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Posts from the ‘Housekeeping’ Category

This Week’s Post Will Be a Little Late

So there I was: all ready to sit down and write a post about the “crushing conservatism” of epic fantasy. But then, out of nowhere, an equally crushing headache laid me low.

As a result, I think this week’s post will be a little late. I might get to it in a couple of hours, but more likely I’ll write it early tomorrow morning. Sorry for the delay, but I really don’t think staring at a screen will help alleviate my current brain pain. Instead, my plan for the evening is to curl up with some tea and ibuprofen.

Therefore, good night!

Ack! Swamped! Running a Little Late

Sorry, folks. I’m a bit swamped today and so I’m running a little behind getting this week’s post revised. Hopefully I’ll have it ready to go tomorrow. ‘Til then, here’s a picture of Macduff trying to figure out how to sit down on the couch:

How do I sit down? I got my legs all tangled...

How do I sit down? I got my legs all tangled…

Today on Amazing Stories: Crossroads – Tripping the Noir Fantastic

Amazing Stories Logo Today on Amazing Stories, I explore how fantasy navigates its epic/local tensions with noir, and how both noir and fantasy use wainscot structures.

Please stop by and take a look: Crossroads: Tripping the Noir Fantastic

Amazing Stories and Crossroads: A Year of Exploring SF/F Mashups

As of this morning, Amazing Stories is officially out of its beta test. If you enjoy reading this blog, then I strongly encourage you to stop by and check out the insightful, fascinating discussions that are happening over on the Amazing Stories blog.

Amazing Stories Logo

One of the reasons why I’m really excited about Amazing Stories is that I’ve committed to writing a weekly Crossroads column exploring the relationship between speculative fiction and other genres. Here’s how it’ll work: every month, I’ll pick a different genre. And then every Thursday throughout that month, I’ll explore how that genre interacts with speculative fiction, how they feed off of each other and inform each other.

As of right now, the first two of my Crossroads posts are already available. The third will be out this Thursday. In January, I’m exploring the relationship between noir and speculative fiction, and so far this months’ posts are:

Crossroads: Where Genres Meet in the Night My inaugural post at Amazing Stories, where I explain what Crossroads is all about and what the year’s schedule will look like.
Crossroads: What Is Noir, Anyway? This post takes a close look at what characteristics make a story noir, and introduces some of the tensions that exist between the noir aesthetic and speculative fiction.
Crossroads: A Genre Darkly (available: January 24th, 2013) Coming up this Thursday, I take a deep dive into the close relationship between science fiction and noir, exploring how science fiction incorporates noir plot structures and style into its toolkit.

Next week, I’ll be taking a similar deep dive into the even greater challenge of unifying noir and fantasy. I hope you stop by Amazing Stories, and I hope that you enjoy my Crossroads column! I’d love it if you could swing by and join in the conversation.

A Question of Identity

Happy new year! The kooks who made stuff up about the Mayans were wrong, the world didn’t end, and we have now rolled into 2013. I for one am happy that 2012 is over, since it was in many ways a tough year for my family, and I am looking forward to a far better 2013.

One of the developments I face in 2013 is the fact that I’ll be publishing a weekly column/blog over at Amazing Stories. With that, comes the necessity of choosing the name under which those posts will be published. Identity has always been a fraught choice for writers: whether they adopted a pen name to appeal to their audience’s higher ideals (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as Publius), to prevent confusion (Winston Churchill writing as Winston S. Churchill), to increase the prospective audience of their works (Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr.), or to keep different facets of their life compartmentalized (Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll), each of us who picks a pen name does so for personal, often idiosyncratic reasons.

The Modern Identity Crisis

We have our professional lives, the part of our day when most of us put on respectable clothes, harden our professional smiles, and step out of our doors to interact with the world within the boundaries of our chosen profession. Then we come home, shut the door, turn the lock, put on our fluffy slippers, and reveal our private, personal selves.

