Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Talking of Pimpage and Blurbage

Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet International just did one of his "What The Author Says" spots on Alan Campbell, who (poor fella) is just about to walk that Next Big Thing hype/backlash razor's edge with his debut novel, SCAR NIGHT, which I've recently both blurbed and pimped. Because I liked the book, ye see.

Meanwhile, I just finished reading a pre-pub manuscript of Jay Lake's novel, MAINSPRING, which I shall also be pimping and blurbing (assuming the editor considers the phrase "fuckload of fun" acceptable parlance in the medium of burbage). Funny enough, this is also because I liked the book.

It should, perhaps, be borne in mind that both books contain Grand Visual Conceits, airships and angels. Apart from that, and apart from the fact that they're both great reads, they're entirely different, of course. It's just that... well... Grand Visual Conceits, airships and angels... I am, I confess, a sucker for such things. Cities on chains over abysses, clockwork worlds with giant brass gears... mmmmm, nice.

Fantasy Magazine

Looks like Fantasy Magazine #4, will be the "Duncan Issue" -- heh. I just heard from Sean Wallace that he's accepted my story "Bizarre Cubiques", to run alongside an interview I did with Lynne Jamneck. Which is nice.

I really like the interview actually; Lynne came up with some great questions that hadn't been thrown at me before, so the result is one of the most personal I've done so far, touching on my childhood in Hellwinning and suchlike matters. And the story... well, I'll be interested to see what people make of it. It's an out-and-out homage to Guy Davenport in many ways, with a lot of his essay-meets-fiction fusion of modes, and similar concerns with art and history; and, as anyone who read my "Strange Sentences" essay can probably tell by the title, it's full-on, balls-out Modernism. So sue me... I likes me them Cubists.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hype Hype Hoorah!

Hoo, boy, there's a stink been well and truly kicked up over at Emerald City. See, what happened, for those who don't know, is that, in her Strange Horizons review of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, Chance Morrison wrote this:

Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype. As soon as I hear something is the best new thing ever I start to wonder what’s wrong with it. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies.

When maybe possibly perhaps she should've wrote this:

... Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was influenced to tell me such nonsense.

Or this:

... Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know whether the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies, and if so how!

Or this:

... Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how out of their face on crack, smack, and tequila-and-Jack the reviewer had to be to vomit up such delusional, delirious, undigested puke, and think they can pass it off as a serious opinion, fer fuck's sake.

Why? Well, ye see, it's that last sentence more than anything else. As Nick Mamatas points out the keyword "how" (rather than "whether" or "if") means that the clause "the reviewer was bribed to tell such lies" is treated as an assumption; the fact of the bribe is not in question, only the method of delivery. And Cheryl Morgan was, to say the least, righteously dischuffed by the slur on other reviewers, by the implicit assumption that "the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies" is so sensible a reaction that one can jump right past the question of whether to the question of how.

But I don't want to jump on Morrison's case about this, which is why I offer three alternatives, in line with the three defences offered on that thread. The first defence is that willful corruption is not actually what's being assumed here. It's about reviewers being unconsciously influenced by unknown forces rather than knowingly accepting backhanders. Forget the buttonpushing words. Substitute "influenced" for "bribed" and "nonsense" for "lies". It's not a slur on reviewers' integrities, it's a slur on their intellects. It's still, of course, an insult, but here the implication is, at least (or rather, at most), that the reviewer's fault was gullibility and simplicity rather than mendacity and venality. It's rude, perhaps, bad form, perhaps, to so bluntly deride other reviewer's critical faculties, but as a description of one's own reaction on reading some much-lauded novel and finding it sorely wanting, as a description of that confusion over how the fuck any reviewer could have creamed themselves over this or that piece of turgid drivel... well, it's not, I suspect, an uncommon response.

The usual answer to that attitude can be summed up as "different strokes for different folks", but there is, I think, an unspoken rejection of that principle underlying this reaction. I think this is a common thing actually. As much as we recognise the subjectivity of taste, we have a tendency to treat quality as objective when it comes to works we actively dislike. That is to say, if we like a work we're more able to step back, I think, judge its merits and demerits according to different aesthetic standards, and say, OK, I like it (because I like this type of book) but you'll probably hate it (because you don't). All too often when we take a deep dislike to something, we suddenly start to treat our judgement as objective. I don't like this because it's SHIT. How could anyone say that they like this SHIT book? You'd have to be a liar or a fool. How can you not see that it's SHIT?!

Where I think Morrison actually goes wrong here, what really pushes the wrong buttons is not so much that she voices a quite common reaction, but that she almost renders it as objective in the context of the previous sentence:

Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted.

To be honest, I think the seems in there saves the day, but with the use of warranted the comparison is set up nonetheless between books which (seem to) deserve the praise and those which do not. It's possible (if unfair, unduly harsh) to read those last two sentences as a description of an objective situation rather than as a description of a subjective reaction: with this book the praise is justified, of course, we can all agree on that, but with this other one... well anyone who says they like it must be on the take. Bringing in one's own positive view of a book which "merits the hype", juxtaposing this with a dismissal of other such views which couldn't possibly be seen as warranting that self-same hype -- to the extent that the reviewers who gave positive reports, well, they must be fuckin crooks or cretins -- this smacks of hubris. It points to an implicit double-standard: if I say it's good, I'm just right; if you say it's good, you're a liar or a fool. It blithely glosses over, as if it is inconceivable, the idea that someone who had a strongly negative reaction to Clarke's book might then justifiably, surely, by this logic, assume that Morrison's praise was bought and paid for. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as they say.

