The more I read the more I realise how much of what I think of the story or book is down to the expectations I had in the first place. Not only expectations, but hopes and lingering wishes and not-explored-but-still-there hankerings on the edges of awareness. Some of these things are triggered into popping up by cover art, the blurb or quotes that worthies have placed on the cover. When I was young the favoured trope was, ‘Comparabe to Tolkien at his best.’
Reader, those things were rarely comparable to Tolkien at his best, worst or on a day he didn’t even turn up and saying so made them seem crappy, because they weren’t anything to do with Tolkien and thus they were bound to fall flat if you were looking for Tolkien. But he’d sold a shit ton of books so it seemed like a good idea. It was a terrible idea. If you did like Tolkien you hated those books and if you didn’t like Tolkien you never even picked them up.
Twice lately I’ve been sent books to read for the purposes of coming up with something good to put on the cover and been wrong-footed. The books I read did not match up with what I thought I was going to get when I sat down. As a result I started to feel disappointed fairly quickly when it became clear that it wasn’t going to be what it said on the tin. Or what I thought it said on the tin.
In both cases I went back to study the tin some more. I didn’t want to rush to a judgement because all writers are in the position of hoping someone will say something nice they can use in promoting their work. I have a rule about this which is I will only say something truthful, but I will say something if I can because people have done that for me in the past and I would like to pay it forward. I really hate to write the note back where I say, ‘Sorry, this one’s not for me.’ Of course sometimes I have to. But sometimes the book seems good but I’m still unhappy with it and all those times are down to a gap between what I thought was going to happen, as an experience, and what I actually got.
I don’t know if my vision of what a thriller is, what a space opera is, what a character novel is, what a romance is etc are things which you could mark up safely in the Median position of each of those categories, but I think they can’t be very far off the mark. I’ve been around ages now and read lots of things. So I can only conclude that in the hopes of drumming up extra trade in an exciting category sometimes people pop on a word to the cover-promo that isn’t entirely accurate.
It does the book an enormous injustice to cue expectations that it can’t meet. Once I corrected my expectations I found both the books really enjoyable on their own terms. They didn’t fit a particular category or a brief descriptor. I wonder how much I’ve missed over the years because of my expectations…
After the unsurprising reversion of my blogging from daily to occasionally here’s the thing:
I’ve gone from wanting to have my say on things to wanting to say nothing, from being in the chair to wanting never to be in the chair (see below).
I realised lately that since writing has become an online-presence kind of career, I’ve felt increasing pressure to express my views. I also feel the unhappy panic of those about to be left behind as the herd gallops onward, chattering, to the horizon. I feel I should apologise for not managing to be the cheery, engaging writer with a daily upbeat post. Instead, I offer you gaps of silence.
I used to write quite a lot about things that really bothered me. I’m a philosopher by nature, always asking why. I believed that doing this was really going to make some progress, like I could solve issues and not just describe them, like I was part of a giant conversation that was going to a great place. I don’t feel that way now. In fact I have an ever-increasing conviction that writing philosophy is driving an eighteen wheeler Optimus Prime-style juggernaut on just one wheel. I did love that dream of improving things, though. Dang it.
So now I’m in a more zen sort of phase and I know I can’t get anywhere on one wheel. To confuse a couple of images – like in the picture above, I’m hoping to be fully present in that empty chair. I’m there, but you can’t see me. When I’ve said nothing, then we’re on all eighteen wheels. When the writing goes like that and seems to write itself, that’s when I’m getting somewhere.
And finally, mostly I say nothing because I don’t know the answer to anything (unless it’s kindness. IS it kindness? I hope it’s kindness. I’m going to put that on my final exam anyway) and I feel I shouldn’t speak without that kind of confidence. But please don’t mistake my silence for a lack of care or lack of engagement. I’m always thinking, watching. I’m here. I’m listening. I’m present. I think of you often, reader, and I am so grateful for your existence. Thanks for taking things out for a drive.
Storytelling, in particular the absorption of a story through a book or novel form, is the most powerful virtual reality that there is, even including technologies which offer full sensory immersion.
The reason for this is that a reader involves not only their senses but their whole inner reality (where the whole world is created) with the book. A story is not a bunch of facts, lined up, analysed, pointed at. A story is a mix of magic and logic, belief and disbelief. It is the essence of miracles where you are not a prisoner of logic and the bright lights, big cities of reason.
