The Advantage of Losing One’s Mind

I refer, of course, to the “problem” of aging. Certainly, as I approach my 64th birthday, I am aware of numerous physical ailments large and small, some of which might kill me.

Shouldn’t worry overmuch about this. After all, could say the same thing about my neighbours but, just like my ailments, most of the time they don’t give me any cause for alarm.

No, it is my mental state which concerns me. Especially in light of my recent efforts to complete the July issue of Auroran Lights, the newsletter I do for CSFFA, the Aurora Awards people. Supposed to have been published last May. Got it out yesterday. Tad late for a monthly publication.

I knew I can only work on one project at a time. Now I know I can only work with one thought at a time. So much for my holistic situational awareness. Even when working on a single project I find I need a list breaking down all the sub-tasks within the project, a list I can tick off one item at a time, or else risk skipping over even the most obvious things which need doing.

For instance, despite proof-reading the “Table of Contents” for my 66 page newsletter numerous times, I completely failed to notice I hadn’t updated the page numbers listed with each article. Apparently just about everything is printed on page five. Hmm.

Not only that, but — after emailing the newsletter to more than a hundred people before I caught my “mistake” — I was moved to complain (about myself) to my wife, but instead of saying “I buggered up the Table of Contents list by not filling in the proper page numbers,” I said something like “I buggered up the thingie at the beginning cause I didn’t get the numbers right.”

Forgot what a Table of Contents is called, you see. Mind a total blank.

Given that I am currently (sporadically) working on my latest attempt at a novel, my increasing inability to juggle more than one thought at a time (and even then I have to hold on with both hands) is possibly cause for alarm.

Seems to me, a novelist is supposed to keep numerous characters in mind, along with all the myriad variations and complications of their behaviour and motivation depending on what is conjured up for the evolving plot. That’s just one example. How on Earth can I compose when I can’t remember what I’m writing about?

It is a bit like trying to look up a word in a Thesaurus (for the sake of a pleasing variety) when you only have a vague concept of the word and not the word itself.

Fortunately, I had a sudden vision of people looking at the Table of Contents in my newsletter and bursting out laughing. “What a moron!” they gigglingly cry.

That’s it! Sheer entertainment value! Expect the unpredictable!

I took a thirty year break between novel attempts. The previous novel had preparatory notes filling more pages than the novel itself, but I’m “winging it” with my current effort.

Even I don’t know what I’m going to write when I sit down at my computer to add more text to my novel. I was a trifle worried about this, but now I know I don’t have to worry about a thing. My growing inability to keep intellectual track of what I’m writing about guarantees I don’t require imagination or creativity to get the job done. I can rely on crazily impulsive, thoughtless and random exposition to throw curve balls at my readers and gob smack them with unexpected twists and turns in plot and motivation. The resulting “originality” of my prose will grab readers by the throat!

More and more my writing resembles the output of the proverbial “room full of chimps typing will eventually, in the fullness of time, randomly produce a work equal to the best of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Gosh. Every day I age, I get closer to the possibility of equaling Shakespeare!

And here I thought losing my mind was going to be a problem…

The Palpitating Pause

I’m going to have to cease posting for a bit. I really have to knuckle down and concentrate on producing the next Auroran Lights Newsletter for CSFFA (The Aurora Awards people) as I’m at least a month behind.

Since, because of my increasing senility,  I am no longer capable of multitasking and can only concentrate on one project at a time, this is my only choice.

Makes me wonder how other writers (bit pretentious to call myself a writer, given that I’ve never published professionally… I’ll have you know I’m NOT a “bit” pretentious; I am “fantastically” pretentious!) cope with the task of writing.

I, for one, require absolute silence, otherwise I can’t concentrate.

I once mentioned this to Christie Harris, a west coast writer who specialised in YA books about the Haida and other First Nations peoples, and she considered my requirement nonsense, saying something like:

“Back when we owned a farm I just plopped my typewriter on a table in the chicken yard, sat myself on a sturdy wooden chair, and typed merrily away to the accompaniment of much clucking, with a baby under my arm no less, and I did fine. Got a lot of writing done.”

Ummm, I’m not like that.

