generally a bad idea for authors to respond to reviews of their work.
  • Familiarise yourself with the culture of the blog to ensure you understand the context in which the review takes place.
  • Read the review closely and sympathetic to ensure you understand the argument they are making.
  • Re-read your comment to ensure it doesn’t sound patronising before posting.

5) If the reviewer unaccountable does not find your intervention helpful, apologise but make sure your sincerity is called into question by flouncing off.
6)Reflect on the views that have been expressed and use this experience to inform your future interactions.
6) Stew.

Step Two

1) If a third party uses this as an example of why there is a widely held belief that it is a bad idea for authors to respond to reviews of their work as part of a wider discussion of the inter-relation between fandom and industry, make sure you respond with insincerity, bluster, sarcasm and strawmen.
2) Do not under any circumstances:

  • Treat this as an opportunity to read the views of others and learn from them.
  • Read the article closely and sympathetically and consider that perhaps it isn’t all about you.
  • Acknowledge that there is a difference between author interactions regarding their own work and author interactions regarding other issues.

3) Demonstrate that there is no danger you have taken the article too personally or have lost perspective and are carefully following the discussion by mistakenly posting four comments in a row.
4) Flounce off. The conversation is beneath you.
5) Remember: although the conversation is beneath you, you are the most important person in the conversation and so deserve the last word. Make sure you come back and insult someone for no reason.
6)Reflect on the views that have been expressed and use this experience to inform your future interactions.
6) Seethe.

Step Three

1) If the original blogger mentions in passing the testerical accusations of bullying she has received from some of your fans, make sure to ask a disengenuous and derailing question that has already been amply answered by your actions.
2) Do not under any circumstances:

  • Learn any lessons from your previous interaction on the blog.
  • Address the substance of the point or acknowledge that your behaviour may have enabled it.
  • Take into account the views or feelings of the blogger.

3) Patiently explain to the blogger and other commentators why they are wrong
4) Belatedly address the substance of the point but ensure you do so in the form of a defensive strawman that implies you are the victim. Repeat the strawman: this not only increases the validity of your point, it further derails the conversation and makes it about you.
5) Continue to tell people that their beliefs are wrong and the issue the blogger raised is nothing to do with you. Do not pause to think that if the issue is nothing to do with you, perhaps there is no need for you to comment.
6) Declare your passion for literature. Do not attempt to make this relevant to the ongoing discussion.
7) Prove there is nothing intimidating about your contributions by posting six comments in a row and attempting to drown out all other discussion.
8) Further demonstrate your good faith by posting the same irrelevant comment three times in a row.
9) The conversation is all about you so make sure you reframe it on your own terms. Do not stop to consider why you would want to do this or what you hope to gain from it.
10) Even though the blogger has made her views about your participation abundantly clear, make a magmanimous offer: “If either of them tells me directly that they don’t want to discuss any further and that they want me to leave then I shall do so – without a parting shot.” Ignore the fact that this offer is also unaccountably addressed to a third party.
11) Reveal that you don’t actually understand that the blogger and the third party are different people writing in different venues. This will reinforce the view that you are repeatedly parachuting into conversations without understanding the context. Don’t worry, the fact you have passionately held opinions makes up for this.
12) Similarly, even though your livelihood is based on the written word, there is no need to write intelligibly. Passion trumps articulacy.
13) Finally, after eighteen comments, flounce off.
14)Reflect on the views that have been expressed and use this experience to inform your future interactions.
14) Brood.

Step Four

1) Return to the argument whilst simultaneously claiming “I’m not going to get back into the argument”. Choose a title that will inform readers you are continuing to engage sympathetically and act in good faith.
2) Do not under any circumstances:

  • Consider whether rape threats are more hurtful than being told that people don’t want to discuss books with you.
  • Consider whether gender can consciously or unconsciously play a role in online interaction.
  • Consider whether your own words set the tone of the debate and informed the responses that both you and others received.

3) Flounce off from the whole of fandom. It is all beneath you. Make clear that you are “not fishing for compliments or gestures of support, nor am I looking for reprisals”, even though both are likely to occur.

Step Five

1) Immediately go on Twitter and continue your unwanted interactions with fans.


Written by Martin

24 September 2013 at 11:52

Posted in genre wars, sf

Tagged with

What I Want, Exactly

with 10 comments

In a post entitled ‘The Hugos, The Clarke Awards And What Do You Want, Exactly?’, Cora Buhlert writes:

“The Hugos are broken” posts came mainly from (male) British critics this year, and not against international fans and writers in general… Indeed, the one thing I don’t see on the list are British nominees, at least not in the fiction categories, which probably explains the dissatisfied grumblings of British fans and critics right there.

