04-16-11:85 AUTHORS PROTEST BBC'S TREATMENT OF GENRE FICTION
Sue Perkins Approves This Book — but probably not the ones you like.
The Enemy Within
It's an undiluted press release, but it does seem to have to relevance to the article I wrote yesterday, to wit, that those who would like us to read would be well-advised to have us read anything as opposed to tell us to read something annoyingly boring.
Of course, it's not liike it would be a big surprise that the BBC would weight their show towards literary fiction. One of the things I really like about this press release is that Stephen Hunt correctly identifies literary fiction as a sub-genre, instead of the be-all and end-all it is generally thoght to be. I'm sort of guilty of implying that as well, but I'll only plead to misdemeanor charges.
Those who are protesting the BBC's Programme include some stellar names who are not prone to general-purpose teeth-gnashing over The Way Things Ought To Be. And so, here's an instant update from the world of genre fiction ...
85 AUTHORS PROTEST BBC'S TREATMENT OF GENRE FICTION
PRESS RELEASE: 16th April 2011.
EIGHTY-FIVE AUTHORS HAVE SIGNED A JOINT LETTER OF PROTEST HANDED IN TO MARK THOMPSON, THE DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE BBC, COMPLAINING ABOUT THE BBC'S SHABBY TREATMENT OF GENRE FICTION DURING LAST MONTH'S WORLD BOOK NIGHT COVERAGE BY THE TV STATION.
The signatories to this letter range from Gold Dagger-nominated crime authors such as S J Bolton, writers of children's fiction such as Debi Gliori, as well as many fantasy, science fiction and horror authors – from Iain Banks to Michael Moorcock.
The BBC programming which has raised their complaint was the state-sponsored television channel's coverage of fiction during World Book Night, with programmes including The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special and New Novelists: 12 of the Best which went out on BBC2 on the 5th March 2011.
Fantasy author Stephen Hunt, who organised the protest, commented, ":The sneering tone that was levelled towards commercial fiction during The Books We Really Read was deeply counterproductive to the night's aims of actually encouraging people to read novels. The weight that was given to the single sub-genre of literary fiction in the remaining programmes was unbalanced and unrepresentative of all but a small fraction of the country's reading tastes. And closest to my own heart, the failure to feature a single work from the three genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction was a disgrace. The official World Book Night list included Philip Pullman's fantasy novel, Northern Lights. It is a shame the BBC could not."
Hunt went on to say, "There have been weeks when one in three books sold in the UK were Harry Potter novels, or more recently, Twilight novels. The sweeping under the carpet of the very genres of the imagination which engage and fire readers' minds shows a lot more about the BBC production team's taste in fiction than it does about what the general public is actually reading. If the BBC really wishes to support reading in this country, then they should produce a literary version of The Film Programme, or commission a modern updating of the Bookworm show that had Griff Rhys Jones as its lead presenter in the '90s. A series with a mainstream slot. Then perhaps the BBC can do what it said on the tin the first time around: cover the books we really read."
The list of writers supporting the petition…
Kevin J Anderson
Iain M Banks
S J Bolton
Michael S. Brotherton
Mark Charan Newton
Steven Lundin (writing as Steve Erikson)
Russell B. Farr
M. D. Lachlan
Juliet E McKenna
L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Theresa M. Moore
Phyllis Irene Radford (writing as P.R. Frost/C.F. Bentley)
Robert V.S. Redick
Robert J. Sawyer
Michael Marshall Smith
Robert E. Vardeman
Walter Jon Williams
04-14-11:READ Part 3
For a significant part of the population, "enjoyable reading" is an oxymoron. But our smartest religions suggest that we learn to embrace incompatible ideas, so even if the idea of reading is anathema to you, you might want to take a few moments to think about the unthinkable:
There are lots of directions I could go from here. Let me suggest that a hardcopy, delivered-to-your-door newspaper is well worth the investment. You're reading this article on the web, and there are websites and book review sites that can help you choose good books, as well as those websites that are in themselves good reading, not just here's-the-latest-spoiler. Frankly, I started this site so that publishers would know the sort of books I like and keep publishing them. I'm guessing that most of my readers here are already pretty big readers with a good idea of what they like. But I'm hoping to rope in a few newish readers, folks who aren't sure what they like or might want to read when it comes to books. Or even how to choose a good book.
Last week, I talked about how my childhood reading, which was all over the map, informed my adult reading. That's a good place to start; look for the sort of books you liked as a kid and pick adult versions of that sort of thing. Today, we'll take a slightly different tack. If you want to pick a good book, forget the Internet. Forget all the vendors who have reduced book-buying to a point-and-click activity. I'm going to presume that my readers have good memories, because upon finishing this article, I'm going to suggest that you hie yourself hence to a good local, independent bookstore and start browsing. If you're looking for a good book, a real bookstore is a place to start.