Not only do I require peace and calm to get going, when it comes to fiction I require courage as well. Can take me up to three hours to build up the impulse to pour my thoughts into my computer.

Mind you, non-fiction no problem. I can pontificate endlessly with the best of them.

For some reason I regard fiction more seriously, to the point of risking anxiety attacks.

Once I complete a thousand words (which usually takes three hours, so combined with my “pump-up” session means six hours devoted to a writing session at a minimum) I almost always consider the text the most magnificent prose ever written by anyone, never mind just by little old me.

The next morning when I reread it in the cold light of day, it’s all I can do to keep from sobbing with remorse.

Cicero once wrote “There is a big difference between the light of lamps and the light of day.” He wasn’t kidding! Bothered him too.

Add to this Harlan Ellison’s comment “It takes just as much effort to write a bad book as it does a good one, so stop writing and save yourself the trouble” (or something like that–my memory not the best), and it becomes readily apparent the odds are stacked against you (or at least me) when it comes to building confidence enough to get started, let alone keep going.

I like to imagine it gets easier after several of your novels are published, that writing becomes an ingrained habit, that writing becomes joyful and exciting and thrilling such that you wake up in the morning bursting with desire to get at that keyboard!

On the other hand, I have the nagging feeling there must be a reason a vast number of writers are addicted to booze or drugs, including some of the best and most popular authors. Could it be that writing can be stressful? Nah. Gotta be something else. Mere coincidence perhaps.

Fortunately, I can’t afford to become a booze hound. I find that getting plenty of sleep allays my stress and anxiety, at least till I regain consciousness. If I could just write while I was asleep!

I once dreamed I was writing an epic poem, and when I woke up I was convinced the completed manuscript lay on the table next to my bed. I turned to gaze approvingly upon it, only to realized in horror that there was no manuscript and it had all been a dream. I sat bolt upright and tried to recover the poem from my memory before it faded.

Alas, all I could remember was the title, “Sum Thermae” (which I think means something like “Total Hot Water Bath”), and the fact the subject of the poem had to do with the history of the U.S. seventh cavalry. Perhaps not an epic after all.

Oh well. Maybe my next dream will be more useful.

 

The Random Reality of Illusion

I refer to the exciting moment when you glimpse the cover of a pocketbook for the first time. It’s all illusion of course, a depiction of a fictional reality, but some of these images are achingly evocative of the sort of thing my teenage self desperately wanted to be real. Such a cover always screamed “Buy me!” as far as I was concerned. I still come across covers like this now and then.

Recently, however, browsing the shelves of a science fiction book store, I was astonished how many covers featured “Bodice Ripper” voluptuous women in deep cleavage flouncy shirts, some of these well-endowed women wielding swords or ray guns, the rest sitting imperiously on a throne. It appears fantasy romance is exceedingly popular these days. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, at the WCSFA sponsored Fandom Bazaar I picked up 30 pocketbooks dating from the 1950s and 1960s, 20 of which were Ace Doubles, making for 50 covers in all. Books from my formative years! My criteria in selecting these particular books were the authors, as I wanted to fill in gaps in my personal library. Some I chose simply because they were Ace Doubles.

Now, perusing the covers of these books, I will pretend I’m looking at a pocketbook rack in a drugstore circa 1965 or so. Which have books with covers that demand I buy them? Which ones yell “Put me back in the rack!”?

Looking at the overall pattern, 16 covers feature spacecraft flying against a backdrop of an alien planet or star, flying through an alien atmosphere, flying over an alien landscape, or landing/sitting/taking from an alien planetary surface. Virtually every one of these cover images stir my sense of wonder.

All the rest feature the protagonist front and centre, with the backdrop scenery varying wildly, as does the desirability of these books, to judge by the covers.

Samples of covers that would force my hand into my wallet include:

– A gigantic dog-like killer robot for “The Killing Machine” by Jack Vance.

– A typical 1950s finned rocket ship escaping from a barren, crater-strewn  desert crawling with tanks, for “Battle on Venus” by William F. Temple.

– The pilot of a spacecraft staring at the huge galaxy with multiple red giants visible on his view screen. I’m pretty sure the galaxy in question is Andromeda, since the title of the book is “Recruit for Andromeda” by Milton Lesser.