I’m not sure that first point is borne out by her own round-up post which links to not a single male British critic. Given this, her explanation for these grumblings is even less plausible than it would ordinarily be. She then goes on to discuss the Arthur C Clarke Award:

Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws. One thing that all of these discussions and their recurrence show is that the SFF community is changing. However, it’s not necessarily changing into the direction that the brigade of young male British critics would prefer.

I don’t know who this brigade is but – speaking as a young(ish) male British critic – I certainly prefer this year’s Clarke shortlist to that of the Best Novel Hugo (and I prefer the BSFA Award shortlist to both). I base this on my previous experience of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Chris Beckett, Nick Harkaway and Ken MacLeod (and M John Harrison and Adam Roberts). That is not to say that I’ve read the majority of the work on the shortlists but I do think it allows me to make a relatively informed comparison. However, what I find interesting about Buhlert’s post is not these specific points but the fact she links criticism of the Hugos with criticism of the Clarke, particularly with respect to diversity. I think this is unsuccessful because of a failure to discussion the ways in which the awards are fundamentally different, a difference that is, I think, how they are decided (five judges versus any interested member of Worldcon) than what they decide. By discussing that issue, I aim to answer Buhlert’s rhetorical question more fully.

The Clarke Award is for best science fiction novel published in the UK; the Best Novel Hugo is for best speculative fiction novel published in the US. The Clarke Award has a pool of eligible work pre-selected by UK publishers; the Best Novel Hugo has no pre-selection of its eligible pool. We know that this year, that means that the judges of the Clarke Award had 82 works to select their shortlist from (substantially higher than in previous years). But the Best Novel Hugo pool is vastly bigger than this – at a conservative guess I’d say at least four times the size. We also know from Niall Harrison’s count that ratio of speculative fiction books published by men and women is very different between the two countries. For example, using books received by Locus in 2011 as a proxy, he found:

Overall, 47% of titles listed were written or edited by women, 53% by men; that’s closer to parity than last year. It also obscures a large difference between the US and the UK. In the US, last year, Locus received very nearly equal numbers of books written/edited by men and women. In contrast, only 1 in 3 books received from the UK was written or edited by a woman.

Which brings us to the fact that this year, for only the second time in its 27 year history, there are no novels by women on the Clarke Award shortlist. I mentioned this briefly the other day when I talked about the existing data on women and the Clarke but it is perhaps worth unpacking a bit more. It is my belief that the lack of women on the shortlist can only be explained by individual sexism, institutional sexism or some combination of the two. A good example of the former theory can be found in this post by James Nicoll:

Congratulations to the Clarkes for resisting the deadly temptation to produce a more diverse nominee list, especially given the outrageous – by what appear to the current standards of British SF – presence of women, persons of colour and Muslims on the submissions list. In particular I’d like to praise you for snubbing Alif the Unseen, which could have only embolden those people into further creativity in the field of SF.

I think most people would agree that when it comes to likely reasons why the judges did not put Alif The Unseen on the shortlist, naked anti-Muslim hatred is pretty far down the list. When it comes to women, however, there is a much stronger case. This is based on the demographic argument that women make up more than half of the world’s population so we should expect them to be represented in those proportions. Given the distance between the 50% we should expect and the 0% we got – the argument goes – it is just not plausible that the four women and one man who judged the award this could not select a book by a woman on merit. As someone puts it in the comments on Nicoll’s post: “An all-male list shows that they’re already judging by something other than quality.” Now, this is a very handy rule of thumb but one that is predicated on supply of eligible work matching those demographics. For the Hugos, it does; for the Clarke, it doesn’t come anywhere close.

To take an example from another area where women remain disadvantaged, a lot of the actively bad practice has disappeared from recruitment and promotion over recent decades but it doesn’t matter if you have impartial criteria and a representative and independent interview panel if only men apply for the job. In this way, a fair selection process can still produce a disproportionate outcome. This counter-argument has been put forward by Liz Williams, one of this year’s judges, and I think it is a compelling reason to believe that the sexism here is institutional rather than individual.

