Faith, trust and pixie dust

And zombies.

First, elsewhere:

Zombies, according to Simon Pegg, are the ‘most potent metaphorical monster’ - but can they be relevant during Covid-19? My (fairly tricky) review of The Living Dead, over at Tor.com.


Tomorrow night, I’m hosting Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens for a discussion of his new book, Incitement: Anwar Al-Awlaki's Western Jihad. The book is not a biography, more a study of the infamous recruiter’s impact, and a deep dive into what made him so effective. As with all these book talks, this is an examination of the power of communications, and how the techniques of persuasion can be used for good or harm. It promises to be a very good chat - register now to join.


I am 20ish books into my Western read.

You can see progress - with mapping the associated values - here.

A few brief recommendations:

  • Herbert Purdum’s My Brother John (1966) was surprisingly funny - not what I expected from a Western, but really pleasant. I’ll admit its voice came as a surprise, but this is a good-hearted book where nice things work out for good people.

  • Sheldon Russell’s A Forgotten Evil (2019) also had a humorous note throughout, mostly in the utterly human, banter-laden dialogue. But that only emphasises how dark this book is. The ‘forgotten evil’ is the human (‘incidental’) cost; the tiny tragedies that underpin history. In this case, the figure of General Custer looms larger than life, and is interwoven throughout the book - even as he never actually appears himself. Instead, we’re following the personal heroics of ‘smaller’ people. It is incredibly well-crafted.

  • John Prebble’s Buffalo Soldiers (1959) is another one that’s hard-hitting. As the title indicates, it is ultimately about race: a working class white Lieutenant in charge of a newly-formed Black cavalry unit, in charge of policing the local Native population. It reminded me of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) - a raw, contemporary, attempt to wrestle with the ideals and realities of the time. It tackles - head-on - challenges of vocal diversity versus more pragmatic inclusion, as well as the difficulty of maintaining idealism in the face of individual human failings. Not for the faint of heart, but, impressively (sadly?) still relevant today.

  • Judy Alter’s Mattie (1988) is a slightly meandering narrative about a frontier doctor. There’s not much in the way of conflict - and, to be honest, only minimal doctoring. But it is an insightful look at how communities are born and grow. Like A Forgotten Evil, this champions the ‘ordinary extraordinary’ as the people who built and made the West. (Although, thankfully, far less grim.)

And a longer one:

  • Thomas Eidson’s St Agnes’ Stand (1994) follows Nat Swanson - your archetypical charismatic, rogueish cowboy. He uses a crossbow (!), is devilishly handsome, and ain’t never shot a man who didn’t deserve it. Etc. etc. While on the run from a posse, Nat encounters a group of Apaches who have trapped a wagonload of nuns. And orphans. Nat, against his self-interest, gets involved, and the rest of the book follows the brutal, noble, and occasionally implausible, events of the siege.


St Agnes’ Stand sounds over the top, and, well, it should be. The set-up is just that: the classic cowboy figure in a classic heroic situation. But Eidson counterbalances that by putting his four-colour characters into a hyper-real context. Death is visceral and terrible and painful. The thirst and starvation is excruciatingly detailed. The events are horrible and heart-breaking. It is an incredibly powerful use of archetypes to create immediate engagement, but Eidson then subverts the story from there.

Nat is a gritty ‘realist’; the titular nun is, well, saintly. As the book goes on, of course, we find that Nat is a secret idealist and Sister St Agnes is well-grounded, but the lesson remains the same: it is faith that Nat needs (and St Agnes has, in abundance).

Faith, however, is not a value. This is not helpful for my coding. This, at first, perplexed me. But Rokeach, if you’ll remember from the last newsletter, divides values into terminal or instrumental.

  1. A terminal value is what you are working towards. Faith is not an ‘end-state’ of being.

  2. An instrumental value is the ideal behaviour to achieve it. Faith is not a behaviour. In fact, faith is a non-behaviour. Faith is the belief in an outcome without having evidence or justification for that belief. Faith is an explanation for a behaviour.

When we talk about faith, we’re generally using it one of three ways:

First, as a shorthand for morality. Faith’s equivalence with morality is something that varies by geography. Globally, 45% say that a belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values. In the US that’s 44%, Canada 26%, and UK 20%. In the developing world, it is a different story: 95% of Kenyans think faith is necessary for morality. Indonesia: 96%. Nigeria: 93%. Brazil: 84%. These values shift over time - Japan, for example, has gone up 10% since 2002, while the US has declined by 14%.

Second, as a means of defining an in-group. Faith is a demographic segment. Like any other demographic, it defines who we see as ‘like us’ and who we see as ‘not us’. It gives us a shared experience, a shared set of attitudes and behaviours, a culture and a community. Faith is an identity.

Third, as hope. Hope, like faith is ‘belief in an outcome despite the lack of evidence’. Neither faith nor hope are a behaviour - or a value - but they are both motivations for behaviours. Faith is a reason for doing things; for behaving a certain way. You wear x or go to y because, and that because is faith.

Hope too is a reason for action - a powerful, but often forgotten one. We behave in a certain way not because we know what the result will be, but because our action might make things a bit better. Hope is behaviour without expectation; a contribution without guarantee of reward. It is also essential to the functioning of modern society. A single vote is infinitesimal, but we cast it because we hope it makes a difference. A single piece of litter won’t make a difference, but we put it in the bin in the hope that others do the same. Hope fuels our positive social norms. Unless we believe in better, there’s no reason to do our bit.

