books

Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

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Ethically sourced books

I bought my first brand new full price paperback novel in a long time, at the weekend (written by a friend, released by an indie publisher), and it got me thinking about how and where I get my reading material, and whether the author gets anything out of it.

Last week I was discussing e-book pricing with a selection of strangers on Twitter. Sam from Lounge Books pointed out that readers are now used to paying less for e-books than paperbacks:

I then commented that you can’t get second-hand e-books, so for those of us used to charity shop prices, even a discounted paperback price for an e-book can seem unusually high. Libraries, as usual, are the answer – the author gets a payment, the reader gets it for free (covered by some tax they’d have to pay anyway). But do I practice what I preach?

Pie chart of the books read by JY Saville in 2017

If in doubt, make a chart. First I looked at books I’d read so far this year, and where I got them from (strictly speaking Library of Mum & Dad this year actually means Big Brother). I’m only looking at books I’ve read the whole of, so if I gave up on it (like the book I took back to the library on Friday morning after 3 chapters), or read only part of a collection or reference book, it’s not counted. Neither do I count audio books.

What we can see from this is that more than half the books I’ve read so far this year haven’t directly contributed to the author’s earnings. I say directly because you could (if you were grasping at straws) argue that all those review copies generate a review that drums up sales or library borrowing. So am I always this bad?

Column chart of sources of the books read by JY Saville 2014-17

Er, pretty much, yes. I bought a few e-books in 2016/17 because I got a Kobo voucher for Christmas 2015 (so should they all be under gifts?) and I watched for special offers and made that voucher stretch as far as I could. Even the gifts aren’t always bought new, as we often give each other second-hand books in my family (including friend T), though I have bought a few new books to give to other people over this time period. Free e-books are mainly the out of copyright variety though one or two were special offers (and one was a digital textbook that came with an online university course).

In my defence, when I buy second-hand books it’s almost always from a charity shop, so at least some charity benefits rather than a private vendor. And if there’s a copy of a book I want to read available in the Library of Mum & Dad, it would seem rude not to borrow it. I’m not about to give up the thrill of getting books through the post, either, often before they’re out there in bookshops. Maybe I could wean myself off the discount e-books, however, and borrow more from the library, as I understand authors get more cash that way.

A promise to frequent the local library more? That shouldn’t be hard to keep. Who’s with me? Last one to the issue desk buys the tea and biscuits…

Reading, writing, exciting

I’ve been inadvertently quiet for a couple of weeks. So busy editing the SF noir novel and reading books that I forgot to blog. To those of you who missed me: sorry. To those of you enjoying the respite: tough, I’m back.

I’ve got a couple of book reviews out there that you might not have seen, and they’re all great novels. First was Wychwood by George Mann, he of the Newbury and Hobbes series of occult Victorian steampunk mysteries. This novel is the start of a new series of contemporary police procedurals, also with an occult twist. You can read my review at The Bookbag.

Then I read We Are The End, the debut novel by Chilean writer Gonzalo C Garcia. Really it’s about being young, feckless and in love, but it has a flavour of computer games and rock music so maybe if you enjoyed the film Scott Pilgrim vs The World you might particularly appreciate it. Anyway you can read my review at Disclaimer magazine.

Yesterday I finished Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, a big-publisher reissue (out in January 2018) of a fantasy novel he self-published a few years ago. It’s the first in a series, located in the fabulous setting of the Tower of Babel where a small-town headmaster has become accidentally separated from his wife on their honeymoon, and I’m itching to read book two and find out what happens next. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got flash fiction in an actual print anthology from Ellipsis Zine, which you can buy here if you feel like it (I get royalties…). The book is full of work by the serially-shortlisted of the flash world, the names that crop up again and again, and I can’t wait to get my hands on my free copy. I’m in seriously good company.

This week I’ve also been plotting and planning with Andrea and Roz, my friends from Ilkley Writers who you’ll have heard on the radio programme we did about libraries in April. An audacious idea for a library-based writing festival grew out of that programme, and yesterday we agreed on a final form for said festival, with our lovely contact at a local library. When we know whether the library’s funding bid has been successful (sometime before Christmas, we hope) we’ll know what scale our festival will be on, and I’ll tell you more about it. Until then I’m fizzing with excitement at the thought of getting people writing, getting people into libraries, and adding further evidence to Why Libraries Are A Good Thing.

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

Penguin WriteNow Newcastle – a summary

Yesterday was long and tiring and still slightly unbelievable – I went to Newcastle, got feedback on the semi-rural fantasy from a Penguin Random House editor, then they sent me away with free books.

The books I got from Penguin WriteNow Newcastle

The Pelican book is actually a notebook.

I chatted to Abir Mukherjee and I’m looking forward to reading his historical crime novel, set in India in 1920. I never quite plucked up the courage to speak to Kirsty Logan (whose novel The Gracekeepers I reviewed for Luna Station Quarterly a while ago).

There were talks from literary agents, authors, Claire Malcolm from New Writing North, and Katie Hale who’s currently being mentored via the first WriteNow scheme from earlier this year. I spoke to other writers who’d been chosen for WriteNow (everyone greeting each other with ‘what’s your book about?’) and Penguin Random House staff, including an editor from Penguin Classics who I obviously had to talk to about Morrissey (I reassured him that I’d enjoyed the autobiography but had to admit I couldn’t finish the novel). Realising that I was talking to someone who’d met Morrissey was more exciting than it probably should have been.

