The Best of British Fantasy

An interesting book for interesting times

I’m delighted to announce the table of contents for The Best of British Fantasy 2018.

The anthology is released in May, from NewCon Publishing, in all normal formats, plus a sexy hardcover limited edition. It is available for pre-order now, directly from the publisher.

Without further ado:

  • "There's a Witch in the Word Machine" by Jenni Fagan (There's a Witch in the Word Machine)

  • "We Are Now Beginning Our Descent" by Malcolm Devlin (LossLit)

  • "The Dance of a Thousand Cuts" by Liam Hogan (Terra! Tara! Terror!)

  • "A Son of the Sea" by Priya Sharma (All the Fabulous Beasts)

  • "To Look Upon His Works" by RJ Barker (Art of War)

  • "12 Answers Only You Can Question" by James Warner (EPOCH)

  • "The Woman Who Turned Into Soap" by Harkiran Dhindsa (The Good Journal)

  • "Mushroom Speed Boosts" by Ben Reynolds (LossLit)

  • "The Guile" by Ian McDonald (Tor.com)

  • "We can make something grow between the mushrooms and the snow" by Kirsty Logan (The Puritan)

  • "The Moss Child" by Lisa Fransson (The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4)

  • "Boys" by Lizzie Hudson (Litro)

  • "The Farm at the World's End" by Helen McClory (Occulum)

  • "The Prevaricator" by Matthew Hughes (Fantasy & Science Fiction)

  • "The Small Island" by Heather Parry (F(r)iction Magazine)

  • "A Gift of Tongues" by Paul McQuade (Cōnfingō)

  • "Velocity" by Steph Swainston (Turning Point)

  • "Counting the Pennies" by Rhys Hughes (The Early Bird Catches the Worm but the Wise Worm Stays in Bed)

  • "The Councillor's Visit" by Beth Goddard (Finesse)

  • "Yard Dog" by Tade Thompson (Fiyah)

  • "Dark Shells" by Aliya Whiteley (This Dreaming Isle)

  • "Coruvorn" by Reggie Oliver (The Silent Garden)

  • "The Godziliad" by Adam Roberts (Self-published)

  • "Underground" by Archie Black (Pornokitsch) [Limited edition only]

The book’s 20-odd entries are selected from hundreds of stories that I received (or found, or was recommended) from anthologies, websites, literary and genre magazines, little presses, big presses, and the occasional chapbook. As well as the final table of contents, there’s also a supplementary ‘recommended reading list’, with some of the other highlights from my reading journey.

You can read more about the process here and the ‘brief’ here.

The authors come from the full width and breadth of the United Kingdom, including both immigrants and expats. And their stories contain lethal mermaids, sorcerous rogues, magic swords (a mandatory), city-stomping monsters, ghostly lovers, unreachable islands, several apocalypses, one particularly irritating local councillor, and bees.

We live in Interesting Times, and pulling together a book about mermaids and bees against the backdrop of (waves hands) all that, can like the ultimate act of fiddling.

It is also fair to say that, as well as swords and monsters, The Best of British Fantasy also contains Brexit, identity, politics and politics and politics, class, dysfunctional and functional families, capitalism, immigration, feminism, despair and hope, grief and coping mechanisms, and a few thoughts on the housing market.

Elif Shafak, in The Happiness of Blond People, explains the importance of fiction - particularly in what she describes as ‘angst-’ridden times:

Novels helped me to discover other lives, other possibilities. They gave me a sense of continuity, centre and coherence in my life - the three big C’s that I otherwise lacked.

That’s a tall order for the stories in The Best of British Fantasy - or for any work of art, for that matter. But there’s no better media for it than fantasy, and no better messenger than the simple magic of words. As something to strive for, providing ‘continuity, centre, and coherence’ is a fitting objective for what fantasy can do. Especially, not despite, when living in interesting times.


There’s a lot to discuss about British fantasy, and I’d like your help doing it.

The book has a companion website: The Best of British Fantasy. I’m already sitting, Smaug-like, on a pile of features from great writers that will begin appearing in April. And I’m looking for more short articles on ‘British fantasy’.

