Posts Tagged ‘mark charan newton’
My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.
Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.
The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.
Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.
Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.
As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.
Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.
My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.
Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.
Mark Newton does not like the word “clunky”. More accurately, he questions its usefulness as a critical term: “What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?”
I was intrigued because it seems like a fairly straightforward piece of reviewing shorthand. There is another name for commonplaces though – cliches – and we all know what you need to do with cliches. Out of interest I had a quick Google to see if I had used the term and sure enough I had, in my review of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds:
What starts off as a dazzlingly compulsive thriller is slowly ground down by lazy, thoughtless writing. At one point, for example, Ng gives a little pep talk: “Okay, people, let’s stick together. Like the man said, there could be some angry citizens out there, and we may be the ones they decide to take it out on.” This might be acceptable on Hill Street Blues but not in a book set in the 25th century. This sort of clunky dialogue — the ghost memory of a thousand police procedurals — litters the novel. Something similar is true of the characterisation.
I think I escape Newton’s censure because I don’t leave “clunky” sitting there on its own, I buttress it with further remarks. What do I mean by clunky though? Joe Abercrombie has a good response in the comments:
Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.
What I mean when I use clunky is to say that the dialogue is mechanical rather than natural. Natural here doesn’t mean graceful or smooth or even realistic – as Newton points out, dialogue rarely bears any resemblence to real speech, try looking at an unedited transcript some time – it means it sounds like something that would come out of the character’s mouth. In contrast, the Reynolds quote is mechanical because it merely seeks to move things along without consideration of how appropriate the words are for the time, place or person. Like clunky it is cliche. I will try not to use clunky but I hope authors will try and give me no cause to slip.
It is interesting in its generalities but Newton is obviously directing his post at some specific (but secret) targets. In particularly, someone seems to have been dissing DeLillo of whom he says: “I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic.”
I am also a great admirer of DeLillo; in fact, this was reinforced just yesterday when I read his short story, ‘Human Moments In World War Three’. Here is a not atypical chunk of dialogue from the story:
“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city — but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellowfeeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would enoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”
Obviously his dialogue isn’t clunky, however, I’m not sure I could call it realistic either. DeLillo is a postmodern master of American literature and as such his dialogue often tends to the artificial. It is still natural for the characters in his stories though; perhaps no one in the real world would ever say this but so what? Of course, not only is it not clunky, it is also rhythmic, graceful, poetic and all those other things. I am very jealous.
Mark Newton says that science fiction is dying and fantasy is the future. As Larry Nolan asks in the comments, does it really matter? Not to me. For starters, I don’t really draw much of a distinction between the two, it is all SF and it will always been around. Nolan mentions the death of the Western novel as an analogy. Now, the Western is inherently a more limiting genre than science fiction so I don’t think the analogy is plausible but even so there is something appealing about a world where all the pulp trash has withered and you are just left with Cormac McCarthy and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.
As always, Newton is mostly interested in science fiction as a marketing category which is another reason not to be too concerned about its “death”. It does lead to him saying some slightly odd things though:
Literary fiction is eating up SF. Mainstream fiction possesses a parasitic attitude to SF, whilst contributing very little to the celebration of the genre. Jeanette Winterson, Toby Litt, Margaret Atwood – the ‘literary’ brigade are taking SF ideas, recycling them as something new, packaging them for mainstream tastes. And more importantly, dragging the ideas to a section of the bookstore or readership that aren’t likely to visit the SF section. Those sales don’t get categorised as SF sales – just general fiction. So mainstream fiction is leaching sales, and the latter is just as important in terms of the genre’s sustainability. Without sales, there is little long-term backing from bookstores, and eventually publishers. (Publishing is a business, and imprints must react to patterns in sales – else they go bust.)
Literary fiction is not eating up SF, it is at best nibbling it. Based on my own very unscientific survey of the literary landscape there has certainly been an increase in the amount of science fiction published outside the genre imprints. This is a source of considerable pleasure to me (I’m not sure how you could describe their existence as “parasitic”). There is hardly a deluge of them though; as a percentage of all science fiction novels published in a year they would barely register.
Moving on, bringing the ideas of science fiction to a new readership sounds like a positive thing to me as well. Growth seems like the opposite of death. The problem, apparently, is how you score the sales. I’ve spent some time grappling with the idea that “mainstream fiction is leaching sales” but I still haven’t got my head round it. Newton has just said these books sell to people who don’t visit the SF section of the bookshop so I’m not sure how this can also deprive the same section of the bookshop of sales. It also seems to set up a false binary opposition: you can either buy the new Atwood or the new Asher but not both.
As it happens, I agree with Newton’s wider point that fantasy is ascendant at the moment (although, as Eric Gregory points out in the comments, all such things are relative). I don’t think that is particularly interesting unless you work in the industry. None of this escapes the fact that there will always be more books I want to read than I have time to read them. The exact ratio of types of books available at any one moment in time isn’t much of an issue to me.
My review of Nights Of Villjamur has generated quite a few comments over at Strange Horizons. In fact, more than any of my other ones. (Red Seas Under Red Skies, another “core genre” fantasy novel, is the only one that has come close.) The conversation – if you can call it that – continues in this thread over at OF Blog Of The Fallen.
As it happens, my next review for Strange Horizons is another fantasy novel: God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell. It will be interesting to see how many comments this (positive) review attracts.
My review of Nights Of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton has sneaked up a day early at Strange Horizons.
I wrote this review some time ago now and I have watched with surprise as lots of very positive reviews have rolled in. I wanted to like Nights Of Villjamur a lot but ended up unable to. Amazingly I find myself in agreement with Pat St-Denis on this.
Villjamur was a granite fortress. Its main access was through three consecutive gates, and there the garuda retained the advantage over any invading armies. In the centre of the city, high up and pressed against the rock-face, beyond a lattice work of bridges and spires, was Balmacara, the vast Imperial residence, a cathedral-like construct of dark basalt and slick-glistening mica. In this weather the city seemed unreal.
The opening of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur has been posted at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. His favourite novels are Underworld by Don DeLillo, The Scar by China Meiville and The Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe so I am hoping for interesting things from this debut novel.