For all that we hear of independent bookstores closing almost daily, my experience is that there is generally one in just about every city, or in driving distance for most folks. Not surprisingly, this discussion finds me wandering back to my childhood again. When I first started buying books, I went to a bookstore on Shopper's Lane in Covina, California. Make no mistake, I found lots of what I wanted there; all the standardized paperback editions of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as well as the cheesy Ace editions of Willy Ley and Charles Fort. But readers have only to glance at the home page and the name of this site to know that sooner rather than later I went on a book safari to get the entire set of standardized Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger books from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These were the first books I compulsively sought.
Going to get them involved a three-hour bus ride from Covina into Los Angeles, where I went to what I called "the Big Bookstore." As much as I loved the Shopper's Lane bookstore, this one was something different; it was huge, almost as big as a department store, or so it seemed to this pre-teen on a mission. I think it may have been Vagabond Books; but I can't say for certain. I can say that they had exactly what I wanted, and that I bought the entire Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger sets. I came home and carefully racked them up. It was a moment I will remember all my reading life.
The lesson today's readers can take away from that bit of memory is that a good book store is worth the drive. It is worth getting in your car, or taking public transportation to be in a big store with books, where you can browse at random and let those who work there help you. But you generally only find that at real bookstores, the kind that has incubated in a community for many years.
Even though I don't work at a bookstore (yet), I'm quite fond of helping those who are looking at a title I'm familiar with understand whether or not it is for them. It's sort of embarrassing. I'm the guy who out of nowhere says, "Hey if you're looking for a good science fiction detective story, why not try 'Altered Carbon' by Richard Morgan?" I make myself cringe, but it does sometimes seem as if those on the receiving end of my unsolicited advice are at least, not annoyed. And heck, 'Altered Carbon' is a rocking good read. You can't go wrong with that one!
If you have absolutely no idea what you want, then start your search at a general purpose independent. Most will have the books divvied up in the usual manner; SF & Fantasy, Horror in its own ghetto, Mystery, "Fiction," and Non-Fiction. Picture books, travel books and children's books.
Almost every store these days has a YA section, and that's really a great place for new readers to start. Most YA titles are written with adult readers in mind, since everyone wants to be J. K. Rowling. YA sections include works from all genres, and you know, it strikes me that this is an important clue to booksellers, particularly the general-interest bookstores. Could it be that YA sells so well because the section itself is essentially un-segregated? Horror and fantasy often sit right next to stories of gritty reality; even non-fiction might get tossed into the mix. YA is one-stop shopping for books that will generally be accessible no matter what your tastes are. And pointing out books that look interesting in the YA section may help the clerks in the store take you elsewhere; for example, over to SF and Richard Morgan.
But if you do have some idea as to what sort of book you like, particularly genre fiction, finding your local purveyor of genre fiction is a great way to find good books. Now I am lucky; just a short hop over the hill (an hour or two each way is a short hop for this book lover) and I can find a number of stores that specialize in mystery (M for Mystery) or Speculative Fiction, that is SF, Horror and Fantasy (Borderlands, Other Change of Hobbit and Dark Carnival come to mind). These stores are worth driving to. Yes, they have websites and even some nice walk-around visuals. But it is very different being there, in part because the effort you put into the journey makes what you find more memorable and rewarding. You're not going to remember the time you pointed and clicked. You will remember the time you went the bookstore and a random customer said, "Try Richard Morgan!"
When you do go to the genre bookstores, you may think you know what you want, only to show up and find out that they have the new Tartarus Press editions of Robert Aickman. The staffs at these stores are inevitably extremely knowledgeable about the genre that is each store's specialty. Going to the store invokes chance. You open yourself up to luck, and the opportunity to understand that "enjoyable reading" is the harbinger of a pleasure only you can invoke or imagine.
04-13-11:The Bureau Chiefs Wants You to 'Write More Good'
This review has been proofread for your safety.
The book I am reviewing has also been proofread, but only to ensure that it meets the highest standards of brain-burning satire.
You're reading this review on the Internet, the birthplace of standards so low, they make those of cable television look lofty. And in the event that bad grammars bother you, if it so happens that subjects-verb arguments is of interest to you, then run, don't walk to pick up 'Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide' (Three Rivers Press / Random House ; April 5, 2011; $13). Editors Mark Hale and Ken Lowery have left no turn unstoned as they sought to create this giddy guide to what not to do. It says right on the cover: "IF YOU USE THIS YOU WILL GET FIRED!"
So go ahead and follow these rules. You're on the Interwebs! What've you got to lose?
