Journalist Simon Ricketts wrote an excellent piece about Labour in which he argues that because there’s no real way that Labour can win the next election, they need to get a hold of the narrative and own it. They need to actually move the debate to the left, to be seen to stand up for what’s right, rather than trying to find out what would make them ‘electable’. They need to find some spine and create an opposition party that’s actually in opposition to the Tories.

They should fight, they should stand up, they should campaign and they should vote against. For the people who need them.

For the people who didn’t vote for austerity – and it’s worth remembering that is the majority of the country – they need to grab their bloody rifles, wrap their paws around the triggers and FIRE.

The only way you move the Overton window is to get outside of it and PULL. You need people who aren’t concerned about how their haircut “plays” in the eyes of the electorate, or whether they should put the words “reach out” or “going forward” in their latest dribble-filled speech.

You need brave people. Unselfish people. Ready to stand outside, prepared to be mocked. Passionate, committed and determined. I don’t see that in many of our politicians.

Last night, I heard a lettuce-fuelled Labour leadership hopeful tell a TV reporter that he is re-evaluating the ‘core values’ in the eyes of the electorate, as if by merely saying those words with his mouth, then the answer will turn up in a taxi.

Let me tell you the core values, sunshine. They are to stand up to inequality, punch hard for those who cannot, and REFUSE to be bowed in the face of battle. Save yourself the money you were going to spend on shiny leaflets. You won’t need them. Just stand up, charge forward and bloody fight.

It’s well worth reading the whole post.

When I first read it, I wasn’t really sure that Labour was actually dead. Wounded certainly, but actually dead? The next election’s five years away, surely they weren’t so mortally wounded that they couldn’t recover?

And then I read about the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, a bill that Labour should have been in vocal opposition to. But instead, they put up a pathetic amendment, and then put their MPs under a whip to abstain instead of vote against. If they had voted against, the amendment would have failed, and about 48 Labour MPs voted with their conscience and did in fact vote against.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, in case you haven’t read about it, “slashes tax credits, cuts the benefit cap by £6,000 and takes up to £30 a week from sick and disabled jobseekers”. It is a regressive bit of legislation, punishing the poor and the disabled even more than they currently are under Tory policy.

Why on earth would Labour want to abstain? Why does Harriet Harman support this sort of legislation? It’s just baffling. Utterly baffling. How is this supposed to appeal to people on the left, who believe in the welfare state, in the NHS, in social mobility, in equality?

(UPDATE: Some folks on Twitter have pointed out that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and fair enough it probably is, but the thing is that people believe Labour should have voted against, not abstained, and so the harm is done regardless. If there was a good reason to abstain, Labour didn’t communicate it well enough.)

But is one bad vote, by itself, enough to ensure that Labour are dead? Probably not. But things get worse for Labour.

Before the election, I think a lot of people on the left assumed that UKIP would split the Tory vote in England, giving an advantage to Labour. But that’s not what happened. Instead, UKIP stole Labour voters in England, way more than Labour anticipated:

Analysis of the results by The Independent shows that Ukip won more votes than the size of the Conservative majority in nine seats the Tories gained from Labour. They included Morley and Outwood, where the former shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suffered a shock defeat by 442 votes after the third-placed Ukip candidate won 7,951 votes. Although not all of these Ukip voters would have switched from Labour, defections from Labour could have tipped the balance in the Tories’ favour.

The pattern was repeated as the Tories gained Labour-held Bolton West, Corby, Derby North, Gower, Plymouth Moor View, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Vale of Clwyd. In 48 seats retained by the Tories, their majority over Labour was lower than the number of votes won by Ukip.

That’s bad. Who would have thought that UKIP’s ridiculous, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic platform would have appealed to Labour voters? You can answer that question yourself.

But that’s not even the worst of it. A study out this week shows that the reason that the polls were so different to the final result was not the fabled ‘shy Tory’, too ashamed of their Conservative ethos to tell a pollster. Oh no. The Tories voted the way the Tories said they would vote. The huge difference was down to Labour supporters who said they would vote Labour, but didn’t bother to vote at all.

The pre-election polls for the 2015 UK General Election missed the final result by a considerable margin: underestimating the Conservative Party and overestimating Labour. We analyse evidence for five theories of why the polls missed using data from the British Election Study. We find no evidence for Shy Tories, late swing or systematically different preferences among “don’t knows”. We find strong evidence that respondents overstated their likelihood of voting and their actual turnout after the election and that these respondents systematically lean towards Labour. This differential turnout can be predicted above and beyond respondents’ self-reported likelihood of voting using demographic variables and past behaviour. We also find evidence that samples are likely to underrepresent some groups in the population and that current weighting schemes may not be adequately correcting for this. In particular, we find that the oldest respondents in our sample are greatly underrepresented.

The media, rather cruelly, called them “lazy”, but I suspect what we’re talking about is a swath of disillusioned voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Tory Lite, and I can quite understand their position. Calling them lazy is a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card for Labour, though, because it means Labour can tell themselves that they don’t have to bother with these terrible, indolent lefties, and thus will never ask why those people felt unwilling to vote for them. Tip: It’s not laziness.

So what have we got here? Well, the three shots to Labour’s foot that have resulted in fatal blood loss:

  1. The Labour party elite have lost the plot and are no longer representing the progressive electorate (and haven’t for some considerable time now)
  2. Labour voters defecting to UKIP
  3. Labour voters feeling unable to actually vote Labour

I don’t see how Labour can come back from this at all, so what’s the point in considering “electability” when choosing the new Labour leader? Why toss Corbyn out because you think he doesn’t play well on TV? Which of the other leaders sound even remotely committed to a progressive agenda?

Simon Ricketts has Labour bang to rights. They are dead already, and they’re dead three times. So don’t bother wringing your hands over the next election. Instead, we need to remake the left in the UK, to get back to proper progressive politics and, sadly, that means Labour needs to just fuck off and die, and let the real left take over.

Note: I joined the Labour party after the defeat, and now I’m wondering why I bothered.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot written about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman by HarperCollins over the months since the announcement of its discovery. There are many questions remaining over how and when it was discovered, and over the decision to publish it, but right now the focus is on the book itself.

I’ve read a few reviews and the comments under them, and if there’s a theme that jumps out at me, it’s confusion around how Lee could have turned Atticus Finch from being a fair, just, upstanding man to an old racist in this book set 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Finch we know is defined by his commitment to racial equality and justice, and yet here he is in Watchman, an almost completely different character.

I have seen people trying to rationalise this away, talking about how people change over 20 years, or how Scout was a child in Mockingbird but an adult in Watchman and thus seeing things without the rose-tinted glasses of childhood innocence. But these attempts to impose coherence are missing a vital piece of context:

Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.

Go Set A Watchman is not even Harper Lee’s “second book”.

Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, a draft she extensively revised and changed. We cannot look at Watchman as any kind of continuation of Mockingbird, we cannot expect the two books to share a coherent world view or think of the characters as the same people who’ve ‘changed’ between books, because Watchman is not a deliberately planned out sequel to Mockingbird at all. It is not set in the same universe, but an earlier, related one.

Watchman is like an ancestor of Mockingbird, sharing much of its genetic material with the bestseller – you can see examples of passages that Lee decided were good enough to make it into the new draft in this Quartz analysis. But Watchman is no more a sequel than my father is my son.

HarperCollins very carefully does not use the word “sequel” in it’s publicity. As Neil Gaiman said on Twitter:

But the HarperCollins press release muddies the waters hugely about what this book is, calling it “a newly discovered novel”, and implying – but not saying – that it’s an entirely new book and a sequel:

“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout” –  quote from Harper Lee.

“Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.”

“I, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that Harper Lee had written another book.” – quote from Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada.

“Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel…” – quote from onathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Harper.

One would be forgiven for believing that this was a different novel, a sequel, something that Harper Lee had worked on as a separate enterprise to Mockingbird. But it isn’t. To repeat: Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird.

