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[GUEST POST] A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres; 

Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;

Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society

That’s a longish title I’ll admit, and while I generally don’t go in for such larded vessels, in this case I’m willing to make an exception. Monstrous though it may seem (and most assuredly is), the above title sums up pretty much everything I have to say on the subjects of writing and publishing. The first line ought to be read as a word of warning to struggling writers. The second explains – in as much as an explanation of the unintelligible is even possible – why the publishing industry behaves as it does. And the third highlights our common enemy, which turns out to be ourselves.

Really – if I must say so myself – that title is a wonder of economy, precision and restraint. But maybe you’d like me to elaborate? Normally I’d refuse – principally on the grounds that my arguments tend to be weakened by exploration – but as I have been contracted to provide a minimum of fifteen minutes of reading diversion, I will betray myself and attempt to explain…

Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society.

You’ll excuse me if I start at the end. It’s an old habit of mine, which I have found serves to confuse readers, making them easier to hypnotize into subscribing to my particular point of view.

You may recall that I suggested, just moments ago, that we are our own common enemy. I am speaking of book readers, or more precisely, of book buyers. It took me a long time to realize this, but it was an awakening of life-altering proportions when I did. So here’s the argument.

You know how when you walk into a bookstore (let’s say Barnes & Noble, since we all know how those are laid out) there are signs directing you to particular shelves? Go to these five stacks if you want fantasy or science fiction, those ten if you want YA, the four on the other side of the aisle for history, those ten over there for literature and fiction, these five for romance, the two across from romance for horror, the back corner by the café for magazines and journals, and in the deepest recess of the store is the shelf marked ‘psychology,’ but which you know from experience will mostly consist of books filled with sexy pictures that make you feel like your grandmother is looking over your shoulder.

Anyway, have you ever noticed how, from the minute you walk into the store, your feet naturally take you right to a particular section? Sometimes I say, – “no, no feet, I don’t want to go to fantasy today, I’m looking for the new biography of Chief Joseph.” But you know what? My feet don’t give a hang for what I want. They know how to steer me. They know I don’t really want to be looking at romance or history. Heck no! I’m a fantasy reader and that’s all there is to it. In fact, I scarcely look at those other stacks as I make my way to the old reliable. And by the time I leave I’ll most likely be carrying a book with a black cover emblazoned with the image of a dragon or orc, or possibly some otherworldly wizard, standing over the prone body of a woman in a metal bikini – and poor Chief Joseph utterly forgotten.

But how do the books get placed in their appointed shelves anyway? Who decides which books get stuck in the fantasy section, and which go in literature and fiction? I happen to know the answer to that question. The store does. Or in the case of Barnes & Noble and its ilk, a faceless corporate suit makes that decision (and once that decision is made, god help the drones on the floor if they should determine that a book is more appropriate for some other audience). Publishers can give some instruction, but ultimately the store gets final say, no matter how capricious or arbitrary. And how do they make their decisions? My theory, developed from having lurked in stores over the years, is that they do it by cover design (you didn’t think you and I were the only ones who judged a book by its cover, did you? Those metal bikinis don’t get onto the books by accident, you know).

“So what,” you may ask? “I like fantasy novels. Why can’t I just head over to those stacks and be done with it?” You can… Jeez, no one’s trying to take anything from you. But what if the book that was going to change your life – and there are books that do, you know – isn’t shelved in fantasy? What then?

Let’s examine a couple of books and try to see where such problems might lie. Book One: “The Hobbit.” Yes, yes, we all know where to find “The Hobbit.” It’s in fantasy, right next to “Lord of the Rings.” And far be it from me to suggest differently. If a book is placed where everyone can find it, it is well placed! But why is it on the fantasy shelves? It’s a book for young people, is it not? And I for one would be more than happy to have it sit with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Literature (or is THAT in POETRY?). And what if “The Hobbit” was an only book, or a first book, or it required YOUR discovering it by chance? Would you? What if those darned feet of yours kept taking you to the fantasy shelves, but “The Hobbit” was in YA? Now that sounds bad!

Another case, just for fun. We all know that “Twilight” (yes, I am talking about “Twilight,” don’t be a snob!), can be found in YA. But what if it’d been shelved as horror? Would the horror fans have enjoyed discovering that book? Is it even horror? I KNOW it has vampires – simpering vampires who are stronger and faster than superman, but who are still, for no good reason I can figure, afraid of ‘humans’ – but are they the sort of vampires that fans of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” would enjoy? Rather than answer, I direct you to:

Now, the thing about both of these cases is that they actually turned out all right! The proper audiences found these books and the authors are making oodles of cash (be they dead or undead). But what books did things not turn out all right for? Which books – books you might have adored – have you missed out on because your feet – those damned zombie feet – carried you right past all the other sections in the store?

And don’t give me the whole computer answer. Of course you can find any book on the internet, providing you know to search for it. What books do we have not even the slightest idea exist?

