Autodidact

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It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

Autodidact cartoon

I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

Robin_Triggs_Banner_Twitter

The hangover

bookhangover-epicreads

This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.

Reading and not reading

James Coates

‘Woman Reading’ by James Coates

If you ever take a look at my book log you’ll notice that my reading has tailed off considerably over the last year. This almost exactly coincides with the leaving of my last job – and, more pertinently, the lack of a regular bus-rides and lunch breaks.

This is a cause of considerable distress to me. I love reading. It remains the source of unalloyed joy and learning and I am always mindful of Stephen King’s maxim: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

But that’s not the whole story, for I have been doing a bunch of reading that hasn’t appeared on my blog, and that’s the proofreading and copy-editing I’ve been doing professionally. I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t think it’s professional to put this on my blog: there’s thoughts of anonymity and confidentiality in mind but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Regardless, there’s another reason for not putting my proofreading work on my blog and that’s because it’s not reading. It’s work.

I learn a lot from my regular reading-for-fun. It’s how I developed my writing skills and how I learnt as much as I have about the world. But it’s above all for pleasure. I read because I love to read, no matter what the subject or the genre.

Spring+illustration+by+Lee+White

‘Spring’ by Lee White

Proofreading and copy-editing is an entirely different experience. It’s not about enjoyment; it is, first and foremost, work, and it requires discipline to get through. That’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasure – my favourite book of the year so far was one I was given to proofread – but really if you get lost in a proofread you’re not doing your job properly. You get swept up in the flow and the mistakes you’re paid to find slip past.

So I have been missing out on a lot of pleasure over the last year. I need to get back in the saddle – and maybe that will involve dropping some of the worthy books, the non-fiction weighties, and concentrate on sheer pleasure. Maybe that’ll give me a road back in.

But why impoverish myself like that? Maybe it’s better to try and carve out some dedicated reading time – half an hour minimum per day? Surely that’s not much to ask?

Or maybe I should just relax and not let it bother me. I’m still reading. I’m still learning. I’m still in love with books. Circumstances will change again, sooner or later.

I just miss those days of getting through three books a week. What a heavenly time that was.

Events forthcoming

Imposter syndrome is vicious and cruel and unfair. It’s also not forever. Fresh off last week’s soul-torment I now find myself in the crisp, clear waters of a restorative weekend away where I did nothing, achieved nothing, but found good news awaiting on my return.

Sadly, good news (especially that which you can’t share) makes for less than interesting copy. So let me fill this column with a couple of forthcoming events that I’d love to see you at.

First of all, I’m doing a ‘meet the author’ session at the library in which I used to work. This’ll take the form of a brief chat, a similarly brief reading, and then (probably) the briefest of all Q&As; all on 31st May at 17:30.

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Earlham library was the best of places for me; I loved that job – not only working with books but helping people of all stripes for the sheer love of helping; I – and all other library assistants the world over – work without any self-interest; nothing is being sold, there is no ulterior motive but to make other people happy. How wonderful is that?

It’s also the place where I started both reading and writing seriously. Before I started there, in 2005, my reading-for-pleasure had been subsumed by studies and my writing had been a series of starts-and-fails. By the time I left (2011) I’d written three novels and was contemplating the story that would eventually turn into Night Shift.

So this signing is deeply personal to me. Expect me to tear up at least once throughout the evening, even if, as I kinda expect, it’ll only be a few friends and me.

Secondly, I’m going to be at Edge-Lit in Derby on July 13th. This is my first convention, if one doesn’t count its younger sibling Sledge-Lit, and the first I’m attending as an author. I’m going to be doing a workshop (‘The Art of Description’), a panel (The Future of Grimdark, with some of the best authors ever) and a reading.

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I’m pretty terrified (imposter!) about all this. So please do come along and tell me it’s all going to be okay, hmm?

They say nothing succeeds like success. That’s bollocks. Really what they mean is nothing makes success like friends. And I really hope to both meet some old and make some new over the course of these events.

 

Book of the year 2018

DTRH 2

Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

QoaC

Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

the-wasp-factory

Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

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Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

The darling books of May

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Photo from this Buzzfeed article

In the absence of anything more interesting to ramble about, I’ve decided to share a few quick thoughts about last month’s reading; not so much a review, more a quick recap of sentiments that might – yes – might just include the odd recommendation. All these are listed in my book log if you want an at-a-glance account of those listed below.

Belle Sauvage

So, without further ado, let me begin with La Belle Sauvage, the first in the new (planned) trilogy of Philip Pullman. Of course I am somewhat biased because my daughter’s named after the lead character in the His Dark Materials series. But this was, in anything, better that the latter. The writing was just a little clearer, a little cleaner, and the main character is a delight.

The only negative I have is that the whole novel reads like an adventure – except for one small episode two-thirds of the way through where fantasy intrudes. Of course I know the series is a fantasy, but after the mood being resolutely realistic thereunto, it jars – especially as we have no real sense of resolution.