The point is we've all, I'm sure, had many arguments of this nature in the pub with obstinate bastards who simply say "X is SHIT. End of story". We've all probably been that obstinate bastard. Hell, if we didn't think that we were right and others wrong they wouldn't be fucking arguments. And a bit of healthy heated debate is fine. It's only when we dismiss the opinions of others with insults that we risk overstepping the mark. At best, done with a bit of wit, even derision can be acceptable as good-natured banter; but at worst, if it seems like one party is seriously, honestly, contemptuous of contrary opinions, well, that person is going to come across as a boorish pain in the ass. There's a thin line between confident commitment to one's own opinion and arrogant disdain of others'.

As I say, though, I think this is a harsh reading of what Morrison is saying. I have no problem personally taking her words as an honest description of a subjective response that's not so much disdain as shock and suspicion, a "WTF-only-a-dumbass-could-like-that-drech!" reaction that we're all guilty of, I'm sure, at some point or another.


Unfortunately, as it stands that first defence is pretty tenuous. As it reads, Morrison is branding those reviewers not just wrong-headed fools but liars. The suspicion she's voicing is that the reviewers do not even believe their own words (these are lies rather than nonsense), that they are only saying this because they are corrupt (they have been bribed rather than influenced). Like it or not, no amount of pussyfooting and puissant substitutions can shroud what is essentially an impeachment of integrity. Like it or not this cannot be passed off as a (more polite, if condescending) impeachment of intellect. I'm not at all surprised that Cheryl Morgan took serious umbrage at this.

So the second defence is that it was not intended as an assumption at all, but rather as a supposition, a suspicion born of shock, an emotive reaction to certain types of reviews. If the whether had been articulated as a question, at least, the reaction would, I think, shift from one of assuming guilt and looking for the mechanism to a more understandable expression of a cynical challenge. What the fuck is going on here? Were the reviewers bribed to say this book was great, or what?

Hence the second hypothetical rearticulation.

A little extra "whether", a little added emphasis, and the assumption becomes a rhetorical interrogation. It does, of course, still open up the can of worms that made Cheryl Morgan react with outrage. You'd still get the arguments back and forth about publishers influencing reviewers with ARCs and what-not, but at least it would have short-circuited the first defence of "that wasn't what she meant" and cut to the chase. And at least it would have done so in a way that voiced the notion of bribery, of influence, of coercion, not as a given, not as the only conceivable option, but as a hypothesis born of confusion. Morrison's explanation on her journal seems to me to support this reading; she voices suspicion of the vaguer forms of influence -- buzz rather than backhanders, hype itself rather than hard cash -- as the currency of a more abstract "corruption". She questions to what extent these forces might affect reviewers.

This kind of brings us back to the first defence, but at a more complex, more abstract, articulation of it, one which combines it with the second, rendering it a question rather than an assumption. Yes it's about unconscious influence rather than culpable duplicity. But it's about excitement generating excitement, hype as a feedback mechanism, an infectious force whereby buzz, word-of-mouth, peer pressure and such-like might be forces that create a rapturous suspension of critical faculties, a willingness to overlook flaws, to see a book more positively because, well, everyone else is saying it's fucking fantastic so it can't be shit... can it?

In fact, this brings us neatly to the third defence, the rhetoric defence, that the words "bribed" and "lies" are to be read as hyperbole. It's not that we should substitute cosy and condescending terms that are less insulting because they only accuse reviewers of stupidity rather than subterfuge. Rather it's that there's such a disjunct between the adulation others have expressed and one's own negative response that the only way to express the disparity is through hyperbolic incredulity.

The problem is that, to be honest, this seems the least appropriate defence. Hyperbole needs to be extreme. It needs to be over-the-top. It's exaggeration to absurdity, to a point where it obviously, patently is not meant to be taken literally, for crying out loud. And that doesn't seem at all to be the point here.

Rather what we have, I think, is a quite serious expression of discomfort with the common disjunction between hype and reality, a quite fair attempt to say "Look, I'm getting kinda fucked-off about how hype seems, to me, to be inflating the worth of books that don't deserve it," which was just, well, articulated in such a way as to piss people right off, because it read like a quite contemptuous dismissal of other reviewers.

At heart, I think, there's a fair question to ask here, an interesting issue to explore. When faced with a book hyped to the rafters, one which on closer examination, you consider meritricious tripe, there are questions that might well be asked about why this piece of garbage is being lauded. There might also, to be fair, be questions to ask oneself about why you consider it meritricious tripe, if you yourself are not, perhaps, maybe, possibly, reacting to that hype, no? But either way I want to shift the focus from this tiff over what Morrison meant, what she didn't mean, whether she's insulting intellect or integrity, and so on and so forth and address the actual fucking issue here:

So tonight's topic of discussion, mes amigos, is hype.

Yeah, that's right. All that was introduction. I be only just begun.

OK, so Morrison begins that contentious review with a simple statement:

Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype.

Well, yes and no. Actually I think the whole point is that not everyone else is suspicious. Rather I think some people respond positively to hype, with fervour. That's what hype is meant to do, after all. Some however respond negatively with doubt, cynics that they are. And some respond neutrally, with detachment, with a wry smile, a lit cigarette, and a "We'll see." And some of us, most of us probably, flip between those reactions, this way and that, as the hype works or fails, seduced or skeptical according to a thousand other factors: previous experience; innate optimism or pessimism; counter-hype feedback from debunkers who we either trust or doubt; and so on and so forth.

Me, if I wasn't capable of being suckered by hype, I wouldn't be suspicious of it.

But we need to define terms here first. While the OED gives it as "origin uncertain", I've always assumed that "hype" is short for "hyperbole"; however this 20th Century term has become unmoored from its original meaning to a large extent -- as an "exaggeration, not meant to be taken literally". When we use the term "hype" now we're often referring to something more precise; hype is always extremely positive, whereas hyperbole is simply extreme. But we're also referring to something more vague; whereas hyperbole is, by definition, over-statement made for effect, rather than to communicate an actual representation, hype is a statement so extremely positive we question its validity... but we remain open to the possibility that the hype is valid. Whenever we question whether or not "the hype is justified" we are implicitly treating hype as potentially non-hyperbolic, potentially true.

