Is reading fiction useful?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the use of story in relating real-world events, and how this engages us on an emotional level (and you can read that post here). But what about fiction?

Fiction obviously uses story to engage us, but using imagined events. We might become wrapped up in the plight of the protagonist, but we know it’s all make-believe. It’s entertainment, with an emotional pull to keep us reading/listening.

But there’s more to it that that.

Think, for a moment, what children do when they play. They make up worlds and characters, and seem to exist in a make-believe world. But this play is important, because it enables the child to learn. Through pretending to be an intrepid explorer, or a doctor, or a teacher, the child is learning how they might cope indifferent situations. They are developing an understanding of the way the world works.

Fiction works in a similar way, by allowing us to explore settings and situations that are unfamiliar to us. And there’s a quote from Stephen King that encapsulates this‌—‌’We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’

Cope with Horrors

Obviously, that doesn’t mean we read a book like Salem’s Lot to learn how to deal with a town overrun by vampires, and The Shining isn’t a manual on how to cope with a deranged writer when cut off in a creepy old hotel. But these books do deal with characters facing situations that they never even considered could happen. They deal with characters who have to make difficult decisions, often requiring them to go against what they would normally do. In The Shining, Jack’s wife doesn’t want to leave him, but she had to think the well-being of both herself and her son. In Salem’s Lot, as more members of the town become vampires, characters are forced to confront their own feelings towards friends who are now turning on them.

But the characters don’t always make the best decisions. King says the horrors help us cope‌—‌they don’t simply give us a list of actions to follow. The best stories don’t tell us what to think, even though they might nudge us in a certain direction. Sometimes, the lesson in the book (the ‘coping strategy’) is not obvious. Of course it isn’t. Nobody likes being told what to do, and if our fiction did just that, how many of us would continue reading?

Sometimes (most of the time?) what we learn from a work of fiction will depend on us at that particular time. The same work can have different meanings, all equally valid, for different people. Take Lord Of The Rings‌—‌is this a simple tale of good overcoming evil, or is there more to it? Frodo cannot let go of the ring at the end, so what does that tell you about either the power behind the ring or Frodo’s character? Maybe Sam is the real hero‌—‌the one with no real power, who doesn’t want to be there except that he is loyal to his friend, but who ends up carrying Frodo for so much of the story‌—‌and the lesson here is that we can look past our own fears and limitations. And what of Golum‌—‌is he villain or victim, and what does his plight tell us about ourselves? There is clearly a warning about greed, but is there also a fatalistic lesson in how our desires can control us no matter how hard we try to fight? And what does the way we view him tell us about ourselves, and how we see others who are ‘evil’? Does our attitude to Golum change as we realise how he has been manipulated?

It’s a vast book, and there’s clearly more that can be drawn out‌—‌but only when we start to question. We put ourselves in the characters’ positions, and ask what we might do (or what we’d like to imagine we’d do, if we didn’t freeze with fear the moment an orc appeared).

Purpose of Storytellers

Brandon Sanderson put it this way‌—‌’The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ And a good storyteller will often leave the answers open. A well-crafted story will force questions into our minds, where they will ruminate for days. Think of the character of Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ books (such as The Silence Of The Lambs), and ask why we are drawn to an unrepentant cannibal?

America Psycho is another book that provokes questions. On the face of it, the book is a nasty tale of a sociopathic killer. But it’s also about money and wealth. It’s about power, and the lack of it. Why is Patrick Batemen such a despicable creature? Is he simply evil, or has something pushed him to this point? Is he, like Golum, corrupted by a power that he never saw coming? And what of the revelation (spoiler alert) that the killings are all in his head? Does this make him less of a monster, or does the way his mind convinces him that he has killed make him more evil?

Are there definite answers to these questions? I’d say no. Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for not explaining his book, and that is good. The reader needs to pull whatever they can from his stories. And that means one person’s answers will be different to another’s. Because we are all different. We all have different questions, and seek different answers.
But surely this is all academic. We’re discussing fiction, and characters who don’t exist in real life. What difference can this make to our day-to-day lives? So what if we analyse‌—‌it’s all make-believe.

Hopefully you’re ahead of me here.

We think, and we question. The answers we arrive at affect the way we think, and that alters the way we see the world. And, when so many books are, at their heart, about humanity, and about the way people respond to others, this alters the way we see those around us. It alters our whole world-view.

We could make these changes through other means‌—‌philosophical discussion, or ‘education’ (whatever that means). If we want people to think a certain way, we could simply tell them. We could come up with a set of rules, or instructions. But stories speak to us in a way facts and data cannot. Stories reach deep inside and force us to step outside ourselves. Stories show us a world far wider than anything we can imagine.

And that is why, throughout history, fictional stories have been used for the advancement of mankind. From camp-fire tales, to religious parables, to morality tales, stories have always been at the forefront of guiding us in our journey through life.