In this respect, I was struck by something that Paul Kincaid said before the award: “If, for instance, Empty Space, Jack Glass, Angelmaker and Alif the Unseen are all excluded from the list, we will have very legitimate cause for concern.” Angelmaker did make the shortlist so hopefully he didn’t find cause for concern with the award this year (Kincaid has written his own dyspeptic piece on the Hugos and the Clarke). What struck me, however, was that you would be hard-pressed to change the ratio of authors and make this core proposition 75% women. If the judges don’t like a highly-rated novel by a man then there are plenty of other highly-rated options by men. If they don’t like a highly-rated novel by a woman then that can wipe out a lot of the available pool. Niall Harrison suggested in his excellent piece on the shortlist that the most plausible other contenders by women were The Method by Juli Zeh (which was shortlisted for a Kitschie) and Pure by Juliana Baggott. There is also vN by Madeline Ashby, a book that had much more mixed reviews but represents pretty much the only core science fiction contender by a woman). I am looking forward to reading these novels but I wish there were many, many more of them; as with the employment example above, I think the focus of fixing the problem needs to be on removing barriers for people who aren’t white men.

You’ll also notice that Empty Space, Jack Glass and Angelmaker are all most readily identified as science fiction whereas Alif The Unseen is most readily identified as fantasy. No one knows whether the judges liked it but didn’t think it was eligible or thought it was eligible but didn’t like it (or, indeed, didn’t like it or think it was eligible). These edge cases offer an additional opportunity for elimination and, if they are not eliminated, they always prove contentious. For example, this comment by Jonathan McCalmont in the context of a very interesting article about how to fix discussion of the Hugo Awards: “An interesting example of this type of thing in practice is the Clarke award which, despite being an SF award, has recently been nominating works of urban fantasy and novels containing talking horses.” Both Zoo City (a primarily fantasy novel by a woman that can be read as science fiction) and The Waters Rising (a primarily science fiction novel by a woman that can be read as fantasy) are dismissed. (McCalmont goes on to echo Cheryl Morgan’s suggestion that this year the judges have directly responded to this reaction: “But then you look at this year’s shortlist and you see nothing but core genre. Something happened. People talked about it. Something else happened.” I find this theory unlikely.)

So, what do I want from the Arthur C Clarke Award, exactly? I want knowledgeable judges to read the submitted work, think carefully about which of these novels truly constitute the best science fiction published that year and advocate passionately for these books to their fellow judges. I want them to be open-minded about what constitutes science fiction and I don’t want them to try and second guess the response their shortlist. I’m lucky because this is exactly how I believe the award already operates. But I also want the judges to be able to draw on a broad, bold and diverse pool of high-quality submissions and sadly that isn’t the case.

The Hugos, however, do not have such a problem so what do I want from them? I want the voters to act as if they were judges, to treat the process of voting as a privilege and a responsibility. I want them to read the material made available to them in the voter pack and cast an informed ballot based on this, meaning categories such as Best Fan Artist to receive as many votes as categories such as Best Novel. I want everyone who can vote to actually vote, meaning more people voted than nominated. But I also want everyone who votes to nominate next year and make use of what the Clarke doesn’t have: a pool of potential nominees constrained only by the imagination of the people who decided the shortlist. Being an informed nominator is a tough job – it is much harder than being an informed voter – but it is only way to make an informed vote truly meaningful. To make this process easier, we all need to help each other by posting our draft ballots, engaging with low nomination categories and just generally talking about what really is the best that speculative fiction has to offer.

Written by Martin

8 April 2013 at 18:08

True Grit

with one comment

With very little commentary and mostly for my own records, a few links on the topic of:

Firstly, Joe Abercrombie talks about the value of grit:

I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook… Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’

But, he continues:

Lots of those who praise gritty writing talk about its realism. Lots of people who criticise it assert there’s nothing realistic about splatter and crushing cynicism. You’re both right! Realism is an interesting concept in fantasy. If we were aiming at the uncompromisingly real we probably wouldn’t be writing in made up worlds with forces that don’t actually exist. So things are often exaggerated for effect, twisted, larger than life. But we can still aim at something that approximates real life in all kinds of different ways. Where the people and their behaviour and the outcomes of their actions are believable. Real life is surprising, and unpredictable. Traditional fantasy is often the reverse. You know how to spot a certain type of character, and when you spot him/her you’ve a pretty good notion where their story is going to go. Grit attempts to shake up that relationship, to throw curveballs. Critics might say that grit is so prevalent we now can be sure our hero will be eating babies by the end of the prologue, but I actually don’t believe that. I think the palette of epic fantasy has grown broader over the last few years as a result of the movement to gritty.

Richard Morgan pretends not to understand any of this so let’s move on to a proper response from Foz Meadows:

Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.

This ties in with a recent post from Sophia McDougall on sexual assault and “realism” in popular culture and why she stopped reading A Game Of Thrones:

That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away. Instead, it was all the rape. This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.

