Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so,  and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.

Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’  Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.

Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.

I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.

As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.

Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.

The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.

Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?

The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.

I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.

And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.

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(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)

Cards on the table: I had never heard of Joel Stein until five minutes ago. Nonetheless, having just read his oh-so-condescending op-ed for the NY Times on why, in his estimation, adults shouldn’t read YA, I feel qualified to make the above assertion.

Why a sexist ass, you ask, instead of just the regular kind? Because certainly, his regular assishness isn’t in doubt. After all, any adult who’ll personally vouch for the suckiness of an activity he refuses to try on the grounds of having intuited said suckiness from afar – much like a toddler declaring his undying hatred for unfamiliar vegetables – is clearly deserving of intellectual mockery. But where in that is the sexism?

By way of answer, allow me to compare Joel’s opening paragraph –

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

with his last:

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.

The bolding is mine; take note of it! Because rather than a critique of the content of YA novels, what this piece actually represents is the following assertion: that it’s fundamentally embarrassing for grown men to share any interests whatever with teenage girls. In fact, according to Joel, it is actually more embarrassing for a man to identify with a teen girl via the medium of literature than if he were publicly demeaning and sexualising her via the medium of pornography!

In five paragraphs, the only gender pronouns he uses are in those paragraphs: male to describe the adults who shouldn’t read YA, and female to describe the intended readership of the books to which he’s specifically objecting. Five paragraphs does not a lengthy article make. Certainly, it’s not long enough to enter into a nuanced discussion of why adults read YA (what then, I wonder, does Joel make of the adults who write it? or does he imagine that YA books spring full-fledged from the legs of hipsters, like Athena sprang from Zeus?), the changing face of the genre, or anything approaching an intelligent, reasoned argument.

It is, however, more than long enough to demonstrate his sexist credentials, and the nature of his real fear, which is that men might voluntarily be enjoying stuff written for girls. Oh noes! The horror! What could be worse than adult men identifying with the demographic they’ve historically most oppressed! GENDER EMPATHY IS SCARY AND TERRIBLE AND UNMASCULINE AND PLANES WILL FALL FROM THE SKY.

Those damn tween girls with their Bieber and their Twilights. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting the vote and refusing to act in pornography. The HUSSIES.

Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents – large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.

Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice;  we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.

Anyway.

I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.

And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.

This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.

Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.

In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.

And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers;  how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.

It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.

We, all of us, need to get critical.

*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.

2011 involved unprecedented levels of book-related awesome. That’s a big call to make, because as you may have noticed by now, I read voraciously, constantly, and have done my whole life.  Undeniably, one of the things that made 2011 so special was my discovery of Amazon – or, more specifically, the belated realisation that I am a grown woman with my own income and can, as such, buy books on the internet whenever I want. I can’t rightly explain why it’s taken me so long to realise this without delving into the twisted warren of personal psychology, but the practical upshot is that for the past few years, every time I’ve heard about an interesting book or author whose work I can’t find that the local bookshop – which, frankly, is most of the time – I’ve been tagging it on my Goodreads shelf and then sighing over its inaccessibility. Internets, I don’t know what to tell you: I am a complete moron, basically, but all of a sudden, it suddenly occurred to me that I could buy these books online. Hallelujah!  Huzzah! And so I did, and it was awesome.

It is worth pointing out that my husband is suddenly very, very keen on the idea of me getting a Kindle. Every time a new book finds its way into the house, he twitches. There are two good reasons for this, namely:

1. We are rapidly running out of shelving space; and

2. The next time we move, he’ll be the one hauling all my boxes of books down four flights of stairs.

The point being, it’s not just my consumption of books that went up in 2011, but the purchase of them, too. Not only was I trying new things, but suddenly I had a back catalogue of literally hundreds of books I’d been wanted to read for ages, plus the means and opportunity to buy them. And I am here to say, they did not disappoint. Of the 156 titles I read in 2011, only a very few rubbed me the wrong way, and even those still tended to be worth reading. The rest were, by and large, brilliant, which perhaps explains why I chewed through so many so fast. And here is where we come to the reason why 2011 was such a staggeringly awesome year, bookwise: because not only did I read many an awe-inspiring book, but in the process, I became infatuated with many an awe-inspiring author. Not since I was a teenager discovering SFF through the greedy acquisition of second-hand paperbacks has there been a time when so many new writers have instantly made the transition from ‘person whose books I enjoy’ to ‘canonical favourite author’, the latter state being distinguished by the fact that I must have their books, all of them, NOW.

