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A blog about blogging

Hello. Yesterday I inadvertently created a bit of a firestorm for something I tweeted about book reviews and blanket praise. I feel a bit unsettled about some of the responses and have been told by a few people they are going to blog about it, so I thought I should probably address the teacup-storm too and explain a few things. Firstly, here is the thing […]

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World Book Night 2014

The Humans was chosen as one of the 20 World Book Night 2014 books. Thousands of copies of the book were given out for free on April 23rd 2014. Thanks to all of the World Book Night givers and do get in touch if you received a free copy.  Share

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How To Be A Writer

Here’s a video I made. It’s a slightly tragic insight into the life of a self-absorbed writer.  Share

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Echo Boy

My first YA book, Echo Boy, is out now by Bodley Head. Lots of people have been saying very nice things about it: ‘highly original page turner’ Independent on Sunday ‘a cracking plot with profound philosophical questions about what it is to be human. Fearless and beautifully written, it confirms Haig as one of our best new writers of speculative fiction.’ New Statesman Echo Boy is an exciting SF […]

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Blog

A blog about blogging

Hello.

Yesterday I inadvertently created a bit of a firestorm for something I tweeted about book reviews and blanket praise. I feel a bit unsettled about some of the responses and have been told by a few people they are going to blog about it, so I thought I should probably address the teacup-storm too and explain a few things.

Firstly, here is the thing I said that caused most offence:

“There is too much positivity in the book world. Esp in book blogs and on YouTube. Books can’t all be good can they?”

As well as:

“We need a critical culture in books. We need for people to say what they want about a book, for a healthy book culture.”

And possibly:

“Books are ideas. They are debate starters. They are conversation starters. They are meant to spark a range of opinion.”

Some people agreed with this. Some didn’t. Both positions are fine. But then some people got very heated, both publicly and in my DM box.

Now, I just want to clarify a few things:

1. I am not anti blogging or bloggers. This is a blog. I am a blogger.

2. I am not anti positive reviews. Look at the side of this page. I will shout my good reviews from the rooftops. I am a total tart. Good reviews fill me with pride. Positive reader reactions are why I write.

3. I value reviews massively. Too much. I read most of them, even the bad ones (though might be less prone to tweet that one for The Humans that said I had ‘deliberately sold out to become the sci-fi Tony Parsons’). Only this week I nearly wept when one of my favourite writers wrote a lovely, detailed review of a non-fiction book I’ve just written. I had been scared for years of writing it, and that review undid a decade of fear. Never mind sales. That is what a review can really mean.

4. I am self-critical. Every writer has to be. That is what editing is about. I cringe at 60% of what I write. I have been shouting ‘God, I’m shit’ at my Word Doc for the last month. And I would really recommend that you ignore the reviews and don’t buy a book I wrote called The Possession of Mr Cave. Criticism is how you raise your game. A critical culture, when it is devoid of personal grudges and is done from a position of love for an art form, is vital. It raises that culture. It is how, on a grander scale, healthy civilisations work. Debate. Criticism. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Critics are needed. If no-one had said ‘no, you’re doing that wrong’ we’d have been wiped out before the Neanderthals. I never went on a creative writing course, but have learnt a lot about my own writing from constructive critical opinion.

5. I criticise things I love. I don’t criticise Manchester United because I don’t like football. I commented about one aspect of book blog/Youtube culture because I value it. I like to think I engage with online book culture. In fact, the precise prompt for the tweet came after researching lots of YouTube ‘vloggers’ (forgive me for hating that word), because I WANT TO BECOME ONE. I have discovered I am vain enough to want to sit in my bedroom and talk straight to camera about stuff. And so I trawled through a lot of (chiefly American) blogs and became mildly nauseated by the overwhelming level of unthinking positivity. I began to feel how Michael Stipe felt when he wrote Shiny Happy People. But it’s no biggie.