This first draft was written through 1956-57, after Lee was given the financial support to allow her to take a year off to write. The first 49 pages were given to agent Annie Laurie Williams on 14 January 1957, and she had the complete draft by 27 February 1957.

Williams and her husband and business partner Maurice Crain thought that Lee’s draft was interesting but needed work. Crain worked with Lee to revise the draft, and it was sent to publishers J.B. Lippincott. They liked it, but again felt it needed further revisions. From the Washington Post, we hear from Tay Hohoff, “eventual editor of the book”:

“First of all, the element in the original manuscript which was unmistakable: it was alive, the characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional,” Hohoff wrote. “And the spark of the true writer flashed in every line. Though Miss Lee had then never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.”

That said, noted Hohoff, who died in 1974, the effort was very, very flawed.

“The manuscript we saw was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The editorial call to duty was plain. She needed, at last, professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”

The upshot?

Lippincott did not offer to buy the manuscript. The editors sent Lee home to make revisions. They hoped she might come back.

It took two years of hard work revising the book closely with Hohoff for Lee to produce Mockingbird. Lippincott accepted the manuscript on 10 November 1959.

Harper Lee wrote no further novels. In fact, over the decades since Mockingbird was published, Lee chose not to rework into a sequel the bits of the first draft that didn’t make it into the final version, despite the fact that there would have been a huge appetite for it. It might be tempting to say that this was because the first draft was lost, but it certainly wasn’t lost in 1959 and had she wanted to write a sequel, she easily could have in subsequent years. Lee cannot have been ignorant of the commercial opportunity afforded by her success, but she decided that she preferred her privacy to the lunacy that would undoubtedly result from publishing a second book.

Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Lee has not revised Watchman. There have been some questions as to her cognitive capabilities, and the NY Times wrote:

Ms. Lee — known to many as Nelle, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine.

It does not seem likely, therefore, that she was able to read the manuscript and give it the kind of hard edit that every single first draft in the world needs in order to turn it into a viable novel, let alone a sequel to Mockingbird. If she had, at some point, decided to revise what was left of Watchman into a true sequel, we could reasonably have expected it to be as different from that first draft as Mockingbird is, not least because she would have taken into account all those changes she made back in the late 1950s.

Watchman has some value as a literary artefact, as a window into Lee’s early thinking behind what eventually became Mockingbird, and as a testament to her tenacious reworking of her first draft. But it is unfair to Lee to publish it as if it were a finished novel, or to in any way represent it as her second novel or as a sequel.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The stealth feminism of San Andreas

by Suw on July 11, 2015

Kevin and I went to see San Andreas last Sunday, a film that I nearly missed because I was in the UK whilst it was running at our local cinema, but which I was so eager to see that I made Kevin drive for an hour so we could catch the closest showing we could find.

As a lapsed geologist, I love anything even remotely geological, and particularly if it involves geophysical hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or tsunamis. San Andreas thankfully only has two of those and, although I knew its pudding was over-egged, I was still really looking forward to seeing just how scientifically silly it was. I’d read the geological reviews, and was expecting it to be incredibly silly indeed.

I was not disappointed. The majority of the plot, from a scientific standpoint, is ridiculous, although there are a few points which are either plausible or spot on.


I’m not going to get in to a long description of what’s realistic and what’s not, as otherwise we’ll be here all day and others have done it better than I could. Suffice it to say that a Nevada quake could trigger a rupture on the San Andreas fault, but not at that magnitude. The constant aftershocks are a good representation of reality, but the collapsing skyscrapers are not. The advice to ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ is indeed what you should do in an earthquake: Get to the floor, get under something solid, maybe a desk or table, and hold on to it. And whilst drawback is a good way to spot that you’re in deep tsunami schtum, the San Andreas fault cannot produce a tsunami because the two sides are sliding past each other horizontally, not vertically as in a subduction zone. Oh, and in real life, if you’re dead for five minutes after drowning without receiving expert medical care, you’re probably just dead full stop.

The scientific accuracy of the movie was about what I was expecting. What really surprised me was the stealth feminism and the strong parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road.

Yes, you read that right. Feminism. In a movie featuring The Rock. I’m not kidding.

Now the first thing that I want to say is that I entirely disagree with the premise that only women can make feminist art, or that the only feminist art worth making is perfectly feminist art. A movie does not have to be perfect to be good, it does not have to score 100 percent on some feminist purism scale to be worthy of note. So before anyone argues that there’s something unfeminist in the movie which entirely negates my argument, let’s just lay it out: I’m not arguing that this is a perfect feminist movie, I’m saying that it has some laudable feminist aspects which I would like to see a lot more of in other movies (and books and TV and and and).

Right, I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

The first item of note in San Andreas is that it is in many ways a predictable action hero movie. It involves Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson staring as Ray, a big manly man with big manly muscles and a big manly career rescuing poor young ladies who’ve ended up stuck in their car after a landslide (and their own lack of attention — tsk, lady drivers) runs them off the road. The main plot of the movie concerns how Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue pilot, flies his chopper through the disintegrating skyscrapers of LA to rescue his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma, (who has left him for a one percenter architect, Daniel), and then continues on to San Francisco to rescue their daughter, Blake.

Ray is rather uncomplicated, one-dimensional character, played perfectly by Johnson whom the uncharitable might say specialises in uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters. Ray is a stereotype, and he cleaves to all the action hero tropes: He is big and brave. He has trouble expressing his emotions and loses his wife because of his inability to open up. He rescues people. He redeems the failure in his past, in this case the inability to save his daughter Mallory from drowning by, surprise surprise, saving his daughter Blake from drowning.

And, of course, he heals the rift between himself and his wife, winning back her love through the expediency of having a handy catastrophe of monumental proportions to help him work through his feelings. Never mind the several million people who die, the key thing is that Ray and Emma rekindle their love. So far so tropey.

But what about Emma? Well, we don’t get to see much of Emma. We know that she’s got a pretty shoddy taste in men as you suspect that Daniel, the rich architect dude, is a wanker from the off, and it doesn’t take long for him to confirm that not only is he a wanker, he’s a murderous wanker when his own life is at stake. Where Ray is one dimensional, Daniel is merely a MacGuffin, and the way is clear for him to get knocked off so that Emma can go back to Ray without any emotional complications.

How much more interesting and emotional would it have been for Daniel to have turned out to actually be a lovely, honourable chap, for Emma to have to choose not between dead wanker and live hero, but live hero and live hero? That’s probably a bridge too far for an action movie, but still.

We see that Emma’s good at following instructions, and she certainly manages to go up when everyone else is going down, but apart from that she doesn’t really do very much. However, she doesn’t scream unnecessarily, isn’t ditzy or stupid, appears to hold her own in terms of bravery, so she gets ten out of ten for defying usual action movie wife tropes, but she’s given very little to actually do. She just gets rescued, travels with Ray to San Francisco, and pilots a boat a bit at the end, but other than that, nada really.

So rather like Mad Max: Fury Road is just a very long car chase with a brief lull in the middle, San Andreas is a very long road trip, except it’s mostly by air. And rather like Max, Ray’s story is so simple it almost doesn’t exist. Max helps Furiosa save the Wives, but he is almost always the adjunct, having a grand total of one novel idea —‘Let’s turn round and go back again’ — throughout the entire movie. Ray manages to be a bit more useful, he saves five people throughout the entire movie, but he spends most of his time getting from A to B and dealing with all these sudden feelings he’s having. But his actions do not drive the story forward. He is a reactive character, who spends most of his time dealing with things that are happening to him, making few decisions and none that are surprising.

On the other hand Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake, gets an awful lot to do. More than any other single character in the movie, it’s Blake who has to think on her feet, come up with ingenious solutions, defy (absent) authority, and put her extensive knowledge of emergency preparedness to the test. And she does this whilst assisting and protecting two male characters, newbie architect Ben and his little brother Ollie.

Blake is incredibly interesting. At the beginning of the movie, it rather seems as if she’s the usual sort of young women that we see in action flicks: She’s sitting by a pool, chatting to her dad on the phone, getting him to do something for her. She’s uncomfortable with her mum’s choice of new boyfriend, but feels some degree of loyalty to her mum and acquiesces to Daniel’s offer to take her up to San Francisco on his private jet.