Or are we? A counterpoint, a complexification: we use the terms "valid" or "justified" here rather than "true" because we still recognise the extremity, the over-statement. Maybe what we're interrogating is whether the extremity of the reaction which produced the hyperbole is justifiable. Still, this is what I mean by hype being a vaguer term; when the NME labels each weekly cover-band with the term "The Best Band In The World", we know that this is hyperbolic praise, but we are far more interested -- whether we react with faith, doubt or detachment -- in the veracity of the underlying claim which, stripped of rhetoric, is really just that this is a "fuckin good new band who are gonna be big, possibly fuckin huge, because they are so. fuckin. good." We don't, by regarding this as hype, intrinsically disregard it as no more than hype.

Hype, unlike hyperbole, might -- just might -- be right.

But what we suspect, with hype, is that this is the society of the spectacle or the economy of favours in action, a product of a media with a vested interest in celebrity culture and good industrial relations. If the hyperbolic statement is being made for effect, we wonder, is it actually because the NME journalist(s) / editor(s) involved actually believe in the band's worth? Or is it simply to sell more product by working within a tabloid idiom of inflation and destruction, where works and artists are put up on pedestals and then knocked off them, because this has mass consumer appeal? Or is it industrial nepotism, where the media are, to all intents and purposes, colluding with the marketing departments of the Big Labels, keeping them sweet by devoting column inches and cover space to the latest calculatedly commercial offering, because the industry will reciprocate with preferential treatment over their competitors?

We see the hype about this new band -- let's call them The Darlings -- and we want to know: is the hype intended to predict the popularity of The Darlings, or is it intended to produce the popularity of The Darlings, for purely capitalist reasons -- i.e. is it, functionally speaking, really just sensationalism or Free PR?

The problem is that when we talk of hype, suspecting sensationalism or Free PR, we are also now responding to industry buzz and reader word-of-mouth, especially within the SFF scene where there are so many informal lines of communication. Editors, agents, writers, reviewers, booksellers and readers often have close friendships born out of fandom, the convention circuit or simply the small scale of the industry. Industry buzz spreads like wildfire where half the pros have two degrees of separation at most, and it also spreads like wildfire out into the wider SFF community because those pros also have two degrees of separation from semi-pros, amateurs and readers. The blogosphere has further consolidated this scene, offering a medium in which members of the industry, as readers themselves, often give informal reviews. Industry buzz and reader word-of-mouth -- these casual recommendations of "hey, man, you should really check this out; it's fucking amazing" -- made concrete, made textual, on blogs and LiveJournals, blend with the commercial media, permeate it. In many ways they may even usurp it.

Let me relate this to my own experience with VELLUM. It was the fusion of industry buzz and reader word-of-mouth, born of fandom, of the convention and online community, that got me a book deal in the first place, with a chain of friends and friends-of-friends who read the book and recommended it to others. And when Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan bought it, when he bought into it, he started talking about it, natch. He got other people at Pan Mac to read it, sales and marketers, directors, assistants, professional freelance "readers" whose function is to give reports and who, as freelancers, of course have connections with other publishers. (Copy-editors who freelance may be another route for industry buzz to spread.) Peter talked about it to long-term friends who work in the industry but in other roles, completely disconnected with Macmillan. Jeff VanderMeer blogged about it, spreading the word-of-mouth way beyond the core industry of UK publishers and their immediate professional contacts. And so on.

And so the scuttlebutt about VELLUM spread early and fast. As a newbie writer, I was kinda awestruck, kinda scared. Because as soon as that industry/community buzz/word-of-mouth hits the media, as soon as it becomes mediated, it stops being a chain of X telling Y telling Z, in relationships bound to honesty by friendship, and becomes a textual proclamation, a representation by X, aimed at the whole community of consumers of that media (readers of blogs, journals, magazines, etc.) This is, I think, where buzz becomes hype. Which is to say, I think hype is not simply a matter of scuttlebutt, gossip, but of published scuttlebutt, the gossip column. Hype is not hype unless it is in the media.

Enter the society of the spectacle. Enter the economy of favours. Enter the accusations of sensationalism and Free PR.

As a writer and a blogger, I can see a sort of economy of favours in the act of blurbing and pimping, but I say a sort of because while blurbage and pimpage are fundamentally free advertising copy, I don't think they can be seen as calculated and commercially-motivated, as a sort of quid-pro-quo of spurious praise. Rather this is all based on sympathies born of common interests, common approaches, common likes and dislikes. Most writers, I would hazard a guess, offer promotional quotes because they actually like the writer's work not because, well, it's pretty dull, really, but, you know, if you scratch my back I'll scratch yours *nudge nudge wink wink*. Most writers, I would imagine, are not going to devote precious blogspace to a book they really didn't care for that much when they could be blethering about their own wordcounts, quirks and cats. (Or ranting about hype, of course.) Anyhoo, the point is that blurbing and pimping are not reviews; they're recommendations, the idea being that, hey, if this writer likes that one's book, maybe his readers will too... so if he likes it enough maybe he might be willing to say so publicly, in print.

My God! Those evil writers with their silvery tongues! Actually saying when they like another writers work! The audacity of it!

As an aside: I've found it very weird, I have to say, to have editors approaching me politely and tentatively, to ask if I'd be interested in reading this or that, because it seems like it might be up my street. Cool! says me. Free books! From writers whose work I like! And every time, it's been stressed, there's no obligation here; if you don't get the time to read it, then no worries; if you don't like it, then no worries. And if one writer does like another's book, if they feel happy to blurb it, well, the correct currency in which to reciprocate the generosity of writers is, as surely anyone knows, beer. Just for the record.

Ultimately that's as far, I think, as the economy of favours really goes. I can't really see it as a horrendously corrupting influence on elevating unworthy books, on hyping works up to levels they may not deserve.

The society of the spectacle on the other hand...

