There are other pieces that come before this. It begins on the Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott’s and Ian Mond’s long running podcast about books, where they discussed the representation of women in fiction, in part brought on by an article on Jezebel. Rjurik Davidson, the author of Unwrapped Sky, and critic and journalist, followed their discussion with an article, called the Unconscious Discrimination and a Regressive Culture. So naturally I called mine Part Three, because it is the third part of the conversation.
I don’t have a whole lot to say in response to Davidson. I agree with what he says, I agree with what was said in the podcast, and I will let my betters take that conversation forth.
But I did write the book that is discussed a little around this. Not a lot, mind you, but just a little (that said, the podcast does spent forty to fifty minutes discussing the Godless and you should check that out because it’s quite intelligent and funny). At any rate, one of the comments made about my book is that women are presented equally through the text, and that there is no rape in it, all of which is quite true. I won’t lie, either: it is something I set out purposefully to do. In part I did it because I have never agreed with the idea that fantasy is made, somehow, more realistic by its bad treatment of women. There’s a whole lot wrong with that as a statement, but more than anything, the idea that somehow the abuse of women makes something more realistic is just kind of fucked up. Whenever someones says that, you ought to stop, pause, and ponder the sheer fucked up nature of that. But mostly, I did it because it is my book, and I like to read books where there’s equality in it. That’s the world I live in. I think it’s the goal of society to strive towards that. I live it, so my book should live it, obviously.
Once you make that choice, however, the question remains: how do you ensure equality in your work?
I found that it was both an unconscious and conscious act. For example, I created Muriel Wagan, the ruler of Mireea, early on. Ayae, Bueralan, and her were perhaps the first three characters I made in the book. In those early days, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of fantasy novel I was writing, and my first incarnation of her was that she was originally the ruler of Mireea because her husband had returned, blind and mad, from war with Leera. It’s important to note that in the first days, her rule was in direct response to that act.
Then I made Zaifyr.
Zaifyr’s presence in the book required me to rethink Muriel Wagan. What I say isn’t much of a spoiler, but it is, so if you don’t want to spoil anything, but want to read the book… well, you left, right? Right. Anyhow, Zaifyr is one of the original men and women who were cursed with the gods’ divinity. He’s old, he’s done terrible things, he was one of the rulers of the Five Kingdoms, which ended about a thousand years before the book begins, and he is essentially a powerful figure. Like all powerful figures in literature, he needs a balance. In Mireea, he has two, Fo and Bau, who are like him in that they are inheritors of the gods’ power. However, once these three were established, Muriel Wagan’s power looked weak in comparison. You have to remember, much of what happens in the book happens in her city and, because of her initial story, her actions looked like she was guided by others around her, rather than her making her own choice.
From this short description, you can see the imbalance that begins to emerge, I am sure. My response was simple: redesign Muriel Wagan. Not hugely, but enough that she was empowered from the start, that her husband is second to her, and that she became a driving force of her own desire and need. She was given her own plot line, her own arc over the series, and her own conclusion. It sounds pretty simple, in part because it is. The myth of equality is that it’s somehow difficult, but like all writing, it’s pretty basic, and more a test of endurance than anything else. But, still, it isn’t enough to simply have one female character of agency to balance out three male characters of agency, and so others filtered in. Captain Meina of Steel was created. Reila, the healer, was as well. And, of course, Ayae got a lot more agency. She interacted with Zaifyr, Fo and Bau the most of all the characters, and it was important, as much for the equality of the book as for its readability, that she not be swamped by the personalities of all three.
The attention I paid didn’t end there, however. Plot and characters are one thing, but the structure of a book also has a demand to it. In the Godless, I have three main point of view characters: Ayae, Zaifyr, and Bueralan. It’s not a perfect balance – four would have been – but equality is not defined by gender parity alone, and each one of those three represent a different culture, and race. Still, to ensure that the balance of all three is kept, both Zaifyr and Bueralan are introduced through Ayae. I did it so that she would be the first of the characters to be cemented in the readers mind, before the two male characters came in. The book is very much an ensemble cast book and, depending on how that worked for you, it kept the tonal quality right, or didn’t, or wasn’t even something you noticed.
Which leads me to my last point: I don’t intend the equality of the book to be noticed. I don’t intend it to be a conversation that is had within the book. I am not, to be perfectly frank with you all, interested in that conversation right now. It’s an important conversation to have, and I have it outside the book, and in previous books, but it isn’t for this project. This book is all about gods, armies, sword fights, bars fights, big set pieces where cities get blown up, and whatever else you want to throw into it – but I have no interest in having a conversation about equality.