There’s something very special about being made to feel that way again – as though a genre you’d thought you’d known had suddenly opened back up again, richer and even more awesome than ever. And thus I give you, in order of their discovery, my:

Top Ten Authors of 2011

1. China Mieville

A few years ago, I bought a beautiful but unwieldy copy of Perdido Street Station. Perhaps I was just too young for the book, or my expectations of it were such that I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it – either way, I ended up putting it aside. Not long after that, I tried again with Un Lun Dun, but despite enjoying the story, I was so distracted by its similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that, three quarters of the way through, I put it down and never remembered to pick it up again. And then, in 2010, I bought a copy of the newly-released Kraken – third time’s the charm, I thought – and decided to save it for just the right occasion. And then came Worldcon, during which time I actually ended up meeting China Mieville. Very kindly, he signed my copy of Kraken – and then I heard him read a chapter of it aloud. All of a sudden, it was like a key had turned in my head: everything about his writing that had puzzled me locked into place, and though I was too overwhelmed and exhausted to tackle such a big book at the time, when I finally picked it up in January 2011, I devoured it in something close to a day. Mieville is powerfully, sometimes exhaustingly awesome: his intertwined language and concepts appeal to something deep in the brain, and once you’re inside his stories, it’s impossible to let go. Even better, he’s become an author whose work I can share with my husband: we both loved The City & The City, and were subsequently blown away by Embassytown. Since then, I’ve also finished Perdido Street Station and have a copy of its first sequel, The Scar, ready to go.

2. N. K. Jemisin

Back before its release, I read a free sample chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms somewhere online. I don’t remember who, if anyone, directed me towards it, but the story stuck with me, and when the novel hit shelves, I wasn’t surprised to see it getting great reviews. Not being able to find a copy locally, this was one I had to wait to get, during which time friends kept recommending it, amazing reviews kept cropping up, and I kept getting impatient. And then I finally bought a copy, and it was brilliant, and shortly devoured both sequel volumes, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods, which were equally as good. Jemisin’s worldbuilding is exquisite, her style both poetic and gripping, but it’s her psychology that really sells me: ambition, need and culture all shape her characters as well as their innate, sometimes difficult personalities, and their interactions are a pleasure to read. She also writes an entirely awesome blog about entirely awesome things, thanks to which I’ve come to think about a lot of important issues I might not otherwise have considered. Her next novel, The Killing Moon, is out this year, and I absolutely cannot wait to lay hands on it.

3. Cory Doctorow 

Technically, this is a cheat, because I first read and loved Little Brother way back in 2009. But for whatever reason, I didn’t follow through with more of his work until last year, when I ended up reading For the Win and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Doctorow’s strong technology themes – and the ease with which he makes them not only interesting, but significant, to relative laypersons like me – are a large part of what makes his work so compelling; but it’s the social justice elements that get me in the chest. The rest of his books are now in my scopes, and hopefully I’ll get to one or more of them at some point in 2012.

4. Octavia E. Butler

I’d heard of her. I wanted to read her books. But I had no idea where to start, and I was tentative in the way I always am when it comes to science fiction greats, because so often I go in optimistic and then find out that really, these stories aren’t for me. But when I came across an omnibus edition of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy in the local second-hand bookshop – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago in a single volume – I decided to plunge ahead. And oh, man. Look, internets: you don’t need me to tell you how amazing, how absolutely jaw-dropping Butler is, because you already knew before me. I was literally broken apart by these books, and though they’re still the only ones of hers I’ve read – stories that powerful need to be rationed, like absinthe or Belgian chocolate – they nonetheless burned themselves into me forever.

5. Paolo Bacigalupi

This is something of an odd one. I made sure to read The Wind-Up Girl after it won the Hugo, and when I did, my reaction was… mixed. (For the curious, my review is here.) There were parts of the story I loved, and others I hated; I came away with a lot of thoughts, but despite the more negative aspects I perceived in the book, I also couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s difficult to articulate why, but sometimes I can have a very Slap Slap Kiss relationship with certain stories: for all my criticisms, I’ll end up loving them more than other works with which I found no fault, because they challenge me. Uncharitably, this is just because I’m a deeply contrary person, but I also suspect it’s because when you see things you absolutely love laid alongside things that make you bristle, you’re forced to rip apart various narrative seams – both in the book and in your head – to find out why you’re reacting that way. This process cannot help but be informative, if not transformative, and the upshot of all my angsting was that the very next month, I ended up buying Ship Breaker. Which, flat out, I absolutely loved. Could not put it down. So not only is Bacigalupi an awesome author, he’s one who makes me think, too – and that is always good.