What’s your favourite ‘British fantasy’? Is it e a book, a game, a film, or some other work of art? This is a chance for you to write about a childhood favourite or a lost masterpiece or simply something you really, really like. The primary restriction is that it needs to be at least 5 years old, so we can avoid recency bias.

This is a (very lightly) paid gig, and you do not need to be a published author or critic to participate: the broader the view, the better.

If you’re interested, drop me a line at bestofbritishfantasy@gmail.com, and I’ll send you the brief. (Of course there’s a brief.)


Semi-Formal

Smash more Coke bottles

In Robert Calasso's The Art of the Publisher, the author, the chairman of the lauded Adelphi Edizioni, distills the art of publishing as the quest for form:

the capacity to give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book

The most overt demonstration of form comes from the books’ design. The Art of the Publisher dedicates a lot of thought to the role of covers across a publisher's list. Cover design is an art, and it is also the simplest, most blunt way of communicating form. Covers give a consistent visual identity that can create an immediate sense of union across a publisher’s body of work. Whether it is the famous Gollancz yellow jackets or anything at all from Penguin, a consistent cover style can give the impression of form, connecting very disparate books.

But… Calasso also goes on to explain that, although the visual component of form is very nice indeed, the first and foremost means of determining form should be ‘judgement’.

Calasso defines judgement as the publisher's choice of when to 'say no'. Accordingly, form requires a comprehensive understanding of what you are and what you aren’t. At M&C Saatchi, this is the essence of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. Understanding what you don’t need to say, and focusing - ruthlessly - on what you do.

In most publishing houses there are specific editors - and sometimes specific imprints - each with their own vision and taste: judgement. But the larger the publisher, the more the taste-making is diffused across the organisation. And when the realities of commercial pressure become involved, form becomes less of a priority. Do you know who publishes Lee Child? John Grisham? Fifty Shades? The Secret? Would you buy a book by the publisher of Lee Child, because they also publish Lee Child? I suspect not. Lee Child has form with Lee Child, but not with Bantam’s list (saved you a Google).

Form is easier to spot in small presses. A small press generally has a single taste-maker involved, making consistency easier to mandate. Small presses also have to emphasise form because they don’t have brand authors or marketing budgets. They don’t have much else to sell besides their judgement.

Publishers with form that include (but go beyond) the visual:

  • A vintage example: Lin Carter's work with Ballantine Adult Fantasy.

  • More contemporary: Hard Case Crime, which, like the above, is a mixture of both commissioned and reprinted (curated) titles, striking cover art, and distinct editorial vision.

  • I think Comma and Strange Attractor are interesting as it is less editorial ‘taste’ and more philosophical consistency. Everything Comma does - from translation to writing workshops - is about surfacing new voices and new talent, a commitment to discovery that runs through the books and the organisations. Similarly, Strange Attractor ‘celebrates the unpopular’, and their almost-aggressive cultishness gives a sense of form throughout their list.

  • Harlequin and Mills & Boon have a different type of form, in that they’re organised entirely around audience need: tactically using sub-brands to help readers sift through a commoditised market by need. Everything - cover art, design, editorial selection - is judged based on fitting a specific reader taste. It is demand-led form.

  • Black Library - it helps when your form is largely dictated by your existence as a tie-in brand, but they don’t miss an open goal, which, by industry standards, is an impressive achievement. Games Workshop have a clear vision of what all their products are ‘about’, as well as a consistently grimdark, OTT, darkly comedic style.

The promise these publishers all make is their judgement: if you liked one book from Black Library or Hard Case Crime, you’ll probably like the next one, too.

Can Random House or HarperCollins (or Kindle Unlimited) make that promise? Probably not. The logo of a large publisher comes with certain guarantees of quality and professionalism, but a consistency of taste is not one of them.

In the world of advertising, form is another way of describing the ‘Coke Bottle Test’.