If you have not been carried away by a story like a child on the back of a runaway horse, you have not experienced the fullness of what it is to be human. That’s why we write stories, to try to give, to catch for a moment, this miraculous, incredible strange, this wonderful, terrible thing that is life.
You don’t have to read my stories but please if you do anything with your ability to read go and find some incredible lives and strangest things. Immerse in the language of life!
Recently I had a brief exchange on twitter with another writer about structural racism in novels – in particular stereotypes and tropes which are included, deliberately or not, in stories written by white people which include minority characters. The discussion was actually started about gender identities, but it encompassed racial identities also.
One of the phrases used was Well Meaning White Women. I hadn’t come across that before, but I felt like it probably applied to me, because every book I’ve written includes characters who, at this point in time on Earth, would be considered minorities.
My Position: I am only oppressed or a minority in that I have been identifiable as a woman with all that entails in present-day England. I am white. I’m not sure about my gender TBH but I pass as straight and have always had partners who were men though…let’s just go with straight because it’s only significant here in terms of visual or social identification. I have various fantasy lives in which I’m always male, not always white, not always straight. I don’t put particular significance on that. Discussing imagined constructs is for another post entirely, not unrelated but not useful here. I’ve experienced what I would guess is a low to average amount of sexism. If I was structurally oppressed I can’t say for sure. I am a woman who writes SF and every interview has always highlighted that. I have often fallen into the trap of discussing that, thereby validating it. I have not been on all cylinders all the time when I had opportunities to be viciously critical of things that needed it although I’ve felt strongly about it.
I’m writing here about my Well Meaning bit and how it played out in my work up to now. If it reveals me to be a part of the problem then I’m glad to know that, at least. I don’t know that it does, so I will have to wait and see if others convince me that I am. (FYI would being convinced stop me doing whatever I’m doing? Of course it would. I can’t think of anything much more depressing than trying to fight against something only to see that you’ve been making it worse.)
In my first published novel, Silver Screen, I chose to write about a protagonist who was half white Irish and half Indian (Bharat, not North America). I know not much about being Irish, and not much about being Punjabi. I figured Irish was relatively safe as I had friends who were Irish. I had cousins who were half white American and half Indian. I assumed that there is a common humanity everywhere which would allow me to realistically imagine the rest in the usual way for all fictioneers since ever. (We are always writing only ourselves, we try to stand in others’ shoes).
However, I decided I wasn’t going to write Anjuli, or any other character in the book, whatever minority they might signal in the present, as a minority, I was going to write everyone as if they were equals who saw each other as equals and who did not have biases. I wanted to set it in a future where none of this was a thing, because I wanted to create a future where none of this was a thing – some part of me, born in the 1980s, actually thought that in my lifetime we were going to move to a point where all this was not a thing and I wanted to be in the vanguard of making it not a thing. I did my best to remove that.
One of the first, and very disappointed, pieces of criticism I got on that was that the book did not reflect the reality of being a mixed-race woman. It absolutely doesn’t, because I knew I could never pull that off convincingly and because to do so would have been the opposite of what I had in mind. The story is about the absolute bigotry handed out to an AI in a world that considered itself past all that. Even the main character dithers about whether or not to think of machine minds as equivalent to living humans. She doesn’t once think about her own heredity or history because she doesn’t think people still do that. I thought that would actually send up a signal that this is really genuinely odd, that it would give the story verisimilitude because it’s just completely impossible for a present-day actual mixed race woman in a top job not to have spent every day noticing that she was noticed for all the wrong things. The most she does is wonder about her own fractured family – which fell apart for reasons which again, were not racially motivated.
The category this falls into is the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ category of not addressing racism and thereby letting it slip away, I suppose? Always supposing I had done it successfully (I can’t tell because I wrote it). I was trying to model my work on Star Trek, but better, without leaving Uhura on the flight deck all the time. That was where I was at. I think, then and now, that there is a great benefit in creating futures where current issues do not exist, even if you can’t explain how it happened, because you give people a chance to notice that it can not exist, that it is possible and, more importantly, that whoever you are it is fantastically desirable.
Moving on through a lot more examples e.g. in which the protagonist of Natural History is a black female history Professor who goes off with a cyborg transhuman into another dimension…we end up at a much more recent book of mine, The Switch.
The Switch has a gay male protagonist struggling for survival in a world where the entire political, religious, social and scientific structure revolves around anti-gay bigotry. I think this fully captures pretty much every Do Not Never Ever EVER Do This recommendation of the original twitter thread on how to write minorities which started this entire topic.