Plus there’s that darned cover problem we alluded to earlier. What if the publisher gives it a bad cover? Or a misleading cover? Or what if the bookstore misjudges the cover and so sticks it on a shelf amongst books you’d never consider in a million years? I’ve written a bit about my own experiences with cover design (this is only partially on topic, but allows another neat link) here. But if you’d like to see how bad this problem really is, I direct you to an essay written by a young reader with whom I have conversed a bit of late. She is passionate in her hatred of the cover for an anthology of fantasy stories by Asian Writers, “The Dragon and the Stars.” Read her objection and ask yourself why the cover in question is so offensive to her, and why the publishers might have chosen the cover they did. Hint: It has to do with marketing to the fantasy readers like me, who the publishers and stores think are being led to the stacks by their zombie feet. Anyway, check it out. Did you click all the way through to the cover in question? Good. Then let me ask you, would you pick up THAT book? First, it’s purple! That’s strike one for me. It’s the worst sort of cartoonish! Strike two. And the cover features a reptile that is nothing whatever like an Asian Dragon (my suspicion is that the publishers chose a western dragon to appeal to greasy-haired, pimple-faced, white suburban kids who want “real” dragons. Those are the fools who haunt the fantasy stacks, right?) Strike three, and I for one don’t even pick it up off the shelf. Who knows if there is a life-changing story in there? Not me, because I won’t read it.

Last, though possibly most important, there’s the ego problem we all face. You know what I mean, right? Things like – ‘Romance is for horny old ladies;’ ‘History is for people without imagination;’ ‘Horror is for girls with two much eye make-up;’ and worst of them all is that dreck they refer to as ‘literary’ fiction. Am I right? Who’s with me?

‘Literary’ fiction is an sickness I’ve been suffering with on and off since my MFA days at Columbia (yes, I have an MFA. But I was just a kid. I didn’t KNOW!!). My personal moniker for what publicity types call ‘literary’ fiction is, “the fiction of breathless self-importance.” You know what I mean, books with out-of-focus pastel covers, an extreme avoidance of anything like plot or entertainment, full of writing in a tone that refuses to lift itself above the level of monotonous murmur, without the least passion, complex philosophical outlook, or sense that there might be something, ANYTHING, the least bit exciting in the world. Yes indeed, those books are, as a rule, truly awful. But you know what? As it turns out, those ‘literary’ knuckleheads have an opinion about us, too! Check this out: Now, I don’t mind saying that everything about Sonya Chung’s understanding of writing, publishing, reviewing and reading are dead wrong (she asserts, for instance, “With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction.” Does that sound anything like the ‘genre’ fiction you love?). But here’s the kicker. She actually believes that she is the intelligent, philosophical reader/writer with points to make, and we out in the imaginative world (a term I use passive-aggressively to suggest that maybe she has no imagination to speak of) are just hacks.

Does she have any points? Of course she does. Some of us are hacks! But what she absolutely refuses to admit is the fact that none of us WANTS to be a hack. We are all trying the best we can. Same as her! Most of what we in the imaginative world write will go into the toilet of time and obscurity. But so will most of what her side of the spectrum writes! Even those books raved about in the New York Times Book Review and its ilk will mostly fade into despairing nothing. And a great many books not so lauded will come to stand the test of time – the only real determination of literature, no matter its genre.

So what does all of this amount to? Simple. No matter our genre affiliations, we betray ourselves as readers by being positively choked with prejudice. It is a disease we have right from the bottoms of our zombie feet to the greasy hair atop our pimply faces. We foam at the mouth with prejudice against different genres, different cover designs, different backgrounds (I can’t give back my MFA now, can I?), and different paths toward readership.

But I didn’t set out to be this way, did you? Of course you didn’t. So how did this happen to us? The answer is somewhat surprising, but I assure you it’s true.

The fact is…

Read Part 2 at Debuts and Reviews.

Read Part 3 at Grasping for the Wind

About the Author, Justin Allen

Justin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of “Year of the Horse,” an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?),, or Amazon.

Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.

He can be contacted via

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

25 Comments on [GUEST POST] A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

  1. Jeff VanderMeer // March 8, 2010 at 11:19 am //

    No offense, but the wheel was discovered eons ago.

  2. Hey All (and wow, Jeff VanderMeer – the Jeff VanderMeer? – with a comment already, I am honored),

    I hope you have a good time with this. That’s ultimately what it’s about.

    But if you have any comments, questions or concerns, you can voice those here. Maybe you have a book that has been mostly overlooked, and you can’t believe it? Or maybe you are worried about what publicity and marketing will be like when you publish…? Anything you want to discuss, we can. You can even make a negative comment, of course, though I may not respond to it. This is meant to be a celebration of the artistic in Imaginative Literature, not a bitch session (no matter how I may come off for the purposes of the essay).


  3. Actually, while the store does indeed decide where in the store the books go, they do so in discussion with the publishers, who need the books to be in certain sections, not the least because many spots in the bookstore, such as the front table displays, require the publisher to pay the stores co-op advertising money to be put there. The sales reps for the publishers go over the catalog with the buyers for the stores and they hash it out.