But. There. Are. Just. So. Many. Of. Them.

And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it. I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

She notes that this rape is always against women rather than men (the title of the post is ‘The Rape of James Bond’) and Liz Bourke follows up this point:

An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men. And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.

Written by Martin

17 March 2013 at 18:08

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

Perdition And The Deep Blue Sea

with 5 comments

Simon Spanton has published a really odd piece called ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ on the Gollancz blog. It is only 800 words long but manages to be rambling, patronising and built of straw.

His central thesis is that “it is clear that we are having a very informed, passionate and ongoing conversation with… ourselves.” Who is this we? I am going to assume all members of what we like to call the speculative fiction community. Apparently we’ve let ourselves down:

Preaching to the converted. Or arguing the finer points of our theology with those on the other side of a schism in our faith. Who is talking to the unbelievers? Who is taking the message out to the heathen mainstream? Where are the missionaries?

Good choice of analogy: missionaries are deluded, bigoted idiots who are obsessed with shoving their worldview down other people’s throats. The genre has got quite enough of those, thanks, we don’t need any more. A more sensible word might be ambassadors and guess what? We’ve got plenty of those too. To be honest, when Spanton writes something so stupid, it is hard to believe he is writing in good faith. Are we really to believe that, say, Damien Walter in the Guardian, Simon Ings in Arc or Adam Roberts in every periodical known to humanity are turned entirely inwards? Not to mention that, in the age of the internet, the very idea of having a conversation with yourself is utterly obsolete.

Spanton concludes: “Where, in short, are the hell we going to get new readers for all these wonderful books from?” Ah ha! It all becomes clear! Despite writing on a blog orientated at readers, the “we” isn’t all of us, it is the industry. Once again a diagnosis of a problem with the genre is quickly revealed to really be a desire to sell more books.

It is for this reason that Spanton picks genre awards as an example of the problem when they actually undermine his original argument. The UK has two awards – one established (the Clarke) and one newcomer (the Kitschies) – that do more than most other things within the genre to spread the good news. They do exactly what he later says in the comments that he is seeking: “What would be fantastic would be if we could find ways to increase that exposure, to broaden the appeal of an Award’s brand beyond that of the already interested parties.” That doesn’t really matter though, all that matters is sales and winning an award “makes not a jot of difference to sales of the winning books”. This is a publishing truism that is frequently trotted out along with others such as people will only buy genre books with ugly covers. In the comments, Lauren Beukes gives a pretty clear example of how this fact isn’t always true:

Zoo City was about to go out of print in South Africa when I won the Clarke Award. It’s now in its fourth reprinting. I’ve certainly seen a spike in sales in the UK and SA although it’s still not huge numbers, and in South Africa it has a lot to do with the local-girl-done-good factor. But still a significant uptick.

More significantly, the Clarke win has lead directly to other opportunities, from Zoo City being included in the Humble Bundle e-book bundle, curated by Cory Doctorow, which sold 80 000 copies (eclipsing all my other sales put together), sales in other foreign territories and, critically, putting me on editors’ radars as my agent and I prepared to pitch The Shining Girls.

As I was typing this, Simon Morden has written a comment saying exactly the same about the Philip K Dick Award. It is not that Spanton is necessarily wrong – I’m sure the Bookscan figures usually do show little sales spike – it is just that this is a very narrow way of measuring things. So I was particularly interested in what Tom Hunter also said in the comments:

SF awards don’t increase sales (part 2). How do you know? I’ve had many conversations with publishers of all sizes about reader insight, and basically there doesn’t seem to be any – publishers seem to know less about their audiences any any other comparable cultural organisation (theatre, gallery, museums etc) So basically unless an award announcement results in an immediate sales spike how are you tracking this?

This was the one comment Spanton didn’t respond to. I am happy to accept that publishers know far more about their punters than me but how much do they actually know? Regardless, it is pretty obvious that awards are a red herring in this discussion. This is Spanton’s second shot at the argument:

I sometimes wonder whether the mainstream and literary markets, even by just occasionally indulging in older genre ideas and treating them with (from religious analogy to art world) broader brush strokes and colours that are easier on the untrained eye, are not going to be more successful at showing to a broader readership what SF and Fantasy can do. Whether it be Audrey Niffenegger, (not Margaret Atwood – she’s just one of us OK? Argument closed), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, Will Self or even, God help us all, Martin Amis aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are? And this is without considering those fantastic and unashamed genre writers, the likes of David Mitchell and Lauren Beukes who are published under the aegis of mainstream houses and who therefore have the chance of getting their conversation heard by believer and heathen alike.

