Adam Roberts, Sibilant Fricative: Essays & Reviews (2014)
(attention warning: this is only about Adam Roberts' book in a tangential and self-indulgent sense)
"Boo! Now the only time I'll get to read you is when I buy your books, which I can't do, because they're not on the Kindle. Boo!" -- blog comment, SEK 30 June 2012 12:42:00 GMT-7
1. Rohan Maitzen, The Worth of our Work (2012)
This quite good blog post sets out the basics of what happened: Adam Roberts decided to close down one of his blogs in order to publish collected excerpts from it as a book. (Future textual critics may be confused: the blog closed down was called Punkadiddle, the book of excerpts from Punkaiddle was called Sibilant Fricative, and a new blog of essays and reviews was started that was also called Sibilant Fricative.). The post quickly gets into the basic matter at hand: why should anyone write anything?
There are almost immediate complications. By "close down", Roberts didn't mean that he was merely not writing on that blog any more and perhaps closing comments: he also deleted the blog posts themselves in an effort not to affect sales of the book. As a result, all of the links in Rohan Maitzen's first paragraph are broken. Perhaps that doesn't matter because after all these pieces made it into the book? It is true that Roberts' posts about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time were the most popular posts on the blog, and were printed in the book, but Maitzen goes on "As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking." What is that cryptic first link? Something about G.K. Chesterton and Charles Dickens, and therefore not reprintable in a book of science fiction and fantasy essays and reviews.
The core sentence here -- quoted in Maitzen's blog post, from Adam Roberts' blog post -- is "If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on."
There are clear problems with this, but -- wait, there's a quote by one Rich Puchalsky, which reads "It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued." I seem to have agreed, but this doesn't quite sound like all I would write: I must have written something else as well.
Of course most of this material is not really *gone* in a final sense. I went to the Internet Archive, I navigated their horrible calendar interface, and found:
And there it is, if you scroll down to the 10th comment: the quote above, prefaced by "it's a continuous question as to whether I should be participating in blogging / commenting at all". This, in an American idiom, should perhaps be called "joshing", and it means "If you're wasting your time by carrying on writing things that people won't pay for, think of what mugs we must be for writing comments on things that people won't pay for."
Because of course writing-about-writing is, in contemporary terms, primarily a fan activity. People do it because it's fun and they are interested in the material, not because of the horrible monetization of everything that our society tries to impose. The most characteristic form of fan writing, the fanfic, is completely unpublishable for money because it violates intellectual property rights (with rare exceptions such as 50 Shades of Grey, originally a Twilight fanfic.) People attempt to escape monetization by doing precisely things like this, and while (as Rohan Maitzen quotes Tom Lutz) "the future for every writer requires food", a writer who wrote purely out of determination to make money would find much easier paths to this end. Non-hack writers seem to write because they want to write, and continue writing even when not paid.
And this seems true of Adam Roberts as well. In other places (citation needed), he has mentioned that writing down things on a blog somewhere is a part of his process, and it seems probable to me that he's going to continue doing it even with no one fronting the bills. The immediate continuation of Sibilant Fricative the blog is a case in point. A second and soon a third book of essays and reviews have been published from this blog, with the blog posts ceremoniously deleted once published, and so it goes.
Web publication is a form of publication, and the replacement of a Web publication in favor of book publication is a kind of death: the traces of a community replaced by a fossilized object. This is what our society does to everything: dead labor becomes a commodity, dead trees become paper, dead links become a internet archive that is now critical for the functioning of society but must be supported as a wealthy person's hobby because after all it does not make money.
"I heard something about what you’re going through, and is there any way I can help distract you? If you want to be distracted." -- Email from email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org, sent Nov 19, 2016
2. Rich Puchalsky, Yawnpiphany, 2009
As a work of SF criticism I think that this holds up, although it also has highly cringy phrases like "strapping your inner fanboy down Clockwork Orange style". Why would a reasonably skilled SF writer purposefully write a boring book? If SF is the literature of ideas, then the only way to rebel is to be anti-ideas. If fantasy is about adventure, then the way to iconoclasm is anti-adventure.
