Random Weekend Thoughts

Reading & Writing

Could Less Be More?

I’ve been thinking about posting longer articles with less frequency. A piece every day, in days which are sometimes fraught with meetings and a tight writing schedule, plus the everyday bore of household chores, is manageable but tends to take the edge off my regular word count. Also, I’d like to write a few more in-depth pieces, like the ones I used to write about London buildings.

Trouble is, there are so many excellent bloggers writing about Londoniana and doing a better job than I ever can. Perhaps I should stick to writing about stories – which is what writers always come down to in the end. Articles posted twice a week feels about right. I’ll try it out and see how we go, probably posting on a Saturday and a Wednesday, but not sticking slavishly to a schedule, so that there could be more posts when I’ve been doing more (like going out – remember that?)

SF: Getting The Future Wrong

I’ve just been reading a thousand page SF novel which I feel must have been a lot more fun for the writer to write than the reader to read. It was filled with interesting ideas, great turns of phrase, interesting design and big themes, but the author clearly found writing about actual human beings a chore. This is my problem with most SF; it ignores people for things and ideas. It’s not enough to have mighty powers of invention if you can’t create relatable human characters.

We all love ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as much for its lack of characters as its grandeur, but that effect is harder to create on the page. Perhaps, as Arthur C Clarke found with ‘The Sentinel’, it worked better in sparely written short form. For all I know there could be dozens of SF writers who have managed it well, but in my admittedly limited experience their characters usually come a distant second to descriptions of the vasty vastness of space and immense alien races called ‘The Immense’ or something similar.

My novel ‘The Sand Men’ received an excoriating review in ‘Interzone’, in which I was accused of not understanding SF (it’s not an SF book but we’ll let that pass), as if SF was the secret province of geeks into which no-one else is ever allowed to trespass. On the other hand it got a full-page rave in the Los Angeles Times, so who cares about Interzone. For some reason many of those who write about SF ring-fence it in incomprehensibility, as if they were reviewing obscure little-played console games. And I don’t see too many women being attracted to the genre even after all this time, so perhaps I’ll give it a swerve in future, especially as most SF I’ve read has really just been fantasy and very little that is predicted ever comes true.

Literally Unreadable

Certain authors are sticky. I keep picking up Stefan Zweig books and finding them glued to my hands. He doesn’t seem capable of writing a sentence without a point. He’s endlessly quotable (‘Society is always most cruel to those who betray its secrets’), elegant, clear and commanding. Is this the secret of readability – clarity?

My father told me that he liked reading American scientific papers because they were so clear in intent. Certain writers like Zweig and say, Thornton Wilder have this clean eloquence. Partly it is because fewer emotions are described and more sentences promote action, or conjure an image. It helps if the writer knows where s/he is going. There is nothing more pleasurable than being led through a novel by someone you trust.

Lately I have abandoned 50% of the books I’ve started. I have been trying to be more egalitarian in my selection but have come a cropper with poorly written polemical state-of-play novels that fail to understand the basic contract that must exist between writer and reader. The result of this poor percentage is that I’m falling back on authors I trust – especially now. There are too many other uncertainties in the world to suffer an uncertain novel.

24 comments on “Random Weekend Thoughts”

  1. Jo W says:

    Two blog posts a week? That’s fine by me. You write them I’ll read them.
    P.S. Where was that photograph of a bookshop taken? It reminds me of the one in Rochester where you can wander around for hours and still not see it all.

  2. Joel says:

    Pithy quote from Thornton Wilder (used in lyricist Don Black’s autobiog, which I abandoned…) “If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good.”

    I liked SF a lot until authors got in the way of what they were trying to say; in a growing market it is increasingly hard to be ‘different’, making many SF writers turn inward, often on pet themes. The intended uniqueness disappears in a torrent of ‘how clever I am to have thought of this’. ‘2001’ is still a great story, but only at the end do you see what Arthur C Clarke was aiming at – until then it’s really episodic. ‘The Sentinel’ was just the trailer!

    Stanley Kubrick worked round that for the film but his interpretation of the ending was lost on many. I’ve seen ‘2001’ countless times and while I love it, I’m still not sure what it shows at the close and whether it means the same thing…

  3. admin says:

    My mother used to see films by herself and then tell me about them. She described ‘2001’ as ‘A man gets into a fight with a computer and comes back as a big baby.’

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    I remember being an avid fan of SF when I was a lad. But then we really landed on the moon (I know others disagree), and the real world seemed so much more exciting. And a couple of mates and I wrote to Neil Armstrong asking him to tell us whether it was really true you could see the Great Wall of China from there. And he replied!!! Said in truly polite US style “Dear Gentlmen….” that he was a bit too busy at the time to look around much, but next time… My mate Andrew has still got that letter – probably worth a bit now. Hey Ho.

