Pleasurable Reading, Shaded Giants

The best thing I did as a reader in 2018 was intentionally refocus on reading what I like. For too many years, I’d been reading a blend of things that I thought I should be reading as a writer, trying to expand my horizons and do right on multiple counts. In the process I purchased books to support various authors, causes, etc… and developed a 100+ title TBR pile. Some I was more eager to read, some less, and I’d find myself “sneaking” books from the public library. Also, thinking longingly of re-reading old faves (I’m an inveterate book-revisitor).

Reader, something really had to give. This was more than vaguely clear in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it was no longer vague. Last year I finished reading 69 books and 37 graphic novels/trade collections, and I set aside unfinished maybe 10 books. Some months I was tearing through books, others limping. The slower months were overwhelmingly those when I was reading “shoulds.” Part of the slowness was lack of interest, part frustration at seeing weak writers praised or succeed, part simply a lack of desire to read.

That last part should have been a big clue. Many writers read quite a lot, outrageous quantities compared to the average American, and for a very long time I was one of them.  For a whole bunch of reasons, however, I reached a point in this decade where I was barely reading 2 books per month. Last year, giving myself license both to chuck books I wasn’t enjoying and to seek out authors and books likely to square with my interests, I read more like 6 books per month, 9  if you include comics.

Social media, the blessing/curse (blursing?) of our time, has been a blend of good and terrible in all of this. On the one hand, I’ve heard of books and authors that I wouldn’t otherwise have, some wonderful! One example of this is Matthew Bartlett, author of a host of genuinely strange neo-Decadent fictions. He can write, is a mensch, and is justifiably something of  a darling in contemporary weird fiction… but much of his work is self-published, or from small presses. And so, like many authors these days, he’s almost entirely absent from libraries. Without social media, and Facebook in particular, I would likely never have heard of him (check out Gateways to Abomination).

On the other hand, the literary market is beyond saturated, leading to endless PR and social media touting of “brilliant,” “important,” “essential,” “vital,” “outstanding,” etc. authors, and while I realize people want to help their friends and sell their own work, too often this is false advertising. (Ditto blurbs, in which I no longer place any stock whatsoever, as guides to whether I’ll like a book.) Whether it’s the literary fiction community, the weird fiction community, the YA community, or whatever, people ride high horses all the livelong day about this shit, and as someone wisely pointed out to me in 2018, literary communities are endlessly incestuous and precious. Paying too much attention to them can be fatal to taste and joy.

I thought about this much more this past year as I read and re-read various popular authors. These are folks with well-developed chops for carrying a narrative along: Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, John Sandford, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, etc., and of course I’m continually dipping back into Lovecraft, James, Machen, etc. Newer authors like Paul Tremblay or John Langan, or newcomers like Christine Mangan, have plenty of firepower in this regard, too. These are folks who have honed their craft and developed stories that work in the contemporary market.

marcus aurelius statueThere are so many different kinds of “good book,” or course, and the lists of authors you find in quality writing books like Delany’s About Writing include a host of different modes and styles. That’s a good thing! That said, as I focused in on heavier hitters, in terms of sales, reviews, etc., I likewise have been more apt to notice the green-eyed monster lurking under the faces of friends and writers I follow online, some bigger and some smaller.

Gaiman, King, Rowling, etc. are common targets for these complaints, and I get the frustration about the stiff competition to publish, but many people publicly and privately say boneheaded shit about authors who are titans in the field, as if the ability to win over readers is a bad thing. Part of that’s art-community nonsense, and building of various kinds of social capital, but to state the obvious, popular authors are successful in publishing. Luck, connections, family money, and so on do play into many literary careers, no question… and a lot’s been justifiably written about racism and sexism in publishing… but beloved authors are beloved. That you, Struggling Author, are not beloved does not mean that your favorite target is a literary shyster.

Reader, this blog post has grown unwieldy, and I’ve excised the 20% of it that would bring the wolves howling, in so far as anyone reads this blog. That, as a fellow writer I know who’s rarely online says, is part of the problem of talking about reading when you’re a writer. Anything other than glowing praise is at best going to result in silence. I offer no slings or arrows for anyone in particular here, but take it as you will that I no longer see “hidden,” “overlooked,” “obscure,” or “little-known” as signifiers of anything other than historical or market success.