I felt all of those Never Evers for every bit of writing that story, even before having someone well-meaning say it on Twitter. Constructing that world became a bizarre game in how to save anything remotely plausible or sensible or hopeful from the massive fucking train-wreck that is Homophobia Through The Ages. It’s part and parcel of Hatred Management Through The Ages, which is why I wanted to write about it even though every sensible bit of me was screaming, “NOOoooo let’s go write about space aliens instead…” But I couldn’t because I’ve never come across a bunch of hateful justifications for shit behaviour and wanton stupidity that I could leave un-tilted-at. And I know I am not a great tilter. I’m more like a terrier that smells a rat and then goes into the Red Zone.
Anyway I did include some space aliens and a well-meaning interfering Social Justice Warrior from another galaxy who turned out to have well-meaning methods that involved all kinds of unpleasant murdery, rapey, emotionally violating collateral damage for our heroes as she helped them to dismantle their horrid world (horrid for them, mind you, not horrid for a good half the population). Like they were short of that stuff to start with. And then they discovered that the entire thing was…OK, I’m not writing that spoiler here but trust me, it was the last thing you’d want to find out about Why You Suffered.
But then I read that Twitter thread and I wondered – I did write about a non-existent reality but, because it features things which are trying, very obviously, to hit you over the head with the Look At This Thing Here and Now bat, have I been adding to the issue? I knew from the start my only way to write about it was in an SF structural way because it isn’t my personal experience directly. As with Anjuli in Silver Screen I didn’t want to write Nico as a victim, even though here his oppression is everywhere and unavoidable. Nico pretends he’s a hard case who can shrug it all off. He’s constantly failing magnificently to do this, but that’s his survival mode and it kind of works.
You would have to decide for yourself if my work falls into the category of Well Meaning White things. I feel that there is a discussion here I still haven’t reached yet which is the problem of trying to police/interpret/know other people’s thoughts but that has to wait for tomorrow’s post.
I used to spend ages pondering what star rating to give to various things, particularly books, particularly when I felt conspicuous by being a published writer whose platform was therefore a bit weightier to some people’s minds. I also thought about being on the receiving end of other people’s ratings and what that felt like.
For ages I thought that the star rating represented my total value of the book – artistically. Not how much I personally enjoyed it and the experience it provided, but how good it was at what it was trying to be. That did suppose I can tell what it was trying to be. You can usually tell, but not always. I worried about getting it wrong. I worried that I wouldn’t be smart enough or kind enough or wise enough or whatever enough and that I might unwittingly slight some great work through my stupidity (this has happened).
Usually I just put up the stars that I feel like putting up though that varies by the mood I’m in. Horrid story but very true and revealing? Good mood: ah, yes, wisdom and human truth – 5 stars. Bad mood: fuck you and the horse you rode in on, story, you’ve added some extra blight to my day I could have done without – 2 stars. But that felt so unfair.
This sometimes left me in a situation where books were successful in their own right; well-made, nicely written, suited to their What It Says On The Tin cover, a good product, a job well done BUT I still didn’t like them. Usually when this happens it’s because the story says something indirectly through its premise and conclusion which I don’t agree with, or maybe find actively horrible. Sometimes it’s because even though I do agree I still found the experience of reading it fairly horrible for reasons of content and wish I hadn’t read it.
A horrible experience can still be valuable, perhaps very much so, but it’s not one that makes you leap for the joy of revelation. How can you set the value of something grim-but-great against something joyous-and-great?They are not similar experiences at all. Is it even ethical to count the grim and the joy? On the other hand how NOT to count them since they underpin the entire experience-thing in the first place? Given all these factors, I couldn’t figure out how to weight them to just a row of stars. It bothered me so much I gave up reviewing online, or even remarking, for ages.
So then I decided I had to revise my systems and regain some sanity. From here on in my star ratings would be some in-the-moment conglomeration of everything that had any bearing on the thing. To get over the unfairness aspect I would become even more subjectively discerning and only post four or five stars onto new book reviews – because being liked and appreciated never hurts. Three stars and under – I just don’t post those at all because I don’t think anyone benefits, unless I think that it’s warranted to actively warn someone off a book in the way I’d warn them off a dodgy toaster, known for randomly setting houses on fire. So far this has never happened. Well once, but that was so traumatic that I’ve not done it again.
As people have noted, I do tend to overthink things. But since I started my new system I have not had any more anxiety or overthinking about star ratings and reviews in general. It also works well in the other direction. I don’t bother with three-star-and-under reviews of my work – they’re for other readers to consider anyway. I did what I could when I wrote my stories and if people didn’t like them there’s nothing I can do about it so why bother?