We perform our daily life, both in our public roles and in private. If you think this is duplicitous, then I’m sorry, but would you go to a job interview dressed in your PJs? Of course not. We are part of a society, and that society accepts certain behaviors in certain contexts and condemns others. For most of us, our private, personal passions are reserved for exactly that: for the private spheres of our lives, to be shared with those closest to us.

The more roles we play – husband, father, friend, child, boss, volunteer, employee – the more varied our presentation. That’s only natural, only human. But today, identity has become a difficult, mutable beast. Where twenty years ago, we could leave work at the office and have our private passions at home, now social media and the 24/7 work culture has eroded those once-firm borders. The compartmentalization we all take for granted, that we all rely on, has become fluid.

Navigating these waters can be exhausting. And when a personal passion begins to shade into a professional presentation (like when, oh, I don’t know, one starts getting one’s personal, passion-driven work published) the way in which we construct our identity begins to have consequences.

Who Am I?

When I first started writing about speculative fiction, I chose to do so semi-anonymously. I didn’t reveal my full name, and instead just opted to go by my first name of Chris. As I wrote in my first post here, I did this to keep my day job separate from my writing. My professional career, and the circles I move in to maintain and develop that career, would neither understand nor accept my creative passions. People would – out of ignorance or small-mindedness – question my professionalism, my maturity, my seriousness. Never mind that I’ve been building multinational businesses since my late teens. Too many people have difficulty accepting that many of us are complex creatures, built of myriad and wonderful parts.

This fact is tragic and painful.

But it remains a fact, and one which must be faced. I could choose to say screw it, and to wear my love of speculative fiction proudly. At this point in my professional career, and with my creative work now starting to show up in more places, I am tempted to do exactly that. But before I start publishing my work (non-fiction or fiction) under my real name, there is another factor to consider: the commercial implications of that name.

Supposedly, when Harry Turtledove first started publishing novels, his publisher told him that no one would believe a name like Turtledove (despite the fact that it is his real name). He initially adopted the pen name Turtletaub as a result.

When Jo Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, her publisher in the UK demanded that she merely use two initials to better appeal to middle-grade boys.

When Julie Woodcock publishes her romance novels, she does so under the name Angela Knight because otherwise the double entendre of her surname might harm her sales.

Pearl Zane Gray chose to publish his classic westerns as “Zane Grey” because many of his readers wouldn’t have bought a western written by a man named Pearl.

The quality of our work, the genres we publish in, and the names we publish under are the brand we develop as writers. Yes, that sounds marketing-ese, but it remains true. And in today’s writing world, we have to shoulder so much of the burden of our own marketing, our own publicity, that if we want to actually write professionally, I think it behooves us to think strategically about how we do so.

My full name is a fine name. It’s a long, Polish name, with all of the consonants, syllables and difficulties that comes with it. My mother, who came to this country as an adult in the late ’60s, insists that if she had to learn to pronounce “Smith” then everyone else should learn how to pronounce “Modzelewski”. I think she has a point.

But as a writer hoping to build a name for myself, and as a writer hoping to one day sell books, I need to consider more than just the Honor of the Family Name (for the record, I think that would be a great mainstream literary title). Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

How will a difficult-to-pronounce name affect word-of-mouth recommendations? How will a hard-to-spell name affect search-driven sales on Amazon? How will a tough name affect the likelihood of bloggers and online reviewers writing up my books? Will a tough name diminish booksellers’ propensity to hand-sell my titles? Will signing my super-long name on stock give me carpal tunnel syndrome?

A difficult name is not, of course, a deal-breaker for any of these concerns. An editor friend once laughed and told me “We know how to deal with those kinds of issues.” That is no doubt true, and of course these are all absolutely manageable. But there’s a way to forestall any and all of these concerns, and that is to adopt a pen name.

