Sunday, 27 October 2013

Laser vs Blunderbuss: Blogging on One Theme or Many

Well, that was interesting.

When last week's blog on Fortunately the Milk was retweeted Neil Gaiman, that led to a gigantic storm of page views that took a couple of days to subside. From a distance, my graph of page views looks like I haven't been doing anything since last Sunday (which I haven't, of course, as I write this blog only weekly), whereas if last week had had the normal amount of hits the graph would look a little more respectable now.

But, you say, isn't it good that a whole bunch of people came to read my post? Sure, but it'd be nice if they'd come back this week, too. Which I don't think they will. Although I think that's okay, too.

When I started this blog in 2012, it was all part of my social media/online strategy to promote my writing, and was designed to work in tandem with my Twitter account to drive a perfect storm of potential fans to hang upon my every word, and hopefully make anything I created a massive success.

However, as I've continued writing it - generally once a week, but sometimes more frequently than that - I've had a look at what other bloggers are up to, and tried to determine what makes them so successful (to the point where they make money off their blogs and don't have to work full-time). What I've come up with so far is focus.

Taking a look at what I've written on here, there's no focus. I write about politics, sports, writing and that one time I met Chris Hardwick. I've tried my hand at book and movie reviews, but that didn't feel right, to be honest (and it means I have to avoid getting into any conversations with Alan K Baker when I'm at World Fantasy Con next week, because I don't want him to ask how I liked The Feaster from the Stars). If there's an overarching theme to what I write about, it's something I've come up with after the fact to try and tie the various types of posts together.

On the other hand, you've got blogs like Doctor Nerdlove, or the Wertzone, or Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, or Killer HipHop. Pat and Adam, at the Wertzone, have built up their sites by focusing on fantasy and science fiction news and reviews; Adam, in particular, has turned into a good clearing house of SFF news, reporting on things like the progress of the new Star Wars movie (not great, apparently). Doctor Nerdlove, by the same token, writes on a lot of topics centering around the same theme: helping geeks get the girl (or guy, because he has a lot of female readers).

And it's the same with Seb at Killer HipHop. I met him once, because he's a friend of a friend, and I hear about his progress all the time. Seb exemplifies the other key factor in these guys making successful blogs, which is hard work: when he still worked 9-5 he'd get home and work on the blog for five or six hours and then go to bed.

Not to say that I don't work hard - but because I don't have the single theme to focus on here there's not much point in working on the blog every day. And besides, I'd never get any fiction done, which is what I'm really interested in getting off the ground.

On the other hand, there's SFF writer John Scalzi's blog, Whatever. As the title implies, he writes about whatever he's thinking about. There's naturally a big slant toward SFF books and what's going on with his own projects, but there also seems to be a lot of talk about whatever he's interested in at the moment. While I don't read Whatever regularly, I'll admit that I use the concept as a template, rather than casting about for an overarching theme that wouldn't really fit me that well.

That's the point, in the end - if I haven't settled on one thing to write about here, it's because there are too many things bouncing around in my brain. I could blog about Serie A or fantasy novels I've read, but I don't want to limit myself to either of those topics (at least, not yet).

So for the moment, I'll continue jumping from thought to thought until I settle on something, even if it means sticking with 20-30 hits per blog. It'd be nice to get retweeted by Neil Gaiman all the time, but he's a busy guy, and frankly, I'm happy to have earned my 20-30 hits myself.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Reading of Neil Gaiman's Fortunately the Milk

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event in Westminster, where Neil Gaiman read his new book for children, Fortunately the Milk. But it was more than just a book reading - there was comedy, music and the book's illustrator, Chris Riddell, drew pictures from the story as Neil told it. After he finished, he answered a few questions from Twitter, compered by Lenny Henry, and as a coda to the evening Neil's wife Amanda Palmer came out and sang a song on ukulele for us.