Libraried and Under-Libraried Authors

There exist many, many ways to spread the word about books and authors you love. The world is full of things that demand our time, and authors generally are grateful for the time you spend doing these things. And, at the end of the day, what’s more important: that Goodreads review, or posting a photo of your current reading on Facebook? Hard to say, but one time-tested way for authors to find audiences is for their books to enter library collections.

Have you recommended a favorite book to your local library, if they don’t own it? Libraries buy books based on many factors, from past circulation success to reviews to awards (and different libraries care about different review venues, awards, etc.).  Recommendations are also a big factor. I’m an academic librarian, and we make purchasing decisions based on a slightly different formula than public libraries, but whatever the library, a patron request must be considered, even if the book-buying librarian in question chooses not to purchase the title (because they don’t believe it fulfills community needs, doesn’t fit within library guidelines, etc.).

Are the authors listed below doing well or poorly? Depends on your perspective, though my experience as an author to date is that, while I celebrate successes, I’m always looking to the next frontier. My short story collection is sitting with a publisher right now, and I’m waiting not all that patiently for a response, but so it goes. When the day comes that my books are out there on the shelves, I’m sure I’ll be irritated that they aren’t selling more.

Now, to some examples. I used WorldCat, a sort of super-catalog of library catalogs, to find these numbers. Devils lurk in the details, as you might guess. WorldCat has flaws, and it’s never fully in sync with every library’s holdings because of how libraries add and subtract books. Still, the numbers below are in the ballpark for holdings in North America, with some content from further afield. (It’s also worth saying that the below don’t really include YA; that would be another post.)

Author A, a renowned writer of weird fiction whose career has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, including awards, Hollywood’s attention, book tour action, etc., is an example of an author whose star has risen… and is still rising. The phrase “transcending genre” has a long and not wholly savory lineage, but it’s unmistakably the case that this author has entered new arenas, even while holding to the same literary values and contacts as they always have. Their very recently released  novel is already held or on order at over 300 libraries. The first volume of their recent trilogy is held in various formats and translations by over 2000 libraries.

Author B, a mostly-indie writer and notable online personality is doing well, library-wise; their novel from last year is in over 300 libraries.  I’d say that’s a fine showing. It’s about 10% the holdings of Stephen King’s most widely held books, but still: doing well. Their early-2000s novel is also doing well over a decade on for what could fairly be described as a niche novel, held by over 100 libraries.

Author C, who writes and publishes in SFF, horror, and related areas, worked hard to break in with a 2015 novel. They have some connections and have been active for years, and even so, the book just didn’t get quite the attention it could have… but it still made its way into over 250 libraries. Their 2016 novel is doing a-OK, having found its way into over 550.

Author D, a horror writer who’s justly recognized as a significant stylist and has published a number of books, is not held as widely as some of the above examples. Their much-praised 2016 novel is held by about 100 libraries. Their award-winning late-00s collection is held by over 200.

Author E, who writes contemporary and genre fiction, often with a magical realist stripe, is the first author I’m mentioning here who gets some attention as an author, giving readings and speaking to classes, getting nominated for awards, and all the good reputation-building things… and just doesn’t have that much library shelf space. Their 2013 novel is held by about 25 libraries. Their late-00s short story collection has had some staying power, with over 40 copies in libraries. Still, this author could definitely stand to be read more widely.

Author F, who writes horror and related work, gets a ton of praise in many circles but is not getting much love from libraries. They publish relatively slowly and don’t have the long track record of some authors. Their early-10s first collection is held by under 20 libraries, and their recent second collection is held by about 20.

Author G, a writer of horror and weird fiction who likewise gets a lot of praise in many circles, also doesn’t get all that much love from libraries. Their recent short story collection is held by just over 30 libraries. Their relatively recent award-winning anthology is held by less than 15 libraries. That maybe isn’t surprising, given its niche topic, but 15 libraries? That’s unfortunate (and undeservedly low, in my opinion).