That’s why, to ring in the new year, I’ve decided to drop my half-maintained veneer of anonymity. Instead, I’m going to actively try to promote and develop a new identity for myself. It might be a silly strategic choice on my part, and maybe in the future it might change, but for the time being I’ve chosen to write under the name Chris Gerwel (That’s my first and middle name, in case anyone was wondering. Gerwel is my late grandfather’s name, and I’m sure my mom’ll be thrilled that I’m using it.).

The way I see it, the name is shorter and easier to spell than my “proper” surname. It remains a little unusual, which hopefully helps make it memorable. And it won’t get confused with my professional day-job world, letting me maintain – at least to some degree – a little compartmentalization between the spheres of my life.

Others might have made a different choice, and I might yet reconsider this one (I expect that either an agent or an editor might want to weigh in on such matters at some point). But as I wrap up a difficult 2012, I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with a name.

With that, I am off to celebrate the holiday with my family. Happy New Year, everybody! May your 2013 be better than all the years that came before.

Another Day Late

Just a quick post to let you know I’m running a little late with my blog post this week. Hopefully I’ll have it up tomorrow.

Meta-review: A Review of My Reviewing

The other day, the Professor observed that it has been a long time since I posted a straight review. And it’s true: while I tend to discuss many books in my posts, and often specifically discuss new books that I’d received as ARCs, I haven’t posted a straightforward review since May of this year. I have read plenty of books in the interim, some of which I requested, some of which were sent to me, and some of which I picked up in the store because I was interested. So why, then, the dearth of reviews?

Genres and Conventions in Literary Criticism

As anyone who has read a single post of mine can probably guess, I like criticism. I like dissecting literature, art, and culture to gain some modicum of understanding. And over the course of the past few months, I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of literary criticism, about what it accomplishes, and how my own meager attempts contribute in some fashion to the field. In a sense, I’ve been turning a critical lens on the field of criticism itself.

And I am quite surprised that this field of meta-criticism features a more muddled vocabulary than even literary criticism itself (which is saying something, and what it says is not very polite).

Everyone these days plays the role of “critic:” reviewers who recommend books to other readers, analysts who explore the broader field of literary production, writers who discuss their methods, process, and thinking, etc. To express a thought – any kind of thought – about the written word is likely to be labelled “criticism”, and with global communications at our fingertips, the barriers to entry are very low.

But criticism itself takes on many forms, and we write it and read it for many reasons. Like the stories we read, criticism can be sub-divided into a number of genres, each of which has its own conventions, its own devices, its own markets, and its own audiences. Like genres in fiction, critical genres have porous borders, and there is much overlap between their methods and devices. But all that being said, I think it is safe to propose several key categories:

Commercial Reviews
Short (< 300 words) reviews which typically provide a brief overview of the story’s plot, highlight one or two salient details (either positively or negatively), and sometimes mention similar or vastly different titles for the sake of comparison. Primarily aimed at a professional audience of booksellers and librarians, and because of their professional reputation used by publicists to provide consumers with juicy and authoritative blurbs.

  • Kirkus Reviews
  • Publisher’s Weekly
  • School Library Journal
  • Locus Magazine

Perception Pieces
Longer (300 – 2,000 words) articles that are targeted specifically at prospective readers. Structurally, they tend to present the critic’s highly subjective perceptions of a specific title, of their experience reading it, and offer a handful of very specific examples from the text. Sometimes, depending on the critic, those perceptions are contextualized through a discussion of the title’s broader genre, or of the author’s previous work, though these are not defining features of the category. What is notable about this category is that there are no structural differences between a typical perception piece in The New York Times, a book blogger’s review, or a consumer’s write-up on GoodReads. Much as professional reviewers might grumble, the only real difference lies in the audience’s perception of the reviewer’s authority, which typically stems from the brand on the masthead (although the quality of individual reviews will, of course, vary).