6. Catherynne M. Valente

The book I started with here was Palimpsest, and – as with The City & The City and The Wind-Up Girl – part of the reason I read it was the Hugo nomination. As is often the case with me, I was nervous: I’d picked up a copy in a bookshop once before, but due to whatever quirk of mood or temper that particular day, I’d decided against buying it. But during a trip to London that happened to coincide with my birthday, I’d decided to give Valente a try, and so set out to acquire a copy of In the Night Garden, which a friend had recommended. Alas, London did not yield me that particular book – but I did find Palimpsest, and so decided, on the basis of the Hugo nomination, that my younger self had no idea what she was talking about. Thus, I bought it, and read the whole thing in a single sitting, curled up in bed in an excruciatingly cheap hotel in the middle of the day. Valente is a poet, and the way she braids this skill with mythology and imagery and longing absolutely kills me. Later in the year, I won an ARC of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in a Twitter contest. It quite literally moved me to tears, and my review of it is here. After that came Deathless, which was unbelievably good; and in my pile of books-to-be read for 2012 are copies of In the Night Garden and Myths of Origin, which I’m really looking forward to. And, like Jemisin, Valente also writes a kickass blog.

7. Carrie Vaughn

I briefly met Carrie Vaughn at Worldcon in 2010. She was a really lovely person, and on the strength of that I decided to check out her work. This started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, the first of her best-selling urban fantasy series: there was a lot to like in terms of writing and characterisation, but what really hooked me was Kitty’s job as a radio DJ. So often in UF, the heroines are kickass women doing kickass jobs from the get-go, and while that’s also a type of story I also adore, there was something really special about Kitty being (so to speak) an everywolf – a kind, competent woman doing something she loved, then rolling with the punches when things went sideways. Even so, I was intrigued by the variety of what Vaughn was writing, and so my next port of call were her stand-alone novels: Discord’s Apple, After the Golden Age, Voices of Dragons and Steel. Of these four, my far-and-away favourite was After the Golden Age, which is about a forensic accountant whose parents are both superheroes. What continually impressed me was Vaughn’s versatility: her willingness to play with different ideas to see what happened, and the fact that her heroines – much like Kitty – always feel like very real, relatable women, rather than untouchable action heroes.

8. Lois McMaster Bujold

Early in the year – on the same London trip where I bought Palimpsest, in fact – a writer friend strongly recommended I read some Lois McMaster Bujold. I stored his advice away, and then, during a particularly fulsome Amazon binge, ordered Shards of Honour, the first novel in the Vorkosigan saga. You may judge my reaction to this book by the fact that its heroine, Cordelia Naismith, is now one of my fictional rolemodels for 2012. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love these books. The politics are vicious, intricate and utterly believeable, the action is breathtaking, and the characterisation is pitch-perfect. In addition to Shards of Honour, I managed to get through Barrayar, The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game, Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms before the end of December; Mirror Dance and Memory are sitting in my to-be-read pile, and as of this afternoon, so are all three volumes of her Chailon series, fortuitously acquired at the second-hand shop. If I could marry her brain, I would. In a nutshell: squee!

9. Laini Taylor

I picked up a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone at the local Waterstones. I’d been seeing it reviewed online, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t really registered. The fact that it was shelved with fantasy rather than YA is what made me notice it, because it’s not so often that you see a book that transitions like that; and besides which, it was a signed special edition. So I decided to give it a try, which  turns out to have been one of the best decisions I made all year. As well as being an author, Taylor is also an artist, and her visual imagination comes across beautifully in her worldbuilding. And just, you guys: THE WORLDBUILDING. And the plot. And the characters. And the everything. Without wanting to give too much away – which is actually sort of impossible, so spoiler alert – this book is now my benchmark for any and all stories featuring:

1. Angels and demons;

2. Impossible romance; and

3. Reincarnation plotlines,

because Daughter of Smoke and Bone manages all three like a boss. (End spoilers.) So then I looked up her other works, and was kicking myself when I realised I’d actually seen her Dreamdark books when they first came out, and hadn’t picked them up! Truly, Past Foz is an idiot. But this has now been rectified: both Blackbringer and Silksinger were marvelous, and I cannot wait to see what she writes next.

10. Nnedi Okorafor

I can’t remember whether I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor because of Who Fears Death or because I’d been seeing reviews of Akata Witch cropping up around the place, but either way, I wound up following her on Twitter. The more I heard about her  talk about the themes in her books, the more I knew these were definitely stories I wanted to read, and so without having read anything more than a short story of hers, I ordered Who Fears Death, Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker online. I read Akata Witch first, by way of easing myself in: at least one person had warned me that I might find Who Fears Death harrowing, and in case that were so, I wanted to have read some of her other work beforehand. As things turned out, though, I loved all three books. Okorafor’s constant themes are Africa, culture, feminism, and the power of the outcast, and all her books are breathtaking. Right now, there’s a copy of The Shadow Speaker sitting in my to-be-read pile, and I know that it won’t disappoint.