This is apocryphal, but the classic Coke bottle is designed so that, if you smash it, every single piece is supposedly instantly identifiable as to its origin. A handy metaphor for integrated marketing: every part of the campaign should be a meaningful microcosm of the whole.

The bottle is also a metaphor for how audiences consume a campaign: smashed. Yes, the social content and the TV work really well together - but what happens if the campaign is smashed? Does the hashtag make sense if they don’t go to the cinema? Are your out-of-home, direct mail, and PR activities connected solely by the presence of a meerkat, or is there something more meaningful that ties everything together?

Advertising has always understood form, or ‘integration’, as cover art. You don’t invest in meerkats, black horses, or singing blokes named Howard and not run them through everything. The challenge is to go deeper. Every aspect of the campaign should be part of ‘a single book’, linked by a consistent philosophy, a clear vision, a distinct style, a focused commitment on the audience, or a brutal simplicity of thought. Integration starts with judgement.

Get: Publishers of integrated marketing campaigns
To: Think beyond cover art
By: Being judgemental


Further reading:

  • You know a great illustration of form? The humble mixtape. One person’s judgement, carefully curated, craftily designed, highly focused around the needs of a single audience. (And with a specific objective in mind: PLS LOVE ME BACK)

  • Amazon is the enemy of form. The site lists a book’s publisher as a second-tier technical detail, hidden below the ‘Simultaneous Device Usage’ and ‘File Size’ information. This isn’t merely being passive aggressive about the ‘competition’, this is a commitment to atomising the market as much as possible to create a search-driven consumer.

  • Conversely, Foyles used to shelve its books by publisher, which strikes me as a Pyrrhic devotion to form: “Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade”

  • Why does it matter? Amongst other things, books are still a status symbol.


Monsters & Mullets, critical (and very funny) reviews of nostalgic films, is now back as a newsletter. Get your quest on.


New book. Old book. Next book.

No good deed

Really ruining the fun for everyone.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed these emails are now coming via Substack, instead of TinyLetter.

I’m grateful to the latter for getting this little project started, but Substack is a much better mug for me. The visual editor is really straightforward and the code doesn’t look like it was written in Dreamweaver. I also find some of the little perks really satisfying: like being able to edit old emails, and a more convenient archive page. The one thing I miss: TinyLetter’s wordcount feature.

(There are also a lot of new subscribers, which is very gratifying. Howdy.)


Citymapper have launched a London “Super Pass” that’s cheaper than it’s Oyster counterpart. In peak 2019ness, they’ve explained their vision on Medium:

We believe ease of ticketing is essential for public transport to compete with private players, and this is important for the future of congested and complex cities.

On one hand, this is a lovely use of technology, and, somehow (magic?) TfL still get their share, so I’m not fussed about nasty long-term impact of money disappearing from the public coffers.

On the other hand, the “London” pass only covers Zones 1-2. If you (generously) interpret that as inner vs outer London, that means the pass is available to less than half (closer to a third) of London’s residential population, and a quarter of its area. Inner London is also better served by transport already - including the public bikes and largely more accessible (in every definition, but including basic ‘walkability’).

The “Super Pass” isn’t a bad idea - it is, in fact, a pretty good one. But it won’t reduce traffic, or pollution, or make the facilities of “London” (central London) any more accessible to the majority of Londoners (greater, or ‘actual’, London). When considering the socio-economic profiles of Inner and Outer boroughs, I’d much rather see the discount go to someone in Redbridge than Westminster. Access to transportation is critical for mental health, economic progress and social mobility. “Super Pass” is a lovely thing, but it stops short of meaningful impact, especially when contrasted with, say, the “hopper” fare. Great for tourists though.

This is all part of the greater conversation on the ethical use of technology. Unless you’re being deliberately dense, you’ve probably cottoned on to the fact that computers can, indeed, have biases. Technology only does what we ask it to do, and sometimes we don’t ask it the right - or fullest - questions.