    The main reason that books end up in the SFF section of the bookstore has nothing to do with their covers and everything to do with who publishes them. If your SFF novel is published by a SFF press like Del Rey or Tor, it’s going to be put in the SFF section of the store. If your book is published by a YA/children’s publisher or a YA imprint or division of a house for the YA audience, it will be placed in the YA section of the store, even if you also have some adult readers. A publisher like Overlook Press, which publishes Mr. Allen, is a general fiction publisher and most of its titles for adults will go in the general fiction section of the bookstore. However, Overlook also publishes children’s/YA fiction, which it will sell in the children’s/YA section of the bookstore, and it publishes SFF fiction among its many interests, some titles of which they may decide to leave in general fiction and others which they ask to be placed in the SFF section, as they did with Mr. Allen’s fellow list author, Scott Bakker, whose covers for his Prince of Nothing series were sedate and tasteful print, but which Overlook wanted to make sure that SFF fans could find.

    Additionally, a book may be placed in more than one section of the store. It’s not unusual for a book to be placed in both general fiction and a section such as SFF, especially if the author writes in other genres besides SFF and thus has non-SFF audiences that might not find the author’s new work if it was only in the SFF section of the store. Ultimately, what bookstores are trying to do is not create a new social hiearchy, but to make it as easy as possible for people to find the books they are looking for. This includes stores that have “literature” sections, which are essentially stocked with books that are likely to be used for school assignments and that publishers are trying to sell for exactly that purpose, such as when my daughter was directed to the literature section of our local superstore so that she could purchase and read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a SF novel, assigned to her by her junior high for a book report.

    You are correct that many people who consider themselves to be judges of literary-ness are easily confused by packaging and the lay-out of bookstores and have no clue about writing going on in areas outside their own interests. And therefore, they tend to write in an idiotic way about SFF publications. As someone who got an MFA, I’m sure that you heard quite a lot of that sort of stuff. But it’s been going on for decades (hence, the reinventing the wheel comment.) It is also rapidly changing, with newer generations studying many seminal SFF works (see book report, Time Machine,) and having a very different attitude about SFF literature. But the media tends to remain pretty clueless and in catch-up mode on the subject.

    And I’m afraid that you are helping them with your rant about SFF covers (which is also not a new slam.) By saying that some cover treatments are unacceptable, you simply reinforce their arguments that only socially acceptable (by Edwardian standards,) stories and art can have value. Covers aren’t the issue; (and if you want to wail on the likes of Michael Whalen, Donato Giancola, and John Picacio, you can go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned, I guess.) It’s the attitudes toward the covers and the fiction, usually unread, that need to be both borne (because people are entitled to their opinions no matter how ill-formed,) and repudiated (when they have an ill-formed opinion, educate them about what you feel to be excellent material, don’t join in with trashing one part of SFF, like cover treatments, just to try to promote another part.)

    The SFF community happens to have quite a number of authors with MFA degrees, not to mention Ph.D’s, not to mention SFF authors who are college professors of literature. SFF is a vibrant part of school and academic curriculums. The majority of SFF fans are college educated and read widely both in and out of the genres. So don’t refute your MFA, use it to talk about the interesting things you both write and read, rather than jumping on bookstores, who don’t even have a dog in the fight, and who are, frankly sir, you being an author, your very best friends.




  4. Marvelous. Thanks for all of that. Really wonderful details.

    I worry that some of my asides offended you, which is really quite thrilling of course, and ultimately the point, but also sort of sad.

    But sir, you have offended me as well. Rant? I assure you, I only leapt from my chair in spitting anger once or twice while composing this essay, not the minimum of four times that is necessary to properly call anything a rant…

    Also, just for the record, I am certainly not against anyone. Really, I’m not. Not against those who work on cover art, not against those who work for bookstores, not against anyone anywhere. At least, not really against anyone. But what sort of manifesto would that make? Unless I identify a villain – Sonya Chung or maybe the New York Times Book Review? – who can we march against? it may be important to note that I have not read Sonya Chung’s book. It may be wonderful. Of course, I did read her essay, which I linked to, so…

    One question for you, my friend (I hope we can be friends). If publishers get so much say in where books are shelved, why are they so often shelved so very differently at different stores? I would really like to know. My publishers have explained to me that they don’t get a say – they can kibitz, of course. In fact, I believe that I said that they could and did – but not really a powerful meaningfully vibrant say…. Is this not correct? Then really, why the differing placements? And I am surprised when you say that it is not unusual for books to be in more than one place… I think experience would tell us differently, though maybe we are speaking of a different class of books. I have often gone in search of a book (even used the computer gadget installed in your modern superstore) without being able to find it even in that part of the store where it is purported to reside. Maybe I am the only one with such trouble.

    Oh! And please comment further about the books on the tables, and how the stores are paid to have them where they are. It is a facet of things I rather wanted to bring up, but didn’t. I think it will go well with part 2 of the essay… and is a point that I believe might fascinate a great many readers.

    I could go on and on, of course. And would love to. But I fear that you would feel that I was defending myself, trying to start some sort of verbal battle or something. Let it stand that I  find certain aspects of the book game surprising, even unsettling, and those same things do not bother you, or else do not bother you as much (are there things that bother you?). I am alright with that.