So, there you have it! Ten awesome authors, all discovered in the space of a year. Seriously though, this whole list should be subtitled How Foz Was Late To The Party, because these are all writers whose excellence has been well-known to other people for years. Only the stubborn idiocy of my younger self is to blame for not having discovered many of them earlier. Damn you, Past Foz! But then, if Past Foz hadn’t been an idiot, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of finding them all in one go, and 2011 wouldn’t have been nearly so amazing. Nonetheless! To compensate for the fact that everyone on Earth was quicker off the mark than me, here is a secondary list of excellent books to see you on your way. In no particular order:

Five Awesome Books from 2011

1. Water to Burn, by Katharine Kerr

The second book in Kerr’s new urban fantasy series about the exploits of psychic agent Nola O’Grady, following on from by License to Ensorcell, with the third book, Apocalypse to Go, which I was lucky enough to read in draft, about to be released. Rather than rhapsodize anew about why these books are amazing, I’ll direct you instead to my previous review, but in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, just trust me: they are.

2. Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

This book is easily my favourite YA dystopia. The worldbuilding is brilliantly in-depth without being overbearing, the writing is excellent and the characterisation solid, but the sheer power of it is what works: a broken world disillusioned by the problems of 21st century romance, twisted into a passionless society from which only the young or mad can escape.

3. The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Three friends. Three dead brothers. A perfect town. A secret. Read this book; it’s amazing. My review is here.

4. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

An incredible circus. A contest between magicians. Forbidden love. Beauty! Magic! Adventure! What more do you want? Exquisitely written and characterised, The Night Circus took my breath away.

5. The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

Shapeshifter Moon doesn’t know who his family were; he doesn’t even know what race he is. Finding out takes him on a journey across an amazing, vivid fantasy world, full of a gorgeous variety of cultures, peoples and magic. This is the sort of book you didn’t know you’d been yearning for until you picked it up – so trust me, and do.

So that’s it, folks – my year in books for 2011! What was your year like?

Happy new year, internets! Isn’t it shiny and new? I feel like I ought to be peeling the sticker off and stripping away the plastic.

First up, here are my fictional rolemodels for 2012:

1. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan

To say I have fallen in love with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga is something of an understatement: I am in full-on literary lust. If it were legally possible for me to marry her brain, I would do so, but while this is in large part due to the awesomeness of Miles Vorkosigan and the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, the character that absolutely stole my soul is his mother, Cordelia. There is something raw and brutal and beautiful about her, a strength and courage that goes bone-deep. She is vulnerable and human, yes; but when terrible things happen to her – and they do happen – she overcomes them with a species of brilliance that is less about asskicking than it is about pureblooded victory: social, political, intellectual, emotional, feminist and military, written with all the hard and visceral joy of triumph over incredible adversity. Now and forever, she has catapulted herself to the top of my list of Favourite Literary Heroines, and for that, I honour her.

 

 

 

 

2. Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl 

Whenever I watch The Incredibles, I’m consistently blown away by the awesome of Helen Parr. So often in cinema – and particularly in cinema aimed at children – mothers are painted as either obedient housewives or icy harridans, with precious little leeway in between. And then we have Helen, who is not only a competent, caring mother, but a competent, kickass superhero. These aren’t two separate identities whose differences are played for laughs, either: instead, we get a character who argues with her husband and reprimands her children, but who isn’t just cast as a nag; a domestic woman who is neither trapped, ignorant nor passive, but who has chosen her life and is active and happy within in; a wife with emotional vulnerabilities in proportion to her strengths; a woman as ordinary as she is extraordinary. One of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever watched is the one in which Helen saves her children from a plane crash, and if you can watch the following clip without falling utterly in love with her, then I’d suggest that we can’t be friends:

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3. Florence Cathcart

By an order of magnitude, the best new film of 2011 was Nick Murphy’s The Awakening. Set in 1921, the story starts when Florence Cathcart, a debunker of hauntings and unmasker of charlatans, is called to investigate the death of a boy at a boarding school where all the students claim he was killed by a ghost. The resulting narrative is exquisitely balanced: not just Florence, but every character is in some way wounded by the first world war, and the action moves between emotional connections, romance, chilling mystery and genuine, grip-the-seats horror in a way that makes The Orphanage look like Scream. And then there’s Florence, who is hands down the best female character I’ve seen on the screen in years. Witty, bitingly intelligent, courageous and sensual, Florence stole my heart from minute one and has kept it ever since. Talking with writer/director Nick Murphy on Twitter, I asked him if she was based on any particular historical figure – I’d genuinely assumed she must be, because she’d felt so real. His reply? “She was based on the kind of girls I want my daughters to become.” Which, if you’re listening, Hollywood? Is the textbook definition of Doing It Right.