It’s simply there.
Notice it, don’t notice it, comment about it, don’t comment, it’s all the same to me. What moves and shakes the book is an entirely different set of conversations, and equality is not one of them. It’s just there. It just is.
In all writing, the author makes conscious decisions about what he and she wants to have in their book. From the colour of skin, to the clothes characters wear, to the things they do and the actions they take, this is all the authors work, and like an iceberg, you won’t notice the machinations for most of it if it is done right. That, however, does not mean that there aren’t thoughts there, that there aren’t intentions, and theories – and all of this is vitally important to any artist who is creating something.
You must be aware of what you create.
You must take ownership of it.
After all, your work, no matter its quality, no matter its place in terms of worth, is part of a social conversation we are all having. It has impact on your readers, and though at times that impact can be quite minuscule, it is still impact, and it does not happen alone. Your book is part of another book. Part of a movie. Part of a comic. Part of a song. It is part of society’s great weave. To say, for example, that rape makes something more realistic is awful not because of what it says about the fantasy genre, but because of what it says about you, and me, and us, as a culture and society. It is awful because of what it says to the next person to hear the words. Rape is realism in fantasy, someone says. Whiteness is how it was back then. The dragons all had wings like that. She couldn’t possibly have had a position of power. The black man would have be a slave. He had great dental hygiene and she didn’t piss in the street. You say that and you say it to your readers, to society, to the world. It is repeated, distorted, owned, rejected, and repeated, again.
The world is what we make it, I assure you.
Has it really been a year?
I had copies of The Godless, but I think it was a week or two before the book seemed to be everywhere, burning swords and all. It is close enough, at any rate. A year has come and gone. Six months before that, Dead Americans and Other Stories was released. In April next year, Leviathan’s Blood will be released.
I’m not quite sure how to describe last year. Personally, it was a bit rough – there were deaths in the family, sadly – and professionally, I felt like I spent most of my time trying to get two books to break through, for them to find their audiences. In many ways, I feel like it is still happening. I feel it particularly with The Godless. It has a lot of expectation, and two books follow it. It is important for it to find its audience, for it to find its feet commercially, and survive in the harsh, violent environment of a bookstore (if you could imagine books with spears hunting books with swords, and looping rope bridges that unfortunate ones get trapped on above rushing rapids…)
I won’t lie: the books, and me, still need to find their audience. It’s out there. It’s more of the people who like the books and say nice things and enjoy the work I’m writing. But, to continue the metaphor from the paragraph before, both myself and the books are not safe off the rope bridge, and not safe in the secret cave that is filled with Nice Things. Both still need the people who like the work to tell others about it.
I think I have said that about a hundred times in the last year, but it remains as true now as it did when I first said it, long ago.
I like what I do, but there is no guarantee for it, and there never has been. What’s worse, is it sadly cannot be a single person carrying the work forward to find new readers. Publishing has never been about that: it takes writers, editors, publishers, and readers, each of them holding a piece and moving it forward in an incremental fashion. Each new advance requires you to pause and rebuild it for the new people who come to it.
If you’re helping, thank you, truly. The steps the books and I have made, the readers we have found, are due to you. If you’d like to help, you can tell a friend, you can leave notes on Goodreads, Amazon (the US one goes to all sub-Amazons, but my main publisher is in the UK), and discuss it on forums, or in blog posts, or in newsletters, which I have been reliably told are the new thing. You’ll note that we don’t have a lot, there, not compared to some, so any help is appreciated. But be assured that no matter what you do, I am entirely grateful.
I always am, and I always will be.
Last week I would make a soundtrack for the Godless. I’m not sure why – but I did, and you’ll have to suffer it.
The Godless, if you haven’t read it, has three points of view. For most of the book, each of the three main character appears in one of named chapters, their scene divided by numbers. Over all, there are twelve chapters in the book, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter is around ten and eleven thousand words – in Leviathan’s Blood, the average is thirteen to fifteen – but the bookend pieces are considerably smaller, at three and five. In case you are wondering, the math of each chapter is important to the structure of the book, but in all likeliness, it is important only to me. When I begin a work, I find it easier to understand how the work flows, and how it builds and resolves itself, once I have settled upon the structure and narrative framework of it. What can I say? We’ve all got our little quirks. I liked it because I liked the narrative beat it created and the interplay it allowed between the characters.
I described the structure of the book because, when it came to the soundtrack below, I found myself leaning towards songs that fit in at the end of each chapter. Sort of like a song rolling over the credits of an episode, or a movie, if you can imagine.
