Monday, June 10, 2002
Congrats on the Bram Stoker award flooding in. Thanks to you all (beams happily). So far the little door on the Stoker award (it's a creepy house) has not fallen off. (I won one for Sandman: The Dream Hunters a couple of years ago, and had to superglue the door back on, so I have been on the alert here.)

It will go on a very small window-ledge, next to my bowler-hatted H. P. Lovecraft World Fantasy Award, and flanked by a statue of Groucho Marx and another of Elsa Lanchester as The Bride.

A few people wanted to know about I'm afraid it's all Flash -- just let it load and be patient, and, when the candle has burned down and the thing has begun, you shall have an interesting time. Promise.

Let's see...

Not an FAQ, but in case you hadn't already spotted it, Ottakars (UK bookchain) has tagged Coraline as *the* children's book of the summer - it's at and then look for Yossarian's diary - last paragraph.
Oh yeah - and thanks for all the enjoyment, surprises and education of the last mumble, mumble years...
Tony Quinlan Chief Storyteller, Narrate

You're welcome.

What a lovely comment in the Yossarian column. (It's the 10th of June entry, by the way.)

Neil - I've checked the Harper Collins Childrens website, and the ALA website, and neither list when you'll be signing at the Harper Collins Childrens booth. So you are my last resort (I really didn't want to bother you with it). Have they given you a clue as to when you'll be in the booth? And, I assume that we'll be able to buy Coraline there as well? Thanks!
--Laura Gosling

June 15th, 9:30-10:30am I sign at HarperCollins adult booth (booth 2138), then 10:30-11:30 am I sign at the Harper Childrens booth (booth 2129). (Thinks: that'll be fun, walking across the aisle trailing a line of people in my wake.)

Dear Neil -
What delightful irony, fearful symmetry. Yesterday in your journal you questioned author Beryl Bainbridge's attempt at a time travel novel since she claims it will "not be a SF" novel even though she's using the generic ideas, possibly because she hasn't spent much time learning the body or craft of SF.
Yet last year, you joyfully touted and wrote for the Tori Amos album Strange Little Girls, calling it a wonderful and original work (or something, don't remember the quote), even though it was no more than a standard issue covers album...and by your measure, one that plonked down rather dull ideas while being marketed as something more or other than a covers album. (something about singing from men's perspectives?)
"It's not a covers album" rings the same to me as "It's not a SF novel."
Why the suspicion over Bainbridge when you see a similar concept in that music album as a success? I'm not a Bainbridge fan, nor is this an attack on the strange little girls piece, but maybe this could be a good thing. It could be a subversive way of bringing in people who don't readily like SF to the genre, just as a covers album exposes listeners to music they might not have originally listened to.
Your response surprised me because you seem to be a pragmatic optimist in most of your other postings. Hope this author pleasantly surprises all of us..
A lurker who is not a lurker. :)

I'm not sure that I'm managing to make the easy conceptual leap from the one to the other that you're essaying here: seems a bit like you're going "you say you hate oranges, but you like sushi, and I say this sushi is orange, so explain that if you can, young man". But I'm happy to clarify both sets of ideas, and hope it helps.

1) As I said in the last post, I'm certainly not saying that the Bainbridge book will be bad.

To give a bit more background on yesterday's comments: during the years where I was making a lot of my living professionally reviewing books, through to the years I was on the Arthur C. Clarke Award jury (reading every work of SF published in the UK), which was a solid nine year period from 1983 to 1992 of reading and reviewing pretty much everything that came over the transom, every year would bring one or more books written by "mainstream authors" of varying fame, using science fictional tropes, usually very badly handled, accompanied by a press release in which the press office, the author and the publisher would proudly and loudly proclaim the book wasn't science fiction.

This was a very different phenomenon to authors writing, let's say, fantasy novels or ghost stories, and then saying they aren't writing fantasy or ghost stories. (Philip Pullman explaining, upon winning the Whitbread for a fantasy trilogy, that he's not writing fantasies might be something that's much closer to what I think you're talking about here. It doesn't matter what he says, they are still fantasy novels, and brilliant ones.) It's also a different phenomenon to successful SF authors distancing themselves from the SF field after becoming successful within SF because they wanted, fundamentally, more respect or mainstream recognition (something authors as diverse as Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and even Harlan Ellison have done, and which again may be closer to what you're talking about).

What I was seeing was something unique to SF, partially because SF has had a tradition of exploring ideas, and a continual willingness to take itself into account. If you're going to write a time paradox story you should have read Heinlein's "All You Zombies....", for example, just as if you're writing a story about tiny people trying to figure out how to build a spaceship to get them out of a glass of water you should have read James Blish's "Surface Tension". If your brilliant and original idea is that people on a generation starship don't know they're on a starship -- and now are reaching the end of their journey, and you think that's all you need to write a book with, and you think you're the first person ever to go there, you're probably in trouble.