And now, my actual resolutions for 2012:

1. Read at least one non-fiction book per month.

Over the course of 2011, I read 136 new books, only four of which were properly non-fiction, and all of which I read in January. That’s… not a great ratio. I’ve reached a point now where I need to be reading more research material – more history, more philosophy, more culture and politics and feminism and ideas – and not just straight, delicious fiction. This is a modest goal, but one I’d be very happy to achieve. Ideally, I will actually read one NF book each month, but if I manage a minimum of twelve such works spread out across the year, then I’ll be equally pleased. Huzzah for learning!

2. Finish a novel by the end of February.

2011 was a very weird year for me, writing-wise, in that I didn’t actually finish anything. In fairness, I did write half of two new novels and close out the edits for The Key to Starveldt, which was published in October, but I’d nonetheless hoped to have at least a full version of either project ready by this point, and the fact that I don’t bothers me. But! As I have been editing, plotting and generally scheming with regard to the former of these two novels – which, at present, is going by the moniker An Accident of Stars – and know exactly what (I hope) to do with it; and as I ought to have a bit of free time in the next two months, I’ve set myself a completion date of 29 February 2012 by which to produce a viable first draft. Knowing me, this will either prove to be optimism of the highest order or a surprisingly workable timeframe. And boy, do I hope it’s the latter.

3. Get healthy.

I know. I know. OK? No, seriously: I KNOW. Stating this as a serious resolution is roughly the same as jinxing myself, or declaring that I want to achieve world peace by the end of June. Every year I and thousands of others make this our ambition, and every year we are, almost universally, undone by a leftover bottle of wine and the lure of cut-price chocolate before you can say knife. Nonetheless: I hereby pledge to give up drinking for at least the month of January, to try and run a couple of times a week, and to exercise self-control in the presence of chocolate, cheese and any foodstuff created with reference to frying. I also pledge that I shall try to eat smaller portions at main meals, snack judiciously on things I actually like (as opposed to anything that comes from the sweetie box in the work kitchen) and to otherwise comport myself like a sensible adult. I will not deny myself treats, but I will strive to ensure that they are treats, rather than impulses or habits. And so on until I no longer feel the need to unzip the top of my favourite skirt after dinner, amen.

2012 is here. Let the games begin!

 

To say this year has involved reading lots of awesome books is an understatement. Seriously, it’s getting to the point where the cumulative impact of reading successively brilliant novels is radically upgrading my concepts of narrative, storytelling, character, world-building and language on an almost daily basis. The ironically twinfold upshots of this are that:

(a) I’ve had more viable, full-fledged ideas in the past six months than the past six years, but

(b) have grown steadily too intimidated by other people’s talents to work on them.

This is a species of problem, in that I haven’t written anything more strenuous than outlines, poetry, email and blogs for nigh on four months, but also a good problem, in that reading so many jaw-dropping stories is proving roughly equivalent to tripling the size of your car’s fuel tank while simultaneously filling it with delicious, premium petrols. I’ve always worked to a peaks-and-valleys schema when it comes to writing – on when I’m on, off when I’m off – and with each book devoured, I’m once more nudging closer to that brain-full, word-hungry state of ecstatic madness that inevitably precipitates a writing binge. To which I say: woo!

But until then, I’m going to keep reading – and, occasionally, talking about what I’ve read. Which brings me to one of the many awesome books to have crossed my paths in recent months: Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

Seventeen-year-old Keri likes to plan for every possibility. She knows what to do if you break an arm, or get caught in an earthquake or fire. But she wasn’t prepared for her brother’s suicide, and his death has left her shattered with grief. When her childhood friend Janna tells her it was murder, not suicide, Keri wants to believe her. After all, Janna’s brother died under similar circumstances years ago, and Janna insists a visiting tourist, Sione, who also lost a brother to apparent suicide that year, has helped her find some answers.

As the three dig deeper, disturbing facts begin to pile up: one boy killed every year; all older brothers; all had spent New Year’s Eve in the idyllic town of Summerton. But when their search for the serial killer takes an unexpected turn, suspicion is cast on those they trust the most.

As secrets shatter around them, can they save the next victim? Or will they become victims themselves?

– summary from Goodreads

Full disclosure: Karen and I are friends. However! This does not make her writing any less awesome, nor my awe of it any less genuine. I thought her first book, Guardian of the Dead, was wonderful, but The Shattering absolutely blew it – and me – away.

Here is the thing about protagonists: they are characters, which is to say participants in a linear narrative, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to good guys. Particularly in YA, protagonists are, more often than not, meant to be sympathetic and likeable. Pause your thought-chain, though, because I’m not taking this where you think I am. Healey’s trio of protagonists – Keri, Sione and Janna – are both of these things, though in markedly different ways (which is closer to what I’m getting at, but wait).