Similarly, systems design can function the same way. Even with the best intentions, offering transport discounts (to Zone 1-2), free courses (to those at university), professional advice (to those who can pay £60 to attend a course in Central London in the middle of a workday)… can wind up reinforcing the same issues that they are meant to combat. Or creating another set of issues entirely.

I’ve written in the past about “wicked problems”. Another challenge of the wicked problem is that - in a Heisenbergery kind of way - they are impacted by the attempt to address them. That’s another reason we have to be especially careful. Pilot schemes aren't ‘sandboxes’; they take place in the real world.


The great Drew Magary on the marketing of ‘passion’:

The single stupidest comment to make online about something—and there is no shortage of choices—is “meh.” Proudly displaying your LACK of passion about something is basically announcing to the world that you’re an uninteresting person. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Why don’t you go sit and do crossword puzzles silently until you die? Why bother living if you’re not gonna care about shit either way? Passion is vital, which is why it sucks that techy dingbats have taken the concept and mutilated it into a disposable bit of self-branding.

The link - a discussion of the evils of ‘meh’ - is worth reading.

Magary arrived at this point in his typical round-about way, but he’s actually answering a reader question about using the phrase “to have a passion for”.

What he is illustrating the basic principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ - which is as true in marketing as it is in fiction. There are are certain… let’s call them “values”… that are undermined by the simple act of self-assigning them.

Again, there’s a wee bit of Heisenberg about this. There’s nothing, for example, as inherently untrustworthy as saying “trust me”. “Integrity”, “honesty”, “trust”, “transparency”… are in the same boat. They’re not simply better by being shown, but telling is counter-productive. I think this elevates them beyond another tier of values - “efficiency”, “ease”, even “value” - where telling is a more neutral act.

Is it because the former category are more subjective, or simply more personal? Or are they more emotional? Ease is a practical, rational concern. Honesty is, functionally- speaking, meaningless, but psychologically critical. (Interestingly, if you had to choose between an honest brand or an easy to use one, which would you choose? Would that matter depending on the sector? What if it were your bank? Your doctor? Your waiter?)

Whether it is ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘practice what you preach’ or, whatever, it is simply the common sense that underpins virtually every approach to strategic communications. As importantly, ‘show, don’t tell’ also informs the limits of those communications: what happens when you say something you aren’t doing? Or stop doing what you are saying?

The big downer here: there can be harm in trying. Don’t claim what you can’t prove. Because it won’t simply fail, it’ll undermine your future attempts at success.

Get: Problem-solvers
To: Consider the cost of failure
By: Reminding them that nothing takes place in a vaccuum


Not to brag, but I was once a guest, on a podcast even, with Drew. My contribution - which was recorded at 4 am GMT - was mostly fawning. It is not my finest hour (or 42 minutes). Mostly I’m just confused about Chopped.


Further reading:


Last night was the second ‘launch’ of The Outcast Hours, at the beautiful Brick Lane Books, at 7 pm. Guests included Frances Hardinge, Karen Onojaife, Maha Khan Phillips, Will Hill and, everyone’s favourite: wine. Being a book about cities at night, having an East London event felt rather necessary, and the bookstore is one of my favourites. I’m not sure who does their buying, but all their books are really, really pretty, and it was nice to see Outcast hanging out in their company.

For the collector, it means that there are now signed copies at two different shops, with two different sets of signatures. Good luck with that.

The immediate Outcast events are all done, so… enjoy the silence. If you’re interested in a book, or simply hot takes, about ‘the people who live at night’ - get in touch. I know a few dozen authors I can recommend.

Muddling

Caution: contains Brexit

Author Joe Abercrombie answers a tough question about writing on Twitter: 'How much wasted work do you think you have in every book?'

Well, none, in a sense, because you couldn't get to the finished book without doing that work. To use a film metaphor, if you shoot five takes and pick one, those other ones weren't wasted, they were part of the process of getting the one you wanted. 

This is a lovely perspective on the value that comes from the process, as well as the result. 

