Two months into the year and I’ve only ticked off one book from my reading list. Yet I’m drawn to read other books, books that aren’t on my prescribed list. It has occured to me that certain books call to us at certain times. We crave different types of book depending on our mood, our current outlook on life, how much spare time we have, even our age or possition in life.
I once spoke to someone (or read somewhere – I can’t recall) who said that reading A Clockwork Orange as a teenager is all about the thrill of adolencent rebellion, but reading it as an adult, it is all about the fear of revoluting youths against society. Reading is always a deeply personal experience. Reading a book at a certain time in your life can give it a whole different meaning.
I found it impossible to get through my reading list as an undergraduate student. Not only were we expected to read three primary texts a week for various modules, but so many books on those lists looked dry or uninteresting. I could appreciate their literary merit and the context in which we studied them, but since I physically couldn’t read that fast anyway, I would select only the books that called to me. Gulliver’s Travels over Tristram Shandy, for example. Or Titus Andronicus over King Lear (I know, I know…)
In a way, I worry that I won’t read the right books at the optimum time in my life. In other way, it’s quite freeing to just pick up the text that feels right at the time.
I should be reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but instead I’m currently reading Under a Canvas Sky, the autobiography of Clare Peake, Mervyn Peake’s daughter. I find it nostalgic, inspiring and tragic – emotions that are keeping me tethered at the moment. Or providing a sense of escapism. Probably a bit of both.
What are you reading at the moment? What drew you to that particular book? Is there anything you’re meant to be reading instead?
It is a very interesting time for publishing. A while ago, I wrote a post called Self-Publishing 101 in which I discussed why my thoughts on self-publishing were changing, and my observations on how to self-publish well, and self-publish badly.
The Catalyst of Technology
Technology is the biggest catalyst in the publishing world. The internet has never been more powerful. Bookshops are crumbling beneath the power of Amazon. In a global economical crisis, people are more likely to buy discounted books online than spend time travelling to and then searching bookshops for the same book at a higher price. The rise of social media has created an immense jump in word-of-mouth marketing, with thousands of review blogs, websites such as GoodReads and people chatting on Twitter and Facebook. It means as soon as we hear about a good book online, we’re only a few clicks away from buying it for ourselves.
As for ebooks, who knows how they will eventually change the face of publishing. In May 2011, Amazon announced that ebooks outsold paper books. The future of ebooks is uncertain. Will they continue to rise in popularity because of their (usually marginally) lower price, instant deliverability, and easy portability? Or will they fade away once they hype has gone and people miss the smell of good ol’ fashioned paper?
The Development of the Publishing House
The last time publishing had such a shake-up was probably with the invention of the printing press. Before publishing houses existed, books were printed and sold by the vendor. Before the 1960s, the book publishing industry was predominantly owned by mostly independent companies whose only business was books. Growing profits made them attractive to larger corporations, and eventually these big corporations also started buying out independent book shops. With the immense growth of a few major companies, the smaller companies vanished, and the big companies gained control over the publishing industry.
While corporate profits have increased (which is good news for the shareholders) the type and scope of books have decreased. Instead of risking the publication of new titles by unknown authors, these corporations tend to stick with known authors and past success formulas. This, of course, makes it difficult for new authors with new ideas to enter the marketplace. (Source)
Self-Publishing Over the Centuries
Self-publishing has been around a lot longer than recent years, and held a lot less stigma. At first, before large corporations rose up to take control of the publishing process, those who owned or had access to printing presses because their own publishers. Then, self-publishing became a means for self-expression without censorship.
In 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica, in which he notes that writers can sidestep the censorship of the church and government by publishing their own books. In 1843, Charles Dickens feuded with his publisher over low royalties and goes on to publish A Christmas Carol by his own means. In 1917, Virginia Woolf and her husband set up their own publishing house in their home. The famous writers’ bible, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White was originally self-published in 1918. (Source.) There is a very long list of famous and successful writers who are self-published.
Power and Control in Publishing
But as the publishing world changes, the power shifts. Publishing houses churn out millions of professionally developed books, and bookshops liaise exclusively with publishers. Both the publishing houses and the bookshops develop the book market as a precise science, giving readers quality products in a highly accessible way, therefore making the biggest profit. This model remained unchanged for a long time, and has become ingrained in society’s mind as the normal and correct way the publishing industry should be set up. Publishers become the trusted experts of the industry, and readers are happy to put their faith in them without a second thought.
However, when you are a passive consumer and are not immersed in the industry, it is easy to forget that the publisher’s main goal is not to bring you wonderful books, it is to make money. Publishing is always first and foremost a business. When the publishers hold all the power of the book industry, and independent book shops are swallowed by superpowers, we get a network of superpowers that hold all the control. And we still accept this as the norm, as how it should be.