Now this is missionary talk: benevolently condescending to the other side. But it says absolutely nothing. “Aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are?” Does Spanton really believe there is a rhetorically obvious answer to this? Where is the argument? We have the tautology that mainstream writers are published by mainstream publishers and nothing beyond this. His final sentence makes even less sense: Mitchell belongs in exactly the same category as Niffenegger of those writing fantastic fiction for mainstream publishers whereas Beukes is someone whose success with genre publishers has brought her to the attention of mainstream publishers. What is missing is any explanation of why this makes any difference to outside of a genre publishing house. There is simply no “we” here.

Because this piece isn’t really about having a “conversation with ourselves”, Spanton doesn’t see the need to make any suggestions about how that conversation might be extended. His only positive suggestion at all is: “But I do think it would do us no harm at all to stop being so bloody sniffy about the mainstream and literary (whatever that means) world’s occasional ‘misappropriation’ of ‘our’ cool stuff.” I agree entirely with this statement. Unfortunately he spoils the effect of having said one sensible thing by immediately following it with classic Them Vs Us cobblers “Yes they are going to claim (in the broadsheets, on the radio; all those places we don’t get to go) that they had the idea and are better than us (just like we do) but they are at least talking to other people.” This is tiresome but in the comments he goes further to say “I’m not a genre Uncle Tom” which is just fucking offensive. And what was the point of any of it? I’m really not sure.

Written by Martin

20 February 2013 at 19:30

Posted in genre wars, sf

Tagged with

Abolish The Hugo Best Editor Categories

with 17 comments

It is Hugo nominations time and last night on Twitter there was a bit of a conversation about nominating Devi Pillai for Best Editor Long Form. This was kicked off by this post by NK Jemisin entitled ‘Give my editor a Hugo’. In addition, to Pillai’s work on her own books, she also put forward this list of other works:

  • The Way of Shadows, Beyond the Shadows and Shadow’s Edge (the Night Angel trilogy) by Brent Weeks
  • The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
  • Blameless, Changeless, Heartless, etc. (the Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger
  • Blood Rights by Kristen Painter
  • Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
  • Cold Magic (the Spiritwalker Trilogy) by Kate Elliott
  • Working for the Devil (the Dante Valentine series) by Lilith Saintcrow
  • Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan
  • The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood

I have only read three of those novels: The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie and The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood. I love the Abercrombies, I think the Grimwood is the worst thing he’s ever published. It also strikes me as a novel with substantial issues around structure, pace, point of view and consistency, things I would expect and editor to take a firm hand with and things that would disuade me from nominating Pillai for an editorial award. At this point Jonathan Strahan made the inevitable comment: “The problem is, and this is why I suggested my proposed Hugo rules change, you can’t know if it is or isn’t. You’re assuming.”

He’s right. I haven’t seen Grimwood’s original manuscript, I have no idea of the work Pillai did on subsequent drafts, all I have to go on is the finished text. Only two people know for sure, I just have to rely on the evidence. In some cases the evidence seems overwhelming such as with Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan which appears to be not only a very bad book but cursorily edited in order to make a quick buck. But it remains an assumption (as editors will delight in telling you if you make any such inference).

There is more than a little hypocriscy to Strahan’s position though. He has been nominated for Best Editor Short Form for the last four years and has not declined these nominations. Yet he believes them to be meaningless, that the people who vote for category are incapable of making any judgement about them. Only authors and editors themselves would be able to nominate, meaning each editor would have two nominations at the maximum. That doesn’t make for a viable award. So I hope if he is nominated this year, Strahan will stick to his principles and decline. In an ideal world, all editors would do the same and the awards would be abolished since what they seek to reward is so clearly incompatible with a popular vote.

Strahan’s own prefered rules change is to give the Best Novel award to both author and editor. This is embarrassing. It is, however, entirely in keeping with the philosophy of the Hugos: awards for all and contorted categories that exist nowhere else. In the rest of the literary world, awards for novels are awards for authors as should obviously be the case. Implicit in an award-winning novel is the idea that the editor has done well to acquire and publish it and they will undoubtably be congratulated by their peers for this. Similarly for magazines and anthologies, success for them implies success for the editor. But it is self-servingly ridiculous to try and formalise such industry praise within a fan award such as the Hugos, particularly since doing so would in no way avoid the problem of fans having to make assumptions. Both categories need to go and not be replaced.