Yes, fiction can change us. Think of the anti-war sentiment in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, or the challenge to prejudiced ideas in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Think of the chilling vision of the future in George Orwell’s 1984. And then think of the books you’ve read, the books that have stayed with you. Maybe the ones you re-read, the ones that are still opening up their secrets. The stories that are still making you think.

I’ll finish with another quote, this time form Neil Gaiman. His stories are larger-than-life, with fantastical elements, and I don’t think it is any surprise that he writes for both adults and children. He understands how those age-old primal stories can be a force for good, and he knows that we should never lose that child inside, the one that play-acts as a way of solving difficult problems before they even appear. He understands the power in stories. And that is why he said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

Dragons Can Be Beaten

If I don’t like a book that others love, am I wrong?

bad-review-2813741_640This happens quite often: I start reading a book, and within a few pages I find myself thrown out of the story. Maybe there are too many grammatical errors, or the story doesn’t make sense, or possibly the writing is bland and uninspiring. I’ve read too many books in need of an edit, and sympathise with those who moan at the amateur nature of independently-published books.

But I don’t like to give up on books, so I plough through to the end, inwardly moaning about the hours of my time I’m wasting.

feedback-2800867_640Then I’ll pop on to Amazon or Goodreads, interested to read what others thought of the book. And I’ll be confronted with pages of five-star reviews. They’ll praise the exciting story (that I considered tedious and predictable), or the wonderful characters (that I found to be cardboard cut-out cliches). These reviews talk of the enjoyment they got from the story, and how much they’re looking forward to that author’s next book.

This happens often enough that I wonder if I missed something, or if my judgement on books is awry.

But it isn’t. What I think of a particular book is what I think of it. It’s my personal opinion.

There is no right or wrong here. Everyone is different. What I look for in a good book will not necessarily correspond with others’ idea of an enjoyable read.

Other people will have different opinions.

Some readers can’t get past more than a handful of grammar issues, but others don’t even notice the mistakes. Some readers are turned off by bland descriptions, while others are enraptured with the dialogue in the very same book. Some people enjoy the richness of the language, while to others the words are nothing more than a way of getting the story across.

Everyone is different, in both their preferences and what they expect from a book. An author like Dan Brown is often frowned upon by those who prefer more intellectual books (whatever they are), but he has far more readers than any of the year’s Booker nominees. James Joyce’s works are considered classics by some, and undreadable nonsense by others. Some people relate to Twilight‘s Bella, and others find her a nonentity.

This doesn’t only happen in books, of course. A new art-house film might receive outstanding reviews from film critics, but it will never come close to making as much money as the latest big-budget effects-driven spectacular. The latest pop music sensation will easily outsell a band that is pushing the boundaries of music. Sometimes, a musician might straddle both ‘popular’ and ‘experimental’ music, but they are rare indeed. Bjork continues to produce challenging music, but she is no longer the ‘popular’ artist she was when she had hits with tracks such as ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ or ‘Human Behaviour’.

So if her older music was more popular, is it better than her latest stuff?

That’s not a sensible question. It’s different. Each album is what it is. Just as each book by each author is what it is. As every author is individual, so is every reader. Every reader is seeking something different from a book.

pair-707505_640So no, I’m not in the wrong if I don’t enjoy a book that others view as a classic. I might not have the same opinion as the majority of others, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Just different.

And that is why reviews can only ever be guidelines. For all the importance placed on them, especially in the independent-publishing field, they are not fact. A load of good reviews might mean that the book is popular, but they are still only the opinions of individuals.

Of course, reviews have their uses. If a review favourably compares a book to one of your favourites, of it that reviewer has given positive reviews to other books you like, then you might want to check the book out. If the reviews talk about plot twists, or evocative language, or snappy, sarcastic dialogue, and you enjoy these things, then it’s more likely that you will agree with their opinion of the book.

Negative reviews can be ‘positive’ in guiding a reader to a book too. If you enjoy violence and lots of swearing in your books, and a negative review decries the coarse language and gore-filled descriptions, this might be the book for you. If the reviewer moans that the sappy relationship gets in the way of the mystery, but you like romance stories, that could be a good sign.

So is there a lesson in this? If there is, it is probably to take reviews with a pinch of salt. Read them, yes. Take note of the thoughts of others. But don’t take their word as anything other than their personal opinions. Understand that when you read the book, you are doing so for yourself, not for them. Remember that you can think for yourself, and you can reach your own conclusions.

If you disagree with a review, it’s not a case of right and wrong, just a difference of opinion.

My Reading Year 2017

Another year over. Where does the time go (and all those usual cliches)? But this is a good opportunity to reflect and to look forward, and in that spirit I thought I’d look back at some of my reading highlights of 2017.

