Wednesday 14 August 2019

Torture Porn

A reviewer from the Guardian newspaper once tweeted that Prince of Thorns was torture porn written to entertain aggressive young men.

The fact is that there are no scenes in Prince of Thorns where someone is tortured. Possibly you could call it torture innuendo as the subject was definitely mentioned. But, if he had read on (which he didn't) he would have found a rather upsetting scene with a dog in the second book, and had the third book been published when he made his comment (it wasn't) then yes, there was an actual torture scene in Emperor of Thorns.

So the real question is not whether the trilogy as a whole contained torture (which is nothing new - one of my earliest fantasy reads, Moorcock's The Knight Of The Swords (1971) practically starts with the protagonist being tied down and having a hand chopped off and an eye put out), the question is whether it was torture porn.

Porn, as they say, is hard to define but we know it when we see it.

We could just say 'gratuitous' instead, but that's only shifting the furniture around. Who's to say when something is gratuitous. Is the ubiquitous fighting in fantasy books gratuitous? Well, no, it's generally the most likely solution to various disagreements. If the protagonist went to the library and challenged the librarian to single combat in order to take a book out, that would be gratuitous.

So, when is torture gratuitous? You could say that it is not gratuitous when there's a valid reason for it happening. If a cruel enemy got hold of a hated foe then they might realistically torture them before killing them. And thus a book could be as full of torture as it was of swordplay and might be argued not to be torture porn.

However, torture, like porn and a select number of other subjects, do not get an easy pass like this. For them the question shifts its ground and says not only would it happen but do we need to see it? We don't ask if we need to see the sword fight or be told mechanical details of the cuts and thrusts. But we do ask if we need to see beyond the bedroom / torture chamber door when it closes and be told mechanical detail of the thrusts (porn) and cuts (torture). Society has set a higher bar when it comes to these subjects. We have either to admit to a close interest in sex, or in torture's case we have to justify its inclusion in some other way since I will readily agree that whilst a close interest in sex is generally quite healthy, a close interest in pain is … less so.

The question has narrowed down to: was there a good reason you showed us that?

And for the times that I've written a torture scene (which depending on how you count could number as low as 1 and as high as 4) the answer has been yes, there was a good reason. First let's side step into "shock value" for a moment. I've blogged on shock value before, and although the phrase is offered as an oxymoron, I disagree with the notion that it is one. However, I won't focus on the fact that shock is actually valuable here. The times that I have written a torture scene there were good reasons (other than shock value) to include them. Specifically: I write character driven, character focused books. I generally only have one main point of view character per trilogy. I generally have that character grow up across the course of the books. Coming to terms with the real evils that are out there - which may involve encountering them - is a genuine and formative part of many lives. It's one thing to have monstrous adversaries but the "the real monsters are us" cliché is a cliché for a good reason, it's focused on a lot because coming to terms with the things we really do to each other is a big deal, a big part of the human condition. How we react to the challenge that such knowledge poses to our world view, our security and psyche, are key moments in deciding what kind of person we'll be. Yes in a drama of manners set in the 18th century we can present these challenges to a character in a more genteel way, but in a harsh fantasy world with medieval vibes … other paths can be taken.

In Jorg's case, he is a youth who has from an early age armoured himself in a very goal-focused, self-centred personality, viewing others as a commodity to be spent. This personality is one that he has either chosen or had thrust upon him as the best way to insulate himself from the horrors of his childhood and to ensure he will never again be so vulnerable. In Emperor of Thorns his very close encounter with the sharp end of the instruments of torture is one of a small number of major blows that begin to crack the shell of not caring that he's built around himself. It forces him to re-examine himself from a new perspective. He doesn't have an instant epiphany, but it's part of a his growth process, that carries him from who we see on page 1 of book 1, to who we see on the last page of book 3.

To conclude - torture porn is hard to define, but I know it when I see it (I'm looking at you Saw), and I don't see it when I look at what I've written.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Thursday 8 August 2019

The Girl And The Stars ... ARCs!

The Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) for The Girl And The Stars are done!

Voyager will be giving some out at WorldCon.


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Wednesday 7 August 2019

BREXIT (no not really) - YA fiction - and the SQUEEZE

I was recently told by a publisher that the YA (Young Adult) fiction market was in collapse. Later someone pointed me at this article about the trend.

For me the most interesting point in the piece wasn't about the declining sales in the sub-genre, but about the effect that was having. Given the tougher time selling YA books the consequence appears to have been (according to the article) to squeeze British authors off the bestselling lists, leaving them stacked with Americans.

You can see why this would happen. In fantasy writing (my genre) the setting is typically a secondary world. Everyone who comes to it as a reader needs to be (gently) educated in its ways and introduced to new ideas. Part of the reason fantasy settings have traditionally been so medieval Europe-based is that the readers are accustomed to it and less time has to be spent on world building. Of course, of late there has been an explosion of more diverse settings, which is all to the good, proving that the readership is prepared to put in a little more work, knowing that the reward will be worth it.

In YA the setting is often a real world one, and the larger US population, buying a larger proportion of the books sold in English,  are more comfortable with familiar settings - i.e. America. Writing is hard. It's easier the more you share in common with your audience. If you have the same cultural references, can describe the same neighbourhoods, the same experiences of growing up, then your words have more power to resonate with the readers. Sure, with sufficient skill you can get powerful resonances just playing off your common humanity and emotional response - but it's easier with the tide flowing in the right direction. British writers tend to write in British settings - you write what you know. Publishing wisdom is that this will sell less well to Americans.

My fantasy books are available in 25 languages and a great many countries. My real world sci-fi books are selling very well but are available only in English. A significant part of the reason is that they are set in London and thoroughly plumbed into the culture. That's a learning curve for a reader in India or Russia. And whilst there is an appetite for fiction from other cultures, it's normally in the literary fiction genre. Folks who want some sci-fi want some sci-fi, and they're less amenable to anything else "getting in the way".