Written by Martin

21 February 2012 at 11:47

Posted in awards, genre wars, sf

Tagged with

On Being Libelled By Liviu Suciu

with 24 comments

Liviu Suciu has a post at Fantasy Book Critic about negative reviews which uses two examples: Tibor Fisher’s review of Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas for the Guardian and Liz Bourke’s review of Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan at Strange Horizons. The comments, however, are entirely about Bourke’s review which has itself received many, many comments, including several from Suciu.

In the course of the post and the comments, he also alleges that both Strange Horizons and its reviewers are inherently biased. This isn’t the first time he has made such allegations and he also repeats them on this post from Larry Nolen which discusses the reaction to Bourke’s review. Abigail Nussbaum, the reviews editor of Strange Horizons, challenges him on the allegations but, predictably, he refuses to either support or retract them. Since Suciu also specifically makes these allegations against me I also challenged him and asked for an apology. This comment was deleted so, slightly re-purposed for the different context, here it is:

* * * * *

You set out an accusation: that SH has a deliberate policy of favourably reviewing certain books (“the establishment” consisting of “the scalzis, the tors, the oldies, the pc’s”) and negatively reviewing other books (“newcomers eg Mark Newton or Mr. Sullivan and the un-pc’s (Neal Asher, JC Wright)”). You provided no evidence for this accusation.

Abigail then refuted your accusation by providing comprehensive evidence that your claims were false.

You responded by saying “Well, you deal in over the top claims, you gotta take them too.” Here you are ignoring the evidence and instead comparing Liz Bourke’s supported claims in her review with your unsupported claim above. This shows that a) you have no interest in the truth of your claim and b) you can’t tell the difference between hyperbole (tone) and a lie (content).

Abigail pointed this out and asked you to justify yourself.

You repeated your claim that you are just giving an eye for an eye but then claimed that you’ve already provided evidence. Namely: “the names I mentioned that got thrashed and somehow happen to be authors that do no fit into the pc/establishment places, while utterly similar (or worse and we can discuss that too btw if in the mood) books and authors (eg Sword of Fire and Sun which is on the same level with Theft orf Swords from quite a few points of view) get the plus treatment.” Your argument here appears to be that since books which you personally believe are of similarly quality (you only give one such pair despite your original list of authors) received reviews that differed from your personal opinion then Strange Horizons must be inherently biased. There is such a catastrophic chasm in your argument that it is hard to know how to take issue with it.

Abigail again called you on your conflation of hyperbole and lies and your total lack of evidence for your claims.

You responded by accusing her of slander. What you mean is libel and it is an extremely bold word for you to use. It is you who is libelling Strange Horizons when you accuse it of being inherently biased. More specifically, you are libelling me when you accuse me of giving Mark Charan Newton a negative review because “he dared being a 20 something to have success”.

You say you “do not spread lies as I simply note my perception”. When you voice a perception that is contradicted by reality, it could generously be called being mistaken. When you voice a perception that is contradicted by reality even after that contradiction has been pointed out to you, it is called lying. When you repeatedly voice a negative perception that is contradicted by reality even after that contradiction has been pointed out to you, it is called defamation.

You then put the cherry on the cake by saying: “I am happy to be shown the error of my ways but with deeds not with accusations.” This is, of course, another lie. You have been shown the error of your ways and this has been shrugged off as irrelevant. If you really are happy to be shown the error of your ways then please apologise for defaming me.

* * * * *

I did not expect to get that apology. Sure enough, my comment was deleted and comments on the post were closed. However, Suciu has now appended this note to the post:

I also want to make clear that while I question the judgement and the way of expressing it in the above linked reviews and a few others alluded in the comments, I do not know personally the reviewers involved, have no reason to question their motives beyond what their public words say and I deeply apologize if my comments have been construed as personal attacks. I also do not condone attacks based on race, ethnicity or gender.

This is not an apology. If Suciu had no reason to question the motives of Strange Horizons reviewers beyond their public words then he would never have made his allegations. Having made them, he has still not retracted them and instead apologises for anything that might have been “construed as personal attacks”. Nothing has been construed as a personal attack, he has explicitly made personal attacks on the integrity of me and other reviewers. He signs off by saying: “The sff online community is a great thing and I think we are all better for it, but it is also an easy thing to shatter and I again apologize for contributing to ill will feelings.”

Liviu, if you honestly mean that then publicly retract your statements about Strange Horizons and apologise for them.

Update 1: Suciu responds in the comments.

Update 2: Cora Buhlert has written a blog post about this one but disabled comments. I respond to her below as do others who have had their comments blocked.

