Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Fiction but not as we know it... Celia Rees



A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Armadillo, the Online Independent Children's Book Magazine, to review a book for teenagers. I don't know if the review is up yet, but home is http://www.armadillomagazine.com/ - for reviews, author interviews, and much, much more. If you don't already go there, you really should check it out. Anyway, the book arrived and I began to read. SF/fantasy is not my favourite genre - so easy to do badly - and this seemed to be a kind of Twilight with Aliens. It was sloppily written with every fantasy cliche jammed in there from Tolkien to, oh, anyone you like to think of, by way of Marvel Comics, Star Trek and Avatar. Suffice it to say, I didn't like it much. More than that, I thought there was something wrong with it. It was as if I wasn't reading a novel, as much as a novelisation - a print version of a film, or a comic, or a video game. It was written under a pseudonym, purportedly that of an alien. It certainly read that way. It seemed destined for great things, however, soon to be a major motion picture, a sticker said on the cover, the focus of an aggressive publicity campaign. Recently, I saw it has been picked out as a 'teen book of the year' in a major newspaper. So who am I to say? All I know was that it was not a book for me, and it didn't read quite right.
Some weeks later, I saw an article in the Guardian about bad boy American author, James Frey (the one who upset Oprah when she found out that his autobiography was, at least in part, fictional). He is in trouble again, it seems, for setting up a Fiction Factory, employing unknowns to churn out books to order - one of which is the one I read for Armadillo. I felt vindicated. I knew there was something wrong about it! He defends himself by citing artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who come up with a concept and leave it to others to do the hard work. There seems to be a difference. Like these artists or not, the concept is often startling and original. The same cannot be said of the Fiction Factory, if the product that I sampled is anything to go by. And yet, and yet... major motion picture, ad campaign, reviews, Waterstone's placement, how many real writers of genuinely original fantasy fiction get that kind of treatment? Even more disconcerting is the idea of relays of energetic wannerbes churning out books one after another. How many writers of series fiction could keep up with that? And if writing style, storytelling ability and originality no longer matter, how long before we have e writers as well as e readers, cyberbots producing books at the click of a mouse?
It will be fiction, Jim, but not as we know it...

8 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

I find this sad and alarming, Celia. I too had a book to review recently - another fantasy in fact - which I turned down because I couldn't have said a positive thing about it. It wasn't only the poor writing and the cliches, it was the way in which 'good' characters could be as violent and unpleasant as they liked, so long as they were doing it to the 'bad' ones. It was an ignorant, nasty piece of work which could only help to give fantasy a bad name.

It's frightening that such rubbish is being published and marketed to children and young adults. Junk food - with all sorts of nasty e-numbers - for the brain.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

I've read a lot of blogs about this and, I have to say, I have nothing to say against Frey for the Million Little Pieces debacle. But this is the first post that has so starkly analysed the relation of what Frey is doing to the art world (to show how dim I've been before I read this I hadn't equated Fiction *Factory* with an attempt to be Andy). It's a brief but excellent comparison. I love Koons. And Thomas Heatherwick, and a whole host of other artists who have large production teams working for them. And I run a literary gallery that hosts exhibitions that present fiction in a manner normally saved for art (we even have our live shows at a local gallery in Oxford) so I love exploring the myriad overlaps between literature and art. And, er, this isn't one of them! Artists (I remember as a teenager seeing a really scathing article on pop art guru Mark Kostabi and his slogan "they work in cages for minimum wages") DO get rounded on for exploitation. Sometimes rightly so. But in most cases, there is a production team because the artwork is big, and the whole thing works like architecture (you'd hardly chastise Norman Foster for getting the builders in). And besides, art workshops are as old as art itself, especially for large scale art.

This, to repeat, isn't like that. For exactly the reason you say. This isn't a creative auteur hiring technicians to realise their vision (the relation it bears to Warhol's Factory on the other hand, I'll leave for biographers to pick over - and they will, the parallels are rife). It's more like a celeb endorsement, like a jar of Lloyd Grossman sauce. And like such things, I guess it'll stand or fall by the pull of Frey's name. Hmmm...

adele said...

I find this very sad, not only for the reasons mentioned but because you feel somehow that a real book has been not-published, or at least, not published as well and carefully as it should be because of such stuff being so ubiquitous. Most disheartening, really. Thanks for drawing it to our attention, Celia.

Book Maven said...

Two words for you - "Working" + "Partners"!

Charlie Butler said...

Yes, Mary - I was thinking the same thing. Isn't this just book packaging, as has been done for yonks by WP and others? The mystery is, how is it getting lauded as 'book of the year', etc. The innovation seems to be in the marketing rather than the production.

catdownunder said...

This irritates me greatly. It leaves less room for my carefully arranged cat hairs to ever see the shelves of a bookshop!

Penny Dolan said...

I hate to say this, but do wonder if the "Books For Boys" movement - while being a laudable idea in itself - isn't promoting a certain style of writing as being "what children want."

Celia Rees said...

Or what people think readers want? Not always the same thing. Sometimes, these cynical moves founder. Let us hope so, anyway.

Thanks for the posts. Interesting discussion and something that needs airing - nobody likes to feel that they are being exploited or taken for a fool.