Amazon, Books and Bubbles

Sad AmazonAccording to Melville House the investment luster is wearing off of the never-make-a-profit elephant in the room of publishing, Amazon.

The thing with Amazon is that it made a decision early on to forego profits in exchange for continuous, rapid growth.

You know what else grows and grows without deriving any benefit for its hosts? Cancer.

Ok, I know, that was an easy shot, but with the recent closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore I’m in a grouchy mood. World’s Biggest was just about the original big-box bookstore. And it’s not the only large bookstore closing its doors in Toronto. If even big boxes can’t survive in a post-Amazon world that bodes poorly for anybody who ever wanted to walk into a bookstore, browse for an hour and come out blinking in the sun with an unfamiliar book.

This quarter Amazon reported a profit of $108 million; but off a revenue of $20 billion that’s well below where any other company of its size would be expected to be. And Amazon is poised to lose as much as $455 million next quarter. But they’ll continue growing!

Investors have been willing to allow this mass expansion for a long while. Now they’re finally departing, and investor reluctance over Amazon has splattered over onto other major online ventures like Netflix and the big-three of social networking.

Frankly, a lot of these companies may be over-valued. The behaviour of Facebook and LinkedIn post-IPO surely points to that. But here’s the thing, Wall Street has long gambled that Amazon will eventually have All-The-Market and will thus be able to return them All-The-Money (or at least all the money in he lucrative selling physical objects or their electronic reproductions to people market).

This reckless backing has done massive damage to the book market. It was the death of Borders and Barnes and Nobles. In Canada it led Chapters Indigo to downsize its operations and to aggressively pursue integration with Kobo.

Other writers are concentrating on the risk that Amazon’s change in fortunes might pose for the tech sector – warning signs indicate it might perforate the wall of the new tech bubble. As much as I don’t want to see Netflix go the way of Pets.com, this isn’t my core concern.

What worries me is not what damage might be done by slowing Amazon’s growth, by investors forcing a change in practice where the giant is required to make a profit (you know, by doing something shocking like raising the price of books to something near what they’re worth).

What worries me instead is the damage done.

Heady investors gambled on the idea that they could promote a monopoly with Amazon. They’ve very nearly got what they wished for. And it gutted an entire industry. Melville House points out that Amazon is very likely in the “too big to fail” category of business now (and how I wish that was a concept that we could expunge from our collective consciousness). But while I can’t count on Amazon to be allowed to collapse under the weight of its own hubris, I can hope for a receding Amazon – an Amazon that doesn’t undercut the very publishers whose books it sells.

And I can hope that this will be yet another cautionary tale about the toxic nature of an economy built on the backs of naked gambling, devoid of care for the end products, the users or the content creators.

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Ye Olde Blog Hop

Mutation you say?

Mutation you say?

Last Friday, Adam Shaftoe tagged me in a Blog Hop. Basically it’s like a chain letter for writers but with the added benefit of mutation (sweet, sweet mutation). In a nutshell, each author writes a blog answering four writing related questions and then tags three other authors. The author doing the tagging then composes four new questions which those authors answer before tagging their own.

Since Adam was so kind as to make me his next victim in this literary ponzi scheme… er… I mean willing participant in this important literary endeavor, here are my questions:

1 – If you could time travel and steal somebody else’s novel/short story/film for yourself, what would it be?

Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Some things are just so perfect at being what they set out to be that they can’t be bested. There has never been a better novel on the topic of revenge than this one. Later works, like my least-favourite Tarantino film, poked at the idea of revenge as a cyclical process in order to explore the moral complexity of their protagonists.

However they were infants fumbling in the dark next to Dumas, who builds us up for the whole novel to cheer for Edmond Dantès as a moral avenger. Then, in the final meeting with Valentine and Maximilien, everything we thought we knew is thrown subtly into doubt.

The book is both a work of bold action, and simultaneously a subtle and incisive look into the hearts of its principals.

2 – What writing sin do you actively have to struggle against in your own work?

Laziness disguised as efficiency. I’m a fan of Hemmingway and generally try to put the minimum number of words on the page necessary to communicate what I find important. This, unfortunately, frequently helps to disguise my laziness when I write 2,000 words to communicate what should have taken 10,000 words.

3 – Pick three writers, past or present, that you would want to have dinner with. Why those writers?

Jin Yong – He is one of the greatest living authors in the world and possibly my one most significant influence. His stories shaped the literary landscape of a whole freaking continent, and together with a few of his peers he launched a whole literary movement. I would like to think I could learn a lot from him.

Ernest Hemingway – The true master of craft. But beyond that, Hemingway lived a truly interesting and varied life. He was a complicated man who carried many troubles until his untimely death, but I think, especially a few beverages in, he’d probably be an amazing person to just have a conversation with.