Now here's where I join the (apparently) growing trend of jumping off the YA ship, although as far as I was concerned I was never really on it. One Word Kill and the Impossible Times trilogy have been labelled as YA because they focus on young adult protagonists. I've no problem with someone calling the books YA, but the truth is that I've never written a book that I didn't also want to read. I'm over 50 ... shit ... anyway, I'm over 50 and these are books I want to read. They concern young adults but they are set in a period when I was that age - the 80s. I had imagined that main audience for this story would be people old enough to remember the 80s or at least be close enough to them to understand the references and have an opinion about how well the vibe was captured. If someone in their teens or 20s enjoys the books then that's excellent, an added bonus, but I never wrote the books thinking "now how can I entertain 'generic teenager?'".

It does seem sad though that, with 60 million Brits as potential readers, authors are being told that should they want a shot at hitting the top of the charts then they'll have to do the equivalent of when British actors adopt an American accent to get ahead. I know it must seem like a small problem to an author from an even smaller country with a different language struggling to break into the English speaking market, but there it is.

Films have been the same way forever. I grew up knowing the ins and outs of American youth culture because Hollywood made all the films. I knew about proms and baseball and what suburban America looked like, what the houses and road and schools were like. While my US counterpart neither knew or likely cared what the equivalent experience in the UK was.

Anyway, I wrote what I know, and I know 80s London. So there it is. And actually the books seem to be selling very well in America. So maybe the publishing wisdom is beginning to be undercut as part of a new willingness on the part of readers to go to new places. And whilst London isn't as big a step experientially from New York as Tokyo or Nairobi, it still a step I hope readers will enjoy taking.

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Friday 2 August 2019

Who's Angry About Grimdark?

First I should note that I don't really have a dog in this race. I've written 9 books since the last one I wrote that qualifies as grimdark.

Check this crowd sourced ranking of popular books by grimdark score:

(click for detail)

My most recent books are less grimdark than N.K Jemisin's debut and barely more grimdark than David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy. So while folks may accuse me of being defensive on the topic, really it's simple curiosity.

I've noticed recently a spate of internet condemnation not only of the "evils" of grimdark but of the arrogance of its readers who apparently look down on other fantasy, somehow claiming an intellectual high ground.

This seems bizarre to me on many levels and other than possibly the imminence of a new book by Joe Abercrombie I'm at a loss to explain the timing. It's almost as if a small group of agitators are stalking among the cyber crowd comic-book style, rattling pitchforks here, raising a cry of "they're after your jobs/significant others/livestock" there. Have Russian bots decided to foment a new round of grimdark wars? 😀

The truth is that grimdark fantasy never occupied a large portion of fantasy book sales, and what small percentage it held ten years ago has been steadily eroding. It's been a long time since a book widely accepted as grimdark has sold more than a few thousand copies, while the big hitters in fantasy are selling hundreds of thousands and even millions per book. Really, I would be very surprised if grimdark fantasy books accounted for more than 1% of all fantasy book sales today, and I doubt it was more than 5% a decade ago.

And yet you still hear - and far more often in the month just gone - posters on forums lamenting that their favourite fantasy has been pushed off the shelves by those terrible torture-porn books. You still hear them trying to 'other' grimdark readers in an attempt to create some sort of enemy/whipping boy. These arrogant grimdark readers are looking down their noses at you, fellow forum dwellers, they think our books are intellectually lacking because of … optimism.

At times it feels like an organised witch hunt by a group seeking to leverage the flamewar they're hoping to create in order to promote the even tinier subgenre invented a couple of years ago supposedly to "fight back" against grimdark.

The thing is that the vast majority of readers who read grimdark books also read a vast amount of other fantasy. And that's hardly the action of readers who sneer at all but the topmost novels on my grimdark chart.

So to conclude: Grimdark is not, and never has been, crowding any type of fantasy off the shelves. It was only ever a small presence and has been in steady decline. It's readers are omnivorous and not some kind of sect that disdain your favourite genre. And although from time to time some pundit wanting to bang a gong about moralist reading or to promote some other flavour of books sets up a fictitious grimmer-that-thou book to rail against, the novels they're describing in such cases don't actually exist.

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Thursday 1 August 2019

Prince of Thorns is eight years old!

Prince of Thorns is 8 years in print!

Check out the 7th, 6th5th4th3rd2nd, and 1st birthday round-ups. 

I now have 12 books on the shelves!

These ones came out in 2019 & there's one more to go yet!

Being a numbers guy as well as a words guy I like to keep track of things and record them for when I'm a doddery old guy looking back at my 'glory' days.
This year my books (or one of them at least) got translated into a 25th language (Farsi!)
On Goodreads Prince of Thorns has passed 80,000 ratings!

The Book of the Ancestor is staring to crowd The Red Queen's War off the first page of my author dashboard, and so for the first time I present two pages of it.

With a big push from Amazon the first book of my latest trilogy (Impossible Times - all out this year) has sold exceptionally well and has more Goodreads ratings than Holy Sister! It was for a week or so the single best selling ebook on, and the third best selling ebook on That feat saw it in crazy positions like being the world's top selling romance 😃 … it's not a romance book (though there is a love interest).

Prince of Thorns continues to attract ratings on Amazon:

I have been somewhat neglectful of the blog of late, and it's shown in plateauing traffic, but still ~40,000 hits a month isn't too shabby and we're close to 3 million hits in total.
I'm still plugging away on Twitter & my other social media, and according to English law I'm now officially a celebrity 😂.

Well, that's my annual stock-take. Over & out, until next year.