– A frightened man in a spacesuit clutching his newly-ejected ejection seat as his spacecraft explodes behind him, for “The Genetic General” by Gordon. R. Dickson.

– And a cyborg pressed against his giant view screen as his rocket ship plunges into an alien sun, for “Entry to Elsewhen” by John Brunner.

Obviously, futuristic tech in a futuristic or alien setting was a huge turn on for me. Now for some covers that would have turned me off as a young lad and made me put it back on the rack:

– A stunned, puzzled looking man stands behind some sort of Hi-Fi stereo, meant to be a futuristic radio I suppose, which is releasing sparkly stuff reminiscent of the bubbles produced by the “Billion Bubble Machine” masquerading as an alien communication device in the movie “Robot Monster.” Too silly, in other words, unless I was aware of the virtues of the author, John Brunner, for his “Listen! The Stars!”

– Then there’s the shapely lady in a tight-fitting pink body suit plastered in fear against the wall as a pink sphere with eye stalks and tentacles totters on two tiny pink legs down the hall toward her. Also too silly for my taste. However the book is “Wandl the Invader” by Ray Cummings, a famous SF pulp writer of the thirties (and a reprint from that era). Well worth buying. But not if I didn’t know anything about the author.

– And worst of all, a Captain Kirk-like character in a typical Kirk firing-the-stun-gun pose, wearing a tight-fitting pink turtleneck shirt with tight pants, firing at a fleeing man in the foreground who is even more ludicrous in appearance because he sports a shaved head with a shallow Mohawk (for that “futuristic” look I guess), a red shirt, purple pants, and a flowing green cape. In the background stands a woman in a one-piece gold coloured bathing suit. This 1956 cover screams “I’m Stupid!” at me. It was for “Overlords From Space” by Joseph E. Kelleam.

From these three examples alone I deduce that any cover where the artist didn’t put much thought into it and was content to utilize standard or even substandard clichés struck me as shoddy and insulting. As a kid I would have automatically not even bothered picking these out of the rack in the first place.

Nowadays, even though I am 63 years of age with a fixed list of favourite authors and a vague comprehension of literary technique, covers still speak to me.

Covers are important.

As I understand it, in mainstream publishing it is the publisher who choses the artist and the cover. I know personally at least one author who was devastated and embarrassed by the cover placed on his first novel. I admit it is one that would have prevented me from buying the book had I not known the author. As a writer you sign the contract and take your chances.

Self-published authors appear to have the luxury of choosing (and paying) for their covers, but judging from what I’ve seen on the web, the majority of the work is rather generic with very little that is truly eye-catching.

I repeat: covers are important. Good luck with that.

 

Unmotivated Motivators Best?

Or to put it another way, are writers wrong to bother with characterization? Does it really matter?

Every good story needs strong characters, they say. Characters the readers can identify with, that make the readers want to share the character’s fears and worries and passions, even enable the reader to identify so strongly the character becomes a wish fulfilment alter ego, at least for as long as it takes to read the story.

But what if the reader rejects ordinary concerns as just so much soap opera which has nothing to do with science fiction? What if the reader doesn’t care if the protagonist  gets laid, finds a potential mate, recovers his honour, or gets fired?

Take myself, for instance. I’ve experienced strong emotions and worries involving all four of the above concerns. I really don’t want to relive them all over again just because it’s part of the human condition. Screw the human condition. That’s mundane stuff. I’m more interested in the non-human stuff. I love idea-driven SpecFit, not emotional fiction designed to make me feel one with the protagonist.

As Buzz Aldrin said when asked if being cooped up in the Apollo 11 Command module with two other guys in close quarters for several days would bother him, he replied something to the effect “Look. This is my chance to walk on the surface of the Moon. I’d put up with kangaroos for crew mates if that’s what it takes to get me there.”

So even as a little kid reading “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” books I’d put up with the “mushy” kangaroo bits (girls were mentioned occasionally as I recall) to get to the good stuff. Not that I had anything against girls (I was beginning to get interested, though not yet as much as I was during the Summer of Love in 1967 when I was sixteen, but I digress…), it’s just that I wanted my sense of wonder evoked, and ordinary matters common to virtually all of humanity didn’t get me excited anywhere to the same degree.