Freakonomics

Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt) is another book I am well and truly behind the times with. It’s economics with a hand grenade, and whilst it’s fascinating and paradigm-shifting, I have slight reservations about some of the preconceptions the authors introduce into their findings: the value of exam results in determining success and failure, for example. Still, anything that makes you think is precious.

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You might by now be sick of my new obsession with Tim Clare: I promise I’ll stop going on about him shortly – just not before I rave again about his novel The Honours. It’s not only the best book I’ve read this month, It’s also my favourite so far this year. I can’t say too much about it because I think anything I can tell you will detract from the pleasure.

Part of the joy in the novel is determining whether we’re dealing with a coming-of-age story, an upstairs-downstairs tale of the aristocracy, a spy thriller or a fantasy. So I’m not going to spoil that for you; don’t read the blurb, don’t read reviews, just start on page one and go from there.

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John Scalzi’s Lock In is entirely different; resolutely sci-fi and highlighted by the wonderful writing that makes Scalzi a joy to read. If anyone wants to learn how to write fast-paced stories that you just fly through then study Scalzi. This isn’t his best, though, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because nothing’s really stayed with me. Fun but ultimately forgettable.

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The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark) was a surprise. I picked it up on spec because I liked the cover and because that’s what libraries are for (all these books bar four were sourced from my local library) and was fully prepared to dislike it. But I didn’t. A murder mystery set in Victorian Hull scores points for originality, though at first I was a little uncertain because the story feels medieval, not nineteenth-century. But the quality of writing pulled me through. And maybe that’s what life was like for the common man: half primitive, half bang up to date. (And is the way we live now any different?) So this is a surprise recommendation from me.

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The Good Story, by contrast, was a disappointment. It’s a epistolic discussion between JM Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the nature of psychotherapy and story. But it is, frankly, hard work; and the format – neither essay nor discussion – does it no favours, and neither does the over-literary tone invite the reader to share in their profundity. There are moments of interest and revelation but I don’t think it’s worth the effort and, if anything, serves to steer me away from Coetzee’s novels.

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The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), on the other hand, drew me right in. This has been on my shelf for years, always deferred because I had a terrible foreboding that this would be really, really sad and I don’t like sad stories. Sorry. A personal failing, I know, but there it is.

And sad it was, but also somehow wonderful. The main character is a monster and a victim and sometimes it’s hard to share their head. But the writing pulls you along, drip-feeding you revelation. This, I feel, is a novel I’ll never forget. Sometimes I’ll wish I could, but that doesn’t stop me recommending it here.

Thornhill

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is magical. Sold as YA, it’s two stories in one: the diary entries from a girl who lived in the Thornhill children’s home thirty or so years ago, and the ‘silent’ graphic tale of a lonely girl who discovers her story. The art (also by Smy) is wonderful and evocative, the wordlessness perfect for the tale its telling; the diary entries are haunting and tell the tale so well. I read the whole thing in a day.

Silver Locusts

I’ve read a few Ray Bradbury’s before and loved the lyricism in the prose, so The Silver Locusts – a boot-sale bargain at 20p – came as a disappointment. It’s not the writing that was disappointing, simply that the story was so completely out of date.

I can cope with the bad science (Mars having a breathable atmosphere; there being ‘Martians’); it’s the social changes that really grate. It’s not that everyone smokes – hell, every novel written in the fifties is full of cigarettes and cigars – but that, aside from a very few minor (and barely significant) characters, everyone is male. Bradbury never even considers that women might have an active part to play in the story.

Similarly, whilst I can cope with a racist character using the ‘n’-word, the description of the Jim Crow-era South went over my head. The depiction of the black population came close to the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, and an interesting idea (what happens to a land when the ‘workers’ leave en masse) got subsumed by the distance between the writing and the reading. The book is interesting, but more for the historian than the SF fan.

King of Dreams

Phew. On to The Sandman: King of Dreams. This is a companion/hagiography of Neil Gaiman’s graphic series and Kwitney’s book was a fine, fun read. There wasn’t that much to it, though, and all it really did was made me want to re-read the source material again.

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Speaking of fun reads, Sean Grigsby’s Smoke Eaters is a great little high-concept adventure. Here firemen don’t put out blazes – they fight dragons. What Grigsby does really well is convey the mundanity of life post-cataclysm (the catastrophe has passed and normal life is normal again) – and also the great wasteland that much of the planet has become.

If I have a criticism it’s that we don’t see enough of the world, and that there’s so much that’s left unexplained (where did the dragons come from?). But that just means there’s loads to look forwards to in the promised sequel.

The Liar

Finally: The Liar by Stephen Fry. This is… curious. It is good. It was a pleasure to read, and yet… it’s so damn elitist. It’s the story of a public schoolboy going on to a top university to meet over-privileged professors and their circles. I take a look at the cover-quotes and review-samples and I wonder: how many of them went to fee-paying schools?

