Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New Interview

While things are a bit quiet here at the moment, BFK Books has a lengthy interview with me to while away the time. There are stacks of other reviews and interviews there too, so even if mine soon palls there are many more to enjoy.

The interview adds further evidence to the hypothesis that there is only picture of me in existence...
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Friday, May 15, 2009

Matters Vancean

The regular visitor to ::Acquired Taste will know that my appreciation for Jack Vance knows no bounds. For many years I believed I was alone with this particular enthusiasm; I was wrong. Vance remains a minority taste, but those people who enjoy tend to take it to extremes.

In 1999 a group of those aficionados got together to republish everything Vance had ever written--4.4 million words--and if that were not enough, to extirpate every unwarranted editorial intervention. This was not, as you may suspect, a straightforward task. I should know: I was one of those aficionados.

The editor-in-chief of this project, the Vance Integral Edition (VIE), was Paul Rhoads. Paul has recently collected and revised a series of essays he wrote about Vance's work over the life of the VIE. Published by Afton House, the essays in Winged Being: Thoughts on Jack Vance and Patient Explanations of the Obvious, are provocative and always lively. In attempting to show Vance's work in its cultural context--a context much wider than science-fiction--Paul Rhoads' essays pay Vance the compliment of serious critical attention.

For anyone who has even a passing interest in Vance's work, this book is sure to entertain, educate and amuse.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Boxes and Boundaries

I had an email from Will, my editor at Macmillan, yesterday which was not the hoped-for offer to publish The Last Free City. On the other hand, neither was it a rejection. Instead, it was a request to linger a little longer over the decision while various factors are taken into account. One of these, reasonably enough, is the sales performance of The Dog of the North, but more interestingly there's also the consideration that they can't work out what kind of book it is (I paraphrase Will's views here).

This isn't a post about the iniquities of the publishing industry--after all, The Last Free City may still appear under the MNW banner--but instead about genre. Like it or not, books are not just 'books'. Someone has to sell them, and for that they need to have a label. It's all very well to rage about the artificiality of genre boundaries, but the fact is readers like them just as much as booksellers. Genre labels are here to stay, and that's something we all have to live with.

That isn't such good news for The Last Free City: it's a fantasy without most of the trappings of fantasy; an historical novel about a place that never existed; a romance punctuated with shocking violence; an action novel with long periods of reflection. No wonder Macmillan don't know how to sell it. Readers of fantasy, of historicals, of romance, of action, might all find much to enjoy - but equally they will find their expectations confounded at key points (I'm actually making the novel sound much better than it is here...). From an artistic point of view, I can defend this as healthy and challenging; but I can understand marketers taking a rather different perspective.

The downside of the genre boxes is that it can make work which is genuinely original and contemptuous of accepted boundaries difficult to sell. Genres are self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing: the more books that are bought which fit the mould, the thicker those walls become. (This can create a different set of problems: I'm bursting with admiration for Brian McGilloway who can operate wholly within his genre boundaries and yet create something fresh and original).

So what kind of book is The Last Free City? If pushed, I'd go for that sub-genre of fantasy sometimes known as fantasy of manners. This is characterised thus:

Major influences on the subgenre include the social novels of Jane Austen, the drawing room comedies of P. G. Wodehouse, and the historical romances of Georgette Heyer. Many authors also draw from nineteenth century popular novelists such as Anthony Trollope, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens. Traditional romances of swashbuckling adventure such as The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, or the works of Rafael Sabatini may also be influences. The Graustarkian romances typified by The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, or George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark itself, are also of some consequence as literary precedents, as are the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett.
A typical fantasy of manners tale will involve a romantic adventure that turns on some point of social punctilio or intrigue. Magic, fantastic races, and legendary creatures are downplayed within the genre, or dismissed entirely. Indeed, but for the fact that the settings are usually entirely fictional, some of the books considered "fantasy of manners" could be considered as historical fiction. Ellen Kushner is perhaps the definitive writer of fantasy of manners tales; almost all of her novels have some of the traits of the genre, and her homoerotic Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners (1987) is considered as the epitome of the genre. An earlier example, and possibly the first true fantasy of manners, is the Gormenghast series (specificially the first two books) by Mervyn Peake
Is there still a market for this kind of thing? You tell me--or better yet, tell Macmillan's marketing department!

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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Endless Appeal of the Tudors

Over the past year I've read most of Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels without ever really deciding whether I like them or not. The latest to fall into my hands is The Queen's Fool, which follows the life of Hannah Verde, a Jewish refugee from the Spanish Inquisition. It has all Gregory's traditional virtues: a claustrophobic sense of life at court, plausible and interesting representations of historical figures. Queen Mary's descent from the optimism with which she took the throne to her tyranny and miserable death is convincingly bleak; Princess Elizabeth's mixture of calculation and provocation is equally compelling; and if Robert Dudley is overdrawn as the rakish intriguer, at least he has style.

Where Gregory is on less certain ground is the character of Hannah herself--a fairly major problem given that she is the first-person protagonist. The way in which she flitted from one court to another, seemingly trusted by both sides, in itself strained credulity, but what I had trouble swallowing was her modern outlook. The idea of a woman independent in outlook and aspiration is not anachronistic (Gregory herself brings Bess of Hardwick, the exemplar of the type, to vigorous life in The Other Queen) but Hannah, at once shrewd and naive, never fully convinces. To this reader at least, she is a 21st-century feminist somehow lost in the 16th century. If you want to read a novel in which an independent female character still manages to feel at one with her historical context, I'd recommend instead Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Alis Hawkins' Testament or Faye L. Booth's Cover the Mirrors: it's the kind of fiction Macmillan New Writing does particularly well.
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Sunday, May 03, 2009


Things are a bit quiet at ::Acquired Taste at the moment. I have produced no babies; I am not in the running for awards; I have not just finished the final draft of my latest novel; and I'm in between series of The Wire. I am, in fact, in limbo. The Last Free City awaits the yea or nay from Macmillan and until that happens, future plans are on hold. I have several ideas for new stories, but which one I invest the time and emotional energy into working up depends on where Macmillan (or Tor as it will be if we move onto Book 3) see TLFC. There should be news on that soon, so for now a period of quiet reflection is in order.