When the “New Wave” of science fiction came along and everybody began celebrating how adult and literary the genre had become, I stopped reading science fiction for a prolonged period. To my mind the genre had been ruined.

And no, I am not one of the Sad Puppy crowd. I got better, in that I rediscovered SF about a decade later and was delighted to discover the old themes had returned. The fact that many authors still wrote in a New Wavish fashion I didn’t mind because the underlying premises were so good.

I realise this is perilously close to appreciating stories that are merely a prolonged explanation of the premise, an elaboration of the author’s notes for the story rather than an actual story, but few such are published today. Most authors get beyond that stage quite quickly.

Besides, if there’s an alien mystery to be solved (my favourite SF theme), I’m more than willing to put up with kangaroos these days because the current herd are reasonably well trained and actually help me get to where I want to go, namely into that state of bliss known as the sense of wonder.

Mind you, I still tend to ignore the “mushy” stuff, which is to say, the “ordinary” stuff, which may sound as if I’m in favour of the “Mrs. Brown” syndrome (the lack of an ordinary character to reflect how ordinary people react to events in the story), but not true. I just happen to believe that type of character should be a secondary character.

The kind of primary character or protagonist I crave is an interesting character. Someone who rises above mundane concerns. Someone who is in some way unique, perhaps in their particular obsession, their habits, their plans, or whatever, just as long as they stand out from the crowd. I don’t identify with such characters so much as simply want to tag along with them and see what happens.

I am more than willing to embrace characters like that, even if they are well-rounded, as long as they don’t suffer from angst.

I hate angst.

The Proper Dosage of Description is?

One of the advantages of work shopping manuscripts, which is sort of what a critic does when reading a given work, is that the reader not only critiques but learns how to critique. So both the author and the reader benefit, at least in a workshop environment. That’s the theory. Not so certain this applies to critical reviews, possibly a whole ‘nother kettle of squid, but still, I find reading published works leads me to ponder the assorted tasks an author faces every time they go to work.

For instance, is there a proper balance achievable in terms of the amount of description a writer employs? What constitutes too little? How much is too much?

Too little, of course, makes it difficult for the reader to visualize the setting of the character interaction. If a story is mostly dialogue, it might as well be a radio play. Yes, you can rely on a reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, to a certain extant, but not if there’s no jumping off point. You can’t bridge an endless void. (Unless you’re reading or writing an existentialist novel, in which case there’s no hope for you.)

At the opposite end of the description spectrum is too much information, more than the reader can absorb. Sometimes this comes in the form of lists, as if attempting to include a thesaurus in the text (Rabelais was prone to this, but since he was describing a late medieval world the lists were rather fascinating). Modern efforts along these lines tend to disrupt the flow and irritate the reader, not to mention stopping him in his tracks. So generally not a good idea.

And then there’s piling on the description in convoluted, run on sentences. How many readers have the patience for this sort of thing? And yet, if the style is unique to the author, it can hold the reader fast like a bird mesmerized by a snake. The best example I can think of (and lying at hand in my den bookshelves) is Salvador Dali’s famous novel “Hidden Faces,” originally published in 1944. Consider the following:

“Cécile appeared to him now clothed with attributes combining infinitely attractive shades of malice and pathos. With her faultlessly beautiful legs he often visualized her emerging, silent and obedient, from the places where his most gnostic imaginative orgies and bacchanalia were consummated, and not infrequently at the climax of their troubling scenes it was precisely Cécile’s face, delicately veiled in grey, that would in the last moment replace the usual one of the Honourable Lady Chidester-Ames who in turn had until then supplied the human embodiment of certain fauns with flawless legs and the ambiguous bodies of hermaphrodites, covered with soft, shiny fur.”

“But if Cécile’s image now held the golden bridle of the extravagant cavalcades of his lasciviousness, harnessed to the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity…” and so on and so on.