The reverse of hope - despair, I suppose - is equally successful when it comes in promoting inaction. In the nasty world of disinformation, for example, this is a major theme: strategic narratives around distrust or division; narratives that say a vote is meaningless, or the system is fraudulent. These are designed to encourage inaction. To dissuade people from participation; to reduce our faith in positive outcomes. [Both those links to articles by Haroro Ingram, one of June’s book club guests, and one of the most compelling thinkers in this space.]

Back to the Wild West, hope and faith are again interchangeable. Sister St Agnes has hope that Nat can save her, Nat founders until he is willing to try the impossible, for hope that it will make a difference. If it were not for this faith, they would have given up, but hope gave them resilience and also inspired action.

Hope, like faith, is not a value. But it is invaluable.


Further reading on faith, hope and charity:

The Chaotic West

Westerns, Dungeons & Dragons, and the search for American values.

I’ve been trailing Westerns (pun!) for a few newsletters now, and it is about time I bit the bullet (hey!).

After my mysteries challenge concluded, I wanted to try a different genre. Not just a palate-cleanser, but an entirely new sort of cuisine. Westerns are definitely different.

But…

In a broader sense, this is my quest for America. 🦅

We’re currently 80-odd (+/- unconstitutional attempts at delay) days out from one of the most important political moments of my lifetime. The electorate will be choosing, again, a set of values for America.

Our selection at the ballot box will capture what voters want as answers to some very big questions. What is America? What does it want to be? How do we want to get there?

‘Values’ means ‘a preferable conduct or end-state’.

These are all questions about American values.


First, a digression.

This is an excellent opportunity to talk about the closest thing modern Western culture has to a universally understood values-based framework: Dungeon & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons, as you all know (and don’t pretend you don’t, you big nerds) is the world’s most successful tabletop role-playing game. It has been around in various forms since the 1970s, encouraging adolescents (of all ages) to ‘role play’ as a mighty adventurer in a fantasy world.

It is pretty awesome.

‘Role play’ implies two different, simultaneous, requirements.

‘Play’ involves a system of rules that allows everyone to understand, numerically, how stuff happens. Each character, monster, bartender, wall, treasure, tree, whatever has a set of quantifiable metrics that explains exactly what it is, and what it does. You have numbers in front of you that explain how strong your character is - how much they can lift and carry, how much it hurts when they punch someone in the face. You have similar numbers that explain how fast your character is, how smart they are, how hardy, how charming; how good they are at math or forestry; how pointy their sword is; how many spells they know, etc.

The ‘role’ part is trickier. When you’re playing your character, you are expected to be your characters. That is, Orble the Barbarian should behave a certain way that is (hopefully) quite un-Jared-like. Orble, unlike Jared, can ride a horse, swing an axe, and bench-press six times his body weight. Similarly, Orble will have different life goals and ambitions. If Orble’s great life’s goal is ‘a bookshop in Lyme Regis’, why is he mucking about in the dungeons of Torech Ungol? Jared feels awkward leaving critical reviews on Amazon. Orble believes the path to greatness involves punching stuff. Orble and Jared have very different values.

Beyond Orble: every character, monster, bartender and tree needs their values as well. How else do we know what motivates them, or how they’ll behave? (Perhaps not the tree. The tree abides.) D&D needed a values framework that could include the entire universe - every sidekick, love interests villain, mercenary captain, henchman, high priestess, and passing bard.

More importantly, this framework need to be quick. D&D is a fast-paced game with a lot of characters and an infinite number of potential interactions. In order to function, it needed a reasonable number of actionable, immediate archetypes that could describe any character’s attitude and behaviour. This is a segmentation challenge!

Fortunately, the creator* of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, never saw a problem he couldn’t solve with a bit of plagiarism and a column of numbers. (He would’ve been a great planner.) His solution drew heavily on the fantasy literature of the era and created a two-axis solution: Law vs Chaos and Good vs Evil. ‘Neutral’ then sits in the middle, creating a simple nine box segmentation.

Any sentient creature could range from ‘law-abiding and altruistic’ (Lawful Good) to ‘individualistic with no respect for life’ (Chaotic Evil). In the dead centre sat ‘True Neutral’, which was reserved for those passionately committed to maintaining the cosmic balance (annoying druids) and those who truly DNGAF (badgers?).

Alignment is a shockingly simple way of helping everyone understand how they’re supposed to act. It has not only worked for a half-century of Dungeons & Dragons, but it became a very, very easy way of understanding other properties as well.

D&D alignment charts have become one of the internet’s most ubiquitous memes, used to segment everything and everyone from the Trolley Problem to the Jacksonville Jaguars to how people use toilet paper. It is a fun, Buzzfeed-friendly way of judging people, and it also represents an easily understood set of values.

Alignment is, of course, badly reductive. Even in the earliest editions of the game, alignment’s compact nine-box grid stands in stark contrast, to say, the long lists of weaponry. There are more pole-arms alone. Gygax figured - correctly - that his audience didn’t require, or want, a robust moral values.

[The first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide included the - now infamous - ‘Harlot Encounter Table’, for, uh, urban adventures of a particular sort. It has twelve categories. Pretty much explains D&D’s priorities in a nutshell.]