Anyhow, enough of that.
Here it is.
(In the Dark Places – PJ Harvey)
Beneath the Skin
(I’m On Fire – Bat For Lashes)
The City Beneath
(This Land is Nobody’s Land – John Lee Hooker)
The Boy Who Was Destined to Die
(The Humbling River – Puscifer)
In the Blood
(Lullaby – Low)
A Small Kindness
(Ain’t Got No, I Got Life – Nina Simone)
In A Town Called Dirtwater
(Into Dust – Mazzy Star)
(Two Against One – Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi, and Jack White)
(Sacrilege – Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
The Woman Made From Fire
(Fire Walker – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)
The Important Garden
(Great Waves – Dirty Three)
The Circumstances of Birth
(Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce – the Drones)
(Take Me Somewhere Nice – Mogwai)
(Jubilee Street – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)
When I started writing, long ago now, one of the first pieces of advice given to me was never to take rejection personally.
It wasn’t bad advice, but of course, I took it personally. I mean, how could I not? Someone had turned down a piece that I had worked on. It was me. Someone rejected me.
Of course, no editor meant it personally, not then, and as far as I am aware, not ever. But you can take it personally, anyway. I mostly think it’s fine to do so, as long as you don’t do the next part, which is to write back to the person who rejected you and tell them how they were wrong.
I’ve never done it. In truth, it was a difficult thing to do, back in the early days, because everything came by post. I started my career by trying to sell short fiction. For a long time, that was all by mail. An early book submission was likewise. So, when rejection came, it came to me on a small, red scooter, delivered by an employee of Australian Post. I could mostly tell if I had sold it by the weight of the envelope, but occasionally, an editor would send back the first few pages, giving the illusion of a contract. Either way, I opened the envelope hopeful. More often than not, it contained either a form rejection or a personalised one.
I was always secretly impressed by the people who wrote back to editors in those days. It was so much effort, I thought. You wrote the letter. Then put it in en envelope. Then posted it. It was dedication, really.
At any rate, we can all agree that that kind of behaviour isn’t very helpful for a new author (or an established one). But the truth is, that kind of rejection is much easier to deal with than the rejection that comes later.
Rejection comes in many forms once you’re established (or establishing, since you’ve perched yourself on an edge somewhere). It is not just an editor that does not like your book, or your short fiction, or your essay. It can be that they do like it. It can be the reader who doesn’t like it, as well.
At the point, it becomes very nuanced, and very complicated.
Five, maybe six years ago, I had a very rough patch in what I call this career. I couldn’t sell much. I felt a bit burnt out. But I was at a point where I was turning a corner. I was awaiting a contract for a novel… and, since this is 2015, well past that time, it is easy to say that it didn’t happen. The corner was not turned. To keep with the bad metaphor, the road remained straight. And long. It had a while to go before it turned.
Along the way, people I knew, fellow writers, some who are my friends, and some who aren’t, were signing deals, and were publishing books while I was not. At times, it was hard, but there wasn’t anything unusual about it. None of them were more or less deserving of their deals than I was. Everyone walks their own bad metaphor – every author has their own trials and successes – and they take what they take from it, really. But human emotions are their own thing, and when you’re feeling like you just got a handful of shit for all your work, you can feel a whole lot of things, like envy, jealously, resentment, and so on and so forth.
I had not, until then, really understood how much of that went into the processing of rejection. When you submit something, you think you are worthy of what accolades will come, and undeserving of any criticism, but you rarely stop to think about the judgement that you are passing on the work that is taken in your place. The same goes for the audience who reads your work. You rarely stop to think about how much of it is all filtered through your ego and your sense of self-belief. And, yeah, sometimes you are very much justified by what you think – but that doesn’t change that where you coming from isn’t such a great place.
The experience of rejection, from editor to reader, is, I find, a navigation of all the ugly emotions that rise up in you. It is rare as an author that you will be at peace with it from the start, especially as you form yourself as an artist, as you find who you are. It is a lot easier when you know who you are, and what you are doing, to shrug it off, to know that it doesn’t matter, and that there are others out there who will like what you do. It is a place that, by and large, I find myself these days – and have, I guess, from before I found my current ‘success’, mostly because I did not like the kind of author I was becoming five or so years ago, and took a step back to make sure I became the author I wanted to be.
I don’t speak of work, there, incidentally. I have, by and large, always been confident about the work I do. You can pass whatever judgement you wish on that.
