Sunday, 22 January 2012

My Reading Year 2011

Well, all in all, 2011 wasn't quite as horrible as 2010. I have a new job and will be shortly moving house, so it's all change here. A change is as good as a holiday, as they say, although having cashed-in a week of leave at my old place before starting at my new job, I have to wonder if that's true.

At the end of the year, I self-published Panoptica as an ebook on amazon, thus surfing the breaking wave of publishing phenomenon or throwing my lot in with a passing fad, depending on which way the future goes. To be honest, it's hard to imagine the impact of ereader going away. Maybe it'll all be through more—sophisticated tablet computer things, but it's clearly here to stay and has some expansion yet to do.

It's nice, however, to have it out of my hair, buried in the torrent of slurry, so I can move on to the next project. I'm not sure if my own entry comes a little late, and publicity remains a challenge, but at least it's out there. If you're a regular reader of this blog, I urge you to buy a copy – I mean, at worst it'll sit on your hard-drive harming no one. You might even enjoy reading it, but if you do, don't forget to leave a review on amazon! (A hard copy version is coming soon!)

Okay, that's the sponsorship over with. Let's get serious. Let's talk about books!

Cutting to the chase, the best books I read in 2011 are:

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Fiction of H P Lovecraft
Supergods by Grant Morrison
The Immortalisation Commission by John Gray
The Big Knockover & Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett

This year my reading has been dominated by H P Lovecraft. In April, I bought myself a copy of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Fiction of H P Lovecraft, and decided to read all the stories, in order, to re-acquaint myself with his writing. It's not just Lovecraft I've been reading, though, as in my pursuit of understanding HPL, I've read snatches of M R James, Lord Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen and sundry classic (which is to say, out of copyright) spook writers that influenced him in one way or another.

I'm not sure what it's all in aid of, really, perhaps just satisfying myself that I understand such a great geek touchstone properly. He's one of those writers I've lived with for a long time, thirty years or more, and read sporadically, usually consuming and never reflecting, so I wanted a chance to chew it over and get everything I could from him.

I'm glad I did it. I've certainly come away with a better understanding of his work and it's challenged a lot of my received wisdoms (while confirming others!) I'm not quite done with him of course, I've still got Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath to write about, and then I want to read his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and make my final comments. While my final analysis will stretch into the early part of this year, I definitely think that 2011 was my year of Lovecraft!

When I'm done with this, I suspect I'll do what I so often do with authors: place HPL back on the shelf and probably never read anything by him again. As the years have gone by, I've noticed this pattern in my reading: I'll read something – a subject or an author – obsessively for a short time and then lose interest, more or less.

I did that with Philip K Dick, and on reflection I think I've arrived at that point with Jack Vance. It makes me feel a bit like a lightweight: after I've read the hits and a bit of commentary, I tend to start getting bored and drift away. It's the curse of the dilettante, I guess.

Grant Morrison

Another writer who's maybe heading that way is Grant Morrison. For a long time I wasn't much impressed with him. I enjoyed Zenith quite a lot and Doom Patrol mostly, but the first few issues of The Invisibles didn't impress me much, perhaps because I was beginning to lose interest in that kind of psychedelic conspiracy stuff that looked (and looks!) to me like it had been strip-mined in the 80s. I think I was also losing interest in the “straight and normal is wrong, kinky and freaky is right!” that was so appealing to me in my teens and twenties.

However, I think it was after reading DC's weekly 52 that I started getting more interested in what he was up to. After this I read Seven Soldiers of Victory and Final Crisis, in 2010 which got me really excited me about his work, so I followed his run on Batman, taking in Batman RIP and then the fantastic Batman & Robin.

I've bailed out of the Bat-books since (Paul Cornell? Seriously, that's like getting Wilbur Smith to write the sequel for Ulysses) and I kind of lost interest in Batman Inc, as I felt I'd had enough Batman by then (never a favourite character of mine anyway). I'm reading Action and waiting to see what else he's got up his sleeve, and I want to read his JLA run, but it could be I am done with Grant for now.

Part of the reason for this is Supergods, his book of comics history, autobiography and (for want of a better word) philosophy. Depending on how seriously you take his occult stuff, it's a sharp and insightful book into comics in general and into Grant's creative processes generally. As a history of comics it's maybe a bit contentious, and it's certainly no masterpiece of philosophy, but as an examination of the creative process it's one of the best literary autobiographies I've read.

It's the sort of book I really like, and is a symptom of the way I consume authors. Not only do I read their own works, I read biographies and accounts by writers of their processes and influences and views. I think I approach them like a puzzle I want to understand. A book like Supergods helps me (or Joshi's HPL: A Life, or that Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin on P K Dick) take writers apart and look at the elements that make them tick. It's a specialist interest, I guess, but one I seem to be quite avid about.

However, I now feel like Grant Morrison and H P Lovecraft are puzzles I've solved. I feel like the guy who can do the Rubik's Cube in sixty seconds – once you've mastered it, why would you even bother. It says a lot about the way I approach reading and fiction, I suppose, and maybe why I write reviews and a blog like this. I want fiction that I can engage with, the raises questions and challenges me. If the fiction is too simplistic, or if I've figured out the writer's trick then I'm not interested any more.

It's horribly self-defeating, of course! I'm compelled to “solve” books and writers as my main source of pleasure, but once done all pleasure is sucked out of them. Oh well, there're always more books coming along!

Ghosts and cops

Anyway, I also read a bit of non-fiction around ghosts, folklore and the occult. This began towards the end of 2010, with books like Black Sun, Night's Black Agents and the Penguin Book of Ghosts. I've been thinking long and hard about writing a ghost story, and I suppose I've been looking for ways in, the elements that interest me – I haven't found them yet, but I've enjoyed looking.