With VELLUM, the society of the spectacle kicked in almost as soon as the ARC came out. Pointed out as an example on that thread at Emerald City, those full-colur bound proofs, limited to a numbered run of 600, with a textured cover and a letter from the editor inside, oh yes, they were things of beauty. They were statements by Macmillan that they considered this book something special. Taken together with the promotional postcards, the press release comparing VELLUM with THE WASP FACTORY (in terms of potential impact), and the lead spot in the Macmillan catalogue, it's pretty clear that what we're looking at here is a PR campaign geared around presenting VELLUM as something to pay attention to.

So the publishers put, let's say, a little bit of extra effort into VELLUM (to understate it with a certain wryness). As Colleen Lindsay points out, however, this kind of concerted PR effort is largely aimed at booksellers, at buyers for Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, WH Smiths, who are being punted X number of books every month from Y publishers. Only a handful of these will be read by those buyers. Only a handful can be read by those buyers. Many don't have to be read by the buyers, I imagine: the publisher can throw the latest Big Name Author at them, and it's a no-brainer -- low risk, high investment, guaranteed high yield, so they buy X copies; or the publisher can throw a sellable Midlist Genre Author at them, give them the pitch at why this will sell to that market, and the buyer weighs up the risks and ends up taking X/Y copies -- moderate risk, low investment, low/moderate yield. VELLUM is neither of those types of books; it's a high risk book, where the publisher has to persuade the seller that low investment will produce a low yield but -- if and only if they're willing to give the right push -- high investment will produce a high yield.

VELLUM is a sink or swim book, an all or nothing book. It's a love it or loathe it book, the kind of Pulp Modernism that gets both one star reviews and five star reviews, from readers looking for theme or plot alike, which is to say readers favouring literary structures (theme, character) or genre structures (plot, world-building). Some readers will "get it" completely, seeing that I'm deeply committed to both. This, of course, doesn't mean they'll like what I'm trying to do or think that I've succeeded. John Clute's review does neither, for example, criticising my approach to character as reducing empathy, and talking of works "tooled to illuminate chaos without becoming chaos (which I take as a definition of any great work of art)". It would be bad form to respond to the criticism of characterisation (*bites tongue*, *moves along*), but with the criticism of approach, well, this is a difference in underlying theory, in the acceptance of methodology. Me, I believe it's not truly possible to illuminate chaos without representing it structurally within the text, without shattering the forms, fragmenting theme, character, plot and setting. So I wrote VELLUM with an intent entirely antithetical to Clute's definition of a great work of art. Lucius Shepard, bless him, nailed that intent with his blurbing of VELLUM as "the Guernica of genre fiction". I love that blurb, sure, because it compares VELLUM to Picasso's work, but not because it's deeply flattering and (hyperbolically) undeserved in terms of quality (I mean, I'm arrogant but not that fucking arrogant). I love it because in terms of approach, methodology, intent, it's a perfect summation.

But the point here is not to critique the reviews and blurbs, not to defend VELLUM, but to use it as an example of a book which might result in the love of a Lucius Shepard or the loathing of a John Clute, a book moreover which others will, to be honest, not even begin to understand as well as either Clute or Shepard. Them be smart. Not all of us be as smart as them. Some, focusing on the aspect they prefer, literary techniques or genre tropes have appreciated these aspects of VELLUM enough to forgive what they see as failings in other areas. But many (alas) have been alienated by these same techniques and tropes. So it goes with a book like VELLUM.

So how do you give such a book a chance of success? If you as a publisher have faith that, for all the inevitable and predictable extremes of reaction, positive and negative, this is a book that deserves the chance, that is worth the risk, how do you persuade the booksellers to make the high investment required for that risk to pay off? Forget about the reviewers. If you can't find the book in Borders who gives a fuck what the review said? It's the booksellers who matter first. So what do you do?

All you can do is try to persuade the buyers to read it. All you can do is make sure that they know just how committed you are to the book, how strong your own faith is in it. And so you create a full-colour ARC, promotional postcards, press releases, etc.. You put it out in hardback, with all the prestige that implies. You let those buyers know, in no uncertain terms, that of all the books they have to trawl through, from all the other publishers they have to deal with, this is the one, one of the ones at least, they really ought to read... in the hope that they too will react the way you did, that they will not just buy the book, but buy into the book.

And as for the reviewers? Well, regardless of the clichéd injunction not to "judge a book by its cover", it would be disingenuous to suggest that a publisher metaphorically waving a red flag in the air and shouting "Hear ye! Hear ye! Behold the arrival of The Chosen One!" is going to have no effect whatsoever on the reviewer. Just like the buyers, those reviewers are being punted X number of books every month from Y publishers. Just like the buyers, those reviewers need to be persuaded that, really, honestly, this is the book you should be reading if you have the time.

So a whizz-bang ARC and accompanying PR campaign might well have an aim of getting that book reviewed in the first place. But is it aimed to have an effect on the nature of that review?

Let's work this through simply. How do folks respond to hype? Going back to what I said above, I reckon some will be seduced, some will be skeptical, and some will just shrug. Assuming that reviewers are a subclass of "folks", are they more likely to fall into one particular category? One might be pessimistic and say they're just as likely to be distributed the same as the rest of us. One might be optimistic and say that, given it's their job to judge a book by the words on the page rather than by the stushie surrounding it, one can expect them to be more concentrated in the category of detached shruggers; one can expect a higher standard of scrutiny, surely. Either way, if reviewers are distributed across those categories at all, then which of those types of reviewers are more valuable to the writer and the publisher?