No, rather, I speak of the things that are outside the work of the author, and speak to who the author is, as a person, and how s/he navigates who they are in relation to their work. That is what is at the end of being able to navigate rejection well, I think.
Have a good day, all.
Yesterday, I read a tiny collection by J.M. Coetzee called Three Stories. It was put out by an independent press in Australia, Text, who also did his last novel, The Childhood of Jesus, in 2013.
I have a weakness of nice looking books, books that are objects, and Three Stories is a cute little hardcover, about eighty pages in length. My girlfriend picked it up in Hobart last year, because she’s a bit of a Coetzee fan. I like him as well, though I have only read his novel, Disgrace. But I thought that was an excellent novel, truly. Three Stories was quite good as well, and once again, I was reminded of the lightness of Coetzee’s prose, the ease by which it conveys itself, the seemingly effortless way it moves you across the page. Prose like that is something to be admired, I believe. My girlfriend told me (as we did our grocery shopping this morning) that Coetzee writes multiple drafts of all his work. He reportedly wrote fourteen for Disgrace. If you take anything away from that, you should take away the idea that light, effortless prose is anything but effortless.
My favourite story in Three Stories was ‘He and His Man’, which was the speech that Coetzee gave when he received a Nobel for his work. It is about Robinson Crusoe after he has returned from his island, and the world about him.
It appears that Australia has paid people smugglers to take their refugees back to Indonesia.
I say appears, because it has not been admitted yet, and will not likely be so, but I suspect that we can all simply accept that Australia has done so. What are we to do about this, really? It’s appalling, of course: but it is another appalling moment in a litany of shameful acts by Australia to asylum seekers, from sexual abuse to self harm to the denial of basic treatment to men and women for hygiene and simple injuries. Australia has even sent a five month old child to Naura. But what are we do to? What can we do? I have stopped saying that it is the Australian Government that does this, and now I say that Australia does this, that we do this, because after all that we have heard, all that we been told, we as a nation continue to allow this to happen, we as a people accept it and allow it. But the question remains, how do we stop it?
And the answer is, I do not know.
Lastly, I watched Snowpiercer last week. It was decent enough, if predictable, and with an ending that was, perhaps, a little strange. I know the film wants us all to think that there is life outside the train when it shows us the survivors before a polar bear, but I wonder, does it realise just exactly what kind of animal a polar bear is?
I suppose that can be applied to my point, earlier, about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, as well.
Last week on facebook I posted a small excerpt from the Eternal Kingdom on it:
‘How long have you been a soldier?’ he asked.
‘A few months?’ Isaap offer a wry smile. ‘Just over a year, I guess. I was given a posting last spring. First Talon.’
‘What were you before?’
‘And you gave that up, did you?’
‘No, sir. My parents said I could be rich and respectful in the lord’s army.’ He ran a hand through his hair, fidgeting, embarrassed by what he said. ‘My parents did not want the family to stay in Maosa. They said that there was no fortune here, beyond what they had. No prestige. They said I should distinguish myself to bring the attention of the other lords to me. You know how parents are, sir.’
‘Mine have been dead for a long time.’ They had, at any rate, not been like that. ‘But I know what you mean. Not so long ago, I had a sergeant whose father was rich. He was a very rich man in Yeflam. His son lived in the shadow of it for a long time. He tried to step out of it for years. I thought that there could be something in him if he managed to do so.’
‘Did he? Step out of it, that is.’
‘No,’ Heast said. ‘In the end, he was nothing more than his father’s son.’
It may not survive various edits. It may, but it may look different. It may look the same. But I was pleased with it, and because it does not spoil anything in the second book, I put it up.
And yes, the Eternal Kingdom is the current title of the third book. I’m not a hundred percent sold on it, but it fits, and I have nothing no one likes enough as a substitute. Titles remind me a bit of a Fiona Apple album, her second album, which was called When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right. It was commonly shortened to When the Pawn… because everyone likes short titles. It’s part of the art of a title, really. Short, snappish, easily remembered. It’s something I struggle with entirely, and at times, I imagine Apple titled her album that just because she was tired of being told that small titles, phrases, would be better. She probably didn’t. But every now and then, I think, I’ll write a poem, and I’ll use it as the title of my next book.
(It’s probably more likely that I’ll do what Beat Takashi once said, in relation to the titles of his films, in which he just wished he could call them, Film 14, Film 15, and so forth. Give me enough fame and enough money and my books will have blank covers and no titles and I’ll be happy. And, you know, not selling. At all.)