That’s not to say it isn’t problematic. All Orcs, for example, are Chaotic Evil. On one hand, that allows your group of players to hack a horde of Orcs to pieces without fretting over the moral consequences. On the other hand, that’s a pretty disturbing lesson in racial essentialism. Do Orcs not love their children? Do they not cooperate to achieve their goals? Could an Orc make great art? Etc. Given everything else in 2020, Dungeons & Dragons has officially stepped out of alignment, reframing it as an optional series of ‘suggestions’.

As sensible as this is, the alignment system has given us some genuinely fascinating explorations of values, in the way that only fantasy - as a sandbox for the impossible - allows. By systemitising values in this way, concepts like ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ became measurable, absolute qualities. For example, spells like detect evil allowed players to identify objectively bad people: creating an entirely new economy of trust.

The idea of alignment as a form of moral physics reached its zenith in the mid-1980s with - wait for it - Dragonlance. (You saw that coming, right?) The Dragonlance setting was moral absolutism at its most brutal. Characters that swayed from their ‘professed alignment’ faced physical penalties - culminating in physical sickness, death, or, worse, loss of experience points.

Imagine a world where your values were like gravity: absolute or unalterable truths. Where a moral compass has a literal true north. You believe in truth? A white lie gives you stomach cramps. Tell too many of them? You die of fantasy ebola.

The Dragonlance novels are what they are (if you’re curious, go for it), but the unusual moral physics makes for a surprisingly high-concept fantasy setting - and one that made the very most out of Dungeons & Dragons’ unique approach to values.


Like in Dragonlance, our values-based decisions in the real world have consequences. Unlike Dragonlance, our values aren’t absolute and binary. We aren’t consistently Good or Evil, Lawful or Chaotic. We not only have many, many more values to choose from, we aren’t consistent in how we make those choices.

When we buy a can of beans, we’re judging the taste of the product (pleasure), the price (logic), even the look of the can (cleanliness). Do they come wrapped in plastic? Are they Heinz or ‘own-brand’? Do the beans have political significance? These are values-based decisions. And this is for beans.

Now imagine making a hiring decision.

Picking ‘Best Novel’.

Choosing a school for your kid.

Voting.

We don’t make any of these decisions - much less all of them - based around a single value. We juggle different, often conflicting, values based on the context. And we’re very rarely consistent between contexts. Hell, we’re very rarely consistent returning to the same context. My decision today might not the same tomorrow. Today, I am Lawful Recyclable. Tomorrow, I may be Chaotic Pretty Packaging.

However, the relativity of values doesn’t mean complete carnage. We prioritise our values when we make decisions. We tap into our holiday fund to buy our cat’s medicine. We use whole milk in our latte because it tastes better. We make vegan lasagna so our friends can eat it. We vote against our financial or social self-interest. It depends on what value is most important to us at the time.

Milton Rokeach believed he could measure the relativity of values - as they are relative to one another. In 1973, he structured his Values Survey as a set of priorities, and not absolutes, as he felt this better reflected the complexities of human behaviour.

Rokeach also divided values into terminal and instrumental, which captures the complex role that values play in our lives. Terminal values are about one’s desired (if potentially unobtainable) end-state. What do we want to achieve? What’s the ultimate goal? What is the vision?

Instrumental values are how we get there. What’s the desired behaviour for enabling us to reach that end-state? One is an objective; the other a mode of behaviour. In D&D terms, Good and Evil are terminal values. Lawful and Chaotic are instrumental. But whereas D&D has those four values, the Rokeach Values Survey has a total of 36. (Gygax would not approve.)


Let’s get back to Westerns.

My explorations of Westerns is based on two broad (and possibly unfounded) assumptions.

The first is that Westerns are metaphoric representations of America.

This is not a particularly controversial assumption. Of course, many of the great Westerns weren’t written by Americans (even more true when it comes to film). But that only reinforces my point: they’re treating the American West as a mythic setting, presenting what the writer or film-maker sees as quintessentially American.

My second assumption is that, since Westerns are representations of America, the values explored in Westerns are therefore representative of American values. Perceived or otherwise, the values expressed in Westerns reflect the values that their creators saw (or desired to see) in America.

Westerns are particularly useful for a discussion of values because they are set in an unmoderated space. The ‘Wild West’ is a space where there are no social norms. Individuals are therefore completely free to act according to their own values.

The Wild West is also a harsh space. Every decision has to take into account meaningful, and potentially deadly, consequences. Does our hero accept a duel at the risk of his life? Or does he stay at the table instead? Does he obey the crooked Sheriff or free a wrongly-convicted prisoner? Does he marry the woman of his dreams or go in search of his fortune? Does he join a collective of ranchers or stay independent? These choices, and ones like them, are significant and difficult: they often provide the ‘conflict’ at the heart of a Western’s story.

Westerns are therefore books where values are central: to the character, to the conflict, and to the books’ central theme or message. For example, a few of the books I’ve read recently:

  • Buffalo Wagons (1957), our hero pushes across the border in search of hides. This is illegal, dangerous, and utterly irrational, but he’s driven by a compulsive need to see the wilderness again (Rokeach calls this particular terminal value ‘A World of Beauty’).