That’s two massive anxiety-attack-producing phenomena dealt with by one, big, star-shaped rock. Winning! I give that five stars.
“Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being.
There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”
John Gray, The Silence of Animals
I was reading some John Gray today. This conclusion struck me as akin to my conclusion, for the time being. With one exception. Gray says ‘mere being’. Mere as in “that’s all, only that, no more”.
I would adjust that to – All it offers is being. Anyone who finds being insufficient will soon find otherwise when they are in transit to non-being. Being is everything. It is only insufficient if you haven’t noticed how absolutely immense it is. It’s everything. All. There can be nothing more.
Mere is also used in English to mean a lake or body of water. Hence the image above, which I found in my file and which Luisa identified for me as by Pedro Roldan Molina. I love his work!
Sometimes it’s good to be lost. It’s a bit less good when you lose things that are important. I’ve lost track of my non-fiction work and am presently working on collating its references and searching out its texts. Somewhere in the Shed Of All Things its possible I still have them in hard copy. Some of them exist on the internet. But some are gone.
I’ve always dashed from one thing to the next. If the deadline was hit, the copy accepted – then I was out of there and on to the next thing. I did have filing skills, but various hard drive deaths before the Cloud rendered them fairly useless for this present quest. I wish I had dutifully printed out, labelled and kept a copy of each item as a record to save myself a lot of bother later. I seem to remember having had this wish a few times. It has made stationers a lot of money from my wallet as I have splashed out on diaries, notebooks, desk calendars and organisers. None of them wereeffective because they require that you actually look at them instead of daydreaming about flying cities and how to manage the geology of a constructed world from the point of view of a machine engineer.
It’s all the more galling because I used to do admin for a living and I was good at it. Of course, it was someone else’s admin. Anyhoo, somewhere on the edge of The Beautiful Zone (see picture) there needs to be an Admin Zone that is robust and the only way to achieve this is, I think, to play Admin Simulator and pretend it’s a game.
Level 1, Quest 1: You have seen Charlie Stross, who is the expert at these things, write a post about this once, somewhere. Go forth to the internet and find that post. Implement its suggestions. A clue to the newsgroup you last saw it in is in the Massive Email Swamp. What are you waiting for?
Rewards: 1500XP, Work Saving Device Automation. Reputation With Self: Revered.
But first I must just write down this scene and notes for a Quantum Gravity novella I thought of while I was out walking the dog…
I am presently having all new covers made for the Quantum Gravity series and will be relaunching it in the USA in spring 2019. It will be available as e-books and, hopefully, print-on-demand for those who prefer paper.
As a run-up to this I will be shifting the focus of my blog from streamy-dreamy whatevs, to posts focused on these – not least because I will have to re-read them as a run-up to writing a few novellas in the same universe once my current project has been delivered.
Meanwhile I hope you are all having a good run up to the festive season. I’ve got so many books to read in the holidays that I’m already into the third stack.
I’m currently reading “Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore” by Emma Southon. It’s terrifically enjoyable. If history books had been more like this I would have studied it a great deal more than I did.
I wish I were a poet. I think poetry is the most powerful of the written art forms. I’m so reverential about it I haven’t written any since I was at school.
I know I am not good at it but now I’m at the age where I realise I don’t have forever so I am going to write the odd poem out of various silly impulses because I also lack silliness in my life. If you’re waiting to do something for a similar reason, why wait? Might as well give it a go. Have heart, it’s OK to be bad at things (and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to turn off the extra line gaps in this editor) – viz
I have a very scattered mind. My memory is loose. I don’t recall the stories I read two weeks ago, the films I’ve seen, the things I heard, the article details, the actual dates, that kind of thing. Even before phones I had to have notebooks but I forgot to update them. My mind wanders, leaping about, making strange connections. It’s been fun but it’s also quite a handicap in a world rich with records and literature.
On the other hand I can re-live the experience of walking around with my house keys yesterday in sufficient clarity that I can go to the place I put them down first time. Even if it was somewhere really stupid, like on the bathroom window ledge. I can do that for nearly any object if I was the last person to have it. Even if I last had it in my hand months ago.
I have periods of being very organised, life goes well. But then I slip up and go back to scattered. I used to feel bad, that one day I’d have it fixed and be organised all the time. But I really like my scattered days. They feel the best. So it will always be a bit of one, then a bit of the other.