A few observations that will surprise almost none of you:

  • Coverage in review venues like Booklist, Library Journal, etc. helps sales.
  • Coverage in major newspapers and literary review venues helps more.
  • Authors high on the list have extensive networks derived from a combination of teaching, non-fiction writing, journalism, and/or working in publishing.
  • Authors high on the list have written multiple novels that, to one extent or another, look like the market. Each have their own stamp, and they don’t write poppy fiction, but they are writing books that fall into recognizable, living types of books (call them genres, modes, or whatever you wish).
  • Authors high on the list work not just hard but consistently at getting the word out about their books. Not on release day, and not in the first six weeks: until they have a new book to promote.
  • Major presses do better at getting books out into libraries than most small presses. You may love Disco Lemur Press, but do they actually sell books?
  • Gatekeepers and important voices in a field can highlight a given author, but that may not translate to library sales.
  • Short story collections generally don’t sell as well to libraries as novels.
  • Self-published books are not a significant part of any of these authors’ library presences. Many, many libraries don’t buy self-pubbed books, and that’s unlikely to change until such time as the literary economy changes.
  • The above list skews male toward the top, but I make no claims about any bias here, as I used a convenience sample that is representative of nothing other than authors who came to mind. Naturally, though, projects like the VIDA Count and the recent report by the Fireside Fiction Company tell compelling stories that are relevant here.

How can you help authors you like get into libraries? Look for the option to “Recommend a Purchase” or “Suggest a Title” on your library’s website. If you can’t find it or don’t want to do it that way, ask at the checkout, information, or reference desk at your library. They’ll be happy to tell you how to recommend the book.

All of the above goes double for that author whose books you love, but who is with a small press or series of small presses. Short of huge demand, most of them won’t make it into libraries, and who uses libraries most? It’s more complicated than you think, but here are some stats. They may surprise you.

The Hugos: Shenanigans & Unpopular Opinions

men dueling

Hugo Awards Duel, 1893

The picture above is a c. 1900 photograph of two men having a sword fight. Given photographic technology of the time, it was almost certainly staged, much as the posturing braggadocio swirling around the 2015 Hugo Awards is staged. Why staged? This is a well-rehearsed fight about issues of literary taste, generational shift, and identity (particularly race and gender) that have been publicly in play in F/SF fiction for some years, and have gotten increasing airtime as the world has diversified and everything has become less monolithic.

Now, what’s this about Hugo? For those who don’t know F/SF, the Hugo is one of the two biggest awards in the field. This year’s awards process has become a topic of particular debate because various people used a voting bloc strategy to get a slate (a blend of two slates, actually, proposed by folks going variously by the names “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies”—more here) of titles onto the ballot for this year’s award. The fight’s been nasty, attracting national and international media attention (e.g. NPR, The Atlantic, etc.). Otherwise deserving works of 2014 that attracted the attention of readers, reviewers, and taste-makers in and out of the genre community do not appear, including some yours truly personally loved.

Why do you care? I used to identify to some extent as a “fantasy author.” My fiction has, for the most part, settled into a flavor that seems to fit best, if not exclusively, in horror or literary mags. I publish in many places and tend to say “I write fiction” when people ask, but I still care about F/SF. I’ve never really been much into fandom or conventions, though I’ve enjoyed going to a few in recent years, although my interest is more academic and/or professional than fannish. By day I’m a librarian, and ironically I may actually care more deeply wearing that hat than I do wearing my writer hat: librarians regularly use awards as a gauge of what to purchase for their collections, especially when budgets are thin. Which library buys how many of what is complicated, but the last ALA survey puts the number of U.S. school, public, and armed forces libraries at 107,802. I know many authors who would be delighted by a bump to their sales in the amount of 0.1% of that number. Will all of those libraries buy a copy of each Best Novel winner? No, and for many reasons, but I’ve seen a number of comments about how awards can lead to “a few sales to libraries.” I repeat: 107,802.