6. That said, I was kind of addressing myself. I mean, I have reviewed books before. I have felt the pressure to say nice things I only half mean. I may be alone in that, or not. I sincerely don’t know. There has to be a balance between a personal kindness to an author and a respect for the medium itself. And let’s face it, if a tweet can be hated by you, so can a book. Books are also made of words and opinions and many of them are – consciously or unconsciously – saying things that demand to be argued with. Let’s not patronise books. They are not an endangered species. They are strong and powerful and will outlive us all.

7. The main argument seemed to be that people who review books for free want to choose books they think they’ll like. Fair enough. (Though surely you can never know what a book is going to be like until you read it, even if it is from an author you like, or why review?) Another argument was that authors can sometimes get nasty with reviewers. This is terrible, but true. There have been cases. Authors who can’t accept criticism of their work are a growing phenomenon. There was a case recently of some self-published nut job whacking a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle. What is happening? I defend anyone’s right to give me a terrible review. Any author should. Books aren’t the end of a conversation. They are the start of one.

8. A couple of bloggers said they won’t review me now. Fine. Although I don’t know how that proves your professionalism, or places the book before the author. I am far too much of a nervous wreck to be a hero but would happily take a metaphorical bullet for the right for people to speak their minds without consequence. Also, if you want to be respected as a reviewer wielding the power available to you if someone says something you don’t like is not the best tactic.

9. I love books. I write screenplays as well, but books beat them hands down. A book is the most beautiful art form there is. So much art starts with words. Books end with them too. They are pure and self-contained and apocalypse-proof. I love writing books and, mainly, reading them. There are 180,000 books published a year in the UK. We need to be discerning now more than ever. We need to know our taste. We need to demand the very best of our writers. We all need to raise our game. I certainly do.

10. Life is short. We are all alive for a blink of an eye. If we agree books are one of those things that help us enjoy and explore and comprehend our existence, then we can be free to disagree on the details. Let’s all be friends.

 

 

 

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10 Things to Tell A Sexist

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Along with millions of other Youtube viewers I enjoyed Emma Watson’s speech on feminism at the UN. It was a very wise speech, successfully arguing that for feminism to reach its goals it needs to be a movement for men too. The genius of the speech was in showing that feminism is a benefit, not a threat, to men.

Anyway, within the same week as this great speech, we have seen too many examples of how much work is still to be done. Not only has Emma Watson faced pathetic trolls threatening to publish nude photos of her, but Youtube blogger Sam Pepper has filmed a prank of himself groping women while asking for directions, and a mall in the Phillipines has been selling T-shirts advocating rape.

This is sad. And rather stupid. And lowers us all. We need to remind sexist people exactly why they are their own worst enemy.

1. Feminism is really equalism. It means humans have equal rights to be themselves and live freely, without harassment or stigma or unfair treatment.

2. Feminism is good for men. More than three times as many men kill themselves as women. In part, this is down to values which make men feel they have to be tough and never admit weakness.

3. Your rape jokes aren’t funny. A mall in the Phillipines has been selling a T-shirt describing the violent crime of rape as ‘a snuggle with a struggle’. The humour here is the humour of hate. For a society where most rape victims are reluctant to speak out, that T-shirt is actually incitement. It tells women their trauma is insignificant. It is an act of violence in itself. The point of humour is to defuse things, to find relief in things that are uncomfortable. You can joke about anything. It’s not the subject, it’s the intention. Rape should not be defused any more than paedophilia or race crimes should be. It should be stopped.

4.  Feminism is about equality. It isn’t about girls v men. It’s about everyone being able to be the full human they are. It’s about creating a caring, safer, more advanced world.

5. Empathy. That is the secret to a successful life. To be able to understand that other humans are exactly as complex as you are, with the same wants and needs and hopes and failures, will make life so much easier and pleasant for you. Try it.

5. One day you might have a daughter. Your sexism is shrinking the world she will live in.

6. You are a sexist. That is one of the bad -ists. You believe men are the stronger sex. Yet you troll and bully out of weakness, a sense of inferiority. You defeat your own misguided belief system every time you speak.

7. Groping is wrong. It is not a prank. It is trespassing. Humans are not fruit. If you need to grope, go back to your cave and vigorously grope yourself over your X-Box.

