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Right! That's a wrap of our #ManBooker2014 coverage. Congratulations to Richard Flanagan bookslive.co.za/Yq9F

Kayang Gagiano Reviews The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsVerdict: carrot

It doesn’t come any grimmer, grittier or more imaginative than this.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the audacious premise of award-winning novelist Lauren Beukes’s latest literary endeavour, here it is.

In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, psychopathic hobo Harper Curtis discovers a wormhole in time in a residential home (ostensibly derelict) in Chicago’s rundown Englewood district. Here this depraved misanthrope, with his penchant for ultra-violence (and predilection for inflicting it through vicious, gory disembowelments and throat-slitting) not only finds safe harbour; he is also confronted by his murderous destiny: a room with a list of women’s names rewritten many times in his own hand and a collection of ghoulish trinkets plucked from his hapless, preordained female victims – the “shining girls” of the novel’s title.

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Recent comments:

  • Lutze
    Lutze
    June 6th, 2013 @11:02 #
     
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    I like this website very much, but I have to ask why no bad reviews for the Shining Girls? I have seen a few, but not here. It's a little bit crazy and very bad for your credibility.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 6th, 2013 @11:32 #
     
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    I fully agree. I haven't said this before, because I didn't want to personalise this remark to any one writer; but if the site is prepared to give 'sticks' to some writers, it should be prepared to be even-handed about its policy and do it with all writers: especially when some of the more negative reviews have appeared in accessible and important places (both in SA and overseas). Otherwise this just becomes an advertising board, rather than a place where there's any meaningful discussion of SA lit.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 6th, 2013 @11:54 #
     
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    Appreciate the feedback, Lutze and Kelwyn. I can confirm that it's our policy to post reviews without fear or favour - including reviews of books written by our community members. (This has caused some writers to leave the community, in fact.) I've just cast an eye over our posting queue, and see at least one stick for The Shining Girls lined up. The vagaries of web content management being what they are - we publish up to 30 items per day, and our posting agenda changes minute-by-minute, with a lot of chopping and changing - TSG has gone on an impressive run of carrots, but it's random, not as a result of active bias on our editorial team's part. We just haven't kept even pace with the sheer volume of TSG comment out there.

    Several Books LIVE "lurkers" (people who read out site but don't comment) regularly send us links and material that they think we've overlooked, which is something we welcome. If you'd like to suggest items for posting, please send a note to editor@book.co.za. I hope to hear from you.

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  • Jonah
    Jonah
    June 6th, 2013 @12:51 #
     
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    Oh come on, Ben. Here are some major local and international sources, some from a while back. It's hard to avoid believing that BL is protecting the author or publisher from negative criticism.

    - http://mg.co.za/article/2013-04-19-00-grisly-death-passes-without-comment
    - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/01/shining-girls-lauren-beukes-review
    - http://sundayindybooks.blogspot.com/2013/05/digging-beneath-sparkle-of-shining-girls.html

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  • <a href="http://www.annetownsend.co.za" rel="nofollow">Anne-Elizabeth Townsend</a>
    Anne-Elizabeth Townsend
    June 6th, 2013 @14:15 #
     
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    What a relief. I've wanted to make these same points many times before but felt that as a newbie I should keep my big mouth shut. I am relieved others have raised this concern.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 6th, 2013 @14:20 #
     
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    Thanks for the links, Jonah. (Those who prefer to lurk - all lurkers welcome! - you can also send us material via editor@bookslive.co.za.) Two are already in our posting queue, in some form or another. The Sunday Indy one isn't quite a classic review, so we're still debating whether it would be better posted on a different blog. It will probably end up on the reviews blog, though. We missed the Guardian review, meanwhile, so will add it to the queue. Appreciate the tip.

    I will readily confess that Books LIVE generally is boosterish toward SA Lit: one of our guiding missions is to introduce more South African readers - the majority of whom ignore local writing - to the talent that is extant here.

    The more one denies a conspiracy theory on any specific point, however, the deeper one's association with the initial J'accuse, so rather than ask you to show the courtesy of taking what I wrote above at face value, I'll fess up:

    At the beginning of the year, the Books LIVE team convened in the cellars of Thelema* wine estate to perform several highly stylised Gnostic rituals that reaffirmed our commitment to the principle, "Every SA writer who makes it big is a star". Thereafter, we resolved only to celebrate the sublimity of the universal forces that confer said stardom, and ignore the drossy bits that might threaten it. Our criteria for judging true stardom includes #JEALZZ activity on the chatboards which, now we've been outed, puts us in a distinctly invidious position, as we have to lick albumen off our faces in addition to breaking our commandments unto ourselves. Bummer, man!

    * See: http://www.thelema101.com/oto

    ~~~

    Seriously, with so much TSG material out there, and our policy of featuring, as far as possible, any given book only once a day (across all categories: news, reviews, features, etc.), we just haven't been able to keep up. But we're proper book journalists, so we'll get through all the links eventually. Our apologies to our readers for the misconception this has caused.

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  • Lutze
    Lutze
    June 6th, 2013 @15:00 #
     
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    Thank you Ben, I accept your explanation.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 6th, 2013 @15:11 #
     
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    I think it's possible to boost SA Lit without having any special policy - implicit or otherwise, conscious or otherwise - about reviewing local works. If the works of literature are good, they don't need any kind of protection or bolstering: what they need are serious and even-handed reviews.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 6th, 2013 @15:21 #
     
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    Pleasure, Lutze. Kelwyn, regarding reviews, our only policy is to aggregate as many as possible - ideally, all of them. Note that we don't write reviews ourselves.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 6th, 2013 @15:25 #
     
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    Anne, you're not a newbie! You're fully-fledged :) Please comment on anything, any time - either here or via editor@bookslive.co.za.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 8th, 2013 @11:19 #
     
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    Gosh, just about the first post-SA launch review of TSG I read was a great big stick, and I read it right here on Books Live. There is a problem with volume: so far, I've come across about 40 reviews for TSG (with more coming), 90% of them carrots. How do you put them all up on one local website without swamping/crowding out all the other members of the community? Bookslive is very fair about doling out sticks and carrots for local writers evenhandedly, but what do they do here? Feature all three sticks and all 37 carrots? One stick and ten carrots as a form of proportional representation? One stick and one carrot? (that might look even-handed, but is obviously not fair). I don't think we've ever had a member of the BL community go supernova before, so it's not as if there are precedents to follow.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 8th, 2013 @11:50 #
     
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    Why not group the reviews? Three or four to a post, a mix of carrots and sticks. When they're coming as thick and fast as this, it seems like the only option.

    Whatever the case me be, wonderful and inspirational to see Lauren rocketing to superstardom.

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  • <a href="http://www.ianmartintheauthor.com" rel="nofollow">Ian Martin</a>
    Ian Martin
    June 8th, 2013 @13:16 #
     
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    Bunch of incestuous hypocrites, I say. Is BooksLive a charitable organisation? If not, how does it generate an income? And, while we're about it, how are the literary festivals funded? And is there a 'special relationship' between the Creative Writing Course gold mine and the publishing industry? Anybody got a can opener handy?