    I know, I find the whitewashed covers Bloomsbury tried to foist on a bevy of young girls genuinely distateful, and yet not terribly surprising. How about you? Does your defense of covers go so far? Can we agree that this may be a misleading cover? I hope we can, but maybe not.

    Allow me to finish these rambling reactions with a statement of support for all writers of SFF. No matter what, I absolutely never meant to malign you… I am in wholehearted agreement as to your intelligence and accomplishments, congratulate you for all your MFAs, academic positions and whatnot. No argument from me. Walter Mosley once told me that he thought that Science Fiction writers were the smartest in the game. I won’t contradict him, in spite of his having published “Killing Jonny Fry” and “The Man in My Basement” (there I go again).I can’t seem to help myself.

    But seriously, folks, I am on YOUR side.






    As to my cover discussion… Keep in mind that my point was whether certain covers actually do serve to help an audience find the books that they might like. As you will recall, I mentioned that I am a sucker for a typical fantasy cover, no damnation from me! So, what did you think of that cover for a book of fantasy by Asian writers? My question to you about the bookstores then is, why is one book shelved in one place at Borders, and another at Barnes and Noble, and of course at randomly otherwheres at your local indie?

  5. Sorry about that last paragraph, as you can see, it is one I shoved to the bottom while conversing… It says more or less the very thing I said earlier, obviously.

  6. books with out-of-focus pastel covers, an extreme avoidance of anything like plot or entertainment, full of writing in a tone that refuses to lift itself above the level of monotonous murmur, without the least passion, complex philosophical outlook, or sense that there might be something, ANYTHING, the least bit exciting in the world.

    I’m glad to see that unlike Sonya Chung, Justin Allen is in no way prone to broad, unsupported generalizations that tar an entire swath of (often quite fine) literature with a reductive and obviously prejudiced brush.

  7. Well I’m not a “sir” but thanks, and no, I don’t think you’re hostile. I think you’re passionate about it, plus trying to navigate the market as a writer, but I do urge you to avoid the trap of “us and them” in regards to SFF. It tends to lead to wrong data. And trying to rile the pitchforks for a manifesto — doesn’t help much either, I find. Placements for books that differ from store to store tend to be due to various factors, including the regional preferences of the store’s customers. (Again, remember the idea of the sections is to make books easier to find, not harder.) With a publisher like Overlook, a general fiction publisher, there will be some confusion, but usually not a big problem in having a title in general fiction if they want it there. And yes, books do end up in multiple sections of stores, though that is only a small, if regular, percentage of the titles. Books not being where they are supposed to be in a bookstore is because a bookstore can often get disorganized. I have the same problem in the grocery store.

    “Oh! And please comment further about the books on the tables, and how the stores are paid to have them where they are. It is a facet of things I rather wanted to bring up, but didn’t. I think it will go well with part 2 of the essay… and is a point that I believe might fascinate a great many readers.”

    Bookstores and publishers partner together for co-op advertising, which ranges from ads that bookstores take out in newspapers and magazines for the bookstore that feature the titles from publishers to special displays in the store such as the front table or end of aisle racks. The publisher kicks in some money for the extra push of certain titles that the publishers are willing to finance and the bookstores feel work well for their stores. The majority of this co-op advertising is given to titles that already have a decent amount of visibility through word of mouth and have become known sellers or bestsellers, but also may involve special displays for some new books that publishers believe may do well or that booksellers like and will handsell. Despite all this, though, the number one marketing factor for selling fiction remains word of mouth.

    The Bloomsbury cover for Larbalestier’s Liar is another issue altogether that has to do with all fiction, not just SFF, and with racial issues, not SFF’s status. The Asian anthology cover seems to have been because DAW Books does these anthologies quickly and uses stock art instead of designing a specific cover. Which doesn’t make it a good thing, but not quite the deliberate idiocy of the Bloomsbury cover.

    There are many things that trouble me in publishing, including the Bloomsbury covers, but they tend not to be the things that SFF fans worry about and authors learning the ropes worry about. Ms. Chung’s rant is not a new thing; it’s just the typical example of ignorance from someone who isn’t very well read. Positive support of SFF from many sectors is eroding the views of the Ms. Chungs of the world, though we of course would like it to happen faster.





  8. By saying that some cover treatments are unacceptable, you simply reinforce their arguments that only socially acceptable (by Edwardian standards,) stories and art can have value.


    Well, I have to say that I didn’t see Justin to be saying that at all.  I think you’re reading it into it.  Certainly there’s nothing about what’s “socially acceptable” in the discussion here.  Rather, I took the point to be the obvious one that quite often marketing people are a bit dim, and that they tend to do a lot of band-waggon jumping rather than serious thought about what’s best for a book.  That seems pretty obvious to me.  I don’t see how you get stuff about only things meeting Edwardian standards being acceptable out of it at all.

  9. My sincerest apologies Kat. I read your second post as a continuance of the Jeff VanderMeer post from earlier. I hope you were not offended by my mistakenly calling you Sir, maam.