  5. Debra Matheney says:

    I, too, find myself starting books and then ot finishing them. Plus it takes me forever to finish books now days as my concentration is poor. Between Covid 19 and the election over here, I am preocupied all the time. I had hoped for a more peaceful retirement with reading at its center but fretting seems to have taken its place.
    Love your mom’s assessment of 2001. Not a SF fan myself.
    You write what and as you see fit and we will read and comment on it.

  6. Andrew Holme says:

    As regards 2001, I think the short story, the film and the subsequent novel, all feed of each other, expanding and contracting on the ideas that Kubrick and Clarke had been thinking about for a few years. Wasn’t the initial conversation in ’62/’63? The film is markedly different from the novel, Kubrick’s ending allowing you to take from it what you will. Your mother’s summery was as succinct and valid as any ” wow, far out, man” blethering that we’ve endured since the film’s release.

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Meant to say – a couple of times a week is fine …. as long as we have more Friday songs. I love those. Mrs T hates them which makes them even more enjoyable.

  8. Ian Mason says:

    My recommendation for a ‘Sci-Fi’ writer who is worth reading, even if one doesn’t like SF, is Ursula K. LeGuin. Much of her writing revolves around exploring how societies work or could work in, for want of a better word, ‘alien’ worlds. She’s very un-Sci-Fi in that her work is driven as much by character as by ideas.

    Start with “The Left Hand of Darkness” where a character we’d recognise as human is openly sent as a sort of first-contact envoy to a humanoid world where there is a completely different reproductive biology that results in people passing between what we’d see as sexes as they go into or out of ‘kemmer’ – something like being in heat. So the natives are essentially androgynous, but can take on one of three roles in reproduction at different times. She explores how this forms the society, explores how the envoy builds friendships and alliances, makes enemies and throws in a political thriller as well as the envoy gets trapped between national and international politics in the second half of the novel after LeGuin has established the relationships between the principal characters and given us a feel for how society on this planet works. The novel is as much about loyalty and betrayal as it is about a genderless society. As if this isn’t enough, the planet in question is also in what, to a human, is perpetual winter where their summers aren’t far from a Nordic winter and their winters make Antarctica seem cosy – it drives the architecture and the way that people occupy spaces. Androgyny, political intrigue and psycho-geography – superficially it sounds contrived but it doesn’t read that way.

  9. Steve B says:

    I know what Admin means with more and more abandoning books and falling back on trusted names.
    Makes me wonder if I’m getting old

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Le Guin was a genius and worth reading at any age, perhaps several times in one’s life.

  11. admin says:

    I think we’ll have a Friday song tomorrow just to annoy Mrs T.

  12. Brooke says:

    I agree with you…Sci-Fi has a really bad problem with interesting characters, human, transhuman or simply robotic. Sounds as though you’ve been reading Glen David Brin or one of his many imitators. Few writers have sufficient powers to imagine relatable human characters at any time, especially humans of the future. E.g. a 16th c writer might imagine 21 c technology as extensions of what was known at the time. But such a writer would be hard pressed to imagine a 21 c female; the concept of female was limited to notions of the time. The ontological jump is too big; and even if the writer managed it, readers wouldn’t.
    On the other hand, there’s some really interesting post/apocalyptic fiction now, especially from BAME authors.

  13. Jan says:

    Agreed Ursula Le Guin’s work is exceptional. There was a tv documentary on about her life and work a bit ago she was really interesting person.

    I always liked James Blishes work he was an American guy who married a Brit and ended up living in Runymede of all places. Blishes short stories are his best work the Roman Catholic priest who thinks he’s met the work of the Devil on some faraway planet. Or the submarine traversing a puddle. It’s all pretty dated now. In some odd way sci-fi writing unless it’s real fantasy stuff like Le Guins dates faster than most fiction.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    I wouldn’t worry about not getting what SF is. Some people in there are too precious. Call it Sci Fi and then stand back to hear the rant. All genres are just a way to lump books together and sell them. Phillip K. Dick said it was about ideas, to him things like Star Wars were adventure stories. For me SF is setting and/or props (either an alien/s or SF items). If it’s in the future, has gadgets beyond the science of the time it’s SF. With most genres it easiest to spot if you visualise them, when you see 1984 it is SF,Kiss Me Deadly, the Mike Hammer film appears as an SF film due to the MacGuffin that appears in it. But then you do get a lot of mixed genre books, films and so on.

    The Sand men falls into several genres, it been likened to The Stepford Wives in part, which is SF, horror, thriller and at a push crime. I think your creation crosses genre boundaries too, but is mainly a techno thriller, if you remember those. And to prove my point here are the Amazon chart positions for book and kindle editions.