  • On Swift Horses (2019), a man steals from his family, risks the wrath of the mob, and takes to a life of crime - all in the hope of finding the one man who gave him a sense of belonging (‘Inner Harmony’).

  • My Brother John (1966), our exasperated narrator willingly joins a range war - on the losing side - to keep his brother safe (‘Family Security’).

For every Western I read - each a winner of the Spur Award for the Year’s Best Western Novel - I’ve given what I think is the book’s highest-priority value a ‘3’. I’ve also tagged lesser, but still present, values a ‘1’.

If you’re interested in following along, I’ve got a ‘live’ spreadsheet here.

What this could mean is that we’ll be able to look at the changes in Western (American) values over time. Or… it may be a giant worthless muddle. Trying to boil a book down to a single, prioritised value is the sort of shoddy analysis that deeply offends both literature majors and social scientists alike. So who knows? At least it’ll give us something to talk about.

See you on the other side. Be Good.


Additional reading on related topics (some repeats, but c’est la vie):

Finally, a stirring article on values as ‘informal rules’ and why they’re so important to American democracy:

We depend a great deal on informal rules to constrain the presidency, both because of the powerful nature of the office and because it’s difficult to find agreement about the kinds of formal rules that would limit presidential power. Much of the time when we’re talking about norm violations, we don’t so much mean a departure from standard practice as a breach in democratic principles. The ability to adopt informal rules has sometimes saved Americans from hard conversations about power and the tradeoffs that democracy requires. Those are exactly the kinds of hard conversations we might need to have now.

The Absolutely Subjective Best Books of Part of the Decade for Me

A list of no value to anyone else

Like everyone else, I started a listicle in January 2020 about the best whatnot of the previous ten years. And, like most everyone else, I was then side-tracked by the apocalypse. It happens.

I revisited the draft to see if there was anything useful in there. There wasn’t. But it did give me an idea. Rather than try to come up with an 'objective’ list of great books, and convince you to read them, why don’t I do the reverse?

In this case, a purely subjective ‘best of’ list, measuring the books that had the most impact on me. And not necessarily because of the text, but as an object, an experience, a moment, or simply historical coincidence. A ‘best of’ list that is entirely personal - and therefore completely useless to anyone else.

The task was self-indulgent and very, very comforting.


Speaking of the dark half! The Outcast Hours is a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards (as is one of the short stories within, Genevieve Valentine’s “Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?”). Congratulations to all the contributors to this delightfully macabre anthology! Mahvesh and I are delighted.


2010

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

I started tracking my reading on Goodreads in 2011.

I have literally one book added for 2010: Zoo City. Zoo City was a pivotal moment for me, and my relationship with ‘genre fiction’ (for the uninitiated, that’s how people talk about science fiction and fantasy when they’re too nervous to say ‘geek stuff’). It is imaginative and entertaining and all those nice things, but it is also fiercely contemporary.

Zoo City, unlike the gold-plated SF of my youth, was a book that felt of 2010, not of a historical, Cold War era. This wasn’t inherited wonder, it was science fiction for me; now.

Zoo City is also how I met Lauren Beukes. She is outgoing and adventurous and progressive, and someone who cultivates and actively promotes talent in others. Lauren uses her own (hard-earned) success as a platform to create opportunities for others.

In 2010, I was a rather naive fan, looking to get more involved. I could not have stumbled on a better role model as to how authors, or community members, should behave. I’ve not always lived up to that standard, but at least I know what it is.

All because I really liked Zoo City.


2011

Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall

In 2011, ‘my’ first book came out - an anthology that Anne and I edited on a whim. A whim that turned into my side-hustle and her career. Sometimes things do work the way they should.

[As far as the rules of the listicle goes: including ‘my’ books would fit the definition, but that’s pretty distasteful. Like listing all your favourite meats, and including your pets. Technically correct, but still pretty gross.]

When Anne and I decided to start a small press and Make a Book, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Enthusiasm is great, but, at some point, you need to, well, Make Book. Anne was the talented editor from the get-go (see above). She did the tricky creative and editorial work, while I taught myself the functional bits: I learned about typography and ISBN numbers and contracts.

Thanks to Birdsall, I learned all the various bits and pieces of design that go into making a book look like a book. Most of them are entirely invisible, but their collective impact is incredibly important to the experience of a book. I learned that a book, as an object, is greater than the sum of its words. It taught me a new appreciation for books as art and artefacts.

I’m not sure I learned any of those lessons well, but I learned them all enough. And somethings that’s all you need to keep moving.


2012

Condominium by John D MacDonald

JDM has been my constant companion since I found a box of Travis McGee novels for a dime each outside of a Phoenix gas station. Those silly, wonderful, problematic, thoughtful novels are, in many ways, at the core of my reading. From the Travis McGee novels, I spun into a whole world of noir authors and paperback originals and musty publishers, all of whom have filled my shelves and my hours.

In 2012, I was trying to complete a JDM collection, and I spent my year tracking down and reading his many, many standalone novels. Condominium is his longest book, and his most ‘serious’. It is disaster fiction - about a condo complex in Florida, facing the chaos of a hurricane.

Unlike most disaster fiction, JDM isn’t that fussed about the disaster itself. The hurricane is inevitable, of course, but JDM focuses on the human elements that make its evitability so catastrophic. He focuses on the people - bringing to life the sociological, governmental, and cultural networks, and explaining how and why they failed. It is, to use one of the hot buzzwords of my field, about ‘resilience’, or the lack thereof.