I started keeping a log of all the books I read at the start of the year, and that tells me I read roughly 25 non-fiction books (mainly about writing and publishing), 25 novellas and 80 novels (and quite a few short stories, either on their own or in anthologies). They have been both traditionally published and independently published (with the latter probably in the majority, simply because I started using Instafreebie earlier in the year), and span a range of genres (some of which are not what I would normally read).
So, some highlights.

The new-to-me author who has been around for ages

It’s often said that even an old book is new to someone who has not yet read it, and I’ve read quite a few older books for the first time this year. This includes Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (which I enjoyed, although it felt a little rushed), A Falcon Flies by Wilbur Smith (not the kind of thing I’d normally read, but I’m definitely interested in reading more) and Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell (which was a great read, even though I don’t often go for historical war novels. I think it worked for me because it focused on the character of Sharpe rather than the historical details). But the one that impressed me the most was Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn novel, The Final Empire.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonI’ve heard Sanderson talk on the Writing Excuses podcast, so I expected something well written, and I was not disappointed. It’s long (pushing a thousand pages if I remember correctly), but never felt long-winded. Often, by the time I’m three-quarters through a book (of any length), I’m already thinking of what I want to read next, but I never reached that point with Mistborn.

I loved the magic system, and the way it worked almost like a science, with a clear set of rules. Again, I’ve heard Sanderson mention how he believes all magic systems need rules, and reading this novel showed me exactly what he means.

I already have more in this series on my to-be-read list, and can see Sanderson becoming one of my favourite authors.

The sci-fi/comedy that continues to work

Most combinations that include comedy fail. The humour might be annoying or puerile, and often the story takes a back-seat in the set-up to the next joke. Even something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series (which I love, despite what I am about to say) often feels like a series of cool, funny moments shoe-horned into a story-arc (possibly because this was how Douglas Adams wrote it, having no idea where it was headed).

But it can be done. Terry Pratchett did it expertly in many of the Discworld books, and Harry Harrison did a good job with his Bill The Galactic Hero books. And now, Barry Hutchison has written a series that strike just the right balance between humour and story.

SpaceTeam_BarryJHutchinsonHe released the first Space Team book back in 2016, but is now up to number seven (and has a spin-off with another couple of novels), and I don’t know how he puts out consistently good books so fast. The stories stand up on their own, with the humour based around the characters and the situations, but the stories stand up on their own too. The characters have also grown over the series, with ‘throw-away’ back-story helping to develop the characters even more.

If you like Douglas Adams, I’d recommend Space Team (and the first book is only 99p/99c, so what have you got to lose?)

The story-studio that continues to impress

I’ve been following the books (and writing careers) of the Sterling And Stone team for a few years now. They continually push the boundaries of independent publishing, and are unafraid to try new (or old) ideas. They started their author careers with serialised fiction, and have written sci-fi, horror, thriller, literary (and, under pen-names, children’s fiction and romance). They will write an unashamedly commercial series like Invasion, but also write books simply because they want to, like Crash.

DevilMayCare_PlattTruantThe three authors on the team usually write in pairs, so you either get a Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant book, or a Sean Platt/David Wright book. So far, I’ve enjoyed the ideas more in the former, but get a kick out of the darker writing of the latter.

This year, they’ve produced three things that have impressed me. First, the Platt/Truant literary book Devil May Care. It’s a kind of road trip book, with two story-lines that are related (and I won’t spoil things by saying how they connect, although I think I figured it out a good while before the authors intended). It doesn’t quite work for me, but I admire how Platt and Truant constantly push their writing in different directions‌—‌and there are moments, especially nearer the beginning, that contain some of the finest writing they have produced to date.

TomorrowGene_PlattTruantThey also published The Tomorrow Gene trilogy of sci-fi/thrillers, based around cloning. They billed this as the spiritual follow-up to their Invasion series, and it is clear that they were aiming for something commercial. But the ideas are definitely not dumbed-down, and these are intelligent reads. Also, each book has a different feel. The first begins fairly languidly, which suits the story perfectly, and the unsettling elements are allowed to creep in at their own pace. The second is incredibly fast-moving, with loads of action. The third deals more with conspiracies and lies, and is a more psychological book. Yet all three work well together.

NoJustice_PlattWrightAnd finally, there is the Platt/Wright book No Justice. It is a very dark book, very unsettling, but this is a strength of their writing. The protagonist, the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for, is a vigilante, and he does some things that push the reader’s empathy. Yet this adds to the tension‌—‌you’re never sure if he’s going to go too far and become a full-on villain. Also, giving point-of-view scenes from the antagonist (a paedophile who kidnaps and later kills children) is a brave move, with disturbing moments where he justifies his abhorrent actions.

These books aren’t for everyone, but if you like to be challenged by what you read, and are not afraid of being unsettled, I’d recommend them.