When the earthquake hits, she and Daniel are in their chauffeur-driven car in the underground garage of his offices when a chunk of masonry kills said chauffeur and trips her legs, so she cannot get out of the car. At this point, I thought we were going to go full stereotype and we’d have screaming woman and slimy Daniel would save her and then we’d watch their flight through the disaster, but no, he’s more interested in saving himself, leaving her there to be Female Helpless Victim.

And sure enough Ben turns up to save her, with his younger brother Ollie in tow. Unable to shift the concrete by hand, Ben uses the car’s jack to lift it up a bit, then lets down the car’s tyres to give Blake just enough room to extricate herself. Nice bit of lateral thinking there, but so far, again, so tropey.

But Blake, it turns out, is not just a capable young women, she is intelligent, resourceful, determined, brave, and well-informed. She’s paid attention to Ray over the years, and knows what to do in an emergency and how to do it. It is Blake, not Ben, who leads the trio ultimately to safety (via her own death, but I’ll come to that later). It is Blake who makes the decisions, and Ben and Ollie who either provide information or support to her. Indeed, when Ben is vacillating over whether to follow her instructions, it is Ollie who says, (paraphrasing), “But Blake’s the one who knows what she’s doing, and she’s saved our arses already, so without her we’re toast.”

Indeed, Blake, Ben and Ollie work well together as a team, with Blake as the clear leader. Blake is the one who knows they need to find a landline to call her parents. Ollie’s the one with the map who directs them to the nearest electronics shop, but Blake’s the one who cobbles together a handset and makes it work.

Although Blake takes Ray’s instructions on where to meet, when Coit Tower turns out to be inaccessible, she’s the one who decides where to go next: to higher ground and Ollie, again, is the one with the map but Blake is the one who knows, when they see an abandoned fire truck that there might be useful supplies. She knows which channel to tune the radio set to.

When Ben is struck by flying glass, Blake shows no squeamishness at all in removing the glass from his leg. There’s no squealing, crying, shouting, screaming or fainting. She does what needs to be done. And when they hear the tsunami warning, she is the one who knows to get up as high as possible, and when they think they’re high enough, she’s the one who gives commands to find water and supplies. She is calm, collected, rational, knowledgeable and very much in command.

Yet there’s no arguments from Ben and Ollie about Blake’s leadership position, other than Ben’s one moment of doubt which is quickly and effectively countered by his younger brother. There’s no stroppiness about being told what to do by a woman, no snark, no sarcasm, no disobedience, no backstabbing, no self-interest. They just get on with it, each doing their best to help each other survive, working together as a team in which each brings their strengths and each can rely on the other.

That depiction of teamwork alone is unusual in a disaster movie. So often we’re given teams in conflict, where one person is working against the others because they are selfish, stupid, greedy or venal. But in San Andreas, everyone except Daniel is likeable, and Daniel is the cartoon sacrificial jerk who has to die. Everyone else gets on with doing what they think they need to do not just to survive, but to save each other.

Mad Max: Fury Road was really Furiosa’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she realises that someone else might do it better.

San Andreas is really Blake’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she’s either physically pinioned inside a car or dead. She makes the decisions; she shows the initiative; and she is the knowledgeable one, the leader.

And, interestingly, Blake takes on this role without surrendering her femininity or character. Furiosa, and similar characters like Aliens’ Ripley, are portrayed as having had to become harder, harsher, colder less empathic, in order to survive. They sacrificed their femininity on the altar of survival and that sacrifice was made off screen, before we even meet them.

Blake, on the other hand, starts the movie as a typical young woman and whilst by the end of the movie she’s been through a lot, what she hasn’t done is shed her femininity as if it were a skin to be sloughed to reveal the ‘real’, more masculine Blake underneath. She’s clearly still herself, clearly still has all the emotional capacities that she had when she started. She hasn’t had to harden, to close off her emotions or reject her humanity, even though she’s seen death and disaster up close.

One area where the script does fail us is in the insistence that Blake has to die in order for Ray to redeem himself. Simply saving her from certain death is not enough, she has to actually die in order for Ray to forgive himself for the death of Mallory, whom we’re told no one could have saved. This is not on. Using the suffering and death of woman as a mechanism to redeem a man reduces that woman to a convenient object. In doing that, San Andreas fails its audience, Blake and Ray himself, who is shown as incapable of dealing with his feelings and making peace with his past without the actual death of his daughter. That’s ugly, no matter which way you cut it.

Blake is, for my money, the most important character in San Andreas from both cultural and feminist points of view. Blake shows us that women can be smart, knowledgable leaders without being ball-breaking bitches. Indeed, they can be strong leaders and be kind, compassionate and caring at the same time. Blake shows us that women can give orders to men without those men breaking down in to faux-masculine outrage, and that women can work hand-in-hand with men to ensure everyone’s success and survival.

Ben, of course, has a part to play in this construction too. He is clearly also smart, resourceful and brave. He has to be, in order to be worthy of Blake’s love. But his reactions to to Blake’s leadership are intelligent and respectful, and they allow Blake to do what she does best.

Interestingly, Ben is British. I wonder if Hollywood thought that a woman telling an American man what to do was too outré for their audience to tolerate, but that British men are far too wimpy for anyone to complain? Well, I’m actually rather proud of the idea that British men are more capable of working closely and successfully with women leaders. I don’t know if that idea reflects reality, mind you, but I think it’s something good to aspire to.

But Blake is important not just because of what she represents, but because of who is most likely to go and see San Andreas. There’s no doubt that action hero movies are written to appeal to men, and sure enough, there were a lot of men in the cinema when we went to see it. And whilst it is incredibly important that girls women see on screen female characters that they can relate to and admire, it is also important that boys and men see smart, resourceful female leaders being treated with respect. And it’s even better if that role model is slipped under their nose almost without them noticing, without engendering a Fury Road-like backlash, so that it’s just normal, unremarkable, like Furiosa’s disability was.

San Andreas is only one film, and it’s far from being a perfect film, but it’s a good, solid step towards normalising the idea that women can be strong, compassionate and successful leaders. More please.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Amazon has changed the way that it pays authors for books that readers borrow via Kindle Unlimited from a per book payment to a per page read payment. This has, obviously, caused uproar, which I’ve mostly ignored because I still loathe Amazon, am no longer self-publishing (though still writing), and don’t have a snail in the race. 

However, people’s differing interpretations of what a per-page model will reward have been quite interesting, in that they’ve shown up one of publishing’s biggest blind spots: Quality. 

Hugh Howey says that the new system will reward good books

In fact, I think most people analyzing KU and the length of works to offer are getting it wrong. KU does not reward longer works: It rewards good works. It rewards gripping works.

In fact, KU will not reward good books, but books which are “finishable”, and some of those finishable books may be gripping, but being gripping is not a prerequisite for finishability. 

Finishability is a concept that Michael Bhaskar, Chris McCrudden and I came up with during a Twitter conversation a while back. It means exactly what it sounds like it means: That quality of a book that keeps you reading, sometimes despite your better instincts. 

Some books are delightfully finishable. You just sail through them like a skiff on friendly waves, barely aware of the act of reading. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker or Tigerman, for example. You feel almost bereft when you finish them. 

Some books are finishable with a little effort: Harry Potter 4, which really needed to be half the length and put me off the rest of the series. 

Some books you finish because although they are terribly written, they are still somehow compelling. Flood by Richard Doyle is one of the most appallingly written books I’ve ever read, but it’s a firm favourite of mine. There’s no craft there at all, no skill or finesse, yet the book is a page turner, and it’s a fun read because of the plot. 

Some books you need to be bloody minded to finish. They’re awful. Really terribly awful. No craft, no plot, no joy at all, but you keep going because goddammit you are going to finish it because your paid good money for it. Harry Turtledove’s Supervolcano: Eruption is the perfect example. Only stubbornness kept me going through this turgid heap of shit.  