I’m not sure it is JDM’s best novel: despite the size and stature, it lacks tension. The late-entering protagonist is flat-out boring, and the romance, such as it is, is horribly contrived. But the scope allows MacDonald to explore the many nuanced and trivial interconnections within the pocket-sized world he builds. It is a novel about systems, and their failure, and utterly fascinating for it.

It isn’t too much to say that it is a book that showed me a different way of looking about things - a sense of the importance of interconnections and networks, rather than simply trying to spot the protagonist in any situation. Yes, it is pulpy disaster fiction, but it is also a fantastic introduction to strategic planning.


2013

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

Our friends had a copy of this book, and whenever we visited, I used to disappear into their kitchen and thumb through it. I’m a great guest. Eventually I bought my own copy, making it the first cookbook I’d ever purchased.

And what a cookbook it is. The Flavour Thesaurus has about three recipes in it, two of which are uncookable by mortals. But if you’re looking for instructions - for didactic rules on making a proper dish - you’re looking in the wrong place. This is a collection of combinations (strange, wonderful, and not always successful) and inspirations. It is liberally filled with anecdotes, biographical snippets, travel notes, and stories of meals great and terrible. This is permission to cook.

I realised cooking was no longer the route memorisation of recipes: cooking is about trying things, being a bit bonkers, and not being afraid of failure. If you want to start with a pre-approved combination, go for it! If not, go for that too! Cooking is about fun and taste and experimentation and… well, pure joy. It isn’t a chore. I learned to do the dishes.

Anne has put up with a lot of terrible meals from me, but this book has made me a much happier person.

[This book directly inspired the best communications strategy I ever wrote. But I’ll save that for another day.]


2014

Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James

Desperate Duchesses is the first volume of a lengthy series. There’s a core story arc, which is the love triangle between Jemma, Beaumont (her estranged husband) and Villiers (a saucy Valmont type). There’s a rivalry, some politics, a lot of heated gazes, and oddly enough, a great deal of chess.

While the three of them play with their pieces (fnar) in the background, the bulk of the series, like most romances, bounces between ‘secondary’ pairings. Each book picks a a couple, gives them a taste of adventure, gets them laid (thoroughly) and, eventually, marries them off.

Duchesses wasn’t my first Regency romance - other 2014 contenders include my first Heyer and some Courtney Milan - but this was the series that did it for me. Eloisa James combines, in perfect harmony, humour and drama, world-building and characterisation, sex and tension. There’s attention to detail, but never the burden of it - a good Regency romance is almost always anachronistic. And the hop-skip-jump series mechanic is a wonderful way of retaining the best of a ‘cinematic’ world without milking it dry.

Which is all very nice, but why are our scandalous duchesses important to me?

First, there’s the eye-opening surprise that comes with entering any cultural category for the first time. Whether that’s your first film noir, your first pantomime, or your film test match. All the tropes and tricks are new. At the time, I wrote up my experience of the encounter in a fun, if binary, fashion: Five Things in Historical Romance That I Wantonly Desire to See in Epic Fantasy. But every culture - fandom, whatever - has its own language, community, and social norms. It has the stuff it does well - and badly - and its own perspective on the world. Visiting a different bubble can be educational.

Second, Eloisa James. She has a Masters from Oxford and a PhD from Yale. She lectures on Shakespeare at Fordham, and has a genuinely phenomenal academic career. She also writes a lot of novels about horny nobility. Avoiding authorial intent and all that: she seems like a lot of fun, and I’ve always gravitated towards authors (Ed McBain, John D MacDonald, Robert Chambers) who seem to make conscious decisions about their literary careers that result in immense success despite eschewing more traditional definitions of ‘greatness’. You go, EJ.

Third, romance is the biggest category of fiction. Adult colouring books and ‘David Walliams’ and all that, but romance is what props up the publishing world. On average, Romance readers read far more than other readers - often hundreds of books each year. And the market is cut-throat. Amazon metadata precision, bundling tactics, cover design hacks - the innovations (and scandals) come from romance, because that’s where the action is. Your average bookstore can’t keep up with their volume, and can’t compete on price - making it a truly digital-first wing of the sector. (Which is why, in turn, the publishing industry repays Romance readers by pretending their books don’t matter. Charming.) It isn’t that romance readers don’t appreciate quality, it is that they’re reading in such volume that they’ve successfully commoditised their culture. It is amazing to behold.

I’m not sure anyone can pretend to know about - or care about - publishing without knowing about - or caring about - romance.

Fourth, a bit like The Flavour Thesaurus, it was really nice to get over myself and try something new. And be rewarded for doing so: romance books are now a staple of my fictional diet. ‘Dude gets weird stares buying a Courtney Milan’ is about the most privileged experience of discomfort I could think of, but even then, it is eye-opening to think about the social, cultural, and algorithmic barriers that stood in my way. And, of course, my own preconceptions.


2015

The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Nostalgia is seductive. The bit of your brain that processes memories also gives you a little happy boost. Our mind actually rewards us for thinking about the past.

It doesn’t even have to be a real memory to give you your fix. Thinking about an imagined past can have the same impact. False memories of the ‘good ol’ days’ are therefore self-perpetuating. They are rose-tinted glasses that reward us every time we put them on.