I kinda like “… the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity” myself. Not certain how modern editors would feel about it. But, of course, Dali’s novel was published because it was written by Dali, an artist of such incredible stature at the time that his grocery list–if illustrated–would have been a runaway best seller. He had reached the Olympian heights of someone allowed to break the rules, which suited him perfectly as that was something he had been doing all his life.

Dali liked details. His paintings were near hallucinatory in their realism because of his attention to detail. In fact his “paranoia-critical method of art” philosophy was based on a conscious and deliberate obsessive attention  to detail. I believe he carried this over in his writing. I’m pretty sure he visualised words as brush stokes to paint the scene he was describing, and, just as you layer on the oil paint to get the effect you want, he treated words the same way. Since the readers of the day expected and anticipated Dali would be true to the glorious task of being Dali, this was not a problem. Few writers today can get away with this. Some try, and I tend to believe they remain unpublished.

Somewhere there is a happy medium. I just don’t happen to know where to find it.

The Bathos of Bombastic Bombardment

Some of you may have noticed my penchant for exaggerated titles designed to trigger a “wtf?” moment from the reader and generate an impulse to read the column in question despite the reader’s better judgement.

For instance, in response to my column “The Critic as Death Demon” Gregg Chamberlain wrote (on Facebook):

“????Death Demon????”

Caught his attention I did. I assume he went on to read the column, in which case he would have discovered the title was inspired by the colourful header image (above) and  the essay itself merely polite musings on the potential harm critics can offer their victims, or rather, the inborn fear they are capable of such, which is a rather silly phobia, considering it very rarely happens.

The trick, as you all know from worrying about book cover designs or fretting over the proper titles for your short stories, is to maximise that elusive first impression moment to your advantage. It is why titles are so vitally important, not to mention so damn annoying to them as seeking to compose one.

(Note: I am noted neither for my grammar or my syntax skills–rather proud of this actually).

One of the dirty little secrets of writing is to utilize a given work as its own advertisement through the use of a catchy title and a “wham! Bam!” opening paragraph. It’s no time to be modest, or restrained. In this case “more is more.”

Oh, to be sure, you can use understatement for a title, if it is absurd enough to contrast starkly with a back page blurb, or even with itself. I happen to like the “BBB” approach myself.

Where did I pick up on this? In my writing studies while earning a BFA (majoring in Creative writing) at the University of British Columbia?

Nope.

Drawing the proper conclusions after decades of intelligent and comprehensive cogitation over the SF books I was reading?

Nope.

I don’t think I’ve started doing that yet even at this late date in my life. I just read for fun and always have.

Truth is I experienced my “BBB” epiphany while, as a teenager and a young man, reading as many of the varied works of my favourite mundane artist, Salvador Dali, as I could get a hold of. He had a habit of NOT being boring. Fantastic talent that. (And yeah, he was pretty good at drawing stuff too.)

He tended to use chapter headings like:

“Why I am a Genius.”

“Why I am so Great.”

“How to be Erotic AND Chaste.”

“Why I am so Disgustingly Rich.”

“How to be a Super-Snob.”

Who can resist titles like those? Not me.

Of course, you can’t always use bathos. Not a good idea if you are striving for dignity of concept and solemnity of purpose in your writing. Just don’t make a habit of it. You see, that’s another dirty little secret of writing:

It is surprisingly easy to bore the crap out of your readers.

Don’t do it.

The Lazy Critic’s Secret: Less is Less

Early days yet, only a few publishers and authors submitting eARCs (electronic advance review copies) but already I have a great deal of reading (and reviewing) to do. This raises the fearsome spectre of “The Backlog.” People might get cranky if they send something in and months go by before they see the results.

After all, is not the whole point of advance publicity to get people all excited in advance of a book’s publication? Why, yes, from the book publisher’s point of view.

But how timely can OBIR be when it only comes out once a month? And there’s only room for X number of reviews? And the critic involved happens to be mind-bogglingly lazy and adamantly opposed to being rushed simply in order to meet someone else’s deadline? I mean, it’s only their livelihood and their money and their careers that are at stake. I see no reason to feel pressured because of minor details like that. From my point of view this is a leisured Gentleman’s gig.

