Monday 12 April 2010

Blogging in the Year We Made Contact: Odyssey One (The Niche)

When I Iaunched The Speculative Scotsman in January, I'll admit: I had precious little understanding of exactly what variety of venture I'd begun. There wasn't a purpose in my mind more complex or carefully calculated than the vague notion of writing something about how much Tigana had moved me.

And yet, four months and more than a hundred posts in, here I remain. Blogging - and every day (though I fear that might change in the near future). And it's gone well; very, very well, by my own reckoning. Not to toot my own horn here, but TSS has attracted support from a wide array of publishers, professional authors and fellow bloggers that I hadn't dared hope might notice my humble scribblings. I couldn't be happier that that's the case. Their belief, their enthusiasm, lends credence to what I'm doing here - which, I should say, isn't churning out one review after another. There are reviews on the blog, certainly - and there always will be, never fear - but I have done, and will continue to do, whatever I'm able to delineate such articles with more diverse commentary and content.

In any case, the site's success has been a very pleasant surprise to me. One discerning colleague has even gone so far as to call me a Magical Scotsman. But I've a confession to make: this isn't the first time I've blogged.

I won't bore you or embarrass myself with the particulars, but yes, it's true. A few years ago, I kept another blog. And though that hardly moved the heavens and the earth, I didn't let its unfortunate failure discourage me. Between then and now, I kept writing. I reviewed video games for Ace Gamez. I was a blogless BlogCritic. I wrote articles for local newspapers and copy for a couple of adverts.

But all that's beside the point I mean to make today. Today, I'd like to make use of the perspective given me by the blogosphere's overwhelming reception of The Speculative Scotsman versus the veritable wet blanket which mercifully smothered The Other Site Which Must Not Be Named to underscore some of the more imperative differences between the blogosphere then and the blogosphere now. It's going to take a couple of posts, I'm afraid; I've a lot to say on this topic. And I'm certainly not alone in that.

Let's begin by considering the place of blogs in this enlightened era. From the entry dated March 12th in his tour journal on the wonderful Bright Weavings, Guy Gavriel Kay - author of the forthcoming Under Heaven, not to mention the very book that inspired The Speculative Scotsman - had this to say:

"One of the realities these days, and I had an email exchange with an entertainment editor for one major paper about this, is how brutally the space for books is being cut in newspapers and magazines – as in 70% in one case I just learned of yesterday.

"There's a serious fight among publishers and publicists for a diminishing amount of media real estate to 'cover' their books. (This is a reason for more of an online push.) Editors are ruefully aware that they are not doing an especially good job of covering what's being published, because they can't. And given that the size of any review is limited, the money paid is pretty trivial, and it takes time to read and carefully consider a book, the odds against (and this was the editor's point) thoughtful engagement with a novel and a well-written review are... extreme.

"In theory, online reviewers have no such space pressures or need to rush, but all sorts of other considerations come into play when you get to the book blogging world. Among others, it is widely noted that the Internet tends to steer us towards communities of the like-minded, and so you find a lot of online reviewing that is targeted to narrow genres or spheres of interest, and for many books, an appraisal that comes only from a specific perspective might be a problem.

"Having said that, it can also be an asset... someone targeting historical fiction or photography books or any other specific area is far more likely to alert people to titles in that field than any newspaper and to be well-grounded in that field. That's an upside. As I think I said earlier in this Journal, editors will speak, legitimately, of the role of the gatekeeper, the man or woman ensuring some measure of quality or appropriateness and credibility, and perhaps a push for revision or fine-tuning, to a review. But my sense is that credibility can arrive over time for some people online too, just from the craft and care they bring to their work.

"I have a general sense that the decline of newspapers is taking with it the importance of covering books, and it saddens me."

So Guy Gavriel Kay is taking us seriously. That's a hell of a start!

Moreover, his assertions regarding print media are of paramount importance. What with the collapse of the global economy and the increasingly less supplemental role of free, like-for-like internet resources, newspapers and magazines - which cost money to produce and must thus cost money to consume - are struggling to keep from going under. And in some, admittedly negligible, ways, it's our fault.

But there's no sense in crying over spilt milk. Except for a select few outlets, the print media is undeniably on the out. It's a sad fact; a fact nonetheless. And so the responsibility falls to us - amongst others of course - to bring news, views and reviews to those consumers who look now to the internet for such things, and by extension the blogosphere, where before they would buy a broadsheet or the latest glossy issue of SFX.