Because here is the thing about people: they are human, which is to say complicated, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to being flawed. Unless we’re completely oblivious or narcissistic, we can all acknowledge our own imperfections; but acknowledging the truth isn’t quite the same as believing it. Whenever called upon to provide a bio, there’s a reason my default self-description starts with the phrase bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality – which is, simply, that even though I know I’ll die one day (hopefully in bed, aged 109, surrounded by heaving piles of my published works and the occasional loving family member) a part of me can’t quite believe it. Or at least, I can’t believe it all the time, or else I’d end up completely depressed and paranoid. And the same thing goes for flaws, too: because even though I can acknowledge their existence on a factual, intellectual level, it’s only comparatively rarely (or during moments of deep self-consciousness) that I can perceive them as a whole. This condition is not particular to me, and what it means is that, moment to moment, human self-perception tends to skew towards believing ourselves to be kinder, better versions of the people we actually are.

And here, finally, is the thing about authors: we are people, too. Which is to say that, when we sit down to write sympathetic characters, we have a tendency to forget their flaws in much the same way that we mentally block awareness of our own. This doesn’t mean the default state of authorhood is to write perfect characters – far from it. But we do, however, have a tendency to neatly align the emergence of flaws with plot-points rather than writing them in as constant facets of a protagonist’s personality; and while there are certainly times when doing so falls under the purview of the Law of Conservation of Detail, this isn’t always the case. Specifically: if we want a character to be sympathetic and likeable, then it’s easy to shy away from giving them flaws that aren’t addressed or overcome as part of the narrative proper. This is not unrealistic characterisation per se, because most readers immersed in a protagonist’s thought processes find it similarly easy to extend their heroes and heroines the same flaw-obscuring courtesies they habitually extend themselves. Most of the time, in fact, we pick  up a book with an eye to liking the main character, because the vast bulk stories we’ve grown up with have taught us that this is what we’re meant to do (which is a different issue in and of itself). We identify with and view as normative such flaw-free and unobnoxious characters because, unless we’re in the habit of actively critiquing our own behaviour, that’s who we think we are, too. And while the practise doesn’t actually constitute bad writing – or at least, not by itself – it does lead to characters who are, perhaps, a little thinner and a little more idealised than actual humans, in much the same way that their destinies are more cathartic and their luck more strongly abetted by the presence of plot armour.

Karen Healey, however, does not do this – which is why The Shattering’s Keri, Sione and Janna are among the most concrete, fully-fledged characters I have ever encountered.

It’s more than just their flaws, of course. I can picture all three easily – faces, bodies, expressions, movement. I can hear their speech patterns in the dialogue, the different intonations and word-choice setting them all apart. I can even hear their accents, which I’d swear is unprecedented, and I can see the setting of Summerton like a place I’ve actually visited: the light, the sounds, the houses. The prose style contrives to be simultaneously clean and crisp, yet evocative and lush; the plot is simple, but expertly orchestrated, with not a single misplaced or unnecessary emphasis. The action is gripping, the magic and danger both menacing and believable – but it’s the humanity, the sheer strength and purpose of the characters, that makes it an absolute winner. With the chapter framework alternately cutting between Keri’s first-person recollections and respective third-person insights into Janna and Sione – an excruciatingly difficult balance to pull off competently, let alone well – both structure and voice ought to be bland at best and messy at worst. Instead, each character is whole and distinct, their interweaving outlooks made complementary even as they differ.

As in Guardian of the Dead, Healey has created a realistically diverse cast: Keri is mixed-race, Maori and pakeha; Sione is Samoan, and Janna is a white New Zealander. For lazy, unthinking writers, this would be deemed a sufficient means of distinguishing the protagonists all by itself, because regardless of race issues, there’s a strong cultural tendency among modern storytellers to delineate different characters more by colour and appearance  than by native characterisation, the logic seemingly being that if the audience can picture the heroes as looking dissimilar, then there’s less need for their personalities to actually be dissimilar. At its worst, this practice swiftly devolves to appalling tokenism and stereotyping; at its best, a character’s racial/cultural identity is effectively portrayed as their only identity. Even for well-meaning creators, this can be a hard stumbling block to overcome – but not for Healey. Her characters are real, functioning people, and while their respective heritages certainly inform who they are, these aspects are only and always part of a larger whole.

Which brings me back to flawedness: because the other thing about human beings is that, despite our best intentions and protestations of equality, we are still all products of the cultures which create us – their negative aspects as well as the positive. Which is why Keri thinks of her brother’s girlfriend as a white bitch, and why Janna treads on people’s feelings, and why Sione’s shyness manifests as inattention as often as it does endearing silence; and why Keri is cold-blooded, and Janna selfish, and Sione jealous – and why none of this stops them from being sympathetic and likeable, because all of a sudden, whenever a character we’re attached to thinks something mean or dismisses a friend or behaves badly, we’re forced to confront the fact that we do those things, too, and perhaps more often than we realise, and that this only stops us from being good people if we make no effort to change. It’s a rare book that can bring on such epiphanies without being preachy and while simultaneously letting both protagonists and reader orchestrate their individual redemptions, but The Shattering does so beautifully.