On the weekend, one of my students asked me how many hours a week I work. I told him I work seven days and I work at least eight hours a day. He laughed. I didn’t tell him that it wasn’t uncommon for me to work three jobs, which put more hours on top of it. But I did tell him that I sat and wrote every day because that’s how work got finished. You can have word counts, you can have chapter goals, and I often do (I like a thousand new words a day) but for me, I sit down and I write regularly. More and more, I am convinced this is the key to it. For me, at least.
I read P. Craig Russell’s the Ring of Nibelung over the weekend. It is his graphic novel adaption of the Wagner opera from 2000 and 2001. Dark Horse released a nice hardcover of the complete thing last year, and I picked it up on Russell’s name without really much idea about it – even though it won a bunch of awards – and have to say, it’s pretty sweet. Well worth the price of admission.
While I was reading it, I thought, at times, about Lord of the Rings. Both the Tolkien novels and the Jackson films (and the Hobbit, as well). There has been a long debate about how much Tolkien was influenced by Wagner for his work. For his part, Tolkien is reported to have flatly denied it. The famous quote goes something like, ‘It is true that both rings are round.’ But he didn’t like Wagner’s opera, and it was perhaps more difficult to admit at his time that he did like it, given the connection that Wagner’s work had with Nazi Germany (Hitler was reportedly a great admirer, and saw much of his world view in Wagner’s work). For my part, I think Tolkien was influenced somewhat. Not hugely – but I think there’s enough there in the rings to make the argument and make it stick. Of course, I like these little debates about influence and inspiration and theft, in part because the lines are never clear, and because I’m just kinda nerd for shit like that.
It was in that air that I found myself thinking of Wagner and Tolkien and, after, Russell and Jackson. Russell has scenes in his graphic novel that appear almost like early sketches for scenes in Lord of the Rings. In particular, he appears to be mapping scenes with Gollum before an audience sees him. Russell’s scenes with Alberich and Mime are wonderful, but his design of them, the way they move, the shadows that they exist in… it really is as if you have seen early sketches of the CGI Gollum from the films. There are other things, as well. The ring of the Ring of Nibelung continues to present itself before the ring from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in design and influence on some characters (mostly Gollum). And Russell’s Votan, as the Wanderer, looks like Ian McKellen as Gandalf, though this, I suspect, is simply more about the generic nature of an old man in grey robes with some crows about him. But still, with the other aspects of it, I had at times an odd feeling of being cast into that debate about the influences of Wagner and Tolkien again and seeing it play out with a new generation of artists.
Regardless, Russell’s the Ring of Nibelung it is an excellent graphic novel. You would not buy it or read it for these little discussion I like to have, but for Russell’s excellent adaption, which is its own, unique creature, and speaks well of his talents entirely.
Went and saw George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road last week. A film, really, that is deserving to see in a cinema. It’s a big, beautiful spectacle.
It has a few flaws, the primarily being what I consider a sin of plot, in which the characters go one way, only to decide at the mid point to turn around and go back the way they came. Still, if by that point you’re into the film, you’re into it. If you’re not, well, the film wasn’t going to suddenly become a film you’d like. The film isn’t spoiled by the choice. It’s simply that a more interesting choice could have been made. Others will disagree, though. Still, it’s a flaw in a film that otherwise looks excellent, and has some fine performances, most notably from Charlize Theron. Tom Hardy isn’t too bad as Max, and I enjoyed his version, but in many ways, Max isn’t a very sympathetic character. He’s merely the vessel by which the audience is delivered into the narrative. His role, within that, is simply one of survival – Theron’s character has one with more depth, and therefor, more resonance for the audience.
Before the film was released, there was a lot of noise about the film being a feminist film, and how horrifying that was. I’ll not link the article because it was beyond stupid, but sufficient to say that a) the writer of that article had never seen one of Miller’s films before, apparently and b) for a feminist film, Mad Max: Fury Road walks a pretty tame line. It’s much fairer to say that Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and Hardy’s Max treat each other as equals. I’m not sure why that makes it such a radical, feminist text, but men’s rights activists are largely an embarrassment, so I’m not terribly surprised. The are some themes made about slavery, and in particular sexual slavery, but again, I’m not sure why it got some guys riled up. Y’know, slavery is bad. We all learnt that when we were little kids and discovered the endless, endless horrors that people who are enslaved experience. Maybe that’s become a radical notion, now. I don’t know: whatever the complaint was, originally, all I can say is that I’ve seen a lot more films that push a lot more of a feminist angle.
