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.

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Brief Update

It’s been over four months since my last post, and I’m guessing most of you have already heard about these elsewhere, but:

  • Back in November, my short story “En Plein Air” appeared over at Pseudopod. It’s a quiet horror story that seems to hit a sweet spot for people who like their horror subtle about the environment, It’s also attracted more than a few “that ain’t horror!” comments, so caveat lector.
  • Later this year, my dark SF story “Questionable Things” will finally be appearing. It’s a story I like very much, and which I had the Devil’s own time placing, but I stuck with it, and I hope it finds some readers.
  • Volume 2 of Thinking Horror will be coming out before long, says its doughty editor, s.j.  bagley, and I likewise hope my essay in there finds some interested readers. It’s a very personal essay, as they say, and was one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’ve done in recent years.

ICFA 39, I Liked the Cut of Your Jib

This year’s ICFA was a delight to attend, and on many counts! As always, I met many interesting scholars, writers, editors, and good folks of various fields, as well as connecting with old friends and laying devious plans. My academic paper was well received, the panel involved  a productive and wide-ranging take on Weird Tales and weird fiction, and my reading seemed to go over well.

I’m not going to say much more about the conference here, as I’m writing up the event for another publication (more about that down the road). James McGlothin captured his experience nicely, if you want to take a look, over at Black Gate. Here are a few pictures…

weird tales panel photo

Early a.m. panel on WEIRD TALES, featuring (L to R) Sean Moreland, moi, Jeffrey Shanks, Tracy (May) Stone, and GoH Nike Sulway. Photo by Dierk Gunther

 

words and worlds prose reading at icfa 39

Words & Worlds Prose Reading, with Doug Ford reading his “Pig Feast.” Readers included Derek Newman-Stille (out of frame), Regina Hansen, Gina Wisker, Doug Ford, and moi. Photo by Jenna Jarvis

And finally, I got an awfully nice response from no less than Michael Arnzen on the story I read. I don’t think the conference could have had a better end:

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My First Lovecraft

BeyondTheGrave17CoverRecently I gave a talk about my engagement with H.P. Lovecraft, as reader, writer, and librarian/scholar. In it, I stated that I’d first read Lovecraft around 1988. While true, this elides an encounter I’d had with the Old Gent four years previously, when I stumbled on a remixed/pop version of HPL in Charlton ComicsBeyond the Grave, issue 17.

In the first story of the issue, “No Way Out,” the reader is treated to the tale of Jabez Monchek. The art and writing are of a piece with Bronze Age horror comics, but in rereading the story earlier this year, I was more than a little surprised to see the layers of metafiction laid on top. The character is a Lovecraft stand-in who enjoys reading Lovecraft and is trapped in an ancient house, where he lives his life as writer, painter, and sculptor.

MonchekReader, in the language of Meme, “it me.” Just as I experienced a shock of deep familiarity a couple of years ago when I re-encountered Mercer Mayer’s One Monster After Another, so this year I was stunned to read a comic book story that apparently had something like a fundamental effect on me. I remember picking it from the rack in a tiny beachside grocery store and a vague sort of pleasure when reading it, but nothing like the impact it apparently had on me.

Included in this post are scans of the issue cover and a few panels. I’m unsure who own Beyond the Grave at this point, but apparently the bulk of Charlton IP went to DC Comics and AP Comics. I’d love to see a collected version appear at some point, whoever the owner is. My thanks to Matthew Carpenter, who posted elsewhere about Lovecraft and comics, and inspired me to write this post.

Story Selected for Best New Horror #28

My “En Plein Air,” a short story that first appeared in Nightscript 2, will appear in Best New Horror #28. I’m gratified that Stephen Jones liked the story enough to include it in his anthology, and I look forward to it finding new readers. My thanks to C.M. Muller for first publishing it in his fine and darksome anthology, and to the readers who’ve been pleased to encounter it, both in print and when I read it last year at ICFA.

This is probably my favorite story I’ve written about Richmond, with scenes set on Cherokee Road, at the VMFA, etc. While I won’t say too much more about that, I will say that this forthcoming appearance is a validation, not least that the approach I took to the story was fruitful, from the background work to the way I went about the writing. It has resulted in the first instance of any work of mine making it to an annual anthologies, let alone one of such long standing as the Best New Horror series. I couldn’t be happier.

Bound for NecronomiCon

Next month I’ll be headed Providence-ward for NecronomiCon. This will be my first time attending, and I look forward to seeing familiar faces and making new friends. I expect that I’ll be attending a fair number of panels in the Armitage Symposium, given my academic interests, but I’ll also be attending some of the more writer-centric events, and maybe take in a flick or two.

If you see me at NecronomiCon, please say “hi!” I’m pretty terrible at names. You’d think social media would help with this, and it does to some extent, but there are (e.g.) an awful lot of 30-60-year-old white men with beards in weird fiction-land.

It’ll be my pleasure to speak on a great-looking panel on Sunday, at 9:00 a.m.:

FABULISM IN CONTEMPORARY WEIRD FICTION

Garden Room
Biltmore 2nd Floor

Before the short story, the novel, or even the play- there was the fable and fabulism has been a constant thread throughout the history of horror and weird fiction and, in recent years, many writers have been more openly showcasing fabulism in their work. This panel seeks to explore the phenomenon, it’s history, and it’s current use with several contemporary writers who have, themselves, embraced fabulism as a driving factor in their own work.

Panelists: Craig Gidney, J.T. Glover, Kij Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, Simon Strantzas (Moderator), Peter Straub

Finally, if you’re going, look for me in the Necronomicon Providence 2017 memento book. My gonzo adventure story “The Coming of the Black Pseudopod” will appear therein, and I can’t wait to see  the book, which is by all reports a thing of beauty.

poster for NecronomiCon Providence 2017

 

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.