This is a book with heart, conscience and consequences. Superbly written, brilliantly characterised and perfectly paced, it’s something everyone should read. Whatever Healey produces next, she’s certainly set the bar high.

Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction,  the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy  – that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.

This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.

Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead,  Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.

But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.

So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were – and are – a number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed  – what mattered – is that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.

But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have? 

To which I say:

Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.

Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.

And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and complementary systems.

Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable  book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.

Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually  characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and accessibility – we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.

It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.

But maybe that’s just me.

Last night, I went with my husband to see the final Harry Potter film. It was good fun – we both choked up a little at various points – and a satisfying conclusion to a narrative which has saturated the popcultural zeitgeist from June 1997 to July 2011. Doubtless, the influence of and significance of the series will continue for many more years to come, but right now, I can’t help but cast an eye back on the past fourteen years and remember what the series has meant to me.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves in 1997, I was eleven years old – the same age as the protagonist, and, like him, just starting high school. I wish I could say I was quick off the mark, a devotee of the series from minute one, but in fact, as was doubtless the case for millions of other people, it wasn’t until the 1999 release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I started to catch on. Which isn’t to say that I’d never heard of the series before then; even though I was unaware of their popularity, the first two books were so omnipresent that I couldn’t help but notice them. Stopping off at a grimy, tin-shack service station on the way back from a horse-riding lesson at the age of about twelve, I remember seeing the first book displayed prominently on a cardboard rack. My interest was piqued by the cover art, blurb and premise, but the location didn’t inspire confidence. Prior to that day, I’d never a book I’d want to read – or even, possibly, any book at all – on sale in a service station. Though I’d seen it proffered elsewhere, part of me wondered: what sort of book gets sold in a place like this? Unable to think of an answer, I let it be.

But in 1999, aged thirteen, Azkaban hooked me, and for a ludicrously cosmetic reason: the cover. Or, to be more specific, the hippogriff on the cover. A mythology nerd since primary school,  fantastic creatures were both a favourite obsession and a specialty area of knowledge. Unicorns and dragons, though tempting, were common – but a hippogriff? Beyond the pages of my reference books, I’d never seen one drawn before; certainly, I’d never seen them fictionalised. Throw in the fact that the book was a hardcover with a celloglazed dust jacket (I was, and always will be, a sucker for celloglaze) and on sale at a discount, and you had a match made in heaven. I didn’t even care that it was book three of a series – a fact which would paralyze me now, but which mattered much less then, despite the fact that I never got more than three chapters through any out-of-ordered read before lack of comprehension prompted me to abandon it. By all rights, I should have given up quickly, no matter how many hippogriffs there were.

Instead, I read the whole thing in an afternoon, pestered my parents for the first two volumes the rest of that week, and then, when they finally acquiesced the following weekend, I went back and read the whole story – including Azkaban – in a single, day-long session. From then on, I was hooked. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finally came out in 2000, I bought it on the release day. I was fourteen years old, and my friend Smott – a fellow geekling, responsible in her adult incarnation for my Solace & Grief character art – was visiting for a week. We each bought a copy of the book and read it together the same day: Smott in a nest of blankets on the floor of my room, and me on my bed in the corner. I was slightly quicker, though; just as I’d reached the climatic graveyard scene, Smott exclaimed over some earlier moment, to which I snappishly replied:

‘Quiet! Harry’s fighting Voldemort!’

‘Of course he is,’ Smott said placidly, and the two of us kept reading.

It was three more years before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – a longer gap than ever before, filled with fearful suggestions that J.K. Rowling had writer’s block. By the time of its release in June 2003, I was deep in my final year of high school, grappling with exam stress, depression and the perils of being seventeen. When the Weasley twins abandoned Hogwarts, I shouted and cheered them with all the fervour of every student-reader who could only ever dream of doing likewise. Another two years passed, and by July 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was nearing the end of my second year at Sydney University. This time, though, I had a different reading buddy. Sometime late the previous year, my then-boyfriend-Sean’s housemate – a shy philosophy student by the name of Toby – had expressed a belief that the Potter books weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The two of us were lounging around in the dim-and-dusty Coogee flat he shared with Sean, who was presently elsewhere. I asked if he’d read any of them; Toby said no, to which I replied that I would respect his opinion if he tried the series. Toby accepted my challenge. Rather than dislike the books, however, he soon became as fond of them as I was. After moving in to a new place in 2005, not only did he take to checking the Leaky Cauldron website for updates on Prince, he even turned his mother into a fan, too. Busy with work on his Masters thesis and coping with family health problems, it took Toby longer to read the sixth book than I did, but once he had, we wasted no time in swapping theories about RAB and where the final installment was headed.