In many ways, I found it kind of sad, in the days after I saw the film, that some guys had gotten riled up over it. I saw a lot of women who liked Mad Max: Fury Road. A lot of women (and a lot of men) who enjoyed it, who felt that there were characters that they could engage with, and enjoy. Is this not a good thing? Is it not cool that a film that is essentially one giant car chase, set in a post apocalyptic landscape is able to speak to women? Isn’t it, like, a huge positive that everyone has something they can enjoy as all the stunts roll out, the cars blow up, the people are shot, and the diseased, broken figures of the landscape emerge? There seemed to be this whole argument that underlined the opposition to Mad Max that somehow women ought not enjoy such things. Maybe their place is in front of female friendly comedies, or Disney films, and maybe all the diesel stains, big engines, gun shots and deformities are for men. Maybe that’s the natural order of the world. Maybe, maybe (but mostly I think it’s not). But regardless, I thought it was kinda cool that the film could appeal to everyone. The old Mad Max films are sorta grungy, low budget things (well, not the third one, I guess – that had a budget at the time) and they don’t largely have this kind of mass appeal, and I thought it was pretty cool that this forth film had something for everyone, while still maintaining its integrity to what came before.
(Well, it could have been a little more diverse, that said. For a film set in Australia, a lot of Australia was stripped out of it, and aside from the brief image of an indigenous man, which constitutes the whole of Australia in it, it could have been set in any desert in the world. Also, Zoe Kravitz, who I quite liked in the film, was a bit of a token representation.)
At any rate, this post sort of twisted into something other than what it was originally meant to be, but no matter. It’s a cool film – and it is a film to see in a cinema. Those films, I feel, are so rare these days – but Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that is a big and bold on the screen, and worth that experience, no matter what else is said about it.
When I was eighteen, I stopped reading epic fantasy for a while. It was Robert Jordan’s fault, if you must know.
I had just finished my final exams at High School in my own, lackluster fashion, and I had planned to sit around and read a few books over the following months, before the marks came back. It wasn’t the only thing I’d planned to do – fucking round with my friends was going to occupy most of it – but you know, it was a plan. It seemed like a thing. I’d gotten a few of the Jordan books as gifts earlier, and I thought I’d spend a few weeks reading through The Eye of the World and the couple others I had. I made it half way through before I gave up on. I put it down simply because I’d seen it before. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that Jordan had used Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a template, and had in fact, lifted pretty heavily from it. At the time, I just put it down, put it away, and went and did other things. I don’t know that I read much of anything, then, but I remember that when I started buying books again, I was buying things other than epic fantasy.
I didn’t read it again for a while. Mostly, I had read a lot of it growing up, the books ranging from bad to good, and I was ready for something different. I still liked the genre, but I was itching for something a bit new. I also wanted to be a writer and I figured I had to be wider read. It is a big world out there and I hadn’t read much of it. So I read different things. It’s not a terribly unusual story. In fact, it isn’t even a controversial one (unless you decide to look at this as ‘Robert Jordan Made Me Leave Fantasy’, which is funny, but I can’t even tell you if those are good or bad books nowadays). But I came back, first with a few authors I had always liked, and then, about a decade and some later, after I had handed in my doctorate, I sat around and read the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember sitting in my backyard in the last bits of sun and reading it and totally enjoying the fact that it had nothing to do with my thesis. I could probably have read menus with the same enjoyment, but after I finished them, I decided I’d try to find a few more that I’d like. If I remember right, I ended up reading Steve Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.
But there is about a decade of epic fantasy books that I’ve missed. I went out into the wilderness. I saw what I saw, and when I came back, a whole lotta shit had changed. It didn’t really bother me – I mean, the amount of books I haven’t read is amazingly huge – but then, somewhere a few years back, I wrote an epic fantasy novel. I’ve said before that it was at a bad time in my career (a word that deserves quote marks, I assure you) and I didn’t really think much beyond that I’d write a book for the kid in me and the adult in me and see what came out. Now, here I am, a guy with epic fantasy novels to his name, each one bigger than the next, and each one big enough to be used as a weapon against a poor and unsuspecting person… and I figure, well, I ought to keep up with what’s what in the genre. I like it, after all. In fact, I tell myself it’s work (truthfully, I tell myself that all reading is work related, which it is) and it makes me chuckle to think that reading epic fantasy is a work related task.
(It’s a good job, in case you’re wondering.)