Diversity is a Strength
Diversity in the arts is always a strength. Freedom of self-expression is a human right. In theory, the rise of self-publishing in recent years, made possible by the development of technology and the social media boom, is a good thing. However, inevitably a large proportion of self-published work is of a much lower quality than the traditionally published work we are used to. It had not been through the same channels of quality assurance, it has not been produced in-line with market trends, it has not had money spent on promotion. This, understandably, is how self-publishing gets a bad name.
Self-publishing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Many of the products are poor, and this taints the better products before they can be judged on their own merits. It is a shame that self-publishing has such a stigma surrounding it. However, with a good product and tactful marketing, a self-published novel can be a success. Again, it comes down to technology. Print-on-demand is often expensive, but the production of an ebook is minimal. As ebooks continue to rise in popularity, and social media and the internet continues to be the most effective way of spreading word-of-mouth recommendations (the most effective marketing tool, in my opinion), self-publishing has hope.
For the author, self-publishing brings a level of control that would otherwise be stunted by a publisher, and the freedom of expression. For the reader, it expands the market. Some may say that filling the market with sub-par material is more damaging to the reader’s experience, but I have never found myself drowning in a sea of crappy self-published material, unable to surface to the good stuff, have you? Because of the way the market is set up online, we search for things that we want to find, or are automatically recommended items via clever coding. If a product is bad, it will sink and will not be visible. But if a product is good, it had a chance to rise to the top. Expanding the product range means only that there is a wider range of material that may rise to the top, and as I’ve said before, diversity is a strength. Self-publishing expands the consumer choice that superpowers have the ability to suppress.
The publishing industry has a diverse history. Its future is incredibly unpredictable. Technology today is the catalyst for its change, but the power for that change is in the hands of the reader. To me, that’s pretty exciting stuff.
Further reading: The History and Development of Book Publishing by Dr Ron Whittaker - The Early History of Books, Puritans to Pirating, Censorship and Consolidation, The Future of Books (Part 1), The Future of Books (Part 2).
As I sit here writing, I’m guiltily bloated with Christmas food and my head is full of snot after getting a second cold in as many weeks. This year, Christmas snuck up on me and was over before I knew it. It has been such a very busy couple of months, and I haven’t been ill for a very long time – I guess everything just catches up with you when you have the chance to stop and breathe! (Or wheeze, in my case at the moment!)
Despite this, I managed to go for a two hour walk today, which made me feel a little better. Until the Thornton’s chocolate Santa beckoned and… got all eaten. Seriously, I have a chocolate problem. I simply cannot ration it.
I had some great Christmas presents, which included a Moleskine notebook, a Moleskine diary, a couple of books and graphic novels, some CDs, lots of chocolate, gift vouchers for clothes, and a few DVDs (Tron, which I love, and one on the Victorians – very handy for novel research). And, tickets to see Phantom of the Opera! I’ve seen it before, but it’s a great show and I’m really excited to see it again.
Neuromancer by William Gibson is part of my 2012 Reading Challenge so I’ll dig into that once I’ve finished reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy (which I’m absolutely loving).
I’ve got a lot of work to do for Inkspill Magazine in the next few weeks. I really want to finish my novel over the next couple of months, too, and have been yearning for some time at a writers’ retreat, though I can’t really afford it. Maybe I’ll be able to treat myself after January and my last month temping at Pearson.
As for this week, I’ll be reflecting on this years’ achievements and setting some goals for the new year, while trying to shake this damned cold!
It recently occurred to me that I absolutely love dystopian film and fiction. I seem to be constantly drawn to writing dystopian fiction, and writing about it in my critical essays. So what is it that appeals to me?
In its simplest term, dystopias are utopias that have gone wrong. Usually a force comes into power, or a technology or advancement emerges, which seemingly aids to create the perfect society. Either the power is corruptive, or the vision of perfection is skewed.
Generally, dystopian worlds are set in the future, or occasionally on an alternative plane of reality. Because of this, they often contain elements of science-fiction, though not always. I suppose they would fit nicely into the genre of speculative fiction, as they deal with the premise of ‘what if…?’. For example: The Matrix – what if machines took over the world and used humans as their power source? Or 1984 – what if the government constantly watched and monitored all human activity? Or Logan’s Run – what if people were executed as soon as they reached the age of thirty, to keep the population youthful?
This website has managed to break down the dystopian genre into a further fourteen sub-genres. Most (if not all) dystopian fiction will fall into at least one of these categories, and quite possibly multiple categories. The fourteen sub-genres are: Totalitarian, bureaucratic, cyberpunk, tech noir, off-world, crime, overpopulation, leisure, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, alien, surreal, uchronian (alternative history), machine, pseudo-utopian, feminist, time-travel, and capitalistic. Visit the website for definitions and examples of each.
I love the broadness of dystopian fiction. The scope for imagination. The main purpose of dystopian fiction is to hold a mirror up to our own society, or our own perception of the human experience. They show us possible alternatives to our current state of existence, and break down the mental misconceptions we have about ourselves. And often this mirror shows a fascinatingly dark and ugly world.
Here’s a list of the ‘Top 50 Dystopian Movies of All Time‘.
Gattaca - set in a world where genetically enhanced people are superior.