8. Porn does not reflect sexual reality any more than The Expendables 3 reflects the reality of growing old.

9. You are on the wrong side of history. You know those bad guys in historical movies? The ones who are on the side of slavery, or who belong to the KKK, or who supported fascism? Well, you will be those historical bad guys. Hell, you already are. (Quick, change sides.)

10. Humans are amazing. And it isn’t our brawn but our brains that make us so. We might not be as good at flying as an albatross, or as good at smelling as a dog, or as brilliant at hearing as a bat, or as strong as a gorilla, and our digging skills would be laughed at by most aardvarks, but wow, look at our brains. Our brains are equally impressive, whether we are male or female. They can create books, art, music. They can calculate and muse and dream. Our unique beauty, as a species, rests in our ability and desire to do things and create things and enjoy things that aren’t directly essential to our survival. We not only live, but have discovered there is a point to living beyond simple reproduction and staying alive. To belittle and demean fifty per cent of our species, simply because of some really incidental physiological differences, is to miss the point of life itself and to lower the joy of being human. If you are a mysoginist, or even a plain old sexist pig snuffling about in your own prejudice, it really is your loss. The air really is better up here.

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Some selfish thoughts on suicide and Robin Williams

It’s been a depressing week, on all fronts.

On the war front, obviously. But that seems to be every week. The twenty-first century just seems to be one long rotating war.

It has also been depressing on the depression front.

Of course, we had the horrible news about Robin Williams hanging himself in his bedroom last Sunday night.

I hate hearing about famous people killing themselves. This is partly because it is sad to lose someone you ‘know’ even if you only know them in the sense that they have been in a lot of films and TV interviews that you have seen.   And Robin Williams was always someone we felt we knew. There was always so much of him.

Yes, sure, he was great in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. But even in The World According to Garp or Awakenings or more uneven stuff he was always brought an intensity – through manic comedy or sparkle-eyed emotion – that couldn’t be feigned. Even when he wasn’t so great it was because there was too much of a performance, never too little. The acting – as with the stand-up comedy – always seemed like a valve for the intensity inside. The rapid fire performance in, say, Good Morning Vietnam or the dark introversion of the child abuser in Insomnia being a kind of lava busting from an intense roaring molten soul.

So yes. There is that sadness. We’ll miss him. He made good stuff.

But also, as someone who has suffered suicidal thoughts, very nearly acting on them once, there is a kind of selfish sadness. A sense of strange dread. A thought that someone we can visualise and hear in our heads, someone who had the money to get the best treatment out there, who had family, who had support, who had been successful by almost everyone’s measure, had fallen victim to depression at the age of 63.

63. That’s the other thing. When I was suicidal I used to imagine there was a certain point where such a fate is less likely. Once I’d passed 27, that famous fatal end-point for suicidal rock idols, there was a sense of achievement. Like reaching the next level of a video game. Same when I passed 35. I was no longer in the 21-35 ‘young man’ danger category. But there are other danger categories. In America and the UK suicide rates for middle aged and older men have risen by as much as 40% since 1999.

I remember hearing of David Foster Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46 and thinking, oh crap, things can get worse. Then Hunter S. Thompson blowing his brains out one clear afternoon at the age of 67. So yes, depression is not just an illness that claims the young. It is increasingly an illness shown to be fatal at any age. Life isn’t a journey upwards. We do not always accumulate strength as we go. It can weaken our minds as well as our bodies. I started to worry that, if I had a diagnosis like Parkinson’s or had sudden money or life worries in my sixties it could trigger a depression I wouldn’t have the strength to recover from.

But then, let’s be rational. Just because Robin Williams killed himself doesn’t make it any more likely that we will. Suicide happens. But most cases of depression don’t end in it killing the sufferer. Winston Churchill never killed himself. Mark Twain didn’t. Long-term depressive Tennessee Williams ended up accidentally choking on the cap from his eye drop fluid in his eighties. And also, of course, a suicide shouldn’t cloud the whole memory of someone. When Virginia Woolf told her husband in her suicide note ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’ she meant it. Depression is best thought of as a weather pattern. A hurricane might destroy a house that had enjoyed glorious sunshine a week before.