I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman for more than half my life at this point, and of Good Omens, the book he cowrote with Terry Pratchett. Soon after ending the Sandman he moved into prose fiction, where I followed his career for years without actually reading much - although when I finally picked up American Gods a few years ago, it felt like catching up with an old friend you haven't seen in years. So when I saw that Neil was doing this reading in London, as the tail end of what he's described as his last-ever signing tour, I knew I had to catch it.

The first thing to say is that the story has a particularly British feeling of coziness to it. It's the tale of a dad who goes out to the store to get some milk for his children's breakfast (and his own tea), and takes a while. When questioned about why he took so long to come back, he tells them a story about being kidnapped by aliens, traveling through time, sailing with pirates, and rescuing the universe in the company of dinosaurs.

Throughout the story we have the voice of the narrator, which is of course Neil Gaiman's voice, taking us from event to event without ever getting rattled by all the outlandish things that are happening around him. For example, in his encounter with the pirates he guides them through the process of making him walk the plank, pointing out that it's the done thing in these circumstances.

The best part of course, is that he's never talking down to the kids - whether the fictional ones or the readers. I remember reading a quote years ago, which I really hope is by Neil but I can't seem to find it on the internet, where it's said that the very best children's books can be about anything at all, but not about being children's books. As an example, this is why episodes 4-6 of Star Wars are classics, but episodes 1-3 are among the most hated movies in existence.

And I guess that's the secret of why Neil Gaiman's so successful as a storyteller. His stories are always singular, dreamlike, and different from just about everything else; there's always a hint - or more than a hint - of another, more exciting and dangerous world beyond the one we live in. But you can tell in each case that he's pursuing the types of story he wants to tell, without worrying about whether he's fitting in with superhero stories, or fantasy, or horror, or whatever. This is, of course, why his books for children are so successful - children's literature seems to be a lot more willing to mix genres for the sake of a good story.

So I'm glad I caught this reading, and I hope to catch more if he ever comes to San Francisco. And in the meantime, I want to learn more about how he does what he does - because one day I'd like to be onstage reading my own work, and would love to have a cameo appearance from him.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

In Defense of James Franco

So James Franco has a new book out, and a new movie, and is running around doing all the James Franco things that we've come to not expect from him. But the article from Slate that I've just linked to asks an interesting question: why does everybody get annoyed with him whenever he writes a book, or directs an art film, or one of the millions of non-actorly things he seems to do all the time?

As I point out to everybody I've ever met (seriously, even to the lady who sold me a ticket to Pineapple Express), I went to school with the guy, although it's also fair to say that I didn't know him then. I exchanged words with him maybe once, when we were in middle school. So when I discuss the topic, it's not coming from the perspective of a person who knows his innermost thoughts or anything like that.

But what I do feel qualified in mentioning is that we had a lot of similar classes and teachers growing up, so he clearly got interested in a lot of different things during his education. Obviously people are going to do different things with those formative experiences - the Donnas, who also went to my high school, haven't made waves with weird avant-garde stuff, and neither have I - but it seems clear that he took something from his education and wanted to do more than just acting in romantic comedies and Planet of the Apes remakes.

As the Slate article suggests, the projects that piss people off and prompt the AV Club to tease him are the projects that could look boring and/or pretentious. But why should that be? He's not making headlines by crashing his car or beating people up or anything like that. He's not really even making headlines, but just comes up every once in a while as the subject of articles taking an undertone of "What's he doing now?".

A less extreme example would be George Clooney. There are two strands to his career, too - the devilishly charming leading man who headlines movies like Ocean's Eleven, and the politically engaged actor who made Syriana and Goodnight and Good Luck. The simple economics of moviemaking mean that you can't have Syriana without Ocean's Eleven, but I think it's legitimate that Clooney might want to make movies more pertinent to his own interests. And I guess that's what James Franco's doing, too.

This doesn't mean everything he does is to my taste. His short story collection Palo Alto was not the kind of thing I enjoy reading, but the reviews I read when it came out focused more on the fact that it was written by him, and not on the quality of the prose (a one-line review that particularly made me laugh was something dismissing it as rich Palo Alto kids drinking and screwing).