I learnt some stuff (enter competitions; agents aren’t scary; it takes at least 13 passes for a good edit), wrote copious notes, and got unreasonably nervous waiting for my one to one with Mikaela Pedlow. I needn’t have worried – she had useful advice and pertinent questions as well as embarrassing praise (I need to learn to accept compliments without getting awkward and fidgety) and I have some ideas for how to improve the novel. Even without getting onto the mentoring scheme (which could still happen, shortlisting is a couple of weeks away) this has been one of the most exciting experiences in my writing life (entire life?). And because I was in Newcastle I got to eat a cheese savoury stottie for my tea.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow (free e-book)

Cover of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

This is an odd book, there’s no denying it, but it’s a good one if you take it on its own terms. At its simplest it’s an urban fantasy set in Toronto in the early 2000s. Middle-aged former shopkeeper Alan refurbishes a house in the bohemian area of Kensington Market, befriends his student/drop-out neighbours (one of whom has wings) and gets involved in a community project to deliver free local wi-fi. Much of the book is taken up with the day to day goings on around all that. However, (and here’s where you have to like a particular sort of oddness) Alan’s father is a mountain, his mother is a washing-machine, and three of his six brothers are nested like Russian dolls and can’t exist without each other. The innermost nested brother goes missing, the other two turn to Alan for help and it looks like their brother Davey, who they all killed years ago, has returned for revenge.

Full of interesting characters and with some affecting flashbacks to Alan’s childhood, I thought there was a good undercurrent of living with secrets and fitting in, getting on, being normal – whatever that means. It gets pretty dark at times but it has its lighter moments and some beautiful imagery. I have only two minor quibbles with the novel: names and chronology. Though Alan is mainly referred to as Alan, he is for no particular reason I could fathom also referred to by any other name beginning with A, similarly with his brothers B, C, D, E, F, G so that sometimes they change name within a paragraph, and Andrew and Drew refer to two different people (Alan and Davey). Mainly the book is in the here and now in Toronto, or Alan’s childhood further north, but occasionally there’s a flashback to earlier in Toronto that isn’t clearly a flashback (confused me anyway), and it’s not always clear how much time has passed between events (or how old Alan is, but that may be deliberate).

If you enjoyed, or think you might enjoy the superbly odd graphic novel The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis you’ll probably love this Cory Doctorow novel. And, because he like me is into the Creative Commons stuff and sharing art, you can even download it as an e-book for free so what have you got to lose?

Crowdfunding hitches: the skint and the tight

Crowdfunding’s been around for a while in its modern form, and even Victorian novels were sometimes funded by pre-orders, but publishers who use crowdfunding to support their new books are having a surge in popularity (or publicity) at the moment. Dead Ink and Unbound each had a few books on the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize longlist earlier this summer, for instance, and I know that 3 of Cups Press are funding their first anthology at the moment via Kickstarter. It feels like half the people I follow on Twitter have crowdfunded novels or short story collections either already out or in the pipeline.

Naturally enough, I went to pledge for one of these books this week on Unbound and got a shock at the prices. First off, note that while the author isn’t someone I’ve met, we have a few mutual friends/acquaintances (in real life, not just online) so I’m naturally inclined to do him a good turn. Secondly, having read the blurb it’s a novel I’d choose to borrow if I ran across it in the library, so from purely selfish reasons (getting hold of a book I want to read) I want it to get published. Unfortunately it looks like the cheapest option is £10 for an ebook (which I didn’t want), £15 plus postage for the paperback, with (as far as I could see) no option to chip in a smaller amount as a simple donation. It stopped me from pledging, and I bet it stops others as well. There needs to be a lower threshold.

Now, before we go any further I’ll do my usual disclaimer about supporting the right of authors, proofreaders, editors and all the rest to reasonable remuneration for their time and effort. However, that £15 seems a bit steep compared to £7.99 or £8.99 for a full-price paperback, and we all know that in reality via Waterstones 3 for 2 offers, Amazon’s undercutting or supermarket bestsellers, many paperbacks aren’t even purchased at full price. Even if someone’s used to buying full-price new books, you’ve still got to give them an incentive to buy yours rather than the new one from the big name, the prizewinner, or their favourite author. So what’s the incentive to pay double here? Well, apart from the warm glow at supporting an independent publisher or encouraging an author, you get your name in the book. For higher pledges of course you get extras, special editions, original artwork, meet the author, that kind of thing, which seems fair enough. I’m not bothered about getting my name in a book though, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy the paperback at normal paperback sort of prices. Or just donate a small amount, get nothing but the warm glow in return, and maybe buy the book later once it’s out and I’ve got more spare cash.

Once I’d thought about it a bit I wondered if this is another instance of the long-running ‘privileged backgrounds in publishing’ saga (see also my recent posts about the cost of writing competitions). Both Dead Ink and 3 of Cups Press happen to have slightly lower prices than Unbound for their ebooks and paperbacks, but crucially they both have donation options. If you can only spare a quid this week, you still get to feel like you contributed towards a publication that means something to you, even if you don’t get a copy of the book out of it. I was once chatting to a student environmentalist (accentless, bit snobby, apparently from a well-off background) who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t switch to eco-friendly brands as the prices were so similar and clearly it was the right thing to do – I remember trying to explain to this bemused lad that for many people the choice is not between Andrex and Nouvelle or Fairy Liquid and Ecover, it’s between the value brand and the eco version, and their budgets simply might not stretch that far even if they thought it was a good idea. As I confessed to Sam at Lounge Books on Twitter this morning, most of my reading material comes from the library, charity shops, or I get review copies. Before the reviewing it was mainly libraries and charity shops, and most of my family and friends are the same – for us £15 isn’t just usurping two novels we’d buy in the shops, it’s more like five on the expensive side from Oxfam or 30 from the charity shop near my parents. Crowdfunding publishers might be asking for a bigger investment from us than they think.