Battle Royale – School children have become out of control, so every year a different class is sent to an island and told to fight to the death until only one is left as a bid to control youth through fear.
The Matrix – Typical ‘brain in the vat‘ premise.
28 Days Later – More horror than dystopian, but I would argue the latter half set in the army camp has strong elements of dystopia, as well as the premise of the ‘Rage’ virus.
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells – Looks at the experimentation of human and animal genetics.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – Though it is unclear in the film, this novel is actually set in the near future, where youths are running riot. Follows the story of a boy who is psychologically conditioned, and looks at the philosophy of free will.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson – One man is left alone in a world infected with a vampiric disease. (Way, way better than the film.)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Incredibly dark and bleak. An unexplained apocalypse has left the world a barren wasteland. The few remaining humans wander the planes, either as solitary nomads or gangs of cannibals.
Here are a few slightly obscure dystopian films you might want to watch:
THX 1138 (1971) – The ideas in this film are interesting, but I feel many of them have been implemented into more modern fictions, so they’re not quite as original as they would have been when this film was first released. This film has a dream-like quality to it that creates a horrible sense of unease. Surreal, but slow paced in places.
The City of Lost Children (1995) – Extremely surreal and sometimes a little hard to follow (unless that’s just me…). Wonderful visuals, such a beautifully ugly film. The first film that made me respect Ron Perlman as an actor!
Dystopian fiction is so versatile. It’s recently become quite popular in the Young Adult sector, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of The Hunger Games when I have the time. And dystopias don’t always have to be horrific or bleak.
I by no means have exhausted dystopian recommendations in this post. I still have a lot more iconic films to see and books to read. What are your recommendations?
Soulless by Gail Carriger fearlessly spans many genres. The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, and because of this it is quite a fun read. There are many dark and solemn supernatural or steampunk tales out there. The humour in Soulless is quite refreshing in comparison. However, I fear that it’s array of genres ultimately dilutes this book.
Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:
Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Or will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
At first, I found the main character, Alexia, slightly annoying. Unused to reading humour, it took me a while to relax into the tone of the book. Alexia first appeared as prissy, but as I began to see the world she lived in, and as I began to uncover more about her character, I started to warm to her. By the end of the novel, though, she had began to irk me a little again.
The book deals with Victorian high society. And to be honest, it’s this kind of corset-wearing, tea-drinking, party-going superficial pointlessness that I find least appealing about this era in history. I’m really not bothered about the colour and trim of a dress, or how many parasols or hats one person can own… This isn’t a criticism of the writing, but I think it all adds to the slightly irritating prudishness of the book. One reviewer on Amazon said they found the writing ‘smug’, and I think some people might well read it that way, mostly because of the high society that the book deals with, blended with the richly sarcastic tone. Some may view this as a flaw, but others I’m sure will view it as a strength. This aspect of the novel, I feel, is very much down to personal preference.
This aside, my favourite characters by far were the werewolves. In Carriger’s world, supernaturals are integrated into society, and are even part of the government. Lord Maccon (alpha werewolf and head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry) is gruff and rude; his beta Professor Lyall is intelligent, loyal and well respected. I thought both their characters were very well painted.
Lord Maccon quickly becomes the story’s main love interest, and Carriger has perfected the art of teasing us with this sub-plot, and doesn’t give us what we want until the very end – as it should be with all good love stories. By the end of the novel, however, the story did start to boarder on Mills and Boons. The slightly more graphic Epilogue cheapened the eroticism and romance that was so well executed throughout the rest of the book.
The steampunk elements of this book seemed fairly tacked-on. In one of the early chapters, Alexia and her even more annoying friend Ivy are taking a walk. They come across some airships tethered in Hyde Park. Alexia makes some fleeting comments about how amazing they are, and then they never crop up again.
Steampunk comes more into play at the end of the novel, when were are faced with revolutionary and horrific cog-filled torture machines. These were fascinating, yet their darkness contrasted almost unnaturally with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the book.
An automaton also becomes integral to the plot. Carriger describes this mechanical man with appropriate horror (the unyielding strength, the dead skin, the carved forehead…). The mystery around this character really drives the novel forward, but once we find out what it is, so much suspense is lost, and from that point, the automaton loses much of its original character and falls very much into the background. The revelation about the carving in its forehead was a disappointment to me, too. The word was ‘VIXI’ and I thought it would represent Roman numerals, perhaps suggesting there are many more of these monsters, but instead it turns out it is part of some magic spell, and all that is needed to defeat the automaton is essentially a face wash.
In all, the book is well structured and the characters are rich. Though the main themes have been done many times before, Carriger brings a freshness to them with some original thought. The amalgamation of genres makes this a difficult book to place in the market, and I feel the light tone and the supernatural romance elements are the strongest. The steampunk elements are mostly aesthetic, and I feel that Carriger is more enchanted by high society Victorian England mixed with supernatural creatures than anything more technological.
Rating: **1/2 (Two and a half stars out of five)