The Dystopian series that taught me how to do it

TubeRiders_ChrisWardAlong with Barry Hutchison, I’ve found another new favourite author this year in Chris Ward. He wrote the Tube Rider trilogy, and I loved the books. They are based in a future UK that is separated from the rest of Europe (these books were written before the Brexit vote, but now they feel worryingly possible), and the main characters are youngsters who ‘tube ride’ for kicks (grabbing hold of moving underground trains and hanging off the side). Of course, they see things they aren’t supposed to, and the story soon has them fleeing for their lives.

I love how Ward deals with the characters. None of them are perfect, and sometimes even the good characters do the wrong thing, occasionally for purely selfish reasons. He sets up the notion of ‘nobody is guaranteed to be a hero’ early on by having one of the gang betray the rest and then die‌—‌which also sets up the expectation that nobody is guaranteed to survive. The villains are very believable, with clear, logical reasons for their actions, and all have the possibility of redemption (whether that happens or not is a different matter, and I’m not going to give any spoilers). And the world Ward creates is frighteningly realistic and plausible.

For more of my thoughts on the Tube Riders series, click here.

I intend to read more of Ward’s books over 2018, including his new YA series, Endinfinium (starting with Benjamin Forrest And The School At The End Of The World).

Revisiting old books‌—‌not always a good move

I’ll re-read old books every now and then, but some of the ones I’ve returned to this year have left me questioning how I rated them so highly. I suppose I was more impressionable as a teenager when I first read James Herbert’s The Rats and the sequel, Lair, but now the prose feels somewhat clunky, and the stories don’t interest me as much. Robert R McCammon’s Baal read like a series of separate but connected stories, and Dean Koontz’s Watchers had story arcs that I felt could have been ignored for much of the time. I can’t help wondering how much of this ‘padding’ was at the request of the publisher, to make the book a certain length.

It_StephenKingI also re-read Stephen King’s It. I can’t recall what I thought of it when I read it when it first came out, but I’m in two minds now. There are parts I love, but overall it felt too long and repetitive. Some of the creepy horror is excellent, though, and King is a master writer. One of those books where the parts are more impressive than the whole, and it hasn’t put me off re-visiting more of King’s books (or reading his newer novels).

The novelisation of the original Star Wars film was a disappointment (I’ve written about this in a previous post, which you can read here), but I did enjoy listening to the audio-book of the ET novelisation (and you can read more of my thoughts on this here). I read this years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of the subtext when I was younger, especially the mother’s thoughts.

A perfect shorter story

AllQuietOnTheWesternFold_JamieBrindleI’ll finish with a shorter work I really enjoyed — All Quiet In The Western Fold by Jamie Brindle. Imagine stories exist as living, breathing characters, in a wild west kind of setting. Stories are becoming sick, though, and the new sheriff has to investigate.

If that sound a bit strange, it is. But it is so well written, and manages to be serious and playful at the same time. For example, take this description:

High Sheriff Grok was a huge fat story, with thick wads of excess characterisation around his jowls and a pair of ugly similes that hung like ammo belts around his chest.

It’s a joy to read stuff like this, but the story itself is also intriguing, and makes me want to read more by Brindle. In fact, I have some of his books on my to-be-read list.

I have a lot of books on this list — far too many. Next year I need to stop downloading so much and get through more of the list (hard to do‌—‌I’ve already added a few more books over the holidays).

So, what else for next year? I’ve already mentioned wanting to read more from the authors above, but I also want to get back into some of the classics. A couple of years back I set myself the challenge of getting through all of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine (something like a hundred titles ranging from shorts to 500-page novels), and I don’t think I read any in 2017.

I’m also wanting to discover more new (to me) authors, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. I prefer darker, more thoughtful stuff, but I’m open to just about anything (I’ve even read Fifty Shades, although I’m sure I shouldn’t have been laughing quite so much).

So, here’s to a good year of reading in 2018.


What is a book worth?

That’s a very ambiguous question. To narrow it down a bit, I’ll only consider fiction here, and will define a book as an object containing a text version of a story. Generally, this is either a physical book (paperback or hardback) or an electronic version (audiobooks have another layer of performance, so I’m discounting them for this discussion.)

reading-1249273_1280One measure of worth is money, so how much do we pay for books? In the UK, a paperback is generally between five and ten pounds, and a hardback around twenty. E-book pricing varies considerably‌—‌there are the free or 99p books, right up to about twenty pounds.

Why the difference in prices? So let’s consider what we are actually paying for.

When we buy a paperback or hardback, we exchange money for a physical object. Yes, we can read it, but we can also display it on our shelves. We can admire it as a thing in itself.