Besides, this is an age when books hang around forever. You see, the traditional one or two weeks of bookstore shelf space allocated to a book is largely irrelevant nowadays, in that determined readers can easily pay for a download either direct from the publisher or from outfits like Amazon (which I assume financially benefits both the publisher and the authors as well as the third part seller, but I’m not clear on the details).

So, if, for example, I start reviewing a few stories at a time from an anthology published two or three years ago, there’s no need for the publisher and the authors to start tearing their hair out over my “idiocy” at “wasting” publicity on a book no longer available in the book stores (except maybe by special order), because the book in question is likely still easily available to the reader at the click of a couple of keyboard buttons.

And I would argue that bringing attention to past works by authors OBIR readers may not be familiar with bodes well for said authors’ upcoming works once they finally appear, as OBIR readers may be willing to try out a “new” author based on reviews they’d previously read in OBIR. Unless, of course, I had described them as the worst writers ever hatched and not worth acknowledging, let alone reading. In which case all bets are off.

Then again, given my rep for biased and ignorant reviews, a negative blast from me could well boost sales. Hard to predict.

Be that as it may, I’m going to try to “streamline” production of OBIR in an attempt to speed things up, such that more than one issue will come out a month. I can accomplish this by limiting the amount of material in a given issue. I envision that every issue (or at least the average issue) will contain the following:

1) reviews of every story in the pages of a “spotlighted” Canadian magazine with its cover appearing on OBIR’s cover.

2) two or three reviews of isolated stories by Canadian authors appearing in foreign magazines and anthologies.

3) two reviews each from five or six Canadian anthologies being “serialized” till all their stories have been reviewed.

4) Two or three reviews of Canadian genre novels.

5) One interview or article concerning a Canadian author or publisher.

6) A letter of comment column.

I’m hoping this will, at the very least, guarantee monthly publication, and preferably twice a month publication, or maybe twice a month every two months. Something like that. At any rate the reviews, functioning as publicity, will be somewhat more timely.

If I manage to produce two issues per month on a regular basis, how will I date them? Say, #3 and #4 both coming out in July?

Simple. #3 will be the July issue. #4 will be the August issue.

By this scheme of things, issues 13 and 14 published in December 2015 will be dated May 2016 and June 2016.

Stupid and pointless of course, but the concept vastly amuses me and makes me grin from ear to ear. No doubt to the irritation of future researchers and librarians, but I don’t care.

Call it my pathetic attempt to time travel beyond my lifespan. What the heck. Why not?

The Critic as Failed Artist

Aha! You thought this column (I know I’m supposed to call it a “blog,” but I’m old-fashioned) was going to be about the lack of artistry among critics, or perhaps their inability to appreciate artistry in writing, didn’t you?

Nope. “The” critic in question is just me. And the column has to do with the brightly-coloured header image above.

You see, when Jean Weber created this site on my behalf she selected a beautiful “placeholder” image of red Japanese paper lanterns amid tree branches.

I quickly replaced this with a rather fussy and busy medieval woodcut in B&W. It didn’t really stand in contrast with the background tile image so much as merge with it and create an overall impression of visual confusion.

So I promptly took the image file to Microsoft paint and began colourizing it. In order to use the “bucket-fill” feature I had to isolate certain areas by extending boundary lines pixel by pixel to make the space within self-contained. At the same time I took the opportunity to erase certain features in the image to render it simpler and easier to grasp visually. Most painful of all, at 800% magnification I tracked down each and every stray pixel and deleted it, which took me hours as there were so many of them.

My eyes becoming tired, I then took a nap. You know how, with your eyes closed, you see an ever-shifting, swirling cloud of extremely faint points of light? I found myself gritting my teeth and frowning as I subconsciously attempted to focus on each individual dot of light and delete it. Couldn’t focus. Couldn’t delete. It was very frustrating. Awfully hard to fall asleep when your eyes are so darn busy. Made my head hurt.

Anyway, when I got back to the image all I had to do was fill in the colours, which is sort of like using a colouring book with an automatic “stay-within-the-line” function. I think the result looks pretty good. The red Death Demons, the lime green of the printer’s clothes, and the bright yellow of the books and papers really stand out against the background. The whole image practically pops off the page. It is now vividly separated from the background tile image. A very strong contrast indeed!

