Not quite how it was supposed to be …

It was not in the plan to leave Paper Knife lying fallow for quite so long, but sometimes life just gets in the way, and this summer it did so with a vengeance. When I’m stressed and tired, I rarely feel like reading for pleasure. The rest of the time I have been editing or working on my studies, and neither of them is something I really want to talk about here.

Having said that, I think I was also experiencing a deeper literary malaise, perhaps best summed up by Booker Nacht, which I mainly slept through as the BBC had little coverage, and most of that was buried on one of its news channels. I woke up briefly to catch the 10 p.m. news on Radio 4, where to my total lack of astonishment, I heard that Julian Barnes had finally won the Booker; wondered how he felt about what he would have known was a long-service medal, and immediately fell asleep again. Once upon a time, I was excited about the Booker. I read the reviews, watched the announcement on tv, was always keen to read the winner. What went wrong? What happened to my enthusiasm for awards and the rest of the literary razzamatazz?

I think it took a severe hit back in the spring, during another iteration of the genre vs literary fiction wars, though, if truth be told, I was already suffering battle fatigue from previous bruising encounters, and thus weakened to the point where what should have been a superficial wound did more damage than usual. Yet again, startling numbers of people who should have known better, and I include myself in that, were all making arses of themselves. Why were we still doing this, I wondered. I’d been fighting this battle for years, and the pointlessness of it suddenly bore in on me. I honestly no longer cared about defending genre against the literary philistines, any more than I realise I now care about putting the Stella Rimingtons of this world firmly in their place. For every one you cut down there are another five coming along behind, hydra-fashion. I mean, really, what is the point? Enough is enough, and I am damned if I am getting caught up in yet another round of it. Frankly, I’d rather be reading books and talking about them.

So, from here on in, I don’t anticipate losing quite so much sleep over awards, with a couple of noble exceptions, which are the Clarke Award and the BSFA awards, because they actually interest me and I actually care about them, plus a watching brief on the Tiptree, which is organised in an entirely different way and thus avoids that build-up of tension. This does not mean, of course, that I might not talk about other awards, but more as an exercise in sociology. As for the only-too-human desire to categorise, I remain fascinated by its pathology but will refrain from indulging except insofar as it necessarily informs my writing practice, and that doesn’t involve usually writing about books by categorising them first!

Whether this shakes off the rest of the malaise, I don’t know. One thing that has been bugging me a lot this year is the way so many reviewers, especially in the online communities, insist on showering every book that comes their way with more superlatives than you can shake a stick at. It may be that I am just old, cynical, an editor, still working on my position as a hard woman of British sf/fantasy reviewing or whatever, but I’ve always believed that superlatives are like salt; they should be used sparingly, reserved for books that are exceptional. Apparently, these days every book is the best book ever, which is commendably enthusiastic but unhelpful in many other ways.

In other news, after a small windfall, P decided the time had come for us to acquire an ebook reader, so treated us to a Kindle, which I appear to have accidentally appropriated. I’m genuinely impressed with it as a machine for reading, though this is possibly because P also bought the leather cover for it, and it feels as though I am actually reading a book, so much so that I have more than once attempted to turn a physical page that is not there. I’m still coming to terms with the annotation function, but will doubtless get there eventually. Given that a lot of publishers are moving to PDF advance reading copies, an ebook reader is anyway becoming a necessity rather than a luxury.

The Kindle’s downside comes if/when I want to use it as an academic tool. Many of the books I would like to have aren’t available as ebooks. In many instances I understand why this is, given I am studying moderately obscure topics, but I was genuinely surprised that there is no ebook version of Said’s Orientalism available. I also need to be able to use page numbers as references when I’m writing, and a lot of ebooks just don’t have them, though I assume there will be MLA protocols for this sooner rather than later. There are other objections, too. I can read articles I’ve downloaded from academic storage sites but it is not always possible to annotate them (and the Kindle facility for converting PDFs to its own format is … rudimentary, to say the least).

There are also wide discrepancies between different publishers when it comes to producing a decent ebook. The big publishers mostly have this sorted out (apart from the page numbers) but smaller publishers vary immensely in their approach. Some produce lovely ebooks, others have clearly poured a PDF into a Kindle template, and left it at that, without sorting out formatting issues. At this stage, I am not naming names but even after so short an acquaintance with this new world of reading, there are certain companies who offend again and again.

Where the Kindle is really winning so far as I am concerned is in being able to set up subscriptions to US sf magazines. I stopped buying when my UK subscription agent put up the shutters, and never quite got around to sorting it out online when that became easier to do, and I’m not that keen on reading things online. I used to like reading short stories and I can do that again.

There are probably other things I should be saying here, but for now I will just say, I’m back, and I hope to be writing on a more regular schedule!