Scenario one: Reviewer gets gorgeous ARC. Reviewer gets all wet and sticky in the crotch area because, oooh, it's preeeeeetty. Reviewer, suckered in by the hype, writes gushing review, oblivious to any flaws or failings in the book. Score one for the ARC. Fanboy reads review, gets suckered in by hype, buys book, hates it, posts an angry Amazon review about how this book is a steaming pile of shite. Repeat with umpty-ump fanboys. Score minus umpty-ump for the ARC. Repeat for N iterations of The Next Big Thing, with N being the value whereupon nobody gives a fuck what that reviewer has to say. That reviewer can't be trusted. A good review from them is worthless. Also everyone knows that author is shit.

Final score: (1 - umpty-ump) for the writer; (N - (N * umpty-ump)) for the publisher.

Scenario two: Reviewer gets gorgeous ARC. Reviewer gets all sneering and snarly in the mouth area because, yeah yeah, it's so fucking pretty, big fucking deal. Reviewer, skeptical of all the hype, writes a hostile review, focusing on all the flaws and failings of the book. Score minus one for the ARC. Fanboy reads review, gets skeptical of the hype, does not buy book because now he knows it's a steaming pile of shite. Repeat with umpty-ump fanboys. Score minus umpty-ump for the ARC. Repeat for N iterations of The Next Big Thing, with N being the value whereupon the reviewer actually gets past their jaded cynicism and just reads the fucking book. Too late for the writer, who everyone now knows is shit.

Final score: - (1 + umpty-ump) for the writer; - (N * (1 + umpty-ump)) for the publisher.

Scenario three: Reviewer gets gorgeous ARC. Reviewer thinks oooh, it's preeeeetty, but hold on now, so what? Reviewer, curious to see if the book is any cop, reads it with an open mind and reviews it postively or negatively. Score plus or minus one for the ARC. Fanboy reads review and, aware of this reviewers objectivity and consistency of taste either buys the book or doesn't. Fanboy either likes it or doesn't. Fanboy writes positive or negative Amazon review. Repeat with umpty-ump fanboys.

Final score: Who the fuck knows?

And, finally, just to be fair:

Scenario four: Reviewer gets bog-standard proof with no PR, no hype, sticks it in a pile and forgets about it, because there are much more important books to review this month. Score zero for the proof.

Point is, unless you're optimistic that the majority of reviewers fall into the catgory of detached shruggers, or foolish and contemptuous enough to believe that no matter how many Next Big Things you throw at the sucker reviewer, no matter how many fanboys read it and hate it, no matter how much shit you throw at people, as long as you hype it to the rafters, well, there's enough fuckwits out there who will never learn... unless you are, I think, unrealistically convinced of the power of a pretty cover, then as a writer or a publisher, you're banking on those reviewers who are least swayed by that pretty ARC, positively or negatively, in terms of how it affects the actual content of their review.

Which is to say, you don't want the reviewer to be swayed by the hype at all, other than to possibly have their curiosity piqued.

And if you're pessimistic about it, or maybe realistic about it, then you look on the ARC as a gamble, weighing up the big fat zero you get with no hype, against the risks and possibilities opened up by throwing something at reviewers that they'll at least notice, regardless of how they respond.

The point is, I'm not denying that the society of the spectacle has its benefits if you're looking to sell, sell, sell. I'm not denying that the sensationalism, the gushing reviews, the hyperbole of The Next Big Thing are going to have an instant reward in firing The Darlings or their SFF equivalent up into the stratosphere because they got the cover of the NME (or a two-page feature in SFX, for that matter). Until that N-point is reached where the reviewer's opinion has become devalued by the monthly, weekly, daily proclamations of awe-struck wonder, sure, there's going to be a lot of people spending a lot of cash. But the society of the spectacle comes with a price. The pedestal is temporary, and it's only a matter of time before those cynical reviewers will be doing their damnedest to show that The Next Big Thing is actually The Emperor's New Clothes. A lot of them will be doing it from the start and unfortunately, as with many media, it may well be the more competent and incisive critics who run the risk of buying into the society of the spectacle, of taking on the role of demolition man. This is, I think, an attitude perceptible in Morrison's admission that her instinctive reaction is to "wonder what's wrong with it". To be suspicious, hostile, predisposed to find fault. Graham Sleight and Niall Harrison on the Emerald City thread likewise speak of finding it difficult to approach a hyped book with the objectivity required.

It's understandable as a reactive, combative position of doubt and independence, but the end result, if a reviewer doesn't get past that initial hostility, may only serve to feed the hype, feed the cycle of celebrity, the society of the spectacle. It's just as sensationalist to demolish an idol as it is to raise it up there in the first place. Let that hype turn your review into a hatchet-job and you're bought into the system just as much as the reviewer who's polishing the crown.

But back to those ARCs, back to VELLUM, back to the hype.

The real entry point for VELLUM into the society of the spectacle came entirely unpredictably and unintentionally when the ARCs began to appear on Ebay as buyers sold them on. At first they sold for moderate amounts -- ten quid, twenty quid, thirty -- but a feedback of collectors, buying and selling on, touting the work as, in one example, "THE NEW HARRY POTTER", quickly lead to what I've compared to the Dutch Tulip Craze, the DotCom Bubble, the Comics Boom and other such absurdities. Now that was sensationalism. That was inflation for the sake of inflation, desire fuelled by desire. I watched the prices rise to ludicrous levels, largely with amusement but also with a mixture of hope and horror. On the one hand, such insanity will undeniably raise one's profile, which is nice. On the other hand, every boom has a bust. The ultimate value of those bound proofs depends really on an ascension to Big Name Author status on my part, and I don't really want to be associated with a craze, a failure, a bubble of capitalist insanity, if (or when, of course) that doesn't happen. I'm not interested in being on the cover of NME, hyped as the Next Big Thing, if all it leads to is status as a one-hit-wonder that never quite made it, thank you very much.

As a writer then, I'm wary of sensationalism, of being sucked into the society of the spectacle. I mean, I'll be honest, I'm a social butterfly who adores attention; I love the whole idea of rock star stylee fame and fortune. But if the society of the spectacle is as much about knocking the idols off the pedestals as about putting them up there in the first place, I'd rather not be SF's Pete Doherty, cheers.