Then there are the unfinishable books, the ones that life’s just too short for. The Casual Vacancy, for example. A book where I could not have cared less about the characters, and where I rapidly realised that I was resenting the time it was stealing from me. 

So a finishable book is not necessarily a good book. There’s no linear relationship between quality and finishability. A shitty book can be very finishable. And some books are finishable not because of any inherent qualities at all, but because they have become a cultural touchstone which peer pressure demands that you finish. Whatever all the reverse-snobbery types say, 50 Shades is a truly shitty set of books, and their massive popularity has little to do with quality and much more to do with people not wanting to be the only one who hasn’t read them. 

Which brings me to another point: Rarely does finishability have anything to do with popularity. Only for aberrations like 50 Shades does popularity force finishability, and it’s important to recognise that 50 Shades is an aberration, in every possible way. It is not how publishing usually works, so it teaches us nothing other than that aberrations happen. 

So what actually is finishability? I’m going to borrow a concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a book that many see as a productivity, bible although personally I didn’t manage to finish it. Allen talks about ‘open loops’, which he defines as: 

anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

So open loops are things like tasks that you know you need to do but haven’t written down or done yet. Open loops lodge in the mind like a pip between teeth. They irritate. They draw your attention. They demand to be resolved. They cause procrastination. 

GTD deals with this by getting you to write everything down so that your open loops are saved somewhere and you can put them out of your mind and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. And it works. It’s why I keep comprehensive lists, and it’s also why tools like Omnifocus, for me, become the place where my To Do items go to die. If I write it down, I might discover that it’s not worth doing. 

How does this relate to finishability? A finishable book is one that sets up open loops which your mind demands that you close. These might be big, meaty questions: Does she survive? Do they get it together? Who is the mysterious stranger? Does the island get blown up at the end? Sometimes they might be subtler: How does this peculiar relationship play out? Is this person really who they appear to be? How reliable is our narrator? 

You can’t put the book down because you need to have your questions answered, and as soon as possible please. You need to know what happens. You have. To. Know. You cannot go through life not knowing. 

This is why books that end without answering the key questions that they’ve set up are so fundamentally irritating. You are robbed of the opportunity to close that damn loop, get rid of that mental pip that lodged in your brain. And worse, you know that you’ll never be given the answers (unless they come in a sequel). 

An authors ability to set up compelling questions in the reader’s mind has no relationship to how good they are as a writer. People love Dan Brown not because of the grace of his prose, but because he knows how to pace the opening and closing of loops. You have a constant flow: Each new open loop provides a reason to keep reading, each closing loop gives you a jolt of satisfaction at a “task” completed. 

Amazon’s new pay-per-page regime will not reward long or short books, or good books, or well written books. It will reward finishable books, and particularly easily finishable book. 

The thing that worries me is that not every book that is worth finishing is easy to finish. 

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

With great power comes great responsibility.

Whilst we mostly associate these words with Spider-Man, the notion that power is necessarily bound to responsibility goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it is no less true today.

A less well-known quote, spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is also true:

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.

Taken together, these quotes tell us that if you are in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully, because words themselves have great power.

And this is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed by those in British academia who are coming to Sir Tim Hunt’s defence without considering either the responsibilities inherent in their positions of influence, or how his and their words can damage others.

Much has been written about Sir Tim’s comments about women in Korea, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story then Google is your friend at this point. There is a lot of debate about whether Sir Tim’s comments were meant as a joke, and thus whether they carry as much weight as if they were made seriously.

But the “just a joke” excuse is problematic in and of itself: When we tell people that they shouldn’t be offended by offensive words, we’re both normalising the offensive opinions contained in the “joke”, and belittling the people harmed by the promulgation of those opinions.

For the record, I don’t believe that this was either a joke or a mistake. According to those who were there, such as Deborah Blum or Connie St Louis, his was not some off-the-cuff comment. St Louis tells us (2:21:29, available until around 8 July) that he was told “not to go down this ‘Ha, ha’ route” before he made his comments, and that he talked for “five to seven minutes”, rather than just making a single aside. Blum tells us that she and others challenged him the next day. And this was, as far as I can tell, before his ill-advised comments to the Today programme.

However, whether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.

People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

Even when his failure was pointed out to him, instead of reflecting on what he’d said, he doubled down and, as far as I am aware, is yet to produce a full and proper apology.

And worse, we’ve now seen a raft of people, men and women alike, in positions of significant influence and power in academia and public life have come out to defend Sir Tim and in the process belittle the concerns that women, and many men, have about sexism in science.

Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donald, both senior figures at Cambridge University, supported Sir Tim in The Times, in a paywalled article that cannot be widely read.

UPDATE 22 June: The letter below is actually from Lord Winston, not Leyser & Dame Athene, so apologies for the misattribution.

Their Lord Winston’s letter begins (my bold):

Sir, Whether or not University College London pressurised Sir Tim Hunt to resign after his remarks about women in laboratories, it acted utterly wrongly. A quiet phone call followed by a gentle face-to-face conversation with the Provost should have decided a joint statement on this trivial matter.

Apart from being a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize for his outstanding work, Professor Hunt is a gentle, unassuming and warm individual. Indeed, he is a scientific role model not only because of his lack of arrogance but also for his concern to support more women in science.

Sir Tim Times letter

I find it frustrating that they Lord Winston would decide to characterise Sir Tim’s comments as a “trivial matter”. Discrimination is never a trivial matter, nor are public comments disparaging women. It is especially disappointing that Donald, who has a reputation as someone very supportive of women in STEM, should decide that sexism is trivial when it is one of her friends who is criticised.

The Telegraph reports Leyser & Dame Athene as saying:

Fear and anger are natural responses that we all feel when challenged both individually and institutionally.

They have an important role to play in bringing issues to the fore, but they get in the way of finding solutions to complex problems.

It’s time for all of us to stop cowering and shouting, buck-passing and fingerpointing and start listening and talking.

This command to ‘move on’ is just as disappointing, bringing with it as it does the implication that somehow our concerns are no longer valid, now that so many people have weighed in on the issue. That is simply not true. Problems do not just go away because lots of people have opinions, and telling people to move on is condescending and inappropriate for anyone with the influence and power these women wield.

Then another eight senior figures, Nobel Laureates all, chipped in with their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they too wrote in The Times, behind a paywall, and they too come out on Sir Tim’s side. Again, The Telegraph gives us hints as to the contents of the letter.

(If anyone has a link to these letters which is available without a subscription, please leave a comment.)

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, wrote:

The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.

Sir Andre completely misses the mark here, because this is not about academic freedom at all. Sir Tim did not release research about the relative successes of male-only labs vs female-only labs, so this is not about preventing him from publishing a paper that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is about a personal opinion, which many have found derogatory, expressed in a professional context where such opinions are very likely to be robustly challenged. Sir Andre forgets that freedom of expression is not freedom from the consequences of expression, and the science elite should be held responsible for their mistakes the same as everyone else.

And then there are the comments of Boris Johnson, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins, also in support of Sir Tim, and also failing to adequately address the serious issue of sexism in science.

What really disturbs me about this is that the British academic (and political) elite appear to be closing ranks around a man who has made sexist comments and who is refusing to deal with the repercussions of those comments. Sir Tim’s words are indefensible. Describing oneself, apparently quite comfortably, as chauvinist, making demeaning comments about women, and then refusing to properly apologise for those remarks is not a slip of the tongue and it is not acceptable. It is not something that senior scientists should be supporting.

The message this sends to women is that British academe is still sexist, still does not know how to recognise sexist behaviour, has no desire to tackle sexism, and, indeed, will even support men who make sexist comments.

The message this sends is that it’s still too risky for women to call out sexist behaviour, because even other women will not censure sexism.

This is incredibly damaging, and the damage only gets worse as more and more academics decide to support Sir Tim, instead of recognising the seriousness of his error and encouraging him to make a full and sincere apology. Maybe if that happened, maybe if we saw clear signals that sexism will not be tolerated, we might be able do that moving on that Donald and Leyser are so keen on.