But with an e-book, we received a string of zeros and ones that are stored on a hard-drive somewhere. Our computers (phones, e-readers or whatever we use) translate this information into the words we read and the pictures we see. But ultimately, it’s just data.
It’s the same story in both versions‌—‌the only difference is in the means of delivery. Any difference in price should therefore reflect the costs involved in creating and distributing these different versions.

write-593333_640Think about what it takes to turn a story into a book. There is all the work the author puts in‌—‌planning, research, writing, re-writing and editing. There are external editors and proofreaders. This goes for all books, electronic and physical.

But after this, things diverge. For a physical book, the pages are formatted, then proof-read (in the original sense of the term‌—‌checking the proof copy, and not just looking for spelling and grammatical errors). These pages are then sent to the printer, who creates the physical book itself from materials the printing company purchases. The book is bound, with a cover that includes front, back and spine. The book is stored and, when requested, shipped to stores. These stores have their own overheads to cover‌—‌rent on the building, wages for staff, store furniture and power etc. This is true for both bricks-and-mortar and on-line sellers.

And all this, apart from the creation of the original proofs, needs to be repeated for each book sold.

Now consider an e-book. Once the text is completed, it is formatted, and a cover designed. These files are then uploaded to a seller, be that an independent website or a company like Amazon or Kobo. The seller requires a server etc., but the costs are far less than for the storage of a physical object. And there is no need to create a new e-book for each sale made‌—‌the original is simply copied digitally.

From the above, it seems pretty clear to me that the cost of bringing an e-book to a reader is far lower than getting a physical book in their hands, and for this reason alone it makes sense that paper books should be priced higher.

Yet this is not always the case. I often see e-books priced the same as paperbacks (normally by traditional publishers). I have seen e-books priced the same as a hardback, even though the paperback is under half that amount. And I can see no possible justification for this.

But that is only part of the question I first posed. This is price as a reflection of the manufacturing cost. This is the price of the book as an object.

once-upon-a-time-719174_1280Books, as a means of conveying a story, have a value in the words themselves, and the artistry and craft that are displayed in the writing. What we value in a book is the experience of reading.

And this is where things become far harder to quantify. How much would you pay for entertainment?

We could consider time. If we are willing to pay, say, ten pounds to watch a two-hour film, should a novel that takes five hours be worth over twenty pounds? If that were the case, a book like War And Peace might be over a hundred pounds. I can imagine someone paying that much for a rare edition, but I’ve seen paperback copies for around £0.99.

But it would be wrong to assume there is a correlation between quantity and quality. Is Stephen King’s It worth five times the value of Animal Farm? Much as I enjoy both books, I wouldn’t agree with this statement. In fact, many smaller books outclass longer stories. To me, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Fight Club are far more enjoyable than, say, George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones / Song of Ice And Fire books. And I know that sentence will upset some people, but that’s just me and my reading tastes.

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Which gives us another issue to consider‌—‌everyone is different. One person’s life-changing entertainment will be wasted hours to another. The same books could be considered a thrilling roller-coaster ride or a hideous excuse for gratuitous violence and bad language. A thrilling tale might be gratuitous violence and bad language to someone else. One person might value well-crafted prose, but another might find more of value in a finely-tuned story. One person might get swept up in rich descriptions, and another might be drawn into snappy, sarcastic dialogue.

In other words, two people will consider the same book to have different worth. I might baulk at buying the next book Martin release, even if it was on special offer, but others will gladly spend twenty pounds on the hardback version, then buy another copy when that one wears out. To them, the book is worth far more than it is to me.

Because value is about more than money. What we pay for something, and it’s value, are not always connected. Some of the best books I have read‌—‌the books that I value‌—‌did not cost me a great deal, but there are other ways I can pay the author, and other ways I can demonstrate how much I believe that book is worth. Some of my new-found favourite authors can rely on me to keep buying their books. I can tell others what I think, and I can write reviews (or mention books and authors when I’m writing here). Some fans draw art based on their most valued books, or write fan-fiction. Some buy electronic, physical and audio versions. Others frequent author websites, or follow the author on social media.

So the question ‘how much is a book worth’ now encompasses more than money. It involves time and effort. A good book is worth our undivided attention for a number of hours. A good book is worth thinking about, and maybe revisiting.

It has been said that any object is only worth what someone will pay for it, but this needs to be extended. A story is worth the money you pay for it, the time you spend reading it, and the effort you expend in thinking about it.

What is a book worth? Ultimately, it depends on both the reader and the book.

Whose voice do you hear when you read?

When you read, do you hear the words in your head? And if you do, whose voice do you hear?

For me, the voice I hear is fairly nondescript, a bit like the one I hear when I talk. To me, it has no accent and no distinguishing features. But sometimes, another voice takes over.

Most of the time this is because of films. When I re-read Fight Club after seeing the film, I could hear Ed Norton narrating it (and I could also picture him, Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast‌—‌great book, great film). When I read Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy I hear the voices from the original radio show in the dialogue, and Peter Jones (who played ‘the book’ in both radio and TV versions) for the rest. Even in the later books, it is Peter Jones’ voice that is reading the words to me.