    Obviously I disagree with you about the us versus them business. I think that it really is a whole lot of thems against a very few of usses. I tend to see this whole issue as being like a pie. A great many of the ‘literary’ camp – and they are not becoming quite so endangered as you might think, MFA programs are spitting them out by the truckload I assure you – imagine the pie as being split into two, with we in the ‘genres’ getting half of the pie, and they in the ‘literary’ camp getting the other half. My suggestion was that ‘literary’ ought not to be half of the pie, but rather one more slice… And also that it ought not to be treated like half a pie by publishers and big reviewers. Plus there is the issues of the publishers against the authors, the big reviewers against the authors, the authors against each other. My god, whole armies are beating down our gates and you want us to put down our spears and let them have at us? I shan’t!

    And Kat, if we don’t continually rail against these things, who will? You say, in the very same paragraph both that I ought simply to bear things, and that I ought to refute the opinions of the uneducated (I am not really into just sitting back and enjoying it when it happens to me, as it turns out, so I shall go with your second suggestion and REFUTE)… but how shall I do that except to state the problems as I see them? Of course, such a ‘rant’ – one of your favorite words I see now – would do better if it could be addressed to the ‘literary’ types directly, and best if it could be got into the New York Times Book Review. But alas, they have not asked my opinion or offered me a venue. So…. I am here. And might I say that I am very glad to be.

    And Abigail, thanks for that. Of course, you noted that I gave a stereotyped vision of fantasy and romance covers as well (Kat also missed the sarcasm in this, don’t feel bad), did you not? I hope you did. Remember folks, THESE are the jokes. But as a fun thing to do, I just went to look at the cover of Ms. Chung’s book. And of course I giggled maniacally… Did you look at it? It was exactly what I suggested it might be… This is just good luck, my friends. I had not actually looked at the cover as I wrote the description.

    You know, I may just have to read Sonya’s book. I am gettingall interested.

    And Kat! Thank you for your hints about those end of shelf and table displays. I think that your comments serve my argument very very well. I thank you for your support on that issue. And please keep in mind that of course all of the issues I have talked about deal with the entirety of books, not merely with sff. Let your mind wander…

    Also, please, if you have aspects of the book industry that bother you, Kat, have at them. Do it. You’ll like it, I promise you. Don’t be scared. They either can’t get you, or will get you anyway. C’mon, do them dirty! Do it!



  10. Oh, is it that time of the year already? Do we really have to get one of these “Lit Geeks, please, please, please, LIKE ME already!” every freaking year? It’s starting to get somewhat pathetic.

  11. Instead of guest posters, couldn’t SF Signal just give these people a quick plug for their books? Then they would get what they want and we wouldn’t have to read these witless guest articles and everybody would be happy.

  12. Nick Mamatas // March 9, 2010 at 10:27 am //

    Anyway, have you ever noticed how, from the minute you walk into the store, your feet naturally take you right to a particular section?


    No. Sounds like a personal problem the OP has. How sad that he also has another personal problem: assuming that everyone is like him.


    Also, it’s pretty clear that the packager used a Western dragon because the image was extremely cheap and the packager poops out endless numbers of anthologies per year with no real thought given toward any of them except “Squeeze! Squeeeeze! Out the sphincter it goes!” You may as well ask why McDonald’s McNugget sweet and sour sauce doesn’t taste authentic.

  13. Wow. Some of you guys are really mean. It’s just one guy’s opinion. Disagree if you want, but are the put-downs really necessary?

  14. Jeff VanderMeer // March 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm //

    I’m with Thiago, Martin, and Nick, unfortunately.

    As for why people are being mean: I think it’s the odd combination of pomposity, lecturing, disorganization, lack of insight, lack of knowledge, and posturing that surrounds some of the nuggets of possibly worthwhile information in the initial post and the follow-ups. And a general weariness in having the same conversation about genre versus the mainstream that crops up whenever a young’un who hasn’t bothered to read anything published on the internet over the last decade gets the bright idea to write in haphazard fashion about a topic that’s like the same piece of gum masticated for a month. (And then, in a kind of weird bit of misdirection to throw readers off of the confused-ness of his initial writings brings up the white-washed covers controversy.)

    The lesson for new-ish writers would be: recognize that most readers won’t know who you are, so first impressions really count.

    Martin also makes an extremely good point. The search for and the need to generate content is beginning to wear thin around the blogosphere. A lot of material seems to be generated merely because of the need to generate content. Each of us striving to produce less of that would be a good idea.

    Personally, I would prefer that Justin be given a “do over” in which he drops the stylized approach and speaks to us like a human being.


  15. @Katie Lovett: when someone posts quite badly false information about how things work in any kind of  authoritative tone, then yes, sometimes the put-downs are necessary. 

    For, I grant, some value of necessary; and that only applies to the contentful put-downs.  Still, the others tells SF Signal that this sort of post isn’t what a reader wants; if everyone was nice and polite about everything (or “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything” about it) , we’d never see any change from the status quo.


  16. I read your post as well as Ms. Chung’s. This is the Battle of the Disingenous Straw Men. I think the responses to both of you (one of the responses to hers may actually by from you–there is a “Justin” there) make that clear.