If academia needs an example to follow, they should take a serious look at how the Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison dealt with much more serious accusations of sexism made in 2013.

Lieutenant General Morrison does not mince his words:

Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.


On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable, but I doubt it.


The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.

If Lieutenant General Morrison can be so very clear, to very emphatic when dealing with a much, much worse situation, why can academia’s leaders not be so clear that sexism of any degree is unacceptable, in any situation, from any member of faculty in any position?

Is there not one senior academic, one Nobel Laureate, who will stand up and in unflinching language decry sexism and the support of sexism that we are currently seeing from so many leading figures? This isn’t about Sir Tim anymore. This is about an inability amongst senior scientists to understand and take seriously the responsibilities that their power has bestowed upon them.

UPDATE 22 June: Here’s a fantastic post by Hilda Bastian about the problems with the “it’s just a joke” defence, complete with references. Well worth a read.

Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.

Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

And according to the Daily Mail (sorry!), two Nobel scientists have come out against Sir Tim’s comments, so that’s something to applaud:

However, 2014 shared Nobel prize winners for medicine, husband and wife Edvald and May-Britt Moser, from Norway, said Sir Tim’s speech was in no way beneficial to women.

‘Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,’ they were reported as saying.

It’s a shame, though, that their comments were buried at the bottom of the article and haven’t been as widely discussed as those defending Sir Tim’s words.

Finally, @JennyRohn tweeted this, which made me sad, but underlines why we need to keep talking about sexism and calling out sexist comments and behaviour:

A woman scientist I know just said, “I’m afraid to tweet this”: by @suw – I think that speaks for itself

Please note that comments are moderated, and I will not be publishing any comments that are abusive. 

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Warning: Spoilers abound in this post, so if such things bother you, I seriously suggest you bookmark this and come back to it when you’ve seen Fury Road.

[click to continue…]

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Dear fellow lefties

by Suw on May 8, 2015

It is 2:41am as I begin this blog post, and I’ve been awake since 1am. I cannot begin to describe how I feel about this election, but I know now how American lefties must have felt when Bush got in for a second term back in 2004, and my, doesn’t that feel like a long time ago now. I look forward to this night feeling like a long time ago.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll currently be feeling a mix of despair, disgust, anger, horror, frustration, more anger, disbelief, more despair, maybe with a bit of alienation thrown in. For me, this election is weird because I no longer live in the UK, although my business is still located there, and my cultural identity is still firmly British. I’m still listening to British radio during the day and watching British TV shows in the evening. I escaped the worst of the electioneering, but I still thought hard about my vote, registered as an ex-pat voter, and arranged for a proxy vote so that I could take part in the democratic process of my native country.

And wow. What a total fuck-up. I am just utterly horrified at the results of the election, utterly distraught that we face five more years of horrific policies that will make the UK a measurably worse place to live if you aren’t rich, and an utterly terrible place if you are poor, disabled, retired, ill, or in any other way disadvantaged.

I feel despair, and for so many reasons, not limited to the fact that so many people could vote for the Nasty Party; that our first past the post system has ensured that the parties we voted for are not represented in Parliament in a way that reflects our voting patterns; and that so many people can find it in themselves to vote against their own self-interests.

We on the left will no doubt go through the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief*: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’m already at depression and likely to stay there for some considerable time, with perhaps flashbacks to anger at regular intervals.

But what about acceptance? Well, I will never accept right-wing policies, and I will never accept that the left is lost. But what I think is very, very clear is that we need to accept that the left has gotten really fucked up over the last twenty years, and that New Labour is a massive, humungous failure. New Labour is so similar to Tory that there is really now only the Greens on the left, and whilst their vote share has increased if Twitter is to be believed, (it’s now 3am, so I’ll leave you to check that fact), their stance on science and related issues leaves so much to be desired that a rationalist, pro-science voter simply cannot support them.

The Left needs to get its house in order. The Greens need to get rid of their anti-science policies and take an evidence-based view on scientific issues. And Labour need root and branch change, they need to get rid of New Labour and return to proper, old school lefty values that are primarily focused on supporting and protecting the weak, the vulnerable, the unfortunate, the disadvantaged and, most of all, the person on the street. Labour have entirely lost their way. They need to step completely away from their craven pro-big-business attitudes, their authoritarian suveillence-state policies, and their brutal anti-immigration position (a position not backed up by the facts, btw). Miliband and his cohort must go, right now, and they must be replaced by people who are compassionate, empathic and willing to stand up to a Tory press. Tom Watson might be a good person to start such a change.

So what of us lefties, who now feel so mortified at what our country has just done? We need to get our house in order too. More tolerance of differences between the various flavours of leftyism and less stabbing our own in the back because they are not perfect (see Obama for a fantastic examples of that!). More engagement with politics, not less, although the urge to hide under the duvet for five years is strong. More compassion for people less fortunate than ourselves. More understanding of people who are different to ourselves. But not so much openmindedness that our brains fall out – let’s be evidence led, positive, supportive, but not credulous or stupid, not led by fear of technology or change. Let us embody the very best of progressive, positive politics.

And what of us lefty activists? Those of us working towards a better world for other people, working to support those around us, those of us who often work for sub-market wages because we believe we can make a difference? What of us? Well, we have to keep doing what we do, keep supporting each other, look after each other, be there for each other. We may each have a different focus but we all have a common goal: To help others. It’s going to be hard, because the Tories always make it hard for people like us. But we have to just redouble our efforts, and together we can get through this. The next five years might be bad, but let’s try to make sure it’s only another five years.

* A useful metaphor, but there’s no actual evidence that people experience this when bereaved.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

For the love of typewriters

by Suw on February 27, 2015

My creative writing process has changed a lot over the years. Back in 2001 when I was commuting between Reading and London on a daily basis, I was doing most of my writing on a Philips Velo, a delightful little device that was a bit bigger than a PDA, had a full keyboard, but was lightweight and easy to carry around.

Philips Velo

In 2004-ish I got my first decent laptop, a by then already quite old Mac Tibook. I started writing on that, instead, given that I was carrying it around so much anyway. The laptop remained my tool of choice for a long while, with only the model, operating system and writing software changing.

Of course, I still used pen and paper, keeping ideas in various notebooks, but I didn’t take longhand writing seriously until I started using a Livescribe Echo smartpen, which Kevin had bought for me one Christmas a few years ago. I loved it – I could write a first draft by hand, upload it to my Mac, and then put it through handwriting recognition software and skip the typing up process.

The problem was that longhand writing takes so, well, long. I needed to write carefully so that the software could understand my scrawl, which meant writing relatively slowly. That’s fine for a short story or a novelette, but would be a real drag for a novel and, if I’m honest, probably contributed to my not actually starting one.

That said, writing slowly is a good thing for my brain. I can touch type quite well, and writing a first draft of fiction on my computer would invariably lead to my fingers moving faster than my brain and taking my characters down ill-considered routes that usually ended up in narrative disaster.

There’s a great talk by Clive Thompson on the differences between writing by hand and typing which is well worth pausing to watch.

(The bit about people taking notes on a laptop turning into verbatim transcriptionists? Yeah. Me. Totally. Was almost famous for my conference notes for a while. I must say, though that transcription fluency only works if your idea are already queued up, it’s no good if you’re still organising them.)

I need to have a relatively slow way of writing in order for my brain to have time to properly consider what comes next. Handwriting provides slowness. But perhaps too much slowness.

As is inevitable with technology, the screen on my Echo died. The pen itself still works, but I can’t tell if it’s turned on or off, which is a bit of an issue. I’d find myself constantly turning the volume up, just so that I could hear it click and feel reassured that the thing was on and recording my writing. At that point, I fell very much out of love with the Echo, and with Livescribe as a company. I expected the Echo to last longer than the 18 months than it did and, given that the screen dying is a common problem with the Echo thus indicating a manufacturing flaw, I’d expected better than just ‘buy another’.