This makes sense. If the film (TV show/radio show/whatever) is done well and complements the book, they almost merge to become one thing. If they are different, or if they don’t connect so much in my mind, then I revert to my generic voice. So, when I read Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds, it is so different to the Hitchcock film that there is no cross-over. Similarly, although there have been some TV adaptations of Terry Pratchet’s books, they haven’t been as good as the books, so I don’t automatically connect them in the same way.

Most of the time, the voice-from-the-film effect works well for me. But sometimes, hearing different voices can be a distraction.

group-1825503_1280I’m a fan of the Sterling & Stone guys‌—‌Sean Platt, Johnny B Truant and David Wright. Not all of their books work perfectly for me, but they’re never afraid to try something different, and their books are always work reading. And when they’re good, they’re fantastic. Yesterday’s Gone, overall, was wonderful. Crash was a gem of a book. I love Unicorn Western, and The Beam is constantly intriguing. And their Tomorrow’s Gene trilogy is a current favourite of mine.

They also produce a weekly podcasts. Although they generally stick to the topic in these shows, there is a natural banter between them that often takes them off in other directions. They’ve even taken this off-topic stuff into its own show (Worst Show Ever).

They’ve been doing this for years, and I think I’ve listened to just about everything they’ve done. I’ve had their voices in my ears for hours and hours.

Maybe this isn’t too healthy.

Their written work reflects the way they speak. They’ve even done readings of a couple of their books. And now, when I read anything they’ve written, I hear it in their voices.

For their non-fiction, like Iterate And Optimize, this makes sense. These books are supposed to teach me things, after all, and they are the teachers. Rather than their non-fiction being lists of instructions, it becomes personal advice. In The One With All The Advice (where they pull writing advice from different episodes of Friends), it adds a great deal to my enjoyment of the book.

But this also happens in their fiction. This started becoming obvious to me in the last few books in their Invasion series, and has carried on with everything they’ve written since that. Even with Dead City, which they first released in audio format as a separate podcast, narrated by Scott Brick—‌when I read the book, I still heard their voices.

Mainly Sean’s. Probably because he talks most on their podcasts, and he’s involved in just about every book they produce.

I’m starting to find this distracting. Maybe that’s because I’m noticing it more often.

Some people might suggest this is a problem with their writing, but it is clear that they are improving in their craft all the time (their latest ‘literary’ novel, Devil May Care, might not be a total success, but it contains some of the finest writing they’ve done to date).

It’s often said that the writer should be invisible, and that the story (and the characters) should be everything. But every writer has their own voice, which becomes more identifiable as they progress in their writing journey. Unless they are specifically trying to write like someone else, their books will all be ‘theirs’. And if, as a reader, you identify with their voice strongly, it is natural that you will hear the story being read to you in their voice.

Which, ultimately, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We often choose books because we enjoy a particular writer’s work, and that usually means their voice resonates with us in some way. With the rise of podcasts and videos, writers are becoming more accessible‌—‌we don’t have to wait for a book-signing to see or hear our favourite authors any more. The connection between the writer and their work is more apparent than it ever has been.

So I guess I’m looking forward to having Johnny, Sean or Dave reading their next book in my head.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering something else‌—‌whose voice are you hearing right now? I doubt it’s mine (because only a few of you will have heard me speak). Is it your own internal voice, or some kind of ‘generic blog post’ voice? I’m British, but if you’re from somewhere else, do you hear it with an English accent or your own, or is it some kind of mid-Atlantic thing? If you’re British, does this read with a northern or southern accent, or a hint of west-country? Has that voice changed over the last few sentences?

And how much of this has pulled you away from the words as you try to listen to the voice in your head? Have I messed up your reading?

Maybe listening to the voices in your head isn’t such a great idea.

Why read dark fiction?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at some of the things that makes a scary story. Today, I want to explore the appeal of horror and dark fiction.

fantasy-2847724_640Horror is a strange genre. It used to be a sub-genre of ‘speculative fiction’, along with fantasy and science-fiction, and writers like Lovecraft blended all three. But now, it doesn’t quite fit. Where some science fiction is considered serious and literary, horror is more likely to be thought of as ‘nasty stories’. Where fantasy creates whole new worlds, horror is (generally) stuck in the real world, with a few supernatural elements thrown in‌—‌and ghosts aren’t in the same league as dragons and elves.

Science fiction and fantasy sell far more, and have a larger fan-base. Horror has been left behind.

Yet there are many important horror works, like Frankenstein and Dracula. Stephen King is considered a horror author, and he is one of the most popular writers around. The genre has in part been responsible for influential TV shows, like X-Files, Buffy and The Twilight Zone (and even Doctor Who uses monsters and other horror tropes). There are shades of horror in literary books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Some of the best-known sci-fi franchises have their roots in horror, like Alien. Without horror, the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres (think Twilight) would not exist, and those stories continue to draw in many readers.