I know I'm like King Canute, trying to command the tide to stop coming in, but I think it's worth pointing out: we should be celebrating the fact that a Hollywood actor is interested in literature and art, not deriding them for it. But the news cycle goes on, and if we can't report on public meltdowns, then we turn an actor's exploration of non-mainstream art into a public meltdown too.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Evil is Not Always Banal

I've been reading a lot of history books lately, and one of the most interesting was Andrew Marr's A History of the World, in which he attempts to condense all of human history into a single volume. There are naturally things that he misses or glosses over, but it's fascinating to see a book that, for example, draws a connection between the development of the Roman Empire with China's Han dynasty, and points out where and why they diverged.

A little closer to our time, he also discusses Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's campaign to liberate India from British rule. Even here Marr connects what's going on in the rest of the world, by also discussing how Gandhi and Adolf Hitler saw one another. Gandhi, says Marr, completely misunderstood just how dangerous Hitler truly was, and even wrote this letter to him on the eve of war. Hitler, on the other hand, is said to have been unable to understand why the British didn't just have Gandhi shot; he figured it would have nipped Gandhi's resistance and Quit India movement right in the bud.

In telling this story, Marr suggests that Gandhi fell into the same trap as Neville Chamberlain and the rest of Europe's leaders, in underestimating Hitler's willingness to carry out his plans as outlined in Mein Kampf. Nobody wanted to believe they were dealing with a madman - and it wasn't until the last possible moment that they realized he truly was going to start a war, no matter how many concessions he received. Even then, the scope of Hitler's evil, and of the Final Solution, wouldn't be fully known until a few years later when the Allies started liberating the death camps.

Since the war's end historians have gone over the events of 1933-1945, and after, in great detail. In writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial in the 1960s, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil", which I believe has become the dominant paradigm in talking about the Holocaust, as well as how and why the German people stood by or even helped the Nazis carry out their plan.

The problem is that the way we view this phrase now, of the banality of evil, blinds us to the fact that not all evil can be explained away by people just sitting by and letting bad things happen, or being so divorced from the effects of what they're doing that they simply rubber stamp the deaths of millions by sending off a memo.

Like a fire, evil on the scale of the Holocaust, or Stalin's purges, or Mao's Great Leap Forward needs a spark to start it off, and then the right conditions to let it get out of hand. Arendt's view of Eichmann was that he was non-ideological - and not particularly intelligent - but this implies to me that without Hitler, Eichmann would never have committed his crimes. Hitler was the spark that led to a greater conflagration.

I sometimes feel that we, as a culture, forget these points, and can become uncomfortable with them. I base this observation on how we treat evil in art - in fantasy circles these days, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings comes in for a lot of criticism from the likes of China Mieville and Richard Morgan for being very black-versus-white in its treatment of the noble hobbits and elves and what-have-you against the wicked orcs and their master Sauron.

Now, I can't deny that the portrayal of the orcs as totally and irredeemably wicked makes for uncomfortable reading, especially when entire orc armies are slaughtered without mercy by victorious Gondorians or Ents or whoever. Tolkien himself would probably have replied by noting that the orcs were just as bent on genocide as the good guys, but the way he describes the men of Umbar and Harad veers off into racism more than once.

But I don't believe this violates his broader point. Tolkien may have famously disliked allegory, but his story says that there is evil out there, and that it has to be stopped. Trying to co-opt its weapons or use its own knowledge against it will serve only to corrupt the good; if not inspired by the Second World War, I think you can definitely draw parallels with it.

I'm not saying we should go back to cartoonish portrayals of bad guys in our books and movies and comics, or that we should immediately treat all our enemies as the devil incarnate. But we need to remember that there are people out there who truly are evil, and not willing to follow the same rules we obey - and we need to be able to recognize them for what they are. As evidenced by the example of Hitler and Gandhi above, non-violent resistance only works if your enemy is uncomfortable with the thought of shooting you.