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  • <a href="http://rachelzadok.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    June 8th, 2013 @16:03 #
     
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    I think the point Kelwyn makes about serious even-handed reviewing is a sound one and, as many know, one of my personal bugbears since returning to SA. We lack a culture of good balanced reviewing - like much of the publishing industry, we've fallen foul to the Amazon/Goodreads/Blogger of fan review culture. This affects how books are marketed and "reviewed". I'm loathe to use The Shining Girls as an example, as I don't want to come across as unsupportive of a fellow writer, but there is a question posed here about how to avoid seeming biased when placing reviews on BooksLive and I think the answer is to cut through the hype. A lot of prelaunch books were sent out to fan reviewers (those on goodreads etc)/bloggers, fanzines and the like, which result in a lot of super-positive reviews. When one removes those reviews and begins to look only at the reviews of publications that still have salaried literary reviewers I think one starts to see more balanced reviews, those that are neither 90%stick or 90% carrot, but that point out both the successes and flaws within the work. This is useful, both to the reader and the writer. They're respectful of the writers efforts, avoid snide commentary that lifts the reviewer and belittles the writer (rife on certain local review sites), the writer walks away with the knowledge of what they could do better next time, and the reader gets an even picture of the book, its message, its strengths and failings. Leave the fan reviews out there for readers to discover, and put the New York Times etc ones up on BooksLive.

    That's my two cents.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 8th, 2013 @17:41 #
     
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    I think one has to see where a review comes from. Rachel is right, re fan reviewers and prelaunch copies. All reviews are not equal in application or in seriousness; and although this is by no means an infallible point (there's 'The Citizen', for example), newspaper reviewing does seem to be a lodestone which should be kept for the time being e.g. South African newspapers plus well-known overseas ones which have regular reviewing sections.
    Otherwise we're in a situation where press agents and publishers can just drown out any critical voice with a plethora of google-eyed reviewers.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 9th, 2013 @16:23 #
     
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    Just to add; in my experience, good reviews are often difficult to categorize re carrot vs stick...

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 9th, 2013 @20:56 #
     
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    Thanks for the further comments, all.

    @ Helen, your word, "supernova", is perfectly apposite to the situation here - thanks for putting your finger on it.

    @ Rachel, points well taken, but traditionally we haven't excluded smaller publications in our aggregations, as traditionally they are as even-handed as the majors. We may reconsider this for supernova situations.

    @ Richard, good idea, and it's been done; one drawback is that the individual reviews tend to blur into one another; see:

    http://umuzi.bookslive.co.za/blog/2013/05/28/review-round-up-lauren-beukes-the-shining-girls-wins-over-the-world/

    @ Ian, not sure how to respond to that.

    @ Kelwyn, we do try to be Google-eyed :) It's quite true that good reviews mix it up, but in my opinion a reviewer hasn't done the job properly if there's no final recommendation one way or t'other. Our job is to crystallise that recommendation.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 10th, 2013 @10:40 #
     
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    Ben: nope. A good reviewer does show whether he/she on the whole likes/dislikes the book; but a good reviewer also puts in sufficient intellectual content for the reader to make up his/her mind about the book concerned - at some point, one has to trust the reader's sagacity and judgment, and not just treat them like a consumer to be win over with hype.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 10th, 2013 @14:25 #
     
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    I agree with Kelwyn - those are the reviews on goodreads that make me buy or not. People that just go YAY or BOO make me suspicious (know the writer / have an agenda). Mind you, my own notes on goodreads are just that - notes. Something to 'push a memory bell' if I go back to that book later. I'm lazy and just write 'yay' or 'nay' because I do not aspire to be a reviewer. (Never wanted to be one. It is very hard to do that job correctly.)

    On my other blog, I did have to stop 'highlighting' books on with personal notes. I put up books that had something in them that I thought was worth a note - even if I hated the actual process of reading the book. The whole 'carrot' and the 'stick' mentality had too many people were mistaking them for reviews and using them in a context they were never intended. 'Tiah thinks ...'

    Now I just toss up the latest literary-ish book I've read with quotes direct from the book. If that sparks a person's interest than they can go hang out with google to find out more. I've found the new format very freeing and infinitely more enjoyable.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 10th, 2013 @14:47 #
     
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    @ Kelwyn, I don't see how "nope" comes into it, if you agree that a reviewer ought to make a final recommendation (which we, in turn, transform into metadata, viz., carrot or stick). I much prefer it when a book's on the guillotine and the reviewer has the call on whether to drop the blade. How terrible to be gently induced into making up my own mind about a book (especially since I likely won't read it, there being too many books in the world): half the fun of a book review is the review itself.

    @ tiah, that's a terrific innovation. Might steal it! :)

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 10th, 2013 @15:23 #
     
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    Like Tiah, I now "review" friends' books by selecting random quotes every 25 pages (to get a somewhat even spread). This allows me to give readers some insight into the book, without any real risk in terms of judgement/credibility. It's a bit of a cop-out, but still.

    http://richarddenooy.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/11/27/bookwalk-5-tomorrow-pamplona-jan-van-mersbergen/

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 10th, 2013 @15:25 #
     
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    My heavens - the typos. Even worse than the norm.
    Forgive me. I did three workshops this morning and my brain is fried.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 11th, 2013 @09:31 #
     
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    Well, Ben, we'll have to agree to disagree. Maybe it's a difference over what sort of a process of reading of reviews one hopes to happen, in individual readers. (I suspect it's not entirely different to the politics of form - what sort of readers one wants, as an author, to form through the act of reading).
    But not to lose the issue; I have not wanted to talk about the Beukes in the room, but her latest does illustrate the point I'm trying to make. I have by no means followed this assiduously, but four reviews I've read - Mail & Guardian, Sunday Independent, Guardian, Independent - have similar ambivalences about the book, and criticisms. These occur with varying degrees of overall praise and/or condemnation. I found this more interesting - and more useful to my own thinking about the novel - than whether they ended up stick or carrot.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 12th, 2013 @12:02 #
     
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    This is a subject I have wrestled with for a while, so going to post my 2 cents worth.

    South African writers are faced with a problem that I am not sure that gatekeepers of literary standards appreciate. Basically our publishers aren't able to compete with overseas English fiction even on our own turf, let alone establish a presence for our fiction in overseas English markets. We're confined to a niche of a tiny local market, with only a lucky few travelling against the flood of incoming fiction and making an impact in foreign English speaking markets.

    From what I can tell, not many South African writers are able to pursue writing as a full time job because we're so limited by the constraints of our market and the perception of being some sort of literary backwater that is only good for turning out political fiction. The only way I could see myself being able to devote more time honing my craft and doing what I love would be to break into the international market (or win the Lotto).

    So in a sense we're in a dirty fight, up against literary rivals from established markets backed with more money and marketing clout than we can dream of. As a result the best most of us can hope for is to win a prize or two and sell out a couple of print runs - a rewarding experience, but not rewarding enough to make a full time writing career viable.

    In that environment we need all the help we can get to establish some kind of foothold in international markets and redefine the way these markets look at South African fiction. That may well mean taking an aggressive approach to PR, and fostering a sense in local and international markets that our writers have something special to offer with whatever means we have available to us.

    Not that I think we should create a PR echo chamber, it's just that when we have local writers finally breaking through to international markets, trying to knock them down or focus on the negatives in their efforts or the bias of reviewers may be counterproductive. Whether this is a question of hype winning out over substance is almost beside the point, at the moment aggressive PR across a broad selection of platforms is about the only pragmatic tactic a local writer can use to break into international markets.

    The odds are so heavily stacked against South African writers at present that it just doesn't make sense to turn on forums or people who trying to overturn the odds. Maybe once enough interest has been created in South African fiction to make writing a viable career, rather than something our writers turn to after expending their energy on a day job, that would be a more appropriate time to apply rigorous critical standards to local fiction.

    For now fretting over how rigorously local fiction is critiqued, or how aggressively it is promoted, seems very much like a luxury reserved for people who either don’t write or have never tried to write or develop their craft on top of working a full time job.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 12th, 2013 @12:47 #
     
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    Sven! A hearty welcome back. Terrific contribution - thanks.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 16th, 2013 @17:27 #
     
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    Oh WELL said, Sven. *gets up on chair and cheers* Especially as I see countless superb works of local fiction get almost none of the attention they deserve, simply because they're considered specialist works within a tiny niche market.