This idea was sparked by the parody neologisms in Adam Roberts' piece on Neil Stephanson's Anathem, which includes"yawngasm". This piece is in the Sibilant Fricative book, it's one of the better ones, and the neologisms are still there, some used in other essays in the book and, really, of use in general SF criticism.
But this is not the core puzzle in Sibilant Fricative. The core puzzle is about the boring books that were *not* written for aesthetic effect. Bad writers exist and some write boring books, but why do these get published and, in some cases, become extremely popular?
Adam Roberts suggests an explanation, credited to someone else, in the section on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. (Though the piece on Wheel of Time comes at the end, it's the core of the book). This is a well-known syndrome in which an author first writes something relatively good or at least competent, which becomes popular, then the writer extends this to a series which becomes progressively less edited and more stretched out as they keep the profitable content alive at all costs. One can hardly fail to see this in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, or you prefer film the Star Wars movies and their following prequels.
This is part of it. But part of it is that boredom is what, in many cases, readers are looking for. I refer to the "tired mind".
"Why do we become intellectual masochists when suffering from mental fatigue?" -- https://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2006/02/duped_by_fools_.html, 2006
3. The shadow of the waxwing
In exasperation at his own masochistic decision to read through thousands of pages of the Wheel of Time books, Adam Roberts writes that he understands the desire to escape (pg. 254):
"We're all a bit ground down by life, I know. We all want to get a little drunk, from time to time, so as to ameliorate the grind, to step through the portal to somewhere more appealing. But getting drunk doesn't have to mean sitting on a park bench with a 2-litre plastic bottle of strong cider. It is possible to get something more refined from the experience. [...] With books the difference in quality is not reflected in the cover price! Maybe it should be. Maybe it ought to cost 1.99 to buy a Robert Jordan novel and and 45.99 to buy a Vladimir Nabokov one. But it doesn't! Amazingly, it doesn't! There is nothing stopping you going for the higher quality experience! Honestly!"
But there really is. I suggest that Adam Roberts is clearly an unusually prolific writer and reader and is not well qualified to judge from his own experience. I'll try not to generalize from my own experience, but it is inconceivable that I could simply read through all of Vladimir Nabokov's books. I have read two of Vladimir Nabokov's books decades ago, and I still think about them whenever something calls them to mind. I could scarcely dare to just jam a third one in there: who knows what would happen. No, I spend most of my days researching and thinking about how global warming is steadily destroying life on Earth, and when I'm done with that I don't want to really think at all. I want to read something that is completely predictable and will not surprise me, especially not with some kind of unpredictable aesthetic effect. Currently I'm reading R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, which hold my interest well enough in the half hour before I fall asleep.
Of course, no one who would be reading this could subsist on endless, interchangeable descriptions of Drow matron mother plottings alone. Some kind of stretch is required sometimes, even if one doesn't feel up to Nabokov's oeuvre. This is why I read Adam Roberts: his books have structure yet are not clones of each other. This lack of predictability is one of the reasons why they are not fit for occupying the tired mind, and really most of us are most often tired minds.
"That's real money for him, which you've denied by passively looking for his books." -- blog comment, SEK June 25, 2010 at 2:24 PM
4. Rich Puchalsky, Coda (2010)
This piece does not work. Nothing happens, the end is wincingly male-gaze (sparked by Adam Roberts' comment that in the later books of Wheel of Time Robert Jordan really likes to depict women who like to be spanked), the whole best left unlinked even here. Even the comments concern an attempt at joshing, once again, that did not work.
Will any of these references still be comprehensible when you read this? They are still there as of May 30, 2022, but of course at some future time link rot will take them. This piece itself may last somewhat longer. But of course it will certainly never be published in the traditional sense. Even if it is archived, it will not remain meaningful.
I bought a copy of Adam Roberts' book Sibilant Fricative in 2022 because someone decided to make a TV series out of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and Adam Roberts' blog posts about it were gone from the Web and I wanted to see if they held up now that there was a somewhat coherent TV series to set out the derivative story. In the main, they did. I laughed a good deal at the joke about how Perrin should be nicknamed Reginald, because of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, although probably fewer and fewer people will now get that reference. It's uneven, but basically a good book. You should buy it.