Written by Martin

16 January 2012 at 17:01

How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility?

with 16 comments

Once upon a time fandom was confined to fanzines and letters of comment, meetings and conventions. In other words, interaction existed but was limited. If you nominated someone for an award it was probably because you liked their work or had met them in person. Then along came the internet. Hooray! Among the many other awesome things the internet did, it massively increased interaction between fans themselves and between fans and authors. A good thing, obviously. Then one author had the bright idea of posting their award elibility so that their fans would be encouraged to nominate them. This idea soon caught on.

And why not? Authors obviously have a right to promote themselves, increasingly I would imagine they would say have they have a duty to do so. If you have a platform that speaks directly to your fanbase, why not use it for this purpose? Well, there are a couple of reasons why not. Firstly, it is unbelievably crass. By posting your eligibility you are implictly saying that you are worthy of nomination which means you are saying that your novel or story is one of the five or six best published in the entire field that year. Obviously, authors never come out and say this which only makes the situation worse. Secondly, and more importantly, it pollutes the awards themselves. If you move the discussion from the field as a whole to you as an individual author then you are changing awards from being an attempt to identify exemplary texts into a popularity contest. Unfortunately, although those who were critical – people like me – had the moral high ground, they still lost the battle: over the last couple of years, authors posting their eligibility has become endemic.

Apparently authors really, really want to win awards. Given that, you would hope they would look at award shortlists and think “wow, there is some really exceptional work on there” and aspire to produce something of a similar standard. Instead it would appear that they look at shortlists and think “wow, there is some really mediocre work but heavily self-promoted work on there” and take that as their inspiration. To hear authors tell it, they are trapped in an arms race; if they don’t post their elibiligy then their work will be drowned out by all the authors who do. It would be more accurate to say that there has been a vicious circle of the increasing prevelance of such posts weakening social norms which in turn increases the prevelence of the posts.

Something different happened this year though. As awards season came round and authors started to make eligibility posts it became clear that they weren’t satisfied with having won the battle, they wanted to take the moral high ground. A good example of this can be found in Juliet McKenna’s post on information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage. She describes her personal evolution from being brought up to consider self-promotion “utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts” to being an author in the modern publishing industry were some level of self-promotion is necessary before sensibly concluding that “ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with.” Exactly right.

The post becomes problematic, however, when McKenna suggests that “one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike” and that authors posting eligibilty supports this. That valuable function is certainly right but I’m extremely sceptical of the ability of such posts to support it. I’ve chosen McKenna’s post as an example of this new meme because several people (including me) try to unpick this point in the comments with limited success. I’d recommend reading the comments for the detailed discussion but it is abundantly obvious that if your goal really was to promote debate and discussion then posting your own eligibility is a singularly poor way of doing so. Charitably you could say that it might be a potential positive side effect of self-promotion, less charitably you could say it was a figleaf intended to give legitimacy to such self-promotion. I have to say, I tend towards the latter view (in my grumpier moments I considered entitling this post “Don’t Piss On Me And Tell Me It’s Raining”) but, if you want to prove me wrong, then Niall Harrison makes a very good point in the comments:

If I ever saw an author make a post that said, “Hey, Hugo nominations are open — I think you should read and consider nominating this book, because I think it is awesome for these reasons” I would probably forgive them a hundred posts promoting their own books for awards. But somehow that never happens.

Some of this comes down to taste. I think there are strong argument against eligibility posts but perhaps if I was an author I would weigh things differently (although the authors I admire don’t). As McKenna says, everyone will draw their own line. So worse than the overstated case for eligibility posts as a social good is the way she characterises critics:

So why should [authors] be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future!

Quite obviously authors have not been discouraged in the slightest but this language of “hostility” and “threats” is troubling. Others have gone even further than McKenna in suggesting that not only is posting your eligibility socially positive but that this means that any criticism of such posting is inherently socially negative. Consider this Tweet from Cheryl Morgan: “The main reason why established fandom hates pimpage is that it encourages more people to vote.” This is initially deeply confusing since you would be hard pressed to think of a more established member of fandom than Hugo maven Morgan. Is she speaking on her own behalf? Presumably not. Then who? Well, if you know Morgan then you know she is a paranoid fantasist and you will quickly twig that not only is “established fandom” an imaginary construction, it also consists of imaginary people. That is to say, as is typical of Morgan, it is soon revealed to be a baseless smear. But what of the substance of the smear: if you criticise authors for posting their award eligibility then you are deliberately attempting to suppress the vote. Extraordinary. We are truly down the rabbit hole now.