It was perhaps three years ago that I idled away my time with The Other Site Which Must Not Be Named, and then, though there were blogs - and no shortage of them - they catered, as Kay observes, to very narrow niches. In many respects, they still do. I would disagree, however, that "an appraisal that comes only from a specific perspective" is necessarily a problematic thing. Practically speaking, as amateur, not to mention unpaid writers, bloggers are only able to devote so much of their time to creating content for their blogs - by and large, they also have lives to lead, and must somehow, between blog posts, make enough money to pay for those lives.

However, such considerations aren't what interest me here. The most significant problem with my blog of yore was, I think, that I didn't delineate its concerns clearly enough; I had hoped that somehow, if I wrote a little about everything, people who wanted to read about any one of those things would somehow discover it. That, um... that didn't pan out. And it's easy, in retrospect, to see why. The internet is pretty huge, after all, and given that there's so very much of it - and so very much of it that doesn't interest you at all - in order to find those things you are interested in, you have to look for them. Surfing the internet is, I feel, an increasingly outdated notion. Perhaps it once had some relevance, when the web itself a more humble endeavour, but we are no longer carried along on a great wave: we drive that wave, whether by plugging a keyword into Google or following links and the like from sites we already know scratch our particular itches. Sometimes we come across something new, something that surprises us; an obscure alleyway that leads away from the thoroughfares we travel along each day in the unique online experience that we have each created for ourselves.

That bloggers tend to define the boundaries of their interests and address as thoroughly as possible those concerns is both practical and purposeful, then. And further, when you read a review of a fantasy novel written by an experienced fantasy reader, does that not lend the review that much more credibility? Certainly for those readers interested in a particular genre, criticism originating from like-minded perspectives must surely hit home more directly than any general review. An avowed fantasy reader understands first-hand the tropes of fantasy; a print journalist, meanwhile, whose purview is likely more encompassing - no-one hires, let's be a frank, different reviewers for each genre of literature - might well grasp the broad strokes, but miss the finer points of such fiction. To return, one last time, to that old chestnut, how many glowing reviews of The Left Hand of God did you see in the papers? Give that book to a blogger with any experience of such narratives, however, and... well, we all know how I feel about Paul Hoffman's first genre novel.

Time, I think, to tie a pretty little bow on this first installment of Blogging in the Year We Made Contact. But before we do, what have we learned? I'll start us off. Conclusion number one: the blogosphere has, at least in the three years I've been active (and inactive) in it, become an increasingly legimate source of criticism. And conclusion number two: though it's a fact that most blogs cater to niche audiences, their narrow focus need not be a cause for concern. Indeed, perhaps it's a cause for celebration.

For my own part, I don't know that The Speculative Scotsman would have reached nearly so many readers had I just been a Scotsman who blogged. That I am a blogging Scotsman with an interest in speculative fiction has introduced me to a wonderful, lively and thoughtful community of others with similar interests. You lot!

Readers, you really are the bee's knees.


  1. Is a Magical Scotsman like a Magical Negro then? do you get to hang out with English people pretending to be spiritual and wise?

    Good post.

    It has been interesting to note the role that Twitter has played in this wave of book blogging.

    The first wave kind of pre-dated blogs and was largely a question of fanzines setting up online. Some of these sites are still with us. Others have withered away.

    The second wave came with the explosion of blogging. It expanded until it reached a kind of tipping point and then it seemed to implode just as sites like and io9 started appearing.

    This third wave (of which I would say you were on the cusp) seems to be largely unconnected with previous waves but it does seem to be emerging as a scene on the basis of connections made not between old friends from the con-going scene (as in the first wave) or blogs as separate entities (as in the second wave) but via social media.

    It's great to see as I had kind of lost faith in independent book blogging.

  2. Congratulations on your blog success!

    I do believe blogs are a valuable source of criticism. I stumbled upon this blog after a long time away from reading genre. I reasoned, if a book reviewer had similar thoughts on the kinds of books I've previously read (ie. Tigana), it's likely I could trust his/her taste in other books as well. That's what's kept me coming back here.

  3. Yeah, those bloggers who churn out one review after another. Can't stand em'!
    Hang on...


    Your blog is one of a few that I check out daily and I have to say that I'm really enjoying myself here. Keep going!

  4. Excellent article :-)

    I agree with you about how the online community of speculative fiction bloggers is becoming more powerful in the reviewing world, especially as the printed media rarely touch this genre of fiction. I particularly liked this:

    "when you read a review of a fantasy novel written by an experienced fantasy reader, does that not lend the review that much more credibility?"

    This is so true! And having found a great group of book bloggers via Twitter, it is reassuring to know that the reviews are reliable because they are written by people who love the genre and therefore know what they are writing about.

  5. Don't worry. I'll do my best to deflate egos and expectations, if that's what you need ;)