After the Livescribe, I tried various iPad apps in an attempt to find a new way to write longhand digitally. One such app, SmartNote, actually has fantastic handwriting recognition, but the user interface is irritating in the extreme. Not only does the interface not right itself when you turn your iPad round, you can only write one paragraph per page, and each page is really very short. That might be fine if you’re writing little notes, but it’s no good if you’re doing something meatier. Again, the idea of writing a whole novel this way was enough to put me off the whole idea.

I also found myself starting to worry about permanence. If I write a novel on my iPad, what happens if it crashes and loses my work? Or if I lose my iPad and haven’t had a chance to back it up? Not new problems, to be sure, but ones that I hadn’t worried about when writing longhand, because I always have the hard copy to fall back on.

The antique typewriters

Last March, I flew over to Sheboygan from the UK to pick a house with Kevin. The day after I landed, I was going round houses, looking for a place to live. We settled on a lovely house, built in 1900 and now showing just how badly the poor thing has been hacked around by overenthusiastic DIYers. But whilst we were driving round, looking at houses, we stumbled on an estate sale (house clearance sale). Sitting on the floor in the basement was a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Sterling, which I later found out was built in 1960, in its original case. We bought it for $12, and then I went back home to the UK.

Fast forward nearly a year, and New Year’s Day saw us driving through Rockford, IL, and past the antiques mall where Kevin had bought his gorgeous 1935 Royal Standard Portable typewriter for $18 some 20 years ago. I had been playing with Kevin’s Royal Standard and had totally fallen in love with it. Yet it felt a bit odd to be writing on someone else’s typewriter, rather like it feels wrong to use someone else’s pen, so getting one of my own became a priority.

Looking round the mall, we stumbled on a gorgeous Royal, with little windows in the side and the old round glass keys that mark out an early typewriter. It was a Royal Number 10 from 1930, in great condition overall but desperately in need of a clean and some TLC, which I have not yet had a chance to give it. The type bars are all mucky and they don’t connect with the platen evenly, so the type is  both faint and blotchy.

Royal Number 10

But until I have some time to devote to cleaning up the No. 10, I’ve been using the Smith-Corona. When we first took it out of its case, it was a bit stinky and very gummed up, but Kevin cleaned it out and after a bit of use it works just fine. Apparently, typewriter connoisseurs believe that it is one of the best typewriters ever built. I find it harder going than the No. 10, which has a much lighter, smoother action.

Still, I got a myself an old typing table and now my typewriter set-up is complete.

Smith-Corona Sterling

A new process

And so, over the last few months, a new writing process has evolved. At the moment, all my first drafts are written on the Smith-Corona Sterling. I then do the first edit on paper, before typing it up in Scrivener and at the same time, doing a second edit. Then it gets printed out, read by Kevin and then I do a third edit on paper, with those corrections and a fourth edit in Scrivener again.

It’s a fairly paper-intensive process, but I’m pleased with how it’s working out. I feel more excited about writing, and more connected to the physical process of getting ink on to paper. For some reason I find it much easier to edit on paper. There’s something very satisfying about scribbling red ink all over everything.

I also get my hard copies, although they aren’t in nice neat notebooks, which is a shame, but I can still file them away and refer back to them if needed. And when I’m travelling, I can still use my laptop or write longhand in a notebook if I want to. I’m not married to the typewriter, but I do find it a very comfortable and creative way to write.

I will switch to the No. 10 eventually, though I won’t get the time until April to clean it up. I already have new ribbons for it, though, so all I need to do is get some denatured alcohol and find some instructions written for idiots and the time to devote to it, and away I go! And, come the spring, I’ll be taking the typing table apart too, refinishing the top and painting the frame. By summer, I hope to have the perfect set-up, and it amuses me that, after all these years of experimentation, I’m finally settling on a piece of technology that’s 85 years old.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The worst book I have ever read

by Suw on February 11, 2015

This review contains spoilers, but if I were you I’d read this, not the book. Also, let’s face it, this is less of a review and more of a rant, because I read 454 pages of shite and the only way to expunge it from my brain is to share. You’re welcome.

Anyone who reads a lot will occasionally find themselves in a the middle of a real stinker, a book that disappoints on so many levels that you lose count. It used to be that I’d plough through such books regardless, out of some misplaced sense of duty to give it a ‘fair go’.

More recently, I’ve come round to the idea that life is too short to read crap books when there are so many good ones out there. So I gave up on Stephen Bury’s Cobweb (written by Neal Stephenson and his uncle, George Jewsbury), JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and Dan Abnett’s Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero. None of these books floated my boat, but none of them can even hold a candle to the worst book I have ever read, an experience the pain of which is still fresh in my mind and which I must, therefore, share with you.

Now, before I go further, I need to clarify that not all bad books are bad. A book can be badly written but still a page-turner. It can fall over on florid prose but have fantastic characters whom you care about. Or the author can have a deft hand with the tension and cliff hangers which keep you reading even though you really, really want to just put the damn thing down. Those books might be bad, but they’re not terrible.

One great example of a bad book that I love is Flood by Richard Doyle. It’s far too long and it jumps around far too much between characters, with the end result that you don’t really care enough about any particular person. However, Doyle did his research about what would happen if London actually flooded, and the book contains some incredibly eerie scenes that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Particularly if you have ever commuted on the London Underground or been in a lift. The result is that it’s a technically terrible book that I love.

This is not that. This is a book that fails at every conceivable turn. It’s a book that should never have been published, and it’s the only time I’ve bought a book and felt cheated enough that I resent the money I gave Barnes & Noble for it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst book I have ever read: Supervolcano: Eruption, by Harry Turtledove.

Supervolcano eruption

The dullness, the dullness

The first problem I have with this pile of shite is that it commits the worst sin that any book can commit: It goes beyond being merely boring, through total tediousness and into the kind of soul-destroying monotony that few authors ever fully explore. Nothing happens for pages. Dozens of pages. Most of the book, in fact. Just people going for meals in which nothing of note occurs, or having arguments that make no difference to anything. They drive. They drive some more. They stop driving and wait until they can start driving again. They make weak jokes. They fail to do almost anything, at all, worth reading about.

There are a few set pieces that lull you into a false sense of security: The opening scenes in Yellowstone — and yes, you all knew this was going to be set in Yellowstone, didn’t you? Because obviously no other volcanos exist — start off boring, but then really perk up and the temptation is to think that after a lacklustre start, things might actually turn out to be quite good. Chapter II will, however, disabuse you of that notion.

Later on there’s a plane crash which is not handled badly. I think that’s the best I can say about it, really. And then there’s… erm… there’s… no, that’s pretty much all the set pieces.

The rest of the book is made up of the glue that should stick set pieces together, but because there are actually so few set pieces it’s like a mosaic that’s made almost entirely of grouting: Dull. You start skim reading just to keep your sanity intact.

Eruption? What eruption?

It wasn’t just the poor writing that failed to hold my interest, it was that it’s not actually about an eruption. With a title like Supervolcano: Eruption, I foolishly expected a bit more about Yellowstone and about the eruption itself, but you have to wade through a third of the book before the eruption properly begins. And after that, well, you hear a lot about ash, and there’s one scene where a geologist, one of the key characters, flies out to take a look at things from a nice safe distance, but overall there’s really very little eruption to go round.

One of my motives for reading this book in the first place was that I have an interest in volcanology and I was curious to see how the science held up. Well, Turtledove fixes any potential problems with faulty science by simply not including any. He may possibly have read the Wikipedia entry on Yellowstone, watched a documentary or two, or maybe even watched the BBC’s Yellowstone mockumentary. But that’s about it. There’s simply no depth at all. Richard Doyle would suck his teeth and sigh.

Turtledove manages to avoid the science by avoiding all but the most cursory scenes of Kelly, our geologist heroine, at work. She rarely talks to other geologists, and never talks to civil protection officials, politicians, or, in fact, anyone interesting. Although she’s supposedly at the forefront of human understanding of Yellowstone, she does almost nothing professionally after the eruption begins, except for the aforementioned flight.