And so you think all of this is…? The best thing I’ve heard said about this whole fiasco, by Farah Mendlesohn a week back on social media, is that it’s dishonorable. I agree wholeheartedly. This year’s behavior around the awards has been nasty, but the picture above is relevant here because people have behaved dishonorably. I think the word accurately captures the distress felt by people who feel awards ought to have legitimacy and a basis in the quality of the works under consideration. Honor is a quaint and curious concept in 2015, but I think it fits nicely in here. This shit would have resulted in duels and deaths a couple hundred years ago.

But politics are a dirty business! So indeed. The best, most thoughtful comments I’ve read along those lines come from Nick Mamatas. I have not (God help me) followed every corner of this debate, but I do think his points about “next steps” are good. Likewise, I strongly agree that the sword cuts both ways. You can’t engage in politics and then squeal when someone out-politics you. And make no mistake: “eligibility posts” are a form of campaigning, and saying anything less is hypocritical sophistry (even if one thinks, as I do, that they help to shed light on underrepresented people who and works that otherwise get lost in the scrum). Charlie Jane Anders argued after the award nominations were announced that the Hugos have always been political, and now they’re only political, and I very sincerely hope she’s wrong… but put three people in a room and you have politics.

Is this the end of the Hugos? I can’t count the number of people I’ve read dolefully and/or gleefully saying that this is The End for the Hugos, or that it’s The End under X or Y condition. This is nonsense. If you want it, fight for it. The Puppies figured out a way to mobilize, and so can anyone else, particularly given how few people have historically voted in the Hugos: 40-ish percent near the high water mark. Thousands of votes that don’t get cast are sitting there, ripe for the motivating/wheedling/convincing/mobilizing.

Wow, F/SF sure has problems. Well, yes, but other places do, too. For one glaring example, women are consistently and grievously under-published and under-reviewed by some major organs of mainstream English-language literary culture. And on a scale that makes the situation in F/SF look pretty chipper by comparison. At least genre fiction talks about its problems.

What do you think about all this? As every year, I’ve read little of what’s on the slate, and I can’t comment on the literary quality of it. I’m not a fan of the Puppies’ general approach, because I think it constituted a perversion of the process that has resulted in a problematic ballot, with multiple instances of the same publishing house or same person dominating a category. This isn’t the first time this has happened in the world of awards, and it’s always a problem, whoever/whatever is dominating. That includes when it’s your publisher, or your favorite author, doing the dominating. In those situations, the field’s usually weak, something’s screwy in the process, or someone/something is so disproportionately influential that they will always tip the scales.

The ballot is complicated, and people have strong feelings about it, with some nominees withdrawing, and others sticking to their guns for various reasons. Being nominated for a Hugo should, in any case, be a joyful moment, and I have nothing but sympathy for the folks for whom this affair has been deeply upsetting. All that said, awards systems are fallible, and people always unfairly get overlooked. I’m really glad for the recent trend toward increasing diversity of nominees over the past few years, and I hope it continues after what I hope will be seen as the unfortunate and exceptional debacle of 2015. Even if every single person on the ballot this year deserved to be there, the tactics by which many of them got there sucks, and so does the resulting hue and cry.

There are, however, a number of nominees on the ballot this year who unquestionably deserve to be there… and might not have made it without the Puppies. Voters in the past didn’t agree, and de gustibus non est disputandum, but F/SF hasn’t always seen fit to acknowledge critically the work of some tremendously popular authors of beloved books, whose commercial success has helped keep the genre afloat. Some people have mentioned the regular absence of commercially successful authors from the ballots, and I think this is perhaps the only unalloyed good to have come out of all of this, which I hope might persist in years to come.

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with a commercially successful author of fantasy fiction (not on the post linked above) who said with an impressive amount of good cheer that she was never going to be nominated for the Hugo because she didn’t write that kind of fiction, and the Hugo crowd was never going to give her the nod. Thus far, she’s right, she’s not alone, and both are problems. Beloved authors who fire hearts and minds should have a shot at the ballot. Likewise, authors of all backgrounds—every race, gender, creed, religion, culture, etc.—should have a shot at the ballot. It’s my hope that the end result of all of this drama is an increased number of people voting their passion, acknowledging the best of the full diversity of people and styles in F/SF, and finding a more graceful way to handle generational change.