We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow to 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

Book review: Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

Summon the Keeper (Keeper Chronicles #1)Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can check-in, but you may never leave.

Claire Hansen is a Keeper drawn to the run-down Elysian Fields Guest House. When she arrives, the owner forges her signature on the deeds and does a runner, leaving her in charge of one employee, one permanent guest, one ghost, and one gateway to hell. With the help of her cat, Austin, she might be able to figure out how to close the gateway. Or she might be stuck there forever.

For our wedding anniversary, we went shopping at a specialist sci-fi and fantasy bookstore. My purchase was the Keeper Chronicles. Yeah, we know how to celebrate. We’re kinky. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tanya Huff, but I was promised a fun story with humour. I think it is fair to say Summon the Keeper delivered on that promise.

The book meanders along, introducing characters, having those characters banter with one another, introducing a few random elements, and generally giving you the feeling that you’re just reading a series of scenes. Then Huff ties everything together in an exciting and fast-paced finale that almost blindsides you. I think that feeling of meandering through the bulk of the story is the only reason I’m not diving straight into the next instalment in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this paranormal – or is that urban fantasy – novel and will be reading the rest of the Keeper Chronicles in the coming months.

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Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

How JK Rowling writes mystery

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We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.

Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.

I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.

*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.

Book Review: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon (The Dresden Files, #2)Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The chief said, ‘I’m going to need your badge, your gun, and your ability to turn into a werewolf.’

Harry Dresden is living on the memory of ramen noodles and hasn’t heard from his contact at the Chicago Police in ages. But with the full moon dawning, a spate of murders leads Lieutenant Murphy to call on his wizard skills. With the FBI sticking their nose in, Murphy under investigation, and a pack of werewolves on the prowl, Harry is up to his neck in trouble before the moon has risen.

Jim Butcher really does love to make Harry suffer. He is obviously a big believer in creating a large stack of insurmountable odds for each of Dresden’s adventures. This is both entertaining and frustrating. Entertaining because it keeps the suspense up. Frustrating because you kinda want there to be fewer fires layered under the frypan Dresden falls out of. Or to put it another way, you start asking, ‘Isn’t it time to kill the bad guys yet?’ Or to put it another way, the damned suspense nearly killed me.

This was another enjoyable Dresden adventure. I’m looking forward to my next one.

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Book review: The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

The Carpet PeopleThe Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Don’t do that! You’ll disturb the carpet people.’

The Munrungs have just had their village destroyed by fray, a natural phenomenon from above The Carpet. In the aftermath, Glurk and Snibril try to help their village flee the attacking Mouls, a people who regard all others as animals and rather good eating. It is then they realise that fray is pushing a path of destruction through The Carpet and that the Mouls are attacking every city and town in its wake. Can they save civilisation so that people don’t go back to hitting each other?

While I was reading this novel I kept having to remind myself that it was the heavily revised edition written by the 40-something Pratchett, not the 20-something of the original edition. This was Pratchett’s first novel and as an ode to fantasy fiction had just the right amounts of absurdism and humour, which I can’t see a 20-something nailing. If Pratchett was this good out of the gate then every other author would be left weeping into the keyboard. Hopefully, someone who has read both versions can point out the differences.

This is, of course, not a Discworld novel. Apparently, all reviewers have to point this out for some reason. As such, Pratchett’s style, particularly his satire, is less pronounced here. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Carpet People, for long-time Discworld fans this may feel a little light or insubstantial. Or maybe they just feel guilty about having vacuumed their house.

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Book review: The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24; City Watch, #5)The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do sugar lumps disappear or were they never there in the first place?

Sam Vimes is making sure The Watch is moving with the times and keeping Ankh-Morpork in line when Lord Vetinari summons him for a new job: ambassador. He is despatched to Uberwald for the upcoming coronation of the Low King. It isn’t long before he is using diplomacy to take care of bandits, solve a mystery, break traditions, and stop a coup. As Vimes says, “So this is diplomacy. It’s like lying, only to a better class of people.”

The first Discworld novel I read was Guards! Guards! so the City Watch series are always among my favourites. The Fifth Elephant is more plot orientated than some other Discworld novels, so it feels more streamlined and ordered than some others. That doesn’t mean that the humour or satire are lacking, even if they can be a bit subtle at times (e.g. feudalism vs capitalism commentary is rife but takes a backseat to the plot).

I really enjoyed this novel. Nothing more to say really.

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