Of course, some may question my use of lavender for the ceiling panels and pink for the carpeting, but as I wanted to get the image done as quickly as possible I limited myself to the select colours provided and made no attempt to “create” my own colours with the hue control. I think this was a wise decision. As coloured the image is very successful I think. I like it.

Any artistry remaining after “the treatment” is of course the product of the original artist’s skill. Nothing to do with me. Art has nothing to do with me. Lively stick figures are the best I can do. This is why I am insanely pleased with the result of my “colouring book” exercise.

As for the background tile image, it is probably my favourite woodcut from the late medieval or early renaissance period. Shows a monk, or possibly an Abbot, or maybe just a rich retired merchant, reading a book. He seems like a comfy slippers, comfy sweater, comfy chair, comfy book kind-of-guy. Sort of a precursor to Perry Como or Andy Williams, or me. I identify with what he is doing.

The alarmingly heavy-looking over-sized book is probably the Bible (which in this period the lay public was forbidden to read) but judging from the faint smirk on his face it could well be the partially-preserved manuscript of “The Satyricon” by the famously jaded Petronius who was a literary advisor to his patron the equally jaded Roman Emperor Nero. At any rate he seems absorbed in what he is reading. I love reading. It is my favourite way to relax. I’m a very lazy fellow, so I get a lot of reading done.

Being profoundly lazy is the easiest way to be a productive critic, I say.

The Critic as Death Demon

Referring to the header image above, a late medieval woodcut depicting three personifications of the plague snatching the occupants of a print shop. At the time it may have been an in-joke in reference to censors who, back in the day, could get you burned at the stake.

I like it because I think it speaks to the innermost fears of authors happily going about their business yet constantly worried a critic might at any moment destroy their careers with an unexpected avalanche of unfair criticism. What’s the point of spending a lifetime developing one’s writing skills only to be sabotaged by some jerk trying to be clever?

I’m pretty sure this rarely, if ever, happens.

Besides, most critics, many being writers themselves, are conscientious. And then there’s the likely fact that most readers don’t read critics anyway. What truly counts is word of mouth. Add to this the extremely common phenomenon of readers “discovering” a favourite author and buying up everything he/she has written and/or will ever write, and really, the automatic dread of critics many writers feel is actually a kind of unwarranted subliminal urban myth. This type of death demon doesn’t actually exist.

“Fuck the critics and full steam ahead!” is the proper attitude for a writer to have. I think you’ll find most successful authors follow this policy. They are successful in part because they don’t waste time worrying about their reviews. Instead they treat them as a promotional resource, mining them for useful quotes and ignoring the rest.

So where do I, a newly minted critic, fit in? Possibly in the “some jerk trying to be clever” category. However, as I was explaining to Jill and Walter at White Dwarf Books, I’m focused on the strengths and intentions of authors, not their weaknesses. They were a bit dubious. “But what if they’re terrible?”

“Then I won’t review them.”

“But what if they send you a review copy and it never gets reviewed? Then they’ll know what you think.”

“Oh… bugger…” I said, because I suddenly realized I hadn’t properly thought through the full implications of my policy. “Well, I guess they’ll have to be satisfied I didn’t share my opinion with the public.”

“What about review copies stuck in your backlog of books waiting to be reviewed? As the months go by, given your statement you won’t review crap, might not the authors suspect you think their book is a piece of crap?”

“Oh… Bugger…” I said, because I suddenly realized this critic business was more complicated than I had anticipated. “God damn it, now I’m going to feel pressured every time I glance at ‘that’ stack of books. I’ll be living under a ‘perpetual’ deadline. I hate deadlines.”

“It’s your own fault, you know.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Truth is the conversation didn’t go exactly the way I report it above. I exaggerated a little. Okay, I exaggerated a lot. Being a critic you see. “..some jerk trying to be clever.” That’s my job.

But I believe I got my point across. What point, you may ask.

Oh… Bugger… I guess it shows I’m a lazy, sloppy-minded critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Thinks he’s got a lot to say, but all of it bullshit.

Relax. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’m mostly harmless, by default.