Ursula K. Le Guin – Earthsea was another huge influence on me as a writer. In addition to one of the best fantasy series ever written, Le Guin is also one of my top-three favorite Science Fiction authors of all time. I’d be honored to be able to sit at a table with her.

4 – You have forty-two words, write a story.

It was hot south of the river. He’d come looking for work. It’d been a con. Slavers. What they’d really offered were chains. He’d done for them. Now he squatted in the dirt and wondered where his next meal would come from.

Ha! And I bet you thought I was going to go all Douglas Adams on you.

Next up I’m tagging David Blackwood, Hugh A.D. Spencer, and Charlotte Ashley.

 

Three Approaches to the New Weird: Vandermeer, Barron and Ligotti

491798_88443100Weird fiction has always been something I enjoyed reading. I discovered Poe shortly after Stoker, and from him moved on to Lovecraft, Derelith and their ilk before settling into reading mainstream horror (which largely meant binge-reading Stephen King). My increasing maturity as a reader also allowed me to more closely understand some of the disturbing racist undertones in much of the early weird, which frequently drew its terror from fear of the other.

But I never really forgot about weird fiction. And lately, in part thanks to the name-checking of Robert Chambers, Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti by True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto there has been a lot of revived interest.

Weird doesn’t necessarily equal horror

Around the same time that all this was going on I got my hands on a copy of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

This bizarre little novel details the thirteenth (or is it) research expedition beyond a nebulously defined border and into Area X. This once-inhabited wilderness suffered an equally mysterious ecological catastrophe which left the area devoid of human life, and the plants and animals in the region strangely transformed.

Told from the perspective of an unnamed biologist, a member of the expedition, the story descends quickly into the space-bending and mind-warping canvas of the surreal that permeates Area X, and its mysterious metamorphic influence.

Annihilation isn’t quite a horror story, it certainly has elements of the horrific in it, but it owes as much of its structure and setting to fantasy and magic realism as to horror. It occupies the interstices and forgotten spaces between genres. It is, however profoundly weird.

But weird still exists in horror

The work of Laird Barron is very much horror, and isn’t as fundamentally weird as VanderMeer. I recently read two works by Barron, his novel, The Croning and his short story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. The novel wasn’t the best horror novel I’ve read this year, but that is only because the 2013 work of David Nickle and Michael Rowe (and VanderMeer’s novel) was so darn good.

The Croning suffered with an ending that seemed to exist only to have an ending of some sort to a story that was more about the failure of memory and the inability to structure a narrative to a life led on the edges of terror. Barron did a very good job of creating a disjointed story with narrative jumps and skips like you’d expect from somebody unable to create a structured tale of his own life.

However that very success is what ultimately made the ending of the novel problematic, as the revelations of the protagonist seem muted since quite a bit of the development that led him to the point he was at is lost to recall, and not actually in the book.

This points to one of the stumbling blocks weird fiction faces in long-form narrative, when  the demands of atmosphere and theme frequently are allowed to trump the demands of story structure.

Barron does much better in his short story collection which was simply amazing. He maintains a light touch on overriding theme, suggesting just that fate is indifferent to the moral quality or lack therein of the people who struggle against it. Sometimes the good guys lose. Sometimes the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Either way is not a moral judgement. (His secondary theme seems to be that Washington State is a terrifying place that no sane person should ever go to.)

However Barron has an exceptional grasp of character, and his noirish Washington State seems filled with a menagerie of gangsters, loggers, magicians and madmen all of whom invite at least some empathy from the reader.

And sometimes it falls apart

I’d heard of Ligotti that he was one of those authors that either you get or you don’t. And I get Ligotti, I understand loud and clear, you know because he shouts his theme from the rooftops jumping up and down screaming, “look, a point!”

At their best, the stories in Teatro Grottesco demonstrate a strong talent for creation of truly creepy setting and tone.

Ligotti’s world is so horrific in setting that it scarcely feels like earth at all. It’s a world of polluted swamps, ruined towns, befouled streams and blasted planes.

Ligotti’s setting is vaguely dystopian in that there is always, lurking under every surface, the promise of inevitable decay.

However the problem is that there’s nobody home. Ligotti operates from a very specific thesis, one he makes resoundingly clear in his writing – that all human behaviour, every endeavor and dream and desire is all just so much nonsense. That we have no agency. We are just puppets dancing to the strings of an actively hostile universe that will manipulate us just because it likes to feel us twitch. For Ligotti there is no possible surcease from the suffering of this antithetical existence other than the total obliteration of self.

However this thesis is a poor basis for making characters that the audience can empathize with. His narrators are invariably poorly defined neurotics, people described only by their litany of pains and apprehensions, devoid of any self-differentiation. If they do anything other than exist in pain, they write; and when combined with the polemic and telly tone of the writing this makes the structure underlying the work altogether too visible.