Alas, it appears that a fair number of high-profile websites already use this, and nobody's been fired. Of course, when you're running what was once a one-man-band such as this web site, well — I can't fire myself. And even proofreading myself is difficult, as the smart fellow who is currently proofing my copy will tell you. I'm a crappy typist, and my brain constantly leaves my fingers behind.
But 'Write More Good' has a lot of axes to grind, generally after embedding them in the foreheads of those who deserve worse. Hale & Lowery, and a cast of thousands (well, maybe fifteen, whose names I cannot be bothered to type out, and really, you should buy the book and read those names) have cranked out a combination of style guide, Journalism 101Z, and not-so genial (IE, savagely funny) send-up of what passes for journalism in these Dark Days of the Falling Empire.
From the graphic of a newspaper with the headline YOUR HARD WORK wrapping a fish to that list of fifteen names printed on a page too limp and too small to even wrap a guppy, 'Write More Good' is a systematic and very funny look at media, news, writing and everything that is bad in print, on the Interwebs, on television and in general, floating around the shattered remains of your Tiny Brains. Here's how it works.
You get fourteen chapters from the fifteen writers, just so you can spend the entire time wondering, "Who is the slacker?" The chapters have an introduction-like part, some paragraphs, mostly short, for the attention-deficit set, and a few graphics. There are lots of boxes with funny stuff inside, the box being a convenient means of using up page space while allowing for fewer actual words. The book is a design triumph of folks using standard-issue graphics they scavenged from websites and whatever that goofy font is that nobody ever really uses. (Zapf Dingbats, if I am not mistaken!) Each chapter ends with a glossary, where the definitions of pertinent words are omitted and replaced by snarky, insultingly glib smugness.
Because a send-up of the AP Style Guide, Strunk & White or any of the other grammar or journalism books out there would be too thin, 'Write More Good' covers the whole shebang, with more style than elements thereof. To be quite honest, it's a hoot. You could, if you wanted, stand in the bookstore and be a real schlub, thumbing it and giggling. But you'd be better advised to go to your local independent bookstore and pony up the puny price, because it will show how smart you are. If you buy this book, it sort of implies you have the guides that it sends up. It's cheaper than either or both. It's easier to read and funny. Who needs good grammar — or style, pshaw! — these days anyway? We might as well laugh our way to the Apocalypse. Which, according to my built-in spell-checker is supposed to be capitalized.
04-12-11:Mario Guslandi Reviews Robert Aickman's 'Dark Entries' and 'Sub Rosa' from Tartarus Press
Master of the Genre
Robert Aickman (1914-1981) was a renowned British author of unconventional supernatural fiction (but he preferred to use the term "strange stories") who has been remarkably influential on a good number of contemporary writers.
Most of his books are by now out of print and used copies of the original editions are sold in second-hand bookstores at incredibly high prices. In 1999 Tartarus Press reprinted all Aickman's stories in two volumes which sold out very quickly and are now obtainable only by collectors endowed with deep pockets.
Fortunately, Tartarus Press itself is now undertaking the commendable task of reprinting each of Aickman's original collections. 'Sub Rosa' and 'Dark Entries' are the first two volumes published by Tartarus during the last months and a third one ('Powers of Darkness') is forthcoming. Needless to say, dark fiction lovers eagerly seek these volumes.
Aickman is a master of the genre, although an atypical one. For those who are not familiar with this author, nothing can explain the essence of his fictional work better than the words of RB Russell, editor and co-proprietor of Tartarus Press, in his Introduction to the current edition of 'Sub Rosa.' Russell very perceptively observes that Aickman describes a world "in which the inexplicable, the ghostly and the macabre are manifested, but the source and meaning of such intrusions are not at all clear. Very often the explanations of events would seem to be supernatural, but this alone will not account for everything that has happened."
Aickman's tales are elegantly written, classy pieces of fiction, enticing and subtly disquieting, sometimes frustratingly obscure, but never ordinary.
In the older collection 'Dark Entries,' the reader will (re)-discover splendid stories such as the extremely puzzling "The School Friend," the captivating "The View" — a supernatural fable of love and happiness ending up in loneliness and disappointment. "Choice of Weapons" is yet another riddle wrapped in vivid colours, with the texture of a dream. The unforgettable but elusive "Bind Your Hair" is a beautiful phantasmagoria of enigmatic characters involved in pagan, country rites. Not to mention, of course, the eerie and chilling "Ringing the Changes," possibly Aickman's most anthologized (and plagiarized) story.