  17. Justin Allen // March 9, 2010 at 5:05 pm //

    Hello All,

    Back at last. Had to be at some ballet rehearsals. Sigh. The business of dance is not good, let me tell you. Money flows down the drain like… but you don’t care about that.

    Anyhow, I am just checking in to see if anyone had anything more to say. And wow!!! Do some of you ever have something to say!

    Hi Thiago – I’m afraid you will have to get at least one of these every year (maybe more, depending on how many blogs and sites you frequent)… It might be the nature of the beast. Ever more young writers will discover how really awful it can be, and will want to say so… It is not meant as an offense to you, personally (I don’t even know you!). It is meant, as Martin so correctly pointed out, as a way of getting a book cover on the front page (I am sorry you find it witless, however, Martin. That was not my intent. In fact, if anything I was going for witty. Where I failed – and you may think I failed everywhere – I am sorry). And why do any of us want to have our books on the main page? Well… surely that is self-explanatory.

    Also Jeff (two posts from you, I thank you especially), I hope I did not offend you when I mistook Kat’s post earier for a continuance of yours. Merely a quick and not entirely thorough reading on my part, wherin I began to ponder responses before I got to the name at the bottom of the page. And I also take your point about producing less, rather than more. I think it is a good point, though not always easy to agree to, times being what they are (Offered a venue, free of charge, a great many of us will leap to fill the void, whether we ought to or not.) Also, and while you may find it ridiculous (and likely will tell me so), I still do believe there to be a relationship between the whitewashing of covers and the complete lack of attention (“Out the sphincter it goes”) to cover art that Nick so gorgeously summed up (that was my favorite part of all this, Nick. Thanks!). How difficult would it have been to include an Asian dragon (Chinese food restaurants do it on menus all the time) in the obviously clip-art cover for that book? I really feel for the young reader who wants to love a collection of stories from an Asian perspective, and then feels her heart drop into her stomach when she sees what she takes to be an example of racists not taking her culture seriously. I happen to agree that there was not necessarily any racism in the cover, and that it is rather an example of doing the same old thing quickly so that you can get the book out there – and told her that, as a matter of fact – but she still sees it. I feel for her. I really do. And heck, maybe there is a touch of racism involved in putting the same old dragon on everything…

    Shweta, I can not make heads or tails of the first sentence of your second paragraph, but I take it that you want to see some change from the status quo at sfsignal. Maybe you would like to tell us what changes you would like sfsignal to make. Obviously NONE of me. What else? It is easy to suggest that something sucks and then offer nothing to take its place… Maybe you would like to write a guest post?

    Dearest Katie, thanks for the kindness, but it is misplaced. I had a feeling I would get this sort of reception and was ready for it. Still, your kindness was genuinely felt, I think… and rare on the internet these days. But in the future, never defend the indefensible, that will only divert some of the arrows toward you!

    Finally, Arolem you are quite right. My essay is utterly disengenous again and again and again. You are right to suggest that I don’t actually believe half of what I say (I reserve the right to conceal which half, however). I can’t speak for Ms. Chung, of course. She may be completely sincere. I can’t say. I can assure you that I made no comments on her posting. None whatever. That other Justin is not me. I was serious, however, when I said that I am becoming really intrigued by her book, and even by her (I may be developing a kind of crush).

    Thanks again to all of you.




  18. Nick Mamatas // March 9, 2010 at 5:42 pm //

    How difficult would it have been to include an Asian dragon (Chinese food restaurants do it on menus all the time) in the obviously clip-art cover for that book?


    An intriguing question. The black dragon on the cover can be found by typing the word “dragon” into Be sure to select illustrations and not photos, vectors, etc. (which are generally not a good fit for covers). The black dragon—and a number of Chinese dragons, plus dragons of other sorts—pop right up. A quick glance says that on that first page, the black dragon is the best for a cover because it has a background with a couple details and some empty space. To find an appropriate Chinese dragon may have taken as much as ten minutes longer. Perhaps even an hour! Maybe even they might have to check istock instead or even, gulp, pay more than ten bucks for some cover art! Oh woe, the turd shall never leave the sphincter in time now!

    I have no problem suggesting that a racist result is the fruit of a racist action, even if the folks at the packagers weren’t rubbing their hands together and thinking in their heart of hearts, “Take THAT, Chinese people!” There are no racist decisions, only anti-racist decisions. But surely we should not be surprised that corporations don’t make anti-racist decisions unless compelled to.

    Despite all that, I doubt there was much thought about what “white suburban kids” thought either, as there is no evidence that white suburban kids even read short story anthologies these days. (People often think back to their own sexless and pimply childhoods when discussing the current crop for some reason…). This sort of shit’em out antho—even one with an intriguing theme such as writers of the Chinese diaspora—is production driven. What’s cheap? Short stories; 3 cents a word. What’s fast? That picture there. What’s light and thus cheap to ship? What’s small and thus comes with a high unit-per-box count? Mass market paperbacks.  In other news, Pop Tarts aren’t made by hand individually by indulgent mothers or well-trained pastry chefs either.