Written by Martin

11 January 2012 at 13:17

Posted in awards, genre wars

What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes?

with 75 comments

As you will have noticed from my short story projects I tend to find genre short stories frustrating. For this reason I subscribe to none of the magazines and rarely read any of the freely available material on the internet. The exception is at awards time. This is, after all, part of the point of awards: to filter a huge field and identify the best of the best. By reading only shortlisted works I should avoid all frustration and experience only excellent literature.

Ho, ho, ho.

Not only does awards season mean I read short fiction, it also means I get an opportunity to talk about it. This year Karen Burnham has been running a short story club at Locus Online. It is a welcome development, although it is a shame to see no other contributors to Locus taking part. The club covers all the short stories and novelettes that received two our more award nominations this year.

One of these stories is ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone, which was shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Nebula. It subsequently won the Nebula. This means, theoretically, that the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America – professional writers all – thought that this was the best short story published in science fiction and fantasy in 2010. That is quite an accolade. Theoretically.

Before going on to try and puzzle out what has gone catestrophically wrong with the Nebulas, I suppose I better mention the story itself. My first encounter with the story was when Nick Mamatas refered to it as the “Mormon space whale rape story”. Then I read Abigail Nussbaum’s scathing review as part of her overview of the Hugo novelette shortlist. (Nussbaum has also written about the Hugo short story and novella categories. Poor sod.) As such, although my expectations for the short story club had already been lowered by ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard and ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, I was confident that ‘Leviathan’ would be much worse. And it was.

I tweeted the story as I read it at #whalerape (now lost to the ether) and I’ve left several comments on the Locus post so I’m not going to rehearse why the story is so bad (it is also worth reading the David Moles post linked there). If you think the story has any merit at all, feel free to try and convince me in the comments. Instead, my interest now is in how it won the Nebula. The voting system might well play a part. As Sam Montgomery-Blinn pointed out, unlike the Hugos:

the final vote is a winner take all, unranked vote: pick one of these 5-6 stories. This is precisely the voting system you would expect to produce a mediocre winner with strong hot/cold reactions, while 3 or 4 more potentially outstanding stories split the remaining votes.

But that would still mean a chunk of people had to actively vote for ‘Leviathan’. How many members of the SFWA vote for the Nebulas and how many of them voted for this story? I’ve no idea because this information isn’t published. The Hugos are very good about publishing their nomination and voting statistics and I can see no good reason why the Nebulas shouldn’t do the same. I emailed the SFWA to ask for the statistics but I’ve had no response. Because of this fundamental lack of transparency around the award, I am reliant on anecedotal evidence. For example, Rick Bowes gave a partial answer but I’m not sure what his source is:

it appears that fewer than 20% of the membership recommend on the preliminary ballot or vote on the final ballot. It’s possible for a very small number (even single digets) of recs to put a work on the final ballot.

The combination of First Past The Post and low voter turnout is exactly the sort of situation where you would expect logrolling to succeed. And, chances are, that is exactly what has happened here. Mamatas has since mentioned that Stone is a member of the Codex writers group. He is not the only one. Here is the shortlist for the Nebula novelette category:

  • ‘Map of Seventeen’ by Christopher Barzak
  • ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard (Codex)
  • ‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara’ by Christopher Kastensmidt (Codex)
  • ‘Plus or Minus’ by James Patrick Kelly
  • ‘Pishaach’ by Shweta Narayan
  • ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone (Codex)
  • ‘Stone Wall Truth’ by Caroline M. Yoachim (Codex)

It is the same old story, you vote for your mates, regardless of how good their work is. Of course, the Nebulas have always had this reputation but even so you would hope people who voted for this story would have the good grace to be embarrassed. ‘Leviathan’ is not the best story of 2011, it is not even a good story; in fact, it can probbaly be counted amongst the worst stories published in 2011. Couldn’t the Codex writers group just have bought Stone a cake? That way I wouldn’t have been tricked into thinking his story was worth reading, that the Nebulas retained an vestige of value and that the SFWA was an organisation interested in literature.

Written by Martin

17 June 2011 at 11:43

“The endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously”

with 6 comments

As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:

Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.

Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?

The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?

The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.

Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:

However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.

It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:

Brian Aldiss
Margaret Atwood
Stephen Baxter
Lauren Beukes
John Clute
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Andrew Crumey
William Gibson
Ursula K LeGuin
Russell Hoban
Liz Jensen
Hari Kunzu
Kelly Link
Ken MacLeod
China Mieville
Michael Moorcock
Patrick Ness
Audrey Niffenegger
Christopher Priest
Alastair Reynolds
Adam Roberts
Kim Stanley Robinson
Tricia Sullivan
Scarlett Thomas

I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.

Written by Martin

15 May 2011 at 22:45