    The "luxury of fretting", as you put it, is also reserved for those very few who are either paid to think and write about literary matters, or do so from a position of independent wealth. This is not a jibe: academics are much-needed canaries in the coal mines of criticism, and it gladdens my heart that some wealthy members of the intelligentsia choose to pay serious attention to booky matters -- their opinions are by no means invalidated by their lack of anxiety about mortgages and health insurance. But there is sometimes a blindness to context, an almost aristocratic assumption that the literary world -- writers, publishers, booksellers -- operates unsullied by commercial pressures. PR is obviously no substitute for critique -- but it's a reality to be looked in the eye, rather than scraped off our shoes.

    It's dawning on me that there's a moment here, largely spearheaded by Lauren, that offers Southern African fiction the chance to go globally mainstream, the same way Indian lit did in the 80s courtesy of Rushdie & co, and Canadian and Australian lit did thanks to Atwood, Carey, et al. Whereas our political history and our Holy Trinity -- Coetzee, Gordimer, Brink -- seemed to reinforce the ghetto walls, not collapse them, now it's genre fiction that's leading the charge into the wider world -- but the impact on the rest of the industry could be huge. If I'm right, and I hope I am -- then that's the biggest "news" in SA lit in decades.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 18th, 2013 @14:35 #
     
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    There are a number of points here:
    - firstly, I am not sure that South Africa has developed a critical reviewing language up to its literature, especially at present, and especially as this literature diversifies into different goals, taste cultures, etc. I mean this both socially - obviously, especially as regards race - and formally/generically. Without this, my hunch is that our literature may at worst simply respond to global markets in THEIR terms and current fashions; as can be seen, I think, in some of the comments above. (This is no better than the old 'anthropological' 'over-politicized' (so to speak) criticism about our 'serious' literature that we are used to from critics abroad).
    - I don't think hyperbole or overly critical reception helps this. Our fiction is not superb, generally speaking; and to become so, we have to worry about more than just ching-ching + being embraced by Europe and/or North America. I've seen more than one 'great new SA writer' in my time be vaunted for a few years and then vanish, utterly. This is again, related imo to a superficial critical, teaching and reviewing culture.
    - at the other end of the spectrum, I dislike the carrot/stick thing because it is potentially devastating for writers starting out. I remember once, years ago, going a really negative review re my second collection, early 1990s. The reviewer was an ex-student, and he was into payback. He knew it; and I knew it. As it was, it mattered very little - but I wonder what my thoughts would have been if it had appeared as a 'stick' online on a site like this...with any review, even a bad one, there should be some praise, some dimensionality.
    - on a more personal note. Sven, where the h*** do you get off? You know nothing about me, or my history, or of any other academic or critic working at the moment. You want to do ad hominem argument, fine; but don't get upset if I start in about white suburban anti-intellectualism at the moment....

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 18th, 2013 @15:27 #
     
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    Kelywn the comment was not directed at you. Over the years I have also kept an eye on the genre fiction vs intelligentsia debate, which partly informed my comment. It was also directed into the past and at myself because I spent many years entertaining a sense of smug outrage and contempt over the marketing activities of others.

    Several years later my most notable works of fiction are my time-sheets, whereas those writers who took it upon themselves to make something happen have made some significant achievements that have probably opened doors that the likes of me would be quite grateful to trudge through one day.

    The fact is that until some local writers take it upon themselves to muscle out a place in the global market, being able to focus on writing as a full time occupation is going to be something reserved for trust fund beneficiaries, tenured academics, housewives and those writers who don't mind living in penury in order to express themselves artistically.

    For some reason I think that the critics have a romantic sense of the latter, and if that's the case I'd suggest that one of them join forces with me and we can go live underneath a sheet of corrugated iron on a vlei somewhere and I can write my next book while they forage for edible insects and fynbos. Once I am done they can critique my work, and then we can share the proceeds from the sales and possibly make enough money to purchase ourselves a nice, timely funeral plan.

    Please go ahead and tell me about white suburban anti-intellectualism, but don't get upset if I start opening beer bottles with my front teeth and performing renditions of 'who the f*ck are Man United'.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 18th, 2013 @18:49 #
     
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    For what it's worth, I didn't read an ad-hominem attack in Sven's original comment. Fairly robust sentiments (as always from Sven), but also fairly omnidirectional, to my sensibility.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 18th, 2013 @21:22 #
     
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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 19th, 2013 @08:38 #
     
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    It's great to see such eloquently argued opinions on this topic. To a degree, I think the development of a literary career is much the same as human development in that we are inclined to offer more constructive/positive criticism and support initially, within a smaller family circle, and that more negative criticism is likely to be expressed as a writer gains fame and is read and reviewed by a wider audience. And so we have fewer qualms about expressing negative opinions on the works of Coetzee, Gordimer, Brink and Galgut. I think Lauren's meteoric rise places her writing between these two developmental phases. In short, it's all part of growing up and having to endure the sticks with the carrots.

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  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    June 19th, 2013 @10:01 #
     
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    Thanks Richard, I think that's an astute comment that sums up the situation well: the need and the desire to nurture the newer writer versus the more robust criticism of the acclaimed/well-known writer. It's true: Hoge bomen vangen veel wind. May we all reach the Coetzee/Gordimer/Brink/Galgut level where we have to brave plenty of stick with the carrots!

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  • <a href="http://rachelzadok.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    June 19th, 2013 @16:49 #
     
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    I've been busy with Short Story Day Africa so have not been back to read these comments until now. I don't want my previous comment to be taken as unsupportive towards Lauren's meteoric and hard earned rise. Nor do I think we should knock her or any other SA writer that makes it to supernova status down with negativity and sticks. My thinking is as follows. In a market like the UK /US book markets, where 100K new books are published each year, to have been reviewed in the big papers at all is a big deal and says to the reader, this is a book worth reading. The New York Times and the Guardian do not review books lightly. They pick and choose. They have a culture of literary criticism, and lit. critics form part of their staff. When those papers review, they do so with balanced assessments of the work, analysing the finest parts of the work along with the flaws. Analysing the work in the context from which it sprang. For the most part, these reviews are neither stick nor carrot, but there mere fact that you've made it into the literary pages of those big newspapers is a golden carrot. They're never going to give praise without some criticism to balance it out, because that's not what they do. I suggested cutting through all the smaller hype generated reviews for The Shining Girls because it has made it onto those pages, and that is a great deal bigger than any glowing golden praise on a blog that's been sent a review copy. It says that Lauren's made it. And a balanced review in the New Yorker is a much bigger deal than a golden shower of praise* in a teeny fanzine, unless it's a cult fanzine.

    I really believe part of the SA lit scenes problem is the lack of trustworthy reviewing. How can readers know what is really worth reading when a book website reviews many well-written popular SA authors snidely, and heaps praise on books with dense impenetrable prose as works of genius? I don't think it's because we're not writing anything worth reading. Readers just don't trust the lit scene, so they turn to the book pages available on the web, and go out and buy imported fiction. Of course, I'm not suggesting that this is the only reason, but it's certainly plays a part.
    My two cents is now three. And I retire from this conversation to watch from the sidelines. Please don't flay me alive now.

    * considered saving the phrase "golden shower of praise" for A Girl Walks into a Bar. Will have to trot it out again later, when the ebook comes out.

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  • <a href="http://rachelzadok.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    June 19th, 2013 @16:50 #
     
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    And I don't know why none of my paragraph spaces are preserved when I submit. I do know how to use the return key.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 19th, 2013 @20:39 #
     
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    Rachel, you'll see your para breaks after refreshing the page :)

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 19th, 2013 @20:52 #
     
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    PS - I should point out that one of the reasons we started the carrot/stick system was to make local book reviewers aware that they were being watched. We love it when reviewers try to beat the system by producing the perfect carrotstick. That said, I never met a review, in any source, that wasn't ultimately carrot or stick.