The "I am too good to be an SF writer" people tended to have read no SF at all, and to regard every idea they came up with, no matter how mined out, as Vital and New, and to write books that SF readers didn't enjoy and that, as far as I can tell, mainstream readers didn't enjoy either. There's not a lot of point in naming names, as most of the books and many of the authors are forgotten by now.

I have much more time for someone like Iain M. Banks, who has a mainstream identity (er, Iain Banks) knows his SF, and when he writes an SF novel says so.

I don't know if Beryl Bainbridge will be one of the ones who write a bad "I'm not writing SF" book. She's an always been an interesting and vital author, and I'll buy her time travel novel when it comes out. It's just that, having read too many of them over the years, any "It's about (time travel/aliens among us/information technology in the near future/intelligent dinosaurs/a generation starship) but I'm not writing Science fiction..." quote tends to set off my danger signals, because it indicates a disdain for the body of knowledge and the craft that then shows up in the book.

2) Strange Little Girls. I went looking for my own comments on this. Did a hasty hunt on Google. Can't find the "wonderful and original work" quote you refer to. The closest seems to be:

From July 2001: Oh, one thing. Several people at the signing asked about the stories I wrote for Tori's STRANGE LITTLE GIRLS album. To clarify, they won't be on the CD -- I think the plan is to take a sentence from each one and put it by the relevant photo for the CD, then to run the whole story in the Tour Booklet. (one person asked me if the new album was really any good, as if I'd probably just been trying to get people's hopes up to help sell a dog of an album, which rather puzzled me. So, for the record, yes I really like the album. I think it's the best thing Tori's done in a while, and it's, in my opinion, her most personal album for years. I would be astonished if there wasn't at least one track on there that every dyed in the wool Tori fan loved immediately, and equally as surprised if there wasn't at least one track that they disliked equally as strongly -- it's that sort of record).

It's certainly how I felt, and it points out it wasn't an album that you're going to love all of.

Was it a covers album? That's not something I ever wrote (or felt strongly about) about one way or another. Define a covers album as an album of songs by other people, then it certainly was. Define it as "singer does a bunch of songs that she likes" and it manifestly wasn't. Tori had a point of view from the first about what she wanted to do and say with "Strange Little Girls", spent a long time putting together songs by men she felt she could use to say other things with, mostly things about gender, and believed very strongly in everything she did with it, including creating the "girls" to sing the songs, the ones I wrote the very-short stories for. It let her say and sing a number of things that I don't think she could have done with her own songs at that point. And she learned a lot from it. I certainly think it was, perhaps contrarily, a much more personal album than, for example, "To Venus and Back". I tend to think of it, artistically, as an assemblage, or a collage: the photos are other by other people, but the shape they are assembled into and the patterns they make, are the point, and are her own.

I've always enjoyed her interpretations of other people's songs in concert (I remember the whole of the plot for The Kindly Ones sorted itself out in 1991 at the Shaw Theatre in London during her version of "Sentimental Journey"), and I did not assume that Strange Little Girls was the pinnacle of her career, but that it was the CD equivalent of one of those songs. (I know that I get a completely different sort of joy from reading someone else's poem or story aloud as I do when I'm performing my own material.)

Some people got it, some didn't. Your mileage, as they used to say, may vary.

Hope that helps.

Dear Neil:
I'm not quite sure if this would be a commonly asked question or not, but do you ever write and know that what you have written is rather good? Is that even something you can assess yourself or instead is it something that varies from person to person -- so why even bother trying to decide whether it is good or bad.
thank you,

Hmm. Sometimes I know when I'm writing that something's good -- there's a wonderful bubbly feeling as it hits the paper, and often it didn't exist even a moment before. Mostly I have no idea -- when I'm done I'm incredibly nervous. Sometimes I write something I like very much that utterly fails to set the world on fire, and sometimes I write something that I think is deeply flawed that many people love. Sometimes I write something that really doesn't work, and everyone else thinks it doesn't work too.

Mostly I don't mind. I'm already trying to write the next thing.

(I think the people who dislike American Gods dislike it more than anything I've done. On the other hand, they seem to be outnumbered by the ones who like it more than anything I've done.)

As to why bother trying to decide if something's good or bad... that's what people do. That's how we're built. We build whole worlds out of a patchwork of "I like this..." and "I don't like this..." in order to navigate. (It tends to be an audience reaction, rather than a critical reaction, but that's another story.)