Then there are the ghost stories, and the monsters that everyone knows about‌—‌vampires, zombies, werewolves. There are ghost trains at the funfair. There are the costumes at Halloween.

For a derided genre, horror is incredibly influential.

So what is the appeal? Why do we enjoy stories that terrify us?

cliff-1209263_640I used to work at outdoor activity centres, and as part of this I would take people abseiling. Grabbing hold of a rope and leaning over a drop isn’t a natural thing to do, and many people would (quite sensibly) be scared. They’d be shaking. They’d need coaxing over the edge. Despite all the assurances that it was perfectly safe, they’d imagine the worst.

But they’d do it anyway. They might be swearing under their breath the whole way down, and they might need another instructor by their sides, encouraging them for each tiny step, but they’d reach the bottom. And then, legs shaking and heart hammering, they’d smile.

They’d done it. They’d conquered their fears and survived. They’d pushed themselves through their terror, and they’d overcome. Even if they never abseiled again, they could be proud of what they had achieved. Often, they would give it another go. Or they’d remember how they overcame their nerves, and push themselves a little further on the next activity.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

For most of us, our lives are comfortable. We wake up, we go to work or do whatever else fills our day, we move around freely, we relax in safety at home, and then we go to sleep.
The news warns us of the dangers out there‌—‌the murderers, the rapists, the paedophiles. It brings us images of natural disasters, and of atrocities brought about by others. Yet most of us will not encounter any of this in reality. It is news because it is rare. If it were commonplace, it would not be reported with anything like the same intensity.

So we are safe.

Yet there is a part of us that thrives on adrenaline. Sometimes, conflict is good. We need that risk, and we need to push ourselves. Sometimes, we need to grab that rope and dangle a hundred feet from the ground.

It is often said that, when times are bad, people look to feel-good escapism in their entertainment, and when times are good darker fiction grows in popularity. And this makes sense‌—‌we need both security and tension. Inactivity, physically and mentally (spiritually and emotionally?), is bad for us.

roller-coaster-654081_640It explains why roller-coasters are popular. We know they are safe (again, the accidents are reported because they are anomalies), but they give the illusion of danger. Hurtling around a twisting track, being thrown upside-down, with the screams of others in our ears, gives us an adrenaline rush. And afterwards, we can smile and laugh about it, because we’ve survived.

Thrillers are often described as ‘roller-coaster reads’, because they take us on a thrilling journey, with twists and turns that toss us about unexpectedly. And horror does something similar.

In any fiction, there has to be tension. The higher the stakes, the greater this tension, and the more we are drawn into the story. We fear for the hero, knowing that they face something terrifying. In thrillers, this is death‌—‌from the villain’s gun, or the bomb the hero is racing to diffuse, or from the trap they have found themselves in. But in horror, it is damnation. In horror, death is not the worst that can happen.

In vampire legends a bite can turn the victim into one of the undead, cursed for all eternity. Ghosts come back from beyond the grave, and threaten to take us to places we can hardly imagine. In apocalyptic horror, like McCarthy’s The Road, those who have died are the lucky ones, escaping the hell that the survivors must endure. In Thomas Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is not scary because he kills, but because of how he desecrates his victims bodies. In King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence becomes a monster, no longer himself, and turns on his own family.

This is the stuff of nightmares. Life and death are constants, but damnation, and the torture of the soul‌—‌that is terrifying.

Like the person queueing for the roller-coaster ride, or the person putting on their harness at the top of the cliff, a part of us is drawn to the terror. As much as it disturbs us, we want to know what is out there. It’s like an itch that won’t go away.

Horror stories allow us to scratch that itch. They allows us to confront dark forces. As much as logic might tell us that monsters and supernatural forces don’t exist, there’s always that ‘but what if…’, and dark fiction gives us possible answers to that. It lets us in on a world that makes the unreal real, and unleashes our nightmares.

But in a controlled manner. Just as we trust the designers and operators of the roller-coaster, or the person belaying the rope at the top of the cliff, so we trust the storyteller to bring us through to the end. Whatever happens along the way, we will survive. And then we can walk away, our need for adrenaline satisfied, and our fears conquered. We can emerge from the darkness to look around and appreciate all the good things we have in our lives.

This is another huge appeal of horror, even if it is subconscious‌—‌there is an end. No matter how bad things get, there is always a way through. Even though there may be (are?) things out there we cannot understand or even comprehend, we are survivors. Despite (or because of) the darkness, there is always hope. Good will triumph over evil. The vampire will be slain. The monster will be defeated. The night will end. There is always a new dawn.

And, when there is so much going on in the world over which we have no control, that has to be a comfort.