    Rachel, which books website 'reviews many well-written popular SA authors snidely, and heaps praise on books with dense impenetrable prose as works of genius?' Not this one, I trust (we only aggregate reviews, we don't do any reviewing ourselves for reasons of conflict of interest).

    I certainly agree with your assessment that appearing in a major paper's book pages constitutes the ultimate golden carrot (and am glad you didn't save your golden shower metaphor - it's so funny it's definitely deployable twice).

    Last, Richard, I very much appreciate the nuances of your diagnosis. Terrific thinking on the subject, thanks.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 19th, 2013 @22:21 #
     
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    Always glad to contribute. I miss these rolling, reasoned threads. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

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  • <a href="http://rachelzadok.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    June 20th, 2013 @11:45 #
     
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    Yes, I discovered after the egg had landed on my face that the paragraph spaces appeared, Ben. *Sigh*. Hard to believe a luddite is in charge of SSDA's website.

    And no, not BooksLive, the supporter of all things to do with local fiction! As you say, you don't review, only aggregate reviews. But I cannot say who. Deep in your hearts, you know.

    I also like your reasoning behind carrot stick.

    Now that I have put 4 cents in the comment pot, I really must retire from this conversation.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 20th, 2013 @11:55 #
     
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    Ben maybe it's time to diversify the meta descriptions of reviews:

    Parrot: Thinly disguised publisher's press release published in the guise of a mainstream media book review or review generated from publisher's marketing materials

    Brick: Hit and run review that attacks the author or the work without providing any analysis or substantiation

    Claret: Deeply wounding review generated as payback for real or imagined slight by literary rival, resulting in further blood spilt down the line

    Clique: Favourable review generated by a friend within the literary or critic community

    Tik: Overly effusive fan review created by individual afflicted by severe hype intoxication, providing author with instant hit of euphoria followed by hard comedown due to lack of underlying substance. May be habit forming.

    Unfortunately I have run out of words to rhyme with carrot and stick, but I believe something could be done with 'garret'.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 20th, 2013 @12:24 #
     
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    I love you, Sven. Will you marry me? I was laughing so loud at "parrot" that I'll have to go back an re-read the rest now.

    PS: Tarot - A clairvoyant review published ahead of a book's release.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 20th, 2013 @13:21 #
     
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    Thanks Richard. Of course I'll marry you, but I must warn you I am still some way off being able to have a functional relationship. So far my most successful long term relationship has been with a small indoor palm tree (although things might have turned out differently if it had legs). So I'd suggest maybe we just get divorced first to get that out of the way.

    Tarot works excellently and could maybe also apply to feedback to pre-launch teasers.

    Some of them could be self-explanatory: the bootlick, the icepick, the yardstick and the dropkick.

    The politic could refer to those reviews which scold the author for failing to align their material with the reviewer's political and ideological sensibilities. I imagine there'd be quite a few of those handed out.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 20th, 2013 @13:27 #
     
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    You promised us a 'like' button, Ben. How am I to 'like' Sven's comment, Ben, or anyone else's for that matter?

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 20th, 2013 @16:03 #
     
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    Sven, it's ok, I knew it wasn't directed at me - but it could have been, as I fitted the category. Not a sole, but a carp. But hey, if you make rude remarks about Man Utd, you're certainly on MY team....
    I have been thinking about reviews, and gatekeepers, and academics quite a lot recently. On the one hand, after 25 years in the business I have seen academics at their worst. On the other: and at their best as well. When all is said and done, pretty much every literary commentator I know of substance is situated in a university (I'm not talking about SA here!). Not every writer, though - not nearly every writer. And sure, academics and/or reviewers act as gatekeepers; and sure, they have ideological inclinations. But to me a good reviewer, or a good academic, can move further out of this, and admire and talk about literature that doesn't fit into their schema. My own way out of this is cowardly - I'll write academic essays that refer to, but won't directly review, books I dislike.
    But the market side can't be highlighted at the expense of serious debate about literature. And you may remember this is where this all started - a perception that bookslive were chary about negative reviews of, in this case, TSG. Whether or not this is correct, it seems to me people had a right to know what's going on. If it's just market, and promotion, it'll lose the other element - which is a pity. And lord knows, our reviewing culture is pitiful and could do with more intellectual content generally (which is, by the way, as much a comment about our universities as not).
    No one's arguing that, these days, literature doesn't have to take its chances economically. But it can't be the whole picture, especially in a situation like ours is, vis-a-vis esp Europe and N America. We can't just acquiesce, dammit - we have to forge something that speaks to our literature, and doesn't simply want to wallow in global inclinations just for lucre.
    I've just read a new review of the book in question, by Jeanne-Marie Jackson on SlipNet, which ends "For surely the task of any criticism worth the name is not just to point out what's new, or big, or genre-bending, but to ask 'to what end'? If the answer isn't insight, isn't challenge, isn't craft - if it isn't even that much fun - then our questions need revising". Yes, Just so. And, one can add, all it will do otherwise is keep us in an intellectually colonised, inferior position.
    (Ben, I know I've asked this before, but your role in all of this puzzles me ... are your comments just that, comments, mixing in with us here in the common trough, or are they meant to be summaries? Having been watching bad cricket for a while, I'm trying to think up neologisms for what seems to be going on - 'Umpirical observations'? 'Picking the meme'? Klatch-fixing'?

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 20th, 2013 @17:19 #
     
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    Kelwyn I'm sympathetic to your point of view, and it's one I have preached for years.

    I guess it's just been a matter of seeing books like Fifty Shades of Grey sell in their tens of thousands locally because, well, they sold in their hundreds of thousands overseas. 'Everyone' has read the Da Vinci Code because, well, 'everyone' has read it.

    These books were panned by honest critics, but the books' publishers could print entire runs just to fill up shop displays and draw attention to the book and then be pulped. There are PR companies who pay plants in the media to say whatever they want them to say in the culture pages. I'm sure a lot of other nefarious marketing type stuff happened.

    Unfortunately it seems like substance is almost beside the point in this context. The amount of hype required to get noticed is almost guaranteed to overreach the substance. And I guess I am saying that, to a certain extent, someone who points out this overreach is missing the point.

    As I said it's something I wrestle with. I am utterly discouraged by this context. I have two manuscripts that are quite incidentally set overseas which local publishers won't even look at just because of their location. The thing I want to write most in the world is set in Munich, and setting it here would be as forced as setting it in London. I have some work set locally, but don't in my heart believe there is any reason in even attempting to publish it just so it can sell a few hundred copies and be pulped.

    So, in my little dingy remaindered corner of the literary world, people like Lauren, Sarah, and the ladies who recently walked into a bar, offer just the tiniest glimpse of hope that publishers might start to consider South African authors as worthy of telling stories that aren't confined to our country and are still deserving of a global audience.

    Breaking into international genre fiction and holding our own against international writers seems like an important development. I'm hopeful that it will not only free South African writers from an expectation that they should be focusing on parochial issues, but will also turn international attention towards those who tell South African stories.

    Anyway I feel like I am repeating myself, and this issue won't be resolved on a book website forum.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 20th, 2013 @17:34 #
     
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    Just getting agricultural with everyone else, Kelwyn - nothing more than that (except when Books LIVE policies need clarification; then I'm sort of a third-force umpire).

    Not to farm the strike, but for me Lauren's books are doing the intellectual colonising, from the outfield (read margin) to the centre (read wicket), not t'other way 'round. She's bowling 'em through the gate.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 20th, 2013 @17:36 #
     
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    @ Richard, as for the "Like" button, we tried, but we failed. Seems that, in our setup, all like buttons reference all content, not specific bits of content. Sorry!