But its undeniable that the Ebay lunacy around the ARCs were a huge factor in making VELLUM possibly the most hyped book of 2005 in the UK. And given the disparity of the reviews, if we suspect hype of influencing reviews, it seems fair to ask, as Cheryl Morgan does on her thread, whether we should assume that the positive reviewers were all simply being suckered by the hype, drawn into the society of the spectacle. Of course it's just as fair to ask, conversely, whether we should assume that the negative reviewers were all simply being alienated by the hype, equally guileless participants in the build-em-up, knock-em-down tabloid culture of celebrity, of The Next Big Thing. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, after all.

But personally, I give reviewers the credit of assuming they can see past the hype, that anyone who gets to the end of 180,000 words of my fucked-up Cubist Fantasy is long-since going to have forgotten what the fuck it said on that press release from Pan Macmillan. I really don't think a promotional postcard is going to make them love a non-linear narrative with multiple plot threads and fragmented characters if that ain't their thang. I can't see them digging my sectional structuring just because I look all hip and cool in that SFX profile. And they might think that ARC is a thing of beauty, but if they think what's inside is blithering nonsense, then that thing of beauty might well be thrown across the room in frustration, picked up again with gritted teeth, trudged through to the bitter end, and then dissected surgically in an honestly negative review.

And then sold on Ebay, of course, at the soonest opportunity.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Scorched Earth, Folded Time

Sorry, it's been quiet here in the last week or so, as I've been working away, partly on rewrites for INK for Peter Lavery at Macmillan (pretty much done now) , partly on a post on culture which went all poncy and fragmentary, so far up its own arse without a flashlight, in fact, that even I'm not sure about posting it, and partly because I've been gathering me thoughts for a novella that Chris Roberson at MonkeyBrain Books has bought from me. Too early yet to give much detail, but the kicking-off point is this Sumerian text, Erra and Ishum, and the working title at the moment is SCORCHED EARTH.

So what's the story? Well, if you read the poem (and fill in all the [...] in the [text?...] by the powers of your mighty imagination), you'll see that it's a simple tale of a homocidal deity, Erra, who runs rampage through ancient Iraq, proclaiming his manifest destiny and asserting his divine right to slaughter, brutalise and generally make life hell for the people of the region. One discredited translation of his name is "Scorched Earth". Erra's unrepretentant attitude, even at the end, always makes me think of the response of Michael Herr, the Vietnam War reporter, when he was accused of glorifying war with his work. You can't glorify war, he records in his memoirs, Dispatches (though I'm paraphrasing here.) It's already glorious. I had a discussion once with someone who reacted against this idea, said, no, no, no, killing innocent people is not glorious. It's never glorious. Horror and glory, the logic seems to be, are incompatible. But I think Herr is right; and it's the glory of war that makes it truly fucking horrific. Person X bashing out person Y's brains is horrific. But person X bashing out person Y's brains and exulting in it... now, that's truly fucking horrific.

Anyway, so, I'm going to adapt this Sumerian poem and palimpsest it with a narrative set in the Middle East in 2017-19, as the war between the Covenant and Sovereigns (which serves as background in VELLUM and INK but which is outside the scope plotwise) really kicks off. And there's a third mimetic and historic thread I'll be weaving in, set during the Phillippine-American War. Really, I've been wanting to write this story for a while, ever since coming across an article on the origin of the term "gook", but I knew there was too much for a short story, too little for a novel. And at the time the 3D time idea that underpins VELLUM hadn't really cohered, and without the 400,000 words spent turning that idea into technique, I didn't really have a clear handle on how to tell that kind of multi-threaded story. Now just seems the perfect time to do it. It should be more structured -- or rather, much simpler in structure -- than VELLUM & INK, and being limited to three threads like FUR it should give me the opportunity to really get to grips with that narrower scope before applying it at the novel length.

It's funny, though. With this novella and FUR both falling into that structure, I'm realising that, more and more, this is the way I want to write, that there's something about this folded time idea that just intuitively makes sense to me. It's a way of offering different narratives in modes that kick against each other -- epic/poetic, sf/fantastic, mimetic/historic -- without going all metafictional and thereby risking the dreaded Pomo Disease of irony, arch knowingness.

Anyhoo, that's what I've been mostly thinking about, in between fixing punctuation and pruning superfluity in INK.

Oh, and it might be quite quiet here for the next week or so. Tuesday I'm off to Berlin, to spend a few days with Hannes Riffel, my most excellent German translator. Looks like there'll be a reading on Wednesday evening at the UFO-Bookstore in Berlin, so anyone in the area who wants to see me trying vainly to make myself at least moderately comprehensible, please come along. I'm bolding Wednesday here, because it was originally scheduled for Thursday due to my ineptness with calendars. It's been rescheduled after Jakob Schmidt, Superstar, noticed that actually, no, on Thursday night I'm in Bremen, doing a panel/reading thing at the On Rules And Monsters Horror Festival/Conference (at the Kommunikationszentrum paradox, Bernhardstrasse 12). Again, of course, anyone in the area, please come by and see me make a fool of meself.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Glorifying Terrorism

Word is back that Farah Mendlesohn has accepted my story, "The Last Straw" for her GLORIFYING TERRORISM anthology. Hurrah!

It's a quiet, low-key and sensitive tale about THINGS GOING BOOM!!! Jack Flash meets Jack Straw.

Nuff said.


Oh, and for some reason I can't access my Hotmail at the moment, so if ye're trying to get in touch with me, you can email:

hal AT haldduncan DOT com

I'm thinking of shifting to this anyway, seeing as I've got the domain name and all. And I don't know whether (or how) you can download Hotmail from the server (so as to store it on me laptop and not have to go hunting on the interweb to check up some important detail that I didn't think to make a note of).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"I'm a doctor. I know science."