    3,210 in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Literary Fiction
    10,296 in Crime Thrillers
    64,810 in Literary Fiction (Books)

    4,976 in Horror Thrillers
    69,380 in Literary Fiction (Books)
    76,844 in Thrillers

    Best-sellers rank 513,316 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)

    Can you guess which stats are for the kindle edition mystery of horror?

    To be honest Admin it’s amazing you get anything written with the amount of blogging you do, and then there is twitter. Maybe you could post your best/favourite tweet of the day on some of the non blog days.

    Zweig was the librettist for Richard Strauss, the Nazi’s about ’35 wanted the opera they had worked just to have Strauss’s name on it. Strauss insisted Zweig’s name remained. Strauss fell in favour with the Nazis, although they did use his music for the Olympic Games. Strauss’s international standing helped him but he couldn’t use Zweig anymore as he was Jewish. Strauss is an odd case, his daughter-in-law was Jewish and so 2 of his grandchildren, but he did work for the Nazis. At one time the gestapo kidnapped his kin but he managed to save them. Music and family seem to be the main things in his life, with the Nazis it was a fine and dangerous line he trod. I know Zweig committed suicide, I didn’t know that he had escaped Austria and was in Brazil when he and his wife committed suicide.

    Answer: Horror thrillers set of figures are for the book.


  15. kevin says:

    Interesting that you should end this post on not finishing many of the novels you start. This feeds into my belief that there are too many novels/books being published today. One obvious reason is that it’s very easy to publish a book, and another is that many of the “gatekeepers” are not literary people. They are not interested in writing and storytelling as a craft let alone an art. They are solely interested in profits. And the stuff that is usually profitable is that which is pretty disposable and quickly written; the kind of writing not likely to appease a widely read, discerning reader. Which brings me to your blog posts. I read your blog most days. The posts are interesting but don’t stay with me for any length of time. A few do; usually those that are lists of books or films because I often research the ones I think I might be interested in exploring. My question to you is whether fewer posts will result in writing that is more thoughtful and intellectually engaging or simply – fewer posts. I’m fine either way because I love coming here and plan to continue doing so.

  16. Dawn Andrews says:

    Ursula le Guin got me into reading Lao Tzu, for which I owe her big time. I like writers who can cross genre with ease, humour and warmth, and a lot of sci fi writing leaves me cold. I don’t go on social media at present so I only get what is written here admin, you cover a lot of subjects in all different moods and that’s what makes this site so readable.

  17. Roger says:

    In Michael Frayn’s wonderful novel The Tin Men – one of the first realistic – or realistic-ish – novels about computers – someone checked up whether the characters in books “finished up dead, married or resigned to life” and then didn’t bother to read them.

  18. admin says:

    I love ‘The Tin Men’ and ‘Toward the End of the Morning’ – both joyous. Magnus Mills celebrates the same sense of human mismanagement in his early novels.

  19. Liz Thompson says:

    Glad so many of you rate Le Guin. She fought against the genre label and the nether darkness it thrust you into, arguing that to be a genre writer is not to abandon plot,talent, or your place in a literary canon. Took her all her life to get there, but Library of America are slowly publishing editions of her books, and the Folio Society have done 3, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Wizard of Earthsea. Can recommend her essays and poetry highly too, to say nothing of her outspoken acceptance speech to a national award late in her life. She attacked the very publishing giants who were in attendance and the major sponsors.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    I’m trying to remember but we had a book launch for Ursula Le Guin and I am ashamed to say I don’t remember the title. It was all librarians (school and public) celebrating at Vancouver Kids’ Books. MS Le Guin thanked us and said she had never had a launch party before. It would have been in the late 90s I think. We could hardly believe her and were so glad we’d done it.

  21. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Try David Brin’s novels like the six book Uplift series, starts with Sundiver. Or Kim Stanley Forty Signs Rain and it’s sequels. Both out a lot into creating characters as well as complex stories set in a plausible near future. Lots of folks in the SF world feel that when mainstream critics like a book as literary, they deny it is SF! Think of 1984, Brave New, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Frankenstein.

  22. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Kim Stanley Robinson, full name! His Mars trilogy is another example. His short story The Lucky Strike is a good moral look at an alternative to Hiroshima.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    My children’s lit prof said that 75% of the fiction published was a waste of good trees. He was referring to children’s lit but it sounds like a good number. I’ve only started a handful that make we want to stone the authors and the publishers but a mass of poor writing and/or bigoted rot really does raise my blood pressure. Just a follow up on what Jan said way up there.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    Mr Fowler – Your mother’s pithy precis of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ hits the nail squarely on the head. It cuts through all of the existential B/S like a razor. I’ve watched it several times, and love it up to the point Dave Bowman comes to in a bedroom, at which point I’m compelled to go and make a brew, and I am damn sure that Arthur C. Clarke saw this and thought:
    ‘What have you done, Stanley? It was lovely up to this point. And where did you get the drugs?’

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