  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books
  • Book Bloggers
  • GoodReads
  • Reader Reviews

Technical Analyses
These are also longer reviews, but they differ structurally from most perception pieces in that they focus more on the methods by which a given story achieves its effects. I suspect many of the reviewers who write technical analyses (myself included) are themselves writers of fiction, and see their “review” as a dissection of authorial technique. The level of technical detail into which such reviews go, the “closeness” of their reading, exceeds that typically found in a perception piece.

  • Book Bloggers
  • Books/Essays on Writing
  • Books of Literary Criticism

Generalized Commentary
Where perception pieces focus on the reviewer’s reaction to a specific title, generalized commentary broadens the discussion to encompass an entire artistic field (however the critic chooses to define it). Such generalized commentary draws broad conclusions, sweeps the field with generalizations, and discusses stylistic, thematic, structural, commercial, etc. trends. While such commentary can often resemble that found in perception pieces or technical analyses, the scope is broad enough to extend beyond individual titles.

  • The New Yorker
  • The Guardian
  • Book Bloggers
  • Writers’ Blogs / Essays
  • Books on Writing
  • Essays in Anthologies

Academic Criticism
At its best, academic criticism resembles a fusion of technical analysis, generalized commentary, and perception pieces. However in contemporary practice, it has become a genre unto itself. Its markets are limited to peer-reviewed critical journals and (at book length) university presses, and its stylistic conventions often veer towards the incomprehensible (for which I think we have Jacques Derrida in particular to thank – and by thank, I mean the opposite). Its audience is almost always limited to academics, to critics with a stomach for the stuff, or to truly adventurous writers.

  • University press-published books of criticism
  • Critical conference proceedings
  • Academic papers

My Goals as a Critic

As I said when I first started up this blog, lo these two years ago (my how time flies when you’re having fun!), my goal is to better understand the field of speculative fiction, both on a cultural and a technical level. I want to understand the roles that science fiction, fantasy, and horror all play in our lives, and to understand how (by what means) different stories affect us as individuals and as a society. Or at least I want to understand it more than I do today.

The majority of my blog posts tend to be general commentary, probably closer in kind to technical analysis than to perception pieces. And my reviews, whose frequency has gradually decreased, tend to be more technical. As I state in my review policy, I tend to review books and stories that strike me in some way, where something about either their ambitions or their methods stands out within the broader field.

Does the decreasing frequency of my reviews mean that there is less technical innovation taking place in speculative fiction? I honestly don’t know. Does the fact that few books have recently moved me sufficiently to write a review mean that I subscribe to the much-discussed belief in the genre’s exhaustion?

I hope not. I hope it’s just a combination of having more interesting thoughts about broader subjects, or of wanting to discuss specific titles within a wider context. But despite this hope, I still find myself awake at night thinking about what this implies for both myself as a reader/critic, and if anything, for the genre.

For those who’ve been reading me for awhile – or for those who’ve gone back in the archives and read some of my reviews – do you miss them? Should I try to cast a wider net in my reading or to make a concerted effort to write more of those kinds of reviews? Or does my general commentary from the last several months still work for you?

Going to be a Day Late This Week

Sorry, folks! I’m afraid I’m too swamped with day-job stuff today to get this week’s post out. However, I should have it ready to go tomorrow (Wednesday). Sorry for the delay!


So we got hit by Hurricane Sandy yesterday. This time, no trees came down on our property (thankfully), but we’ve been without power since last night. We’ve got hot water, and gas to cook on, but with no electricity and no Internet, I’m afraid there won’t be a typical blog post from me today (typing one out on my cell phone would be hard, and the battery would probably die before I was done).

Sorry about this, but hopefully I’ll be back with a post in the next several days (or whenever they restore power).

Sorry! Traveling!

Alas, alack, alarum! I’m traveling this week (actually, working as staff at this year’s Viable Paradise workshop) so I’m afraid I won’t be posting much this week. However, when I get back next week I’ll have some thoughts to share!

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