    There are, however, plenty of pastry chefs in the world of publishing. If one’s interested in fine covers or careful thought, one should write for one of these chefs. Of course, you won’t end up much happier, because a pastry chef at even the best-reviewed restaurant can’t move 10 million units to supermarkets and convenience stores, but that’s that choice: artisan production or mass production. It’s just silly to insist that new writers can only somehow discover the truth about mass production the moment they have a book to sell and a convenient blog from which to show off their wares.



  19. @ Justin Allen

    Hi Thiago – I’m afraid you will have to get at least one of these every year (maybe more, depending on how many blogs and sites you frequent)… It might be the nature of the beast. Ever more young writers will discover how really awful it can be, and will want to say so… It is not meant as an offense to you, personally (I don’t even know you!).

    I’m not offended by it. I’m just really sick of all the “ooh, mainstream won’t take my work seriously, I’ll write a rant so everyone can share my pain” crap all over the SFF blogosphere. Like I said before, it’s pathetic coming from a genre that outsells “literary fiction” (whatever that ridiculous expression means) by an order of magnitude.

    And seriously, what is so awful about not being reviewed by a shrinking subset of critics who probably wouldn’t give your book a chance anyway? It just adds to the patheticness of your pathetic little rant. If anything young writers should focus on being relevant when given a venue to promote their work, not on using it to complain about not getting some other venue (to say nothing of how ungrateful the young writer would look).

    It is meant, as Martin so correctly pointed out, as a way of getting a book cover on the front page (…). And why do any of us want to have our books on the main page? Well… surely that is self-explanatory.

    Once again, relevance. Strive for it. The intarwebs is full of noise, if you wanna get heard over all that noise don’t add to it.

  20. LOL, I think I should point out that Vandermeer has been incredibly supportive and helpful to new authors in the field.

    Which is the point. Publishers are not against authors; they’re business partners. Authors are not against other authors (except when they don’t know what they are talking about.) Fiction authors do not compete directly and market symbiotically, with authors helping each other attract attention, readers and sales. This is particularly the case in the SFF field, with its system of fan conventions, high level of fan interaction and things like anthologies. Anthologies are not an attempt to milk product because by and large anthologies don’t make any money. They are primarily an attempt to feature various authors to try and get them and the field some attention and potentially more readers.

    Ms. Chang has been taught an outdated viewpoint that has little to do with fiction publishing. She is also scared that “genre” fiction are barbarian hordes whom everybody likes better and will overwhelm everything else (a viewpoint that has nothing to do with actual facts,) and so tries to declare her area of work especially special, plus she really doesn’t know what the word literary means. Like many, like yourself Justin, she likes to put everybody into camps. And you declaring war on her would just confirm for her that her view is right, as you are essentially agreeing with her. War has had very little effect on creating progress on such hidebound viewpoints. Education, on the other hand, has. Pointing out the facts, simply and steadily, that the genres of contemporary and historical drama do not have some elevated status in wordsmithing, that all sectors of fiction consist of a large pool that makes little money and a small percentage that makes quite a lot, including those dramas that are considered literary by many, and that numerous authors who are doing things other than historical and contemporary drama are considered literary by many and studied frequently in universities, etc. In particular, advocating and talking about authors you respect, such as Walter Mosely who has written both mystery and SF and is considered by many to be a literary writer, and SFF authors such as Vandermeer, Hal Duncan, China Mieville, Ursula LeGuin, Nancy Kress and so on, are a much more effective weapon. Such reasoning will not sway some people, but it has caused a very large shift with many others. Essentially, Justin, your own viewpoints are out-dated and not particularly on target about what’s going on in the field, with fiction readers or booksellers. It’s not even an accurate view of the media at this point.

    I’m sorry if you’re having problems with Overlook. And I’m not going to segue off into issues of non-white authors and pretend that’s what you were talking about with this column. I understand that you are trying to be witty, but potshots tend to produce more weariness than chuckles. Other people in SFF have done it better and with a more coherent focus. 🙂 Which doesn’t mean that we don’t welcome you to the field, Justin, even if an irritated Vandermeer takes a swipe at you with his paw for being a loudmouth ignoramus. But I’m not going to participate in a Mexican jumping bean conversation in which the loosely proposed central idea seems to be the erroneous notion that fiction publishing is a hostile world with everyone in it at each other’s throats. 

    My central point in posting a response was that booksellers don’t fill up the SFF section in the store by cover art, but do so mainly by publisher, and in conversations with publishers. If you don’t want to believe that, that’s up to you.




  21. Hello All,

    I just wanted to thank you again for all your input. I really do appreciate it. And I appreciate your sticking with all this… and some of the nice comments you have had to make (I can do without a bit of the namecalling, but maybe I deserve that as well).

    You have been especially kind, Kat, coming back again and again, and I do appreciate it. My first comment to you was too hot – I knew the sort of reaction I would get from some readers – and I seriously overplayed that. It was a mistake, and an ungentlemanly one. I hope you are not irreperably against me. The funny thing is that I agree with pretty much everything you have to say. Obviously I have certain differences, but I think they are not as stark as they might seem. As I said to Arolem, I admit to being disengenuous ( I was doing it for fun, though it has begun to seem less fun all the time – and obvioulsy you all did not think it was fun EVER). And the worst part, Kat, is that you have been very kind. I kowtow to you.