You. Have. Got. To. Read. This.

All of you.

No, really. Just trust me on this. Start here. Or start here. But trust me, you really want to be reading the Adventures of Dr McNinja. He's a doctor. And a ninja. He fights pirates. I'm not even going to say any more.

"I'm a doctor. I know science."

(courtesy of Ben Peek)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Cultural Appropriation

Hmmm. I missed the Cultural Appropriation panel at Wiscon and now everybody seems to be posting about it. But, weirdly, what they seem to be posting about is the politics and politesse of outsiders writing about minority cultures, and this seems to me to be, well, a tangential concern. Don't get me wrong; writing the Other has it's own set of issues. I just can't see what it has to do with "cultural appropriation". A fictive representation of a culture is not that culture itself. Having a painting which contains an image of a "dreamcatcher" on your wall is not the same as hanging some New Age trinket of string and feathers, made by and for white middle-class hippies, over your bed. Writing a 5-page scene in a novel which portrays a voudon ritual is not the same thing as setting yourself up as a practicing "babaloa" in Bognor Regis. Representation is not appropriation. The map is not the territory.

Simply representing a culture in terms of artefacts, practices and persons doesn't mean you are laying claim to those artefacts, following those practices, mimicking those persons. It doesn't mean you're doing a big land-grab on that cultural territory, setting up a fence, and saying "This is mine now". Or even that you're shoving in, pushing people out of the way so you can sit down where you don't belong, and saying "This is mine too". Writing about black or Asian or Scottish or American culture when you're not a native of that culture -- that's no more an act of "appropriation" than it would be for any of you to write about the culture of an entirely imaginary country which just happens to be tattooed on my ass. Your epic fantasy novel, The Dragons of Duncan's Ass Tattoo, can portray My Ass Tattoo's blue-skinned denizens, their miniature zeppelins, and their sphincter-worshipping rituals either accurately or inaccurately, with or without prejudice, but you ain't going to be appropriating their culture until you start covering yourseves in woad, living in airships and pouring libations to The One True Hole.

A borrowing (or theft) of aesthetic forms -- c.f. Paul Simon's Graceland with its use of musical forms from various other cultures -- now that's cultural appropriation. Nick Cave integrating a gospel choir into "There She Goes (My Beautiful World)" can be described as cultural appropriation. The examples of cultural appropriation in music are too numerous to detail. European artists similarly cribbed from Japan, Africa, all over the world. In fictive terms, using characters and settings from folklore seems to me what we're really talking about when we talk of cultural appropriation. You decide to write a story about the trickster-figure of Coyote and, yes, if you're not First Nation then that could be called cultural appropriation. But then, any non-European writer working in the Romantic idiom of the adventure story could be accused of the same. Sorry, dude, that's our traditional story-form. Keep your hands off my dashing Byronic hero. How far do we follow this through? Do I end up screwed here completely? You want to write sonnets, you say? But you're Scottish, you know, and that means your ancestors all played fiddles and sang ballads. The sonnet isn't native to your culture, so really that's just not on. You have an idea for a tragedy, eh? But are you Greek? Sorry, then -- no can do; that would be cultural appropriation.

Yeah, OK, so I'm talking about dead cultures and borrowings dating so far back that, by now, these foreign influences are pretty much entirely spliced together into one big collage of aesthetic modes -- a collage we might loosely label Western culture. Western culture, though? As if a hemisphere owned its art. As if an area owned its art.

Dionysus knows no nations.

What I mean is that Art (yes, we're giving it a capital here; sorry) -- music, painting, literature, sculpture, dance, whatever -- Art is the black sheep of the Family Culture. This particularly brattish and boisterous sibling, unlike his brother, Religion, doesn't give a fuck about our monkey-boy traditions of tribal identity. Art is a thief and a slut, a prodigal and a prodigy. Art spreads his lurve to anyone who wants it, and any shiny object that's in his path is his for the taking, as far as he's concerned. Sure, sometimes Art may be in service to Religion. Religion may keep that wayward wastrel on a tight leash: this story is not for outsiders; only men of the tribe can do this dance to this drumbeat; only the initiates can enter the shrine and look upon the deity's face carved in stone. But such insularity is foreign to Art's nature. The story will unpack its affective meaning to anyone who understands it. The drum will call to any stranger who hears it, calling them to dance: you know you want to; feel the rhythm in your heart. Three thousand years later, when the deity's name is lost, that statue will still evoke wonder and awe in those who look upon it. Art is promiscuous like that, a rampant slattern, a rougish slut; he doesn't care what socio-political label of race, gender, religion, sexuality or nation you place on yourself. He doesn't care which tribe you've decided you belong to. He just wants to make fuckee-fuckee with you, with everyone and anyone.

Cultural appropriation? As far as Art is concerned that whole idea is buying into a spurious claim of ownership by the tribe. Art doesn't recognise the ownership rights of the artist, never mind the tribe that they're a part of. Did the ancient Greeks "own" tragedy? Did Aeschylus? Fuck that shit, says Art. You're not the boss of me.

This is not to say there's no such thing as cultural appropriation at all. But the underlying ethical question of ownership and rightful use, the territorial notion of culture(s) as bounded areas into which outsiders intrude, sneaking in like thieves to snatch a trinket and run, to carry it home to their own territory-of-culture and display it as theirs, thus bolstering their own tribe's aesthetic status -- this is the domain of Religion (or his secular siblings, those terrible twins, Class and Caste). Art is made to be seen, heard, read, danced, experienced. Limitations of access to that experience, based on who is or is not a fully-paid-up member of the culture (e.g. where a sacred story is not to be told to strangers) or based on social status within that culture (e.g. where only men can participate in a sacred dance), can themselves be considered acts of appropriation; they co-opt the aesthetic drive and its products, using Art to reinforce social, political and religious boundaries, both internal and external. The ethical question of cultural appropriation turns on to what extent we accept those limitations, to what extent we consider it wrong to breach the tribal mores. A liberal ethic of respect for alternative belief-systems comes into play here; the whole idea of "cultural appropriation" is a recognition of those tribal (and tribalist) prescriptions.