Why re-read?

book-1975830_640Some people never read a book more than once, arguing that there is no enjoyment if they already know the ending. Others have their favourite books that they return to time and time again. Some people read Lord Of The Rings every year. I’ve met someone who appeared to be reading Fifty Shades constantly (must be some S&M thing).

I have a long list of new books to read, but I still find myself re-reading older ones. So why?

I think there are three possible reasons.

Familiarity and comfort

HitchHikers_DouglasAdamsI’ve read Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so often that now I only have to look at the page and the words flow from my memory. And every so often, I will binge re-read the Discworld books. I know what’s coming, but I still enjoy the storytelling and the humour. They make me smile, no matter how many times I read them.

We enjoy comfort, and that includes mental comfort. So re-reading a book we know we enjoy can be a settling experience, especially when other aspects of our lives might be going through changes. Familiar books are something steady we can cling to.

Sometimes, it is not so much the book but the memories connected with it. I’ll always associate Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings with caravan holidays, and Asimov’s original Foundation books remind me of my grandparents’ house. And Thomas Hardy, strangely, puts me in a summery mood, simply because I can recall reading some of his books on an old Sony Reader in our garden one summer, when it was warm enough to wear shorts.

Reading familiar books can be like listening to a favourite song or re-watching a favourite film. It’s a break from reality, but one that makes us feel relaxed and comfortable.


Over time, everyone changes. We grow, we take on new ideas and we reject old ones. We see the world through different eyes, coloured by the experiences of our on-going lives.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleIt can be interesting revisiting books we enjoyed when we were growing up. Sometimes the books seem too childish, and we wonder if we were ever really taken in by them. Sometimes we are disappointed by the book (as I was when I re-read the original Star Wars novelisation a bit ago). And sometimes we see new things. When I revisited ET recently, there were things I was sure I’d missed before, simply because I’d been too young to understand what William Kotzwinkle was hinting at.

I read a great deal of horror as a teenager, and it’s been interesting re-reading some of my favourites from that time. Some stand up well, like The Shining‌—‌although obviously a story of a family cut off from the rest of the world is going to have a different impact on a father than it does on a teenager. Others were a disappointment, like James Herbert’s The Rats. I can see why I enjoyed this before, but for the adult me it was nothing special (apologies to any Herbert fans, although I did enjoy Ash when I read that a couple of years ago).

I don’t watch many films now, but in the past these have given me the nudge to re-read certain books, and the visuals have enabled me to see the words in a different light. One strong example of this is Fight Club, a rare phenomenon where both book and film are excellent. On re-reading, I could hear Ed Norton’s voice, and it made for a great reading experience.

So re-reading with fresh eyes can alter the perception of a book, for better or for worse.

Digging deeper

At first, this might appear to be the same as revisiting, but there are subtle differences. I’ll revisit a book when I’m not sure what I think of it, or when something triggers a fresh look. But certain books have depths that I know I have not yet mined, and I will re-read them because I want to uncover more of their secrets.

ZenMotorcycleMaintenance_RobertMPirsigZen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is the most obvious example. This book is a journey into ideas, set against a father-and-son motorcycle ride across America. At times the thoughts and questions it poses are almost too dense, and every time I read it I pick up on something new. Between my first and second readings, I spent a bit of time reading Plato, and this influenced how I understood Prisig’s inquiries into the meaning of quality. Later, the relationship between the father and the son had a greater impact on me, simply because I was able to relate to that situation. And having recently found out that Prisig’s son was murdered some years after the book came out, the next time I read it I am sure that will colour what I take from it.

Yet there are still things to uncover in the ideas in the book. It doesn’t lecture, but guides, and what I bring to the reading is as important as the words itself.

In contrast, I’ll re-read American Psycho because I want to understand how that book works on a technical level. I think it’s a classic. There are so many different ways of interpreting it (comment on consumerism? Study of sociopathy? Discussion on desires?). There’s no clear story, and at times it seems to drift along as random thoughts (two pages on the pros and cons of Huey Lewis and the News, anyone?). But it works, and it’s clear that Bret Easton Ellis knew exactly what he was doing. So I’ll re-read it, paying attention to how he uses words and phrases, and how he structures it.

I suppose this is more of an intellectual enjoyment than an emotional one, but I’m re-reading with the same purpose‌—‌to delve deeper into the book in order to discover more of its secrets.

* * *

So, three reasons why I will re-read a book. There are probably more (like re-reading a book simply because I’ve forgotten that I read it a few years ago), but these will do for the moment. I’m sure there are people who will argue that I am wasting my time‌—‌for all I get out of re-reading, wouldn’t that time be better spent reading one of the thousands of books I have yet to read? They might have a point, but I’m never going to read everything I want to anyway. And I don’t see reading as a tick-list activity. It’s about enjoyment and entertainment, and if I can get that from re-reading, there’s no reason to stop.