So, I’ve been reading bits and pieces here and there. I read Robin Hobb’s first Fitz book, Assassin’s Apprentice, last week, and was struck by how old school it felt, twenty years after it first appeared. In the sea of dark, gritty, sardonic, whatever books, Hobb’s first book, which has a melancholy voice throughout it, felt downright innocent. It’s not a bad book, mind you, though I thought the pacing was off a bit – but it wasn’t Hobb’s first novel, and it felt quite accomplished, really. But it is strange to look at it, and then to look at some of the fantasy books being published now, and to see it very much as an older school of book, even though it was published around the same time as Martin’s A Game of Thrones. You could argue that Martin’s book is the harbinger of the new fantasy, in which no one is safe, and a darker, more adult world can be found. It isn’t like either book is the first, or the last, to do what they do, but I found them to be an interesting counterbalance to each other (and who knows, maybe Hobb’s books become like that as they go on).
At any rate, it’s interesting to go back, to read these things I missed. Some that I haven’t liked I think the younger me would have, but the older me, who likes fine prose and ambition – to touch upon that stupid argument still going on in the scene as a whole – in either themes, world building, or just plain craft, hasn’t. It’s interesting, also, to see how the authors of my youth have held onto their place, or their audience, or how they have slipped away. Some moved to different genres, different names, and some stopped writing (or being published). There’s no real reason, either, for some of it. It’s simply that new generations of readers came along for new authors, and some took the old ones as well, and some don’t. Oh, sure, buried within that is a lot to unpack about the support of certain authors, and the demographic of readers, and all of that is important, but it’s not necessarily what I am about right now. I’m simply looking and finding and reading and it’s good and bad and all of that in between and outside.
It’s an interesting journey. It’s an interesting gig. It makes you reflect on what you’re doing, where you think you’re going, and what you think it will all look like a decade from now.
At the end of the Hugo debate – should there be an end – one thing will be true: and that is that speculative fiction will have failed in a truly spectacular way in regards to equality.
As a genre, what has emerged in the wake of Sad Puppies has reflected very poorly on us, authors and fans alike. At the centre of it is the claim that Affirmative Action has ruined awards, because a) minority groups can only get awards through movements and b) white, straight, able bodied guilt is what is soothed by that debate. I have seen people agree with that. I have seen people claim that that is not a bigoted statement. I have seen people claim that one person cannot be Native American because he’s white looking. I have seen it said about others. I have seen people rant about gender, about race, about… well, about everything, and it’s been ugly and appalling.
I suspect that this shit will follow us all around for a while. When the ballot was first released, I thought that it would not do much to the diversity of speculative fiction, the ever growing diversity, and the embracing of difference that I believe is at the part of the genre, but now… Now I am not so convinced. Now I think this shit is going to drive people away. I think this is going to silence voices. I still hold out hope that I’ll be wrong, and that my earlier belief will be right, but… well, we’ll see.
The Godless on the recommended reading list for the first and the long list ballot for the second. A vote for either would help give a signal to noise boost for me, but you could also use the list to vote for work that you think deserves a bit of a signal boost that is not mine. I wouldn’t be bothered by that because that’s what I think awards are good for. I know, I know: I just said awards can be good for something.
It’s true, though. One of the things the Hugo debate has addressed poorly is this idea that popular books don’t win awards. That’s not a true statement in relation to the Hugos, I want you to understand, but it is true for others, so lets for a moment take it at face value. Lets not unpack all the things that make a popular book, all the demographics, all the statistics, and so forth. Lets just focus on the quality of the book. Firstly, I think we can all agree that popular doesn’t mean good, just as unpopular doesn’t mean bad. No book is worthy of an award in and of itself based on its readers. After all, if you hang around in any art form long enough, you’ll find an endless parade of talented people who were ignored, and hacks for made millions. It works both ways, as well. Sometimes you’re a hack who made nothing, and an artist who made something. Sometimes you’re ignored for real reasons. Other times you’re popular and enduring for the right reasons. But being popular and on an award ballot does… what, exactly? Get you readers? Truthfully, if you’re popular, people have made their choice about you already. They’ve read you, or read about you. Maybe a few will take a chance on a book if you win because they’ve always meant to, or because you deserve a second chance. But not much’ll change. If you’re popular you’re still gonna be popular. Now, on the other hand, an author who is struggling to raise a profile gets a lot from an award win. They get a leg up. They get seen. They get to escape the wasteland of good authors who never found an audience. It’s a good thing to see. It’s something to rejoice. It ensures that a lot of other things are happening, as well, from the inclusion of new authors, to new ideas, to new concepts… but mostly, it’s just nice to see an author get a leg up. Now, how high that leg up is a thing we can debate, but it’s not the focus here. I’m just saying some awareness is nice for the author who doesn’t have it. And I’m saying an award can help that.