But Dionysus knows no nations.

An artist might wholly accept or wholly reject those limitations of access imposed upon their work by the tribe. Michelangelo, were he here today, might bemoan the fate of his God Giving Life To Adam, its appearance on dishtowels, fridge-magnets, what-have-you, due to the lifting of those limitations. He might consider the replication and popularisation of his work a travesty of its intent. This is a painting, after all, that's meant to be viewed in the sacred space of the Sistine Chapel, by the pious (or the rich, at least), not used by some heathen prole to dry his coffee mug. Then again, maybe Michelangelo would celebrate the democratisation, the fact that around the world his work, his work, is instantly recognisable to millions. Hell, maybe he would have been grumbling to himself as he placed the final brushstroke, bitter that only a select few, only those of the correct standing in society or the church, would actually get to see his masterpiece. Of those artists over the millenia who have worked in servitude to whatever religion, of whatever culture, creating the paintings, the stories, the music, the dances, how many of them would be horrified to see those works unmoored from their cultural context, from their sacred settings, their tribal territories? How many would be thrilled? We don't know and it doesn't matter.

Dionysus knows no nations.

The idea of cultural appropriation implies an exclusivity that is irrelevant to Art-as-hustler, making his amoral judgements of what it is right to use and where it is right to use it on purely aesthetic grounds, with little or no concern for the delicate sensibilities of those in servitude to tribal traditions, to territorial identities. Religion, Class and Caste all try to keep him in check, but these days, to be honest, it's only Daddy Law who can keep him from filching and fucking wherever and whatever he pleases, who can force him to recognise all those inconvenient boundaries of ownership and obscenity. Needless to say, as a writer, I'm quite happy with some of those boundaries. Copyright legislation is a kinda cool idea, you know, for those of us making our living at this writing malarky. And, unlike Art, I do tend to have qualms about looting and pillaging cultures which might not take kindly to my anthropological jackdaw approach to mythology. But that Art can be one smooth-tongued son-of-a-bitch, you know. And for all his wanton ways, I trust him more than I trust Religion.

Dionysis knows no nations. And I kinda like his way of thinking.

Friday, June 02, 2006

SF Site Interview

Don't you ever stop talking about yourself, for fuck's sake?

Well, Jack, if they keep asking me questions...

Well, Hal, then you blow them up.

I wouldn't do that to Jakob. He's a really nice guy.

You got no sense of fun.

Washington Blade Review

If you are willing to do a little grad school homework, “Vellum” is a staggeringly rich story that heralds great promise for Duncan’s literary future... a must-read for its expansive recasting of modern life into transcendent legend.

OK, I'm cheating because that's a nine paragraph ellipsis, cutting out the bit where he thinks it collapses into babbling madness; but I get an overall positive impression from the review, so me likee.

Plus the "Blade" is the coolest name for a gay publication EVAH!

Why A Goat?

Because of motherfuckers like Judge Punch, Xtian Fascist, Enemy of the SubGenii and all-round Pink-Boy.

The scene: A custody case. Judge Punch sits with a copy of the constitution burning in one hand. In the other he holds a pile of photos of Rachel Bevilacqua (aka Mary Magdalen of the Church of the SubGenius (Praise Bob! Dobbs be praised!)) taken during various SubGenius revelries.

JUDGE PUNCH: Can I interject a question? Could you hand her the exhibits and just show me one thing in those exhibits that's funny to you? Would you just pick one out for me just so I, because the sense of humor is elusive to me I guess, and maybe you can help with that, OK?


JP: Why don't you just the first thing you come to that's hilarious, pull it out and explain it to me?

RB: As I'm sure you realize, it's very difficult to explain humor.

JP: So why don't you just stop talking and just do what I ask you to do, OK?

RB: Yes sir.

JP: You're passing by a lot of pictures that apparently aren't funny then, is that correct?

RB: I'm passing them by because I'm not sure how to explain to your honor the humor value of them.

JP: They are all funny to you?

RB: The pictures themselves are not, but the events were.

JP: Okay. We will keep going until you can find something that's just going to knock my socks off with the humor of it, and we'll proceed. Since you have such a big organization devoted totally to humor, I would really like to learn more about it, so find the funniest picture and then explain the joke to me. How about the Barbie doll that's being crucified with the swastikas on the nipples, is that a pretty good one?

Punch was especially adamant that Rachel convince him of the humor of her Deity Ball costume, with its goat-head mask. "Why a goat?" he asks several times in a transcript of a hearing. "Would it be funnier if it was a goat as opposed to a pig's head?"

Funny enough, I have a goat's head tie-pin. Pretty much because of shit-heads like this.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sonnets To Orpheus Limited Edition

You know how I mentioned Erzebet YellowBoy of Papaveria Press in that Wiscon Report? Well, we got to talking a couple of times, with me raving about her treatment of the book as artefact -- like with Catherynne M. Valente's The Descent of Inanna (which I highly recommend (as you'll note if you follow through that link)), or with the series of minatures which Erzebet showed me the first of at Wiscon (yes, that really is a 3D mesh-effect cover; yes, it really does feel as good in the flesh as it looks on screen... better, actually). Actually, we also got to talking about my own Sonnets To Orpheus (see the link to the left for a taste (though the actual text has been slightly reworked since I posted that)). And the upshot is...

Well, it looks like we're doing a limited and numbered edition of 26 copies of that sonnet sequence (24 for sale), library bound with sewn signatures, and tentatively scheduled for an August release. I can't really tell you much about the design other than that, but you only have to look at the gorgeousness of Erzebet's work to know it's going to look and feel fucking great.

Hell, it might even be printed on vellum. ;)