    @ Sven - your new nomenclature for reviews - fantastic! :D

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  • <a href="http://www.annetownsend.co.za" rel="nofollow">Anne-Elizabeth Townsend</a>
    Anne-Elizabeth Townsend
    June 20th, 2013 @17:43 #
     
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    I haven' t read Fifty Shades of Grey or Da Vinci Code and have no intention of reading either!

    Regarding Damon Galgut's extraordinary 'In A Strange Room', how does he fit into this debate? I agree with Jan Morris' views, in the Guardian, that 'it is a very beautiful book for one thing, strikingly conceived and hauntingly written, without a clumsy word in it.' How did he manage to get into the international market because from what I've read about him he is very publicity shy and keeps well away from literary cliques.

    And how does Wikipedia work? I met a local author at a lunch a while back; she'd had one book published many moons ago but there she is on Wikipedia. Can anybody just enter themselves onto Wikipedia?

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 20th, 2013 @18:08 #
     
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    Anne, not sure if your question is addressed at me, but I suspect that Galgut would have benefited from international exposure after being nominated for the Booker Prize.

    As far as I know it's simple enough to create a page on yourself on the Wikipedia if you adhere to their guidelines.

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  • <a href="http://www.annetownsend.co.za" rel="nofollow">Anne-Elizabeth Townsend</a>
    Anne-Elizabeth Townsend
    June 20th, 2013 @18:27 #
     
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    Jah, my thoughts entirely re Wikipedia. But how can I tell who created the page? I guess many writers have Wikipedia pages created by their publishers.

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  • <a href="http://www.annetownsend.co.za" rel="nofollow">Anne-Elizabeth Townsend</a>
    Anne-Elizabeth Townsend
    June 20th, 2013 @18:37 #
     
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    Sven, you're going to have to restore your original comment about Wikipedia else my reply makes no sense. Tah!

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 20th, 2013 @18:56 #
     
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    You can find out the Wiki user that created a specific page, but unless the Wiki user discloses a lot of information about themselves you won't necessarily be able to connect it to a real identity. Wiki editors live in a parallel universe where they award each other badges and create and enforce rules that are only meaningful to themselves. More than this I can't tell you. I generally find the Uncyclopedia more informative than the Wikipedia anyway.

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  • <a href="http://www.annetownsend.co.za" rel="nofollow">Anne-Elizabeth Townsend</a>
    Anne-Elizabeth Townsend
    June 20th, 2013 @21:00 #
     
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    No, you're not playing the game, Sven. You edited your comment!

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 21st, 2013 @08:38 #
     
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    Anne, one reason Damon Galgut has achieved international acclaim is that that he's kept at, day in, day out, for the length of his writer's life. In a Strange Room is his seventh novel. People who write serious books are taken seriously in ever-greater international increments with each new publication. Sometimes it takes 20 books (Theroux, approximately), sometimes it takes five (Galgut - his first Booker shortlisting was for The Good Doctor), sometimes, if you're very lucky, it takes two (Tan Twan Eng, who has blown it up). Bottom line is: keep at it!

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    June 21st, 2013 @09:23 #
     
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    My sense, though, Ben, is that the industry and the interests behind it have changed significantly since Damon Galgut and Paul Theroux started writing. Writers who don't sell get dropped by their publishers; you have one or two shots to make a name for yourself (and money for your publishers). Publishers no longer foster writers as they did. And this is not just greedy northern publishers. I know several multi-published writers who are being dropped by their local publishers because their previous books aren't selling.

    Writers are no longer an amateur hobby of philanthropic word-loving publishers, if they ever were. If writers are interested in writing for a living, in running their work like a business, they need to be proactive in making business decisions on their own behalf. These writers are trying to develop some sort of coherent, satisfying and creative writing lifestyle for themselves, and shouldn't be unduly bothered by external moral judgements.

    Writing is not moral practice. It shouldn't be.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 21st, 2013 @09:44 #
     
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    We do need to keep at it, carving out our own niche, finding our readers. But even if you do eventually get dropped by a mainstream publisher, there's always the option of teaming up with other writers to create anthologies or magazines or books by individual authors. The great thing about the South African scene is that almost every writer I know also has a good grasp of some other aspect of the business, whether it be editing, design, production, distribution, marketing. Look how many authors have supported the SSDA initiative, and how networks have been inspired to contribute. Maybe I'm naive, but I believe that our creativity will win through in the end.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    June 21st, 2013 @09:56 #
     
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    Good thought, Richard. I'd be loath to advise young writers to keep writing, guaranteed that after twenty books, they'll be able to make a living from writing. They probably won't. But you can, maybe, make a hobbled but creative living from the various aspects of making books, in whatever form and constitution. The book industry is changing, though, and to survive in it you these days, you need flexibility rather than doggedness. And that flexibility applies to ideology and attitude and temperament, too. Embrace, don't shun: new ideas, new forms, opportunities, lessons from others' success, change.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    June 21st, 2013 @10:31 #
     
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    Thanks Louis, you said what I couldn't say in seven hundred words in a single paragraph.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 21st, 2013 @10:54 #
     
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    And then Louis, you have publishers who are dropped by their writers ... or the writers' new agents.

    For example, I doubt that Modjaji will get to publish Tracey Farren's new novel. Both Whiplash and Snake are being made into movies and she now has Blake Friedmann as her agents. I am glad for Tracey, I really hope she does have a break out success with her new novel and I am OK with her not coming back to Modjaji. In fact I was delighted that she wanted to come back to Modjaji with Snake. But I guess Modjaji is small fry and my attitude is probably insane.

    This is just one example, I won't go into others, but I think that everyone - publishers and writers have to try and do what works for them in what is a very challenging market/arena/field.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    June 21st, 2013 @11:15 #
     
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    Yes, it's precisely small publishers like Modjaji and Jacana and others who take the initial risk on authors and help start their careers. Then they get snapped up by corporate publishers. You're in an invidious positon: your option would be to double-mortgage your house to afford a competitive advance for Tracey and hope that you'll make it back. But you don't have the safety net of corporate funds, loss leaders and profits from mass imports if it doesn't pay off.

    Perhaps if an interested government, or even a philanthropic organisation, could spend some money on the arts and serve as a safety net for publishers like yours and help develop their skills .... Just musing aloud.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 21st, 2013 @11:47 #
     
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    Not wanting to take this thread off in a different direction, I have already mentioned this on Facebook, but Modjaji has been unsuccessful 4 times in applying for funds from the National Arts Council. The problem is one doesn't know if it was because one didn't cross the Ts or dot the Is correctly or if it is because one's project does not fit in with the NAC's objectives. So it is a Catch 22 of not knowing how to proceed.

    The work that Modjaji does is real development work - in my opinion, and because of our small buying public, the decreasing budgets for library purchases, the incredibly tiny margins for publishers like Modjaji that have to employ a third party to do our marketing and distribution, it is almost impossible to make this work.

    And yet I do make ends meet, just, because of the incredible generosity of many many different people and companies and because of direct marketing. But it is exhausting and I sometimes - quite frequently wonder if it is sustainable.