That, by the by, is not an endorsement to vote for me. I’m doing fine. Sure, I’m not INSERT NAME OF HUGELY POPULAR AUTHOR YOU LIKE but last year the Godless was in airports. It was given nice position in bookstores. I’ve been around long enough to know that those are pretty nice things and that other authors would offer your first child for it (not their own child, but someone else’s). So, by all means, vote for me if you wish, and thank you if you do, but if you find other authors whose book you liked like mine, and you think they can do with a bit more signal than me, then go for it.
It’s a hard business, make no mistake. You’re here one day and gone the next. But it’s important for us to all to make sure that the authors who have talent don’t disappear without being read.
May I call you Bill, now? Now that I have defeated you and your fine fanzine, may I be allowed this sense of informality between us? I sit here with cognac and I toast to you, sir, for I have done it. I have defeated you.
Last night, in Perth, The Godless did not win a Ditmar. I have now become the most nominated person without a win.
I say this in all modesty. I say this even though my crown has yet to arrive. I say it even though my Wikipedia page my never be updated. I say this because you and I know how important it is.
It was, I admit, a bit touch and go. Friends told me that they were going to vote for me. There are always Judas men and women at Easter. It is even moreso during the award season. My friends had not read the book, but they were going to vote for me, regardless. To be honest, I think they like you more than me. But they were weak. Most are, of course, no good, and are constantly laid low by their own addictions, and in the end, that saved me. But then there was the double winner of the award. Glenda Larke and Trudi Canavan shared it and for a moment, for a moment between it being read out of one and the other, I could feel my chance slipping away. But fortunately, I did not prevail. Or I did. It depends on how you look at it, I suppose.
I must say, last night has allowed for me a moment of introspection, as that larger game, that larger award, the Hugos had its own drama play out. Ah. Dear me. Have you seen that? Can you imagine trying to play our game there? Amid all that American partisan politics? It would be a nightmare. But I suppose, in truth, you could not have our game there, not now. There is no room for it, not as the other games are played. The two, one a generation culture war and another an attempt to give legitimacy to those who cannot obtain it otherwise, is in full throttle. I suppose the culture war is one I find less reprehensible of the two – after all, humans have fought for years to be able to define what speculative fiction is and what it is not, and who it is for, and who it is not. It has always struck me as strange to be so angered about it, especially given that the long held belief that speculative fiction was for everyone, that it was a home for whoever you were, is what has allowed such diversity to find its footing within the genre’s own boundaries. Why you would wish to stamp your foot to assert one true definition and claim it to be the most legitimate of them all… I shake my head at it. To even take sides is to be tainted by it. To be one like you and I and allow our work to be caught up in it? I fear it would be a taint we would never escape.
But it is the other that bothers me more. The Castalia House nominations are about bringing a sense of legitimacy to people who are racists, sexists, and worse. Why, the things that have been said about martial rape, about female genital mutilation, about the right for women to make a choice about their bodies in all the ways that you can imagine… I think you’ll agree with me that it is reprehensible. And it is at the centre of the nomination! The stains it spreads to everything it is associated with. It simply boggles the mind. I cannot, I admit it, I–
Oh, a moment. My cognac is empty.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The Americans.
There is little to love about what the Americans are doing. They even take the outing of a young author, an outing that revealed her to be both damaged and damaging, and ask to receive a statue for it? By itself it would be worthy of comment, Bill, but with all this other anger, it makes me wonder if there is any decency, any kindness left in the heart of America? It feels as if it has become so shrill and so fragile. I think of how we have been in our battle, in our support of each other, of our constant reminders of each other’s fine work, and the necessity for it. I think also of that time you bailed me out of jail, after I, yes, I admit it now, after I was caught bringing those corpses to bury under your house. I appreciated that you understood that I was not trying to frame you for murder, but that I was only hoping to delay you once the bodies were found a few years later. You had such a start on me in terms of nominations. I had to catch up, somehow.
But none of that is available in America, it seems. You scream, you taint, you blacken, and those who are left standing at the end are like rats that grew strong in the fire.
Still, I shall end this Bill, to you.
I lift my glass.
You were the finest of enemies and it has been an honour to defeat you,
The Most Nominated Without a Win Ditmar Nominee.
(PS, You know, Bill, perhaps we could take control over America. Perhaps… no, no, you are right, I can see you shake your head. I shall leave it alone. There is, after all, the old Empire to take first.)