Most promising in this regard is The Immortalisation Commission. The tale of the aristocratic spiritualists' attempt to create a new messiah touched a lot of the things that have interested me about the ghostly idea. It touches on some of the issues raised by Madam Blavatsky's Baboon and Master of Mysteries, the biography of Manly P Hall. I can just vaguely feel a bunch of ideas coming together... something around the Golden Dawn lodge established in New Zealand in 1914 and... well, I don't know quite what. We'll leave it all brewing, then. Another few years and I might have something.

Perhaps one of the reasons I haven't found much creative inspiration there, is that my creative attentions are elsewhere. I'm currently writing a crime novel (albeit, a futuristic one, with satire and gags, so not a million miles from my usual territory) and so I've been reading a bit of classic crime, namely Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

These are hugely enjoyable writers, and have done a lot to help me out. The particular insight has been to not worry too much about the clue trail. In these books, the clue trail is often haphazard and entirely arbitrary because the clue trail is not what these books are about. I should have realised this, but it took some deep thinking for me to figure it out. I like to think that I would have gotten there eventually – after all, while writing Panoptica I finally understood out that great comedy comes from character rather than situation, or rather from particular characters in particular situations.

I've also been thinking about the role of the detective in these fictions. I'm writing a first-person private eye type character (I'm aware of the dangers clich̩ here Рthat's one of the reasons I've chosen it, in fact) and one of the early criticisms from my writers group on this current project was that the detective character seemed under-developed. I don't spend time going into who he is or where he's from and he doesn't really have much at stake in the mystery itself, except his fee and, occasionally, his life. This really bothered me, as it's true and this particular person is usually spot on with her critiques.

Then I read The Big Knockover & Other Stories. These stories all focus on “The Continental Op”, an unnamed investigator for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco. Unnamed! We don't even know his name! This answered that criticism for me: these books aren't about the detective, they're about the events around them. In fact, when they become about the detective themselves they become a different and altogether more conventional and less satisfying fiction – ie, the difference between Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and just about everyone who'e come after (the latest iterations on the BBC and the big screen being a case in point).

The problem of science fiction

One thing you might notice missing from my list is contemporary SF. I haven't read much SF at all this year, and in particular I've stayed away from new SF. One's moods shift and so there's nothing that unusual here, but I think one of the reasons my mood shifted on this occasion was the curdling of my interest in online fandom. After the initial thrill of being cleverer than everyone else wore off, online fandom sucked all the pleasure out of reading SF. SF fans have long flattered themselves for being intellectually open and having bigger and better imaginations than anyone else, but it's just not true. In fact, given their leash SF fans revel in shallow cliché and fruitless recursion; the idea of genre-as-conversation seems to free them from the need of original thinking at all.

In particular, the move of criticism to a large number of wrong-headed and self-regarding blogs (yes, I know...) and, worse still, the knee-jerk circle-jerk of twitter actively works against original thought and new ideas. It encourages a crippling professionalism where writers address the needs of fandom rather than... well, whatever mysterious thing it is that writers are supposed to address, that half-way house between pleasing oneself, pleasing the crowd and pissing everyone off that appears to generate truly great fiction.

My primary bit of evidence here is Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, which was a big disappointment to me. I feel bad banging on about it, because it's not really a bad novel, it just lacks the urgency of a story that needed to be told. Or perhaps more accurately, the urgent story that needed to be told is buried beneath a whole of dull crowd-pleasing genre stuff. It struck me as a novel that sought to please the parasitic structures that surround creativity, be they fandom or the mainstream publishing industry which couldn't give a shit about great books (let alone Great Books) in favour of shifting units. Moxyland was a great book (a Great Book, even) but Zoo City seemed to me a massive wrong step into genre silliness, exacerbated by the flashes of the book that might have been (and which perhaps would have put aside the fantasy elements all together). 

This won the Clarke Award over The Dervish House, which I don't want to over-praise but is a better book in pretty much every regard. If the serious SF community really thinks Zoo City is a better book than The Dervish House, then I can't find much common cause. Still, I'm used to being out of step with the popular opinion, I should be used to being the lonely odd ball by now.

Or maybe it's just that I couldn't get Panoptica published without doing it myself – a plague on you, SF establishment!

Looking forward to 2012

Well, not really. Fuck 2012, fuck the future. Still, I feel compelled to comment on what the year ahead may hold. More disappointment, frustration and misery, most likely, but let's look on the bright side for a moment, as alien as that concept is.

It's been a busy year blogging. This was my first full year attempt at blogging about every book I read, and it's turned out to be a huge undertaking. When I decided to take this approach, I thought it would mean I'd blog less, and have more time for my own writing. In fact, although I've written fewer posts, they've been longer than the many posts of last year, and I've written at least as much for the blog in 2011 as I did in 2010. Taken together, these posts amount to a full-length novel.

Today's a good example. It's taken basically the entire productive hours of the day to produce this, and what for? Who's interested in this shit anyway? Even I'm struggling to raise much enthusiasm. That's why this entry's a bit rough – it all  seems a bit pointless at the moment.

For this reason, I'll stepping back a bit from blogging this year. Faced with the failure of Panoptica, I need to (sigh!) saddle up and have another go. With all the demands on my time – job, kids, now a house move and massive renovation project – I need to devote this time to fiction. In the meantime, I'm going to try and write more formal reviews for other venues (well, the Zone) and maybe writing more general slurry of blithering opinion rather than addressing particular books. I hope you'll stick around, however meagre my output!

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