    I like the premises of the new Etisalat prize where 1000 copies of the winning book will be bought for libraries around the continent. I wish The Sunday Times and other prizes would do that too. Yes, Richard, us publishers as well as writers have to keep on figuring out imaginative ways of surviving and keeping going, and making it work better, so we can keep on going.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 21st, 2013 @11:50 #
     
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    It seems ludicrous that larger publishers wouldn't want to support smaller outfits that serve as a hotbed for new talent, perhaps by sharing a percentage of the revenue/profit earned by writers who make the transfer to the big league. One could compare it to the international football transfers market, where smaller clubs continue to earn a percentage on star players they initially nurtured.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 21st, 2013 @11:54 #
     
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    Perhaps you need to take a long, hard look at your contracts, Colleen. You needn't tie anyone down, but perhaps you can add a clause that you'd get a percentage of what-what for an author's forthcoming five books, for instance.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 21st, 2013 @12:51 #
     
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    Will think about it, thanks for the suggestion Richard. But I'm not sure it's the right way to go. But I think what I was trying to point to in a thread that is about reviewing is how scarce the resources are really, the pages that papers dedicate to reviews, the numbers of buyers and readers of books, etc etc ... and also that writers aren't the only ones who have a tough time of it. I think as had been said many times before - we have to be passionate about this work with books, all aspects of it, otherwise we should probably be doing something else.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 21st, 2013 @13:03 #
     
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    I understand what you're up against, Colleen, and I'm truly impressed by the way you've surmounted obstacles and taken Modjaji from strength to strength. What I see are more and more resources and opportunities opening up. Different ways of funding and publishing projects, online magazines attracting new readers and finding ways to make ends meet, people contributing to long threads in which they express support, offer unsolicited advice etc...

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 21st, 2013 @14:18 #
     
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    You are right Richard, re more things happening, lots more opportunities for writers ... and yet ... anyway enough whingeing from me, Keep Calm and Carry On ...

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 23rd, 2013 @20:02 #
     
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    Have been off the grid for five days, and what an extraordinarily sane, humane and intelligent comment thread to find waiting on my return -- and how apposite for mid-winter and Short Story Day Africa. I want to marry you all (esp Sven, for his review categories, although I'll settle for you sending me a manuscript to read, you ridiculously talented little beggar). I love that you all cared enough to comment, that strong feelings not withstanding, nobody got "flayed", I love Ben for "umpiring" with humour, Kelwyn for nuance, Rachel for honesty (and the golden showers!!), Louis for clear vision, Richard for optimism and Colleen ... dear, brave Colleen.

    Picking up stompies: Colleen, I am thrilled for Tracey and offer her congratulations, but it must be hard to be the incubator and see your babies walk out hand-in-hand with others -- there must be strategies that keep your warm, nurturing Modjaji zone viable. It's such a vital space that you offer. *dons thinking cap*

    And yes re the Etisalat prize going to libraries. Kate Mosse described something similar re the Orange Prize (there is funding for all shortlisted books to be purchased for libraries) that resonated for me. We gotta get ourselves some of that sort of funding *prays for Girls to do obscenely well*

    And as one of the Girls who recently walked into a bar, Louis is dead right: flexible (yes, you can all imagine rude things) is what keeps one viable. This references Kelwyn's NB question, "to what end": I can't very well knock the Fifty Shades phenomenon (which has made it possible for me to turn writing erotica from a minor hobby to something that's going to pay for state-of-the-art hearing-aids), but my involvement definitely sprang from frustration at the politics of 21st-century erotica for women. And let's not forget the fun. Jeremy Boraine commented on what a treat it was, given the Serious Stuff he usually publishes, to work on something that was purely about pleasure. And given what I so often am tangled up with, it's such a respite to work with my hysterically funny, gifted and smart co-authors on something that's bubbly and sexy and FUN.

    I can't speak for other genre writers in SA, but my general impression is that we're not churning out market fodder: there's a lot of play, subversion, table-turning (esp where gender is concerned) going on. But that's a blog for another day. I seem to have gotten rather far away from SA reviewing culture.

    Thank you all. PS: Sven, come back more often!

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 24th, 2013 @13:41 #
     
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    Just in case anyone thinks I am being critical of Tracey Farren, I am not. Or any other authors who make choices to publish elsewhere. I am very aware of the limitations of what Modjaji can offer and what it can't. I really do wish Tracey all the best, I think she will still become a writer who is better known and who makes it internationally and that really is what I wish for her. She deserves it.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 24th, 2013 @13:44 #
     
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    I found this article via Twitter somewhere, gives a balanced account of what small publishers have to offer and what we don't have to offer. http://au.artshub.com/au/news-article/features/publishing-and-writing/small-publishers-big-opportunities-195774

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 25th, 2013 @11:16 #
     
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    Louis - looks to me like you're mixing up the words 'moral' and 'intellectual' - I'm talking about the latter, not the former (although I do think literature is too often evaluated by our universities in terms of the models of 'ethical subjectivity' put forward - cf JMC - but that's another discussion).
    Sven - about the fact that an issue like this won't get resolved on a book website forum. Sure. But the very fact that it is relates, I think, to a criticism I have (in the first place) with current SA literary, esp english, departments. They seem to have absconded from the public sphere, from discussion, outside of academic fora and the occasional book fair; and - even if one doesn't like academics - this is a helluva disconnection. To me, the 'high-falutin'' and the popular need to be in conversation with each either: it does both good imo. Otherwise you see too much simple anti-intellectualism on the one side; and a kind of snotty disdainful predisposition for more popular forms of literature on the other.
    Ben - one of the pessimisms I have is the way the metropole tends to exoticize other parts of the world through literature, even now. And the jury's out on what happens to books from the 'other' - does it change people's viewpoints, or just confirm them? I'm struggling with this esp with an sf writer I really like, Ian McDonald, who makes a habit of setting his novels in other parts of the world - Brazil, Turkey etc. I have a hunch he may just be feeding appetites I for one, am not sure of - despite novels like The Dervish House and Brasyl being pretty well-written and, because I'm biased in his direction, nuanced....
    On a different point; the interesting thing should be that, for an african writer, there are models here from way back - Fagunwa, Tutuola and (closed to home) various oral genres. I mean, Callaway's 1868 collection of oral folk tales, izinganekwane, is full of material for writers - and Sheub's, and Jordan's, later collections of iintsomi etc.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 25th, 2013 @11:23 #
     
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    My last remark about Scheub, Callaway etc relates specifically to the use of fantasy in these stories .... eg even if Callaway only has a plot summary, check out a story called Umxakaza-wakogingqwayo some time...

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    June 25th, 2013 @12:08 #
     
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    Certainly not, Kelwyn. I'm quite aware of the differences between 'moral' and 'intellectual', and they are often significant.

    I keep a dictionary close to hand for when I'm in doubt.

    You don't think the 'anti-intellectualism' and the 'kind of snotty disdainful predisposition for more popular forms of literature' are on the same side? Or did you mix it up with a 'snotty disdainful predisposition for less popular forms of literature'?

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 25th, 2013 @13:50 #
     
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    Well, Louis, maybe the one is an anti-intellectualism posing as intellectual; the other, isn't. Maybe ... your last two questions are a little unintelligible to me, I'm afraid. Wot?
    So if your 'moral' means 'moral' - sure. It isn't, always. But I suspect in SA there's still a tendency to read, or be urged to read, most 'serious' lit this way. As was the case in the metropole for a good, long while (Emerson and Arnold in the 19th C, Leavis, e.g.) - we're just a tad behind the times).
    But that opens up a whole new can of zombies. Many artists who on first glance may seem not to be 'moral' - all the way from John Wilmot Earl of Rochester via Frank Zappa to Lesego Rampolokeng - are, I would argue, using shock tactics to deal with immoral societies and practices. They are intensely 'moral'.
    So, maybe it's better to say: writing isn't a moral practice, but the consumption of literature quite often gets mixed up with ethical, and therefore social and moral, responses. To say nothing of the political and ideological.
    Forgive me, but there seems to be a Wigglesworth factor lurking here. The 17th century's favourite poet - hope I have the name right - was Michael Wigglesworth. Ever heard of him? Thought not. The fact of the matter is that the pull of the commercial has existed in literature for a good, long time - make that 3 centuries at least - and some writers have juggled quite successfully the commercial and the social-interventionist aspects of their work. Dickens, for example. Other writers haven't managed to do this: it seems to me, on first glance,. especially the ones who have preached commerce/entertainment to the exclusion of the other factors we've been talking about.