The Dragonlance Chronicles are my sunlit uplands. As a kid, I read these gooey, pulpy fantasies until the covers, quite literally, fell off. I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every minor character. I filled spiral notebooks with my fan-fiction. I knew its geography, politics, society, and constellations. I knew its world better than I understood my own. And liked it more too.

Mahvesh Murad and I agreed to do a full ‘re-read’ for Tor.com. A chapter by chapter analysis of all three books of this classic series. It took 75,000 words, and… it was a challenge. Very few childhood reads hold up to adult scrutiny, and my rose-tinted glasses were pretty badly shattered in the attempt. It was an 18-month lesson in the dangers of overindulgence.

I learned a lot about process and collaboration. Mahvesh and I had edited together, but co-writing an article/week for sixty weeks is a different beast. We’re both alive, so that’s promising.

I learned how to think critically about what I love (or used to love). The temptation with a scenario like this is to give in to reactance: to blindly defend the books or to savage them. Again, reviewing wasn’t a new thing, but to review - endlessly - the same books over and over again is a different challenge. It is about maintaining moderation, and trying to find interesting hooks over and over again.

Most importantly, we both had a lot of fun. We got Kamila Shamsie to write a guest post (and Anne). We interviewed ourselves. We snuck Taylor Swift lyrics into every single one of the sixty-odd entries.

The ‘cure’ for nostalgia - researchers suggest - is more engagement with historical reality. In this case, engaging with the reality absolutely annihilated my existing nostalgia, but then replaced it with a new form. I still love the Dragonlance Chronicles, but my rosy memories are of revisiting them, not my childhood.

That’s pretty encouraging. It would be comforting if my relationship with these books - with any of the books on this list, or on my shelf - never changed. But that’s impossible - the world is changing, I’m changing; every read and re-read will be a new experience. But if I can forge a new connection with a particularly ludicrous childhood totem, it means that nothing is ever truly lost.


As a reward for making it this far - some links that aren’t all about me:


Next up. Probably Westerns?

Misinformation, Mythology and the Soul of Science Fiction

Bits and pieces

A bit of a grab bag, apologies.

I have a new piece in The Bookseller explaining that books can be ‘misinformation’ too. Trust in media sources is bottoming out, and books aren’t immune. This is particularly critical for publishing: the book is already a threatened form of culture, and the authority a book conveys is one of its few remaining USPs. There have been some, to put it frankly, egregious fuckups. It needs to be sorted out systematically.

On a related note, I’m hosting Nina Jankowicz for a discussion of her fascinating new book, How to Lose the Information War. This event takes place on July 29th, and is the fifth in a series of discussions around conflict and communications. So far, the series has touched on Ezra Pound, the rise of ISIS, YouTube algorithms, and fascist pizza (a real thing). Jankowicz is one of the leading experts in mis- and disinformation, and I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Absolutely nothing to do with misinformation, but more good books: Tor.com’s Reviewers’ Choice for Best of 2020 So Far (TDCRCBO2020SF) - despite the flagrant misuse of ‘best’, this isn’t even pretending to be an objective listicle. Tor.com’s regular (and irregular, cough) reviewers pick their favourites, and it always winds up being an eclectic mix of under the radar books. My contributions are Drew Williams' sensitive-but-splodey space opera, and Stark Holborn’s self-published math-Western.

Given the way the first half of the year has gone, they’re both comfort reads, but ones that mix shameless escapism with hidden depths.


Speaking of the best… This year’s volume of The Best of British Fantasy is now available. It features Tube monsters, a very good dog, and Billy Zane.


Adam Roberts on the political soul of science fiction. A 2013 piece, but still relevant. I think there are two points here - relevant outside of simply ‘SF’ fandom.

First, the tension between reactionary/progressive movement (nostalgia/change, etc) is not unique to SF: it applies across communities and cultures of all forms. But in SF, with its explicit focus on ‘talking about types of future’, it is simply easier to see.

Second, I think Adam is a generous and empathetic writer. He’s very clear about where he, personally, stands, but is able to understand - if not agree with - the persuasive virtues of the ‘other’ side. With all the debates about division and cancelling and whatnot, that’s a rare and important talent, and a necessary one, if any division is going to be healed. We can empathise with, and understand, the ‘other side’ without subscribing to, or endorsing, it. Again, easier when we’re talking about rocketship fiction than, say, the 2020 election.


How Covid-19 has shattered the ‘myth’ of college in America. A really powerful insight into one, very specific, audience and one, very specific, change that has come about as a result of Covid. Whatever the long-term future looks like, certainly the next few years are going to be incredibly disrupted. That may be nothing in the ultimate scheme of things, but it is odd to think of a generation with ‘no college experience’.

Again, using a pop cultural lens, that is one of the most common tropes for finding oneself, for escaping, for achieving, for starting over… All, for one generation at least, toast. Every teen movie on Netflix is, now, more or less, a historical drama, with ‘the university experience’ as dated a cultural reference as corsets and ‘coming out’ parties.

Another example: for our tiny Iguanodon, every children’s book is - essentially - wrong. They don’t have masks on, there’s no social distancing. They show him pretty pictures of crowds and hugs and bustling classrooms and group activities that, will not, for him, exist. At the rate children develop, he’ll be long past these books by the time these books are ‘right’ again. Again, this is very specific example for a very specific audience, but goes to show how everything, everywhere is subtly off. We are, on top of everything else, living in an era of all-pervasive cultural cognitive dissonance.