Instead, Turtledove uses her as a device to explain to the reader what’s going on as she describes it all to her new beau, loveable and sadly betrayed by his now ex-wife copper Colin. And they don’t get to talk all that often, so if you want to know more about what’s going on geologically, tough luck.

The scattered family

In order to give us a taste of how the eruption has affected different parts of the US, Turtledove focuses on Colin’s family: His daughter Vanessa who’s moved to Denver trailing after her new boyfriend after leaving her live-in partner; his ex-wife Louise who’s shacked up with a younger man after walking out on Colin; his stoner son Marshall, the eternal student who’s carefully attempting to delay graduation from university so he can continue to sponge off his dad; wannabe rockstar son Rob, who’s pottering around on tour with his ludicrously named band, Squirt Frog and the Evolving Tadpoles. (Really? Turtledove? Fucking really?) There are a few satellite characters, including Bryce, Vanessa’s ex, who is still friends with her dad, Colin, and some coppers that Colin works with.

This ensemble cast is scattered to the four American winds purely and solely so we can see how Yellowstone popping its cork fucks almost the whole country. Vanessa is in Denver, which survives the blast but rapidly gets covered in ash. She escapes the city in her car, but it soon breaks down due to said ash and she walks to the nearest town to find her situation in the emergency shelter rather grim. The one and only time I’m moved by this book is when she is forced to turn her pet cat loose.

Rob gets a fair amount of page time, allowing us to get a taste for how fucked up Maine gets. Unfortunately, these scenes are also some of the most tedious. I’ve worked in the music industry, I know how utterly boring going on tour really is, especially if you’re a small band, and this is at least one thing Turtledove gets spot on. His description of all the driving, the hotels, the restaurants is just as wearisome as the real thing.

Louise’s scenes don’t advance the story at all, showing us very little new or interesting. She seems to exist only to satisfy another need for Turtledove that I’ll come on later.

The problem with this divided family approach is that their relationships are incredibly weak, and their interactions limited to the odd phone call. We’re not invested in the family, so their problems are pedestrian, their disagreements and predicaments don’t create any useful tension. They provide plenty of conflict, but none of it serves the story, it’s all just run of the mill bickering.

Ultimately, the only people I really cared about were Colin and Kelly, and even then, only just.

The sexism and racism

What disturbed me the most, though, was the casual racism and sexism in both speech and description. Kelly, who’s obviously supposed to be a capable, independent woman excelling in her scientific endeavours, turns out to hate her legs. That’s not factoid that fleshes out someone’s personality, it’s sloppy and sexist.

Louise, the ex-wife, seems to exist only to make Colin look good and to give Turtledove the opportunity to editorialise on the nature of such shallow, grasping, bitches. She has left Colin for the younger, hotter Teo, who promptly runs away when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. The only thing this character does in the narrative is get herself punished for betraying her husband. This is her arc: Leave husband, shack up with dreamboat, get pregnant, get shafted.

Then there’s Vanessa, another bitch and another woman to betray her man, Bryce. She shacks up with an older man (age differences really seem to tweak Turtledove for some reason), follows him to Denver, has a massive row with him when she realises he went to Denver to escape her, and ends up alone in a strange city. She ends up in an emergency shelter, and then a refugee camp, and is threatened with sexual violence of the “fuck me and I’ll help you” nature.

Bizarrely, Vanessa also always makes sure to pack her tampons. Twice this is mentioned, but I’m really not sure why. To emphasise that she’s a woman, in case the name ‘Vanessa’ wasn’t enough of a giveaway? To highlight that she is fertile and menstruates and is therefore… what? Dirty? Vulnerable? Does Turtledove believe that us women are so paranoid about when our periods start that we can’t go anywhere without knowing where our tampons are? It’s a mystery to me.

Vanessa is also casually racist. She refers to how many ‘wetbacks’ there are in Denver. And for those of you who aren’t aware of current American slang, ‘wetback’ is a racial slur for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Vanessa drops this slur into conversation and literally no one blinks. It doesn’t serve any purpose in terms of fleshing out her character, or those around her, but I suppose that in Turtledove’s mind, it makes her more unlikeable, which makes her “comeuppance” all the more rewarding.

That’s not the only example of casual racism in the book either, but I can’t be arsed to document the rest.

Basically, Turtledove’s core women characters are either madonnas (Kelly) or whores (Louise, Vanessa), a tedious pair of stereotypes that I pray I never see in fiction again. But he extends this sexism to his minor female characters too. The pretty news anchor, the cute hotel receptionists, the waitresses eager for a free ticket to a local gig and the opportunity to get laid by a member of the band (passivity deliberate). Every woman has her attributes, it seems.

The stoppage

My final (major) complaint is that this book does not end. Literally, it doesn’t end. It stops. When you reach the end you realise that nothing happened. Not one plot line resolves, not one character completes their arc, not one question gets answered.

Even the subplot about a serial killer that Colin’s trying to catch doesn’t progress or show any sign of wrapping up. Colin and his colleagues have no idea who the serial killer is at the beginning of the book, and they have no more clue 454 pages later. You’d think that, of all the subplots in this book, the serial killer one would be an obvious candidate for completion, though that would mean devoting more time to it which really wouldn’t be a good idea.

Ultimately, this doorstop of a book is nothing more than the set-up for its sequels, of which there are, horrifyingly, two. I bought the second out of misguided enthusiasm when I saw it for sale next to Eruption, but I doubt that I’ll bother reading it.


I expect to read books that turn out not to be to my taste once in a while, that’s part and parcel of reading a lot. But when I read a book that is not just badly written but sexist and racist, I find it very depressing. I don’t buy the argument that I should be happy because it means any old shite can get published. If I ever get published, I want it to be because I wrote a blinder, not because I wrote something that is marginally better than this monstrosity of a novel.

Penguin should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such drivel.


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a common one in the tech world. Wikipedia defines it as a product with “just those core features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more”. Entrepreneur Eric Reis defines it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” And Ash Maurya defines it as “the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back).”

Using a few more words, an MVP is the simplest version of your product that you can create which allows you to find out whether your idea is a good one, and whether your potential customers are going to be both interested in it and willing to pay for it. It is either the foundations upon which you build, or it is the least amount of brickwork to rip out when you decide you need to change your plans.

The MVP is a useful concept, and one that i think applies to the business of self-publishing as much as technology.

Back in 2010, I thought I had a pretty good idea about the MVP I needed in order to launch a publishing Kickstarter. I had a half-written novella, a bunch of followers on Twitter, and enthusiasm. That was my MVP. I assumed that with those foundations, I could build my writing career.

I was wrong. It’s taken me nearly five years to realise that I was wrong, and to start ripping out all that brickwork so that I can start again.

In tech, this moment of realising that your MVP is going in the wrong direction and that you need to correct your course is called a ‘pivot’. Some tech companies pivot slightly, changing their target customer group, perhaps. Others frankly do a pirouette, changing everything about their product so that it becomes something almost unrecognisable. My pivot has been pretty small, really, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.

So what is the self-publishing MVP? At what point do you flip from being a writer to being a writer-entrepreneur?

Before we go any further, I want to define ‘writer’ and ‘writer-entrepreneur’, because the term ‘self-publishing’ is these days too fuzzy to be useful. ’Self-publisher’ can mean different things to different people, from simply putting a book up online for anyone to download, to selling hand-crafted hardback books, and everything in between. So to make sure that we don’t stumble over our assumptions, I’m using these definitions:

Writer: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, who may or may not make that work available online, but who definitely does not charge for access to that work.

Writer-entrepreneur: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, and who sells that work in whatever format and through whatever channels they so choose with the intent of making money.

(There’s a third category of writer who sells their work but doesn’t care whether they make money, but I’m ignoring them for now as they aren’t really relevant to this post.)

Many writers want to become writer-entrepreneurs at the earliest possible opportunity. They think that their Minimum Viable Product is a book, with a cover, which may or may not have been professionally edited, typeset, and prepared for paper or ereader. That was pretty much what I thought my MVP was as I was writing  Argleton.

In my mind, I would finish Argleton, crowdfund a print run, write my next book, crowdfund that, and build up an audience and an income which would support my writing and my whole writing career would nicely snowball until I could write full time.