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  • <a href="http://www.ianmartintheauthor.com" rel="nofollow">Ian Martin</a>
    Ian Martin
    June 26th, 2013 @18:55 #
     
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    This is the comment that started the conversation:

    Lutze
    June 6th, 2013 @11:02 #

    I like this website very much, but I have to ask why no bad reviews for the Shining Girls? I have seen a few, but not here. It's a little bit crazy and very bad for your credibility.

    More than 70 comments later, has the site’s credibility been successfully defended? Or has this been an exercise in prevarication by those who would like to maintain the status quo?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 27th, 2013 @00:11 #
     
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    Did you actually read all the comments, Ian? In summary: Lutze asked why no Books Live sticks for TSG, which I found odd as I had just seen a knotty stick posted on the site. Jonah then accused Books Live of not posting sticks either (and supplied three ambivalent stickish reviews BL had allegedly ignored, the first of which had already featured on Books Live -- this seemed a bit careless, but presumably it was an honest mistake.) The query was nevertheless answered pretty comprehensively and in good faith, and Lutze seemed happy. I made the point that there were a plethora of TSG reviews worldwide, literally too many to post, and that while BL hadn't (yet) posted all the sticks, they had also posted only a handful of the carrots. The TSG debate ended, or rather, shifted to the wedge Lauren has driven into the global market for other local writers to follow.

    What followed was a fascinating, sometimes testy and sometimes terribly funny debate on book reviewing in general, cultural commentary on SA writing, the commercial pressures on local writers and small publishers, our survival strategies (I loved Colleen's link) and the old genre chestnut. It was the kind of coffee-housing over issues germane to writers that represents this site at its best, for me anyway. To assume that all the contributors to this thread were fiendishly composing bogus comments in a great Prevarication Conspiracy to protect a mysterious status quo is a little, er, sad. Unless, of course, Ben is a plant who is secretly being paid from a Harper Collins slush fund, and is masquerading as ten different commentators.

    (Current Books Live review stats for TSG, based on separate, not aggregated reviews: 3 sticks, 8 carrots; of the many more reviews flying around the world, proportionally, BL's representation leans somewhat to the stickish side. I think that deals with the credibility issue, if one still remains.)

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  • Jonah
    Jonah
    June 27th, 2013 @12:01 #
     
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    Helen, you write: ‘Jonah then accused Books Live of not posting sticks either (and supplied three ambivalent stickish reviews BL had allegedly ignored, the first of which had already featured on Books Live -- this seemed a bit careless, but presumably it was an honest mistake.)'

    Where had that first review already appeared on Books Live? Books Live posted the review you mention on 7 June, the day >after< the thread began (and the day after my comment appeared) - http://bookslive.co.za/blog/2013/06/07/jane-rosenthal-reviews-the-shining-girls-by-lauren-beukes/

    Why would they repost a review they had already posted before? The answer is that they had not posted it before, despite what you say. In fact, as far as I can see, there were no “sticks” before the thread began. My view on your comment, then, is – as you said about mine – ‘this seemed a bit careless, but presumably it was an honest mistake.’

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 27th, 2013 @13:50 #
     
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    Hi All - Checking in quickly from Land of the Deadline, which had become a foreign country to me, and so am re-learning the ropes and hence not able to keep up. Quickly, if memory serves, we had posted a stick before Jonah's comment, but not on our reviews blog - so it wasn't officially a 'stick', but Helen would've picked it up from some other part of the site. I think you're both correct, then - but as I'm writing under the duress of a looming Sunday newspaper, don't have time to check properly! Tks for the further comments, everyone - Louis, particularly like your bit about making a "hobbled but creative living from the various aspects of making books" - will hopefully have time to rejoin properly soon. B

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  • <a href="http://bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Carolyn</a>
    Carolyn
    June 27th, 2013 @14:23 #
     
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    Hi, I think Jonah is actually correct on that point. Sorry Helen. When he initially pointed out those negative reviews, we had indeed not yet posted them, although they were waiting in our posting queue of collected links. I can vouch for Ben's initial reaction to Jonah's post, namely "Two are already in our posting queue, in some form or another. The Sunday Indy one isn't quite a classic review, so we're still debating whether it would be better posted on a different blog." I can also reiterate that it was not our intention to simply never post these reviews. I do always feel sorry for writers when I read a particularly negative review of their book, seeing as a lot of effort goes into producing one, but that doesn't mean that we'll avoid publishing them.

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  • <a href="http://www.ianmartintheauthor.com" rel="nofollow">Ian Martin</a>
    Ian Martin
    June 28th, 2013 @22:04 #
     
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    Hoist with your own petard, Helen.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    June 30th, 2013 @21:39 #
     
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    Carolyn is the all-seeing Books LIVE eye, being the editor, so she'll know best. Safe to say, Helen, that Lutze was in all likelihood right. Ian, also safe to say that most of the comments on this thread aren't gratuitous.

    Kelwyn, Louis - I'm inclined to think you're both right. The best writing, to me, conveys a sense both of moral practice and professional practice. Writing's under no obligation to convey either, of course.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    July 1st, 2013 @15:59 #
     
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    While I guess I strongly believe that all literature has, and perhaps should have, a moral and social dimension, there's something about the way in which SA literature is currently subsumed by 'ethics' and 'philosophy' which really worries me (if you don't know what I'm talking about, come sit in a university literary dept for a while).
    The way in which this is happening is so po-faced, so ultra-serious, and so connected to one notion of how SEfricans should behave/think (let's call it 'liberal', in the pejorative sense; or perhaps let's add the word 'nationalist') that it seems to me that it would be a pretty good idea if writers were to become more subversive, more playful, right now. Which is why it would be such a pity if the fantasy etc writers active at present got too focused just on the commercial.
    Ok, Carolyn, I have to ask: what is a 'classic review'?

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  • <a href="http://bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Carolyn</a>
    Carolyn
    July 1st, 2013 @20:11 #
     
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    Hi Kelwyn, I was actually quoting Ben there, but I think in this case it was a reference to the fact that that review started out as a interview and then ended as a review. We put interviews on the publisher's blog while reviews go on our reviews blog - that's why we were still debating where to put it. Obviously "classic review" is a loaded term, but in this case I doubt that it meant more than the difference between a review, interview and "inter-review". I always find these inter-reviews quite problematic - don't know what anyone else thinks about them?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 2nd, 2013 @00:32 #
     
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    Oops, my bad! This is an apology to Jonah. I am so sorry, I visit Books Live every few days, where I tend to make the extremely egocentric assumption that the order in which I read things is the order in which they've been posted on this site. I read the Rosenthal stick first, then this carrot, then the comments on this piece. So I maligned you when I was in fact the careless one - I should have checked the date/time stamps on the posts against the sticks. I suspect I did the same to Lutze. Hearty apologies to you both.