The next newsletter will (probably) be about my new reading challenge: the Spur Awards. 🤠


Finally: Monsters & Mullets revisits Beauty & the Beast (2017) and it is hilarious.

The end of the mystery

And the value of liking something

I’ve spent the past year or so trying to track down and read as many of the winners of the Mystery Writers of America’s ‘Best First Novel’ category as possible. This has been a self-imposed reading challenge and a very silly one, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I wound up reading 56 of a possible 76, which isn’t too shabby.

There were some lessons along the way, such as exploring identity, remembering what ‘good’ looks like, and learning that the digital market is just plain weird. I’ll admit that I was hoping for a Greater Theory of Crime Fiction, but, alas, no such luck. If pressed, I could probably pull together some lesser theories (boy, the 1980s were creepy), but, instead, I’d like to use this as a teachable moment at my own expense.

This involves ranking and attitudes and behaviours and a tiny bit of math. There is a spreadsheet, but it is full of books, so hopefully that’s not too horrible.

This is also quite long, so pour yourself a coffee.


As an intermittent reviewer and full-time over-thinker, one of the aspects of reviewing that has always intrigued me is the attitude/behaviour gap.

My ‘taste’ in books is, to some degree, a matter of public record, and, if needed, someone could easily scrounge up a decade or more of my strident opinions. There are thousands (millions?) of words explaining how and why I liked a book.

But those words aren’t the full story. I’ve written many a review about the best debut ever, and then not bought the author’s second book. I’ve also not written reviews of many books, but hunted down and devoured the entire series. I’ve shamelessly slagged off books, and then purchased signed copies. I’ve praised books… and then dumped them into charity bins.

My attitude towards a book - my first emotional reaction, what I feel and say about it - simply doesn’t always match my behaviour. Does that make me a rare hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being. Attitudes are immediate; behaviour takes time and effort to play out. There’s a lot that can (or doesn’t) happen in-between. You can ‘like’ a brand and still use the competitor. You can ‘engage’ with an ad and never buy the product. You can ‘see people like you’ in the powerful video content, but still litter, smoke, and not wear a mask.

Beyond that, behaviour is a pain in the ass to measure. We like to measure attitudes because they’re measurable. They’re useful outtakes and they show people ‘got us’, but theories of change are still theories. We’re waiting for the data to come through until we know what worked.

Let’s get back to the mysteries. Here are the books I think I ‘liked’ the most:

  • Fredric Brown - The Fabulous Clip-joint (1948)

  • John Ball - The Heat of the Night (1966)

  • Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

  • R.H. Shimer - Squaw Point (1973)

  • Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • David Liss - A Conspiracy of Paper (2001)

First reactions:

  • There’s only one police procedural - Virgil Tibbs in The Heat of the Night) - but, these do all have ‘detective’ protagonists, in some form or another.

  • But also nothing particularly radical or literary in here. Some are funny, some are espionage-y, and there’s one historical… but they’re all pretty much ‘core’ mysteries.

  • And they’re fairly well spaced out across time.

To be completely honest, if a stranger came to me with that list and asked for a recommendation for their next read, I’m not sure what I’d say. There’s not much of a pattern there, except, of course, my own taste. And even that could change.

Here’s where it gets fun (and/or deeply narcissistic).

I’ve gone through and captured my behavioural relationship with every book.

The metrics I chose, in rough order of ‘effort required’:

  • Read (56 books)

  • Liked (28, one attitude, for curiosity. I’m amused it is exactly 50%.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (9. For those not aware of my broken system, I rate something 5* for ‘interesting', or not at all. 1*-4* is too much of a hassle for me.)

  • Recommended to my mom (9. She’s the most voracious reader I know, so I always try to find good books she hasn’t read yet)

  • Wrote about in this newsletter (8)

  • Kept (13. 56 books entered… and 43 left. This includes ebooks - some I read on ebook and didn’t consign to digital oblivion. But, for most, I did.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (8. I like pretty copies.)

  • Bought another book by the same author (5)

  • Bought in other media (1)

That gives a simple 9 point system, ranging from the books I never read to the books I became - clearly - obsessed with.

Here are the top results:

  • 8 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 7 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 6 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)

  • 5 - Harry Kemelman - Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1965)
    Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)
    Robert L Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

That progression continues pleasingly - there are 5 x 4s, 6 x 3s, 14 x 2s, 23 x 1s.

This tells us a lot more:

  • I’m sorry I didn’t capture more data points about these books, but, even for the one I did - publication date - we suddenly have a meaningful pattern. Unlike my attitudinal list, which was all over the shop, now we’ve got an interesting concentration in the mid-Sixties. (1964 was Florentine Finish, which still earned a respectable 3).

  • Three books set in the media world, which makes sense. I’m such a nerd.

  • Three female authors in the top five of this list, two of whom were left off the attitudinal list. That’s implicit bias. It is nice that, in practice, I liked them. But it is not ok that I didn’t think of them at first. Perhaps more than any other point to land, this is why behavioural analysis is so important. It reveals, and accounts for, bias.