By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in July 2007, Toby and I were engaged and living in Melbourne, with just two months left before our wedding. We each bought a copy from the local bookstore and read it together that same weekend. Since then, we’ve watched all the films together, whether at the cinema or on DVD.  And last night, we rounded things out with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, just one day after we returned from a trip to France to our new home in St Andrews, Scotland.

1997 – 2011. Fourteen years is a long time – long enough for a girl to grow up, change schools, fall in and out of various jobs, get married, become a published author and move continents. It wasn’t Harry Potter that brought Toby and I together, but it certainly helped, and we’ve shared those stories ever since. Come September, we’ll be celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary – and wouldn’t you know it? The appropriate gift is books.

Thanks, J. K. Rowling. For everything.

Ever since I made a conscious decision to start reading more widely, I’ve found that my definitions of genre have been shifting. To lapse briefly into metaphor, my earliest reading habits were like a stream of water that gradually wore a riverbed in the earth; but as I became more rigid in these choices, forcing myself to stick to what was known rather than breaking new ground, the flow of water lessened, confined to a muddy rut. The decision to read new things was like a drought breaking: since then, the river has been in spate, surpassing all previous limits. Which is actually a longer sort of metaphor than I’d intended, but the point is this: that the more I read across various genres, the harder it is to view them as being wholly separate, unconnected entities.

Right now, I’m fascinated by the crossover between mainstream literary novels and SFF. Several times recently, I’ve picked out popular fiction works and been surprised to discover their reliance on magic and SF elements. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing. But it makes me wonder: why are these books classed as fiction, when their content is clearly fantastic? I feel like we’re missing an important taxonomy here, one that might seriously help ease the debate about Literary Fiction vs Genre – the categorical equivalent of a Missing Link. Having read The Tiger’s Wife and Chocolat in quick succession, for instance, it strikes me that in both cases, the presence of magic is simultaneously incidental and integral: incidental, in that neither story is interested in expounding on how and why it actually works; yet integral, because the emotional crux of both narratives hinges on its ability to touch ordinary lives, thereby transforming the characters and generating the plot. The same is equally true of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, two of which books, in addition to Chocolat, have been turned into movies. In each of these stories, a real-world plot with a deep investment in the emotional lives of its characters has been facilitated by a fantastic premise, respectively a deathless man, a chocolate-making witch, a genetic time traveler, a persistent ghost and a girl who narrates her previous life from heaven – and yet, they’re not quite SFF, either.

What makes such stories different? Why is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist, despite its openly fantastic blurb, shelved with fiction, while Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, despite its similar themes of family, loneliness and love, put in with SFF? What about Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus: A Novel, which has all the conventions and impossible whimsy of a fairy tale? Were YA genre novels consistently separated from their fictional fellows, one suspects that This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall would pose a similar problem to would-be pigeonholers. And yet, the more I consider such books collectively, the more it feels like they’re all of a kind – neither fiction nor SFF, but something distinct and beautiful by itself. Whatever we might term this hypothetical section of the bookshop, it wouldn’t lack for content. Taking the incidental/integral balance described above and rendering it in language more familiar to SFF discussions, what distinguishes these books from other genre titles is their disinterest in worldbuilding. By which I mean: creating a secondary, hidden layer to the everyday world – or, as in the case of Yu’s work, speculating about a not-too-distant future – is less important than the emotional development these scenarios afford. (I’m being particularly tentative about Yu’s inclusion on this list, not just because his work is shelved in SFF, but because it’s the only novel mentioned here not set in the current Real World. Nonetheless, I think it fits.) What separates them from straight fiction is the inclusion of unreality.

Despite their SFF elements, these novels are concerned almost wholly with traversing internal, emotional landscapes – the magic is there to facilitate these journeys, but stops short of being a journey in itself. This is not a bad thing, the way it might be for a poorly written genre novel, because the story is meant to stop short. Asking questions to which deeper worldbuilding might provide an answer – Why does Vianne have magic? Where does the deathless man come from? What makes Wolfboy howl? – would only detract from the rhythms of the narrative proper.  Magic here is at its purest form, resulting from the perennial what if of human imagination and leading to stories which are essentially folkloric in nature. Just as a child reading Rapunzel has no need to ask how a princess’s tears can cure blindness, so does an adult reading Of Bees and Mist have no need to wonder why Meridia’s childhood home is full of sentient fog. Asking is not the point; the people – and their situations – are.

Am I on the right track, here? If so, what might we call this nameless story-genre? If not, why? Do you agree or disagree with the books I’ve mentioned? Do you have some recommendations of your own? Come on, internets – inquiring minds must know!

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole series in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss  a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or  George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively consider nominating –  if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.