I felt alienated. I felt angry at the arrogance of the class represented in this novel. The references and classical allusions left me on the outside looking in. It made me wonder if this is true of all novels: if every ‘target audience’ has this sort of jargon that excludes outsiders. Why shouldn’t public schoolboys have their moment too? There is a future blog-post on this, once I’ve managed to untangle my own feelings.

Anyhoo, Fry kind of won me over in the end. I enjoyed The Liar, though it’s a hard novel for me to recommend

And that’s all. If I repeat this round-up I’m going to have to read less books; this has been a marathon. In summary:

Book of the Month: The Honours – Tim Clare
Book to Avoid: The Good Story – JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz
Biggest Surprise: a tie between Thornhill (Pam Smy) and The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark)

Happy reading, y’all

Inappropriate

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Art by Shannon Wright

I have noticed something. Although I’m not too bad about reading female-authored work (around a third of my reading is by women, which isn’t terrible but it should really be half), I am not great at reading books by non-Western people. I know little of Indian literature, of Chinese, South East Asian, of Japanese writing. South America is a total blank and Africa also is hideously unrepresented.

This matters for several reasons. It matters because I’m not getting the full range of human experience; it’s limiting me as a person. It matters because I’m missing out on some great stories. It matters because I’m missing some great ideas for the stealing.

If you’re only reading books by white heterosexual middle-class males then your well will only be drawn by their experiences. You will have only the white-vs-black simplicity of Tolkien. Any attempt to fantasise will have a fundamentally familiar feel, no matter how creative you are within that area. The ‘others’ – be they peoples, races, species or artificial intelligences – are simply ‘us’ through a lens.

And that’s fine. It’s great, in fact. You can write wonderful novels with that base. But by denying yourself the knowledge of all human experience that’s all you have. You could do so much more; aliens who really feel alien; elves that are strange and terrifying, not merely slightly effeminate humans.

When the original Star Trek was made, Russian was foreign enough to stand for a whole alien species. Now we have to look a little further. Would it not be interesting to model an alien race on the beliefs and practices of native Australians or Amazonian tribes? Why not look into counterculture communities to help escape from capitalist orthodoxy and give your creations a totally different feel?

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, ‘aren’t you just advocating cultural appropriation?’ To which I reply by shifting awkwardly in my seat and mumbling incomprehensibly, before gesturing vaguely in the direction of Joanne Harris, who considered the subject thusly:

1. A growing number of young authors are torn between the desire to write diverse characters and the fear of seeming to appropriate the experience of others. I think it’s possible to do one without the other.

2. Basically, the difference between representation and appropriation is this. In the first case, the author portrays another’s experience with informed respect. In the other, the author re-invents it in their own image, with no attempt at accuracy.

3. And although yes, authors are (quite rightly) free to write on any subject in any way they choose, anything that belittles, or falsely claims knowledge or experience of other cultures is disrespectful of the readership.

4. It’s important, when writing about experiences different to our own, to listen to people who have had those experiences. That means reading their books, too, where possible, and where necessary, hiring them as beta readers.

5. Some authors find they just can’t write diverse characters. This may be due to a lack of research, skill or sensitivity. Either way, if this is the case, they should avoid trying to do so.

6. If an editor comments on an area of perceived cultural insensitivity in your novel, they are not trying to “censor” you. They are trying to safeguard your book, and to stop you making an ass of yourself.

7. You may not always get diversity right. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to write diverse characters. It just means you need to work harder, listen more carefully, and ask for help when you need it.

8. The further away a person’s experience is from yours, the harder it will be to depict it. Know when to draw the line. Everyone has limits.

9. If you find yourself arguing with people about your depiction of their culture or experience, or trying to tell them that you know better than they do, consider stepping away.

10. If, even after research and consultation and meaning well and working your socks off, you realize you’ve got it wrong, just say so. No-one should be above doing that.

It’s a tricky subject, and is often misrepresented, I think, by people who haven’t quite realized that they’re doing it.

#TenThingsAboutAppropriation
@Joannechocolat, used with permission

If you still doubt, read Terry Pratchett’s Thud. What are the dwarfs and trolls but a stand-in for the two main branches of Islam?*

An excellent way to consider a culture is through its myths, its origin tales, its folk stories. You’ll all be fairly familiar with the Viking gods and the Classical religions of Greece and Rome are scattered throughout our modern writings. But what of Vietnamese, Guinean, Polynesian legends? What am I missing?

Tracking down and researching folk legends is hard work, so, whilst I won’t kick them out of bed for snoring, I’m going to put them onto one side for the time being and focus on simply diversifying my reading. I’m missing out on so much.

Recommendations gratefully received. I’ll be a better writer as a result.

 

*Or possibly two other religions. It’s been a while since I read it, I confess, but Islam’s the one that’s always stuck with me