All of a sudden, I have the capacity to make meaningful recommendations for future reading. And not because of what I thought I liked, but because of what I actually liked.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between what a publisher knows about you and what Amazon knows about you. Scared yet?


Now, imagine you’re a publisher.

Ultimately, the most important behaviours to Shoebill House (aside: do you know how hard it is to find a bird that doesn’t already have a publisher named after it?) are those that lead to further purchases. A reader leaving a review is a good behaviour. A reader pre-ordering the next book is a very good one.

Here’s the list again, now weighted by ‘% likelihood to lead to a sale’:

  • Read (100%. If I read it, that’s because I bought it.)

  • Liked (0%. My emotional reaction has no direct sales value.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (.01%. I think this should be about the lowest non-zero value possible. This assumes I am nudging the star value up in a fractional way that might someday influence an algorithm or future browser or something. Arguably this is more significant for lesser-known books, as my 5* will have more of an impact, but those books are also less-likely to be searched/browsed, so it all comes out in the wash.)

  • Recommended to my mom (75%. She’s very diligent about reading my recommendations - the missing 25% is the chance I’ve recommended her something she’s already read. Moms are great.)

  • Talked about in this newsletter (5%. The click-through rates are pretty high when I recommend a specific title. This seems a fair assumption for the value of a positive recommendation in long-form, opt-in content.)

  • Kept (2%. This is literally the chance that, by having the book on my shelf, I might someday think ‘I should see what the sequel is like…’. Given my impulse control, this might be low.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (100%. Literally a purchase.)

  • Bought another book by the author (100%. See above.)

  • Bought in other media (100%. See above.)

Some of these behaviours could lead to multiple purchases (newsletter review, another book by the author), but there are also arguments against that, so, we’ll leave that alone for now.

For those counting along at home, that gives a maximum weighted value of 482%. In that, my behaviours could, conceivably, add up to almost five purchases for each book. I warned you there’d be a spreadsheet.

Here are the all the titles at 2 or above, meaning they resulted in at least one additional purchase.

  • 3.82 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 3.80 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 3.02 - William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Harry Kemelman - Friday The Rabbit Slept Late (1965)
    Ira Levin - A Kiss Before Dying (1954)

  • 2.77 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)
    Robert L. Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

  • 2.02 - Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

The .0001 from GR is rounded down to the obscurity it deserves.

This exercise separates the wheat from the chaff in a way that the unweighted hierarchy didn’t. If ‘meaningful’ is ‘makes purchases happen’, we start to see which behaviours could actually count for Shoebill House’s bottom line.

I bought 56 books. 28 (50%) of them I liked. Yet only 9 (16%) of my purchases led to further sales. That is terrible retention! Especially given the circumstances of my reading challenge! I opted-in! I am a hoarder! Also, how are there 19 books that I liked that didn’t lead to further sales? Each and every one of them is a lost opportunity.

(Let’s hop genres for a moment. I love romance books. They’re often in series (and often in mega-series that hop between series) and there are a lot of them and they all kind of look alike and it can get really confusing. But romance publishers are ruthlessly efficient. Whenever I finish a romance on my Kindle, a pop-up appears to buy the next book. Early series books are deeply discounted (but rarely free), encouraging commitment and feeling like good value. Series are properly tagged and linked on Amazon and Goodreads. It is made as seamless as possible for a reader who liked one book to keep moving, continuously, into further purchases. This is why romance is the best-selling genre of fiction. The readers are relentless, and the user journey is almost entirely frictionless. Meanwhile, back in mystery…)

Despite the fact that virtually all of of these mysteries were the first books in a series, none offered any immediate follow-on sale. Nor was there any encouragement to find another book by the same author, and, honestly, the metadata was often a mess. If I need to Google an esoteric third-party crime blog to find the title of Book 2, Shoebill House has lost the sale. Similarly, noted in an earlier newsletter, even the digital pricing was wonky. In conclusion: How can marketers make behaviour easier?

Not all behaviours are created equal. Giving five stars on Goodreads is easy, and, ultimately, kind of worthless. Writing a review for my newsletter harder, and yet… still pretty meaningless in the absolute scheme of things. Telling my mom that I liked a book? That’s low effort and high reward. Yet there are books I liked - and sometimes even reviewed! - that I never recommended to her. (Sorry, Mom!) Those are all lost sales for Shoebill House. How can marketers facilitate the most meaningful behaviours?

Incremental behaviours work, but only in volume. If I wrote 15 newsletters recommending a book, that’s about the same as telling my mom. Or, more usefully, if 15 different Jareds wrote one newsletter each. Shoebill House needs to use their own resources wisely - not to be chasing individual Jareds, but encouraging an army of Jareds to participate. How can marketers scale less-meaningful behaviours in a cost-efficient way?

A small number of high-trust relationships are worth more than a large number of low-trust ones. I think we’d have to crank the math up to prove this, but, ultimately, a few Moms are worth more to Shoebill House than a hundred newsletters. How do we build high-trust relationships directly with consumers - or help advocates build them on our behalf?

Everyone should read In the Heat of the Night. And The Last Billable Hour.

And with that, I’m officially moving on to Westerns. See you on the other side, pardner.


Some links:


And, finally - I’m hosting Cynthia Miller-Idriss on July 15th. We’ll be discussing her new book, Hate in the Homeland, and how far right extremism can take place in surprising spaces - from clothing stores to YouTube cooking shows.

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