 

Of course, we are all going to die. Some of us will probably die in our sixties. The trick is not to fear this, but to accept it as the thing that gives life its value. ‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,’ said Emily Dickinson. So let’s mourn those who gave us pleasure, but try not to mourn ourselves from the future. Let’s enjoy the fruit before it browns. Let’s taste the sweetness if we are able to. Let us be thankful for the moments we know, and never fret about the ones we don’t. Let’s live.

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Ten reasons why it is okay to read YA

I haven’t blogged for a while. Well, not blog blogged. I’ve tweeted – micro-blogged – but not gone deep. I’ve been busy writing a screenplay and a memoir about depression (get me).

But I’ve just read something and got annoyed. And annoyance, it turns out, is a lead trigger for blogging. According to leading researchers at the University of Make-believe, 88 per cent of the internet is made of annoyance.

The thing that annoyed me is an article in Slate called ‘Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books’. The writer’s main gripe is that an increasing amount of people – grown-up people – are reading John Green and Stephen Chbosky and Gayle Forman, and not feeling ashamed.

It made me angry. It made me think of all the ways it is unhealthy. It made me think of all the reasons it is wrong. Here are just the first ten that came to mind:

1. There should be no shame in reading anything. There is too much shame in the world. Shame is the enemy of truth and the friend of pretentiousness, especially when it comes to books. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Many of the greatest writers have been children’s writers. And not just YA. Yes, John Updike and Alice Munro are brilliant, but so are Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie and Philip Pullman and CS Lewis and SE Hinton and Maurice Sendak. Brilliance comes in many forms.

3. Teenagers shouldn’t be patronised. This whole article seems to imply that an adult sharing the same taste as a teenager is fundamentally embarrassing. Why? Teenagers are the most passionate consumers of culture there are. Think of music. Who made the Beatles popular? Or the Stones? Or Bowie? Or Nirvana? Old people? Or teenagers? Teenagers not only have as many brain cells as us (more actually, as our brains lose 100,000 neurons a day), but are more accepting of new things and phenomena. They are the literal cutting edge. They could not have written that Slate article.

4. Writing YA is as difficult as writing for adults. I have written one YA book, three children’s books, and five adult (OA?) books. The hardest of all these to write was the YA.

5. Accesible writing  should not be frowned on. Graham Greene was an accessible writer. John Steinbeck was too. Also George Orwell, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, JD Salinger, Jane Austen etc etc. Yet book snobbery is leading us to believe that accessibility and intelligence are incompatible. I would wager that the popularity of YA is symptomatic less of a dumbing down of tastes but a reaction against dumbing down. Let me explain. The adult book market has long been polarised between ‘easy’ commercial books and ‘difficult’ literary books. YA doesn’t play this game. It manages to be easy and intelligent all at the same time.

6. Teenagers are philosophers. Think of the popular YA books. They often deal with subjects of life and death, gender issues, race, sexuality. The big stuff. Can you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t a period of under-thinking. Quite the opposite. You are living at fast-forward. Your body and mind is changing by the day. You are continually asking the questions about who you are, and where you fit in. You are at the centre of the cyclone that is life. There is nothing marginal about being a teen.

7. Dissing one of the few genre success stories in the book world, and trying to stigmatise it in the name of reading and literature, is a bit like shooting a dolphin in the name of marine biology.

8. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. This is why YA succeeds.

9. Alexander Pope was twelve when he wrote ‘Ode to Solitude’. Mary Shelley was nineteen when she first came up with Frankenstein. More recently, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her widely acclaimed novel The Icarus Girl when she was studying her A-levels. Age really is just a number.

10. It’s not what you read, but how you read it. Never judge what someone else reads or why they read it. You don’t own the rights to culture. Often the things that may look simple, are rich and multi-layered. There are as many versions of a book as there are readers. No two reading experiences are the same. Books are great because they open minds and transcend borders. They should never have fences around them.

 

 

 

 

 

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How To Be A Writer

Here’s a video I made. It’s a slightly tragic insight into the life of a self-absorbed writer.