    Thiago, as I already said to Jeff I am thoroughly vanquished on this point. You are right about relevance. And honestly, ‘literary’ fiction was the thing I went after pretty much exclusively for its name. As you say, I am not sure what the “ridiculous expression” means. Well, tht’s not entirely true, I wrote about it because of that name, and because I happened upon Sonya Chung’s essay and thought it might be enjoyable to do the same sort of thing from the opposite direction. That is why, in response to Sonya Chung, I gave literary fiction such a stereotypical description.

    Also Nick, as to your points about that cover, do you think it would be worthwhile for the Asian readers who find it offenive to do something about it? If so, what? I agree with your point that publishers will not even take the extra ten minutes to find the Chinese Dragon (Strangely, as with Kat I think you and I agree right down the line, no matter how it might seem). I suggested to the young reader with whom I was conversing that she ought not to see the publisher as an artistic body making artistic decisions, but rather as a corporation – like an oil company or a pharmaceutical company or what have you. So then my question to you is – if you were her, and wanted to take action against what you perceive to be racism (or the choice not to make a non-racist action), what would you do? How would you force a change? It won’t do any good to simply not buy the book, will it? That will just make the publisher decide not to print any other such anthologies – one which the reader in question was actually excited about. So then what?

    I hope that these questions and comments are taken for sincere, as in this case they most assuredly are. I do enjoy this very much, really.



  22. Nick Mamatas // March 10, 2010 at 10:54 am //

    It won’t do any good to simply not buy the book, will it? That will just make the publisher decide not to print any other such anthologies – one which the reader in question was actually excited about. So then what?


    The sort of public complaint that blogger—and many others—made is a good first step. When racist decisions go uncriticized, they’ll continue to be made. When they are criticized, they’ll be made less often.

  23. I’m never against fiction writers (well, as long as they aren’t causing bodily harm to others and whatnot.)

    Since you’ve shifted the conversation to the Asian anthology cover, I’ll jump on the one jumping bean here. It is a really bad idea to view DAW Books as the equivalent of an oil company because they are anything but that. Book publishers, especially the part that deals with fiction, are weird companies manned by folks who walk the line between mad dedication to books and a need to make a slim profit. DAW Books particularly are a nice shop who work with Penguin, and have had a long history of championing SFF authors. The anthologies they do, again, are not meant to be money makers, though of course they are hoping they do well. But in this case, DAW was trying to draw attention to Asian SFF authors, not dis them for a quick buck.

    Could an Asian dragon image have been found and used? Absolutely, but in this case there is some confusion over who supplied the cover — Penguin’s art department or Tekno Books, the book packager who put together the anthology and others for DAW. Publishers’ art departments are notoriously unsupervised, are burdened with often conflicting directives, and may put scheduling above double-checking. There aren’t many meetings that take place over covers; there are no focus groups and market crunching data. Could DAW’s editor have put the kabash on the chosen cover? Possibly, if the editor was shown the cover in time to change it, which if the whole package was delivered by Tekno as a done deal, may not have occurred.

    Publishing is in the majority staffed by white people in much of the English language market. Clearly this was a case of unconscious racism, of the people who were putting the image together — either Penguin or Tekno — figuring that it wouldn’t matter or not even thinking about there being a difference between fantasy art dragons and Asian dragons at all. That it was used for a project meant to promote international writers and hurt the very authors they were trying to promote, well, I imagine the people at DAW feel like shit about it. And it’s likely that the cover will be changed if possible, though anthologies again don’t usually have multiple print runs, especially ones that are being constructed and supplied by a book packager. 

    It is an example of a set of problems in fiction publishing that definitely need to be examined,  addressed, and continually worked on. In particular, the policy of most publishers to keep authors far, far away from the cover art, and certainly with no imput on it, is increasingly counter-productive. It’s done in large part because of scheduling concerns, but in our current age, that should be less of an issue. In the case of this anthology, however, where the editors were for hires for a book packager which then turns the anthology over on a shoe-string budget to the publisher for distribution and there are multiple authors, the chance of author imput on the cover was going to be nil.

    For readers, though, Internet protest has been extremely effective so far. Go right to the publisher (or magazine for that matter,) and voice your complaint. Get other people to go with you. Support the author. And while you’re at it, bug the booksellers too. (And in the case of this particular anthology, go bug Tekno Books.) And if the publisher then changes the cover — an expensive lesson — reward them with positive reinforcement by buying the book. Publishers don’t want to piss readers off. They don’t want to piss authors off. And they are very capable of learning and responding, if sometimes big and slow.




  24. Hi Again Kat,

    Thanks for all that. And I did not mean to change subjects, it just got batted around enough so tha tI followed it. Believe me, with you I will discuss anything…

    For instance, After a ballet meeting and rehearsal I had to attend, I went to see the new Twyla Tharp Sinatra ballet. I got a free ticket, so…

    That was just meant as a joke… Hope you are not offended. I would seriously enjoy reading more of anything you have to say.



  25. No worries, mate. 🙂 And again, good luck with your books.

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