    Kelwyn, I read a lot of "commercial" stuff that's highly subversive and playful, esp by local authors. Am trying to write something that's all three at the moment... a brand-new learning curve for me *grins*

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    July 2nd, 2013 @09:26 #
     
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    Reading the comments here, Helen, this is not the impression I get. I'd like to refer you to the Jeanne-Marie Jackson comment I quoted above.
    The words 'entertainment' and 'commerce' seem to be bandied around quite a lot, but not so much other necessary literary issues and questions i.e. I don't get much discussion among current SA fantasy writers about 'how does it relate to the social world'? or, 'what does it do?' One doesn't have to deny the entertainment factor in literature, esp popular literature, to ask these other questions. Or to ask questions about the intellectual content of the work ....
    if I have read some of the critical reviews coming out correctly, one of the criticisms is that we're seeing a usage of gimmickry, of gimmicks, that are not conceptually thought through....generally speaking, in popular genres, this is a demand one can make about science fiction, at least. It's about intellect; it's about concept. And, knowing less about fantasy, I think it's probably there too, although not as stringently.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    July 2nd, 2013 @13:22 #
     
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    "While I guess I strongly believe that all literature has, and perhaps should have, a moral and social dimension, there's something about the way in which SA literature is currently subsumed by 'ethics' and 'philosophy' which really worries me (if you don't know what I'm talking about, come sit in a university literary dept for a while).
    The way in which this is happening is so po-faced, so ultra-serious, and so connected to one notion of how SEfricans should behave/think (let's call it 'liberal', in the pejorative sense; or perhaps let's add the word 'nationalist') that it seems to me that it would be a pretty good idea if writers were to become more subversive, more playful, right now. "

    Kelwyn, I do believe you are changing teams? :) This sounds like an endorsement for meaningful, yet entertaining fiction that doesn't have to pander to a moral, political or social realist agenda. Rather, that is inspired and motivated by what writers want to write (personally), readers want to read (mentally) and publishers want to publish (hopefully). :)

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    July 3rd, 2013 @08:54 #
     
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    No, not really, Kathryn - I'm not on any team. On the one hand, I get irritated at work, and writers, that/who avoid social and political issues and concerns. But at the same time, at those who easily place works within precast and cast-iron agendas, and demand that literary works merely conform to these.
    I also believe that one need to take good works of 'popular' OR 'high-falutin'' literature seriously.
    I dislike conformity, either to a fixed political agenda or to an avoidance of politics. It's possible to get literature which sees itself as 'subversive' but conforms to trends and fashions. For me, 'subversive' literary production is first and foremost (though not only) an intellectual enterprise - stuff that makes one think; that puts complacency arse-over-tip. I'd even call such writing, broadly, 'political'....one of the members of the Botsotsos Jesters put this well in an interview a while ago: "we want to be political, but not in the way of those who follow their parties." (the quote's in substance correct, I think) - I like the pun; 'parties' as in political parties, or escapist parties....
    I also dislike writers who use tropes and gimmicks without thinking them through. Take time travel, for instance: this is an intellectual concept. And so, science fiction - a so-called 'popular' genre - that uses this trope can be, and I think should be, intellectually demanding. This has been the case in actuality, moreover, I think - since Heinlein used it for his novella 'By His Bootstraps' in 1941 (cf his 'All You Zombies...', 1959). Ad so on and so forth....

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  • Kayang
    Kayang
    July 5th, 2013 @12:23 #
     
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    Hi All,
    I know it's rather late to be adding a few pennies' worth to a debate that has morphed/evolved quite substantially since the initial comment was made, but as the author of the carrot-earning Litnet review which (perhaps completely coincidentally sparked this heated and fascinating exchange in the first place), I would just like to say the following:
    One big problem with the structure of the BooksLive postings is that only the intro paragraph of any given review appears. Readers have to click on a link to read the full review.

    My reviewing habit is to draw readers in, give a plot synopsis, start with (what I consider to be) the more positive aspects of a book, and then move to (what I consider to be) its more negative aspects.
    Perhaps I need to review my reviewing habits (a separate issue) but this posting style does mean that if people don't bother to read the entire review, they may well assume (based on their reading of the intro and overall carrot rating) that said review is completely devoid of criticism/ imbalanced/unnuanced, when in fact in most instances reviews do/should contain some criticism.

    For example, in my TSG review above, two thirds of the way though I note:

    "...But there is something frustrating about the either derivative or “Hollywood stock character” nature of Beukes’s leads: plucky, prickly, and punkish Kirby, for example, reads like a more mouthy, less hardcore American incarnation of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. And like Larsson’s dragon-tattooed anti-heroine, the doggedly determined Kirby also has a jaded journo cum not-quite-father-figure sidekick in the form of disenchanted crime writer turned sports hack Dan Velasquez. How many times has an unglamorous (but potentially attractive), badly dressed, ethically minded, divorced middle-aged pressman or beat cop not featured in a crime novel or suspense flick? Similarly, Beukes’s portrayal of Kirby’s difficult relationship with her free-spirited, pot-smoking, boho-chic baby boomer mother, Rachel, has a hackneyed feel. It’s as if Beukes lived herself wholeheartedly into various clichés of Americana and then created a sophisticated literary amalgam of them. There is no denying how stylishly she achieves this, but it somehow still feels trite in a way that, say, David Mitchell’s inhabiting of genres in Cloud Atlas does not.
    There’s something very film-like about how this novel reads and plays out – it’s one of those cases where one feels the author is rehearsing for a screenplay – rather like a Stephen King book, just with much better prose. As I read, I kept casting and recasting the leads in an imagined Hollywood blockbuster version in my head..."

    I completely accept that forum members, or visitors to this site may not agree with my sentiments as expressed in this particular review (that's also a separate issue to what's being discussed in this thread), but the "intro paragraph' issue is, I think, of valid concern.
    The above review happens to be 70% positive and 30% negative, therefore understandably earning a carrot, however the fact that that 30% doesn't register on BooksLive at all is problematic to some extent.
    I don't know...Am I beating a dead horse with this one? And can the issue be resolved given Ben and his team's practical constraints?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    July 5th, 2013 @15:11 #
     
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    Thanks for the comment, Kayang - nice of you to check in :)

    As I mention above, our mission is to collect as many reviews of SA books as possible and present them for readers' browsing and further consideration.

    There are three main reasons we use the terms "carrot" and "stick" to describe the reviews:

    * Further encouragement for writers: originally, we wanted to acknowledge that positive reviews didn't mean the writer's work was done, and that negative reviews didn't mean the situation couldn't improve. We wanted to position all reviews as incentivising, one way or another, of continued effort.

    * Self-awareness for reviewers: the standard of reviewing in SA could do with improvement; we felt that if reviewers knew they were being watched they would aim to improve their articles. (Funnily enough, I think the standard of reviewing has improved somewhat since we started this system. Not saying it's because of the system; just saying...)

    * It's catchy :)

    Regarding the fact that we select small snippets of the original reviews, a few points:

    * We strictly adhere to "fair use" standards prevalent on the web. If we used more than a snippet, it would be stealing.

    * We believe strongly in "sharing is caring", another web standard: by providing only a limited preview of any given link, we increase the likelihood that our sources will enjoy extra traffic via click-throughs from our readers. Most sources are very happy to have us linking back to them (true story).

    Internally, we've often debated if we should indicate, in addition to whether the review is a carrot or stick, whether it's worth reading in the first place. No one likes to read puff pieces or miserable moans. But adding, say, a star rating to the review always ends up seeming like extra clutter.

    Yours was a fine review, Kayang, as LitNet's generally are. 4/5 stars!

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  • Kayang
    Kayang
    July 11th, 2013 @17:11 #
     
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    Ben,

    Thanks for the clarification and glad you thought the review was okay too. Feedback and constructive criticism always welcome. We should all be trying to continuously up our game and learn the lessons as we go. This thread made for some very interesting reading. Nice to be part of the community.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    July 12th, 2013 @13:21 #
     
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    Glad to have you here, K :)

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  • <a href="http://www.ianmartintheauthor.com" rel="nofollow">Ian Martin</a>
    Ian Martin
    July 12th, 2013 @22:29 #
     
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    Yes, welcome, welcome. Good to get some new blood. Hope you brought your brain with you. Getting a bit boring around here. The back-slapping drowns out the conversation most of the time. Please feel free to shout your mouth off.

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