The companion volume 'Sub Rosa' includes tales such as "Ravissante" featuring the unfathomable character of a Belgian painter's old wife with her odd sensuality, the unsettling "The Inner Room,, about a strange dollhouse which is more than a simple toy and "Into the Wood," in many ways a journey into a different world as well as darker, subtler evidence of Garcia Marquez' concept that insomnia is contagious. The reader will be bewitched by the cryptic symbolism of "Never Visit Venice" and by the dark atmosphere of "The Unsettled Dust," where a young man haunts the mansion inhabited by his former lover and her sister.
In RB Russell's words, "Aickman seems to have given us more than enough clues to the puzzles he offers in his tales and yet they do not quite account for all that happens in them". Quite so.
As always, Tartarus books are beautifully produced — one more reason for not missing these two wonderful volumes.
Editor's Note, by Rick Kleffel
You'd think, being one of those lucky collectors who bought the original two-volume set of 'The Collected Stories of Robert Aickman, Volumes I and II' back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, that I'd be immune to the charms of these books. In fact, the opposite is true, and Mario's review made me desire them all the more. One of the reasons I bought the original volumes was the re-readability of Aickman's work. In the dark mists he creates, your reading mind can perceive a very different story every time you read them depending on the setting in which you encounter them. I first read "The Stains" in 'New Terrors I,' edited by Ramsey Campbell. I re-read it in the Tartarus Press collection and the difference in feel was significant. The work felt darker — stickier, more intense. I believe that in the original collections, these stories will take on yet a different hue, and intend to report on that when I have let their subtle words do their work on my reading soul. Check the Tartarus Press Website for news.
04-11-11:Billy Collins Reads 'Horoscopes for the Dead'
Poetry for the Living
Poetry maps your mind; reading great poetry actually changes the way you think. Language is born differently and words move through your mind with a measured cadence. Your perceptions will become sharper, your eye more acute after having read 'Horoscopes for the Dead,' the latest collection of poems by Billy Collins. Pick it up in the store and read any poem, then listen to your own thoughts. You're a different person. Your self-awareness will have a more defined shape. The world around you will be both simpler and more mysterious. And it will definitely be more fun.
Time is very much on the mind of Billy Collins in 'Horoscopes for the Dead.' Like many of our, or any time, he has arrived at that point in his life where his parents have passed away, and he finds himself taking their place while remaining their child. The poem "Grave," begins the book with Collins standing over his parents' graves, asking their opinion of his glasses — still the child. But as he muses on his own fantasy of a variety of silences, he encompasses their silent wisdom — and his child-like reaction needs no approval. It's sweet, funny and wise, each quality off-setting the others.
The title poem offers another meditation on death, as Collins humorously usurps the language of newspaper astrologers:
"Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals,
nor will you need to be circumspect in the workplace."
The friend to whom the poem is addressed is deceased, and Collins' final vision of him is a lovely leap into the infinite. Collins sensibility of time is subtle, flowing; yet in the gorgeous language there are bits of eerily realistic everyday life. He seems to have the ability to sense the world beyond the world while keeping both his feet on the ground.
The cadence of Collins' work is immensely powerful, but never overpowering. He knows how to carry the reader away with crystalline sentences and line breaks like the creases in leaves, natural and organic. But he does indeed change the way we perceive the world. There's a measured tone to every poem here, as he delicately leads the reader out of the reality we touch and into the world that we feel. His poems only rarely use the elements of the unreal, but the twists he takes and the associations he makes require a similar acceptance of the fantastic.
Charm is one of Collins' strengths, only because he underplays it so well. In "The Straightener," we meet an obsessive man who has found a way to avoid speaking his feelings. Collins has pioneered a new sort of love poem, one that describes the difficulties of having a relationship while admitting the attraction. His love poems are an uneasy embrace of opposing ideas, with spiky reminders embedded in unloving language. Numerous poems address his relationships with his dogs, bringing out a boyish, impish man for whom age and maturity have strict limits, beyond which lies wonder.
And wonder is a key, if largely unidentified ingredient of Collins' latest collection. 'Horoscopes for the Dead' uses language to engage the world with a sense of wonder and an undercurrent of joy. There is true joy to be found in this life and Collins manages to do so with natural language that has been enchanted by his talent and vision. He's a bit of teenager as he writes, with poetic skills informed by his entire well-lived life. Collins uses that pull to boyhood perceptions to infuse the readers' experience of language with supple power.
Billy Collins has the knack of showing you himself and making you see yourself. It happens so simply, so quickly that it does not even seem like the magic trick that it is. Poetry is in many ways nothing less than the skill-set behind sleight-of-hand applied to words. Collins has a wry sensibility that lets him make quick leaps in subject and sharp turns in tone. You're reading one word while the rhythm of another lingers. When you start thinking in line breaks, the difference between the magic trick and the magic begins to seem like mere semantics. And that's when you know that poetry can indeed, literally, change your mind.
New to the Agony Column
09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]