First of many tangents, and stay with me, as I tell this story alot, but it has stuck with me. About ten years ago, I heard editor Simon Spanton answer a fairly 'softball' question from the crowd. "How do I get published?" Rather than focusing on the procedure (query letters, agents, prayer), Simon turned the question around. What do you want? Is the goal 'to be published'? Because that's a very different goal from 'to be a writer', or even 'to write a book'.

The conflation of those objectives makes for - broken record time! - confused, and arbitrary, definitions of success. A self-published author is angry they're not in a bookstore; a traditionally-published debut is disappointed that they still have their day job; someone who worked for a decade completing their secret novel feels like rubbish because it doesn't have a publisher. Letting others define your success is predestined failure.

Abercrombie's take also shows the murky relationship between success and 'middling'. If the goal is to be done, everything that's not on the direct path to completion is, by nature, wasted work: counter-successful. If the goal is, however, to be donewell - to get better - time well spent - then the process is successful, even before it reaches its completion. 

This sounds like a preachy little self-help video, but I'm not actually interested in the fuzzy inspirational  poster. As much as I'd like every journey to be as valuable as its destination and other such bollocks, that's clearly not the case. Middling is not inherently meaningful.

Which leads us to Brexit! (Watches subscription numbers plummet.) Let's set aside whether or not Brexit is a success worth achieving, and look at the one thing that everyone - from the hardest Leaver to the most ardent Remainer can agree on: the process has suuuuuuuucked. There's simply no other way to put it. Britain Thinks' latest research summarises this as 'absolute despair at the whole political class', with 83% agreeing that 'the entire political establishment has failed'.

The British public's opinion of every category of the 'establishment' has gotten worse, with net perception down across the board: Tories (-49%) and Labour (-46%), May (-32%) and Corbyn (-51%), the EU (-41%), Parliament (-64%) and, well, even the British public (-18%). That last one is particularly amazing - the past two years have been such a muddle that the British public no longer even likesitself. Edelman's Trust Barometer shows that over half the 'mass public' thinks that system is failing them, with over 70% expressing 'lack of confidence'. The process has undermined the system as a concept. The impact of Brexit's middling, irregardless of its ultimate outcome, will be felt for generations. 

(If there's a 'silver lining', it is that the world, as a whole, is pretty despairing, so the global baseline is pretty crap. Globally "only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them". I'm not sure how reassuring it is to know that everyone is collapsing out of civil society, but, well, there you go. Hang in there.)

How is Brexit like writing a book? Or, to go back to Abercrombie's advice writing a book? With apologies to any authors in the house, one is simply a great deal more complicated than the other. The latter argues that the struggle can be meaningful, but the former shows that, in some cases, it can turn sour, with horrific repercussions. How do we gauge when our effortis'wasted'? What measures of success do we have for the process itself, to ensure that, even with no end in sight, the middle is still of value?

Get: Gamblers
To: Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run

By: Robust process evaluation


Further reading:

  • I've just finished writing an article on the Western classic, Lonesome Dove. Our two (doomed) protagonists, accompanied by a host of (doomed) companions, drive cattle from Mexico to Montana - an 800 page gauntlet of Biblical terrors. Then [spoilers] they basically turn around and go home. What's, you know, the point? Is it about the journey? The destination? Or, as I argue (less succinctly than this), the reward was simply fulfilling the desire to move. For the cowboys of Lonesome Dove, middling is to be. To end is, well, to end.

  • Do communities middle?An analysis of Reddit looks at how groups change over time.As groups grow, turnover increases and participation is 'dispersed'. That is, the bigger they are, they less of a 'community' they become.

  • Literal middling. Great ad.


 The Outcast Hours is out today (in the UK, Americans have had it since Tuesday, the lucky so-and-so's). You can buy it, like, everywhere: Amazon / Amazon.co.uk / B&N / Foyles / Blackwells / Waterstones.

Signed copies will be available through Forbidden Planet after tonight as well.

Come join me - and more importantly, a bunch of amazing authors - tonight and next Thursday.

Outcast-flogging will be minimised after this email. (And my next book isn't until May, so, who knows, there may be meaningful content between now and then. Although I'd hate to over-promise.)

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