He offers no pathway into his world through his characters. And at his worst, Ligotti is infuriating, filling a short story with verbal loops where he circles back to a statement or even a paragraph from a page previous, repeating the same statements verbatim. These are often his pronouncements to the nonsensical nature of life, but just as often these are pieces of setting or action beats. There were several times reading Ligotti that I had to check to see whether I’d accidentally flipped my tablet back a page rather than forward.

But no, it’s just his repetition.

And he’s telly. Ligotti spent a whole two pages in one story having an authorial insertion repeat the statement over and over again that consciousness and self-identity are a disease that interferes with the operation of the organism. He says this perhaps a dozen times with almost no variation. It seemed after a while almost like Jack Torrance’s unpublished last novel.

Of course, Ligotti tries to put a twist in at the end that vindicates this page of speechifying, but having hammered on the point much to forcefully the eventual reveal lacks tension. We already know very well how things will pan out by the time we get there.

The frustrating thing is that if Ligotti could get over his penny-ante take on existentialism by way of cosmicism and if he could find some way to get the audience to care one whit for any of his protagonists he’d be such an amazing author. I can understand his underground appeal. There’s something punkish about his stories. But it’s just not enough. The stories fall apart under their own attempt at weirdness.

Weird as the ocean is wide

The new weird genre is a sprawling place. It touches on the otherworldly fantastical, the darkly horrific and even the first-year-philosophy-student-who-just-discovered-Nietzsche class of philosophy.

Ultimately my attraction to weird is because of the level of experimentation it allows. Weird stories don’t have to follow one way of being. Sometimes these experiments with narrative, setting and style produce masterworks like Annihilation. Sometimes they produce perfectly competent and compelling horror stories like those in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and sometimes they backfire in magnificent fashion, like Teatro Grottesco. And that’s just fine. Because experiments don’t have to always succeed. But they should always try to push the boundaries of our understanding.

Yeah, well neither has Shakespeare (Ad Astra roundup)

I haven’t written here for a while because, to be honest, I haven’t had anything to write about. Sorry.

But there was this convention that I got back from yesterday and I’ve been digesting it in my head. Happily this was a much, much more pleasant experience than my last con experience.

Here’s a roundup of the highlights from my perspective.

Sat on a panel about Stephen King moderated by Rio Youers. He’s an amazingly fun guy and has a true passion for King. So that was great, and I felt a little bit outclassed. It sucks that the panel was scheduled opposite the opening ceremony and the panel was just barely outnumbered by the audience. Happily Rio’s later reading was much better attended, and his demonic typewriter story was wonderfully manic and creepy.

Had an amazing time on the swords panel with K.W. Ramsay and Erik Buchannan. Some hilarity in that we were mostly in some state of Saturday Morning At A Con, but nobody lost an eye, we had great engagement from our audience and it’s always fun to play with swords.

Next year, gladiator pit. We have to make that happen.

Speaking of awesome audience engagement, Derwin Mak and I managed to have an amazing talk about SF/F from China, Japan and Korea later the same day.

And then the madness began. Readings by Matt Moore and Rio Youers provided me with a much needed horror reading track to enjoy. Matt totally teased with his incomplete reading of The Leaving which is apparently available legitimately online, sadly I didn’t catch where so tell me in the comments!

I stopped by the Brain Lag party and picked up a copy of Hugh A. D. Spencer’s new book, Extreme Dentistry. Hugh introduced me to the… delights… of traditional Mormon Cuisine. Thanks Hugh. Thanks.

And then there was Michael Matheson and Matt’s reading from The Empire Striketh Back.

Full details of the madness that transpired at that event can be found on Michael’s blog. Needless to say it was an absolute riot. I will definitely be down for this brand of convention hi jinks again. Angela Keeley’s reading of My Immortal was transcendent. I contributed a truly awful piece of Star Wars / Pacific Rim flash fiction which I might be enticed to post here with sufficient peer pressure.

Sunday found Adam Shaftoe, K. W. Ramsay, David Lamb and I sitting in the green room chatting when each of us realized he had to go to a panel. Imagine our somewhat bemused surprise when we discovered we were all on the same panel. Adam has done an excellent job of summarizing that panel on his blog, and I strongly recommend everybody go read it.

All in all what Ad Astra proved is that a convention attended with a bunch of great friends who all relax and have a good time together can very easily become a very successful convention. Many laughs were had. Many books were bought. We may have even learned something along the way.

And, hey, I just read a bunch of horror authors I didn’t know before and have opinions and stuff. So tomorrow an article about Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Jeff Vandermeer and the new weird!