That seems really naïve now. Well, truth be told, it was really naïve, rather like my decision in 1998 to go freelance so that I would “have more time to write”. Excuse me whilst I catch my breath from laughing so hard.

Nothing destroys writing time like running your own business.

The Argleton Kickstarter was nearly a failure. The only reason it succeeded was because Kickstarter decided to begin a new weekly newsletter for all its users to highlight cool and interesting projects. For whatever reason, they decided that Argleton was cool and interesting, and within a few hours of their newsletter being sent out, Argleton was funded.

In a way, that was a shame. If Argleton had failed, I would have realised that there was more to a bookish MVP than just having a book. You need readers too. A lot of them. More than just your mates. More than just the ~4,000 Twitter followers that I had at the time. You need a group of readers who already like your work, who are willing to read it, and, more importantly, willing to buy it. You need to have those people collected in one spot, perhaps a mailing list, and you need enough of them that you don’t require every single one of them to support you to be successful.

It’s a hard truth to swallow that only a fraction of your supporters will pay up when you have a book on sale or a Kickstarter project going. In direct mail, it’s common for only 1%, or even less than 1%, of recipients to respond to an offer.

In social media, it’s common for that number to be much, much smaller, sometimes orders of magnitude smaller. Neil Gaiman once tweeted one of my projects, which I was very grateful for and also very excited about given that at the time he had about 1.5 million followers on Twitter. I got a grand total of three extra supporters. That wasn’t Neil’s fault, and it wasn’t his followers’ fault, it was entirely my fault for having a project that wasn’t compelling enough, wasn’t attractive enough. But it was a tough lesson to learn that having a big reach wasn’t any guarantee of success. It was humbling.

If you have a dedicated mailing list of people interested in what you write, then the percentage who pay up might be a bit higher, but not much higher. Maybe 5%. If you’re lucky. (And it’s worth noting here that a mailing list is better than, say, a Twitter account, because then you know for sure people are subscribed for your writing, not because they find your cat pictures cute or because they knew you at school.)

So how do you find these readers? How do you build up a mailing list that has 20 to 100 times the number of subscribers than the number of people you need to buy your book or support your Kickstarter?

Well, this is why one novella is not enough, it’s not an MVP. One novel is not enough. You need to have written, edited, and perfected enough books that you can slowly and consistently build up a loyal following that’s big enough to make the move to author-entrepreneur viable.

Because being an author-entrepreneur is a lot of work. You will spend a lot of time dealing with covers, with promotion, with metadata and understanding book marketing. You will waste even more time poring over web traffics statistics and sales statistics and dealing with different retail channels and maybe even direct sales and testing your marketing assumptions and doing special offers. And every moment spent doing that is time spent not writing. And if you’re like most of the rest of the world, you have a job to do and maybe even a family to raise whilst you’re doing all this other stuff too.

You have to ask the question: Is it worth spending all that time doing all that extra work when you could just give your stuff away, focus on your writing, build up your readership and then shift to selling when you have a big enough constituency? How many more books could you write if you weren’t doing all the admin required by selling? Is jumping into author-entrepreneurship with just one book not putting the cart a few miles before the horse?

Of course, we all want feedback. We all want people to read our books and be blown away, to become fans. We all believe that what we do is good enough to sell right now, and that we can build up our fanbase whilst coining it in. We all want to believe that. And some people achieve that. But for every success you see lauded about in the blogs there are hundreds, thousands of people for whom that didn’t work, but you never hear a cheep out of them or about them. Because firstly, no one wants to talk about failure, and secondly, no one wants to listen.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when our egos are involved, and self-publishing is ultimately an act of ego (no matter how fragile that ego is). It’s taken me five years to learn to be honest with myself about my writing and the damage that trying to force it into the shape of a business did to my enthusiasm for creating. It’s not that writing couldn’t eventually be a business, or that I don’t have the stomach for all the work surrounding it, it’s that that my MVP wasn’t ready. I was premature. I was impatient. Worse, I ignored my gut feelings.

Back in 2005, I started the Open Rights Group with a bunch of like-minded digital rights activists. I believed in the power of free. I narrated a chapter of Larry Lessig’s Free Culture, and wrote a report on the power of free as a business model. But when it came to releasing my own work, I baulked. Although my gut told me to just give my words away free, I didn’t. I betrayed my own values, and maybe what followed was karmic retribution for my own hypocrisy.

When you are starting as a writer, free has more power than you can ever imagine. Free means people can experiment with your work without risk. Free means that you can experiment with your work without risk. Free means you can find readers without loads of admin overheads. Free means you can focus on what matters: Your writing. Free means goodwill. Free means freedom.

These days, there’s this idea that there’s easy money to be made self-publishing. Maybe for some that’s true. But if you love your craft, if you want to be good, then you owe it to yourself and to your readers to think more deeply about what you’re doing and why. It makes more sense to refine your craft and build your audience than it does to jump in at the deep end and get caught up in activities that are a distraction.

Your have to have a solid MVP, you have to launch your writing business at the right time, with the right products and the right audience.

With the benefit of hindsight and a decent amount of failure under my belt, this is what I think makes for a good author-entrepreneurial MVP:

1. Have lots of stories. Shorts, novellas, novelettes, novels, epics, flash fiction, whatever length or format you want. But just have lots of it, preferably in a variety of lengths. Have enough that you can throw away the weakest works and still have lots left.

2. Have lots of works in progress, lots of ideas. Keep a note book. Keep writing down your ideas, because ideas beget more ideas and if you nurture them you will never run out.

3. Have a newsletter. Release free stories, novels, novellas regularly and encourage your readers to subscribe to your newsletter, which you will write every month.

4. Have a fanbase. Resist the urge to turn your writing into a business, and that includes running crowdfunding projects, until you have a decent-sized readership. How do you know how big is decent-sized? Figure out how much money would cover your editorial, production, and promotion costs for a book, and add a bit on for wages. Divide by the price of the book to find out how many sales you need to make to break even. Multiply that number by 100. Choke. Pick a number that’s slightly smaller and that feels more manageable. It won’t be realistic, but it’ll be a start.

5. Have patience. This is the hardest thing. Writing is not easy. Business is not easy. And if you have limited time to spend, spend it writing, because without having written, you have no business. Don’t get swept off your feet with fairy stories of overnight success. Like Pulp, most of them took 15 years to get where they are now, they just don’t admit it.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Why I’m stopping self-publishing

December 12, 2014

tl;dr: For those who’ve come from any of the various posts mentioning this one, I do want to be very clear up front: I’m not stopping writing, I’m stopping selling what I’ve written. The mechanics of self-publishing were working against me, so I’ve refocused on writing and connecting with my readers via my newsletter, rather [...]

Read the full article →


October 5, 2014

The lake is still, not a breath of wind to stir its surface. Where the trees on the far shore meet the water, they are reflected perfectly, blue sky above, green leaves seeming frozen. If you stood on your head, you would not know which was real and which reflection. It captivates you, holds your [...]

Read the full article →

The unexpected overheads of moving continents

September 5, 2014

When Kevin and I realised in the New Year that we would indeed be moving from the UK to the US, most of my planning revolved around the run up to that moment when I would get on the plane to the US with a one-way ticket. With Kevin gone from early February, the workload [...]

Read the full article →

Don’t you think Amazon looks tired?

August 11, 2014

Amazon recently returned fire at Hachette and Authors United with a particularly ill-considered new website, Readers United. Authors United is a group of 900+ authors, published by all sorts of companies not just Hachette, who support Hachette and are calling on Amazon to end their sanctions against Hachette authors. There is a lot of commentary [...]

Read the full article →

Amazon v Hachette: The enemy of your enemy is not your friend

July 30, 2014

This was going to be a comment on Damien Walter’s blog post about Amazon’s recent statement on their row with Hachette, but it seems to have metastasised so now it’s a blog post. It’s a bit rough and ready because I am so behind on other work that I can’t devote as much time as [...]

Read the full article →